Category Archives: Living from the heart
Tara Brach and Pope Francis have something in common. They both support a “revolution of tenderness” based on “radical compassion.”
I’m thinking it couldn’t be a more appropriate time for this radical revolution to begin. It’s definitely needed. Wouldn’t you agree?
But I don’t mean this based simply on what we’re seeing in the news.
Last week I was asked to start helping accompany refugees again. And what I witnessed is what got to me. Got me looking for an answer to the pain we’re inflicting on one another.
So I scrolled talks from Tara Brach – my favorite Buddhist insight meditation teacher, and found one on “A revolution of tenderness.” I recognized this term Pope Francis had coined in a recent surprise TED talk he’d given by the same name.
In listening to Tara, it struck me how both she and Pope Francis call for us to connect with our capacity to be tender. And to identify with “the other.”
Long a promoter of “radical compassion,” Tara teaches that compassion begins with our capacity to be tender – towards our own heart. To see and feel our own violated self, our suffering inside ourselves. And then we can open the door to feeling the suffering of the other.
I’ve been practicing that, more or less, since my Pathwork days. But it was her next comment that I needed to hear.
“This quality of heart is our potential,” Tara said. “It’s cultivated by our opening to suffering and remembering the goodness and the beauty.”
Opening to both. That’s the key.
I needed to remind myself of the goodness and the beauty. Because I was getting stuck in the suffering. My heart was hurting for a mother in pain. Just one of many mothers I’d come to know.
When I was at this hospitality house, waiting to do intake after a handful of refugees had arrived, I noticed one woman with a little boy less than 2 years old. She was bent forward on the sofa, keeping her head down as we gave our usual welcome talk. Even when her child came over, seeking her attention, she brushed him off, putting her head in her hands, clearly distraught. My thought was, she must have had a very disturbing journey.
Because she only spoke Portuguese, it took us a while to find out the problem.
Turns out her husband had been traveling with their 4-year-old daughter and had arrived at the border a few days earlier. But the agent that admitted them had separated the child from her father – detaining the dad and sending the 4-year-old to a foster care-type detention center. This child who only spoke Portuguese, couldn’t communicate with anyone, was now in a strange country surrounded by strangers without her mom or dad.
I couldn’t comprehend this decision. And I couldn’t shake the thought of this frightened child. Alone.
Maybe the agent was having a bad day. Maybe he wanted to send a message, to deter others from coming.
Maybe he had simply closed off his heart long ago.
We numb ourselves in order to not feel the pain we are inflicting. We separate ourselves by identifying with dualistic thinking – “they’re wrong and we’re right; they’re bad and we’re good.”
Identifying with a separate egoic self keeps us from recognizing the truth. We belong to something larger. Larger than our small, fearful selves.
“Each and every one’s existence is tied to the other,” Pope Francis says. “The other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face….Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other.”
If this is true – and I believe it is – then what we are doing to hurt others will and is affecting us.
The future of humankind is in the hands of those who “recognize the other as a ‘you’ and themselves as part of an ‘us,’” as Pope Francis claims. It’s in the hearts of those who have the quality of compassionate presence that Tara promotes.
“Tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women,” Francis says. “Tenderness is NOT weakness. It is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility.”
Yes, it takes courage and humility to remain open to the “other.” To not close down or numb out when you see someone in pain.
How courageous are you? Are you willing to be part of a revolution of tenderness?
I am. And I hope you are, too.
As Pope Francis says, “It only takes one person, a ‘you,’ to bring hope into the world. And a ‘you’ becomes an ‘us.’”
And that is how a revolution begins.
I’ve been missing Virginia’s spring. Luckily, I’m about to experience it once again when I drive back to Virginia next week to attend my niece’s graduation from George Mason University. Soon my senses will be filled with sweet-smelling blossoms, blasted with the color of azaleas, irises, dogwoods, and lilacs. And, of course, stuffed with pollen.
I imagine Davis is missing it, too. Up there in Nome where the earth is just beginning to thaw and show sprigs of green.
Like him, I’ve been having a different kind of spring.
As in Nome, spring’s arrival in the desert is slow and subtle. You have to really look for it.
So lately I’d been paying attention to the stirrings of the earth. Seeking changes in the landscape. Looking and listening. Trying to find what I thought I was missing.
Turns out, I found something. Something within myself.
One day I ventured out to a park located not far from my apartment. So close, I’d wondered why I hadn’t been there before. Sinking my feet into the grass – real grass – I strolled across the lawn and finally settled down under a tree. A wide-trunked tree. Placed my back up against it and took in the energy of one of my favorite forms of life. Right away I started missing the greenery of Virginia. The red cardinals and indigo buntings. Even the squirrels.
Suddenly a slight breeze stirred the leaves above me, as if to say, “Hey, we’re here. Can’t you see us?”
And then – I’m not kidding – a squirrel scampered across the hillside. The first I’ve seen since arriving in El Paso. He was quickly followed by another chasing after him. All along I’d thought squirrels didn’t exist here!
In the silence I sensed God saying, “Everything you need is here.”
I smiled as I was shown once again that I have everything I need. That “everything is everywhere” – to use a title of a lovely Carrie Newcomer song I recently came across. That I am never separated from my Source.
And I remembered why I am here.
In this desert, at the border, I am finding my heart, my compassion, my voice. What was planted in me is thriving. And I’m discovering that the changes I seek in the landscape are happening within me.
Just as Davis discovered something stirring within himself in the dark of winter. Something that called him to remain in Alaska and be a voice for the people there.
It’s part of the sacred pattern of life. This rhythm to the cycle of the seasons. A sacred rhythm that’s playing out within us, too. If we can only have patience to allow it to unfold.
Whether it’s under the deep, dark, frozen earth or the dusty, dry landscape, life is stirring within. Seeds have been planted. Seeds that will miraculously burst forth at the appropriate time.
It’s all part of the cycle. A cycle you can trust.
And you can trust the Source that’s fulfilling what has been planted within you.
Whether you’re at the Bering Sea, the Arabian Sea, or a place like El Paso that’s never seen the sea.
Because, as Carrie sings, “Miracles are everywhere. Love is love; it’s here and there. Everything is everywhere.” (from “Everything Is Everywhere”)
It’s a message we need to remember. No matter what season we’re in.
To listen to this beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer, find it at
Ground Zero. “The front lines.” The “beachhead.”
This is how U.S. Attorney General Sessions described El Paso on his recent visit. Apparently, I’m living in the middle of a war zone.
“This is where we are making our stand,” Sessions added.
A stand in the battle to stop the drug cartels and gangs from coming into our country. Even though, in reality, El Paso is one of the safest cities in the U.S. If Sessions is looking for gangs, he might want to search a little deeper in his territory up in Washington.
He’s also taking a strong stand against those who are trying to enter the country illegally. Sessions’ message for migrants and refugees was, “…you should do what over 1 million other immigrants do each year, wait your turn and come lawfully.”
That statement said it all to me. Either he is vastly misinformed, or he just doesn’t care that what he is saying is not possible.
Wait your turn and come lawfully?
First, no one who is fleeing for their lives or those of their children can “wait their turn.” Secondly, most people needing to migrate are not able to obtain “legal” entry, no matter how much paperwork they complete, how many hoops they jump through, and how long they are willing to wait.
Translated, I take his message to mean nobody’s going to be allowed in, we’re at war with immigrants, and El Paso is the beach of Normandy.
God help us.
Will all this hardline rhetoric and militaristic nationalism coming out of Washington protect us? Not likely.
But what it will do – and already has done – is put people at further risk. Further jeopardize people whose lives are in danger. Put us at war with other countries, whether figuratively or literally. And put us at war with each other. The latter is already happening on Twitter and other forms of social media, on college campuses, and on the streets among protesters.
Frankly, I’m tired of all the negative rhetoric. The divisive words. The messages of hate and separation. Especially when they’re applied to the border, to Mexicans, and to immigrants.
So, I’m turning the rhetoric around and recognizing El Paso for what it is.
Ground Zero for compassion. For hope.
Because the people of El Paso are some of the kindest, most generous, most compassionate, faith-filled people I know. Whether they are here “with papers” or not.
Imagine that. Compassion and hope.
Right here at the beachhead.
At Ground Zero I’ve learned a lot about what it means to serve others. To live my faith and follow the corporal works of mercy. If you’re not familiar with them, in Catholic teaching the corporal works of mercy are seven ways we can extend God’s compassion and mercy on earth – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, visit the sick, and bury the dead.
The volunteers I work with in El Paso do this in innumerable ways.
Every day. Right here. From Ground Zero.
“Each time someone stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others…he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” Robert Kennedy
I want to send forth this ripple. Live as a light of compassion. Rather than a voice of animosity and fear.
Imagine what that would be like. Imagine the possibilities.
“Hope looks at all things the way a mother looks at her child, with a passion for the possible.” Br. David Steindl-Rast
This YouTube video of Pentatonix is a good place to start. You might call it ground zero.
We’re expecting some pretty important visitors to our little border community tomorrow. Not just one big wig from the administration in Washington, D.C., but two – U.S. Attorney General Sessions and Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Kelly.
Apparently, they’re making the rounds, having visited Nogales, Arizona, just the other day.
But I don’t think any of us is exactly sure why they’re coming. I doubt they’re coming to breathe our arid air and tour the 15-18 ft. high border fence we already have erected along our border.
My hope is that they actually want to learn something about the communities impacted by their immigration and border defense decisions. That they want to ask us questions and gather information about what life is really like for people living so close to Mexico before they go any farther with their costly deportation and border wall plans.
One can hope, can’t she?
But, if they’re simply coming with their own agenda, to put in place whatever they already have in mind, then God help us.
History has shown us what happens when those who govern make detrimental decisions for those from whom they are far removed, both physically and emotionally. Remember your American history and the cry “taxation without representation”? Remember what happened when the British tried to rule people in a faraway land without understanding their concerns or being willing to treat them fairly?
Now, I’m not threatening a revolution or anything. I’m just saying…
Pay attention to history!
El Pasoans don’t seem to be too happy about this visit. Although we are trying to hope for the best.
In today’s El Paso Times – our daily newspaper – the editor had this to say about Sessions and Kelly’s visit:
“While they are here, they will see a border region that bears little resemblance to the rhetoric that comes from the administration they serve….
“…not the out-of-control border portrayed in certain political and media circles.
“Sessions and Kelly will see a community doing robust trade with Mexico. More than $21 billion in exports flowed from El Paso to Mexico in 2015, making us the largest exporter to Mexico among U.S. metropolitan areas. That export flow creates jobs not just in El Paso, but across the nation… (from http://www.elpasotimes.com/story/opinion/editorials/2017/04/19/el-paso-much-show-sessions-kelly-editorial/100668718/)
As for our representatives, both Democrats and Republicans are hopeful too.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, said he wants Kelly and Sessions “to understand that the safety of our community has been undermined with…calls for ‘military style’ immigration roundups and with the atmosphere of intimidation and fear promoted by this administration.”
Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who represents the eastern portion of El Paso County, is, “hopeful that they will listen to the law enforcement agents on the ground and realize that a wall from sea to shining sea will be the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border….you can’t have a one size fits all solution to the border.
“We can secure the border and continue to facilitate the movement of goods and services at the same time. These are not two cities separated by an international boundary. It’s one community separated by a border.”
Some locals are taking a little more aggressive stance.
Like the recently-formed Borderland Immigration Council and Border Network for Human Rights, a long-standing human rights group. They’ll be holding a picket line and press conference tomorrow to protest “the continued rhetoric demonizing border communities and Trump administration actions to criminalize migrants and militarize the border.”
They’ll present actual cases of people who have legally sought asylum protections here and have been incarcerated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), even though they pose no danger to our community.
I’ll join them at the Federal Courthouse.
And I may not be throwing any tea overboard (a little hard to do in the desert 😊). But I will find a way – like many other like-minded Americans – to use my freedoms and my voice.
Where’s Paul Revere when you need him?
Davis’s hair is thinning.
We were sitting across from each other in a restaurant in Nome when I first noticed it. The hair draping his forehead wasn’t really covering his forehead.
“Are you losing your hair?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” he said disgustedly. “And I’m only 23, Mom!”
But Davis knew, just as I did, the sad reality. He’s inherited his dad’s hair genes.
When I met David, he was 28 and already balding. It made him appear way too serious for me. Only 21, just out of college, I wasn’t ready for someone who looked like he could have three kids, a dog, and a minivan! And it didn’t help that he smoked cigars and liked expensive wine.
But luckily, we stayed connected. It took me a while, but I finally realized what a treasure David was.
Fortunately, bad hair genes isn’t the only thing Davis has inherited from his dad. He’s also got David’s level of maturity and generosity of spirit. His compassion. His ability to thoughtfully weigh a situation before he speaks.
And, observing him in Nome, I noticed something else.
Faced with an unusual and challenging environment, Davis adapted. Very well.
Better than I would have to such a harsh, frigid climate in an isolated place that gets down to as little as 3 ½ hours of daylight in December.
I certainly admired him for that. I probably would have hibernated in my room and slunk into a depression.
But not Davis. He immersed himself in the culture and the community. Joined their indoor sports teams. Helped out at community functions. Accepted invitations for traditional outdoor activities.
And he got to know the people. To pay attention to their customs and their culture. To their traditions. Their way of living.
While interviewing me for his audio blog, he shared that what had most impacted him about Alaska wasn’t the difficulty of living in the darkness. Or living without his active social life and cable TV.
It was the people. The folks in the communities and villages he’s visited.
Many live with very limited income. In the outlying villages, many are poor. They live without even basic infrastructure. Some have difficulty finding potable water. Yet they share with him whatever they have.
He says that, going forward, it’s the generosity of the people and their simple way of living that have inspired him to do something meaningful with his life. To live more simply and appreciate the little things. To recognize that consumption at the expense of others is not the answer.
Of course, Davis is my son, too. And a lot of what he described sounded like words that came out of my mouth not that long ago in describing the poor I’d met at the U.S-Mexico border.
The generosity and simplicity of people who have so little. Their faith and joy of living.
Oftentimes they are people living in the shadows. The poor. The undocumented. Those living on the margins of society. Or in tiny villages in western Alaska.
Already, Davis knows that life isn’t just about him and his needs or wants. He has an ability to see “the other” and be open to those who are different from himself. To open his mind and heart to understand their lives. And to want to use his gifts and talents to make a positive contribution.
What more could a mother ask for her child?
So, yes, Davis did get his dad’s genes. He’ll have to deal with the premature hair loss. But he’s gotten so much more out of the deal. I believe he’s gotten the best of both of us.
NOTE: You can catch Davis’s interview of me on his audio blog at: http://www.knom.org/wp/blog/2017/03/03/impressions-of-nome-from-a-visitor-a-majestic-place-pauline-hovey-says/
Leaving Nome is hard. Literally.
A fog rolled in during the wee morning hours on the day I was supposed to leave and it never lifted, cancelling my flight out that evening.
Finding another flight that would get me all the way from Nome to El Paso? Well, let’s just say, it ain’t easy.
The end result? Another full 24 hours in Nome.
Not that this was a hardship by any means.
I spent the morning as I had every day since arriving – walking on the frozen Bering Sea as the sun rose, turning the snow and ice various shades of blue and violet while golden light danced across the landscape.
Western Alaska is a special place.
Honestly, it was not on my list of vacation spots, so I’m thankful to Davis for being there to give me an opportunity to visit. Even in the coldest season.
But, truthfully, I didn’t mind the cold. Dressed in layers every time I ventured out, I barely noticed it. That is, until Davis took me out on a snow mobile.
I asked him to take me, so I have nobody to blame but myself. It’s just that I hadn’t taken into account that zipping across the frozen Bering Sea at nearly 40 miles per hour – I asked him to take it easy on me – was going to make the air just a little bit colder.
Somehow, frigid air managed to make its way up the cuffs of my coat, chilling my wrists and arms, while the wind whipped against my legs as I sat on the back of that machine, holding onto Davis as tight as I could. Wearing my thick, insulated gloves, it was hard to even feel his waist. Whenever we’d hit a bump of ice, I’d pop off that seat and pray that I’d land safely back on. By the time I told him I needed to stop, my knees and quads felt like blocks of ice.
It felt exhilarating and a bit frightening at the same time.
Not only was this my first time on a snow mobile, but I’d never raced across a frozen body of water while my breath fogged up my sunglasses and ice crystals formed in my hair.
Here are some other first-time experiences I had in Nome:
Cross-country skiing on the Bering Sea. This was a rather awkward and slow event since I’ve not been on skis since I was 22.
Snow shoeing up Anvil Mountain – although I didn’t make it all the way up. I had to yell to Davis, who was far ahead of me – no need to wait for mom, after all – to stop and wait up.
I tried to explain that trudging up a snow-covered mountain in heavy snowshoes, in sub-freezing temperatures, while bogged down with extra layers of clothes, is not the same as climbing the dry, dusty Franklin Mountains in El Paso in 70-degree weather. Nor like hiking in Shenandoah National Park. Nor like anyplace I’ve ever hiked, for that matter. I suggested we stop and take in the view.
Paying double and triple the usual amount for an onion, bananas, tomatoes, and spinach at the market. Produce gets shipped in from the lower 48, and it’s costly.
Eating freshly caught Alaskan King crab. The plentiful amount of fresh crab, salmon, and halibut more than make up for the above inconvenience.
Hearing a language I couldn’t recognize. Inupiaq – the native language of the region’s Eskimo people – is spoken on the radio and even sung in church.
Constantly seeing heavily-bundled Eskimo children playing outdoors, whether climbing mounds of snow, throwing Frisbee with their dogs (no kidding), or ice skating down the middle of the street. You can do this when the streets are covered in slick coats of ice and the main mode of winter transportation is snow machines.
But my undebatable favorite was capturing sight of Aurora Borealis – the northern lights. Two nights in a row I was lucky enough to venture out after midnight and see this majestic, mystical, surreal event. It looks and feels like a spiritual presence hovering above the dark images of the mountains as the light eerily changes shapes and glides in and out of view.
Yes, life is challenging in Nome, but the generosity of the people and the freedom of the open landscape, the closeness to Nature, and their simple, sustainable way of life, offer something unique. Something precious. Something that despite the challenges, not only makes the natives want to stay, but brings visitors back to settle.
The day I finally flew out of Nome, I spotted a young man in the airport wearing a hooded sweatshirt depicting an outline of the state of Alaska. The words “Life Below Zero” were plastered in the center.
Whereas before coming to western Alaska, I would have seen those words and thought they represented something harsh, unappealing, a sort of penance. But not now. Now, I knew. I’d discovered yet another secret about what makes life worth living.
I’m about to find out the answer to that question.
It’s Day 1 in Nome, Alaska, and so far I can tell you with absolute certainty that there’s no place as cold as Nome. At least not that I’ve been to.
So, why would I leave sunny, 70+ degrees in El Paso for Nome with its double digits below 0 temps?
Because that’s where Davis is.
Someone I met recently asked me why I was visiting my son now, at the coldest time of the year. Why not wait till May or June, when the weather’s warmer, he asked incredulously.
Because I’m a mom. And that’s what moms do — show up when they’re needed most. Like when your son has been dealing with the deepest, darkest, coldest winter he’s ever experienced, with no visitors from home. Besides, it’s his birthday on Saturday and I want to be here to celebrate it.
When I ventured out for a walk this morning, the temperature was -20 degrees. I thought I was prepared.
Dressed in layers, thermal gloves, fur-lined boots, hat and scarf, I headed out the door for Front St”, one of three roads that lead out of Nome. Within minutes, my nose went into shock.
“Really! You expect me to breathe in this frigid air?”
I could hear it rebelling as the cold froze my nose hairs. I tried opening my mouth. Big mistake. I pulled my scarf up over my nose and kept going.
Soon my forehead started stinging. Like when you’re about to get a headache. Only this pain came from the outside of my head. Then my cheeks joined in. But I kept going.
The quiet majesty that surrounded me was worth the discomfort.
The frozen Bering Sea stretched before me and alongside me as I walked down the road, my boots crunching against the padded-down snow underfoot. The sea’s hardened surface glistened in the early morning light as pink and orange hues spread across the horizon. What looked like waves that had frozen as they crested above the water protruded across the snow-covered landscape. Everything frozen in a timeless beauty.
Still and silent, I stopped to watch a glowing globe emerge above the bluish-white icy landscape. Faced with Nature’s power and beauty, I was reminded of how small I am. How inconsequential my day to day concerns. How powerless I am in the face of such power.
And how sometimes, no matter how well-prepared I think I am, I cannot anticipate the outcome. Yet I can trust.
And I do.
As I made my way back to the house, I felt happy to be here. Sub-freezing temperatures and all. Because I’ve learned life and love are about much more than wanting to feel comfortable.
Give me a few more days here. I’m sure I’ll have more insights into why there’s no place like Nome.
“Five members of my family were killed.”
He tells me this several times during our conversation. He even holds one hand in the air, spreading his fingers apart. “Five,” he says, to be sure I understand.
“They shot my brother in the face,” he adds.
But I can’t fully understand what Hector has told me.
How could I? I’ve never even witnessed this kind of violence, let alone have it happen to five members of my family.
I met Hector recently at the Loretto-Nazareth migrant hospitality center when my shift coordinator asked me to help him. “He’s very anxious,” she told me. “Could you make him a cup of tea?”
Besides losing five family members to violence, Hector has risked traveling more than 2,000 miles with his 13-year-old daughter to escape the violence in Guatemala, left his wife and two other children behind without knowing their fate, and endured several days in a holding cell after presenting himself to Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico bridge to seek asylum. Soon, he and his daughter will get on a bus to travel to his sister living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t know what he will encounter along the way or whether he will be deported once he arrives.
No wonder he’s anxious.
Stories of extortion, death threats, disappearances, and worse are common among our refugees, who mostly originate from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere.
I do more than make Hector a cup of tea. I teach him some deep breathing and emotional energy release exercises. As I watch this man, eyes closed, his body relaxing with each breath, what strikes me is the gentleness of his face. Traces of a lost innocence.
As Hector shares more of his story, I realize that he is only one of millions who have lost that innocence. Millions whose fate is now being determined at the political level. With no thought to the human lives involved. Or the loss.
According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, measured against the world’s population of 7.4 billion people, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee – putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent. Many of them are children.
This troubling fact has been cast aside so easily.
Under the illusion of fear.
“Not my problem.” “We can’t open the doors to everyone.” Typical arguments I’ve heard that justify not getting involved. Remaining silent.
Meanwhile, the innocent are dying.
Maybe it’s this loss of innocence and senseless death that brought to mind the novel-turned-movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it’s the integrity and sense of morality and justice that Atticus Finch portrays. His willingness to “walk around in another man’s shoes.”
Qualities we so badly need right now.
I find myself wondering, have we lost our integrity? Our willingness to allow a stranger into our hearts? To recognize that what we do, or don’t do, to help these refugees does matter?
“The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said recently.
After visiting the ruins of Aleppo earlier this month, Grandi, shocked by the devastation, said, “These ruins speak for themselves. When you see children’s clothes hanging out of windows, kitchens cut in half by shells and rockets, the real lives of people interrupted by war as it was happening, I think this will weigh very heavily on the conscience of the world for generations.”
I think it will. Because when we allow innocents to suffer and die, we pay the price.
We lose the music of our soul.
I’ve been feeling it again lately.
On December 2nd, David’s birthday, I found myself crying. That’s unusual. Several birthdays have passed since his death and they haven’t caused such a reaction in me.
But that day I missed him.
I was feeling particularly tender and vulnerable. Continuing to live in this uncertain, “in-between” place was affecting me.
And there was something more.
A little over three months ago, in the predawn hours, I awoke to a message on my phone from a good friend from the past. Lisa had reached out to me because her husband had just died. Shocked out of my groggy half-awake state, I texted back that I was here if she wanted to talk.
Lisa and her husband Kevin had been good friends of ours in the early years of our marriages when we lived in Connecticut. We’d stayed in touch after moving away and even wound up living in the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina. Occasionally we’d meet halfway for family camping trips.
We had this history together. We’d begun our marriages around the same time. Had both experienced the years of longing for a child and waiting and hoping and waiting some more. Finally rejoicing in each other’s gift — a son for me, a daughter for Lisa. Our friendship was comfortable and comforting.
Listening to Lisa that morning, my own grief came back to me just as clearly as if I were reliving it with her. I remembered how I’d felt as if a hole had been ripped through my heart. How else can you describe losing your best friend and most intimate partner? The person you tell everything to, share everything with. The one who knows you better than anyone. The love of your life.
Yes, I understood that pain. I could empathize. But what surprised me is how easily I felt this grief again. I remembered how bottomless and debilitating it had felt. How at times I’d thought I couldn’t possibly heal.
More than anything in that moment, I wanted to take that pain from my friend. Even if it meant I had to relive it for her.
Because I have crossed over this threshold, I know I can survive it. And much more than that — I know that joy and love and fullness of life exist even in the midst of such pain. I already know this.
But Lisa doesn’t. At least not yet.
I got off the phone that morning asking, why so much pain? Why must we experience so much pain?
I don’t really know the answer to that question.
But I do know that if I close my heart off to feeling as a result of my deep loss, I will close myself off from the greatest adventure and fulfillment of my life.
Here’s what is clear to me:
That grief and the healing power of transformation are connected.
That compassion has grown in me because of my own grief.
That grieving is not a singular event . The door to my heart has been broken open; I can’t go back to allowing myself not to feel.
That all of it is sacred and trustworthy. Even the painful stuff.
And I can trust the One who remained with me through the deepest darkness of my grief.
Many of us are grieving at this time of year. Some of it is due to the upcoming Christmas holiday, which can magnify our loneliness and pain, especially when we’ve lost loved ones.
Some of the grief, I believe, is due to this recent presidential election. I know I have felt anxiety and a real sadness for those who are vulnerable, including Mother Earth. There’s a collective grieving happening. I’ve heard this from others as well.
For me, the call is to live with greater compassion. Even, and especially, if it means feeling the pain of the other.
As insight meditation teacher Tara Brach explained in a recent talk on Bodhisattva for Our Times, going through your personal grief brings you to the universal.
She says, “Let grief transform you. Then make a conscious choice to be a light.”
That in itself is reason enough for me to allow myself to feel the pain of grieving. I want, and I choose, to be a light in the darkness.
“We’re all in it together and we can trust that even in the long, dark nights of winter our hearts are turning toward the light.” (Tara Brach)
I have never felt so close to the truth of these words.
They have never been as powerful for me as they are now.
Sure, I’ve volunteered before. Served dinner to homeless men. Worked in an after-school program with juveniles in a housing project. Visited strangers in nursing homes. Manned a phone at a survival crisis hotline. Mentored single moms and their kids. Even volunteered at an orphanage in Bolivia.
Each of these have been rewarding in themselves.
But nothing like what I experienced on Thursday.
I’ll try to explain.
The morning started out busier than usual.
The moment I walk through the door at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center, I’m bombarded with requests. A couple of moms stand at the doorway of the hygiene room waiting for Pampers. Someone needs Tylenol. Someone else wants cough medicine for her child. Families are lined up ready to head out and pile into a van waiting to take them to the airport. One mom hugs her bare arms, looking cold in a pink tee shirt. Some of the children don’t have coats.
“Where are you going? What state?” I ask Nanci, the mom of one of the coatless children.
“Maryland,” she tells me.
“Oh, necesita un abrigo,” I say and run off to the clothing closet to retrieve whatever coats I can find before they’re herded out the door.
With only a few volunteers working in the office, it can feel impossible to try to handle the needs of 100-150 people. Because that’s what we’ve been seeing the past several weeks as the number of migrants and refugees arriving daily has been doubling and tripling.
We do the best we can. Sometimes we make decisions by the seat or our pants.
My first priority is to get these travelers coats for their journey. Then I dole out the appropriate-sized Pampers and am about to head to the medicine room when Adolfo, our center coordinator, asks me to accompany the van driver to the airport. It’s his first time driving solo and he doesn’t know what to do.
So off I go. Me. The driver. Four moms. And eight kids.
Although we’re not required to accompany them all the way to their gates, it’s something I like to do. After all, none of these women have ever flown before. They don’t know the language. They don’t know what they’re doing. Their fear and anxiety are palpable.
So, I ask the airline agent for a special pass to accompany the moms and their children through security and to their gates. And I ask her to please have someone help the women who will be making connections in overwhelming Dallas. I’ll walk each of them to their gates, show them the letter and number matching the one on their ticket. Review several times the flight number, the boarding time, the time the plane actually leaves, the difference between their two boarding passes if they have a connecting flight.
At security, I wait while each of the adults are patted down thoroughly, their belongings picked through, their papers scrutinized. It takes a while.
Passersby look at us. We must be a sight. The women in their ankle monitors like criminals wear. The white trash bags we’ve given them to store their few articles of clothing. They stand out like refugees, but I know they’ve already been through much worse.
The last mom is nearly finished when Nanci comes over, looks right at me, and begins showering blessings over me. Blessings for my health, for my life, and I don’t know what all else, but she goes on and on. I’m not getting everything she’s saying and I tell her I don’t understand.
“You’re an angel from God,” she repeats slowly.
“Yes, you’re an angel from God,” Estrella, another mom, pipes in.
I feel my eyes moisten.
This is not just a clichéd expression. These women sincerely appreciate my kindness. A kindness that probably no one has ever shown them before.
I want to protest that “I’m no angel.”
But I simply say, “It is my pleasure.”
Because it is.
And in this moment, I recognize something. It’s there in Nanci’s eyes.
Christ is right here in front of me.
Reflected in this woman. A woman who had been a stranger. And who now is a reflection of the heart of Christ.
In this moment, I understand, more fully than I have before. How these people who live on the margins are close to Christ.
“What you do to me.”
And I know exactly why I am doing this.
Even more clearly than when I made the initial decision to come to El Paso.
And I know why I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.