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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.

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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.

 

 

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La Música de la Vida

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Blind musicians outside cathedral in main plaza

Another full day on the streets of Cochabamba where women openly bare their breasts for their hungry children. They breastfeed while walking, talking, carrying groceries, crossing the traffic-filled avenue, sitting on their mats selling their wares — whatever is needed while they tend to the most natural every-day activity of nursing their little ones.

Most people don’t even notice.  I do.

But that’s because I seem to notice everything here. It’s as if I have recently regained my sight. And all my senses for that matter.

I’ll be walking along and all of a sudden some unusual scent fills my nostrils. Maybe it’s the sweet smell of unidentifiable flowers. Or the overpowering odor of raw sewage that affronted me one afternoon. Worse than anything I’ve ever encountered. I literally couldn’t take a breath until our vehicle was a few blocks away. And the sewage was located right up the street from an elementary school!

Then there are the colors that pop into view at every turn.  Quechua women wearing bright pink shawls with multi-colored stripes that bulge with the weight of their cargo– usually a baby. The school girls in their sparkling white uniforms that look like doctors’ coats. Yellow, pink, and red hibiscus plants that line neighborhood streets. Grand green weeping willows that hang so low their delicate branches brush my forehead as I pass.

Green. It’s definitely the predominant color in this city. Islands of trees and green grass flow through the middle of main avenues. Parks filled with topiaries and vibrant plants appear everywhere I venture. Palm trees tower above the street life.

And what life there is in Bolivia!

It came to me one day while I was sitting in the garden at the Maryknoll language school. What the richness of life here is like for me.

It’s like a full symphony playing inside of me. Not just in my head. In my entire body. And it’s waking me up to the music of life. I pray my eyes remain open.

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Abundance of Contrasts

 

Houses across from my neighborhood park

Another beautiful day in Cochabamba.

Beginning my third week here, where the sun has shown every day, with brief showers passing through. The climate is ideal. Fruit is plentiful and sweet. Green mountains tower over rooftops in all directions. And I stumble across parks on my daily walks, no matter which direction, or how far, I go. An abundance of colors, odors, plants, and people confront me everywhere I turn. This city is fully alive with the richness of life — and all its contrasts. And I love it.

With so much to share and not much time to write — at least not in English — the best I can do for now is offer brief descriptions. Some of these really merit their own separate story, like my first experience using the public bathroom at La Concha — a huge, open-air market that stretches for miles and sells everything that you might want or need, from fresh produce to electronics. Let’s just say the public toilet there involves being very aware and open-minded.

Here’s a taste of my first two weeks:

The absolute beauty of the parks and the grounds of the Maryknoll language school. Both are your frequent hang outs. There’s something about being in the midst of such an abundance of flowers and trees.

Three things you can always find at those lovely parks: stray dogs, young lovers, and basura (trash).

The campesinos — poor indigenous who come from the countryside. Every day they’re out on the streets working, from morning until night, washing other people’s laundry and cars in the canal, selling their fruit or papas (potatoes) and carne (meat) from their stands, spreading their bright blankets on the sidewalk to display their wares, often with little children in tow.

Homeless dogs roaming the streets. One even walked up and down the aisles at church this morning. Guess he was hoping some good soul would have pity on him. I have no idea where these dogs find food and water.
Chicken at almost every meal — except breakfast. Meals usually consist of potatoes and rice, carne (meat), tomatoes and onions (which my host family considers to be vegetables). Whatever we don’t eat for almuerzo (the big meal at lunch time), is served again for la cena (dinner).

No salads. For health reasons, we’ve been told not to eat the lettuce here. For someone like me who’s accustomed to eating salads every day…let’s just say my body’s in rebellion mode right now.

Helado (homemade ice cream made from real fruit) sold throughout the city. It makes up for not being able to have salad. Sort of.

No hot water, except in the shower. But I am so grateful to have it there. If I can only have hot water in one place, that would be it.

Quechua women with black braids wearing white sombreros, their brightly striped shawls draped across their backs carrying babies hidden from view.

The Afro-Bolivian dancers we watched at a special celebration. I didn’t even know theses people existed.

Vendors driving slowly through the neighborhoods on Saturday mornings, calling out the fresh fruits they’re selling from the backs of their trucks: grapes, papayas, bananas, mangos. The mangos taste sweeter than any dessert.

More to come…if I can get the Internet connection to cooperate.

 

Quechua woman washing clothes at the canal under the bridge. The blue gate above is entrance to the language school.

A Room of One’s Own

what to remember upon waking

This is not my room in Cochabamba. But, it is basically all I have: a window with a desk lamp, a desk, and, of course, a bed. I wish I could say the view was this spectacular — and it certainly is from the street – but not from my bedroom. My room overlooks a walled-in area of housetops that allow me to spy down through curtainless windows into the imagined lives of my neighbors. If I step out onto the tiny balcony off my room, I can see the sky. But only if I look up.

Many times over these past two years all I’ve had to call my own is one room — that, and the familiar touchstones I’d brought along with me. You’d think it would get easier. But each time, I have to find my grounding, get centered in remembering who I am underneath any doubts, insecurities, or concerns that arise. And remember to trust what brought me here.

This time I’m adjusting not only to living in a stranger’s house, but to a different culture and country that speaks a language I know barely enough to get by. It feels huge.

And it also feels right.

The Bolivian culture is beautiful, alive, spiritual; the people warm and friendly. My host family lives in a middle-class neighborhood that boasts several parks with flowering plants, huge trees, and lush lawns. Yet I also witness much poverty around me as I walk to the Maryknoll language school every day.

All that I am witnessing reminds me that I have so much back home. Many more choices for a healthy diet. Much more space — and gorgeous space at that — to move around in than just one small and simple room. Yet each time I leave my home, I become more aware of how much I need to let go of that physical space in order to be free to fully live this calling on my heart.

Do I know what I’m doing? Not really. Or where I’m going? Heck no.

Do I trust what I’m doing, and where I’m going? Yes!

Let the adventure unfold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life as a House

My home

I watched Life as a House again recently. It’s both one of my favorite movies and a great metaphor for life. It reminds me of my own dream house — this log home in the woods. How it manifested through my imaginings. What happened in the building of it. And of my decision to now let it go.

In the movie, Kevin Kline plays George, a washed-up architect who gave up on his dreams years ago. He’s divorced from the woman he truly loved, has become alienated from his son, and when the movie begins, he is let go from the architectural firm he’s hated for some time. To top it off, shortly afterwards George discovers he’s dying.Life_As_A_House_movie_image

That’s when George actually begins to live. He finally decides to build the house of his dreams. A house he knows he will never live in. But a house that will bless all who have a part in it. The building of this house is about redemption. It’s about transformation. It’s about letting go of what you love. Even as you let yourself love more deeply. And that’s where true freedom comes.

I’ve been reflecting on this as I get ready to leave behind my own house.

Soon I’ll be headed back to Bolivia to immerse myself in Spanish language school and improve my options to find work back at the U.S.-Mexico border after I return. By summer, I expect I’ll be gone.

It’s hard to think of letting go of this house. Anyone who’s ever visited has remarked on how beautiful, peaceful, and special it is. That’s certainly true. But even more than that — this house has redeemed me. Through its absolute silence and solitude. Which has been both a gift and a curse. In this house, I’ve come to understand the term, “a deafening silence.” I’ve learned the real meaning of loneliness. I’ve also had wonderful conversations with the moon and spent nights praying under a star-filled sky. And I’ve sought and discovered, out of the solitude, a Love that sustained me even, and especially when, I didn’t think I could support myself.

Before this house was built, my friends gathered in a fire ceremony to bless the land and my future home and all who would come. Anyone who has passed through its doors has felt the energy of those blessings. I truly believe I’ve been spiritually protected here.

Something else that will be hard to let go of — the life I’ve known, the friends I’ve made over the years, my community.

Like George, I’m experiencing my own little death. My own bittersweet feelings as I gather with friends I love and inwardly whisper my goodbyes. My recognition that I am going from what is known and comfortable into the unknown.

And, like George, I am leaving behind a house that is part of me. A house that is filled with blessings and positive energy for those who will come after. A house that has its own life.

But my heart is calling me elsewhere. I choose to follow that call.

Sometimes you manifest your dream, only to have to let it go.

For reflection, I share this excerpt from David Whyte’s poem “House of Belonging”

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask 
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

A Poem for Sue

new-beginnings

This post is for my friend Sue, who finds herself on the threshold of a new beginning. Uncertain of what’s ahead. Yet daring to risk. And she’s a little scared.

Not unlike me. I too will be making a huge move in 2016 and I’m not sure where I’ll land.

So, maybe this post is for both of us. And for anyone who is beginning again.

You know who you are.

Like us, you’ve decided it’s time to leave behind the familiar and the comfortable. Maybe it’s a meaningless job you’ve had for too many years or a relationship or situation that has suffocated you, yet you’ve feared moving on. Maybe you can no longer deny what has been “quietly forming” deep within your soul. Kindling this growing awareness, you’ve decided to take the risk and step out into the unknown because the “sameness” of your life no longer serves you.

Recently my dear friend Rob sent me John O’Donohue’s poem,  “For a New Beginning.”

Rob knows how this poem speaks to my heart. And maybe he knows, too, that I need this reminder in the midst of dark winter days as I take the next small steps towards following my heart’s calling.

And, Sue, I think that you might need this reminder, too.

Because it’s not easy — beginning again. Leaving the security of what you’ve known for the risk of what is unknown.

But I can tell you from experience. Your soul knows the way. Trust that voice. Trust “the promise of this opening.” Soon you will know the grace that “is at one with your life’s desire.”

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

— John O’Donohue —

 

With Hearts Broken Open

BeautyInDarkness1

Davis arrived from France a little over a week ago. Looking more like a man than ever. If that’s possible.

On the long car ride home from Dulles Airport, he chatted away. About the friends he’d made. His love for the language. How he missed speaking French already. And the food. He went on and on about the food.

You’d think he’d be exhausted after traveling for two days. But he was on fire. I could hear the passion in his voice.  Already he talked about going back. About the offers of places to stay whenever he chose to return.

He reminded me of myself and what I’ve been feeling after returning from my recent adventures in Bolivia and at the border.  Like me he’s expanding his outlook on life. Opening his heart to more people. And making exciting choices that can be both painful and risky.

Recently a friend sent me a link to Parker Palmer’s May 2015 commencement address on the six pillars of the wholehearted life. So much of it resonated with me. But in these lines in particular, I recognized myself and Davis:

“The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I’m 76 years old, I now know many people who have suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that not in spite of their loss, but because of it, they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys. These are broken-hearted people, but their hearts have been broken open, rather than broken apart.”

Hearts broken open. That’s what Davis and I have. Hearts broken when we lost the best husband and father we could have had. But hearts that remain open. Because we’ve chosen to keep them open. To not close ourselves off to the pain. To let ourselves be vulnerable and loving to those we don’t yet know. And that has made all the difference.

And there’s something else that Palmer said about brokenness. About being willing to go down into the tough, painful dark shadows within ourselves.

“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow… But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life.

Davis is learning to embrace his brokenness. So am I.

Still.

And in doing so, I’ll be better able to be present to someone else facing her own darkness.

As  Joan Chittister explains:

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning. It’s then that our own taste of darkness qualifies us to be an illuminating part of the human expedition. Without that, we are only words, only false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

So, on this eve of the winter solstice when we will face the longest night of the year, I celebrate my choice to embrace the darkness. With a heart broken open.parker_palmer_on light and dark

Don’t Miss the Signposts

signs

I leave for Bolivia in the morning. And I’m excited! But not because I’m visiting a new country. Or having another adventure in the Andes. Although both of those are true.

It’s more about the anticipation of how this trip will speak to me.

We’re calling it a pilgrimage — seven other like-minded women and myself. We’re all from different backgrounds with different expectations. But each of us is going with the intention of listening more deeply to how the Spirit might be calling us as we visit a mission in an area of extreme poverty.

I plan to be awake, attentive, and as present as possible. I don’t want to miss anything.

I read recently that after Thomas Merton first visited Gethsemane Abbey, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Surprisingly, this place had affected him so deeply that he saw that as a “signpost”  — a signpost to which he should pay attention. He kept returning to what he called, “a persistent feeling and idea.”

Merton would eventually leave the secular world and return to Gethsemane to become a Trappist monk. Not exactly a mainstream decision. But he believed the signposts had revealed his calling.

Hmm. A “persistent feeling and idea.” That sounds a lot like what I’ve been experiencing. Ever since November 2012.

Already I’m noticing.

In November 2012 I was mysteriously drawn to an invitation to go on a border awareness trip to El Paso. That experience would change my life.

November 2013 I visited Peru. The earth-centered, rich spirituality of the people there opened me up to the desire of serving and following my heart. Two months later I would return to El Paso to volunteer at the border. With only the realization that I was following a “persistent feeling and idea” deep within that wouldn’t leave me alone. And then last November I received an affirmative response to my request to return to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now it’s November again. And I’m leaving for Bolivia. Simply because I was attracted to a place. To a people. To the children. The moment I checked out the Amistad Mission website, I felt an inner prompting. Go.

So I am going. And I’m going with an important question on my heart. How do I move forward from here? Because the passion to follow my calling persists. But I have yet to determine the where, the when, and the how.

I’m hoping to pay attention to the signposts that will show up in Bolivia. To listen to my inner guidance. The guidance that’s always trying to get through to me: “See what I’ve put in front of you? Pay attention. There’s a deeper meaning here.”

Small plant on pile of soil, part of it reflected

Small plant on pile of soil, part of it reflected

Like Merton, I want to ask regularly, “What of God is being revealed in this experience?”

Even though I honestly don’t know what I’ll find in Bolivia, I fully expect that the voice of my Higher Self will be eager to speak to me through the “signposts.” Just as it did in Peru, in El Paso, and in Mexico.

Just yesterday morning, after my meditation, I was writing in my journal, reflecting on what I could anticipate on this trip, when I heard its voice pipe up:

Come and see.”

Losing Control

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I’m preparing to give a mini retreat at my house on Saturday. It’s about discerning with your heart. And it’s got me going through my journals from this past year’s journey. A year of tremendous uncertainty. A year of learning to discern with, and trust, my own heart.

Reading some of the things I’ve written, I’m realizing just how much faith I had. And the risks I took. Not knowing how I’d support myself when I decided to leave San Antonio and venture off to El Paso. Not knowing what I’d meet along the way. Nor what I’d face once I got there.

Yet I was willing to go. Because that’s where my heart called me. So I chose to let go of being in control.

That’s no small thing. Especially for me.

While reading the journal entries I came across this poem I wrote that about sums up the whole year. Much of the time I really had no control over anything that was happening. Except how I chose to respond.

I chose to trust.

Trust God. Trust my guidance and inner wisdom. Trust the Love that had brought me on this adventure in the first place and had guided me all along the way. So, that night, I chose to surrender and give up control over the outcome. And I understood, even then, that this very loss of control was leading me to freedom.

But it felt like an emptiness. As I let go of my ego’s need to control and to know what was coming next, I came up against an emptiness. And trusting in that emptiness, in that loss of control, I found something much greater.

During the night, in a semi-conscious dream state, I became aware of a vivid image of a white ball of light connecting everything and everyone to itself as it moved across the scene in my dream. I and everyone around me was united into this bright globe of light and love. As I watched, I recognized the light that lives in all of us. And these familiar words floated in, “You are the light of the world.”

Now, tonight, I’m remembering that losing control isn’t so scary. And maybe I needed to be reminded, too. Reminded that it’s time to surrender. Again.

So, here’s the poem I wrote in my journal that night. Turns out it was dated one year ago today. Funny how that goes sometimes.

Emptiness

Leads to surrender

Loss of control

Leads to a choice

Choosing to fight

Against what is before me

Or choosing to surrender

To what I can’t yet name

Emptiness

Loss of control

Choosing the only choice

That makes sense to me now

To let myself fall

Hoping in the Promise

To catch and embrace me

In this void

On Leaving Home

leaving-home

Exactly one year ago today — July 18 — I left home. Got in my car and followed a longing to fulfill something deep within me. But I hadn’t realize just how scared I was until I locked and closed the door to my house, leaving everything behind — my son, my dog, all my possessions. I had no clue what I would find in Texas, how I would be cared for, how I would support myself financially, or what shape things would be in when I returned. It definitely felt like a major risk.

Yet I felt absolutely certain I had to risk it.

And I’m so glad I did.

Nothing was as I expected. So  many challenges. So many doubts and questions along the way.

And it was all good.

The journey taught me some things that, even though I thought I knew them, I didn’t really “know.” Not until I actually lived them.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • Trust your inner guidance.
  • You have a deeper wisdom and tremendous inner strength that kick in when you ask for help and trust enough to listen.
  • It’s safe to leap.
  • When you follow your heart, the Universe really does provide.
  • Even though you sometimes feel all alone, you never are.
  • Your true self will keep you company through any darkness.
  • Love connections can be made in an instant. Even when you don’t speak the language very well.
  • You don’t have to know where you’re going. You only have to “do the next right thing that’s in front of you.” (This one’s from Sr. Brigid Marie, my dear spiritual mentor who provided a light for my path during a dark time in San Antonio.)
  • Celebrate the unique way God is revealing Godself in the world through you. (Another gem from Sr. Brigid Marie.)
  • You can live in liminal space a lot longer than you think.
  • Love and grace are always available. You’re the only one that blocks them from getting through.

And the most important of all:

When I can still the voices long enough to be in the silence, I hear a gentle and quiet Spirit that whispers nothing but love in my ear and fills me with this one truth: I am loved beyond measure. In return, I am asked to love “the unseen” and the “not-yet.”

In those moments, this is what I do know: that everything — all things — live and move and have their being in God’s love.

Sometimes I have a hard time accepting and taking this in. I have to remind myself that I KNOW this.  I may not know where my next home will be or how I’ll live out the next step of this journey. But I do know when I truly listen and follow, Love gives me what I need.

Maybe I’ll remember this next time I close the door behind me.log-cabin-front-door