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.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Wash Over Me

Have I asked for healing or only asked why You haven't healed me yet?

Well, I'm asking now.

Please wash over me with your healing.

Wash over my hands that I may serve you in my work and words.
Wash over my lungs that I may breathe you in and out.
Wash over my feet that I may walk forward with you.
Wash over my eyes that I may weep tears of grief and tears of joy with equal freedom.
Wash over my lips that I may praise you.
Wash over my ears that I may hear your voice over the lies that tell me I'm not good enough or that I don't need you.
Wash over my heart that bitterness may melt, joy will grow.
Wash over my brain that I would be engaged with the world, surrendered to you.

Use my wounds.
Use my heartache.
Use my mistaken ways of coping with burnout to your glory.

Come thou fount. Come with your healing. Come with your blessing.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Keeping it Tight with a Timely Tale

Excerpt taken from Madeleine L'Engle's delightful book, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art:

"There's a story of a small village (about the size of the village near Crosswicks) where lived an old clockmaker and repairer. When anything was wrong with any of the clocks or watches in the village, he was able to fix them, to get them working properly again. When he died, leaving no children and no apprentice, there was no one left in the village who could fix clocks. Soon various clocks and watches began to break down. Those which continued to run often lost or gained time, so they were of little use. A clock might strike midnight at three in the afternoon. So many of the villagers abandoned their timepieces.  
One day a renowned clockmaker and repairer came through the village, and the people crowded around him and begged him to fix their broken clocks and watches. He spent many hours looking at all the faulty timepieces, and at last he announced that he could repair only those whose owners had kept them wound, because they were the only ones which would be able to remember how to keep time.  
So we must daily keep things wound: that is, we pray when prayer seems dry as dust; we must write when we are physically tired, when our hearts are heavy, when our bodies are in pain. 
We may not always be able to make our "clock" run correctly, but at least we can keep it wound so that it will not forget."

As Christian artists, Madeleine posits, we pray and we write. We write and we pray. And we're supposed to do it everyday.

I've been doing the writing part. If not everyday, then at least every other day.

The best lesson I learned as a creative writing student was to spend 20 minutes a day with my butt in a chair and a blank screen in front of my face. Even if I just stare at the screen. Even if all I write is "I don't know what to write. I don't know what to write. I don't know what to write" for twenty whole minutes.

Because even on the days the "clock" isn't working properly, it's a way of keeping it wound for the days when inspiration strikes. For the days the clockmaker returns with his tools and his tinkering.

On the writing front, I understand this. It's been drilled into me since Freshman Comp. Even in the midst of burnout. In the midst of "hating" all work and all writing, I still couldn't help but write. Couldn't help but keep my own sort of time.

But on the praying front I've had a harder time with discipline. I've whined and I've cried, "God why haven't you healed me? Why haven't you shown up?" before taking the time to ask for healing or to invite His presence into my life.

I make time to write. Why shouldn't I make time to pray?

I believe that God speaks to me. That God can speak to all of us in different ways. This week he used a friend to remind me how desperately He wants to spend time with me, to pour out out his love on me.

What if I took time to just "sit with God?" In short, to pray?

20 minutes a day. My butt in a chair. My heart open to the One who loves me.
No notes, no writing--although writing is spiritual for me, this is different from my writing time--just chatting with God. Sitting with a friend. Even if I don't want to. Even if I don't feel his presence or can't hear him speak. I will sit there in anticipation. I will keep the clock wound.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Two Beers, or Not Two Beers

When I trained to be a short term missions trip leader to Guatemala last year, one of the key pearls of wisdom I gleaned and subsequently hammered into my college students' globetrotting little brains was that under no circumstances should an international guest openly pass judgement or disdain on the new culture--at least within earshot of the hosts. 

We were going to serve and love and be gracious guests, so cultural sensitivity was key. This meant that we would be expected to accept food, rides, and accommodations, that, perhaps, we weren't accustomed to without making any rude, ungrateful, or condescending comments, grimaces, or otherwise malicious facial expressions.

I taught my students a handy little phrase to employ when they were tempted to gasp, grimace, or gawk in Guatemala.

The phrase: "That's different." 

For example, a woman popping out her breast to nurse her bundled baby immediately after you ask if you can take her picture is not weird or strange or rude. It’s different.

A chunk of still hairy goat meat bathing in a bowl of unidentifiable slime is not disgusting. It’s different.

Showing up to Bible study an hour late or not at all is not an affront. It’s different.

Piling entire families onto one motorcycle may be a tad dangerous to the safety-obsessed American, but within earshot of our hosts, it's just different.  

Not better. Not worse. Just different.

I've been living in Guatemala for three months now, and, in an attempt to be a gracious guest, I have tried, at all costs, to appear unfazed by the foreign culture around me. I've done my best to employ the "smile and nod and remember it's just different" approach.

But let’s face it, sometimes situations aren't just different—they can be horrifying, delightful, even comical and beautiful. So I'm going to start a new blog category called, "Well, that's different" where I can recount my collection of the best and brightest and differentest moments Guatemala has offered me thus far, and, believe me, I've wracked up a pretty delectable number of cross cultural cuentos.

I share these stories with the full understanding that I am a guest in this country. I don't intend to pass judgment in any way. I'm just hoping for a little travelers empathy and to give you a glimpse into the life I lead here in this at times horrifying, delightful, comical, and beautiful country. 

Here's a lighthearted tale of a girl and her beer to get the series started:

Two Beers or Not Two Beers

On a recent trip to the Ixil triangle of Guatemala, my travel companions and I found ourselves eating dinner at a quaint Guatemalan restaurant. The place wasn't super fancy, but not shabby either. The tables were draped with only somewhat stained cloths and the chairs were adorned with shiny bows as if the decorator had spent time catering banquets or weddings in the States.

A young waitress appeared, poised to take our order.

My friend ordered a beer and was immediately told that the restaurant didn't carry her beer of choice. But, the waitress, hurriedly interjected, they did carry Gallo, a national Guatemalan beer that you can often find more easily than purified water.

When the waitress turned her eyes and her order pad to me, I ordered a Gallo as well. Por que no?

Finished with our orders, the waitress dipped back behind the partition which, presumably, led to the kitchen.

So we waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, my friend went back to ask the waitress to bring out the drinks before the food. The waitress, looking a bit sheepish, followed my friend back to our table.

"We only have one beer," the waitress apologized. 

"One kind?" my friend asked, confused.

"We only have one beer," the waitress repeated.
"Well, is it a big beer?" my friend asked the waitress.

"Small, " she replied. "We only have one beer."

Finally, understanding dawns across the table. We both ordered a beer. They only have one solitary bottle of cheap, Guatemalan beer. There's not enough for the both of us. 

"I'll have a strawberry smoothie," I ceded with a shrug of the shoulders, "and my friend will have the beer."

Finally satisfied, the waitress snuck back into the kitchen. Minutes later, she returned with the much-coveted and elusive Gallo and a delectable strawberry smoothie, which actually paired much better with my dinner omelette.


Stay tuned for more "Well, that's different" posts and please check out my friend's much more comprehensive and less beer-battered account of our trip, in her recent post here.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

T.S. Tuesday: What Trees and T.S. Eliot Have in Common

The seatbelt cut into my chin and my jellied feet dangled above the floor. If we were coming home from gymnastics practice, my hands and hair would be covered in white chalk and I’d still be sporting a velvet leotard that I would probably not even take off to sleep that night. If we were coming home from the neighborhood pool, we’d still be suited up, seated atop damp beach towels, our shoulders would be pink and the bridges of our noses would boast both a smattering of new freckles and a fresh goggles indentation. If it was any other occasion, I’d probably be wearing my favorite purple sweatshirt with a cat on the front paired with a matching purple sweatskirt—yes, they made sweatskirts in the 80s.

Even if we’d been driving just a few minutes, I’d already be able to hear my younger brother’s sleepy breathing and the punching of buttons as my older brother battled evil forces on the glow of his Gameboy.

As the car swayed back and forth through the winding roads, I wouldn’t be sleeping or playing, I’d be dutifully staring out the side window.

I was still so small, so low in the car seat that I had to crane my neck to see above the child lock and power window buttons to the outside world. And even then I could only see sky, the green-tinged points of pine trees, the triangle tops of shingled roofs on two-story homes, spiky tv antennas, sweeping power lines, and the concave dip of the few satellite dishes that speckled the neighborhood in the early 90s.

It would all pass by in a lightening fast (for a five-year-old) blur of 25mph. We could be anywhere: coming back from a friend’s house, carpooling from gymnastics, or with my dad making the long trek home from Circuit City (which I always thought was a city in Utah). From my vantage point, the scenery was indistinguishable, a blur of meaningless shapes and colors.

We could have been anywhere. Hours from home. Minutes from home. I never knew.

Until I spotted the gnarled branches of an old oak tree that stretched into my line of sight: the Remembering Tree.

The Remembering Tree stood out among the forest of pines that lined the winding roads of my small Northern California neighborhood. Even in the dark, I could make out its distinctive bough clumped with patches of moss and mistletoe, and I would know we were almost home. The Remembering Tree was three houses down from my own house, closer even than the bus stop.

As soon as I saw the tree, I’d breathe a sigh of relief and settle in to my seat. I’d lean my head against the passenger door and shut my eyes in feigned sleep with hopes that my dad would carry me in to my bed.

For years my entire family referred to the old oak tree as the Remembering Tree. It was always there to orient me. To help me remember that I was almost home.

We've long since moved away from the house beyond the Remembering Tree. But I haven’t forgotten the concept. I still seek out signs and symbols for security, safety, and a sense of home.

Now, instead of scanning for scarred branches, I memorize poetry. It sounds pretentious, but I assure you it stems not from a haughty, artistic elitism, but from the childlike need for familiarity in a rushing world.

I've developed the habit of repeating poetry at the end of every long run I take. As I round the corner or approach the front steps to my house, the same words release themselves from my lips, practically unbidden.

When I repeat the words of my favorite poets, like T.S. Eliot (And the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing) or ee cummings (i thank you god for most this amazing day), when I say the same words in the same order time after time, I dwell in the words like I used to dwell in the branches. And, even if I’m miles and countries away from where I started, I’m reminded that home, and the One who makes His home in me, is much closer than I think. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Surrender is not a to-do list

Surrender is not a to-do list. Not a tally of life-giving decisions to serve the God of Love. Yes, it can be a thoughtful planning, an attentive listening to what God has for me for the day, but it's not a list of checked off items, a stacking up of good deeds.

Surrender, instead, is...
  • a whispered prayer when I get too caught up in my own problems, responsibilities, or wellbeing
  • an unclenching of my fists when I grasp too tightly to my own agenda
  • a heart posture of humility, of seeking His presence
  • a willingness to follow His way even if it means giving up attention or recognition or rest or whatever else it is I crave
  • an acknowledgement that I want what He wants MORE than I want my own way 
Today, regardless of the tasks I find myself checking off or not checking off, I will surrender.

I want Your way.