Monthly Archives: April 2016

Pay Attention – Lessons Learned in Cochabamba

image Pay attention to where you’re going. It’s one of the lessons I learned in Cochabamba.

Daily I had to be aware of what was in front of me. Figuratively and literally.

Uneven sidewalks, crumbling concrete, hidden holes — all threatened to trip me up as I walked the streets of Cochabamba. Entire slabs of cement jut out like in the aftermath of an earthquake. No sidewalks are flat and even. If I wanted to stay vertical, I had to pay attention.


Typical Cochabamba sidewalk

And if walking on the sidewalk wasn’t easy to maneuver and threatened my safety, crossing the street was worse.

Pedestrians never have the right-of-way in Cochabamba.  No matter if you’re in the crosswalk, the traffic light is in your favor, or you’re already half way across the street. Drivers will not stop or slow down.  They constantly beep their horn at you. Even if you’re only near the curb  or simply walking in that direction. Their message is clear: “Don’t even think about it.”

Other lessons I learned:

How to approach strangers and strike up a conversation, asking important questions like “Where can I buy  the best helado (ice cream)?”

How to meet desafíos (challenges) and speak up for what I needed in a language I was only beginning to learn, with people I was not entirely  comfortable with. Not easy for an introverted, introspective person like me. But I did it. Time and again. It gave me a taste — just a taste — of what it’s like for a migrant trying to survive in a foreign country.

How to look the other way when encountering a naked campesino —peasant farmers that have come to the city to work —squatting in the canal to relieve himself or to wash his body in the only water available.

How to hold and feed one baby in my arms while pushing another one in a Fisher Price swing, using my elbow or foot.

I miss holding those babies at the orphanage. When I imagine Teresa and Pablo, Adriana, Jhon, Nichol, and Breiseda, when I remember the tiny knots in their hair from lying in their cribs for so long, and I wonder if anyone is cradling them now, I cry.  Their situation seems hopeless. Yet I know it isn’t.

I also know I can’t go back to care for those orphans. Here’s why. As much as I loved the beauty and culture of the country, my teachers, and friends I made, something was missing. My heart was not in Cochabamba. It remains with the migrants and refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border. Still.

Did I need to go all the way to Bolivia to learn this? Apparently so.

Because besides learning Spanish and gaining clarity about where my heart lies, I received other necessary lessons. Lessons about courage to face the feelings arising in what I was experiencing. Lessons about finding true hope in the midst of feelings of hopelessness.

If all had gone according to my expectations, according to my well-laid plans, it would have been easy to have faith in my self-made God, to “hope” in my ego’s ideas of what the world “should” be. But God asks more of me than this. God asks me to trust even when I feel betrayed, angry, hopeless in this place of my own making. And then to be present to those feelings. Long enough to come out the other side.

As the Pathwork teaches, through the gateway of feeling  my hopelessness lies true and justified hope. That’s something I’ll need if I’m to serve those who would have little reason to hope.

Spiritual writer and teacher Cynthia Bourgeault says in Mystical Hope:

“Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender; that is, through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to.”Cynthia Bourgeault_MysticalHope_photo1

May I let go and surrender. To the presence that has always been right in front of me.




My Lesson in Love


A sign I encountered daily in Cochabamba reminds me, “Love is patient and kind…”

A new baby arrived last week at the orphanage. When I got there on Wednesday, I found her sleeping in a crib — a tiny dark-haired bundle wrapped in a yellow blanket. She was less than one week old.


Her name was printed in black magic marker on the placard above her crib. The women who work at the Salomon Klein orphanage named her. Abandoned, she came with nothing. No first or last name. No birth date. They think she was born on Easter Sunday.

When I changed Adriana’s diaper, I noticed the brown remains of her umbilical cord. What a way for this precious new life to begin.

But the sad truth is, Adriana’s situation is not unusual. During the four weeks I volunteered, three new babies appeared. Either they’d been abandoned or removed from an unsafe home. Now their home is a room lined with cribs filled with babies and toddlers under 2. There aren’t enough arms to cradle these children. Not enough voices to coo their names and let them believe, even for a little while, that the world revolves around them.

That’s what I normally try to do. But, for whatever reason, this day was different.

I changed more diapers than usual. Rubbed ointment onto red, raw bottoms and wondered how many more little ones lay in their cribs or sat in the play yard with wet, coarse cloth wrapped around their behinds waiting for someone to discover their need. But I couldn’t keep up while tending to tears and keeping toddlers from crawling on top of each other.

The mood was anything but tranquilo.

Babies who normally lay quietly in their cribs cried uncontrollably. I picked them up, one after another, cooing, cradling, calling their names, but the crying didn’t stop. My friend and fellow volunteer noticed the reason first.

“Look at the time,” she said. “They’re hungry.”

It was nearly 5:30 p.m. Well past the time for their second bottle. We mentioned it to one of the staff and she said the bottles were coming. But not soon enough.

During the next 15 to 20 minutes, my friend and I tried to console inconsolable babies. We carried them around the room, rocked them, sang to them. Feeling helpless all the while. We both remarked that this must be what it’s like for migrant and refugee mothers who can’t feed their hungry children. The experience was short-lived, but very vivid.  It has stayed with me.

And, it brought another insight. Something even more powerful.

As I held little Pablo, his tiny mouth quivered, he was crying so hard. He couldn’t hear my voice calling his name so sweetly. With his eyelids squeezed shut, his face tight with the pangs of hunger, he couldn’t possibly take in the love I was offering him. His hunger and pain were too great.

Now I understand.

This is how it must be for a loving God who is trying to get through to me when I am hurting. Because I was hurting and crying out in Cochabamba. I’d experienced some painful challenges, and I felt abandoned and alone. But like these children, my hunger and pain kept me from recognizing the presence of the love that’s been holding me through all of it. I couldn’t see it with my eyes squeezed shut.

And like I did for these children, the One who longs for me simply held me in my spiritual blindness. 

This love is so patient. It is kind and compassionate. It is willing to wait with me. Until I finally take in what I need. What it’s been offering all along.