That is the burden of those who must live in dire poverty; they grow old too fast. I saw it in the face of Señora Ana and Yaneth. I saw it in the face of Elise’s mom who was my age but looked much older. The struggle for survival ages the body. It narrows the perspective. It causes people to forget what it is like to live with any sense of abundance and safety. When I left Venezuela I was thirty-six years old but I was so tired that I was ready to die. I can still say that with a great sense of calm. Death and the idea of a long, long rest felt so inviting.

When I came back to the United States, I could no longer live in the cities. We fled to the suburbs. I needed a space where my heart could rest, where I could raise my daughters away from poverty’s clutches. I did not want to just survive. As a chaplain I immersed myself in my work, at hospitals and nursing homes and in a hospice. I journeyed with the infirm and aged. I listened to their thoughts, sat with their questions, found wisdom and strength in their stories of uncertainty and in their ability to endure. This time I did not run away. I, who had watched death cling to my daughter and who had fought back; I, who had watched death wind through my community, stood vigil with those who would succumb to death. I was not afraid.

The act of leaning into dire poverty, to share the burdens of two-thirds of our world neighbors, is not merely that we can be of use to those who live in poverty, nor that we can die, but rather, that the very experience of poverty can have the opportunity to transform us, can use us, who are often shielded from its clutches.

It is this way: like fine dust, the shadow of poverty still clings to me after all these years. It informs just about everything I hear or see in the news. I understand the world through its filter: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, the Congo, Kenya, Chicago, Katrina. What is it like to be the poor in these communities today? Who is suffering? How? What is it like for these mothers to watch their babies dying? I cry, at times, when I hear the news. I hate this filter for it is a great burden. I would rather live in a world of comfort, like many people in my new community, shielded from the knowledge of poverty’s effects. I do not want to hear but I need to hear. We need to hear.

 And still the old woman persists. I see her beckoning, shadowed deep within the mirror. At night, I feel her presence in dreams that nudge me awake. I smell her in morning showers that clear the dawn away. I taste her in afternoon coffee that singes my silent tongue. I hear her in the incessant whispering of summer mosquitoes, refusing to go away.

She is gentle, really, stooped. She holds out a crippled hand. In her palm there is a vial, a drop of liquid at the bottom.

“Is it enough?” I ask.

I need to turn back. I want to listen to this old woman. I need to hear her story.

She has more to say about the poison, how it kills. She wants to expose the poison.

I write.

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