I’ll miss the trees.
White and pink dogwoods. Towering oaks. Weeping willows with fairy land canopies.
Since childhood I’ve had a thing for trees. Summers you’d find me on our backyard lawn mesmerized by the sun dancing on the tips of leaves. I’d watch the morning light trickle down like a waterfall as it slowly engulfed entire trees, turning everything a sparkling, vibrant green.
I love green.
But there aren’t many trees in the desert. And certainly not much green where I’m going.
There won’t be any rolling green hills dotted with black cows and red barns.
No sweet smell of freshly mowed grass on a late spring morning.
No moss-covered stones jutting from brooks, their soft surfaces slippery and smooth like a carpet.
There won’t be much water anywhere in fact. No streams or rivers.
I’ll definitely miss the ocean.
And April’s ruby red azaleas. Pear and apple tree blossoms, too. The orange tiger lilies stretching out to meet me as I drive the back roads home. With the Blue Ridge mountains as the backdrop.
But most especially, I’ll miss my community. My friends.
Those who’ve walked with me through the birth and rearing of my son. Friends who cheered and howled along with me and David at all the soccer games and swim meets.
(Well, maybe not as loudly as David. Even I had to walk away from him shouting in my ear sometimes.)
Friends who showed up at my door with ham biscuits and casseroles and tears I couldn’t shed the afternoon David died. Friends like Deborah who accompanied me to the funeral parlor to make all the necessary arrangements. Kathy and Janet who helped clean my house when I didn’t think I had enough energy to get through another day. Whitney who mowed my acre of lawn whenever the grass grew too tall.
So many friends who helped me through all of it. Held my hand. Embraced me. Let me cry when I needed to. Or scream.
Friends who’ve accompanied me on this spiritual journey. A journey that took root, deepened, and blossomed here. And eventually veered off in a direction I never would have anticipated.
Now it’s time to leave. After 30 years in Virginia.
It’s far from easy.
I’ve come to understand that “poverty of spirit” really is about detachment. About letting go. But not only of possessions. It’s also detachment from what I thought was important. From what no longer serves me. From the fears and images and illusions I’ve falsely believed and carried.
And here’s a big one — detachment from trying to anticipate the outcome. From trying to control and plan and have everything in place. Because I can’t step out in faith otherwise. Or trust the voice of God within.
And follow where I know my heart is leading.
So, yes, Virginia, I will miss you. All your natural beauty. All your trees and greenery. All those special people you hold for me. But I will carry the memory. I will carry all of them.
And in my experience, memories of love never fade.
(Lyrics from The Memory of Trees, by Enya)
I walk the maze of moments
but everywhere I turn to
begins a new beginning
but never finds a finish
I walk to the horizon
and there I find another
it all seems so surprising
and then I find that I know…
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.
Another full day on the streets of Cochabamba where women openly bare their breasts for their hungry children. They breastfeed while walking, talking, carrying groceries, crossing the traffic-filled avenue, sitting on their mats selling their wares — whatever is needed while they tend to the most natural every-day activity of nursing their little ones.
Most people don’t even notice. I do.
But that’s because I seem to notice everything here. It’s as if I have recently regained my sight. And all my senses for that matter.
I’ll be walking along and all of a sudden some unusual scent fills my nostrils. Maybe it’s the sweet smell of unidentifiable flowers. Or the overpowering odor of raw sewage that affronted me one afternoon. Worse than anything I’ve ever encountered. I literally couldn’t take a breath until our vehicle was a few blocks away. And the sewage was located right up the street from an elementary school!
Then there are the colors that pop into view at every turn. Quechua women wearing bright pink shawls with multi-colored stripes that bulge with the weight of their cargo– usually a baby. The school girls in their sparkling white uniforms that look like doctors’ coats. Yellow, pink, and red hibiscus plants that line neighborhood streets. Grand green weeping willows that hang so low their delicate branches brush my forehead as I pass.
Green. It’s definitely the predominant color in this city. Islands of trees and green grass flow through the middle of main avenues. Parks filled with topiaries and vibrant plants appear everywhere I venture. Palm trees tower above the street life.
And what life there is in Bolivia!
It came to me one day while I was sitting in the garden at the Maryknoll language school. What the richness of life here is like for me.
It’s like a full symphony playing inside of me. Not just in my head. In my entire body. And it’s waking me up to the music of life. I pray my eyes remain open.
Another beautiful day in Cochabamba.
Beginning my third week here, where the sun has shown every day, with brief showers passing through. The climate is ideal. Fruit is plentiful and sweet. Green mountains tower over rooftops in all directions. And I stumble across parks on my daily walks, no matter which direction, or how far, I go. An abundance of colors, odors, plants, and people confront me everywhere I turn. This city is fully alive with the richness of life — and all its contrasts. And I love it.
With so much to share and not much time to write — at least not in English — the best I can do for now is offer brief descriptions. Some of these really merit their own separate story, like my first experience using the public bathroom at La Concha — a huge, open-air market that stretches for miles and sells everything that you might want or need, from fresh produce to electronics. Let’s just say the public toilet there involves being very aware and open-minded.
Here’s a taste of my first two weeks:
The absolute beauty of the parks and the grounds of the Maryknoll language school. Both are your frequent hang outs. There’s something about being in the midst of such an abundance of flowers and trees.
Three things you can always find at those lovely parks: stray dogs, young lovers, and basura (trash).
The campesinos — poor indigenous who come from the countryside. Every day they’re out on the streets working, from morning until night, washing other people’s laundry and cars in the canal, selling their fruit or papas (potatoes) and carne (meat) from their stands, spreading their bright blankets on the sidewalk to display their wares, often with little children in tow.
Homeless dogs roaming the streets. One even walked up and down the aisles at church this morning. Guess he was hoping some good soul would have pity on him. I have no idea where these dogs find food and water.
Chicken at almost every meal — except breakfast. Meals usually consist of potatoes and rice, carne (meat), tomatoes and onions (which my host family considers to be vegetables). Whatever we don’t eat for almuerzo (the big meal at lunch time), is served again for la cena (dinner).
No salads. For health reasons, we’ve been told not to eat the lettuce here. For someone like me who’s accustomed to eating salads every day…let’s just say my body’s in rebellion mode right now.
Helado (homemade ice cream made from real fruit) sold throughout the city. It makes up for not being able to have salad. Sort of.
No hot water, except in the shower. But I am so grateful to have it there. If I can only have hot water in one place, that would be it.
Quechua women with black braids wearing white sombreros, their brightly striped shawls draped across their backs carrying babies hidden from view.
The Afro-Bolivian dancers we watched at a special celebration. I didn’t even know theses people existed.
Vendors driving slowly through the neighborhoods on Saturday mornings, calling out the fresh fruits they’re selling from the backs of their trucks: grapes, papayas, bananas, mangos. The mangos taste sweeter than any dessert.
More to come…if I can get the Internet connection to cooperate.
I watched Life as a House again recently. It’s both one of my favorite movies and a great metaphor for life. It reminds me of my own dream house — this log home in the woods. How it manifested through my imaginings. What happened in the building of it. And of my decision to now let it go.
In the movie, Kevin Kline plays George, a washed-up architect who gave up on his dreams years ago. He’s divorced from the woman he truly loved, has become alienated from his son, and when the movie begins, he is let go from the architectural firm he’s hated for some time. To top it off, shortly afterwards George discovers he’s dying.
That’s when George actually begins to live. He finally decides to build the house of his dreams. A house he knows he will never live in. But a house that will bless all who have a part in it. The building of this house is about redemption. It’s about transformation. It’s about letting go of what you love. Even as you let yourself love more deeply. And that’s where true freedom comes.
I’ve been reflecting on this as I get ready to leave behind my own house.
Soon I’ll be headed back to Bolivia to immerse myself in Spanish language school and improve my options to find work back at the U.S.-Mexico border after I return. By summer, I expect I’ll be gone.
It’s hard to think of letting go of this house. Anyone who’s ever visited has remarked on how beautiful, peaceful, and special it is. That’s certainly true. But even more than that — this house has redeemed me. Through its absolute silence and solitude. Which has been both a gift and a curse. In this house, I’ve come to understand the term, “a deafening silence.” I’ve learned the real meaning of loneliness. I’ve also had wonderful conversations with the moon and spent nights praying under a star-filled sky. And I’ve sought and discovered, out of the solitude, a Love that sustained me even, and especially when, I didn’t think I could support myself.
Before this house was built, my friends gathered in a fire ceremony to bless the land and my future home and all who would come. Anyone who has passed through its doors has felt the energy of those blessings. I truly believe I’ve been spiritually protected here.
Something else that will be hard to let go of — the life I’ve known, the friends I’ve made over the years, my community.
Like George, I’m experiencing my own little death. My own bittersweet feelings as I gather with friends I love and inwardly whisper my goodbyes. My recognition that I am going from what is known and comfortable into the unknown.
And, like George, I am leaving behind a house that is part of me. A house that is filled with blessings and positive energy for those who will come after. A house that has its own life.
But my heart is calling me elsewhere. I choose to follow that call.
Sometimes you manifest your dream, only to have to let it go.
For reflection, I share this excerpt from David Whyte’s poem “House of Belonging”
This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.
This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.
There is no house
like the house of belonging.
Exactly one year ago today — July 18 — I left home. Got in my car and followed a longing to fulfill something deep within me. But I hadn’t realize just how scared I was until I locked and closed the door to my house, leaving everything behind — my son, my dog, all my possessions. I had no clue what I would find in Texas, how I would be cared for, how I would support myself financially, or what shape things would be in when I returned. It definitely felt like a major risk.
Yet I felt absolutely certain I had to risk it.
And I’m so glad I did.
Nothing was as I expected. So many challenges. So many doubts and questions along the way.
And it was all good.
The journey taught me some things that, even though I thought I knew them, I didn’t really “know.” Not until I actually lived them.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Trust your inner guidance.
- You have a deeper wisdom and tremendous inner strength that kick in when you ask for help and trust enough to listen.
- It’s safe to leap.
- When you follow your heart, the Universe really does provide.
- Even though you sometimes feel all alone, you never are.
- Your true self will keep you company through any darkness.
- Love connections can be made in an instant. Even when you don’t speak the language very well.
- You don’t have to know where you’re going. You only have to “do the next right thing that’s in front of you.” (This one’s from Sr. Brigid Marie, my dear spiritual mentor who provided a light for my path during a dark time in San Antonio.)
- Celebrate the unique way God is revealing Godself in the world through you. (Another gem from Sr. Brigid Marie.)
- You can live in liminal space a lot longer than you think.
- Love and grace are always available. You’re the only one that blocks them from getting through.
And the most important of all:
When I can still the voices long enough to be in the silence, I hear a gentle and quiet Spirit that whispers nothing but love in my ear and fills me with this one truth: I am loved beyond measure. In return, I am asked to love “the unseen” and the “not-yet.”
In those moments, this is what I do know: that everything — all things — live and move and have their being in God’s love.
Sometimes I have a hard time accepting and taking this in. I have to remind myself that I KNOW this. I may not know where my next home will be or how I’ll live out the next step of this journey. But I do know when I truly listen and follow, Love gives me what I need.
Imagination, innocence, and trust. Qualities I love about children.
On the days I’m fortunate enough to serve at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, I get to witness these qualities. Interacting with the children is the highlight of my day.
But when the migrant children first come through our doors, their faces reveal anything but trust. Their eyes search me, as if for a sign. Some cling to their parent’s side or try to crawl in their mother’s lap. Others sit quietly on folding chairs as I explain to their parents where they are and ask the necessary questions to fill out our paperwork. Sometimes when I bend down to tell a child my name and ask his or hers, I get no answer. The little girl glances away shyly. The little boy pulls closer in to his mother. I wonder what they’ve experienced on their journey. And I’m aware of the place they just came from—an Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility.
I ask if they are hungry. And I smile. A lot.
After a while, they respond. They begin to trust that we really do care about them here and that this place is safe. Once a child joins in my game of peek-a-boo or lets me chase him like a make-believe dragon, I feel reassured that despite whatever they’ve experienced, their imagination and innocence are still intact.
Besides, once they see the toy room, they can’t hold back. Before long, I hear the sounds of giggles traveling down the hall and plastic wheels being dragged across the linoleum. Or I’ll walk by and catch a budding artist concentrating on her picture. Later she’ll ask me for tape so she can add it to our wall collection of drawings from the hundreds of children who’ve passed through this center. Most likely her colorful drawing will include words like “blessed” and “thank you” and “God.” Always the children are thankful. No matter what they’ve experienced.
Luis, a young man who volunteers at Nazareth, knows a lot about the migrant children. About their innocence and imagination. Their trust. And their faith. In addition to taking classes, studying, and juggling a full schedule, for the past six years Luis has volunteered with his church’s immigrant ministry. On weeknights and some weekends he visits and works with the children and youth confined to detention centers.
These children are what our government calls UACs — unaccompanied alien children. That means they’ve come to the border without a parent. Unaccompanied children under 12 are put in a foster care-type system until they’re reunited with a parent or deported. Youth 12-17 are placed in a very structured and secured detention center.
When Luis asks the children why they’ve come, the top two reasons he hears over and over are:
#1 – “To be with my parents/my mother.” Often the child’s parent came to this country years ago to work and support the family. Some haven’t seen their mother since they were toddlers.
#2 – “To escape the violence.” Now more than ever children tell Luis of being threatened by gangs. Girls often don’t even go to school for fear of being raped. They tell him no one can protect them.
Luis has many stories about the children and youth he’s encountered. Tough stories to hear. Stories about the pain of being separated from parents for years. Stories about things children shouldn’t have to endure.
But Luis has something else, too. A very special scrapbook filled with drawings and letters from the children. They say how blessed they are to have known Luis. In their neatly printed letters, they thank him and thank God for him.
And then there are the drawings. So precious. A seven-year-old’s version of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A young teen’s intricate painting.
But there’s one unusual drawing that Luis especially likes to explain.
One day he’d asked the little kids at the center to draw a picture of what God looks like to them. Six-year-old José presented a colorful, oblong-shaped object up at the top of his page with his name above it.
Not having a clue as to what it was and not wanting to hurt José’s feelings by trying to guess, Luis simply asked him.
“An airplane,” the little guy answered.
Confused, Luis asked, “So, José, why is God an airplane?”
“Because God is fast like an airplane. And I know that if I have God in my heart, God will be the fast plane that will take me to my mom.”
Trauma. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow.
This is what these children experience. Yet they remain innocent. They still have faith and trust in a God who is present no matter what. And their imagination soars. Just like José’s airplane.
It makes me wonder. If I’d been through what these kids have, how might I draw God?
I’m sharing this post from Fr. Bill, a Columban priest from our mission in El Paso who is now visiting El Salvador, where he witnesses daily the very situations that are forcing people to leave their homes. This particular post describes the disheartening situation of people being deported back to the very life-threatening situations they risked fleeing.
I’m scared, the young mom tells me in Spanish. “Miedo.” It’s one of the new words I’ve learned.
“I know,” I say, managing to fumble my way through my limited Spanish. Of course she’s scared, I tell her. It’s been a difficult journey. She’s in a new country. Everything is new and uncertain. And she doesn’t speak English.
This evening she will board a bus with her four-year-old son bound for California. And she has no idea what to expect or how she will communicate.
Many mothers have come through our doors here at Nazareth Hall after being processed by ICE. But she is the first to look into my eyes and share her fears. Her vulnerability moves me.
Later that afternoon her darling little son shows off the GAP jacket he’s chosen from the donated clothing room. With its puffy shoulders and bright peach color, it’s obviously for a girl. I try to tell him this. He continues to smile at me, as pleased as can be with his selection. His face is so innocent, I want to cry.
I remember my own son at 4, how one night at bedtime he had a surprising request. Davis wanted my reassurance that I wouldn’t let any bad guys break into our house and hurt him. He wanted me to protect him from the scary people in the world. It broke my heart to tell Davis the truth. I couldn’t promise him that. But I could promise that I would do whatever I could to stop anyone from hurting him and I’d always love him. No matter what. He could count on that.
I wonder about this mom. Has her son asked for such reassurance? Has she been able to protect him on this journey? Certainly she worries about him, just as I did — and still do — about Davis.
I pull a picture of Davis from my wallet. This is my son, I tell her. She says she sees me in his face. That makes me smile.
Wanting to offer her something more, I tell her to have a safe journey, to go with God. “Vaya con Dios.”
She shows me the rosary hanging from her neck. She tells me she knows God is with her. God has blessed her on this journey. Then she says something about God blessing her through meeting me. Her voice is strong and confident. Her faith intense. Her words humbling. Yet I can bet that any one day in her life has been much harder than my worst day.
Later I find her sitting in a hard folding chair set up in the hallway, awaiting her ride, who won’t be here for another hour. Her face is calm, not looking at anything or anyone in particular. I’m sure she’s silently praying.
Wanting to join her, but not intrude, I take a seat a couple of chairs away. I pray for her journey. For safety for her and her son. For her faith to continue to be strong. Then I quietly return to my work.
When the volunteer driver arrives to take them to the bus station, there’s a sudden flurry of activity, of greetings and goodbyes. We hug and I can feel her heart. They are whisked out the door. I watch them go. And offer another silent prayer. A prayer from one mother to another.
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.
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.