“There’s nothing I can do,” he tells me.
He’s told me this countless times before.
Always with the same calm, trusting composure. And I have come to accept the acceptance in his words, knowing that his deep faith guides him.
But tonight…tonight I feel the anger growing inside me.
Tonight I want to slam my fists on the table, pound the glass between us, yell at the guards or his deportation officer, or better yet, the anonymous person who wrote this dreadful form letter Mathias has just slipped under the thick glass that divides us.
The letter that states our government continues to work with his government to take him back, even though we both know that since he has no passport or other legal documents, it’s highly unlikely his country will ever accept him. They’ve already said they can’t take him.
The letter that states he must not interfere with the process (a statement that would be laughable if it weren’t so ridiculous).
And, finally, the worst part, the letter that states he must remain locked up until October. Three more months of not knowing. With no guarantee any decision will be made even after that time.
Mathias, the young man I visit in detention, lost his asylum case back in April. Not unusual in El Paso. Denial is happening at an even higher frequency here than elsewhere.
We know he is supposed to be deported. But he waits in this liminal space as the two countries go back and forth, indifferent to the life they are impacting.
Three more months in limbo. Or is it hell?
I know the food isn’t good. I know that whenever he is allowed outdoors – always accompanied by a guard – he must stay within the narrow areas outlined in white on the cement. He cannot venture outside these lines.
I know about the locked metal doors that seal behind you, the tall barbed-wire fences and the full barracks where the TV plays loudly throughout the day. The difficulty he has in trying to pray.
And yet, I tell him I wish I could trade places with him. Even as I say it, I know I am sincere.
He is already so thin, he cannot afford to lose any more weight. I would gladly lose it for him. I would take on the monotony of his structured day, assigned to wear a navy jump suit, allowing others to make decisions for me. In such a situation, so completely out of my control, I would be forced to turn to God while perched on this ledge in liminal space, feeling like a confined criminal when I am anything but.
This is Mathias’s situation. And he no more deserves it than I do.
This young man who followed the law, coming to a U.S. port of entry to present his case for asylum. As international law allows.
The thing is, I care about Mathias. I have come to know him as a man of integrity. I have watched him deal with the stress and uncertainty of his situation with courage and tremendous trust in God.
When he tells me, “There is nothing I can do,” I hear and see in his face his ability to accept “God’s will,” as he puts it. He trusts God to care for him.
Yet he tells me he longs for freedom. After all, he has been confined for more than a year already.
I think of this as I drive home and discover Interstate 10 is closed. Traffic crawls as it’s diverted off the highway. I feel so tired and frustrated, knowing this will double the time it normally takes to get back to Las Cruces. I swear aloud.
Then I think of Mathias. Locked in his barracks tonight. Sleeping soundly, ever since he has learned to accept his situation.
Stressed behind my steering wheel, cursing tonight’s road construction, I suddenly wonder, who is more free?
Sometimes I have trouble accepting life on life’s terms. Despite his age, Mathias is my teacher. He reminds me of the importance of returning to my Source. My true freedom. And did I mention he is Muslim?
“He [or she] who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others.” Thomas Merton
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.
Since today is my birthday I decided to write about something special to me. The voice that calls me beloved.
It’s what brought me here. It’s what sustains me.
And it’s what speaks to me from the depths of any confusion or concern, fear or uncertainty I may experience. Calling me to be still. And know my belovedness.
I experienced it again over the weekend when I came up against a tough, unavoidable situation, in which, for various reasons, I wound up being alone in the house to deal with a very miserable guest. As this woman began projecting her blame and misery onto me, I felt her negative energy threatening to zap my own. I struggled to stay grounded and centered in the midst of it. I envisioned a circle of light around me for protection. And I avoided her as much as possible. But it was tough.
On Sunday a reflection from Inward/Outward showed up in my email box. As I read Kayla McClurg’s words, I heard the voice of love calling me back to remembering who I am. Towards the end of her reflection, Kayla quotes Raymond Carver’s poem “Late Fragment” — a short poem he wrote on his hospital bed when he was dying.
By the time I got to the last line, I knew what I had lost sight of in the presence of the energy-zapping woman.
Kayla then asks: “Are we, too, learning to call ourselves beloved, to feel ourselves beloved on the earth? Are the fragments making us whole?”
In the midst of her questions, an inner voice asked, Do you know yourself as the beloved? Do you allow yourself to feel it, to take it in, and to live with the truth of this in your soul?
In all honesty I knew that, on most days, I did not. And I suspect that I’m not the only one who has difficulty with this.
But Spirit fully intended for me to get the message this time. Later that evening, when I picked up Henri Nouwen’s book Discernment, hoping to read a little before going to bed, these lines came up within the first paragraph:
“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us God’s beloved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”
The core truth.
The crux of our existence is that we are beloved.
The voice of Love tells us this. Again and again and again. Until at last we can accept it and fully take it in.
This being Holy Week in the Christian tradition, I was reminded how, at the end of his life, Jesus was certainly surrounded by negative energy. Daggers of hatred. Projections of fear and misery. Yet always he walked the earth grounded in the love of the One who sent him, able to hear the voice that called him the beloved. Despite what was going on around him.
So, in my meditation, I ask Jesus, “Did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?” Tears forming as I ask the question because I know the suffering and intense humiliation he endured. “I can’t imagine why you would have…”
And then the answer comes: “Yes, because I drew you to myself.”
A response so beautiful. So loving. So beyond what I can fully understand. Unless I know myself as the beloved.
Water filled my day. Not only because of the unusual rain we experienced. Unusual simply because it rained in El Paso. And people don’t know how to act or drive in such a phenomenon. Kind of like Virginians with snow.
But the image of water actually started before I woke up, when these words entered my half-asleep awareness:
“What does it mean to really trust God?”
I left El Paso last year with these exact words. They were on my lips and heart right about this time as I was preparing to return home to Virginia. I’d had some powerful experiences of Love upholding me through those uncertain months, and I’d come to see, and to trust, that I really do have everything I need. That a benign Universe does uphold us. I thought for sure I’d never not trust myself and God again.
But that’s not how my story goes.
So this morning when I awoke with these words on my heart again, I figured Spirit was trying to tell me something. I sat down with my journal in my lap, pen poised, and right off I started writing about myself as if I were a fish. Who knows where this all came from, but here’s what I wrote:
“I see how I go back and forth, floundering like a fish flapping in and out of the water, sometimes trusting completely and serenely in the ocean that holds me; other times gasping for air so frenetically, I wonder if the ocean ever existed.
“But it’s here. It’s always here. Sometimes its presence is so obvious and constant, I’ve missed it completely by the sheer ordinariness and simplicity of its existence. Probably my small, fearful self expects a grand Tsunami to show up and knock me over with its immense force. Now that would be unmistakable!
“Instead, the ocean is simply present. Quiet and still, nourishing and sustaining me without my knowing it. Can I recognize its presence and drink from the possibilities? Can I let go into its current and trust where it will take me? Or will I fall back to my old way of thinking and resort to struggling to stay above water?
“It’s funny to think about the ocean in the El Paso desert where it’s hard to find any body of water. Or any moisture at all. Why the ocean metaphor in a place that lacks water?”
I’m quiet for a while.
Patches of bright orange-yellow blooming across the desert sands. Nourished by water that seems nonexistent. But it’s there. You just have to go deep underground to find it.
Occasionally—like today—water appears on the surface. Unexpectedly falling from the sky in big, wet, unmistakable raindrops that grace my face, my arms, my spirit. Raindrops that can never be separated from the ocean.
And neither can I.
A house filled with women in their 70’s. That’s where I’m living now. No, it’s not a retirement village or an assisted-living community. Located on the outskirts of downtown El Paso, this boarding house belongs to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, who reopened it recently to welcome volunteers coming to the border to work with the influx of immigrants. It just so happens that all the current residents are in their 70’s. Except me, of course.
I’m also the sole lay person at the moment. And the only one who has ventured here on her own, listening to a call within to write about the issues related to immigration, along with the personal stories. Stories of those who’ve made it across the border and those who serve them. There’s a lot to tell.
Heartbreaking stories for sure. But heartwarming stories, too. Stories about the goodness of people. Something I witness every day in El Paso.
Like these retired Sisters who come from all over the country, leaving their communities, and the comfortable and familiar, to spend two weeks or more volunteering at Nazareth Hall, a welcoming center for the refugees and immigrants detained at the border.
The dedication at Nazareth Hall is amazing. The place is run entirely by volunteers. And has been since June when the Loretto Sisters opened it in response to the influx of women and children from Central America.
Once Immigration and Customs Enforcement releases the immigrants from detention, an agent brings them over to Nazareth Hall. Then volunteers help reunite them with their families as they await their court date. Some might have to stay the night; some maybe two nights or more until their relatives can secure their travel arrangements. As they wait, these immigrant families — mostly young mothers and children — are given meals, a shower, and clothing. And they are treated with kindness and compassion. Maybe for the first time on their journey.
Generous El Pasoans volunteer to make and deliver meals, take home bedding and towels to wash, donate clothing and hygiene necessities, cover a night shift, and provide rides every day to the bus station or airport. But they can’t do it all.
That’s why a call went out to women religious nationwide to join this effort.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., these Sisters — some of them well into their late 70’s — are on their feet, other than a short break for lunch. They clean bedrooms and bathrooms, serve meals and clean up, and accompany guests to the showers and to the clothing room where a mom chooses a coat or sweater or second set of clothes from neatly organized piles of donations sorted by size and gender. No one ever takes more than they need. And they are always grateful. For everything.
This week I started volunteering at Nazareth Hall. I want to be with the people. They’ll teach me what it really means to live with uncertainty. To do what needs to be done without complaining. And to trust in the generosity of strangers to show up. Maybe just when you need it most.
Days after I arrived in El Paso I found myself back in Mexico. A Sister friend invited me to come experience the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in her parish. A spur of the moment invitation. I gladly said yes.
I’ve known about the Latin American Catholics’ deep dedication to Our Lady of Guadalupe but I’d never participated in the feast day celebrations. Filled with lively music, colorful traditional clothing, singing, dancing. I wanted to experience it.
But Sr. Carol Jean’s parish was not in Mexico City, the place where Mary is said to have appeared to a poor, indigenous man named Juan Diego in 1531 and the place where I’d spent two weeks last July for orientation with Incarnate Word Missionaries. Back then I roamed a middle-class neighborhood bustling with restaurants, gas stations, supermercados, and shops peddling local pottery, art, chocolate, and helado. My trip across the border this time was quite different, as I ventured into one of the poorest sections of Juarez where my friend ministers.
Here there are no tree-filled parks. In fact, hardly any trees grow at all in the dry, dusty, gray surroundings. Crumbling structures, small stone adobes, and peddlers line the unpaved streets. A stark contrast. Not only to Mexico City, but to every other place I’ve visited.
Wanting to join in, I helped the neighborhood women decorate the beaten-up white pickup truck that would transport their teenaged Lady of Guadalupe and young Juan Diego — a small boy donning a poncho and straw hat. We covered three-tiered boxes with brown paper bags to simulate a mountain, taping colored paper flowers anywhere we could.
Once the matachines (dancers) arrived in their bright red and white native dress, our caravan rumbled off. The boys banged their drums, the dancers stomped up the dust, and the rest of us processed behind singing. Walking alongside the women, some pushing strollers, some carrying images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I chanted the lyrics to “La Guadalupana.” Over and over again.
For nearly two hours we strolled the streets of Juarez.
Down the rocky, littered roads and structures scrawled with graffiti, we sang. People ventured out to watch the growing procession. Men from their mechanics shop, grandmothers, mothers, and daughters from homes that seemed incapable of holding them all. One elderly woman stood in her doorway hugging a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, her smile revealing several missing teeth. Everywhere people stopped what they were doing to watch. Participate. Offer a prayer.
Somewhere during the procession I sensed something. Something about being among the people. I realized what it was. Happiness. I felt happy to be here.
But as I took in the richness of the festivities alongside the desperate poverty, I also felt compassion. And I uttered my own silent prayers. Prayers for hope. Most of these people, I knew, would never leave this life of poverty. How could they have hope? It seemed like the best thing to pray for.
Yet my voice seemed insignificant and small.
Days later I came across Richard Rohr’s meditation on a poem by 16th century mystic John of the Cross.
“If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the holy...”
Seeking shelter in your heart. Seeking your help in giving birth. She needs us because…
“each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.”
I see an image of the women walking down the streets of Juarez. I remember my prayer for hope.
And suddenly I see that hope is birthed through me. I am the midwife of God. What a gift I’ve been given! Yet most days I don’t feel up to it. I’m like a child, tentatively taking the gift offered, as if unbelieving that she can really have it.
Hope wants to be born. But it needs a recipient, a conduit, a midwife. God can only bring hope to the world through each of us.
I wonder, what if we all chose hope?
What if we all said yes to the birth of hope within us?
Again and again and again?
Might the streets of Juarez look a little different?
Hidden in plain sight.
Sometimes that’s life’s challenge. To recognize the beauty, the sacredness, the God that is right in front of me. Has always been there. In everything. Waiting for me to notice.
Not so easy to do when the rough road blurs my vision and makes me turn inward with questions that get me stuck in my mind. Getting lost in thought puts me in a trance that prevents me from being present. Present to what’s right in front of me.
That had been happening quite a bit as I faced some tough questions and hard situations in what feels like an in-between place to somewhere else.
But a wise Sister who has been accompanying me as my spiritual companion while I’m in San Antonio helped wake me up. She did it by asking an odd question.
“Why did Jesus wait 31 years before showing up on the scene to begin his ministry?,” Sr. Brigid asked me. “What was he doing all that time?”
I had to admit I didn’t know. Nothing in Scripture I’d read ever mentioned those years between the 12-year-old Jesus who worried the heck out of his parents by staying behind in the temple to chat it up with the elders and the 31-year-old who showed up on the banks of the Jordan asking his wild-eyed cousin John to baptize him.
Sister Brigid reminded me that Scripture simply says of that time, “he grew in wisdom, age, and grace.”
Quite ordinary. Or was it?
Then she shared that “ordinary time” is her favorite liturgical season in the Church year. And that she has found it can be quite extraordinary. She suggested that I, too, begin to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary of every day living. Which is what I have been doing as I hang out in liminal space.
I have no clue how much longer I will be here. But in the process I like to think that I’ve been growing in wisdom and grace. (The growing in age part goes without saying.) I’ve certainly learned even more about the word “surrender.”
There’s a kind of calmness that comes with surrendering. With nothing left to control, you simply let go in trust. You begin to pay attention more. And you notice the beauty, the sacredness, the God that is right here…in ordinary time.
These are some of the images I’ve captured since I’ve been paying attention.