October 29, 2021 / 23 Cheshvan, 5782
#5 CHAYEI SARAH
freedom without cows
merrily we roll along
This week’s parashat, Chayei Sarah (“The Life of Sarah”), opens with the death of Sarah, and Abraham negotiating to buy a place where he can bury her in the neighboring land where he finds himself. Cross-cultural negotiations continue as Abraham’s servant searches for a wife for Isaac in a neighboring land.
When Abraham ventured into new territory, he knew what he wanted, but he had to orient to the ways of the new community where he found himself. He had to figure out how to negotiate getting a burial plot for his wife, Sarah, according to the customs of a community that were foreign to him.
Cows along the beach in Gandoca
When I first arrived in Gandoca last month, I was happy taking long walks to the beach and to Punta Mona. Almost no one in Gandoca owns a car. Everyone walks to where they are going or they get around the village on their “moto” (small motorcycle) or on a bicycle. Where I was staying, each of the boys had their own bicycle and their mom, Delia, got around on her moto.
Soon, I began borrowing one of the boys’ bicycles to get to la playa or to the neighboring village of Mata de Limón, where I was working in the school. Their bikes were a bit rusty and didn’t fit me perfectly, but they got me where I needed to go. However, when I took one of the boys’ bikes, that meant that one of them didn’t have their bike to use. If they were going to the same place (like school), one of them could ride on the handlebars while the other one drove the bike. They said that was fine with them. But, if they wanted to go to two different places, one of them would need to get a ride on the handlebars of one of their cousin’s bikes. They seemed fine with that, too. They never complained. But I felt that I was putting them out, and making an already hard life a little bit harder and more inconvenient for them.
Whenever I wanted to go somewhere, of course I asked permission if I could take one of their bikes. Whenever one of them wanted to go somewhere, they checked with me to make sure that I wasn’t going to need a bike. It all worked out.
Then I got very bitten up by a whole host of local bugs, and I felt like I needed my own bike to get to the ocean every day —and quickly— without having to negotiate to take one of the boys’ bikes. The ocean was my greatest healer and it felt like a necessity to get there daily to care for my body. So, I had the idea to buy a bike.
I asked Delia where everyone got their bikes. I never saw anyone with a brand new bike, so I assumed that someone in Gandoca had a stash of used bikes to sell. That was actually not the case. There is no such person or place in Gandoca. Or Sixaola, the nearest town. The closest place to get a used bike is Bribri, about an hour bus ride away from Sixaola.
But there is a place in Sixaola that sells new bikes, Delia told me. I had made the assumption that buying a new bike would not be an option.
My idea was to buy a bike for Delia that I could use while I was staying in Gandoca, and then it would be a gift for Delia after I left. (Delia had given the bike she had bought for herself to one of her sons the year before, so she didn’t have a bike for herself.) To my surprise, Delia was excited about the idea of having a new bike for herself! Great!! I was excited to have a new bike, too!
Delia looked online to see the bike selection at the place in Sixaola, and found one that she really liked–a mint green mountain bike with lots of gears. When we arrived at the shop a week later, I was surprised to see that it was not actually a bike shop, but an auto repair place that had four new bikes to sell: Two of them were the mint green men’s bikes that Delia had fallen in love with online; One was a shiny red men’s bike; and the fourth one was a pink women’s bike that looked perfect for me.
I asked Delia what she thought about the pink one. “Que usted quiere,” she told me. Whatever I wanted. “No, que usted quiere!” I responded. I wanted to get what she wanted. After all, it was going to be her bike … I was just going to be using it while I was in Gandoca. We went up and back like that for a few minutes. And then I came up with another idea … I was pretty sure that Delia would not go for it but, again, my assumption was completely wrong.
I knew that Delia was not keen on the women’s pink bike, and I really wanted that one. Delia really had her heart set on the mint green men’s bike. So, my idea was to get both bikes—the mint green one for Delia and the pink one for me that could be left for future volunteers who would come to Gandoca after I left. It felt like a win-win-win situation, though I was a little nervous to swoop in and buy half of the new bikes in town. It felt particularly tricky to navigate this terrain across cultures. But the plan sounded good to both Delia and I, even if everyone at the shop seemed a little surprised and somewhat in disbelief.
Riding my new bike through the village caught everyone’s attention, and people commented on what a beautiful bike it was as I drove by. And although everybody seemed to express genuine excitement for me and my new bicycle, I felt a little uncomfortable and wondered if, perhaps, I had gone too far.
Delia felt very protective of our bicycles, and wanted to keep them locked inside the house whenever we were not there. Everyone else just leaves their bikes outside.
Before my big purchase, I had been so happy not having any material possessions to cling to or worry about here. Now I have a bicycle. Now I have to worry. Now I feel clingy and possessive. It doesn’t feel good. On the other hand, I love my bike!
I have been sharing a story with friends here in Gandoca that I heard Thich Nhat Hanh tell years ago at a family retreat that I was at with my family. It’s about cows. Kind of. It goes something like this …
There was a farmer who lived out in the country and had a bunch of cows. One day, one of their cows got loose, so the farmer went looking for their lost cow. They went to their neighbor, “My cow got out,” the farmer explained. “Have you seen my cow?” The neighbor responded that they had not seen the stray cow. So, the farmer went to the next farm, and the next, and then the next. None of them had seen the missing cow, but they all sympathized knowing how valuable cows are and how hard it would be to lose one. Finally, the farmer came to a neighbor who had no cows of their own. “Have you seen my cow?” the farmer asked. The neighbor responded: “No I haven’t. I don’t have any cows of my own, so I never have to worry about losing them!”
Ever since hearing that story, our family has been referring to our “cows” as a shorthand way of acknowledging something that we feel so attached to, it causes us worry at the thought of losing it. And, now, everyone I’ve been telling this story to in Gandoca is talking about “cows” in this same way, too! Everyone can relate to what it feels like to have a “cow.”
So now I have a bicycle. Now I have a cow. And, all of a sudden, my life is not so simple and carefree in the way that it had been these last months. I have to worry about my cow now. I have to take care of it and make plans to assure its safety and well-being.
I have been so diligent on my Shmitah journey to not bring anything with me that I do not absolutely need. Every step of the way, I have been trying to discern what is most essential. How little can I get by with and what can I live without? And now I have a cow.
The truth is, given my condition and circumstances, it feels important to me to have my own bicycle here in Gandoca these days. Maybe not absolutely essential in the scheme of things, but I am making peace with having some things to support my joyful experience of village life, even if they are not absolutely required for my survival. I am softening my stance and broadening my view, and also respecting that I feel most comfortable when I am not so dependent on others.
As I settle in to the spaciousness, and kindness, and the generosity of spirit of village life here in Gandoca, I am aware of my class privilege and, also, of the cultural differences that exist. Cross-cultural communication and negotiations can be delicate, even with the best of intentions and the most open hearts. I try to keep checking in with myself and others to be sure that I am traveling a path of integrity, sensitivity and respect. I try to keep my impulse to offer gifts to my hosts in check as well. We really don’t need too many cows.