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Checkpoint on Pain

new mexico welcome

Last week I drove up to Albuquerque for my annual CAC Living School symposium. That means I had to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint.

Driving regularly on southwest Texas or New Mexico highways, I’ve gotten used to it.

I know the routine.

I slow down to a crawl until I’m face to face with a Border Patrol agent.  I roll down my window. He sees my white face, asks if I’m a U.S. citizen. I say yes. He answers, “Have a nice day.” I drive off. He never asks for my I.D. Never checks my car for smuggled goods, or people for that matter.

There’s no doubt it’s racial profiling. But that’s the way it is.

Border Patrol checkpoint

Usually it’s pretty quick. Even when the cars ahead of me are not driven by Anglos. They have to show their I.D.s or documentation, of course. Often the agent looks in the car. But there’s no hesitation.

Not this time.

This time a few cars were lined up ahead of me. The agent was slowly thumbing through the pages in his hand, as the driver waited. He looked over each one carefully, then returned to the first page and started the process over again, as if he wasn’t quite satisfied.

This agent seemed to not want to accept the documents he was holding were legitimate. Or else he wanted to make the brown-skinned driver squirm.

While waiting, the woman in the car in front of me jumped out and opened her back hatch. She pulled out a suitcase and removed what looked like two passports. The woman was Hispanic.

Finally, after fingering through the pages a few more times, the agent let the first car go. Then the second car drove up. He poked his head down, asked a few questions and let the driver go.

Then it was the Hispanic woman’s turn. She handed over two passports, for herself and her passenger. One was blue like a U.S. passport, the other dark green. The color of a Mexican passport.Mexican passport

The agent flipped open the U.S. passport, then put it aside. When he opened the other passport, he hesitated. He looked at it, looked at her, looked at it again. Then he just held it between his fingers, waiting.

By now I could feel myself growing angry.

“C’mon, buddy! Either it’s legitimate or it’s not!” I shouted in my car with the windows still closed.

He stood there for a few moments more. Not doing anything. Not asking any questions. Just holding the passport. Then he handed them both back to the woman.

Next it was my turn.

“U.S. citizen, ma’am?” With a downturned mouth, he demanded rather than asked the question.

“Yes.”

“Anybody traveling with you?”

“No.”

“You’re free to go,” he scowled. Forget the “have a nice day.”

The negativity coming through the open window was palpable.

Clearly, this man was in pain. But it upset me, how he was projecting that pain onto others, especially people of darker complexions.

He could do a lot of damage with the power and the position he had.

The thing is, none of us escapes pain in our lives. We all have places of wounding and brokenness. Oblivious to this brokenness, we inflict our pain onto others.

Right now, in our country, it feels as though we are experiencing this at a magnified level…this projection of pain onto others.

We’re having a hard time looking within ourselves. Letting ourselves feel the extent of our sadness, our hurt, our grief, our need for healing, our failure to be responsible for one another. We don’t want to feel it.

And what we won’t acknowledge and take responsibility for, we are bound to repeat. Without self-awareness, we can numb ourselves to the atrocities committed against others.

In fact, this is something we’re trying to address at the Living School. The unacknowledged painful effects of racism and white privilege. I’d say it’s causing a reaction in us.

For me, being a writer, I naturally want to write about what I witness. I pay attention to the pain and suffering I see in those I accompany at the border. In the encounters I have with others.

Hemingway write hard black
It shows me how we are not separate at all. It shows me how I feel the same fears, hide out in the same ways, and want to close off my heart to those who have hurt me. Just like most of us do.

But in writing about it and letting myself feel it, maybe I can become more aware. Soften the pain. Create my own checkpoint for the ways I block off the borders of my heart. And not repeat this very human pattern of inflicting pain.

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A Room of One’s Own

what to remember upon waking

This is not my room in Cochabamba. But, it is basically all I have: a window with a desk lamp, a desk, and, of course, a bed. I wish I could say the view was this spectacular — and it certainly is from the street – but not from my bedroom. My room overlooks a walled-in area of housetops that allow me to spy down through curtainless windows into the imagined lives of my neighbors. If I step out onto the tiny balcony off my room, I can see the sky. But only if I look up.

Many times over these past two years all I’ve had to call my own is one room — that, and the familiar touchstones I’d brought along with me. You’d think it would get easier. But each time, I have to find my grounding, get centered in remembering who I am underneath any doubts, insecurities, or concerns that arise. And remember to trust what brought me here.

This time I’m adjusting not only to living in a stranger’s house, but to a different culture and country that speaks a language I know barely enough to get by. It feels huge.

And it also feels right.

The Bolivian culture is beautiful, alive, spiritual; the people warm and friendly. My host family lives in a middle-class neighborhood that boasts several parks with flowering plants, huge trees, and lush lawns. Yet I also witness much poverty around me as I walk to the Maryknoll language school every day.

All that I am witnessing reminds me that I have so much back home. Many more choices for a healthy diet. Much more space — and gorgeous space at that — to move around in than just one small and simple room. Yet each time I leave my home, I become more aware of how much I need to let go of that physical space in order to be free to fully live this calling on my heart.

Do I know what I’m doing? Not really. Or where I’m going? Heck no.

Do I trust what I’m doing, and where I’m going? Yes!

Let the adventure unfold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Urgency that Calls You

wake-up-and-live

“Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent. You are loath to let compromise or the threat of danger hold you back from striving toward the summit of fulfillment.”
― John O’DonohueAnam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

What urgency calls you into wakefulness?

What longing waits within you unfulfilled?

Waking up alone in my quiet household, it’s easy to feel a sense of urgency. To remember where I’ve been and to fear becoming complacent and comfortable. But I feel anything but comfortable.

I miss El Paso. I miss the richness and vitality of life at the border. I miss the people and their stories. Stories of tremendous challenges, deep faith, and generous hearts. Mostly I miss the children.

But I’m not meant to go back just yet.

For now, the urgency I feel is to write their stories. Especially as the fear frenzy and racist comments towards Hispanic immigrants swells.

And it’s time for me, as a writer, to stop holding back. To put myself out there. Words from my favorite David Whyte poem, What to Remember When Waking,  speak to my heart more than ever.

To be human
is to become visible
while carrying
what is hidden
as a gift to others.

The truth is, I have been hiding out. Not fully claiming and embracing my gift. Not fully trusting that if I allow myself to be intimate and vulnerable on the page, it doesn’t matter whether I “fail” or what the outcome is.

what urgency
calls you to your
one love?  What shape
waits in the seed
of you to grow
and spread
its branches
against a future sky?

My one love is to write. And I want to write about the people’s pain. About their sweat and their struggle, their joy and their innocence. And how their lives are so very intertwined with ours.

My friend Rob is familiar with this place of holding back, too. I know Rob as a writer and poet. But, like me, he hesitates to fully own the gift. He writes:

What other gifts or passions have I kept hidden from family, from friends, from the world? If, as I believe, much of our task in this life is to lay claim to, and develop, our talents so as to share them with others – not in a self-centered way, but as proof of the joy in ongoing creation – then what had I been doing? I had put a variety of skills on display for decades, but had I been sufficiently brave or vulnerable to risk putting my gifts out for all to see? “

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That’s what the urgency is really all about for me now. Putting my gifts out for all to see. To come out of hiding and fulfill my personal calling. To simply trust enough in the gift and the One who bestowed it. And to be willing to continue to live with the “not knowing.” I’ve done it for so long now, you’d think I’d be an expert.

Despite my doubts, I long to embrace this gift. To listen to the urgency that calls me to use it. To do it for Love.

And to let go of the outcome.

How about you? What longing within waits to be fulfilled? What urgency calls you to fully use your gifts?

Here’s the full version of the David Whyte poem:

What to Remember When Waking

what to remember upon waking

In that first
hardly noticed
moment
to which you wake,
coming back
to this life
from the other
more secret,
moveable
and frighteningly
honest
world
where everything
began,
there is a small
opening
into the new day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans.

What you can plan
is too small
for you to live.

What you can live
wholeheartedly
will make plans
enough
for the vitality
hidden in your sleep.

To be human
is to become visible
while carrying
what is hidden
as a gift to others.

To remember
the other world
in this world
is to live in your
true inheritance.

You are not
a troubled guest
on this earth,
you are not
an accident
amidst other accidents
you were invited
from another and greater
night
than the one
from which
you have just emerged.

Now, looking through
the slanting light
of the morning
window toward
the mountain
presence
of everything
that can be,
what urgency
calls you to your
one love?  What shape
waits in the seed
of you to grow
and spread
its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting
in the fertile sea?
In the trees
beyond the house?
In the life
you can imagine
for yourself?
In the open
and lovely
white page
on the waiting desk?

~ David Whyte ~

(The House of Belonging)

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The Gift of Esther

image

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.