I had received my acceptance letter to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I was grateful to have a clearly identified purpose in life: I was no longer a struggling cocktail waitress, but a graduate student en-route to becoming an art history professor.
Or so I had imagined when I filled out the graduate school application. Problem is, acting in the best interest of others is so.gosh.darn.addicting.
I went home from the orphanage feeling fulfilled after every.single.day of work. How many business professionals can say that? How many art historians can claim the same thing? Would I find the same satisfaction writing persuasive arguments about art? Could the hours upon days upon weeks upon years spent researching in a library compare to volunteering at the dump?
I took a walk along the Puerto Vallarta beach to consider my options and clear my head. On the one hand, I was grateful to be admitted to the program and happy to be working toward a personal goal of mine. On the other hand, I wasn’t so sure that the life I wanted would make me happy. Get what you want only to learn it’s not what you need, right?
And then I crossed the bridge.
Literally and metaphorically, I walked over a wooden bridge in downtown Puerto Vallarta and my perspective was irrevocably altered.
The small footbridge ran over a stream that led into the ocean, and I paused midway to look at the sea. I’m not trying to recreate a Virginia Wolfe novel, just paint a picture of me looking out at the beach and noticing all the happy tourists sunbathing and wave-jumping.
I smiled at the happy families and celebratory college students, thought about how their decisions might be conflicting like mine. I wondered if their life goals would make them happy or not.
Feeling too morose for my own good, I decided to head home and hang out with my roommates. Make margaritas and blast Spanish radio. Maybe even call the boys volunteering at the orphange from Australia. Learn a thing or two about their Aussy accent.
I turned around, now facing the stream that flows into the ocean, and my heart nearly melted away with the current. It’s hard to describe the beauty that overcame me, but let me try.
A young woman walked into the stream wearing only a silk Flamenco skirt spun from gold, maroon and navy threads. Droplets of water glistened off the top of her brown chest, and her long skirt billowed in the water around her waist.
She signaled toward the shore, and two skinny naked kids splashed through the water to join her. The boy, approximately ten, held a bottle of shampoo, and the girl, only a year or so younger, held a bar of soap.
Yes, I realize how creepy it might seem to watch this family bathe in the stream, but I couldn’t take my eyes away. The young mother washed their hair with shampoo, covered their bodies in soap, and then encouraged them to rinse off by playing together. As they splashed in the water, the soap from their young bodies filled the stream with suds. The sun shone down on the soap bubbles and made the entire scene sparkle like a painting. It was beautiful. They were beautiful.
And it hurt my heart to watch them. I ached, intensely, when I turned around and saw the tourists baking like Lobsters and sipping Sex-on-the-Beach not 20 feet away. How could these two events be spontaneously occurring in the same place?
The unadulterated beauty of the natives seemed lost on the sunbathers. This family was, without a doubt, unable to afford running water, and yet tourists were happily sipping $20 cocktails just a stone’s throw away. Did the tourists see them? If so, did they care?
Why was the distance between these two groups of people so much greater than the small bridge that separated them? Was it possible to bring them closer together? To help people learn to see one another with clear eyes?
I felt, deep down, that it was possible to act as a bridge between two worlds. It suddenly became important to show the affluent how to live on sunlight alone, and to provide the impoverished with the opportunities of the wealthy (health, education, shelter, etc). More than anything, I wanted to illuminate the similarities between people and demonstrate the power in unity.
I forgot about the margaritas and the Aussies, and I walked home with my head whirling like a monsoon. As I walked, I determined that I would complete my masters in art history, but I would use the graduate program to study different means of overcoming social differences with art.
*I was sorting through holiday boxes when I found a journal I kept while in Mexico. I hope you don’t mind that I shared an old entry — the post still resonates with me, and I thought you might enjoy the read