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Sarah Here :
Happy Friyay! I’ve been having a week. It started off inspiring and productive as I worked through the whole weekend. I researched and formulated some plans for my Tulum retreat, I meditated more than usual and I bought myself a new camera, which means I have to update this post. Then Monday came around and I heard news that Otto Warmbier had died. This event led me on a dark spiral that continued through the week and culminated in me watching dozens of videos of black men being shot and killed by police. I don’t necessarily think my behavior is healthy, but I do think exposure to evil is a helpful way for me personally to cultivate even more empathy, compassion and love.
I’m hoping that I’ll find a way to make a meaningful difference, but for now I’ll just talk about my experience and feelings about Otto’s death. I wrote this immediately after I heard the news, before I had my morning coffee, while completely wrapped up in emotion, and now I’m hearing my college professor telling me to ‘take a seat,’ after having just explained so much about my writing before presenting it. Sorry Professor Trayes!
Walking up the stairs to my tiny bungalow yesterday, I thought back to a week previous when I had caught my roommate’s cat stealing a baby bird from a nest. I was mortified, I happened to look out the window at the moment when her mouth closed around the small bird. So upset with the cat, I stomped outside with rubber gloves on, picked up the tiny, mostly unharmed, chirping bird and returned it to its nest. I felt immense sadness for this single baby bird. ‘How could the cat do that,’ I thought, even though I’ve seen dead bird carcasses lying around for the past year and I’m well aware of instinctual nature.
Cut to ten minutes later, I wander into my room for something and again, looking out the same window, I see the cat steal the same baby bird. This time death was imminent. My heart felt tiny and hard. WTF. What the fuck. My friend helped rationalize it, commenting on the natural cycle of life, the food chain, the minute importance of a single bird when there are surely humans dying at the same moment… Yeah, I understand all that and yet something about this moment, about seeing the cat steal the bird, saving the bird and then seeing it being stolen again, I just couldn’t handle it. Wasn’t it enough that I wanted the bird to live?
It took me a couple of days to realize that really what I wanted wasn’t so much for the bird to live, but for me to not see the bird die. This cat has been murdering songbirds and small mammals its whole life and I knew that, never once did I feel such crushing sadness, it was only because I saw the suffering. I saw the momma and poppa bird circling overhead, chirping, terrified and angry that they worked so hard only for their baby bird’s progress to be stopped in an instant. I saw them return to the nest excited and squawking when the baby was replaced, I heard the shrieks when the cat came back.. I was a witness.
So often I try to act as a witness. Observing the present moment, aware yet detached and allowing each tiny event to flow by.. but the baby bird stuck. I was no longer in the present, it made an impact. I know this because I could not stop thinking about it and yet I knew it was uncommon for me to be that upset by the death of a single bird.
So back to yesterday, I’m walking up the steps, past the exact spot where I tried to save the baby bird a week previous and in an instant I thought, ‘okay, I’m finally over the bird incident, I set my emotions aside, I understand why I was upset and I’ve come to terms with witnessing suffering and the fragility of life,’ and it was as that thought was finishing that I see a fresh songbird carcass laying on the top step. I let out a loud laugh from the bottom of my belly; the timing was amazing. At the instant I declared I was, over it I was challenged to face it again. Reality is truly absurd. Believe it or not, I felt better and I laughed a few more times that day about the second dead bird. It’s as if my self declaration of passing the test was enough for the universe to hand me another challenge, to ask, ‘are you sure you’re okay with it?’ And the answer was yes.
Then something else happened.. Otto Warmbier, the young American who allegedly tried to steal the propaganda poster from North Korea died. He’s dead. An American kid who might have tried to steal a poster is dead. Is it idiotic to steal something from North Korea? Especially something with the dictator’s face on it? Yeah, duh, of course. Did an immature 21-year-old brain think for a second that it wouldn’t be such a big deal? Yeah, I’m sure. Was it? The biggest.
Even though we don’t exactly know what happened, I suppose the fact that an American abroad could be arrested, detained and returned home on the verge of death, is what’s absolutely terrifying to me. I understand what a privileged position I hold. There are citizens in our home country who worry about being potentially killed during routine stops and arrests on American soil. I get that and I don’t mean to minimize it.
Maybe Otto’s death scared me so much because I travel a lot. I think about being locked up abroad and I think about my poor parents. I think about the work they put in and how I could serve them a lifetime of grief with one stupid move, but I always imagined bribery, bankruptcy and jail time, not labor camps, comas and death. If nothing else, I expected accountability from one government to another. I expected my super power of a country to come to my rescue to at least ensure I wasn’t withering away in whatever imaginary jail I found myself in if the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
As an American abroad, I actually pretend to be Canadian. Seriously. I never offer up where I’m from and I’m the first person to criticize our country in a world that is U.S.A.-crazed. I always try to emphasize that America is not what everyone sees in the movies. I don’t live in Hollywood and not everyone is rich and beautiful, has a good education or even a full belly of food where I live. It’s a hard concept for some people to grasp.
As an American girl abroad, I’ve had at least a dozen serious marriage proposals and hundreds if not thousands of conversations about our politics and presidents. Traveling during Bush, Obama and now Trump, has opened me up to a range of discussions and reactions from folks on five other continents. After rolling my eyes and shaking my head and basically crushing the idea of the American dream to whomever I’m talking to, my cynical side starts to melt away, I back pedal and I admit that America is alright. I remark on our freedom speech, fair elections and general permission to do whatever the fuck we want, including buy assault rifles.. hopefully my foreign counterparts detect my sarcasm on the last bit, but even if they don’t, America doesn’t sound too bad. Apparently most people think it sounds pretty great (No need to make it great again, we’re already there!) and at the end of each of my trips, when I finally land back on American soil, I too agree. It’s good to be home. It’s nice to know I have this amazing country to be apart of, a place where I’m mostly free to be me without persecution.
I suppose I always assumed that being an American abroad insulated me as well. That I would always be saved by my country. I think Otto’s death rocked me because it flipped the script of what I knew to be true. If you’re an American, America has your back. Everything will be fine. The world is watching, but just like the baby bird, it doesn’t matter who is watching.