Secular Stories in Uncertain Times — Part I: Notes on My Return

Secular Stories in Uncertain Times — Part I: Notes on My Return June 7, 2020

M L Clark, June 2020

Let’s begin with an explanation of the last month’s silence. (Hello. How are you? I hope you and yours are safe and well!)

I’m currently undocumented in Colombia. It couldn’t really be helped, but that didn’t stop me from trying, desperately, to fix the situation on my own. My work-visa expired in the middle of an ever-extending lockdown (technically still in place until the end of June). For weeks prior, with Migration closed, and only tourist-permit-class visas granted explicit exemptions, I had been trying to navigate a specially created government process for active-visa-holders.

It was awful. Everything that could go wrong, did, including not being able to access another, obligatory government website because they had my official information wrong; and learning that one’s only option for amending such a problem is to submit an email request to a tech team that has license to take up to five months to address your petition, once they’ve bumped your issue to a Level 2 affair.

The word in Spanish for this nonsense, I learned, is “papeleo” (pah-peh-LEH-o). That’s bureaucratic red-tape which can make a seemingly simple application process a nightmare. I ran into a great deal of it over the course of April and May–and although my formal Spanish improved immensely from all the emails I had to write to various government services for help, I was also left with a great many panicked what-ifs: Would I still be able to get food if lockdown continued after my ID expired, when ID is used for everything? Would I have to report directly to the airport the first day everything opened up again? Would I have to leave the home I had created for myself here? Would I ever be able to get back here, and restart, if I did?

Many friends in Canada kindly offered places for me to stay if I was forced back and needed time to find my feet again, but the thought of returning to a Canadian economy and culture where thriving had not been possible… had me in the deepest sort of despair. How many times had I tried to reboot my life? Hadn’t I just moved across the city at the beginning of March to extricate myself from a painful situation already? In Canada, hw many times had I failed, over and over, to create a safe space for myself? How often was I regarded as a “workaholic” for all the jobs I needed simply to stay afloat? How often was I asked to explain to people, while working to get by, why I didn’t have more in my life?

In hindsight, it was all the time leading up to the end-date on my visa that found me at my worst, thinking that I would be better off dead than trying to make a go of anything back in my country of origin. I was replaying all the worst scenarios from my last days in Canada: all the traumas both just before I left, that is, and in that dizzying first month after I’d moved, as well as all the hardships experienced here thereafter. And granted, sure, to listen to the tally of negative experiences I’ve had here, I can understand anyone’s scepticism about my desire to stay anyway: in the last two years, that is, I’ve been robbed at gunpoint, as I’ve written about here; I’ve experienced sexual assault on a few occasions (to say nothing of the tedium of near-daily sexual harassment on the streets); and I even once accidentally triggered someone’s war-time PTSD and found my eminently seasoned skills for handling explosive personalities put to critical use while I was held over night by this person who insisted that I wasn’t safe anywhere but at his armed and highly erratic side. (I call this, jokingly, “filling out my Colombian bingo card”; once I get all the squares checked off, they pretty much have to give me citizenship, right? And you bet your bippy “undocumented status” is its own, now-checked-off square!)

And all in a second-language context, as a single white feminized person, without reliable community on hand to deal with the trauma after the fact.

So, yes, it’s been tough at times–but honestly, these were growing pains that came from learning another culture pretty much by leaping solo into the deep end; and they were not experienced without remarkable opportunities here, too. I’ve had more success with my writing in Colombia, for instance, than I ever did in Canada. I have more time for it, and I have been able to grow related skill-sets, too. I look forward to one day being published for stories I’ve written in Spanish; and to becoming an editor, a translator, as well as a full-time writer in a few years’ time — whenever I get residency here, that is. More critically to my practice of humanism, too, I have learned… so much about humility and purpose-filled work. I know that I have the means to make a real difference here in the decades ahead, and that fills me with so much hope, and courage.

Or, at least, it did, until it seemed guaranteed that I would be losing both my next work-visa and with it, my path to residency — which would mean the loss of two years toward that goal. Indeed, I was so frustrated that after all the violence I’d overcome, and all the humiliations and vulnerabilities of navigating a world alone in a second language, it was going to be something as simple and as pedantic as a fastidious bureaucrat, or a government support-service with a five-month response backlog, that would see me ousted from my new and hard-fought-for home. And so I burned with frustration over the futility of it all. I grieved the life I had tried to build here, which seemed surely lost.

And… I couldn’t bear to post here, to “Another White Atheist in Colombia,” when the very conceit of the column was in peril of being lost.

Relief only began this past Monday, when a change to lockdown rules allowed a visa agency to open its doors again. We might not be able to fix the visa application’s problems on our first attempt (the government is being far tougher this time around than they were the last), and I might still lose my path to residency if we can’t fix the issue requiring that dag-blasted other government service, but… at least I’m not struggling with this alone anymore. Moreover, since the airports are now formally closed until September… well, I know, too, that they probably aren’t going to deport me!

So, even though I am currently entering Week Three of working without pay or guarantee of backpay from my current employer (because, honestly, what else are we supposed to do but act as if everything’s going to work out in the end?), and even though I’m still on tenterhooks with respect to the visa process and how much it’s all going to cost to repair, I am also… a lot calmer now than I was in May. The bargaining and the rage and the despair have given over, at last, to acceptance.

In this process, too, I gained a few specific insights I’d like to share with you, my fellow humanists. The next part of this catch-up essay will address some of the broader issues that have arisen in our shared cultures over the last few weeks–but first, on the individual side, three notes from the struggle:

Bargaining and the Dopamine Response; or the Very Strange Phenomenon of Secular “Prayer”

Oh, don’t worry, fellow seculars; I didn’t suddenly “find religion” in this mad, helpless rush. But I did learn, from my own bargaining behaviours, quite a bit about sensations similar to those that drive many folks to prayer. It’s an awful feeling, being helpless to fix something oneself, yet still having a brain driven to try to work out other ways to will a certain result into coming to pass.

I paid attention, especially, to how my body felt in those moments when an outcome I’d been desperately hoping for occurred: that relief, and with it, this strange conviction that I had somehow brought about that better outcome by having concentrated so long and hard on it. That I had “worked” on it, when I hadn’t.

Conversely, I also paid attention to how my body felt in those moments when a different outcome arose after a long stretch of having concentrated so long and hard on my desired end result. I listened to how easily, in those cases, I gave up the sense of having ever having had any control over the outcome after all.

And I’m as convinced as an empiricist can be, really, that if I’d been raised in a religious household, these are exactly the same behaviours I’d be given to understand underpin the “power of prayer.”

We’re all similarly biochemically driven critters, that is.

We just use different vocabulary sets to negotiate the same experiences.

But goodnesss, I can completely understand the appeal of thinking that there is something you can always do, even when you can’t do anything at all. Our brilliantly overactive brains need a lot of practice to accept when there’s nothing they can do at all.

Class Guilt Can Be a Healthy Sort of Anger

I wasn’t alone in this helplessness, of course. During this period of tremendous personal uncertain, plenty of others in my communities have been suffering, and I’ve tried to provide local money and means where I can — always donating to the food table for my apartment building on my days out; always giving to charity at the store; always buying basic groceries for one displaced Venezuelan family in the neighbourhood (which doesn’t have ID and therefore is limited in what it can access in the shops to begin with); paying for someone’s mother’s cancer medication and a downpayment to get her into a facility; getting grocery money to friends most urgently in need.

It never feels like enough, though, does it? And I’ve experienced the strangest sort of class guilt around the visa process in the middle of this… because, yes, there is a classist absurdity to me agonizing so much over being undocumented, and potentially losing my path to residency, in a country filled with displaced persons who have no official route to stability. Colombia’s informal economy is very high, around 47% working outside of payroll and state protections; and all the fees I am paying to fix this visa mess… could do so much for so many lives.

I know, I know: the idea is that if I have stability and legality here, I will be in a far better position to provide aid and support in the long run. I’ll be able to enlist government funding for nifty dream projects like science-fiction workshops in the poorer barrios, to provide networking opportunities and stealth education in Spanish, English, and digital literacy to children absent access even to primary school.

But as resilient as Colombia has been throughout COVID-19; as stoically as this country has come together to survive lockdown… a largely informal and street-based economy being driven inside for months has left a stark and pressing need for financial support now, and in the near future, as current projections suggest that a full 23% of businesses will permanently fold in the coming year.

Meanwhile, what am I doing? Throwing substantial chunks of money at a frustrating government process.

So, yes, right now I’m experiencing a form of class guilt–but I’m also seeing how easily it can be reframed into a more useful sort of class anger. Because this disparity is wrong. Our economic system, which has allowed individuals and monopolizing companies to see huge gains during pandemic while millions are laid off and without reprieve… is wrong.

And when I get my dag-blasted visa, I hope I’ll be in a position to do something more constructive with said anger again. So–I’d ask you folks, in light of my last two essays, not to let guilt be an end-point to your class consciousness. If you are safe and you are well, there’s no need to wear a hair shirt about it. But recognize what it means about our shared social contract, and get to work putting your anger to work for the betterment of all.


Thinking Like a Colombian, Not a Canadian

The greatest take-away from this past month, though, was a reminder of the lessons that this country has been teaching me all throughout the last two years and change. We Canadians are highly reliant on our institutions, but in Colombia — a country without a functional groundmail system (seriously: use FedEx or similar, because nothing through the groundmail network arrives) — there is no real culture of expecting that if you just learn how to navigate the system, everything will work out in the end.

Paso a paso, día a día: I had to learn this past month to take things one day at a time, without catastrophizing or trying to make too many plans for the future.

And that was a tough one. I love to make plans. But as I learned to let go of my best laid plans falling apart… laughter returned to my life, in lieu of fear about what will happen next. Enough, even among this ongoing madness, that I feel ready to post more routinely again. After all, who knows if my future condition will live up to the name of this column? Who knows if these work-visa applications of mine will ever go through?

For now, though, I’m still Another White Atheist. And I’m still in Colombia.

And I’m ready to get back to all the humanist work there is to do.

On to Part II!

M L Clark, June 2020
The view from my home at sunrise.

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