By tramping along the dusty streets, I felt connected to my adopted place.
I certainly felt known: once I’d lived for some time there, as the only white American man for days, strangers greeted me, as is the custom in rural Central America, with an adios
as we passed. Most often, they called out adios, Mister
(or, meester, as it sounded).
Gracias expanded in poverty from the inside out. Everything became poorer the further one drifted from the cobblestone streets of the center of town, so that at the edge, where I wandered that afternoon, most children were barefoot, houses were ramshackle, and trash peppered the dirt street. Outside of town, beyond the informal border I traced, people lived without the sporadic electricity and crude plumbing that the town offered, using adobe ovens and growing anything that would in the hard soil of the mountains. I may have been thinking of this poverty that afternoon, but more likely I was unpacking the day’s events or pondering a test on earthquakes I was planning to give to a class of fourth graders, when I felt and heard the whiz of a rock as it charged past my right thigh.
I wheeled around, red-faced. There stood three barefoot boys, none older than eight, meeting my eyes.
If I had learned anything living in Gracias, I had learned that poor boys were tough boys, and those boys were in no way taken aback by my sudden turn in their direction or the initial anger that must have flooded my face. They lived in a world with much more to fear than a 20-something white boy named Mister. So as I cleared my face, I decided to turn away and wander on. As I did, amid their laughs and shouts of random English phrases (appy birday!; ow are ju?), I started thinking about rocks and boys.
Particularly, I thought about the boys I grew up with in the woods of Appalachia, about how any of them at the edge of a creek would bend down—without thinking—in search of a rock. Some boys chose carefully; some grabbed the first rock his hand finds; some wanted only the biggest chunk of boulder his arms could lift. No matter the approach, it seemed a pretty comfortable truth to me that when presented with a creek bank and moving water, boys find rocks to throw. I wondered if this might not be a childhood lesson in metaphysics: Standing alone beside a creek, a mile below your grandmother’s house, you are lost to the world.
No one could find you quickly, except for the cows you passed in the field a ways back. The world, however, isn’t lost without you. Everything is moving as it always is. You hear the Bob-White bird’s call up on the hill. Grandma is surely shuffling along in the kitchen. Your dog, Dusty, is passed out in the shade. Should you disappear, it seems nothing would change. Woe unto me
. You are but a flicker on the face of the sun. You bend down and grab the first rock your hand lands on. It’s mostly cubed, like a deformed chunk of lead. You lay two fingers on top of it just the way Granddaddy has taught you to throw a fastball. You turn, square, and launch it downstream.
The moment it hits, the water seems to stop. What was a horizontal rush is now stagnant: circles expanding outwards—in all directions—against the current and with it. You have done this. You stopped a Clear Creek from flowing as it has been for hundreds of years toward the French Broad River. In all of your smallness, you have made something, changed something, just a move of the arm and a chunk of geological triviality.
In a second the water moves just like before—water, if nothing else, is persistent—and you will turn and hurdle the fence back towards Grandma’s house. This is a boy’s lesson in cause and effect, a reminder of the power of a small rock on a bank of millions.
Men die over rocks. They die from throwing rocks, as a boy on a creek bank might. A fiery bystander throws a rock towards those with guns. Then more rocks meet a wave of approaching police. Shields, guns, billysticks. It’s some power to get an army of trained men moving. The rock gets attention; it breaks windows; it gets you shot.
The poorest and neediest and most empty-handed of people can throw rocks, just as one was thrown at me. While they’re not much when set alongside bullets, they can do damage. Cousin Isaac broke Josh’s nose in the woods above Grandma’s. David laid out Goliath in front of God and everyone. A rock’s power comes not only in its velocity, but in everything that stands and flies behind it.
And yet we most often value the sturdiness of rocks, not their flightiness. A rock is solid and is the image we draw up when suggesting toughness or steadiness. Or dumbness. English is full of rock adages. Chevy trucks are built like a rock
. The wise man built his house upon the rock. Jesus himself is a rock—the cornerstone of the church. Rocks are something to stand confidently on, to be sure of, and while I know next to nothing of geology, I know that rocks are old, that we live on them, and that they will far outlast us.
The power of taking that weight—the very ground we live upon—into one’s hands and throwing it at whatever ails or oppresses is tectonic.
I don’t know what I may have been to the boys on the edge of Gracias that afternoon. Maybe they saw me with my athletic shoes and white skin as an oppressor in a poor country, someone with too much compared to their too little. Or perhaps they merely wanted to make a ripple, to see me turn and flush my face with red—to stop me, if only for an instant. Whatever the case, they set me to thinking, and when I head down to the creek these days from my house in America and instinctively find myself leaning over to skip stones up the stream, I sometimes imagine those boys standing in that dusty street, looking incredulously at me. I wish instead of anger on my face, I would have worn something showing my shared regard for the throwing of rocks.
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During a time when I lived in western Honduras, I often strolled through the small town in the afternoons without any clear direction. I rarely left the boundaries of the village itself because beyond the town of Gracias stood immense green mountains, often reaching into the clouds themselves, and into those mountains snaked thin dirt paths that meandered for days before arriving to a hint of a village. Those afternoon walks were calming after a day of teaching rowdy elementary school children, but they were also comforting to me as an outsider—an American in rural Honduras.