Beautiful Connections

airplane window
The Uber driver pulled up right on time, at the impossibly early hour of 4:50 a.m. I stood under the white spotlights of the overhang at the front entrance of my niece’s apartment building outside Washington, DC. A sole figure with two suitcases by her side. He could not have missed me. Only the birds announcing their predawn celebration accompanied me.

The tall, brown-skinned man introduced himself before lifting my heavy load into the trunk of his car. Already, in just the few words we had spoken, I thought I recognized Tedor’s accent. After we chatted a bit, I felt comfortable enough to ask his country of origin. He wanted me to guess and tried to give me a geography lesson, which doesn’t work well with me. But after I incorrectly guessed Kenya, and he revealed that it was a neighboring country, I knew my first inclination had been correct. He was from Ethiopia – the same country as my young friend whom I’d been visiting in detention for over a year in El Paso.

I so appreciated the connection that I began to share a bit of Abdinoor’s story. (I have been using the pseudonym Mathias in my blog posts to protect my friend, Abdinoor, and I am happy to finally be able to reveal his real name. Sweet, intelligent, upstanding young Abdinoor has entered Canada, where he is receiving refugee status and is no longer being treated like a criminal. Now he can finally go visit his mother in Kenya.  Although I am thrilled for him, I feel it is our loss.  And our shame.)

Then Tedor and I shared a little of our own stories.  I learned he had been living in the Washington area for three years, along with his family. When I told him I’d lived in Virginia for 30 years, he expressed great surprise. “But you look so young! I thought you were only in your 30’s!”

It had been quite dark when he’d picked me up, so I figured he must not have seen my face clearly. Still, I was really liking this guy.

“You look young because you have love in your heart,” he explained, after I’d revealed my age. “That’s important. To have love in your heart.”

I agreed, of course.

Tedor said he appreciated my kindness, noting that few people he picked up spoke to him. Some don’t even say hello or good morning. They keep their eyes cast downward, gazing into their phone screens during the entire ride.

I tried to imagine that – someone not even acknowledging another human being inside that small, confined space.  I remembered how, as much as I loved the diversity in the DC metro area, the congestion and stressful lifestyle could make it hard to connect.

But what a sweet connection I had made with this stranger in the shorter than 15-minute ride to the airport. Isn’t this what it’s really all about, I thought, as I left his little red car feeling much better than I’d had when I’d dragged myself out to the curb that morning? And Tedor clearly was in good spirits, too.

Isn’t it about kindness and connection? About recognizing our common humanity? About seeing how we are really more alike than anything?

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Not the exact words I saw, but close enough

Later, as my jet rose above the Washington National Monument, I glanced out the window to say goodbye to my beloved Virginia when I noticed an incredible message displayed on the lawn.

Incredible, because of how it spoke to my heart.

There, beaming up at me were the words: “You are not alone. No estás solo.”

Talk about connection! Who had created this message, I wondered? For whom and what was it intended?

It didn’t matter, because in that moment, it was surely meant for me.  Meant to carry my spirit forward, to face the growing challenges of our work at the border and to comfort me in the further letting go that I’d experienced on this trip to Virginia.

I had just let go of my son – again.  Let go of many special things we’d put aside for when he moved into his own place in the lower 48 – something he’d decided was not going to happen anytime soon. So we’d had to let things go for a song, or even less. And I had to let go of the idea that he would live a little closer than the ridiculously long and challenging time it takes to get to Nome by plane.

Davis toddler
I let go of the boy, but kept the story books and the rocking chair

But because that message was also in Spanish, I felt it calling me back to El Paso. To the migrants we accompany, who face far more grievous ways of letting go than I ever will. Asylum seekers, like Abdinoor, stuck in detention, far away from families and anything familiar. And mothers who are still separated from their children, toddlers, and even their babies.

Their forced “letting go” makes mine pale in comparison. My connection with them helps me keep things in perspective.

And if all that wasn’t enough, when I got down the escalator at the El Paso airport, I unexpectedly ran into someone I knew.

Not just anyone.

Sr. Fran was the woman who’d made my first volunteer experience here possible back in 2014. We greeted each other with surprised smiles and warm hugs, genuinely glad to see each other.

I knew I was home.Quotes_Creator_no estas solo

 

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And in the End

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Recognize this familiar lyric from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album?

I’ve been silently singing that one line for the past week. It showed up around the time Pres. Trump called our situation at the border “a humanitarian crisis.” I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.

I didn’t listen to his speech. I knew it would be filled with inaccuracies, exaggerations, and worse. So I stayed away. But I understand he used the word “crisis” at least six times. I also know that he called the situation at our border a crisis of our nation’s “heart and soul.”

Crisis – the word means “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” Its synonym is “disaster” – one of Trump’s favorite words.

I’d have to agree with him on this one – our nation’s heart and soul are in danger. But not for the reasons he implied.

We are in danger of losing our ability to recognize ourselves in one another. And, more troubling, we are in danger of losing our ability to trust love over fear.

Living at the border, I have a clearer picture of what that means.

I also have a better understanding of what living in “crisis” really means. Every day I have opportunities to witness how the migrant families we accompany live with intense difficulties, trouble, or danger, and, most of the time, with all three.

Every day I have opportunities to witness how these people, along with our volunteers, choose to trust love over fear.

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Our families writing prayers to God

It’s a beautiful opportunity, to watch the power of love unfold, as we care for those in crisis and listen to their troubling stories.

In the process, my life and the lives of my fellow volunteers have been changed.

Here are some examples of what, to me, define crisis.

A Honduran minister came to us with his 10-year-old son. He was worried about being sent back because, in Honduras, he had started a successful clinic for drug addicts and, as a result, his son’s life had been threatened. The gangs felt he was taking business away from them by rehabilitating people.

An El Salvadoran woman had carried her handicapped son across Mexico while her 8-year-old son held the hand of her 4-year-old.  She fled because her husband had been killed and she was afraid that if she, too, were murdered, her children would end up on the street, and her handicapped son would be seen as useless and killed outright.

As a business owner, one mother from Guatemala constantly experienced extortion.  When it got tough for her to meet the gang’s demands, they threatened to return and take her daughter. She and her daughter left before they could fulfill that promise.

One man, headed to his sister’s in Los Angeles with his daughter, couldn’t sleep and needed help calming his nerves.  Turns out he had experienced the murder of five family members, one of whom had been shot in the face.

A 14-year-old boy from Honduras had walked for weeks with his father to arrive at the border.  When a volunteer noticed his swollen foot and ankle, she asked him to remove his shoe and sock. She was shocked to find very little skin remained on his toes and the bottom of his foot.  He had a fungal infection superimposed with a bacterial infection, yet he had not complained.

A Guatemalan mother arrived with two teenaged sons; a third, the eldest, had been killed by a gang, causing her to flee in fear of what might happen to her other two. She shared how she fears bringing them up in this new country, how they might be influenced by this culture. Does this sound like a woman who’s glad she left home and country?

She’s not alone. Many migrants tell us of the beauty of their country. Despite the violence, they miss home.

“Once there was a way to get back home…”

That’s another line from that Beatles’ tune.  It causes me to wonder, what if this is what it’s all about after all? Showing each other love to help us get back home.

In the end, isn’t it really all about how well you’ve learned to go beyond your fears? And how much love you’ve offered?

I’m here to tell you there is hope, even in the midst of this “crisis.”

quotes_creator_walking each other

A Good Place to Land

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Aerial view of Las Cruces, New Mexico

Today is the 9th anniversary of David’s passing, and I’m marveling at where I’ve landed. Only last week, I moved again.

No, I didn’t stray very far from El Paso. Just over the border in New Mexico. But it’s a good move. I’ve bought my own place in a great community, and it means I’m putting down roots. Settling in. Ready to really sink my teeth into my life here.

Back in 2009 I could not have envisioned this life. A life without him. A life far from dear friends and a community that fully supported and surrounded me and Davis through our grief.

A life outside my beautiful Virginia.

Now I can’t imagine going back. Not being able to accompany and support the asylum seekers who arrive at our door. I can’t imagine not being able to witness firsthand and speak up about the realities of the Borderlands – the name for our area, from El Paso to Las Cruces, NM.

Las Cruces Organ view
A view from my morning walk

Because the reality is so much different from what you hear in the news or from the mouths of political pundits on TV. Or on Twitter.

I’ve learned so much through the people I’ve met. About perseverance and faith against all odds. About the challenges of living with tremendous uncertainty. The kind that’s life-threatening and beyond heartbreaking.

And, most especially, about the nature of our true home. The home within.

Still it feels good to have landed in my new physical home. A place with a different kind of beauty, where I still have my circle of friends and a community committed to social justice and caring for “the other.”

 

Las Cruces fields
Outside my new neighborhood

 

A safe place.

Yes, El Paso and the Borderlands are safe. In fact, El Paso continues to be counted as one of the safest U.S. cities for its size. I have always felt safe here. I teach English to adults at a church that’s within walking distance of the border. The little hospitality house where I volunteer is downtown, also close to the border. Mexican shoppers cross over daily and support our economy.

This is why what we hear in the media about the border is so disturbing. Like the idea of the president sending the National Guard. It’s ridiculous to us. We believe it’s a waste of taxpayer money and our resources. The truth is, apprehensions at the border have decreased significantly. The numbers are way down.

We also know the truth about the caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico and how that story, in the hands of this president, exploded into some far-fetched, fear-based fantasy. Not to mention that many of these asylum seekers are from Honduras, a country whose recent election was considered a fraud, except by our president. He supported the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández – an authoritarian leader in one of the most violent nations in the world. We continue to send military aid to Honduras while their military police abuse and kill grassroots activists and the poor and marginalized. With rampant crime and human rights abuses, it’s no wonder Hondurans are fleeing.

Honduran election protests

One young woman whom ICE delivered to us shared how the people are desperately poor. Desperate people do desperate things. She and her roommate were both raped in their apartment, and everything they had was stolen. They had nothing left. They were not safe. And they had no recourse. The police could not or would not help them. She fled, not knowing this rape would result in a pregnancy until months later.

Yet she shows no resentment. She even smiles when she speaks about this baby. She seems to be in a good place mentally and spiritually. I wonder if I could land with such grace.

But then again, after David died, I didn’t think I’d ever land someplace gracefully and securely again. At least not without that bottomless well of pain accompanying me.

I’ve discovered that’s not true.

And moving to Las Cruces, with its tree-lined streets, and a little cooler temperatures and a lot more greenery – all within a short drive to El Paso and still within my border community – well, it’s like landing in the best of both worlds.

With so many blessings, I can’t ignore what’s going on in the world around me and not give back. I know David would approve.

Me&David

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.

Graces in Greene

 

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My cocoon in the woods

No, I’ve not disappeared. I have a good reason for taking a month off from my blog — the sale and closing on my beautiful log cabin in Greene County, Virginia.

With all the details to handle for this long-distance move, my 12 days of Christmas went something like this:

12 hours on the phone working out the details of this major move (most of them spent on  hold with Direct TV). Eight friends helping me pack, bringing me food, transporting stuff to storage and Goodwill. Six days driving 9+ hours a day (from El Paso to Virginia and back again). Four trips to a storage unit with some items Davis will surely not know what the heck to do with. Two weeks packing, sorting, and discarding. One light snowfall blanketing the woods and mountains. And a cardinal in an oak tree.

It’s been bittersweet, to be sure.

Finding  myself back in that special place brought up a lot of memories. It gave me a new appreciation of my friends, of my Greene County community, of the privilege of living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and, most especially, of the spiritual significance of living in the silence and solitude of this log home that I envisioned and manifested.

Although two weeks was barely enough time to get everything done and moved out, I managed to pause each day. Take time for contemplative silence. Note the blessings. And be grateful.

That practice helped me remain focused. It calmed me, gave me clarity, and assisted me in letting go of my last tether to Virginia. Not an easy thing to do. Because I love that home. I love my friends. I love Greene County.

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I experienced one last snowstorm in this magical place.

Still, I knew it was the right decision.

And I experienced, much more clearly than I had before, just how much Spirit had upheld me, kept me safe, supported and loved me in this space. Through the questions and doubts, the loneliness, the seeking, as I attempted to listen more and more deeply to where my heart was calling me.

I felt such profound gratitude.

Gratitude for the graces of both the peaceful and tumultuous emotions that surfaced here. For the healing that took place as well. For the Love that never left me.

Gratitude for the community of friends who have showed up whenever I needed them. For those of you who are reading this, I can’t even find sufficient words to thank you.

Greene County is an amazing place. I think of the friends who appeared at my door within minutes after David died. Your countless meals, offers of physical and emotional support, and prayers carried me through that stage and beyond.

Three years later friends again appeared to help me move from our family home to this dream home in the woods. And now, again, you have come to support me.

I know I could not have made this transformational move without you.

Now I’m back in El Paso, settling into an apartment. I haven’t lived in apartment since before I got married at 24 — a very long time ago!

Yes, it’s an adjustment. Another practice in letting go. Daily I am learning to say “yes” to life as it shows up. To accept a life that’s rarely on my terms. And, I hope, paying attention to the graces.

Graces abound.

When I’m in the flow of life, I recognize them. Just as I did these past two weeks in Virginia. They show up in various forms, in unexpected places. They come in different shapes and even in colors. My favorite happens to be Greene.

 

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Mountains flank my snowy, winding driveway as I prepare to leave Virginia.

The Gift of Esther

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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.

Esther surrounded by Emerson College students visiting the border in March
Esther surrounded by Emerson College students visiting the border in March

I’m treasuring Esther’s gift tonight.

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.

my cabin in the woods
my cabin in the woods