I’ve been missing Virginia’s spring. Luckily, I’m about to experience it once again when I drive back to Virginia next week to attend my niece’s graduation from George Mason University. Soon my senses will be filled with sweet-smelling blossoms, blasted with the color of azaleas, irises, dogwoods, and lilacs. And, of course, stuffed with pollen.
I imagine Davis is missing it, too. Up there in Nome where the earth is just beginning to thaw and show sprigs of green.
Like him, I’ve been having a different kind of spring.
As in Nome, spring’s arrival in the desert is slow and subtle. You have to really look for it.
So lately I’d been paying attention to the stirrings of the earth. Seeking changes in the landscape. Looking and listening. Trying to find what I thought I was missing.
Turns out, I found something. Something within myself.
One day I ventured out to a park located not far from my apartment. So close, I’d wondered why I hadn’t been there before. Sinking my feet into the grass – real grass – I strolled across the lawn and finally settled down under a tree. A wide-trunked tree. Placed my back up against it and took in the energy of one of my favorite forms of life. Right away I started missing the greenery of Virginia. The red cardinals and indigo buntings. Even the squirrels.
Suddenly a slight breeze stirred the leaves above me, as if to say, “Hey, we’re here. Can’t you see us?”
And then – I’m not kidding – a squirrel scampered across the hillside. The first I’ve seen since arriving in El Paso. He was quickly followed by another chasing after him. All along I’d thought squirrels didn’t exist here!
In the silence I sensed God saying, “Everything you need is here.”
I smiled as I was shown once again that I have everything I need. That “everything is everywhere” – to use a title of a lovely Carrie Newcomer song I recently came across. That I am never separated from my Source.
And I remembered why I am here.
In this desert, at the border, I am finding my heart, my compassion, my voice. What was planted in me is thriving. And I’m discovering that the changes I seek in the landscape are happening within me.
Just as Davis discovered something stirring within himself in the dark of winter. Something that called him to remain in Alaska and be a voice for the people there.
It’s part of the sacred pattern of life. This rhythm to the cycle of the seasons. A sacred rhythm that’s playing out within us, too. If we can only have patience to allow it to unfold.
Whether it’s under the deep, dark, frozen earth or the dusty, dry landscape, life is stirring within. Seeds have been planted. Seeds that will miraculously burst forth at the appropriate time.
It’s all part of the cycle. A cycle you can trust.
And you can trust the Source that’s fulfilling what has been planted within you.
Whether you’re at the Bering Sea, the Arabian Sea, or a place like El Paso that’s never seen the sea.
Because, as Carrie sings, “Miracles are everywhere. Love is love; it’s here and there. Everything is everywhere.” (from “Everything Is Everywhere”)
It’s a message we need to remember. No matter what season we’re in.
To listen to this beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer, find it at
I’ve left the shore behind.
Leaving Atlantic Beach wasn’t easy. After all, I grew up near the ocean on the East Coast. And nowadays, ensconced in the El Paso desert, I’m lucky when I spot an occasional raindrop.
But even more challenging – within one week of returning to El Paso from my reunion/vacation in North Carolina, I found myself packing. I needed to move. Again.
I knew before I left for NC that I’d to have to find another place to live. My three months of room and board at the house for volunteers were coming to an end.
Truthfully, I’d expected my house in Virginia to sell quickly. And I’d be settling into a new home by now.
But my plan didn’t materialize. So, instead, I had to move into another temporary living situation. Another place that’s not my own.
And, yes, that’s challenging.
But it’s also a gift. A spiritual practice that’s continually teaching me about letting go. About my real “home.” And about the abundance of the Universe.
No sooner had I started wondering where I would go next and what I could afford when an idea came to me. Call Anita. As it turns out, this woman, who hardly knows me, was happy to rent out her extra bedroom. At an unbelievably reasonable rate.
Once again I was given what I needed.
So I began my vacation grateful that I had a place to go once I returned.
And I was open. Receptive to how the Spirit might speak to me at the ocean.
What struck me at every turn? The abundance of the Universe.
I recognized it in my morning walks along the shore as the rising sun cast multi-colored hues of pink and peach across an infinite sky. In the endless waves rolling onto the beach in a constant, humbling roar. In the calm waters that glittered and stretched majestically beyond the horizon. In the sandpipers and pelicans fed from the ocean.
It’s easy to see how Nature exemplifies the abundance of God. With her ever-present giving and receiving, she demonstrates what it means to be “in the flow” of life.
But I wonder. What if we, as human beings, could trust in an abundant Universe? What would our lives look like if we could abide in this flow of giving and receiving? Trusting that we will be given what we need? In every moment? Just as Nature does?
I think I know. The migrants have shown me.
The poor I’ve met live with a concept of the abundance of God more fully and completely than anyone else I know. They’ve tapped into this truth. God provides. You can trust in the flow of the give and take of life.
Here’s a recent example.
We’ve been crazy busy at the Nazareth migrant center. And last week, in our rush to get a mom to the bus station, we neglected to give her a “care package” of food that I’d prepared for her long journey.
A little while later, Linda, a fellow volunteer, showed up at the bus station with other migrants heading out of state. Linda was amazed when the fellow travelers, realizing this woman didn’t have a care package, started pulling food from their own bags to give her. One woman, who said she was “only going as far as Los Angeles,” gave this mom her entire tote bag of goodies. She figured this woman needed it more.
Giving from their need. This is unheard of.
Or is it?
Believing that more is given to the one who gives. That giving is receiving. And in the receiving is the giving.
It’s a message I’ve heard from the Gospel. And a spiritual law that I recently came across in a Pathwork Guide Lecture. This line from that lecture says it all for me:
“I will let God give through me in sincerity, in strength, in truth, in wisdom, in beauty.” (PGL #233, pg. 8)
Isn’t that what Nature does? Isn’t that what these migrants did for that mom?
To live life fully we need to move beyond our fear of not having enough. We need to leave the comfort of the shore behind. To trust in the abundance that is given to us and through us.
Whether I stand, sure-footed, on the shore of a North Carolina beach or move like a nomad from place to place in the El Paso desert, I want to learn this lesson. Nature is teaching me. And so are the poor.
Have you ever been surprised by joy? Felt it come out of nowhere and suddenly overtake you? Yet you can’t fully explain it?
That’s been happening to me since returning to this desert border town. I’ve been experiencing a mysterious joy.
Despite not knowing for sure what I’m doing here. Not knowing where I’ll settle. Still trying to sell a house in Virginia. Looking for a paying job. Aware that my temporary living arrangement will soon expire.
So many unknowns. Enough to send anyone into a panic. Or at least an anxious spin.
But surprisingly I feel peaceful. And happy.
Maybe it’s because I’ve done this so many times now. Uprooted myself. Leapt off into the unknown. Taken risks. And come out the other side, assured once again that I have everything I need as I listen and trust my inner guidance.
But I know it’s more than that.
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest who wrote The Divine Milieu.
God has been showing up a lot lately.
Just two days after arriving in El Paso, I returned to volunteer at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center where I’d served over a year ago. As soon as I walked through the door, took in the familiar surroundings, saw the people, I felt this inexplicable happiness spread inside of me.
Nothing had precipitated it. Other than being in this place.
It was the presence of joy.
A Presence letting me know that I was exactly where I needed to be.
Then last Sunday, I attended a Spanish Mass. A joyous celebration, the walls reverberating with lively music and handclapping. Pews packed with Hispanics. Many others standing along the side and back walls. And this was only one of six masses held every Sunday!
I went because I love being among the people. Saying the prayers in Spanish along with them. Celebrating the combination of their rich spirituality and connection to the earth. Seeing their faith in action both delights and humbles me. I can’t explain it, but they possess something special.
I was standing there, silently taking everything in, when suddenly I recognized something. I recognized the Presence of what it is they possess. And it filled me. This unnamed Presence.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Joyful tears.
And I knew. This is God. This is the Presence of God.
In these people. In these tears I’m shedding.
In this overwhelming joy that has taken me by surprise.
In this awareness that I am standing in the midst of grace.
In the knowledge that every leap I’ve taken — even when it didn’t feel “right” at the time — has been a perfect piece of the process of my life. Taking me where I needed to go. Helping me to heal.
In that moment of recognition, a Scripture verse came back to me:
“Count it all joy when you are involved in every sort of trial.” (James 1:2)
Two years ago I was struggling in San Antonio. Trying to make a go of a promise I’d made to serve there. Feeling very alone and uncertain, I’d written a blog post about the “life in abundance” God wanted for me. The promise of joy. Knowing it was possible, but feeling a million miles from anything close to joy.
Now I understand.
My heart knows why I am here.
“That my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”
La alegrίa. That’s Spanish for joy. Now I understand. A joy no one can take from you.
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’s the early morning hours. The day before the memorial service for the Dallas police officers.
I awaken in a hotel room just outside the city. Photos of the five officers and two African-American young men who were killed appear in my mind. And tear at my heart.
I think of their families. The ones who’ve loved them and are left behind to grieve.
My heart breaks for the pain we cause each other, for the violence we resort to so easily to resolve our differences, to make our voices heard.
There is another choice.
But it’s harder. Because it involves letting go of our own agenda.
It means putting aside our pride and our judgments. And our preconceived notions about who is “right” and who is “wrong.”
It means being willing to see and listen to the other person.
And letting Christ’s love guide our steps.
That option seems so far away. Especially in the midst of the ongoing onslaught of hate-filled insults, of angry words and demeaning lies raging over social media and throughout this political campaign.
So I do the only thing I can do. I offer prayer. And ask where God is in this.
A familiar question pops up.
“Have you been with me all this time and still do not know me?”
It’s a question Jesus asked of his disciples along their journey together.
And this is the response that comes.
I am African-American. I am Mexican American. I am Native American. I am Muslim. I am Christian. I am Buddhist.
I am the police officer who risks his life every time he protects yours.
I am the youth calling for peaceful protests after his father is killed.
I am the man with knotted hair standing at the stoplight with his cardboard sign asking for help.
I am the undocumented little Guatemalan girl languishing with her mother in a Texas family detention center.
I am the young mother in Bolivia who abandoned her baby because she could not feed yet another child.
I am the 10-year-old boy stolen from his family and forced to become a soldier.
I am the Syrian who fled his home with his young son after their lives were threatened.
I am the family in sub-Saharan Africa unable to eat tonight because there is no food.
I am in you. I am in the neighbor next to you. And in the neighbor across the ocean whom you have yet to meet.
All lives matter to me. Because I am all life.
I am compassion. I am understanding. I am love without borders.
I am peace in a world that does not know peace because it does not know me.
I wait for you in the stillness. In the silence. There you will see me.
And know me for the first time.
I’ve been away for a while. From writing, that is.
Even though my heart’s been brimming with all I want to say. And I find myself at yet another crossroad. A crossroad where I’m being asked to surrender it all.
I find this to be a hard post to write. Because how do you express the inexpressible?
Maybe an image will help.
The other day, Emma, the director of the orphanage where I volunteered in Cochabamba, emailed a couple of photos of the babies I’d cared for. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the children while working there, so this was the first time I’d seen their precious faces since I’ve been back home.
I cried when I saw them.
Especially little Teresa. She was my favorite. But I loved them all. And not only for the short time I was with them. I still carry them in my heart. I suspect I always will.
It’s easy to love babies, isn’t it? Even when they’re crying inconsolably. I mean, for the most part. We just love them. Inexplicably. Even though they’re totally useless. They can’t do a darn thing for themselves. Completely dependent. Open and waiting. Helpless and vulnerable. They’re surrendered to us. And yet we love them even more.
Lately the image of those babies has been really speaking to me.
It’s a metaphor. My relationship with those babies. An image of something much deeper. A metaphor for my relationship with a God who is always loving me. A God who loves me most especially in my helpless, vulnerable, open, and completely surrendered place. And this love has been overwhelming and powerful and hard to fully take in.
And also a bit scary.
Because if I surrender completely, let go of all my roles and my self-images, my thoughts and ideas about who I am or who I should be, then what? Then who will I be?
It’s a place of naked vulnerability. Of meekness and humility.
And the “little me” wonders, Do you really want to go there?
All alone in my precious prayer time, when I go down into that deepest, most silent place within me, I know that the answer to that question is yes.
I know I am here to surrender to love.
And I know it’s OK that I can’t get there on my own.
As Richard Rohr says, “Authentic prayer is always a journey into love.”
I want to take that journey. Again and again and again.
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.
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.