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Davis Gets It

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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.

Alaska's Kivalina

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/

 

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No Place Like Nome?

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Sunrise over the frozen Bering Sea, first morning in Nome.

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.

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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.

For the Love of a Child

 

Bolivian orphans but not the cuties I work with

Nearly a dozen orphaned babies. Another 14 or so toddlers less than 2-years old. Put them together with my desire to be una abuela (grandma) and you have the perfect scenario at the Solomon Klein orphanage where I volunteer two afternoons a week.

With only two women working full time to care for 25 or so little ones, it’s easy to imagine that diapers don’t always get changed immediately, tears don’t get dried, and hugs and loving arms tend to be in short supply. From what I’ve witnessed, the staff does a super job. But they can’t possibly manage all of the children’s physical and emotional needs.

Here’s where I come in.

Along with a few other Maryknoll volunteers and one tireless nun in her 70’s who shows up Monday through Friday afternoons, I help feed, hold, play with and care for these  children, many of whom have been abandoned at a very early age. One little angel was only a week old when he arrived at the orphanage after being discovered on the street. Unfortunately, his story isn’t unique.

And if it’s not a case of being abandoned, most likely the child was removed from a home where he or she was being abused. Apparently it happens a lot. About 150 children live in this one orphanage alone.

It’s a sad and difficult situation. But when I’m there, I don’t think about that. My only focus — who needs to be cared for in this moment? Whose nose needs to be wiped? Which baby can I cradle in my arms while she drinks from a bottle that is usually propped up against her mouth with her blanket because it is impossible for two women to hold and feed 11 babies while managing all their other responsibilities? Which toddler most needs to know that his cries for attention will be answered by a soft caress to his wet cheeks?

Actually I have learned how to tend to multiple pequeño niños while simultaneously soothing a baby in one arm. I’m amazed at what I can do with only two hands, two arms, one voice, and one heart.

And there’s something else I’ve learned. I’m here for another reason besides giving much-needed love and attention to these children. I’m here for myself. Because every once in a while when I look into the eyes of a baby I’m holding or stroke a toddler’s face and hair, I get it. The gift of Love I’m giving to these children is trying to get through to me, too. To the vulnerable, young one who needs to remember. It’s as if God is saying, “Do you see, this is what I long to offer you?”

Just as tenderly as I hold them, Loving Presence desires to hold me.

Sometimes I have a hard time fully taking that in. But this Love never gives up on me. Even when I’m so active or self-absorbed that I barely take time to be still and know.

Am I physically tired after spending 3 1/2 hours rocking, singing, cooing, caressing, playing, and listening to wailing children? For sure. But for the gift of healing, and the love  of a child, it’s more than worth it.

 

Girl Imprisoned

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Just four days. That’s all I had on my recent trip back to El Paso. Four short days in which I experienced so many emotions. And witnessed more heartbreak.

On the very first night my friend Beth asked if I wanted to go to the detention facility with her. The one for adult undocumented immigrants. She planned to visit a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala named Yennifer.

I didn’t get all the details, but somehow when Yennifer and her mom and younger sister presented themselves to Border Patrol seeking asylum, a misunderstanding ensued. And Yennifer stepped too far into an area where she shouldn’t have gone. Border Patrol arrested her. Got her to admit she had committed a felony by entering this country without documents.

Now she wears an orange jumpsuit. And waits for her fate to be determined. Her mom and sister have moved on to New York. They couldn’t stay in El Paso. After ICE processed their papers, they had to go to their designated relative where they’ll have their court date. But without Yennifer. She remains alone, confined, and scared.

Beth warned me how distraught this young woman has been. I could only imagine. I thought of myself at 19. Certainly not ready emotionally to be separated from my mom in a foreign country. Not to mention being placed in a prison.

Because a detention facility is a prison.

The night Beth and I visit we have to leave everything behind except our licenses. And we hand those over to the guard at the front desk. Then we wait for the heavy locked door to open and the guard to call our names. He escorts us down a narrow hallway lined with small cubicles until we come to the one where we’ll meet Yennifer. Soon a pretty young Latina woman appears on the other side of a glass pane. Her dark hair piled atop her head in a neat bun. She smiles as soon as she sees Beth.

Yennifer sits down and picks up the phone to talk. Just like you see in the movies. I watch her sweet face from behind the glass, so animated as she tells Beth about the spicy food that she can’t eat. (Contrary to what you might think, not all Latinos like spicy food like the Mexicans do.)

At times her expression makes her look so much like a little girl, I want to cry. I try not to think about what’s going to happen. Chances are Yennifer will be deported. Sent home without her mother and sister. I wonder how she’ll get back to Guatemala. What will happen to her while traveling alone? If I were her mother, I don’t know how I’d stand it. Not knowing what will happen to my daughter.

After we leave, Beth tells me what a complete changeover in Yennifer’s spirits we’ve just seen. How the past couple of weeks when she’s visited her,Yennifer’s cried and looked depressed. But this girl’s got faith. The night Border Patrol arrested her— pulled her away from her mother and sister—they put Yennifer in a holding cell. In isolation. Panicked and sobbing, the girl fell to her knees and prayed. Begged God to help her. Within less than an hour, the guard came to get her. Said she didn’t belong in isolation. They’d made a mistake.

Truth is, Yennifer’s situation is not unusual. I saw families separated a lot when I volunteered at the migrant hospitality center.

In fact, a recent study I read on immigration abuse reported that, in addition to experiencing physical abuse, family members that were apprehended together by Border Patrol were systematically separated from each other. Two out of three migrants surveyed who crossed into the U.S. with immediate family members were separated from at least one of those family members by the Border Patrol during the process of detention and deportation.

There’s little I can do to help Yennifer. But I can bring her situation to light. And I can hope that others will care. Care about the immigrant children and youth who are being locked up for indiscriminate amounts of time. Care enough to learn more about the reasons why people are migrating. And care about one beautiful butterfly with deep brown eyes longing to be released from her cage.

Choosing to Come Home

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Scenic Blue Ridge Mountains taken on my drive home

Last week I drove nearly 1,900 miles from El Paso across Texas — more than a day’s drive in itself and, for me, a reaffirmation of why I wouldn’t want to live in Texas — all the way to Virginia. When I crossed the VA state line I let out a hoot. Everything was so beautiful! And colorful! The lush green hillsides. The grazing black and brown cattle. The white dogwoods. The purple and pink blossoms. Even the bright green layer of pollen everywhere. No more desert sands and rocky landscapes. I was so happy to be home.

Still, it was hard to leave El Paso.

But I made a conscious choice to return to Virginia. Mainly, I wanted to give Davis the option of coming home this summer. He’s been so supportive of me ever since I decided to go on this “mission.” It’s been a lot for a young person to take on — having his mom go off on an adventure so far from home. Yet he never once complained. Now I want to be there for him.

And there were other reasons on the list, too. The fact that I need to make a decent income again certainly was up there. So, it was time to come home.

But leaving El Paso — no, that wasn’t easy. Part of me is still there.

It’s not easy to adjust to life in the mainstream again either.

Like yesterday, for instance, I bought two different kinds of cereal. Both were healthy choices and they were on sale. It seemed like a good decision. But this morning when I opened my cupboard and saw those boxes sitting on the shelf, I almost cried.

It’s been a while since I’ve had choices.

In fact, having even one box of cereal I like is a special treat. To be able to choose from two felt a bit overwhelming.

Maybe that’s hard for you to understand, but for the past nine months I’ve not had much control over my life. Not much choice about what I was going to eat. Or buy. Or who I was going to eat with. Or live with. Sometimes it was a lot more challenging than I’d imagined.

But each time I’ve thought, “This is too hard,” grace stepped in and reminded me that anything I was experiencing was only a taste of what the people I was serving have experienced from day 1.

The thing is, if you’re poor, you don’t have choices.

Unlike me, many people I’ve met on this journey are not free to go home whenever they want. Those forced out of their homes by violence and hunger do not have choices. Not if they want to live.

I suspect that most people coming to the Nazareth Hospitality Center didn’t want to leave home. Given a choice, I’m sure they wouldn’t have stepped out their door into the unknown, leaving everything familiar behind — their country, their language, their customs and values, their relatives and neighbors — to risk traveling thousands of miles to the U.S.-Mexico border where they hoped something better awaited them. Some talked of returning home someday. When things are different.

One woman who came to Nazareth with her two teenaged sons confided that she was scared. Her oldest son had already been killed in their native El Salvador. She feared her other two sons would suffer the same fate if she didn’t leave. But, she worried, how would this new country affect her sons? How would they adjust to this culture, so different than her own? Would it change them?

They were headed to her brother’s in Los Angeles — a city she knew would expose her sons to many things and many choices. She worried about what they’d be facing and how they’d handle it. But she feared even more the risk of losing them altogether if she’d stayed home. What choice did she have?

Her story is only one of so many I’ve heard.

Right now I don’t have the words to explain what it means to me to have the choices I do. To have the life I have. In the beautiful place I call home. And the gift of being able to choose to come back home.

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my cabin in the woods

Simple Joys

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Recently two little girls from Guatemala arrived at our door wearing something I’d never seen on a child. Men’s sweatpants.

Admittedly, the girls and their mother appeared a little more disheveled and a little wearier than most of the migrants that show up at Nazareth. Their massively tangled black hair encircled brown faces streaked with dirt so ingrained, their skin appeared to hold various shades of darkness and light. Permanently.

It wasn’t until Mary Beth bent down to help the children remove their worn-out sneakers that she noticed their clothing. With no laces, broken soles, the tongues flapping and tattered, the shoes were what first caught her attention. worn-out-shoes

But just above the tongues of the sneakers hung gray, baggy pants rolled up at the ankles, spreading out 100 times wider than the width of these thin girls, and then rolled several times over and cinched at the waist. Startled, Mary Beth motioned to me.

“They’re wearing men’s sweat pants,” she nearly whispered.

I had to take a look for myself.

She was right.

If they’d wanted, the girls could have ducked down under the waistband and swum around. I couldn’t imagine them trekking all the way from Guatemala through Mexico wearing these oversized pants.

Yet they had. And neither the girls nor their mother seemed bothered in the least by this. They simply smiled at our attention.
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While Mary Beth helped the family find appropriate clothing, I went off to get bath towels and toiletries for their showers. As I laid out the clean towels on the cots in the their room, I couldn’t help notice what they’d brought with them. Two brown paper sacks sat like fat, wrinkled cabbages on their cots. Twisted at the neck, the bags bulged and split from the weight of the belongings stuffed into them. It was everything they had.

Later, when I escorted the three of them to the showers, I realized the girls had already donned their newfound clothing. One wore a pastel top and jeans, the other, a white dress printed with colorful flowers.

“A dress!” I said to her in Spanish. Her response — nothing but teeth as she smiled up at me, her expression revealing everything. For a moment, I felt as happy as she did. All because of a second-hand dress.

They were still in the shower when it was time for me to leave. Since I wouldn’t be back for a few days, I knew I wouldn’t see this little family again. They’d be gone by tomorrow.

I wanted to do something more. So, I went to the storage room and got a couple of gift bags with crayons and notepads and little TY stuffed animals and placed them on the girls’ cots. It was fun to imagine the joy on their faces when they’d return to their rooms and find them.

But here’s something I’ve noticed.

In the process of doing whatever it is I think I am doing for the people here, something wonderful happens. Each time I learn a little more from their simple faith. Their trust. Their joy. Something about what it really means to live with uncertainty. To trust the journey to something beyond oneself. And to be happy in the midst of it all.

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Why Should I Care?

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I scrub toilets, mop floors, disinfect cots, and breathe in a mixture of bleach and water that’s giving me a slight headache.

moppingI’m helping Sr. Mary Beth, another volunteer at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, clean the rooms our guests have vacated. Guests, as in the immigrant families who have passed through our doors, staying for one night, maybe two, before heading to relatives elsewhere in the states.

As I heave the wet mop across the linoleum, I feel some resistance. Cleaning bathrooms is not my favorite way to be of service. So, why am I doing this? Why am I cleaning up after these strangers? People I will never see again. People who might not even be grateful for what I’m doing. And, some might be quick to add, haven’t played by the rules.

I remember the angry faces in the news last summer protesting all the families and kids streaming over the border. And, more recently, the disheartening comments I read online with  messages like,  “Send them back!”  How appalled they’d be if they knew what I was doing here. “Why?!!” they’d surely ask.

I ask myself that question, too, as I carry a trash bag of shitty-smelling diapers out to the dumpster.

But then ICE calls, promising 20 new guests this afternoon. And I’m too busy to think about my answer.

The government van pulls up around lunch time and deposits some families at our door. A father with his little girl, wisps of her pigtails loosening from their crooked elastics. A couple carrying a baby and shepherding in a daughter about 5 years old. Another young couple with three little girls under 6 in tow.

Dirty faces, tangled hair, smelly clothes. All of them.

After doing the intake and settling the families into their rooms, I ask the mom with the three little girls, “Necesita ropa limpia?” Do you need clean clothes?

An obvious question, but the mother hesitates, then nods apprehensively. We search the clothing room for shoes and warm sweaters, tops and pants. Plenty of selections for the adults, but it’s slim pickings for the girls.

Next I help the father with his little girl. She’s wearing lavender crocks with no socks. Her feet are darker than the rest of her. She needs socks and a pair of pants. They’re headed to Delaware. But I can’t find any girl’s jeans. Or any pants at all to fit her. Her little legs are bare beneath her skirt and I think of the long, cold bus ride ahead and the freezing temps up north. I suddenly have this urge to run out and buy several pairs of girls’ size 5-6 jeans, but I can’t leave the center at the moment.
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We’re out of girls’ jackets and sweaters, too. There’s not much I can offer in the way of clothing. But there is something I can offer. Something fun.

We’ve got these precious gift bags that were prepared and donated to the center by schoolchildren last summer. The kids made tons of them, and we still have some in storage. Simple Ziploc bags, they’re loaded with crayons, a pair of socks, a soft huggable toy or doll, a few quarters, blank notepad with colored pencils, and a handwritten note saying “welcome, friend, to my country.”

I go to the storage room to grab a few bags for the pantless, sweaterless girls. But I’m in for a surprise.

The bags are stored in their original mailing box, so, out of curiosity I check out the return address. Brewster, Massachusetts! So the bags weren’t prepared by local schoolchildren after all, as I had thought. They actually come from the children of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church.

This warms my  heart — not only because Massachusetts is my native state — but because it’s so far away from the border! The children of Brewster remind me it’s not only the people in El Paso who care about these migrant families.

And they also remind me of why I care. It’s not about what anybody else thinks of what I’m doing. And I’m not doing it for the thanks. I’m doing it because they are human beings. And they matter. They matter to me.

When I hand two of these gift bags to the sweet little sisters from Guatemala, they squeal their thank you’s. I give their younger sister’s bag to the mother. Mom looks it over and points to the children’s hand-printed message alongside their picture.

Message the children of Brewster, MA, included in gift bags. "Welcome, my friend, to my country."

Message the children of Brewster, MA, included in gift bags. “Welcome, friends, to my country.”

“Yes,” I say. “It’s a gift from these children.”

A gift to all of us.

 To belong to a community is to begin to be about more than myself…No work is enough to satisfy the human soul. Only the satisfaction of having touched another life and been touched by one ourselves can possibly suffice. Whatever we do, however noble, however small, must be done for the sake of the other. Otherwise, we ourselves have no claim on the human race.

~ from LISTEN WITH THE HEART by Joan Chittister

Children as My Teachers

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When Davis was 3 years old, we took a family vacation out west and landed in Reno for a few days. Since David and I loved to hike, we wanted to trek the trails around Lake Tahoe. Only problem was, we could no longer conveniently strap Davis into one of those child carriers and hoist him on our backs. And since his little legs wouldn’t have made it on their own, we came up with another strategy. We’d take turns entertaining Davis while one of us ventured off on the adult activity.

So while David hiked one of the more strenuous trails, I chose a short — or so I thought — trail that led to the lake shore where Davis could play. Going down to the lake was easy and fun. We sang and skipped. Davis giggled much of the way. But I’d miscalculated the trip back. The trail was all uphill. And we were both less perky than when we had started out.

Before long, Davis did what any respectable 3-year old would do. He whined. And then he stopped in his tracks and cried, “Mommy, I’m tired.”

As anyone with young children knows, when they’ve determined they can’t walk any farther, your options are limited. You either drag them along or carry them. I chose the latter. So, I lifted Davis onto my back and started off again. Much more slowly. The weight of a hefty, healthy child made me stop every once in a while either to sit or to let him down so I could rest. The trail stretched on much longer than I’d remembered.

I didn’t complain though. Well, maybe just a little to David afterwards when he showed up exuberated by his adventure. But the truth is, I really hadn’t minded carrying Davis. For me, there had been no other option than to give my son what he needed.

I remembered this incident recently when I heard the story of a 12-year-old boy who had been found attempting to cross the border. He was carrying his 9-year-old paraplegic sister on his back. Through the desert.
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Carrying my little son on that short hiking trail was one thing. But would I, as a preteen, even entertain the thought of lugging my sibling on my back for hundreds of miles on such a treacherous journey? I had to admit, I wouldn’t. But then I never had to experience what these children have faced.

The #1 reason unaccompanied minors are coming to the U.S. nowadays is to escape the violence. In countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, many girls stay home from school for fear of being raped. Boys are often threatened with their lives if they don’t work for the gangs so prevalent in these countries. Their government doesn’t protect them.

Luis, a young man who volunteers at the children’s detention centers in El Paso knows this because he often asks the children, “Why did you risk your life to come here?”

Sometimes, the answer is, “So I could be with my mom.”

Another reason many children come is to reunite with their parents who left home years ago to find work in the U.S.

Like the 6-year-old boy Luis told me about who drew an airplane to represent God. The boy explained that God was in the heavens, and, like an airplane, God would quickly take him to his mother if he kept God in his heart.

Despite the traumatic journey this child had experienced in order to be with his mother, and now finding himself in detention, his innocence and faith in God remained. The boy amazed Luis. He did me, too.

On days when I feel discouraged, when I wonder what is next for me, when I don’t feel like I have enough courage and faith for this journey, I need to remember these children. They can teach me a few things about what it really means to have faith, to trust, to hope. And not to complain.

A Perfectly Not-So-Perfect Christmas

 

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I’m going to be with my son this Christmas. That’s huge. For many reasons. One being that just a month ago I didn’t even know where I’d be spending Christmas.

Would it be San Antonio? With my cousin in Austin? Yet another new place in El Paso? Or my home in Virginia?

Turns out I’ll be able to return home for a few days. Just long enough to really take in my son, to try to get my fill of his handsome looks, his dad’s blue eyes, his weird sayings (“true that”), and his enviable easygoing attitude. Even when everything else in my life is uncertain — as it has been quite a bit lately (that might be considered an understatement) — I can still fall back on this one steady, sure, undeniable truth: Davis loves me. And I love him, in a way I could not have imagined possible before I actually gave birth to this child.

Another reason being with Davis means so much to me this Christmas is because I’ve become keenly aware of many families who won’t be together. For some, a loved one has recently passed on, leaving a gaping, indescribable ache that I know can’t be soothed — at least not for some time. For many others, the painful physical separation has been forced, or even chosen, because of their life circumstances.

On Sunday I found myself among at least 70 youth who fall under that latter category. The setting: St. Pius Catholic Church’s annual Christmas party for detained migrant youth. For several years, the Rico ministry at this amazingly generous parish (the church has 62 ministries!) has been hosting young teens from detention centers here in El Paso to a Posada and early Christmas celebration, complete with Piñatas and gift bags stuffed with a new article of clothing, candy, and other items for each child. I suspect such a gift is a first for these kids.

The youth travel with their “guards” to the parish where they are treated to homemade tamales (a traditional Mexican dish at Christmas) with rice and beans, washed down with ice tea, followed by cake, cotton candy, and other sweets. All of it served by happy volunteers dressed in elf costumes and Santa hats while a Mariachi band sings Spanish carols.
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One of the volunteers offered grace before the meal and as the children bowed their heads, I took the opportunity to look around the room. Rows of black-haired boys and girls, eyes closed, hands folded, obediently praying. Every one of them. Some mouths moved in silent prayer. One young man strained to control his quivering lips. So many furrowed brows, tightly closed eyes — I wondered what was in their hearts, what they had endured to get here, only to find themselves alone in a detention center at Christmas. And I marveled at their childlike faith. Still vividly present.

I knew I was witnessing a sacred moment. Not only in watching these children pray, but in the true manifestation of the Incarnation that I was experiencing in these volunteers who had given up their Sunday before Christmas, and so much more, to be here attempting to give these kids a taste of Christmas away from home and family.

Tonight as I look out my window from my little bedroom at the wide expanse of lights spreading over the cities of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, I’m aware that I, too, am away from home. But my circumstances are very different. I have choices that not only these children, but many people in the world do not have.

When I arrive in Virginia tomorrow to spend a few days with Davis, the house won’t be ready for Christmas. No holly, mistletoe, or angels dangling from windows or doorways. No softly lit Christmas tree or festive packages wrapped with matching ribbons and bows. No turkey in the oven. No, it won’t be the same perfect kind of Christmas I always strive to give my son. But we’ll have food and warmth and safety in our own home. And we will be together. A gift I appreciate now more than ever.

The most perfect gift of all on this very unusual, not-so-perfect Christmas.

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Learning to Bend

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Waterfall alongside stone etching on the River Walk

This morning after attending Mass at the San Fernando Cathedral, I decided to stroll the River Walk here in San Antonio where I’ve begun my lay missionary service. Tourists roamed along the canal lined with shops and restaurant after restaurant after restaurant. I couldn’t help but remember the last time I visited, I was one of these tourists, vacationing with my husband and son.

My life is hugely different now. My roles changed completely. How could I have known then that I’d be back several years later, David gone from this life, Davis attending college in upstate New York? And me, a lay missionary?

It sounds bizarre even to write this. Almost surreal.

But even though I find myself in this unexpected situation, I feel strangely peaceful. And that’s saying a lot, because at the moment, I’m uncertain what my role will be here. Currently, only two moms and their children are living at the transitional housing program where I’m serving, and one of them will soon be moving out. Exactly what I’ll be doing is still evolving.

This, too, is unexpected. I honestly thought I’d show up, be surrounded by a brood of energetic kids begging me to play with them, and I’d pull out my crayons and jump rope, which I brought along in expectation, and everything would fall into place. Not so.

And that brings me back to why I was on the River Walk this morning. With a day free to do as I please and no one in particular to do it with, it seemed like a good idea. Suddenly I came across words etched into the stone wall that struck me.

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I’d been praying to stay open to ways that God was showing up in all of this. These words loomed up in front of me, speaking to my heart in a way I couldn’t deny.

If you know me, you know I love trees. Trees have been a metaphor for many of my life’s lessons, not the least of which is how to bend in the storms. Hold onto life no matter what raging wind shows up. Adjust to all types of climate change.

I recognized myself in those words. Certainly I have learned — and am still learning — how to bend and adjust. I also recognized all the ways I’ve been spiritually held during those “adjustments.”

No sooner had I snapped a couple of pictures and wandered off when my cell phone beeped that I’d gotten a text. It was from my son. He’d just been to a church service where the pastor had talked about losing his own dad at a young age. Moved by this pastor’s words about his mother’s influence during that trying time, Davis sent me one of the most beautiful messages of gratitude I’ve ever received.

David, Davis, and me — connected once again in an unexpected moment.  By an unexpected loving presence reassuring me that learning to bend can be a good thing.

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