That would be me.
For six weeks in Bolivia. I was a stranger at someone else’s table. Living with a family I didn’t know. In a country where I could barely speak the language. In the midst of a different culture. Where everything looked, smelled, and tasted different.
It didn’t take long to realize, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” Or Virginia.
Or anywhere that even resembled the home I knew. Everything felt different. And I felt so alone.
True, that was months ago. But the memory of those feelings has stayed with me.
I actually think the mother of the house where I was living in Bolivia had a preconceived image of me as an American. And maybe she had a little attitude too.
Now the tables are switched.
I’m the one with a little attitude toward foreigners.
You might find that surprising. After all, why would I travel so far from home to return to the U.S.-Mexico border to serve migrants and refugees if I had an attitude?
Truthfully, I’m happy to be back serving at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center. It feels right to be here.
I knew it the first day I walked through the door and was among “the people” again. I found myself smiling for no particular reason throughout the day.
Even though I never stopped moving from the moment I stepped inside the place. And was exhausted by the time I left.
The thing is, so many people are coming. More than I’d ever seen when I was serving here last year.
It’s not so easy to spot those in desperate need this time. It’s not black and white. If it ever was.
Immigration is such a complex issue.
What got me was I was noticing some conflicting feelings arising. A judging, critical side.
I mean I’m aware that I have this side of me, but I didn’t like the fact that it was coming up here, in relation to the migrants whom I’ve felt such compassion for. In a place where I’m serving alongside some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. The people of El Paso. People who still, after more than two years, continue to fully operate this center through their donations and volunteer hours.
So, the other night I went to bed with these questions on my heart.
“How do I keep my heart open and let go of trying to be judge and jury? How does love respond to this situation? What do you ask of me?”
On the verge of sleep, an image of Jesus in his passion came to me. The pain and suffering he endured. The terrible loneliness.
Then I “heard” his question: “Did I do this only for those who deserve it?”
Such a powerful and humbling response! The truth of it hit me hard.
Because I knew. I certainly don’t “deserve” this gift. In fact, I often take it for granted. And I doubt I fully appreciate it.
In that moment, I understood.
Love has nothing to do with fairness or with who deserves it.
Love invites everyone to the table. No one is excluded. And preconceived images are left at the door.
Granted, it’s challenging to love as Christ loved.
I don’t know if I can do it. But this is my practice.
This is why I am here.
It happened to me again. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
When the subject came up, I felt a familiar passion rising in me, seemingly out of nowhere.
And it wasn’t like I had instigated it.
The incident happened last weekend.
I was at a gathering of people from my church community when a woman I hadn’t seen in about two years came up to me. She wanted to know how my “mission” at the border had turned out.
Wow. The border. After just having spent several weeks in Bolivia and being back home in Virginia for a year, that experience seemed so far away. And yet it didn’t. Because as soon as I started to talk about the border, I was right there again.
I didn’t know where to begin. How to tell her everything I had witnessed. How to share the stories of the people. How to explain the misinformation and downright lies that have been spreading across this country about immigrants.
But her friend cut in. “I don’t have anything against immigrants, as long as they come here legally.”
And I could tell by looking at her face that this woman had no interest in what I had to say on the subject.
Our mutual friend — the woman who’d engaged me in this conversation — looked sympathetic. But then she admitted that she agreed with her friend.
I felt myself reacting to such a blanket statement that puts the problem in a neat little box. “If they want to come here, they should follow the rules.”
I started to argue that, yes, we need rules and regulations but do you know what it takes to get here legally? And how impossible it is for many people who are desperate? That what we really need is immigration reform to fix our broken system. But I’d lost her, too.
So, I stopped talking.
But inside, I felt the fire again. I experienced again the injustices of what’s happening.
And how ignorant we are of our role and responsibility.
And how American companies — privately-run detention facilities are just one example — benefit off the backs of immigrants.
And how the migrant poor, who have clearly suffered a lot, have more faith and generosity than I’ve ever had. I remembered their stories and their faces.
And I remembered again why I say that I can’t be at peace with a completely comfortable lifestyle anymore.
And why I can never not listen to my heart again. I’ve experienced too much to go back.
Recently, when I was on the plane heading from Bolivia to Miami, I discovered one of the Maryknoll priests I knew from Cochabamba was on the same flight. We chatted for a while about Bolivia, the people, the culture, the poverty.
“You will never be the same,” he said.
Little did he know. God had already awakened my heart. Three years ago. In the border town of El Paso.
I haven’t been the same since.
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.
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.”
May I let go and surrender. To the presence that has always been right in front of me.
A new baby arrived last week at the orphanage. When I got there on Wednesday, I found her sleeping in a crib — a tiny dark-haired bundle wrapped in a yellow blanket. She was less than one week old.
Her name was printed in black magic marker on the placard above her crib. The women who work at the Salomon Klein orphanage named her. Abandoned, she came with nothing. No first or last name. No birth date. They think she was born on Easter Sunday.
When I changed Adriana’s diaper, I noticed the brown remains of her umbilical cord. What a way for this precious new life to begin.
But the sad truth is, Adriana’s situation is not unusual. During the four weeks I volunteered, three new babies appeared. Either they’d been abandoned or removed from an unsafe home. Now their home is a room lined with cribs filled with babies and toddlers under 2. There aren’t enough arms to cradle these children. Not enough voices to coo their names and let them believe, even for a little while, that the world revolves around them.
That’s what I normally try to do. But, for whatever reason, this day was different.
I changed more diapers than usual. Rubbed ointment onto red, raw bottoms and wondered how many more little ones lay in their cribs or sat in the play yard with wet, coarse cloth wrapped around their behinds waiting for someone to discover their need. But I couldn’t keep up while tending to tears and keeping toddlers from crawling on top of each other.
The mood was anything but tranquilo.
Babies who normally lay quietly in their cribs cried uncontrollably. I picked them up, one after another, cooing, cradling, calling their names, but the crying didn’t stop. My friend and fellow volunteer noticed the reason first.
“Look at the time,” she said. “They’re hungry.”
It was nearly 5:30 p.m. Well past the time for their second bottle. We mentioned it to one of the staff and she said the bottles were coming. But not soon enough.
During the next 15 to 20 minutes, my friend and I tried to console inconsolable babies. We carried them around the room, rocked them, sang to them. Feeling helpless all the while. We both remarked that this must be what it’s like for migrant and refugee mothers who can’t feed their hungry children. The experience was short-lived, but very vivid. It has stayed with me.
And, it brought another insight. Something even more powerful.
As I held little Pablo, his tiny mouth quivered, he was crying so hard. He couldn’t hear my voice calling his name so sweetly. With his eyelids squeezed shut, his face tight with the pangs of hunger, he couldn’t possibly take in the love I was offering him. His hunger and pain were too great.
Now I understand.
This is how it must be for a loving God who is trying to get through to me when I am hurting. Because I was hurting and crying out in Cochabamba. I’d experienced some painful challenges, and I felt abandoned and alone. But like these children, my hunger and pain kept me from recognizing the presence of the love that’s been holding me through all of it. I couldn’t see it with my eyes squeezed shut.
And like I did for these children, the One who longs for me simply held me in my spiritual blindness.
This love is so patient. It is kind and compassionate. It is willing to wait with me. Until I finally take in what I need. What it’s been offering all along.
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.
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.
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.
In less than one week I’ll be on a plane to Cochabamba. Off to immerse myself in language school and get better prepared for the next step on my journey. Whatever that may be.
It’s crazy that I’m sitting here writing in the midst of all that I have to do before leaving, but this post feels important. Important to the journey that I am on. Because it keeps me honest. And vulnerable. And humble. All qualities I need.
I’ve had a lot of alone time over these past several months since returning home from El Paso. Lots of quiet time for reflection. And, as a result, for some painful stuff to show up too. Recently even more so when we had a foot and a half of snow and I really felt isolated in my house in the woods.
One thing about living in the midst of all this quiet — my shadow’s bound to show up. All those painful voices of my lower self that try to keep me small, hidden, and defended. Voices that try to make me believe that what my mind is telling me is true. That this is who I really am. Then my pride chimes in and says, I can’t believe you’re still dealing with these issues. They should be gone by now. Over and done with, thank you very much.
But that’s not how it goes.
I know from my years of studying with the Pathwork Transformation Program and with spiritual teachers of the past and present, like Teresa of Avila (14th century Carmelite nun and mystic) and Pema Chodron (contemporary Buddhist nun), that the secret is not to reject these parts of myself, but to embrace them. Yes, embrace them. And in doing so, find the gift they offer.
I’m still learning how to do this. That’s why I’m exactly where I’ve needed to be. In the silence and the solitude.
Joan Chittister says that “Silence is the gift that throws us back on ourselves. Which is exactly why there are so many who cannot bear the thought of it. Without external distractions, we are left vulnerable to the voices within that demand that we come to grips with all the pieces of the self we have so carefully concealed.” (Between the Dark and the Daylight)
That’s definitely been true for me. I’ve certainly been vulnerable to these voices, and some days it’s pretty challenging. But if I don’t jump up to turn on the TV, call someone, or dash out the door to go see a friend, if I can sit with the feelings and stay with the pain, I finally surrender. In this place of pain and helplessness, I surrender to my absolute need for God.
John Welwood writes in his book Journey of the Heart, which coincidentally is the same title as my blog:
“The profound question love poses is, ‘Can you face your life as it is; can you look at all the pain and darkness as well as the power and light in the human soul, and still say yes?’”
I know that if I am to promote love and compassion “out there,” I must first have them for myself. That means being able to say ‘yes’ to all the pain and darkness. Yes to embracing and loving all the parts of myself.
But in those tough moments, without an awareness of God’s loving Presence, I simply can’t do it. That’s when solitude is a gift. Because in the absolute silence, Love makes me aware that there is nothing I need change or reject. I am the Beloved. I am already healed and whole. And everything is gift.
I admit it. The food we were served in Bolivia was different than I and my seven companions were used to. No greens to speak of. Few vegetables. More starches than I’d ever need in any lifetime. From the staple of papas fritas (French fried potatoes), to the serving of two kinds of potatoes and a huge dish of cheesy rice all in one meal.
Too much to take in. But every dish that Esperanza (“Hope”) and her sister-in-law Marta served us during our week-long stay was freshly prepared and plentiful. They gave the best of what they had. We had more than enough to eat. And we were grateful.
Like the food, the love and graces I experienced on this pilgrimage were unusual and plentiful. Not my normal daily diet. After a few days, they began to feel extravagant. Like too much to take in. Maybe it’s because a constant flow of positive energy and selfless giving permeates the Amistad mission where abandoned and orphaned children have found a home for more than 30 years.
Its founder, Fr. Will, who now lives in the U.S., just “happened” to be staying at Amistad’s guest house while we were there. Every morning we’d gather in the chapel for silent reflection and meditation and then he’d offer us Eucharist, along with gems of wisdom that sprang from the depth of his decades-long contemplative practice. I’ve met few people in my life who were as visibly close to God as Fr. Will.
Then there were the mamás and tiás who care for and give of themselves to the children 24/7. Each mama is assigned to one of the eight houses where up to 10 children can live. Not a small undertaking for anyone, but these women do it with patience and, from what we witnessed, a simple and deep faith.
My fellow pilgrims and I wanted to give the mamás and tiás a day off, so we planned some special pampering and creative activities for them. One by one, Mary Lou washed the women’s feet and then I massaged them. I doubt any of these women had ever had their feet massaged. They could barely look at me while I rubbed lotion into their blistered toes and heels. This intimate act turned out to be as much a gift for me as it was for them.
And that was only our first day.
Then there were the children. We visited and played with these precious little ones at their family-style homes at Amistad. As soon as we arrived, the children ran over to hug us. One little girl after another entwined her arms around my waist whenever I was within range. Their hands clasped mine and wouldn’t let go. On the playground I pushed the girls on the swings and spun the boys around and around on the merry-go-round. They laughed and squealed, calling, “Amiga, amiga! Mira! Mira!” “Look! Look at me, my new friend. Look!”
Their love and desire for attention filled me. I felt my heart opening wider and wider. The children “wrecked” me — a term my friends and I used every time our hearts broke open.
By mid week I began feeling overwhelmed. Had a hard time taking in all the core goodness, vulnerability, and the letting down of all defenses that was happening. The skeptic in me kept jumping in. Challenging what I was experiencing. Arguing against it. “This can’t be real. Life can’t be this loving and selfless. People can’t be this joyful, supportive, and accepting.”
I began seeking out the flaws, the imperfections, the hole in the tapestry. But what I came up against instead was the tough stuff within myself. My own flaws and imperfections. Rather than lovingly accepting myself in this, as I knew I needed to, I plunged into a momentary darkness.
And then we went to the remote hillside village of Aramasi. Where I really got wrecked.
At Aramasi, we stayed in individual tiny stone hermitages with outhouses nearby. Each of us had a single, threadbare mattress laid across a plank of wood. We had to sweep the dead bugs off the floor and pray no live ones were hidden anywhere else. None of my fellow female travelers complained about the accommodations. Unusual for Americans, I know. But then these are unusual women.
If prayer is standing naked and vulnerable before the Source of all Being, then I prayed an awful lot in that little room. My bed was placed alongside a window overlooking an unobstructed night sky filled with stars. All night long I entered in and out of sleep and gazed out the window, occasionally spotting a shooting star. Somewhere in the sacred solitude of that hermitage, I encountered an extravagant love that washed over me and helped me reclaim my belovedness. And in that tender place of recognition, I was shown the power and beauty of my own preciously imperfect heart.
One night Mary Lou read to our group from Henri Nouwen’s book, Gracias, which recounts his experiences during a six-month long ministry in Peru and Bolivia. Nouwen suggests that what we have to offer is our “own human brokenness through which the love of God can manifest itself.” He reminds me that I am broken like glass, and it’s the brokenness that lets the light shine through.
It’s the best I have to offer. And it is more than enough.
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.”
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.”