We Came to Build Two Houses

Las Conchitas, Nicaragua 2004


In the house of Maria Lopez…
a house made of uneven slats of coarse, unpainted wood
assembled in an irregular and unbalanced pattern
            where the slats did not meet
                                               with sheets of scrap metal
a threadbare quilt of a house…

I think of home.

In the house of Maria Lopez…
the dim, windowless interior
lit only when sun pierces unevenly joined wall slats
leaving hard white stripes
                                          on a pressed earth floor
by their brightness…
where a candle is an unsought luxury…

I consider my home…

In the house of Maria Lopez…
dark earth floor pounded
as smooth as her grandson’s skin
by bare feet
                     and the inestimable weight
of life in Nicaragua…

I think of my life in the USA…
                                                      wall-to-wall carpeting.

In the house of Maria Lopez…
dim, bare living space separated
from a cave-like pool of deeper darkness
by a makeshift wall
                                 plastered with pictures
torn from fashion magazines…
in which carefree, fair-skinned models pose in the latest styles
                                 flashing endlessly
                                                               frozen smiles…
where el divino niño
                                 the Christ child
                                                         is a calendar page…
where from equally spaced nails
clear plastic bags
in which mementos are sealed…
clean, white teddy bears holding valentine hearts…
a teapot-shaped ceramic clock fixed at an indiscernible hour…

I think of my basement…
                                             unused crockery
                              old toys in boxes
                    holiday decorations in more boxes
              unremembered things in yet more boxes
stacks and stacks of unread magazines
                                                                        growing mold.

In the house of Maria Lopez…
we huddle together during a downpour
avoiding places where water
through a roof of misaligned strips of corrugated tin…
a dozen of us crowded together—
Nicaraguan workers, gringo volunteers—
watching children splash cheerfully
                                                               in the muddy river
that moments ago
                                was a dirt road…

I consider crown moldings
comfortable neighbors unseen in dry homes.

In the house of Maria Lopez…
four tiny chicks scratch the dark earth floor
slip in and out through gaps
under the walls…
hens appear out of the rain
long, gangly necks and patchy feathers
weaving warily amongst our legs…

I think of long supermarket shelves
shrink-wrapped packages
                                             pink meat
                                                            yellow Styrofoam.

In the house of Maria Lopez…
a threadbare, patchwork quilt of a house
hastily thrown up
                              after the earthquake
leveled her former life
                                         four years ago …
a house now bracketed by two new houses
strong, reinforced concrete structures
that did not exist four days ago…
that will survive the next earthquake…
that will survive long after my departure
long after I return to my house in the United States

that will never outlast my memory of building them
alongside these beautiful, silent people…

I consider the meaning of home.

In the house of Maria Lopez…
her extended family and village neighbors gather
stunned and awed by a gift of a house
the size of my garage…

our group of gringo volunteers gathers
stunned and awed by the magnitude
of gracious spirit
that cannot be contained
                                       by old wood
                                                            new bricks
or national identities…
I consider two houses.

In the house of Maria Lopez…
having come so far
                                 from home
and the comfort of a humanitarian mission
I stand on the dark earth
and by her invitation


Maria Lopez


Plastic Memories - Maria Lopez


Maria's New House


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