How Did I Get Here?

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Bishop Mark Seitz, of diocese of El Paso, offers a prayer at the interreligious service at Anapra border wall

Some days I wonder.

Like today as I found myself at the border wall in Anapra singing songs, listening to Scripture, and spotting now-famous faces who had come to join our interreligious border witness ceremony sponsored by the Hope Border Institute. Catholic bishops from all over Texas and Mexico’s border cities joined local rabbis, priests-both male and female-, social activists, and, of course, Catholic sisters, who have a mighty presence in El Paso, in a sign of solidarity.

We were here, at the border fence in Anapra, to offer public witness to the real-life stories of real immigrants who are part of our community. To respond to what Bishop Seitz calls “dark times.” To show that those of us who have real-life encounters with immigrants have a different view of this so-called emergency.

I came across so many friends and dear acquaintances in the crowd it took me awhile before I realized Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was among us.

I had to stand back for a moment and take it all in.

How did I get to this place in the desert that has now become oft-mentioned in the news?

A place that is portrayed in varying ways depending on who’s doing the portraying and their political agenda.

A place that has become, for me, an unexpectedly beautiful community.

One that stretches in solidarity all the way from Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley to Las Cruces, NM. And now up to Albuquerque– another community that has begun to receive asylum seekers released by ICE.

A solidarity that even extends to the other side of that wall where people from Anapra, the poorest barrio in Ciudad Juarez, sang of joy and hope and the promise of God, as we snapped pics through the slats in the iron fence and exchanged blessings.

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Photo taken through slats of border wall of Corpus Christi parish musicians in Anapra

And even on THAT side of the fence I recognized people I know.

Like Sr. Josefina with whom I stayed for a weekend in Juarez five years ago when I first came here to volunteer. It had been my first experience with devastating poverty. I had returned to Virginia forever changed.

And Fr. Bill Morton, the Columban father who chose to leave El Paso and live with the poor in Anapra. He’s happier than he’s ever been.

These faces, these stories– they answer the question of how I got here.

The Spirit that spoke to me then is just as strong now. I feel it as I look over the crowd of like-minded souls. I hear it as I’m blasted by the sound of the train barreling through, yards behind our ceremony — its deafening horn a regular “treat” in El Paso. I see it in the golden hues of the setting sun enveloping the Franklin mountains.

These are each precious evidence of a God who astonished me by putting this place on my heart.

I listened. Now I’m here.

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Fitted Sheets & the 10-Year Challenge

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When Facebook had the 10-year challenge recently, I had to stop and think. Do I want to go there? Because 10 years ago, my husband was alive. To post any pics of myself in 2009 would be to post pics of a different self.

In early 2009 I was still part of a family unit of three, with an identity I could name and be confident in – wife, mother, self-employed writer/editor, active community member.

Months later, those foundations would come crumbling down as I struggled with my grief, feeling the shock of the unspeakable. Years later, I am rediscovering who I am in ways I could not have imagined. In a place I never imagined I’d be.

Sometimes it astonishes me, how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve traveled, all that God has done in my life, in those short 10 years.

For starters, I had to take on all the basic chores David did that I took for granted, like the grocery shopping, cooking, even the laundry. Yes, I was definitely spoiled.
And David liked to do things with precision and care, while I flitted through chores. And sometimes life.

After he died, I’d wished I’d paid more attention. To everything. How he prepared that special Panko-crusted salmon. How he handled a budget. How he folded those blasted fitted sheets.

Honest to God, nobody could fold fitted sheets like David. Not even my neat-freak friend who came over to do the laundry in my first week of grieving. She admitted she couldn’t do it with such precision.fold-fitted-sheets.jpg

It may seem funny, but every time I fold fitted sheets, I think of him. In this simple act, I remember so much love, care, nurturing, safety, and security. I know that’s a lot to see in a neatly folded sheet.

It’s a memory of a love that has carried and upheld me all these years. And it’s more than just David’s love. It’s a love in which we both exist.

So, I was willing to take that challenge. To go back and look at a picture of us. To reread and reflect on journal entries from that year.

What astonished me was how strong my faith was in the midst of such pain. How I was able to see and write about his death so clearly. How I was already deepening my trust in the Love to which I am being asked to surrender.

As one of my spiritual teachers says, the immediacy of what is is trustworthy. It’s all trustworthy. Because that is where God is, in the immediacy of this moment.

Since this is the 10th anniversary year, I’m going to risk sharing something very personal. It seems right to do so, to honor my love for David, to acknowledge the healing that can happen, and the amazing ways God can use us in the most painful of circumstances.

This entry is dated April 19, 2009, the day after he died:

My dearest David,

I can’t understand, so I won’t waste time trying. I know you wanted to be here for Davis. But although you can’t be here physically, your spirit is with us, and I know I will feel your presence throughout our lives. I know you’re going to help me from where you are. I also know that you are going to finally understand how much you are loved, and that gives me peace. No one loved me and accepted me and supported me as much as you did. You helped me to grow in so many ways. You were so devoted to me and to Davis. I tried to tell you how much I appreciated you, but it wasn’t enough – I know that because I needed to tell you this every day.

I’m going to miss you saying, “Hey, I didn’t get my kiss this morning.” And I’m going to miss you bringing me my coffee and doing all the little things you do to please me. I’m going to miss seeing the pleasure you got from Davis, witnessing how proud you were of him and how you would choke up talking about him sometimes. I’ll miss your generous heart, your bear hugs, your look of disgust at my wild ideas but how you went along with them anyway, your desire to help those in need, your willingness to see things differently, your wisdom in helping me to see things differently, your ability to turn to God under stress.

Everywhere you went, you thought of me and Davis. How could that be any different now? I KNOW this life is not the end of our journey. We were only beginning to deepen our soul’s journey together. It has been a very powerful and beautiful experience to share this life as your wife. I believe this – that I will recognize you in something or someone somewhere in a moment of awareness and my heart will smile because I will know you are with us.

People marvel at how I can be so strong. I am hurting, I cry, I’m deeply pained by the physical loss of you, but I believe we are being upheld in love and strength because both Davis and I know that in God we live and move and have our being. This experience truly solidifies that for me.”

So, I may not have learned how to properly fold fitted sheets in 10 years. But I have learned to discover grace in the painful challenges. And to trust where love wants to take me.

Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground. Be crumbled,
so wildflowers will come up
where you are.

You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different. Surrender.  (Rumi)

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.

On Leaving Home

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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.

Maybe I’ll remember this next time I close the door behind me.log-cabin-front-door

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.

Off the Grid

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For the past couple of weeks I’ve been living out of my suitcases. Holed up in my temporary living quarters — the second floor of a spacious and comfortable home in the suburbs outside San Antonio. Not exactly the life of a missionary.

Nor is life in American suburbia the life I want. But I won’t be here much longer. And my hosts have been so gracious and kind to take me in for the month of November. So I deal with the inconvenience of having to dig under piles of once folded, packed clothing to find clean underwear. Or try to remember if I stuffed those shoes I now need in a tote bag I brought into the house or in a box still hiding in the back of my Subaru.

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In truth, none of this matters. It’s a small price I’m choosing to pay for following my heart. For listening to inner guidance and going where the Spirit leads me.

But there’s another price to pay as well.

The cost of saying goodbye yet again.

Lately I’ve been feeling the sadness of leaving the Sisters and others I’ve connected with while serving Incarnate Word Missionaries. Some very special people have supported me, been present to me in the challenges, and touched my heart. Along with the difficulties and sometimes painful moments, there have been many gifts.

There always are.

In fact, I’ve come to see that it’s all gift. Even when — and sometimes especially when — the gift arrives hidden in rough, tattered, or unexpected packaging.

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Ironically, now that I’m leaving, I’m immersed in a spiritual community. Sharing lunch with the retired Sisters at The Village. Participating in Women’s Global Connection’s commissioning ceremony for volunteers headed to Peru. Chatting with the Sisters on campus. Slipping into the chapel for quiet moments.

In those quiet moments the magnitude of what I’m embarking on hits me. This time I’m stepping off with no sure footing. I’ve said yes to returning to El Paso without knowing where I’ll land. With no certain ministry to go to. Simply trusting that following my heart is enough. That the Divine will be present. No matter how or what shows up.

“You’re off the grid,” my friend Liz tells me. “You’re trusting God in a way most of us can’t.”

She’s right. And I’m living off the grid and trusting God in a way I myself couldn’t have a year ago. My journey of the heart has prepared me for this. It has allowed me to say yes to complete uncertainty. Because each step off the grid has proven I can trust Spirit.

But, honestly, I woke up this morning feeling a bit anxious. After all, it’s nearly the end of the month and I don’t have a definite assignment in El Paso, a ministry to go to, a place that will take me in. I started to doubt. I prayed for deeper trust.

Suddenly an email popped onto my phone. A response I’d been awaiting for weeks. It’s from the Columban Fathers. They are inviting me to come write for their border ministry. And they have arranged lodging.

I’m not kidding. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Funny how just yesterday someone reminded me that all I needed was faith the size of a mustard seed.

I’m also reminded of one of the many gifts Sr. Brigid has given me: a copy of the first principle and foundation of St. Ignatius. He wrote a wonderful book on spiritual exercises. And he was a big fan of discernment.

The last line reads:

“Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening God’s life in me.”

That’s what I choose. And that means I’d better be prepared to accept whatever shows up. To say yes to life. To be OK with living off the grid.