I was a little over an hour away from Dallas, where I’d planned to stop for the night, when three warning lights popped up on my dash.
Panic. I’m on an interstate surrounded by nothing but ranchland. I still had about another 10 hours of driving to get back to El Paso. Plus, it’s Friday night of Memorial Day weekend.
After pulling over to peruse my manual and check my engine, I offer a prayer to get somewhere safely. Then I decide to calm down. I decide to trust that whatever happens, it’ll be OK. And I let go of any expectation to make it back to El Paso tomorrow.
This is not a typical response for me.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been getting a lot of practice in learning to trust over these past several years.
Maybe it’s the effects of listening to CDs on Meister Eckhart and the art of letting go while taking this incredibly long roundtrip drive from El Paso to Virginia.
Maybe it’s because, from the beginning, this journey has been about ridding myself of what is unnecessary. Of letting go of attachments and outcomes. Of learning to say yes to what is in front of me.
And there’s no doubt it’s because of what I’ve seen and experienced along the way.
Days earlier I had emptied out the extra bedroom at a friend’s house where I’d stored boxes I couldn’t get to before leaving Virginia last January. Sorting through years of family photos and other memorabilia filled me with gratitude for the blessed life I’d had.
A life I couldn’t return to. No matter how appealing it seemed.
And appealing it was. Visiting friends who were settling into a simpler life with their husbands, their kids now grown and out of college, yet still living close enough for family get-togethers in the beautiful rural countryside of central Virginia – I’ll admit, it was attractive.
This physical emptying out, I realized, was a metaphor for the internal releasing and emptying that has been going on. An emptying of attitudes as well as possessions, of the way I would like life to show up. The way I would like things to be.
Like not having car issues on the interstate, for example. Or not having my husband die so young. Or living so far away from my son who’s remaining in Alaska for at least another year.
Yet I also saw how, the more I “empty myself out,” the more I have room for God. And for “the other.” Room for true listening. For opening to the grace that’s right here.
The next day, as I sat in the customer service area at the Dallas Sewell Subaru, waiting to get the news about my car, I pulled out a letter I’d received from Martin, a 27-year-old Mexican journalist who’d come here seeking asylum because his life had been threatened. He was stuck in the El Paso detention facility, awaiting the results of his case.
I’d begun writing to Martin, hoping to encourage and visit him soon. I was considering my response to his letter when I received a text from a friend in El Paso saying that Martin had been denied asylum for the second time! Losing hope, he’d decided to give up his case rather than appeal and remain in our prison-like system. That means he’ll be returning to Mexico where at least half a dozen journalists have been killed in recent months. His young life is surely in danger.
Suddenly my minor inconvenience is irrelevant. My calling to follow my heart clearer than ever.
It may be that every time I step out in faithfulness, I’m taking a risk. But my risks are insignificant compared to the risks taken by those I’ve accompanied, my brothers and sisters running for their lives. People who live in constant fear and danger.
Living with an open-hearted stance is not easy. I feel the pain of the other as I grow in awareness that my life is not about me.
But this is what I choose. And I need grace to succeed.
“Grace leads us to the state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaningless in which we ask, ‘What is it all for? What does it all mean?’ All we can do is try to keep our hands cupped and open. And it is even grace to do that.” Richard Rohr
I hope that I am being “emptied out” so that I can be filled with the very fullness of that grace.
Have you ever been surprised by joy? Felt it come out of nowhere and suddenly overtake you? Yet you can’t fully explain it?
That’s been happening to me since returning to this desert border town. I’ve been experiencing a mysterious joy.
Despite not knowing for sure what I’m doing here. Not knowing where I’ll settle. Still trying to sell a house in Virginia. Looking for a paying job. Aware that my temporary living arrangement will soon expire.
So many unknowns. Enough to send anyone into a panic. Or at least an anxious spin.
But surprisingly I feel peaceful. And happy.
Maybe it’s because I’ve done this so many times now. Uprooted myself. Leapt off into the unknown. Taken risks. And come out the other side, assured once again that I have everything I need as I listen and trust my inner guidance.
But I know it’s more than that.
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest who wrote The Divine Milieu.
God has been showing up a lot lately.
Just two days after arriving in El Paso, I returned to volunteer at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center where I’d served over a year ago. As soon as I walked through the door, took in the familiar surroundings, saw the people, I felt this inexplicable happiness spread inside of me.
Nothing had precipitated it. Other than being in this place.
It was the presence of joy.
A Presence letting me know that I was exactly where I needed to be.
Then last Sunday, I attended a Spanish Mass. A joyous celebration, the walls reverberating with lively music and handclapping. Pews packed with Hispanics. Many others standing along the side and back walls. And this was only one of six masses held every Sunday!
I went because I love being among the people. Saying the prayers in Spanish along with them. Celebrating the combination of their rich spirituality and connection to the earth. Seeing their faith in action both delights and humbles me. I can’t explain it, but they possess something special.
I was standing there, silently taking everything in, when suddenly I recognized something. I recognized the Presence of what it is they possess. And it filled me. This unnamed Presence.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Joyful tears.
And I knew. This is God. This is the Presence of God.
In these people. In these tears I’m shedding.
In this overwhelming joy that has taken me by surprise.
In this awareness that I am standing in the midst of grace.
In the knowledge that every leap I’ve taken — even when it didn’t feel “right” at the time — has been a perfect piece of the process of my life. Taking me where I needed to go. Helping me to heal.
In that moment of recognition, a Scripture verse came back to me:
“Count it all joy when you are involved in every sort of trial.” (James 1:2)
Two years ago I was struggling in San Antonio. Trying to make a go of a promise I’d made to serve there. Feeling very alone and uncertain, I’d written a blog post about the “life in abundance” God wanted for me. The promise of joy. Knowing it was possible, but feeling a million miles from anything close to joy.
Now I understand.
My heart knows why I am here.
“That my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”
La alegrίa. That’s Spanish for joy. Now I understand. A joy no one can take from you.
Cultivate your inner garden.
Maybe you’re wondering what the heck that means.
I know ever since I was given that directive on a recent retreat in Ruidoso, NM, I’ve been walking around with the phrase in my head. Thanks to our very spiritual and wise retreat director, Sr. Margarita, who just happens to have indigenous grandparents and a real connection to nature.
Our first night there she had us all sitting in silence in the middle of a green meadow surrounded by lovely green trees (that in itself was a gift for someone like me who’s been missing greenery since I arrived in El Paso).
“Listen to nature welcoming us,” she said as we settled into our plastic lawn chairs.
Sure enough, within moments, trees swayed in unison, leaves rustled, crows cawed. Even the setting sun slowly lit up clouds drifting overhead.
I felt at home.
Not because the place reminded me of Virginia. Although it did. But because I realized, in that moment, that I am always home.
That was just the beginning. The gifts kept coming.
And Sr. Margarita, with her awareness of the presence of Spirit in everything, helped foster that awareness in me.
She seemed to love using metaphors. Something I also love as a writer.
The most powerful metaphor was that of a garden – a place where resurrection happens. (Think of a seed falling to the ground. Or Jesus falling to the ground at Gethsemane.)
A place, she said, that we need to cultivate. A place that represents our inner selves.
She told us how, like Mary in the children’s story, The Secret Garden, we have to go into the attic – or the basement – and take the risk of delving into our dark, mysterious selves, in order to find the key to our secret garden.
I don’t have any problem with that idea. I’ve been to some pretty dark places in myself. But the idea of cultivating and discovering a “secret garden” intrigued me.
So, one afternoon I stepped into the middle of this huge garden at the retreat center, hoping I’d get some insight. I sat in the sun taking in the scent and beauty of red and peach roses — a childhood favorite.
All of a sudden I noticed them.
First one weed. Then another. Pretty soon I was completely focused on those weeds.
The thing is, they weren’t even that large. Or tall. Or overgrown. They seemed so miniscule standing beside the expansive rose bushes that only minutes ago had captured my attention.
But I just couldn’t leave those weeds alone.
Before I realized it, I’d grabbed hold of one and plucked it out of the ground. It lay there limp and lifeless, the sun beaming down on it.
And then it came to me. How that sun is always present. How it warms both the roses and the weeds. How it doesn’t judge whether one is more worthy than the other. It simply shines. And nurtures. And warms and loves everything.
What about me? Can I do the same for myself? Can I let go of focusing on the weeds?
Allow my inner garden to flourish? And accept and love the whole beautiful mess that is me?
Maybe that’s the real secret to gardening.
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…
I’ve been away for a while. From writing, that is.
Even though my heart’s been brimming with all I want to say. And I find myself at yet another crossroad. A crossroad where I’m being asked to surrender it all.
I find this to be a hard post to write. Because how do you express the inexpressible?
Maybe an image will help.
The other day, Emma, the director of the orphanage where I volunteered in Cochabamba, emailed a couple of photos of the babies I’d cared for. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the children while working there, so this was the first time I’d seen their precious faces since I’ve been back home.
I cried when I saw them.
Especially little Teresa. She was my favorite. But I loved them all. And not only for the short time I was with them. I still carry them in my heart. I suspect I always will.
It’s easy to love babies, isn’t it? Even when they’re crying inconsolably. I mean, for the most part. We just love them. Inexplicably. Even though they’re totally useless. They can’t do a darn thing for themselves. Completely dependent. Open and waiting. Helpless and vulnerable. They’re surrendered to us. And yet we love them even more.
Lately the image of those babies has been really speaking to me.
It’s a metaphor. My relationship with those babies. An image of something much deeper. A metaphor for my relationship with a God who is always loving me. A God who loves me most especially in my helpless, vulnerable, open, and completely surrendered place. And this love has been overwhelming and powerful and hard to fully take in.
And also a bit scary.
Because if I surrender completely, let go of all my roles and my self-images, my thoughts and ideas about who I am or who I should be, then what? Then who will I be?
It’s a place of naked vulnerability. Of meekness and humility.
And the “little me” wonders, Do you really want to go there?
All alone in my precious prayer time, when I go down into that deepest, most silent place within me, I know that the answer to that question is yes.
I know I am here to surrender to love.
And I know it’s OK that I can’t get there on my own.
As Richard Rohr says, “Authentic prayer is always a journey into love.”
I want to take that journey. Again and again and again.
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.
Pay attention to where you’re going. It’s one of the lessons I learned in Cochabamba.
Daily I had to be aware of what was in front of me. Figuratively and literally.
Uneven sidewalks, crumbling concrete, hidden holes — all threatened to trip me up as I walked the streets of Cochabamba. Entire slabs of cement jut out like in the aftermath of an earthquake. No sidewalks are flat and even. If I wanted to stay vertical, I had to pay attention.
And if walking on the sidewalk wasn’t easy to maneuver and threatened my safety, crossing the street was worse.
Pedestrians never have the right-of-way in Cochabamba. No matter if you’re in the crosswalk, the traffic light is in your favor, or you’re already half way across the street. Drivers will not stop or slow down. They constantly beep their horn at you. Even if you’re only near the curb or simply walking in that direction. Their message is clear: “Don’t even think about it.”
Other lessons I learned:
How to approach strangers and strike up a conversation, asking important questions like “Where can I buy the best helado (ice cream)?”
How to meet desafíos (challenges) and speak up for what I needed in a language I was only beginning to learn, with people I was not entirely comfortable with. Not easy for an introverted, introspective person like me. But I did it. Time and again. It gave me a taste — just a taste — of what it’s like for a migrant trying to survive in a foreign country.
How to look the other way when encountering a naked campesino —peasant farmers that have come to the city to work —squatting in the canal to relieve himself or to wash his body in the only water available.
How to hold and feed one baby in my arms while pushing another one in a Fisher Price swing, using my elbow or foot.
I miss holding those babies at the orphanage. When I imagine Teresa and Pablo, Adriana, Jhon, Nichol, and Breiseda, when I remember the tiny knots in their hair from lying in their cribs for so long, and I wonder if anyone is cradling them now, I cry. Their situation seems hopeless. Yet I know it isn’t.
I also know I can’t go back to care for those orphans. Here’s why. As much as I loved the beauty and culture of the country, my teachers, and friends I made, something was missing. My heart was not in Cochabamba. It remains with the migrants and refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border. Still.
Did I need to go all the way to Bolivia to learn this? Apparently so.
Because besides learning Spanish and gaining clarity about where my heart lies, I received other necessary lessons. Lessons about courage to face the feelings arising in what I was experiencing. Lessons about finding true hope in the midst of feelings of hopelessness.
If all had gone according to my expectations, according to my well-laid plans, it would have been easy to have faith in my self-made God, to “hope” in my ego’s ideas of what the world “should” be. But God asks more of me than this. God asks me to trust even when I feel betrayed, angry, hopeless in this place of my own making. And then to be present to those feelings. Long enough to come out the other side.
As the Pathwork teaches, through the gateway of feeling my hopelessness lies true and justified hope. That’s something I’ll need if I’m to serve those who would have little reason to hope.
Spiritual writer and teacher Cynthia Bourgeault says in Mystical Hope:
“Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender; that is, through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to.”
May I let go and surrender. To the presence that has always been right in front of me.
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.
The fall foliage is crazy gorgeous this year. Vibrant oranges, golden yellows, and ruby reds shimmer in the morning sunlight. Whether I’m doing Tai Chi on my deck surrounded by breathtaking multicolored trees or driving along rural Rte. 810, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, I regularly find myself breaking out into spontaneous smiles and giggles.
Maybe it’s because I missed fall completely last year. Or maybe I’m just paying closer attention. Because who knows where I’ll be next year.
I really love fall in Virginia.
And I love my peaceful home in the woods. It’s a place of refuge and reflection. A place of beauty and blessing, for myself and for anyone who’s visited. It’s a place I can come to rejuvenate and reflect. To write and to find solitude. A sacred place.
And yet, I hear an inner voice asking, “Can you let it go?”
That’s the question I’m faced with now. And it’s a tough one. But there’s something I love more than my home in Virginia.
I love the possibility of fulfilling my heart’s calling. And I love the God within who urges me to fulfill that calling. In the process, I realize my True Self.
Every spiritual journey deepens when you’re willing to let go of the attempt to eliminate risks. This means you have to be willing to pay the price. To give up attachments to anything that might hold you back.
All that happens in our lives prepares us for our calling. I believe this. I believe that all the pieces of the events of our lives—the sorrows as well as the joys, the roadblocks and the unexpected detours, even the things that have previously held us back—all of it fits together like the pieces of a puzzle that leads to our true calling. This house has been part of that. So has my husband. Had I been unwilling to let him go, I never would have come to this threshold.
Now the key is being willing to let go even further.
Am I willing to trust the voice that says, “Do it for love”?
I try to listen more deeply. I want to know exactly what next step I should take. Where I’ll wind up next. But all I hear is:
Don’t think your way through the journey. Trust what you hear in the silence where I dwell. You will land when it’s time.