The last week on Lesvos was intense. I had arranged for a French speaking student of mine to meet with the resident lawyer, a fierce woman who has been working day and night for the past two years, getting people ready for their “interview” with the local authorities, the main gateway to a possible blue stamp allowing entry into mainland Greece. I had also offered my student to go with him and interpret the meeting, an offer which he accepted. We went, I interpreted, and in some ways, I never left the small, window-less room.
There are many French speaking refugees on Lesvos, most of them men who fled their African home countries. From what I was told, there are not so many French interpreters, and this creates a potential problem, the outcome of which is that the months pass and pass while these men remain on the island, living in Moria , and losing hope. Knowing that I would only be there another few days, the lawyer asked me to stay by her side and translate as many case intakes as we could manage. I agreed.
It’s hard to explain what these hours did to my brain - and to my heart.
I think that no matter what the topic, even if one were to interpret fairy tales, simultaneous translation is a taxing magic trick, one that may require a whole lot more training than I have to accomplish this on a regular schedule without becoming deeply exhausted. The way it works is that information comes in through the ears in one language, and the task at hand is to spit it out of the mouth in another language - while more information is coming in through the ears at the same time. In a way, it’s kind of fun, as it happens almost without thinking. Pretty soon, the flow becomes seamless and it’s as though we are a conduit, very much part of an intimate triangle of communication. During the easy, initial meeting with my student, my core Essences of Community and Contribution were singing happily and I was excited to keep going.
Later that night, I headed home a different person, and a stop at the harbor for a short sob barely made a dent in the grief pool that was filling up.
What I interpreted that afternoon, without giving my brain the time to comment, understand, digest or even barely acknowledge, is something which I will never been able to un-know. The things we humans do to each other in the name of fear, in the name of power and in the name of a god that looks different from someone else’s god.
I just did not know.
I just ... did not know.
And now I do.
Not because I read about it in a book or in a report, not because I saw it on TV or in a movie. But because for several hours, I sat in a tiny airless room, my right thigh touching another person’s left thigh, my eyes on their face while they looked straight ahead, my mouth becoming their voice, hearing my own words weave stories which my imagination could not have began to create, words which my heart was not fully listening to because there were many more of them pouring out which also needed a voice.
My heart knew it needed to stay out of the way so that my brain could do the work. My ears heard the words in both languages, repeatedly, and my heart kindly agreed to wait.
For a while.
My heart also agreed to my request to please dole out the understanding in small doses, doses that would allow me to return the next day and do it again. Which I did.
When I left the island, I was fully ready to go. I knew that I had accumulated as much backlog of soul-cracking information as I could take, given my lack of preparation.
I made my way to Athens, put up a No Disturb sign on the hotel room door, and stood under a hot shower for a long time, letting my heart catch up a little bit. Just a little bit.
Then I slept for hours.
Later that afternoon, I was given the gift of watching the sun set on the Acropolis as I sat on a bench facing that mass of grace and its 2400 years of witnessing. I asked wordless questions about a situation that seems so much bigger than me. How can I serve without self-destroying? How can I not let the hugeness of it all prevent me from seeing the tiny-yet-big places where I may make a difference? Please. Tell me.
As I made my way down the hill, my phone alerted me to a voice mail and a photo.
Right there, on the small screen, was the image of an official document with a big fat blue stamp smack in the middle of it. Underneath, the words: We are freeeeeee! I pressed the voice mail arrow and heard my friends Manan and Mahsa’s excited voices telling me how they had just received the news that their paperwork (which I had had nothing to with) had gone through, and that they were going to be on their way to Athens very soon. That day was Mahsa’s 20th birthday.
That’s when my heart decided that it would no longer hold back. Whether they were born of heartbreak or of celebration, tears flooded down in rivers and heavy sobs as I looked up and asked the Acropolis to please watch over these kids and the many others who were going to make their way there, for a new chapter of an excruciatingly difficult book.
It was a privilege.
It was a privilege to give an understandable, workable voice to stories that may help someone make their way towards the next step of their journey.
It is a privilege to know that I can serve in this way, and not just because I speak languages but because I like to believe that I am able to bring a bit of softness, light and hope to these horrible hours of retelling.
It is a privilege to no longer not know.
And, it is also a privilege to have gotten close enough to be invited into the celebration part of the cycle.
What happens next, I am not sure, but I do believe that this is something which was not presented to me by accident, and which I receive as an invitation.
I am grateful to have lost my emotional virginity. I am grateful to be blessed with enough reserves of deep joy that I can still melt at the sight of the sun rising behind a row of palm trees in Florida, where I am now spending a couple of weeks with my family.
I am grateful to know, so that I may do. Or be. Or both.
I am also grateful to know that I am stronger than I thought I was. That while my heart is forever cracked quite a bit more than it used to be, it is also stronger for the knowing.
I believe that we can allow our hearts to crack, that we don't have to believe that doing so will kill us or send us to bed with a box of chocolates for the rest of our lives.
Today, I invite you to celebrate how strong you are, how powerfully you can function in the world. Even when you know.