Stars: A Letter to Myself Six Months Ago

By Cutter Uhlhorn
Sept. 1, 2017

Dear Cutter,

You're listening to Hilito by Romeo Santos. 

Six months ago you couldn't understand Romeo Santos. Your Spanish was that bad. But now you're listening to Formula Vol. 2. You listen to it on repeat. It's your favorite. You sit in the park between chin-up sets. The sun is setting over the Sierra Nevada. Through the peels of picos (loud speakers) laden with vallenato, your tiny phone speaker chirps Hilito. 

You are surrounded by shirtless men. Sweating, seventeen, eighteen, tirando hierro, throwing weight, doing curls, cleans. When they squat they roll up their athletic shorts, tense their quads rhythmically, flexing. In this makeshift gym, they rest, drape themselves over park benches like wet sheets. When the blood has gone out of their faces, they stand, cross their arms about their stomachs, close their eyes. They pick up their feet, move left, move right, following Romeo's lilting trot, their eyes closed in concern, wistful, they hum the tune. Unreserved, they sway with their invisible partners, turning, and the sun is setting over the sierras Red and large, like a hole in the sky, bleeding into the cloud field threads of purple and indigo.

And a breeze rolls in from the coast, low and smooth, rustling the leaves of the mango trees picked clean by the children small enough to climb their branches. Far off in the distance, the whine of an ambulance shuttling down the carretera to parts unknown. Babies cry, plates shatter. An argument erupts at the bingo tables.  

This is Colombia. And you will learn one lesson here: That this will be forgotten. This should be forgotten 

Don't get me (you) wrong. You will carry these moments for a long time. You cannot unstick the things that have stuck to you: the language, the arepas, the raggaeton. You will carry them like lovely scars to the end of your days. And you will share them. With the people of your town. With your family. But you cannot get so caught up in remembering, that you lose sight of what's happening here: the gift. To become a part of something so much bigger than you, so large and beating and alive, that you are completely consumed, and forgotten. 

You're not perfect. Some days You wake up and you're the first thought in your own head. You walk to school, greet the seños, the kids, and wake up half way through the lesson, realizing you haven't thought of anyone but yourself all day. You haven't stopped to admire the mountains jutting from the plains. The bulls pulled through the streets by their nose rings. The smell of goat’s milk simmering in the morning air. You greet and smile, but you are elsewhere. You pass by the people in your town, but you are in your own mind.

You are in your own kingdom. Where your service is an experience. Your experience. Yours. It is a narrative you're working through, that in your weaker moments you have become terribly good at scripting. This is the moment when you met the mayor. This is when you knew you'd clinched it with the nine year old girl gang. This is when you felt loved. And it is gripping, and powerful. You come out daring, charming even. Persevering and heroic and good hearted with just the right amount of stoicism to compliment your strong jaw. 

But this isn't an experience. This is life. Something complex, and often absurd. It's almost as if we're not built for it. For it is unfortunate that as humans we are cursed to live at the edge of the present and the past, peering through the mist of what's to come while holding tightly to what we've come through. And from that space we draw the things that we wish to see, as they should have happened, as we wanted them to. And we return to our homes and from us spill these grand stories of what we were and what we became.

And in these stories, you lose sight. You lose sight of them. The ones for whom you came. The ones for whom your presence is not an experience, but one in the vast series of mundane and unspectacular moments they call their everyday life. As you dream, their lives continue uninterrupted. They are immune to the marvel with which you regard your presence. To them your presence is unremarkable. A kindness, surely. Maybe even a surprise. They accept you as readily and as thankfully as a sunrise. As an act of nature, as something completely within the scope of their lives. They do not share with you in the creation of the great and sweeping story that beats in your mind. Your victories, your defeats, are lost in that draining anonymity of time.

And this is how you must view yourself. This where you must join them. This where your service starts, where life starts. Where it becomes unremarkable to you. You will find your best self in those moments in which you lose yourself completely. With abandon you'll embrace some facet of life, the buying of bread, the teaching of the "to be verb" and it will be so small and insignificant that you can't understand why it feels like breathing, like praying.  

You will spend weeks chasing down the highs of your integration checklist. But when you look back, seeking the memory of the moment that made it come together, you find a residue, a glowing feeling attached to no memory, but composed of many: appreciated and let go. Remember this: Do good. Die. Be forgotten. To live you must give up the hope that what you do will mean anything at all, most of all to you. You must give up the hope that your work matters. For what matters is not what you do, but how you fall into that swirling tapestry called life. All those aimless hours stalking fireflies in the dark, all those moments at the river throwing stones at schools of fish with the primaria. All of these moments so muted and blunted, so lovingly forgotten.

You do not ride into their lives, into this country, like some kind of spectacle, blaring rock music and spitting fireworks from your mouth. You are a not a sensation, not a miracle worker or a saint or the greatest thing since sliced bread. You are a person. And this is what you are called to be. To put on your shoes and march out everyday to commit yourself to the momentary flashes of human goodness and goodwill. To succumb to the passing of hours, days and weeks and months with the grace of those you stand beside; humbly, and without thinking of it much at all. 

A thousand things I cannot promise. That any good you do you will see. That it will be easy. That you will be strong. That the relationships you form here will last longer than a breath. That you will be remembered, that your name will not be subsumed under the soil of years and people will speak only of the gringo, whose face has melded seamlessly with the ones that came before and after. 

But I can promise one thing: You will see stars. The lights are softer here.

For the first time in your life you will look up and inscribed upon the mantle of the night you will see the faces of a thousand distant suns. And you will become aware of the creaking of the earth, it's bones rattling, this ancient thing upon which you stand, as it waltzes through the cold of space, and somewhere in it you will feel the mystery that unites all these things: the passage of summer into deeper summers, the wavering of heat, the rolling green plains, the mountains, beaches, churches, cities, parties, terrazas, plastic chairs, parades, baptisms, funerals. And the faces of smiling children, running at you after class, shouting out to you in a tongue not their own. 

In Faithfulness and Hope,

Carlos

Cutter Ulhorn

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