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.
No, I’ve not disappeared. I have a good reason for taking a month off from my blog — the sale and closing on my beautiful log cabin in Greene County, Virginia.
With all the details to handle for this long-distance move, my 12 days of Christmas went something like this:
12 hours on the phone working out the details of this major move (most of them spent on hold with Direct TV). Eight friends helping me pack, bringing me food, transporting stuff to storage and Goodwill. Six days driving 9+ hours a day (from El Paso to Virginia and back again). Four trips to a storage unit with some items Davis will surely not know what the heck to do with. Two weeks packing, sorting, and discarding. One light snowfall blanketing the woods and mountains. And a cardinal in an oak tree.
It’s been bittersweet, to be sure.
Finding myself back in that special place brought up a lot of memories. It gave me a new appreciation of my friends, of my Greene County community, of the privilege of living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and, most especially, of the spiritual significance of living in the silence and solitude of this log home that I envisioned and manifested.
Although two weeks was barely enough time to get everything done and moved out, I managed to pause each day. Take time for contemplative silence. Note the blessings. And be grateful.
That practice helped me remain focused. It calmed me, gave me clarity, and assisted me in letting go of my last tether to Virginia. Not an easy thing to do. Because I love that home. I love my friends. I love Greene County.
Still, I knew it was the right decision.
And I experienced, much more clearly than I had before, just how much Spirit had upheld me, kept me safe, supported and loved me in this space. Through the questions and doubts, the loneliness, the seeking, as I attempted to listen more and more deeply to where my heart was calling me.
I felt such profound gratitude.
Gratitude for the graces of both the peaceful and tumultuous emotions that surfaced here. For the healing that took place as well. For the Love that never left me.
Gratitude for the community of friends who have showed up whenever I needed them. For those of you who are reading this, I can’t even find sufficient words to thank you.
Greene County is an amazing place. I think of the friends who appeared at my door within minutes after David died. Your countless meals, offers of physical and emotional support, and prayers carried me through that stage and beyond.
Three years later friends again appeared to help me move from our family home to this dream home in the woods. And now, again, you have come to support me.
I know I could not have made this transformational move without you.
Now I’m back in El Paso, settling into an apartment. I haven’t lived in apartment since before I got married at 24 — a very long time ago!
Yes, it’s an adjustment. Another practice in letting go. Daily I am learning to say “yes” to life as it shows up. To accept a life that’s rarely on my terms. And, I hope, paying attention to the graces.
When I’m in the flow of life, I recognize them. Just as I did these past two weeks in Virginia. They show up in various forms, in unexpected places. They come in different shapes and even in colors. My favorite happens to be Greene.
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.
Hope. Love. Commitment.
I’ve settled on these three qualities. They’re what I will be carrying with me as we go forward into the next four years. Along with a promise, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Throughout the day following the election, I felt unable to completely focus. My heart laden, my mind racing with legitimate concerns.
For the vulnerable, for the marginalized. For the migrants and refugees whom I serve and for those who will be denied a much-needed haven here. For Muslims, especially Muslim Americans. For African-Americans. For the LGBT community. For women. For Mother Earth. For those who already face lives more difficult and painful than most of us will ever experience – in this country and far beyond.
Did I leave anyone out?
I prayed to be able to say yes. To all that I was feeling. To all that I was fearing.
The only prayers I could get out were, “Help.” And “Not my will but thine be done.”
Then I found myself remembering someone else who’d surrendered with those words.
I imagined the fear and helplessness Jesus must have felt.
And I realized I was looking at this from a smaller lens. Like a child fearing the next wave while missing the grandeur and beauty of an entire ocean that could lift her up.
And I began to hope.
Not the kind of hope that wants to believe everything will turn out the way I think it should.
The kind of hope I remembered insight meditation teacher Tara Brach describing in one of her wonderful talks. The kind revealed to 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich who asked for an understanding of the suffering in this world.
There’s no mistaking. Donald Trump has brought to light the dark shadow of this country. A shadow that has been lurking under the surface all along. He did not cause it. He certainly triggered it and capitalized on it. And he seems to live unaware of its existence within himself.
But unless we bring what is hidden in darkness into the light, it cannot be healed and transformed.
I find hope in that possibility.
I also pray for its realization.
Last night I gathered with my newfound Mexican indigenous “sisters” for a “supermoon” full moon prayer ritual. We came together with a prayer intention of sending love and light to our president-elect Donald Trump, to his team, for our country, and our world. It truly was a light-filled ceremony of releasing and surrendering. Of opening to Spirit’s power and love.
That’s something we can all do going forward.
And I feel I must do more. Given the dangerous, divisive attitudes in our country and the groundswell of hate that has erupted.
So, I have made a post-election promise:
I will keep my heart and mind open.
I will be devoted and committed to self-introspection, to paying attention to my own shadow.
I will listen to those with different views and engage in nonviolent dialogue and behavior.
Yet, I will not stand idly by while someone of a different race, sexual orientation, or religion is insulted or threatened.
I will not be indifferent.
I will not be silent in the face of injustice, bigotry, or worse.
I will continue to serve those in need, to do the work I do for migrants and refugees, no matter the consequences.
I will be quiet enough to listen to God within me, and act from that wiser, contemplative place.
Most importantly, I will live by the law of love. The spiritual law of brotherhood.
Love God. Love neighbor. That will always come first. Before any law of the land.
As Richard Rohr said in his post-election message: “We who know about universal belonging and identity in God have a different form of power: Love (even of enemies) is our habitat, not the kingdoms of this world.
“Only a contemplative mind can hold our fear, confusion, vulnerability, and anger and guide us toward love. Let’s use this milestone moment to begin again with confidence and true inner freedom and to move out into the world with compassion.” (Rohr’s full article is available on the Center for Action and Contemplation website at cac.org)
I go forward with compassion, empowered in my true identity.
With hope in the One who loves us beyond our current understanding.
Committed to speak out and to stand by all my brothers and sisters.
Because we are One. And all lives matter.