Recently two little girls from Guatemala arrived at our door wearing something I’d never seen on a child. Men’s sweatpants.
Admittedly, the girls and their mother appeared a little more disheveled and a little wearier than most of the migrants that show up at Nazareth. Their massively tangled black hair encircled brown faces streaked with dirt so ingrained, their skin appeared to hold various shades of darkness and light. Permanently.
It wasn’t until Mary Beth bent down to help the children remove their worn-out sneakers that she noticed their clothing. With no laces, broken soles, the tongues flapping and tattered, the shoes were what first caught her attention.
But just above the tongues of the sneakers hung gray, baggy pants rolled up at the ankles, spreading out 100 times wider than the width of these thin girls, and then rolled several times over and cinched at the waist. Startled, Mary Beth motioned to me.
“They’re wearing men’s sweat pants,” she nearly whispered.
I had to take a look for myself.
She was right.
If they’d wanted, the girls could have ducked down under the waistband and swum around. I couldn’t imagine them trekking all the way from Guatemala through Mexico wearing these oversized pants.
While Mary Beth helped the family find appropriate clothing, I went off to get bath towels and toiletries for their showers. As I laid out the clean towels on the cots in the their room, I couldn’t help notice what they’d brought with them. Two brown paper sacks sat like fat, wrinkled cabbages on their cots. Twisted at the neck, the bags bulged and split from the weight of the belongings stuffed into them. It was everything they had.
Later, when I escorted the three of them to the showers, I realized the girls had already donned their newfound clothing. One wore a pastel top and jeans, the other, a white dress printed with colorful flowers.
“A dress!” I said to her in Spanish. Her response — nothing but teeth as she smiled up at me, her expression revealing everything. For a moment, I felt as happy as she did. All because of a second-hand dress.
They were still in the shower when it was time for me to leave. Since I wouldn’t be back for a few days, I knew I wouldn’t see this little family again. They’d be gone by tomorrow.
I wanted to do something more. So, I went to the storage room and got a couple of gift bags with crayons and notepads and little TY stuffed animals and placed them on the girls’ cots. It was fun to imagine the joy on their faces when they’d return to their rooms and find them.
But here’s something I’ve noticed.
In the process of doing whatever it is I think I am doing for the people here, something wonderful happens. Each time I learn a little more from their simple faith. Their trust. Their joy. Something about what it really means to live with uncertainty. To trust the journey to something beyond oneself. And to be happy in the midst of it all.
Spring break. College students have descended upon us from the frozen terrain of Omaha, Cleveland, and Boston! But they haven’t come to bask in the desert sun. Or drink beer while lounging poolside. Not that they’d have much luck finding a body of water in El Paso anyway.
No. They’ve come with a more selfless purpose: to learn about life at the border, to experience and better understand the issues concerning immigration, and to serve.
One group of 10 students from Emerson College in Boston has been staying at our house. It’s been fun to catch them being silly with each other, to hear their laughter and feel their high energy. Part of me hopes to capture a bit of it for myself!
But, as the week has progressed, I’ve captured something else from these young people. Or, actually, recaptured.
It’s the passion and enthusiasm I hear in their voices as they share all they’ve been experiencing. They’ve visited with the families on the colonia, prepared and served dinner for migrant farmworkers, helped us clean rooms at the Nazareth hospitality center, and played with the children. They’ve met with Border Patrol, visited a detention center for youth, and listened to legal experts who’ve explained the complexities and insensible process of our current immigration system. They’ve been filled up with the realities at the border.
Realities that have touched their hearts, made them cry, opened their eyes. And committed them to return home and “do something more.”
One young woman, a junior, told me she’s changing the focus of her career because of this experience.
“In college, we’re taught to measure success by our career and what we earn, but now I’m seeing success in a whole different way,” Katie told me. “It’s about doing something that serves others.
“I don’t know exactly what that will be yet, but it’s going to be something different than I thought. I’m going home with lots of questions.”
Her words echoed my own two years ago. Like Katie, my trip to the border was life-changing. It awakened my heart and a calling that I still carry. It also generated lots of internal questions. Questions I still wrestle with, as I wonder where all this is taking me.
Sometimes I feel no older than a 21-year-old student questioning her major. I grapple with doubts and insecurities. I get impatient. I want answers, damn it! I want to be able to figure it out. Or at least be able to see the next step in front of me.
Those darned questions.
I’m still learning how to live the questions without needing to have the answers. Still learning what it means to be faithful to a call in my heart.
Sometimes it simply means all I can do is show up every day with a prayer to let myself be used for a purpose beyond what I am able to see most of the time. Or ever figure out.
And on my good days I’m able to recognize that the gift is hidden in accepting the questions.
Early last year, a dear friend sent me an excerpt from poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I need to reflect on these words again, and to remind myself: Rather than seek the answers, live the questions. And love where they take you.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
Apparently Irish poet John O’Donohue, well-known for his Celtic spiritually, was a good friend of some of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. In fact, he’d come to San Antonio, and elsewhere, at their request. I only learned about this recently.
It’s not surprising, I suppose, given that many of the Sisters came over from Ireland years ago. Some may even have been from County Clare where he was born.
Sr. Brigid, my spiritual companion and probably my biggest supporter in San Antonio, knew him well. She hails from County Kildaire, where O’Donohue spent his early years as a novitiate. At my farewell luncheon I listened to her and other friends tell amusing stories about John as if he were an endeared brother.
I sat there wondering, how could this be?
I mean, not only because I love John O’Donohue’s poetry. Although that’s certainly true. Ever since I came across his writing a couple of years after his death in 2008, I’ve claimed him as one of my favorite poets. From the first lines I read — and I can’t even recall which poem it was — my heart lifted. My imagination blossomed. My longing awakened.
But beyond being excited and delighted about the Sisters’ special friendship with O’Donohue came another realization.
Many months before I ever considered leaving my home in Virginia I would choose and reflect on selected poems taken from his wonderful collection called To Bless the Space Between Us. One of my favorites was, and continues to be, a blessing “For Longing.”
This poem resonated with something in me I couldn’t name. But I felt it in the depths of my heart and soul. O’Donohue put me in touch with my divine longing.
Musing over those lines of poetry created a restlessness that encouraged me to take risks. To seek something beyond the familiarity of home. To imagine the possibilities of truly following my heart.
Ironically, O’Donohue’s words brought me to Incarnate Word Missionaries. They connected me with the Sisters he held so dear. And in doing so, have enabled me to learn some of the most important lessons I needed on this journey. Lessons about trusting myself and trusting my inner being, which I know as God responding to my longing. And lessons about what it means to follow your heart when nothing about doing so seems to make any sense.
Once again I see the synchronicity of events. And I’m shown something much more — the connection between heaven and earth.
The most beautiful thing about us is our longing; this longing is spiritual and has great depth and wisdom.
“To die alive is to take risks. To pay your price. To do something that scares you…”
I came across these words from an interview with author Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist — a book that synchronistically showed up right in the middle of my difficult discernment process.
In his interview, as well as in the fictional tale of Santiago, the shepherd boy and hero of The Alchemist, Coelho describes what it means to live fully alive before we die. Of what it means to be willing to take risks. To open our hearts and be vulnerable. To venture forward into the unknown. Yes, we feel scared, but we do it anyway. Because that’s what it means to follow our “personal legend.” A calling we hear deep in our hearts that results in the finding of our true treasure.
Most of us are afraid to do this. I know I was — at least before I started out on this journey. But each day I seem to be growing stronger, more courageous. And certainly more trusting, of God and of myself.
Because as I listen in the silence, I can hear my Heart speak. And when I follow that guidance, despite my fears of what might happen, I find that I’m given what I need to continue. Again and again. Just as the alchemist tells Santiago in the desert:
“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
Every second is an encounter with God. That’s what I have been discovering as I’ve listened and paid attention. Grace is in all of it.
That became even clearer over these past several days as the end of my time in San Antonio draws near. I feel the sadness of leaving behind this ministry with Incarnate Word Missionaries. Of letting go of a commitment I made and of people who have become dear to me. It’s not easy. Nor has it been easy to deal with the challenges I’ve faced. And the challenges that I know are ahead in El Paso.
Last Friday I met with Sr. Brigid, my spiritual companion while I’ve been in San Antonio. I tell her she has been my light. Someone who listens and supports and says, using only a few words, exactly what is most helpful.
In turn, she tells me things I need to hear. That I am a strong woman. That my faith and my journey are “remarkable,” considering everything I’ve faced here and, how, rather than go home, I’m still willing to go forward in trust. I hear her affirming me in a way that I need right now. It’s one of those encounters with the Holy. It both humbles me and shines the light on my treasure a little more brightly.
On Saturday as I’m moving out of the apartment, the director of the program calls me from Mexico City. She’s clearly concerned about how I’m feeling and what’s in store for me. She knows I’m going to El Paso with no certainty of what I’ll be doing and how I’ll manage. She says there is a place for me if I choose to stay. Her care for me touches my heart, and I realize the impact I have had. Simply by being myself and following my heart. Another encounter.
Then, last night I received a call with a completely unexpected and humbling offer. My concerns going forward to El Paso were addressed in an amazing way. I didn’t know how to respond. I hung up the phone in tears. A major encounter with the Holy.
I’m shown once again how the Universe really does provide when you follow your heart’s intention for the highest good. Just as Santiago was promised. And just as I have been telling myself. Because throughout this journey my mantra has been: “I have everything I need as I follow the path of my Higher Self.”
This remarkable journey is proving exactly that. With every encounter. As I listen to my heart.
I have nearly completed my two-week orientation in Mexico City with Incarnate Word missionaries. Long days packed with teachings by various credentialed instructors on everything from understanding one’s identity and Liberation theology to the spiritual concepts of interior cultivation.
My knees speak to me every night, wondering when I’m going to pick up my exercise routine and yoga poses again. And my healthy, nearly vegetarian diet learned the word “adios” soon after we arrived.
But despite the changes and adaptations, and the continued uncertainty of how things will go while I’m away from home, I am happy to be here. What I feel and hear and experience resonates within me that this is where I belong. The three-day retreat we recently had at a Benedictine Monastery in Cuernavaca only reaffirmed my decision. During the silence, while wandering the beautiful grounds, I discovered yet another metaphor in yet another tree — I have a thing for trees — about the gift of not resisting, of being willing to go underground and hang out in the darkness for awhile, just as the seed does. What emerges will be completely new and surprising — like the humongous, glorious tree that stood before me.
Tomorrow is our commissioning, or sending-off, ceremony. I feel excited and joyful while still unsure of what’s ahead. What will life be like as a missionary in San Antonio? What will I encounter along the way? How will I deal with the anxiety and loneliness that’s certain to arise? These are questions I cannot answer now. Just as we have been taught this week, all I can do is be present. Present to what is here. Now. And this is exactly where God is.
That song from the Disney movie Frozen keeps popping into my head. You know the one every man, woman, and child has been singing since the movie came out: “Let it go, let it go…”
It’s not easy letting go of my entire life as I have known it for the past 28+ years in Virginia. It’s definitely a process. I hit the road nearly a week ago, leaving behind my house and most of my possessions, all my wonderful friends, my precious dog Cody (that was really tough), my beautiful state of Virginia where I’ve now lived more than half my life, and, most importantly, my son (which I’ve written about in previous posts).
Letting go of all this is definitely a spiritual practice for me. I realized the magnitude of my decision as soon as I drove over the Texas border and started to cry. It happened when I saw the “Welcome to Texas” sign. Or maybe it was the “Ammo to Go” sign that did it. But it happened suddenly and spontaneously. With no advance warning like you usually get when you know the tears are coming. The irony of this trip had suddenly hit me. The last time I drove through Texas was 1986 when my husband and I were relocating from South Texas to Virginia. A move we desperately wanted to make. Nothing against Texas, but the year and a half we had spent there was not pleasant. We were ready to move on. I remember feeling excited and full of anticipation, happy to be returning to the East Coast and beginning a new life in a new state.
At the time I never thought I’d return to Texas. Certainly not to live here again. That’s how I know this decision is not coming from me. Nor is it of me. But choosing to live in Texas to work with homeless women and their children for at least a year feels right. The decision is a good one for me.
Still, I fluctuate between feeling the sadness of all I’ve left behind, along with the anxiety of my inner child who thinks I’m a little crazy, to feeling the joy and anticipation of following my heart’s calling. I’ve been staying with my dear cousin Joyce in Austin to visit and relax a little before beginning my year-long lay missionary service. She and her husband live on a golf course where deer come to feed throughout the day. It’s been a much-needed respite. But one of her two little dogs, Cupper, reminds me of my personality. One minute he loves me, wags his tail and is fully receptive of my affection. The next he backs away from me, growling as if he wants nothing to do with me. Joyce jokes and says he’s bipolar. I don’t know much about that, but I do sort of relate to his personality these days.
Not to say that I want to change my mind in any way, shape, or form. It’s just that so many questions pop up about my home in Virginia. Did I remember to do this or that before I left? Did I remember to take everything I needed? Should I have left that behind? And on and on until that refrain “Let it go” sails through my mind again.
It’s a good song really. And a good reminder that following a calling involves trust. It’s a choice I choose to make. I choose to trust the Loving Presence that brought me here. I choose to trust that I’ll be given what I need every step of the way as I follow the guidance of a higher self. Not that small, fear-based ego self that wonders if I turned off the stove.
Two weeks back from my sojourn to El Paso and I’m missing, of all things, the bus rides.
Whenever the sisters couldn’t get me to where I needed to go, I hopped on a city bus. During these hour-long-plus bus rides (involving some transfer along the way), I encountered many people. Usually I was the only white-faced rider. The sole gringo. I didn’t mind that at all. In fact, I felt surprisingly alive amidst the mostly Hispanic passengers.
The bus teemed with the juiciness of life. Young moms grasping the hands of wobbly toddlers, community college students plugged into their iPads and Smart phones, old women toting canes and shopping bags, tired men wearing dark green work clothes or the occasional business suit. I often caught my Hispanic travelers—from young men, to middle-aged women, to the elderly—in what was for me a particularly enamoring practice: just as the bus would take off, they’d make the sign of the cross and then kiss their thumb and forefinger as a prayer for safety and a sign of reverence for their God.
At times people would lug their groceries onboard. I watched one woman and her young daughter unload a Wal-Mart shopping cart heaped with groceries onto the bus platform in anticipation of their bus’ arrival. It took them several trips to pile everything onto the cement. I wondered how the bus driver would react when he saw their load, but I witnessed no impatience on his part as they stepped on and off the bus methodically carrying the groceries and stacking them as securely as possible. I imagined this was a regular practice for them.
There were funny moments too. Like when the bus lurched suddenly, causing a couple of beer cans to fall out of a plastic grocery bag and roll down the aisle, their owner laughing as she chased after them, joking in Spanish. Or when a young woman wearing a short, black leather jacket, black eyeliner, and black fishnet stockings that revealed flesh all the way up to the hemline of her cropped black mini skirt got on board, strutting slowly down the aisle. The middle-aged man sitting in a front seat lowered his dark shades as she passed. Shortly thereafter he headed to the back of the bus.
When not paying attention to the passengers around me, I became engrossed in reading The Great Work of Your Life, the book recommended to me during my first full week in El Paso. It became, and has been, a messenger and guide for my current stage in life, as it deals with discovering your dharma, or sacred purpose, and how to live it “full out.”
Rereading excerpts from this book, now that I’m back in Virginia, helps me remember. You see, part of me is afraid I’ll forget. Forget what I learned. Forget the richness of life I experienced. That I’ll somehow “miss the bus” and remain in my quiet, peaceful, and safe surroundings. But I know that’s not really possible. Not now. Too much has changed. I’ve changed.
I can’t ignore the images of the people I met. Or the messages about deportations and the stalling of immigration reform in Congress that keep popping into my email box. I choose not to ignore them. Next week is the National Week of Action for Administrative Relief from Deportations. According to the Immigration Interfaith Coalition, 1,100 people are being deported every day and predictions are that by the end of April, 2 million people will have been deported under the Obama Administration. For me, now, this has a very personal side. I know about the stories of families being separated. Some of those being deported are parents of children who are U.S. citizens. The children remain behind and are either put in foster care or in the care of relatives. Or if they go with their parents, they are thrust into a country, culture, and language that is foreign to them, and that poses many threats.
I remember when I was teaching English to Hispanic adults and we got onto the subject of immigration reform. One of my students asked me what I thought about it. Every student’s eyes were on me, waiting, wondering what this white woman would say. My answer might have surprised them. They were accustomed to hearing, or expecting, something different from white America. My student then shared that her neighbors of more than 20 years had recently been deported. Taken away one day, just like that. They had been good people, she said, the sadness in her voice and eyes so palpable.
Since returning home, I’ve been discerning where to go from here. Attempting to listen further to my heart. And considering the risks I will take. In The Great Work of Your Life, author Stephen Cope describes what listening for divine guidance, or what some of us call “the will of God,” involves. Among other things, it involves asking for guidance, actively listening, allowing yourself to be surprised, testing the guidance, praying for the courage to take action, and then letting go of the attempt to eliminate risk.
Cope says, “The presence of risk is only an indication that you’re at an important crossroads. Risk cannot be eliminated, and the attempt to eliminate it will only lead you back to paralysis. In important dharma decisions, we never get to 100 percent certitude.”
That’s funny. Those words about the lack of certitude in following one’s calling are the same words I heard from Ruben Garcia—the director of the refugee and immigration house of hospitality called Annunciation House. And from Fr. Bob—a Columban father and missionary now serving in downtown El Paso. And from Alma. Alma, the wonderful massage therapist I visited via yet another bus ride. While kneading my sore muscles, she asked about my journey and discovered how and why I had come to El Paso. Then she shared a special story. Her indigenous people from Mexico had a ceremony for women when they turned 52, an age that is seen as a significant period in their lives, a time when women “cross over” into becoming elders in the tribe, and their focus now changes to one of serving the community. As she spoke of this ceremony and the letting go of old roles and patterns, symbolized by the woman breaking her old dishes, one at a time, as she releases her old life, I wondered, where could I sign up? And why don’t we have these kinds of threshold ceremonies in our culture as we pass from one significant stage into another?
Before I left El Paso, one of my English students gave me a gift: a dragonfly pin. At the time I had no idea that the dragonfly symbolizes transformation and a “change in the perspective of self-realization.” According to information I found on the web, the symbolism of the dragonfly includes “maturity and a depth of character. …the kind of change that has its source in mental and emotional maturity and the understanding of the deeper meaning of life.” (http://www.dragonfly-site.com/meaning-symbolize.html
Hmm. Am I coming to understand the deeper meaning of life? Is my perspective changing? Am I being transformed?
I believe so. I think I’m ready to take the risk involved in serving something greater than myself. I’m on for the ride. Without knowing where it will end.
Last week as I read the news of Philip Seymour’s death, my own internal questions, stirring within me since I arrived in El Paso, intensified. Questions about what it means to fulfill one’s purpose, how to discern one’s calling, and then step off the edge into the unknown to bring it forth into the world with courage and perseverance. I thought of this talented actor, how he embodied his characters, gave his all to the craft of acting. No matter how we judge his death, no matter how our minds view the circumstances and try to make sense of this tragedy, there’s one thing that stands out for me: how this man gave of himself to the cause of acting, and in so doing, to fully living his life’s calling.
But when you give yourself fully to any cause: the cause of acting, the cause of writing, the cause of creating, and especially the cause of serving, you can at times feel used up. You see things not everyone sees. You feel at a deeper level. When you’re devoted to giving yourself to fully living, you come up against raw humanity.
The danger lies in not grounding ourselves in something larger than our small self. In realizing it’s not just about us. We need spiritual grounding. We need practices that take us beyond the world’s limited focus. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Seymour was missing. I don’t know.
But I do know that the people I have met working here at the U.S./Mexico border—and the religious sisters in particular—exemplify for me what it means to give your all to the cause of fully living. They define what it means to “live on the edge.” To live with passion. In the service of something greater than ourselves. They know that the work they do, the people they serve, the call they are answering, is not about them.
Like Sr. Lourdes, for example, whom I met through Border Women. A trained psychologist, she works with undocumented immigrant children who have been apprehended at the border and are sent either to detention facilities for unaccompanied youth, or if they are younger than 12, to transitional foster care centers, while their cases are being processed. Some are as young as four years old. And all are separated from their parents.
Wearing a bright blue Mexican-style dress, wisps of her dark hair detached from her ponytail and falling onto her face, Sr. Lourdes defies my image of a nun. Her eyes shine and she laughs easily. Until I ask about her work. “Some days,” she says, “I go home and cry.”
The children’s stories, their situation, their future. Day after day she’s up against that rawness. What carries her through? What keeps that fire in her eyes from dying out? Faith, prayer, and the support of her community, she tells me.
Then there’s Sr. Doris (I’m not using her real name to protect the victims whom she serves). She ministers to people who have been caught in human trafficking, both in the sex trade and forced labor. It’s hard to fathom how prevalent this is. According to statistics from the International Labor Organization, 20.9 million people become victims of human trafficking every year. As much as 1.2 million of them are children (source: End Childhood Prostitution and Slavery).
Some young people are captured during their trek to the border. Their guides, or “coyotes,” sell them. Some predators travel into Mexico luring women with the promise of work and a safe transport over the border. The women come, some of them wives and mothers seeking to support their family. Once they discover what they’ve actually been hired to do, they are threatened. The predator threatens to tell their family, to ruin their reputation, to physically hurt them. The women feel trapped. These are just some of the scenarios. There are many others.
Sometimes these women—and men—are fortunate enough to find their way out of such bondage. That’s where Sr. Doris enters in. Steeped in shame and poor self-esteem, the victims come to be with her for awhile before moving on in their newfound freedom. She listens. She soothes their pain. She reminds them of who they are — “a loved and valued child of God.”
Her gentle voice soothes my own soul as I hear her say this. I tell her what a gift her ministry is. “They are as much a gift to me,” she says. She smiles. I think I have just met an angel.
This week, Sr. Nancy is visiting us from Milwaukee. Within her first few days here, she, too, gave me a gift. I just “happened” to be sitting with her in a small gathering of women discussing the evolving face of their Franciscan order. Out of nowhere, Sr. Nancy says, “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘if you’re not standing on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.’”
I had to laugh. I feel as though I’ve been standing on the edge for several months now. Wanting to step off, the spark within me longing to be ignited. Apparently, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
For Sr. Nancy, just as with all those I’ve been meeting, standing on the edge means living with passion. And at 79-years old, she still exudes that fire. Whether she’s championing for just immigration reform or helping a retired sister transition to assisted living, her passion is being present to what she is doing in the moment, in the service of God.
I see that in her. And I also see that possibility in me.
The other day we were at Mass together. During the kiss of peace, Sr. Nancy leaned into me and whispered, “Step off the edge, Pauline.”