Tuesday, January 1, 2013


In honor of the New Year, I've decided to give the old bloggeroo a good making over. I am excited to debut my crisper, cleaner WordPress blog.

I'll still be sharing my thoughts on life and God and T.S. Eliot, just in a new place.

Those who were following by email or RSS will have to re-subscribe to stay updated on posts. And, for those of you who hadn't yet subscribed--now's the best time to follow for the first time!

It’s super easy, just click through to the new blog and scroll down to the bottom of the page to follow by email, twitter, Facebook, RSS feed and all that good stuff.

The web address is still memoirsofalgeisha.com.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and I can't wait to see you over at my new bloggy digs!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Deep and Deeply Loved

Backpack stuffed under the seat in front of me. Passport, books, backup hard drive. Sprite Zero sloshes with tray table turbulence. Mind buzzes back and forth between worlds, between lives.

Beyond the rim of window, the sun blazes across the water line, burns up the shore, la orilla, the edge between two worlds. One side smooth and calm, undisturbed, undeterred; one side dry and brittle. The waves lap so softly I can't even see the lapping. From 30,000 feet, the waves aren't waves at all, but a shimmering transition from land to sea, death to life, in harmony.

"It is I who plunge into them with my own legs and arms." It is I who chooses not to plunge.

I thrash and grasp, though the water is still. Is stilled.

I thank the painter God for sun blazing across water and sky. For a sea of cloud puffs. For the dazzlement of my soul in this moment. For the stillness He stirs in me.

My soul is calm as water deep and deeply loved.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Bathed in Embarrassment

Today you are in for a treat. I have prepared the next installment in my "Well, that's different" series. This story comes from my collection of the best and brightest and differentest moments Guatemala has offered me thus far.

Bathed in Embarrassment: "Well, that's different," Volunteer Edition

For the last two months, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons you could find me at the beck and call of Seño (how they address the teachers here) Juana* and her 6th grade class. As a teacher's assistant, I handed out vitamins, squeezed out dollops of toothpaste on the students' outstretched toothbrushes, collected supplies from the library, helped with English pronunciation during la clase de ingles, walked sick kids to the clinic, and supervised the washing of cups and utensils after a snack of bread smeared with beans (sadly, not Nutella) or glasses of cereal.

Even after a few weeks, I hadn't made much headway in befriending the 12- to 14-year-olds. They finally, finally, started to remember my name, or at least use the well-intentioned moniker Seño Juana had bestowed upon me: Elly.

I took the position as classroom assistant in hopes of improving my conversational Spanish. I hadn't really thought through how it would feel until I'd reached the level of improvement I so desired. Acclimating to the new nonprofit culture and Guatemalan classroom norms while simultaneously deciphering a hefty dose of Spanish slang and an entirely new pronoun (vos) to conjugate left me with the uncomfortable feeling of never knowing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

Mostly, I just felt silly walking 14-year-olds down the hall to the bathroom or slightly superfluous when asked to help out on an art project when the students obviously possess greater artistic prowess than I do. (Seriously, these kids embroidered and stuffed their own pillows while I struggled to cut their fabric in a straight line.)

I had grown accustomed to living the volunteer life of dazed and confused, when one day I was given an order that I hoped to God I would not have to carry through.

After lunch and table clearing and teeth brushing, my teacher said to me, "We're going to have English class, then art and snack."

So far, so good.

Then she broke off on a tangent about one of the students--let's call him Luis.

"Luis comes here dirty sometimes. So he needs to bathe," Juana told me. I was vaguely aware that the downstairs bathrooms had showers, but I was unsure what Luis' poor hygiene had to do with me.

I would soon find out.

"Elly, can you watch him bathe? Don't bathe him; he'll bathe himself. Just watch to make sure he does a good job. Sometimes he doesn't do a good job."

Maybe it was one of those days when my Spanish brain malfunctions. Maybe I had misunderstood. She couldn't have really said that, could she?

Heart beating in my throat, I swallowed and nodded my assent like an idiot, too scared that I had heard correctly the first time to risk asking for clarification. Too scared that  she would explicitly tell me to go into the bathroom with him. At least this way I could pretend I hadn't understood what she meant.

The students sat down for English class and I prayed bath time would never come.

You see, Luis is 12 or 13. And of the male persuasion. I think it's fair to assume we would both be traumatized by my bath time supervision.

So I decided that, if bath time were indeed a real event that Juana was referring to, I would watch Luis go into the bathroom with his soap and towel and watch to see if he comes out clean. That must be what she meant, right?

The fateful moment arrived around 3:30 pm. My palms were sweating, I fiddled with my watch, my earrings, stared intently at the speckles on the floor. Luis grabbed the bath supplies--soap, towel, and, of course, hair gel--and scurried out the door. I followed him out like a prisoner forced to a cell. I'm not even sure he knew I was there. We rounded the stairs, him a few paces in front of me, and approached the boys bathroom--the multi-stalled, communal, boys bathroom. He opened the door, rushed in, and slammed the door shut behind him while I exhaled a sigh of relief.

I was left standing creepily outside the boys room replaying what I remembered of the teacher's bath buddy request for the better part of an hour. After which, Luis finally emerged, if not certifiably clean then at least sufficiently wet and his hair freshly gelled.

And that was proof enough for me.

*Names changed to protect their privacy

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Excitement Stirs

The last year or so has felt like dating a series of Mr. Not Rights. For the first time in my life, I found myself playing the part of cold-hearted breaker-upper. I also quit my first real job and moved away from the city where are all my dearest friends live and love.

I've had to say ‘no’ a lot in hopes that something better looms around the corner. I've had to learn to trust that God is leading me exactly where I should be going; that even now I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

In the midst of saying no to the old, I've been scared to be excited about the new in fear that I’ll just have to say no to this new love, too. I've been both scared to care and scared that I will never care again.

I've shared more than my fair share of questions and pain and doubt here on this blog. I am truly thankful for your listening ear.

Today, after months of feeling a numbness, a dullness, I can’t explain, I want to tell a new story, a different story. A story of budding joy.

Just a couple of weeks ago I discovered a really cool sounding organization called SERES here in Guatemala. They’re all about empowering local youth and leaders to care for their environment and inspire creative change within their communities. And they just so happened to be looking for someone with skills in non profit communications and a lot time on their hands.

I met the founder and one of the board members earlier this week when I applied for their Marketing and Communications Fellowship, and was thoroughly impressed. They were so welcoming, so passionate, so alive with joy in their work. The kind of joy that beckons you in. That beckoned me in.

I literally skipped back to my house after the interview.

I was offered the position of Fellow (fancy name for an internship) yesterday and all I know is that I haven’t been this excited or engaged in a really long time.

My heart soars at the idea of being a part of a team again and working for a cause I believe in. I’m excited to use my skills and talents and who I am at this exact moment in my life to serve others. I’m shocked to discover that I’m actually looking forward to working (in a real office, more than just a handful of hours a week) again. I’m excited to be a part of an organization here in Guatemala. I’m excited to learn and grow and invest in the work of SERES.

I’m excited to be excited again.

I won’t start until February. And of course I don’t really know what this commitment will entail or how it will all play out, but something feels different about this. I can’t explain why, but I believe I've been given the opportunity to engage in restorative work, work that may provide more healing than my restless resting.

For now, I’m excited to be excited.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

God in the Not Yet

Four months ago I moved to Guatemala to intentionally slow down, rest, and recover from a life of busyness and burnout. If I've learned anything from my experience thus far, it's this:
1. Don't give your phone number to creepy guys in salsa clubs no matter how charming they are or how lonely you are.
2. Practicing Spanish is not a good enough reason to justify a telenovela addiction on Netflix.
3. I was made to engage in meaningful work.

I’m far worse at resting than I thought I would be. Even as I ache for rest, I squirm from it. The very thing that is supposed to heal me—to be unproductive, to not measure my worth in blog posts or word counts—is the thing that is driving me crazy. Leaving me bored and confused. Who am I without my words? How do I give myself the time to rest when not working makes me so unhappy? How do I heal when it kills me to sit still?

I know I’m supposed to be learning to lean on God. I’m supposed to be refined by the stripping away of the trappings that distract me from my true identity in Christ. The depth of my trust is supposed to be deepening. My joy should be growing despite my circumstances.

But mostly these last few months I haven’t felt growth or inner peace. Mostly, I've been bored. 

I wish I could say I've spent my abundant free time investing in deep, meaningful relationships, becoming fully fluent in Spanish, or spending hours in awe-filled prayer and adoration of the God who brought me here. I wish I could say I've written countless articles, finished my memoir, and blogged everyday, but I haven’t. The truth is far less glamorous.

I thought by now I’d know how to engage in restorative rest. I thought by now I’d be so good at cultivating peace that a mere glance at me would emanate tranquility like a serenity spa, eucalyptus incense, cucumber infused water, terry cloth robes and all.

But I’m a mess. A ball of anxiety and disappointment.

Instead of resting, I've been running. Running and numbing. Running from responsibility and numbing with distractions—with Netflix, with new love interests, with a never ending supply of excuses for not engaging in the world around me.

Instead of trust, I've cultivated bitterness. I've been angry at God that this adventure abroad hasn't given me all the desires of my heart. Angry at myself for failing to thrive here, for failing to seek Him first.

The almighty God of the universe asked me to give up burnout and for the most part I haven’t done it. I know He’s asking me to say no to the things that numb me. I know He’s asking me to stop running. I know He’s asking me to say no burnout and yes to Him.

But I've dragged my feet, indignant that He would want me to give up these comforts, too.

Just the other day, a light bulb went on: what if I've been looking at it all wrong? What if it’s a gift to say no? To say that this life, this running and numbing, is not what I want? What if saying no isn't just saying no, but a way of saying yes to hope, a way of choosing to believe that He has something better for me?

What if these last four months of floundering have pointed to the truth He wanted me to see all along: that He will restore my joy; He just hasn't done it yet.

I thought admitting that my joy has not yet returned would mean either one of two things:

1.    That God does not make good on His promises
2. That I've done something wrong that has caused me to miss out on Him fulfilling His promises

I left out the other option: That God hasn't made good on His promise to restore my joy, YET.

But He will. In His timing. In His way.

Just this last week I've been beginning to see the glimpses of a bigger plan, a better plan than I could have imagined. A plan filled with meaningful work and joy. A plan built in His timing and with His power, despite my heel dragging and unbelief. 

Check back tomorrow to find out why my hope is stirring and my feet are tapping in my seat. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Losing Words and Finding Friends

The pictures and brief bios of the moms I tutor
at Camino Seguro. 

For the last five-ish years I've written grant proposals and emails and newsletters and appeals and blog posts on behalf of people halfway around the world that I have never met on a weekly basis.

Last year at Plant With Purpose, in my office alcove, I longed to meet the people whose stories I told.  I longed to get a fuller glimpse into their life than a two sentence testimony or a Flickr photo description.

I moved to Guatemala with a heart open for stories. For people. Hungry for connection and confirmation that I’m where I’m supposed to be.

New people and new experiences offer themselves to me every day in this foreign country. I work with mothers who are learning to read for the first time and kids who live in squatter settlements near the Guatemala City garbage dump.

I get to see them, speak with them, laugh with them, and do long division with them three times a week. I've been given a much fuller glimpse into their lives than an emailed testimony, yet when it comes time to write about them, to share a bit of their lives so that you may be compelled to give to the life-changing work of Camino Seguro or to be encouraged by the dedicated people working in a marginalized corner of Guatemala, my words fall flat. Empty.

I can extrapolate a two page report or a $50,000 proposal from a two sentence testimony from “the field,” but when I’m actually living and working in “the field,” silence wins.

I only know that I don’t really know them.

I know facts, yes. Bits and pieces, but they seem insufficient, incomplete.

For example, I know that most of the moms I tutor at Camino Seguro work difficult jobs with long hours—like sorting through trash in the garbage dump or rising in the darkness of the early morning to make and sell tortillas on a street corner bus rides away from where they live, where the money is. I know they live in a dangerous area with an astronomical crime rate. I know most of them are single mothers, have likely suffered domestic abuse, and would do absolutely anything for their children. They've sacrificed to send their kids to Camino Seguro, to enroll themselves in primary school this late in life, and to make education a priority for themselves and their children.

Dona Paula and Camino Seguro board member
I know that Doña Paula’s hair usually hangs in a thick, black braid down her back. I know Doña Bonifacia wears pink reading glasses that are broken at the bridge of her nose and she refuses to switch to a new, unbroken pair. I know which moms struggle with multiplication and which moms need an extra push to get going on their work.

I've shared two months with them, and yet it feels like I don’t know them at all. I become reluctant to write anything about them.

And perhaps that’s a good thing.

When I write about a friend or family member on this blog, I exercise an exponentially greater amount of thought and care when writing the post than I do when sharing my own thoughts and stories. I read the draft over and over.  I imagine what it would feel like to read those words about myself.

When I fundraise and advocate for people I don’t know, it’s easy to orient my words in a compelling manner without giving it much thought. With words I can befriend them in my mind. I don’t have to fumble with Spanish conjugations or admit I don’t remember any short cuts for long division.

Three of the moms at the recent graduation
from 6th grade.
Making friends in real life takes a lot longer than rounding out a blog post or tacking on a Donate Now button to my sidebar.

The people I've met and have worked with in Guatemala are people, not a cause or an ideal or blog material. They’re potential new friends. And I have to admit I’m slow at making friends, at establishing trust, at sharing my own story with others, even when language and culture isn't a barrier. But as I build trust, build friendship, hope to find myself a home here, I also want to write. It’s what I do.

And so hope you’ll be patient with me as I learn to put the amount of care and thought and time into sharing about my new friends here as I would about my dear friends back home. And I hope I’ll learn to be patient with me, too.  

Just as I was beginning to articulate these thoughts for myself, I came across this excellent post by D.L. Mayfield on the role and responsibility of a writer or artist in sharing others' stories. I highly recommend taking a gander at her post, War Photographers, and getting cozy with her blog where she writes about living in the upside-down kingdom. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fear and Dust

Morning rolls in with the gray clouds that now perch at the apex of the volcano. I sip my coffee. Nibble my toast. Admire the bright yellow walls of my new room and say hello to the pictures of friends and family hanging from my walls, reminding me of who I am, of the me I want to be. 

I run my index finger across my great slab of desk, sweeping up a stream of dust, gray like the clouds.

A phrase flashes, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

It’s not Tuesday, but Eliot still speaks, still echoes.

Fear and dust. Dust and fear sit heavy in my room, my mind.

Madeleine L’Engle comes in, pulls up a chair.

"Remember the root word of humble and human is the same: humus: earth. We are dust. We are created; it is God who made us and not we ourselves. But we were made to be co-creators with our maker." Walking on Water

We are dust. We are fear. But that is not all we are. We are also image bearers, light carriers, children of God. Co-creators.

Again the fear bubbles to the surface. I swallow it down with a swig of café negro.

It's scary to be a co-creator. It's scary to be responsible. To have the difficult conversations. To fight for truth and love.

Madeleine reminds, "The world tempts us to draw back, tempts us to believe we will not have to take this test. We are tempted to try to avoid not only our own suffering, but also that of our fellow human beings, the suffering of the world, which is part of our own suffering."

Lately I’ve drawn back. You can tell by the silence on the blog. I’ve drawn in. Drawn down.

Few things scare me more than meeting new people and speaking a foreign language. That’s pretty much all I do here, in Guatemala.

And it’s been hard. So I've gone all in and I've held back. I've tried to connect and I've thwarted connection. I've vacillated between fear and trust, bravery and dust.

Madeleine quotes Kafka, “It may be that this very holding back is the one evil you could have avoided."

Holding back my passion. Holding back my heart.

Scared to look like an idiot in a foreign culture. Scared to make a mistake. Scared to put myself out there and get nothing in return. Scared to say no to the men who pursue me for the wrong reasons because so few people are pursuing me at all.

Even scared to admit that I’m scared. That this is harder than I thought it would be.

That the daily throbbing of those I miss threatens to overtake me.

I've always wished I was one of those people who wasn't so scared. Who could glide into a room, any room, and make friends. But that’s not me.

I’m broken and scared. A handful of dust. A fistful of fear.

But that is not all I am. I turn my eyes to the One who drives out fear. Who has given me a name and a hope and an inheritance. Who has brought me here for a reason. Who has promised to restore joy.

God, I give you the broken pieces. I give you the fear I cling to like a handful of dust and watch it fall through the cracks. Watch it spill through my fingers, dissolve into thin air.

Remove the scales of dust from eyelids so that I may see myself as you see me, as your child, your beloved. That I may see beyond the gray clouds, the gray dust, to the fullness of your light and love and to the sun I know is shining behind.