In 2005, I left life as a full-time touring comedian and moved to North Carolina to accept a position as a high school English and journalism teacher. I rented a little white house with three porches and giant trees rooted on one side of the house and stretching the other with Spanish moss whimsically draping down.
My first summer on the road, I would drive by those little Carolina houses and think to myself, In another life, I’d love to live in a little white house like that. And I also decided Spanish moss was one of the most magical things in all of nature.
I loved that house so much, I decided it needed a name. I named it “Aunt E’s,” because the lady who lived there until she passed away was known to her neighbors as Aunt E. I felt her in that house. On the inside of one of the plywood cabinet doors, she had written in pencil notes on when she bought the fridge, when she replaced her tires. The notes dated back to the ’60s.
Aunt E’s was the house that sent me to Brazil.
It wasn’t my first place. In fact, I’d even owned a home before, with a husband. But it felt like my first home as an adult – I guess the adult I’d finally become after the divorce and the road served me a condensed dose of maturity.
My teaching salary was less than $30,000, but I felt rich. I ate a lot of Chinese takeout. I wrote up a budget. There was the line item that could have been cable television, but I thought instead, why not sponsor a child, like on TV? It was something I’d thought about for a couple years, so I guess I decided it was time. Maybe because Aunt E’s had a glass doorknob on the front door that subconsciously inclined me towards love.
So I got the service that had only the network channels and I signed up with ChildFund International – at the time called Christian’s Children’s Fund. I received a photo of seven-year-old Patricia and my first letter from her grandmother, Eva. It was a letter full of love, and I cried.
I first toured Aunt E’s with another teacher named Robin. She didn’t even know me, yet she volunteered to host me at her home while I looked for a place of my own. We quickly became close friends, and she was just as excited as I was when we found the little house with the old glider on the front porch.
Robin was fresh back from a trip to London where she studied Elizabethan theatre and acting techniques at the Globe for a week. She oozed passion and excitement about her adventure and the story planted a seed.
Two years later, now in Virginia on a misdirected romantic course, I bought a plane ticket to go to London by myself. It wasn’t as easy as I’d expected, but by the end of the trip, I was ready for more. A string of solo trips abroad followed: Germany, Austria, Italy, Mexico, Ireland, The Netherlands, Singapore, Cambodia… It became my passion, and I became a pro. But this is a part of my life I never shared with Patricia in any of my letters.
I didn’t want her to know I traveled all these places. I didn’t want her to wonder why I never went to Brazil.
I had held a recollection, all those years, of sitting on my futon in that little white house, with my laptop set up on my $20 Kmart coffee table in the small room that served as both living room and dining room. In my memory I looked up the cost of going to Brazil to visit my sponsored child, and it was something extravagant.
Then I went to Cambodia, and I left with some of my favorite memories. I also left fired to become more successful and influential so I could do something for people who are that poor, besides feeling sorry for them and buying trinkets at fair trade shops.
And I thought a lot of Patricia and I just wanted to see her. Patricia was 15 then, and I knew time would run out when she aged out of the program. I called the organization. It turns out the cost was simply my own travel and then hiring a translator for the visit. I decided to wait two years to visit. Our birthdays are a day apart, and the next year, they fell on Easter, which wouldn’t be an appropriate time – if even a possible time – to visit her rural, Catholic town.
I visited Patricia in April, 2016. I couldn’t possibly draft the whole story in this blog entry. I’m currently revising my adventure memoir that spans London to Ireland – 5 trips. The sequel will begin in Singapore and end in Brazil. It’s a whole story that will indeed take a book to tell.
But I’d like to share photos of my visit. I met Patricia and her family in Itaobim at the local organization that receives part of its funding from ChildFund International supporters like me. They showed me the facility, told me about the programs they have for children as well as adults in the community. They do a lot for women especially. They gave me a tour of the town. They staged a demonstration of the capoeira dance in the town square, and I gave it my best. And then they threw us a party for our birthdays, with cake, local food, and live music by their students. It was somewhat staged as a surprise party, but I knew about it in advance. I gave them money for it.
Patricia is a cute, shy girl who is awkward talking to strangers, who is inseparable from her cell phone, and who answers questions about her boyfriend in one-word answers. She’s hesitant to try new things. In short, she’s a teenager, much like any teenager of this world. She adores her new baby brother and dressed her best to meet me. She loves her dogs and has an easy pure smile. She gracefully posed with me for the million photos snapped by the organization staff. She is joy and a gift to know and I love her.
And Eva, her grandmother, works as a cleaning lady at a local school. She’s allowed to take classes there for free and she does. She is warm, but strict. Humble, but proud. The glow in her eyes is a breathtaking blend of stern love, humanity, and hope. Her embrace fed my soul.
I could go on forever about the conversations and moments that happened in that one day in Itaobim.
I’ll tell something of Ouro Preto, though. The organization allows just a day for first-timers like me, so I went on to see more of Brazil while I was there. I spent five days in a colonial mining town nestled in the mountains. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.
In Ouro Preto, I developed a deep emotional bond with a building, much like I did with Aunt E’s. This time, it was a church: Igreja de São Francisco de Assis. The Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of children and animals.
I was walking across Tiradentes Square with my new friend Jociele from the coffee house, telling him how I like to just sit on the little wall beside that church because I love it so much, and he said, “Saint Francis is like you. He loves the animals and children.”
To be told a saint is like me is monumental and definitely unfounded. I am not saint myself and can never aspire to be. But I will always aspire to be the person they thought I was, in Brazil. The person worthy of a traditional dance demonstration in town, the patron of children and animals, the woman who answered a grandmother’s 11-years-long prayer simply by showing up.
My books aren’t done. My success is a long way away, and my influence remains quite minimal. But I’ve still never bought cable, and I’m working hard to do more.
Without further ado, some photos….