We are grieving our loss. My fellow volunteers and I – the women and men who worked alongside me at the Nazareth hospitality center.
We know we’ve lost something special.
Several weeks ago, our center for migrants and refugees closed. We were told it was due to staff transitions in the main health center that owns the wing we were using. We thought it was temporary. So far, it hasn’t reopened.
But even before the center closed, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had been bringing us fewer and fewer refugees. In mid-January, our daily numbers began dropping to single digits.
The interesting thing is, all of this happened soon after I’d closed on my house, packed up all my belongings and moved here – lock, stock, and barrel. Suddenly, what I loved doing most and fed me spiritually had disappeared.
You gotta wonder what the Universe has planned.
Still, I know without a doubt this is where I am meant to be. Living close to the border. Living, as I call it, “close to the bone.”
I’m not questioning my heart’s guidance.
But I am grieving. And I’m not the only one.
I realized this last week when I unexpectedly ran into several of my fellow volunteers at a Taize service.
Volunteers like Martha. Every Tuesday, she and her friend Cuki would come to Nazareth to prepare breakfast and lunch for our “guests.” When our daily numbers jumped to well over 100, they enlisted other friends to help. They spent their entire day there, every Tuesday.
And they’ve been doing this for nearly three years.
Martha and I were so happy to see each other that night. With moist eyes, we shared how much we missed Nazareth and “the people.”
Without really having words to express why, we both knew the fullness of this experience had touched our lives.
Other volunteers joined our conversation. And that’s when I realized, we all were grieving.
Grieving because we missed interacting with the people who had clearly given us a gift by their presence.
Grieving because we know the tragic and violent situations that existed in these people’s lives – the reasons they fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – have not changed. They’re still subjected to death threats, extortion, and gang violence. But where are they are fleeing to, we wondered?
Grieving because we know that human rights abuses are increasing – at detention facilities, at ports of entry, and elsewhere. And we don’t expect it to get better soon.
Some Customs and Border Patrol agents are turning away asylum seekers without consideration of their claims. Cases have been documented of people with credible fear being turned away at the border, like the mother who fled Guatemala after gang members killed her two sons and threatened her life. Turned away, even though those who are fleeing violence have a legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.
Or, in some cases, ICE is locking up asylum seekers. Sticking them in detention for the duration of their case, even though they pose no threat to our society. Even though they have passed their “credible fear” interview. Causing them more pain, more harm, more trauma to their children.
Here’s a recent example. Martín Méndez Pineda, a 25-year-old journalist from Acapulco, Guerrero, was detained and denied parole after seeking asylum here in El Paso. Pineda had received death threats and police beatings for his critical reports of the Mexican federal police. Only a week earlier, a female journalist had been murdered in Mexico. Rather than assist this young man, we threw him in detention like a criminal.
Yes, we are definitely grieving over the direction our country is taking towards migrants and refugees.
Because for us, this is not just a controversial issue on the 6 o’clock news.
We have come to know “the people.” We have listened to their stories. We have accompanied them and been transformed by the encounter.
And we know they are human beings. Worthy of being treated with dignity and compassion.
Please, no matter where you stand on the issue of immigration and refugees, let’s remember that these are human beings. That human rights abuses should not be part of our protocol.
And it is absolutely inhumane to separate mothers from their children as a deterrent to immigration.
All that we will accomplish by such inhumane treatment is more grief. And the loss will be much more extensive and personal than we can anticipate.
For more practical and humane suggestions for curbing the flow of illegal immigration, listen to award-winning journalist and author of Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario’s TED talk at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/sonia+navarro+ted/15ada9caf1939193?projector=1
I’ve been feeling it again lately.
On December 2nd, David’s birthday, I found myself crying. That’s unusual. Several birthdays have passed since his death and they haven’t caused such a reaction in me.
But that day I missed him.
I was feeling particularly tender and vulnerable. Continuing to live in this uncertain, “in-between” place was affecting me.
And there was something more.
A little over three months ago, in the predawn hours, I awoke to a message on my phone from a good friend from the past. Lisa had reached out to me because her husband had just died. Shocked out of my groggy half-awake state, I texted back that I was here if she wanted to talk.
Lisa and her husband Kevin had been good friends of ours in the early years of our marriages when we lived in Connecticut. We’d stayed in touch after moving away and even wound up living in the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina. Occasionally we’d meet halfway for family camping trips.
We had this history together. We’d begun our marriages around the same time. Had both experienced the years of longing for a child and waiting and hoping and waiting some more. Finally rejoicing in each other’s gift — a son for me, a daughter for Lisa. Our friendship was comfortable and comforting.
Listening to Lisa that morning, my own grief came back to me just as clearly as if I were reliving it with her. I remembered how I’d felt as if a hole had been ripped through my heart. How else can you describe losing your best friend and most intimate partner? The person you tell everything to, share everything with. The one who knows you better than anyone. The love of your life.
Yes, I understood that pain. I could empathize. But what surprised me is how easily I felt this grief again. I remembered how bottomless and debilitating it had felt. How at times I’d thought I couldn’t possibly heal.
More than anything in that moment, I wanted to take that pain from my friend. Even if it meant I had to relive it for her.
Because I have crossed over this threshold, I know I can survive it. And much more than that — I know that joy and love and fullness of life exist even in the midst of such pain. I already know this.
But Lisa doesn’t. At least not yet.
I got off the phone that morning asking, why so much pain? Why must we experience so much pain?
I don’t really know the answer to that question.
But I do know that if I close my heart off to feeling as a result of my deep loss, I will close myself off from the greatest adventure and fulfillment of my life.
Here’s what is clear to me:
That grief and the healing power of transformation are connected.
That compassion has grown in me because of my own grief.
That grieving is not a singular event . The door to my heart has been broken open; I can’t go back to allowing myself not to feel.
That all of it is sacred and trustworthy. Even the painful stuff.
And I can trust the One who remained with me through the deepest darkness of my grief.
Many of us are grieving at this time of year. Some of it is due to the upcoming Christmas holiday, which can magnify our loneliness and pain, especially when we’ve lost loved ones.
Some of the grief, I believe, is due to this recent presidential election. I know I have felt anxiety and a real sadness for those who are vulnerable, including Mother Earth. There’s a collective grieving happening. I’ve heard this from others as well.
For me, the call is to live with greater compassion. Even, and especially, if it means feeling the pain of the other.
As insight meditation teacher Tara Brach explained in a recent talk on Bodhisattva for Our Times, going through your personal grief brings you to the universal.
She says, “Let grief transform you. Then make a conscious choice to be a light.”
That in itself is reason enough for me to allow myself to feel the pain of grieving. I want, and I choose, to be a light in the darkness.
“We’re all in it together and we can trust that even in the long, dark nights of winter our hearts are turning toward the light.” (Tara Brach)
I can’t believe I’m writing this. Esther died today.
Less than three weeks ago she came into my room at Grandview house and said she had some news. Esther never even ventured into my room, so when she pulled out a chair and sat down, right away I knew this was serious. She told me she had cancer and it had spread throughout her body. I was in shock. We all were.
Esther was the Sister of St. Joseph with whom I’d been living since I arrived in El Paso in early December. Over the past few months she’d been losing weight. I thought it was due to the stress of managing this big house by herself. Although I was helping as much as I could, having volunteers coming and going every two weeks or more, trying to feed them all, keep the house clean, and manage the bills, all seemed like a huge responsibility to me. And I wasn’t 70+ years old.
Then Esther had developed this unrelenting back pain on top of the weight loss. Still I didn’t attribute it to anything serious. Esther was just too spunky and vibrant. A former phys ed teacher, she’d often break into song. Remembering a show tune or classic that somehow related to the situation at the moment, she’d simply start singing. Not the least self-conscious at all. Even though she rarely got through the first line or verse before forgetting the rest.
I found this endearing.
So was her addiction to doing the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. Whenever I came down to breakfast, I knew if I sat down with her, I could expect to be drilled.
“How many letters?” I’d ask.
But she’d already have moved on to belting out the next clue. It was too much for my mind that early in the morning. Sometimes I’d eat my cereal in my room.
The thing is, I love Esther. But at first, I wasn’t even sure I liked her.
When I came to live at Grandview house, she questioned me. She didn’t understand why I had left everything behind. What was I looking for? More than once she told me she could never do what I was doing. And she wasn’t too keen on the idea that I was writing three days a week instead of working every day with the immigrant families at the hospitality center where all the other volunteers at Grandview spent their time. So, I offered to give her one full day a week of chores to help towards my room and board.
Still, I don’t think she trusted me. Or my ability to live like a missionary and adjust to the situation. Our relationship didn’t exactly start out on stable ground.
But as she saw how I adapted to making meals with whatever lay stored in the cupboard, how I rarely asked for anything, how I was available whenever she needed me, she eased up. And I grew less resentful. Prayer helped. So did my commitment to being there.
And then, very subtly, Spirit slipped in and taught me how to open my heart to this woman. Showed me how to see her more clearly. Like the night Esther shared her faith story with me. How she’d been a teacher for years, focusing on herself, before she experienced a grace-filled moment that changed her life and caused her to join a religious congregation.
The day Esther handed me a large sum of cash to manage groceries because she had to be away from the house for several days, I thought I’d cry. It was more than the fact that she trusted me. Without saying a word about it, I knew we’d grown fond of each other.
By the time my birthday came around at the end of March, she was asking me what I’d choose if I could have my favorite meal. And then she went and bought fresh tuna steaks and told me to invite a friend to dinner. This from a woman who had worried aloud more than once about what the grocery bill was running.
As Esther grew weaker, I felt especially blessed to be at Grandview. I actually enjoyed lugging the trash cans up and down the steep driveway every week. And pulling the weeds popping up out of the pavement and along the hillside. It would have been easy to stay there longer.
The morning I’d packed up my car and was ready to head out of El Paso, Esther and the other Sisters at the house gathered round to bless me on my way. The beauty of this gift — Esther had prepared the blessing. When I looked into her eyes to say goodbye, I recognized my own heart.
I’m treasuring Esther’s gift tonight.
Friday night, I caught myself holding my breath.
It happened while sitting in Bates Recital Hall at the University of Texas-Austin in the middle of a Conspirare concert. Conspirare is an enormously talented Austin-based choral group whose name, ironically, means “to breathe together.”
That night they were performing the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet, set to music. And the breathtaking piece was Soneto de la Noche.
But the beauty and sentiment of the poetry were not what had caused this reaction in me. It was much more than that.
I’d first experienced Conspirare singing this piece five years ago. My very dear friend Rob had brought a DVD of a live performance of the choral group to a weekend gathering of friends. Awed and inspired by these talented artists, Rob wanted to share their music with us. It was July 2009 — three months after my beloved husband had died.
I remember Rob sitting next to me on the sofa as we watched and listened to voices and music that took me to another realm. Then, one of the men from the choir stepped forward for the next piece, and Rob suddenly reached over and grabbed my hand. He’d forgotten this song was among the selections, and he knew what was coming would cause me pain. It was Soneto de la Noche.
Although the poem is in Spanish, the soloist spoke the words in English. In his deep, gentle voice — not unlike my husband David’s — he began:
“When I die, I want your hands upon my eyes; I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands to pass their freshness over me one more time…”
My tears flowed, unrestrained. I cried from a deep pit of grief — this dark place that I thought, at the time, could never be healed. But I also cried from the recognition that I was being comforted by those reassuring words, as if my own dear David were speaking them to my heart. I heard David telling me to go on living, to live a full life, the kind of life he knew that I was capable of and that he so often saw and admired in me.
Knowing how much that song, and Conspirare, meant to me, Rob later gifted me with both the DVD and CD, and I must have listened to Soneto de la Noche hundreds of times. I’m well past the place of crying when I hear it. Now it’s simply a bittersweet memory.
Or so I thought.
When that same soloist stepped forward for this song Friday night, I found myself holding my breath in anticipation. Was it in anticipation of experiencing this gorgeous piece of music “live”? Or did it have something to do with the fact that I’m standing at yet another crossroads in my life? As I let go and exhaled, surprisingly and instantly, tears formed again.
But this time, I heard the words spoken to me not from David, but from a Loving Presence within me:
“I want you to live, Pauline…
I want all that I love to keep on living, and you whom I loved and sang above all things
To keep flowering into full bloom, so that you can touch all that my love provides you.”
I exhaled and took in the words. Breathed them in, gulping them like much-needed oxygen.
“…flowering into full bloom.”
Isn’t that what the poet Neruda, the composer of these beautiful pieces of music, the musicians, and the singers were doing — flowering, allowing their remarkable talents to fully bloom?
And isn’t that what God asks of us?
How we use our life, how we manifest our gifts and talents is our responsibility. Just like the parable of the talents. We’re not meant to bury our gifts. Our spirit isn’t meant to “die” with the one who passed on before us. We are meant to fully live, just as Neruda urged his lover. And just as God, our Divine Lover, urges us.
When I consciously allow this Loving Presence to breathe through me, then I am my truest self.
And as my truest self, I can “touch all that Love provides me.”
And isn’t that what God asks of us?
Soneto de la Noche
When I die, I want your hands upon my eyes;
I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands to pass their freshness over me one more time;
I want to feel the gentleness that changed my destiny.
I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep,
I want your ears to still hear the wind,
I want you to smell the scent of the sea we both loved,
And to continue walking on the sand we walked on.
I want all that I love to keep on living, and you whom I loved and sang above all things
To keep flowering into full bloom, so that you can touch all that my love provides you,
so that my shadow may pass over your hair,
So that all may know the reason for my song.