From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Adult Child's Christmas Story

When I was little, my favorite books were of the epic fantastical sort. A Wrinkle in Time was my favorite. Meg, a frumpy redheaded pre-teen with glasses and braces and without friends, crosses the galaxy through a space-time fold called a tesseract with a heart-throb classmate named Calvin who loves her for her personality (HA), to rescue her father and brother through the power of love from a robot-brain called IT that has brainwashed an entire planet. I also liked The Dark is Rising series. Will, a quiet and misunderstood ten-year-old, discovers he is the last in an ancient line of guardians-against-the-Dark destined to hasten the coming of the Pendragon, the heir of King Arthur.

I remember a baby-sitter telling the me who read these books, "I don't read much about magic. There's enough magic in life."

Adults are absurdly boring and confused.

Then I learned to dance, climbed mountains, lived in Nicaragua, fell in love, had my heart broken and remade, traveled, re-examined faith, did a million other privileged things, and I began to understand a fraction of what she might have meant.

I believe the search for magic, for a spark up the spine, a miraculous power emanating from the fingertips to pierce the fog of pain and routine, is integral to the human being, particularly to those who live in a world of banks, computers, highways, supermarkets, and shall I say, disconnection.

It's a search reborn at Christmas, particularly the consumerist secular Christmas, embodied by a Saint with twinkling eyes wrapped in a bright red scarlet suit who carries joy in toy-shaped boxes over electric roofs to wealthier innocents.

This holiday season I have found myself with a day-to-day routine that involves laptop-pecking and supporting my family through difficult times. So last night, noticing it was the day before Christmas Eve, I told myself I would go search for Christmas magic.

My mind's eye responded instantaneously that I should head for the bridges. Portland is sometimes called the Bridge City for the six or seven spectacular bridges that cross the Willamette River and unite the downtown side with the residential/hippie side. In the dark the rainbow lights of sky-scrapers wake up and ricochet off the steel and water, turning the whole city into a night sky. There's no better place to appreciate Christmas lights than Portland, year-round.

And so, grateful for my independence, for the chance to escape, and for one SERIOUSLY legit road bike my mom bought for a trip down the California coast with my triathlete Dad in their twenties, I headed to the bridges.

My first stop was Burnside Bridge, site of the famous Portland, Oregon reindeer sign, which I had never paused to appreciate. This laser billboard flashes for the Weird City all year long, and it's rare to pass a night without a tourist's camera blocking the sidewalk waiting for both words to light up. That was me last night, but my hands were shaky from the ride, so I asked the first people who passed me if they would take the picture. They were a hand-holding couple with cigarettes and skinny jeans. The first guy said, "Oh, no problem," with an understanding drawl. He snapped the following shot.

 I thanked him and prepared to leave, when I realized he was still snapping away, browsing through my camera's nightlight settings. "I'm not satisfied with the angle I got, and the lights are a little blurry," he said. Amused, I allowed him to keep playing, when I heard his boyfriend heave a monstrous sigh.

"I'm a native Oregonian," said the second guy (how native, I wondered, since he looked like me) "and this sign is a total lie. It used to say WHITE STAG, then all the Californians showed up (guilty, I thought) and they changed it to say MADE IN OREGON for a local factory, and about ten years ago Portland became a hot spot and now it's our tacky claim to fame. I never understand why everyone wants a picture with it."

"Don't listen to him," said the first guy, handing me my camera, "he's impatient because we're on our way to have sex." They both wished me a Merry Christmas as I biked away guffawing, stripped of all pretext.

I headed west on the Bridge into Old Town Portland, below the famous sign. Lantern were draped with lights, Christmas trees squatted outside mildewed windows through which dreadlocked men and women methodically mimed. I began entering a dreamy Christmas state again, when I realized I had hit the corner of Burnside and Broadway. The epicenter of Downtown Portland's homeless population.

I stopped my bike. Across the street outside Portland Rescue Mission, I counted count one hundred and sixteen souls in line, sleeping on cardboard, embracing each other with oily down coats, hiding from the cold and waiting for some holiday cheer. Oregon has one of the country's highest homeless populations. One hundred and sixteen.

"Hey, f---er!" Screamed a young fellow with a frayed purple hat, "If you're gonna stop and stare, at least turn that f---ing headlight off!" My bike light has the wattage of a police car siren.

I woke up and realized I was more visible than I had imagined, attempted a loud laughing SORRY to relieve tension, then biked away toward Broadway Bridge. Along the way, I counted at least ten more souls on cardboard.

The downtown streets were relatively empty; I venture the yuppie population had gone home to their parents in suburbia, leaving the road open and quiet, so I could breathe, listen, notice things I hadn't before. Such as, at the base of every magical bridge, there is a sign that says, "24-hour Suicide Hotline."

 On Broadway Bridge I was alone for a good four minutes.  Alone on a steel ligament over water and between worlds. City on all sides of me and I heard no noise. Gazing along the River, I caught a cream-colored ferryboat pick up late night tourists along the Willamette half a mile away. Its sides were slick with the tiniest lights. I could make out a group dancing around a banjo and a young man chasing an overly-jacketed toddler.

I usually take a busy thoroughfare called MLK Jr Blvd north to my house, but my bike gears were acting up, and not wanting to risk any proximity with cars, I disobeyed my mothers' relentless warnings and took dark streets home. Christmas lights are intensified in the fog. The mansions and cottages of Irvington district in Southeast were decorated in scarlet made-in-China bows and wreaths I could smell from the street. Through the windows I saw storybook preparations for Christmas feasts.

I passed the tail end of a Cadillac warehouse and counted sixty Escalades through jail barred-windows. Despite myself, I began fantasizing about how a Christmas wish of mine would be to dance amid them with a Louisville slugger and spray paint.

And below one window was a man with a face covered by matted black hair, setting up a sleeping bag. He spun when he saw my obnoxious bike light. "Goddamn, lady, I thought you were the cops!" He laughed. "Merry Christmas."

Merry Christmas to you, too, I choked. I don't trust myself alone with men I don't know, so instead of doing the compassionate thing and stopping to talk to him, I continued on my less-than-Merry way.

The ride back to the house from near downtown is all uphill, so I whistled in relief when I reached the porch, huffing, reeling, incredulous at the unexpected gifts and challenges of the night. Maybe Meg and Will from those books felt something similar when they went to sleep after crossing galaxies and facing robed demons.

I remember a philosophy teacher in college who told us all he had a stupid stick. After learning about Socrates' allegory of the cave, he told us he could tap each of us on the head with this stick and transform us into dunces. Is ignorance bliss? Would we accept his offer? I have felt tempted before, to sleep through life. It would hurt less. But then there would be no whistling after bike rides.

Here's a snippet from the book I'm reading right now, called The Brothers Karamazov, called by some the greatest novel ever written.

"You know, Kolya, you will be very unhappy in life," something made Alyosha say suddenly.
"I know, I know. How do you know?" Kolya agreed at once.
"But you will bless life on the whole, all the same."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Death, Life, Him, You, Me

He remembers the way his stomach and esophagus vacuumed sharp nothing after four days--four days--of no food, when you vomit even your own saliva. He remembers falling asleep sucking his finger. Not for comfort. For necessity. The salty lining on your skin keeps your digestive system from shutting down after four days--four days--of no food. His baba told him, Keep that finger in your mouth and suck it. Suck it so that you are alive when God provides.

Though thinking is difficult when you're dying from starvation, he remembers this thought. Perhaps someone will remember us.

There are a few people in this world, one in eight, to be precise, who have sucked their fingers to keep from dying.

Here is the face of one of them.

Another Kenyan entered my life recently. Peter Kimeu. The smile is no exaggeration. He is alive, survived, thriving. He has seen life triumph over death for 34 years as a Senior Adviser for Catholic Relief Services, thanks to the support of people he'll never meet. CRS entered his community and accompanied him and his underweight children as they found sustainability, education, liberation. In gratitude and responsibility, he dedicates his life to exposing the flimsy gap between starving and comfortable, closed communities. When he is a guest speaker in the latter, he stakes his livelihood on responding to the question, "What does 'all that' have to do with me? What can I do?" with a personally tailored cheek-grasping jolt-of-an-answer. Everything!

Remember your greatest shame. For Peter, this is being five years old, pulling banana peels and half-crushed sugar stalks from the roadside, and carrying them collapsing through your holed shirt to your younger sisters, so that they can chew, and survive another day. Then imagine crossing two continents and an ocean to retell that shame, to the Purple Hat Society and techno-teens and soccer dads and briefcase moms, people who, logic would conclude, have no reason to care or understand. Over and over you regurgitate your deepest pain, with pictures, without judgment on their lives that suffocate yours, in the hopes that they might realize you are one human family. That they in their mini-vans might remember your children in their thatched huts, just as their parents remembered you.

And now imagine doing all of that, while smiling.

This is the life of Peter Kimeu. He is the first to admit that he is flawed, as is international aid, as is this world, divided by jagged, seemingly impenetrable bubbles. In fact, as we left a Catholic youth gathering and passed Jack-in-the-Box, WinCo and AutoZone, his smile broke, his head dropped into his snug trench coat, and he sighed, "Why does an average family of four in this country throw away $2,000 of food a year? Why are people in my country dying from diabetes, contracted through US-import processed food, while others in the brush die from starvation? Why is everything so big here? Why don't I see any people, only cars? I tell you, Heather, it's amazing. It's amazing and I just don't know."

Though he takes some time to cry alone every day, praying for his loved ones affected by climate change, violence, apathy, and other viciously curable diseases, he begins his presentation to faith groups with a simple, electric powerpoint slide that says, "Africa will smile."

Almost a year after leaving Nicaragua, I am still angry, impatient with my own limitations, and tempted to judge people who haven't had my experience, who don't yet know that everything is what 'all that' has to do with me.

But while I brood, Peter dances. He sways like savannah grass on his compact frame while he coos about Catholic Social Teaching, subsidiarity, a just world. He bounces from soul to soul cackling with love for God, sister, world. His very existence is evidence that we are alive only with and in one another, and so it takes very little to get him dancing.

"If I can open one heart, if I can get one person to do something, then there is reason for joy."

Oh, American friends. We have a lot to learn.

Monday, September 30, 2013

We both live Amani

My home

His home
David is leaving the LA Catholic Worker community in a few weeks, to return to his native Nairobi. He is solitary, chiseled, with monster-from-the-deep Rasta dreadlocks and a countenance that calms even the most manic meth addicts on Skid Row. He grew up attending the best schools in Kenya, but every day observed Kibera slum, the largest slum in Africa, where anywhere from 200,000 to 1 million people live in cardboard-and-tin shanties. Stubbornly dragging their forgotten boxes of existence from rural to urban destitution, they are mostly desperate Western Kenyans who abandoned their vanishing farmsteads in search of a city ‘life.' Logic would say that very little has changed or will change for them, ever.
David has lived in the US for 10 years. Though he began studies at a small Mennonite university, deciding that collegiality didn’t mesh with his life vision, he left to join the Catholic Worker movement, whose members recognize that higher education is an oppressive system because it is unavailable to the poorest, and particularly in the US, is fueled by oil and war investment. Five years later, he is finally headed home for good, to begin a Catholic Worker house which will serve the Masai tribe and Kibera slum people in Nairobi. The house will be called Amani House. Amani means ‘peace’ in Swahili.
When he speaks, a rarity, I am initially struck that he is everything I am not. I love to speak and to be heard. I grew up in the concrete safe zone of Irvine, California, one of the 10 Best US Cities for Raising a Family in 2012 (depending, I'd rebut, on the demographic and motivating social forces behind your family). We moved to central Indiana, to a quiet corn-farming community and former hotbed of the KKK. Now my family is in Oregon, where urban farming and water abound. My parents’ small-town cottage has a Jacuzzi and redwoods in the backyard. I look at the moon through their silent snowy branches from the spa while I sip wine. Then I pinch myself.
I did graduate from a $50,000-a-year private university, not because I believed the experience would be integral to my human development (it has certainly been), but because the throng I found myself in floated that direction. I have an English degree, and I don't look forward to the moment when I realize that corporate, or even social-services, America doesn’t need me right now. Or ever. The machine keeps turning whether I plug in or run away screaming its evils.
I’ve never been to Nairobi. But my stomach spins when I compare pictures of it to my parents’ neighborhood (does the same happen to you?), which I now shakily call home.
We are certainly mind-splittingly, heart-wrenchingly different, David and I. But once our differences settle, I am struck by our similarities.
We are both at the Catholic Worker. We are both Enneagram 4s, which signifies a search for the unattainable and an underlying unique-superiority complex in our personalities. We have both lived near urban slums—mine, El Recreo, in Managua, which I had the privilege of walking through for two years as a Jesuit Volunteer. We are both broken-hearted and angry, by the complacency that leads to the exasperation of the poverty cycle, by the ways that money and power corrupt beautiful people. People we need and love as much as the poor.
And, most importantly, we are both driven to “do something about it.” Though his defined future rapidly approaches and mine totally lacks direction, both our “somethings” scare us. They are somethings without the certainty of security, comfort, partners or family, numbing our minds with television or nights-out on the town. All that our mutual-somethings promise is a commitment to live first-and-foremost in honor of those whom the world forgets in its rush to progress.
He shared the following at a regional Catholic Worker retreat, where he farewelled the movement that led him to Amani House. “All I know is that I feel compelled to act on the privileges and awareness of injustice I’ve been given.”
All I can do is pray for him. And for those he’ll serve, those who will remind him why he’s alive, to grow Amani where there is none.
And I also pray for myself and for you—that we’re just as brave in being true to whom we’ve become, to what we’ve been given.

One of David's first projects in Nairobi will be to construct a borehole, a steel-lined well intended to tap into precious groundwater reserves where water is scarce. They cost upwards of $12,000. He has raised half of the money he needs. If you are interested in supporting David, please send a check to 632 N Brittania, Los Angeles, CA 90033. Make it payable to LA Catholic Worker, and earmark it "Kenya House."

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Homeless Man's Perspective on Homelessness

This article was written by a friend of the LACW community, Kenny, who comes for our free breakfasts and lunches daily. From his composure, kindness, and lucidity, I venture he has not recently, if ever, abused drugs or alcohol, and unlike many of the guests we serve, I feel completely safe around him. At one point, he was homeless. He may still be, or he may live in a low-priced Skid Row hotel these days. Either way, he has been (or still is) one of the people he is writing about.

Content writing is his sole income source.

Who Are Homeless People and Why Help the Homeless?

Submitted by kdockins on July 10th, 2013 – Flag this news as inappropriate
Category: Politics
Who are homeless people? The reality of homelessness is two-fold.

Perhaps you are currently blessed with educational opportunity, a decent career or occupation, and have never experienced the more serious type of misfortune which can come with a bad decision or even an honest mistake.

Still, the facts about the homeless plight remain two-fold because people can only view homelessness from "one side of the fence" or the other. Without being truly homeless, for instance, one can only WATCH the spectacle and make guesses about how or why it exists.

Why help the homeless? Ironically, a very curious human phenomenon occurs, not just toward homeless individuals, but basically about anyone or group of people who behaves or SEEMS "different" from that to which the upper echelons of our population have become accustomed.

Today's topic of "who are homeless people" makes major mention of the city of LOS ANGELES, because this particular metropolitan area both captures and displays the essence of homeless conditions.

Curiously enough, even in the most beautiful and monetarily endowed sections of town including Hollywood, Burbank, Pasadena, and Beverly Hills, you can essentially ALWAYS spot a higher-than-expected number of individuals who simply have experienced financial or career-oriented misfortune.

Granted, public sentiment towards homeless people in the Los Angeles area tends to be rather cynical or stereotypical. After all, according to "popular" beliefs (or the views of those who are blessed without the bearing of a homeless condition) the men and women who sleep on streets or hold up signs asking for money... are LAZY, non-caring, undignified BUMS who deserve the unfavorable circumstances in which they find themselves.

Some members of the "average" and also well-to-do American public will even do surprisingly negative things to homeless individuals, such as:

-- Write hate mail papers and post them prominently in public places;

-- Shout verbal obscenities in variously degrading styles;

-- Cast raw eggs at them from speeding cars;

-- Kick or punch them while they sleep.

Yet, why help the homeless? Because the true character of man can be defined by his individual actions. On that note, the saving grace of humanity lies in the following supportive plus highly true fact.

A strong portion of the American population goes out of its way to OBSERVE the CAUSE of homelessness. For instance, especially here in Los Angeles, groups of American citizens from almost every culture demonstrate their undying devotion to the human condition of homelessness by:

-- Donating small plastic zip-lock bags which contain toothpaste, tooth brush, paper towelettes, liquid or bar-style soap, hand sanitizer or skin moisturizing lotions;

-- Gathering up some OF the great clothing that normally get discarded by local stores and tailor shops -- and simply passing it out for free at Sunday prayer sessions;

-- Making early morning and late night visits to "sleep areas," with a delivery of excess foods from great places like Von's, Starbucks, and the Whole Foods Market.

There are two major ways to look at homelessness. One, you can shut your eyes and HOPE that it just "disappears" in the same way as you might believe it originates. In other words, homelessness is "the other guy's problem."

Or, you can be one of those who actively SEARCHES out the meaning of homelessness, its TRULY ultimate causes, and the most effective plus practical and HUMANE solutions.

Want to know "who are homeless people?" Then, just ask one of these persons to tell you his or her REAL story.

Why help the homeless? Because, wise people know fully well that being part of a solution rates far more highly than being part of the cause for the continuation or perpetuation of homelessness.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Purpose at a Picnic Table

I passed a man reading today.
A tattered man with a mole-freckled face and a sideways gut.
Usually, he carries life in a single bursting black trash bag, which sags behind him through his 50-block urban homeless hell called Skid Row.
Usually, there is no place to read. When you are homeless on the Row, a $6 million police force, which guzzles more funding than all the homeless services in the city combined, threatens to cite you with an unpayable trespassing ticket, or else incarcerate you, if you dare sit down on public sidewalks during daylight hours.
Not that you would read if you were allowed to sit down. Smells and screams and substance abuse lurk too closely to warrant an escape into pure imagination. A more real escape is necessary.
And so on three separate Fridays every year, the LA Catholic Worker, where I'm an earnest and clueless newbie, rents a bus and takes 50 Row residents on a picnic. We don't do it to convert souls. Merely to give our selves in other bodies a well-deserved rests. (Me in another body. That's all you are.)
We serve hamburgers, watermelon, and ice cream sandwiches (which were processed by child-labor maniac Nestle, to the abomination of some of our guests) on the banks of a green lake in Whittier, CA. Anyone who lives in the suburbs would be less-than-impressed with the location. It smells like algae and duck-poop and is surrounded by power plants.
But when sewer-stained concrete has been your playground, your bedroom, for a few months or years, any patch of grass exhales liberation.
And so my tattered friend reads.
I am struck subtly and resonantly that watching him read is the pinnacle of my life. A realization, not like a golden trumpet blast, but like a river rippling its transformation upon receiving a smooth stone.
This is true, lasting, weightless happiness. No true love's first bloom nor sweeping green cliff's majesty, however symphonic, could stir such music in me as the sound of broken chains. No matter whom they tether. Because the truth is, when we cross far enough through the fear on the lids of our mind's eye, we realize something my favorite author says better than I...
"In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world's rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether that buoys the rest, that gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned."
-Annie Dillard

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Two Days' Quotes at the LA Catholic Worker

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW) community is where I'm spending at least the next six weeks of my life. I am attempting to capture the indescribable by writing a few quotes I've heard during only three days with this radical community.

"You're only smiling because no one in your family has died."
-a Skid Row immigrant from Pakistan whose wife was killed by US troops

"I ain't never been afraid of nothing. Except all white people. Haha."
-Jesse Love (that is his legitimate middle name), former Skid Row resident, now a community member who has been married 10+ years to a white CW

"We had a free medical clinic on Skid Row. But we had to close it due to overflow. Folks were coming from Mexico to use it."
-Catherine Morris, co-head of LACW, wife of Jeff Dietrich

"I came to the United States because my three-year-old daughter had cancer and there was no way to help her at home. But I didn't make enough money here, so she died. One time she saw me crying and said, 'Mamita, no llores por mi. (Don't cry for me)' I pretended I had been cutting onions. But she knew I was lying."
-Maria, a Mexican immigrant and guest at LACW

"Of course I'm scared to be homeless again. But I am excited to get away from bad influences and start fresh. Yeah, I'm getting a good vibe."
-Chad, whom I met on the Greyhound bus from Portland to LA, who is attempting to leave his alcoholic past and start over in SoCal

"Today's young people have lost beauty to technology. Music is angry and contrived. Women are no longer blessed vessels of life. They are 'sexy' or unimportant."
-Chris, a guest at the LACW, formerly homeless, who speaks four languages and plays classical piano

"I feel guilty when I'm not hospitable, even when it's stretched thin. My Southern mother's fault."
-Jeff Dietrich, co-head of LACW (a house of hospitality), husband of Catherine Morris, when I asked him how "he handles it all," like not spitting back at people when they spit at him

"Thank you for smiling and saying hi to me."
"You're welcome. So...did you like the cake served at the kitchen yesterday?"
"Yes, but I shouldn't have eaten it. That stuff is poisonous."
"Then why did you eat it?"
"Good question. You do crazy things when you're hungry."
-(Me with) James, a 20-something Skid Row resident who used to work in micro-brews in Oregon

"Never believe that what you're doing doesn't change anything."
-Skid Row resident, after waiting an hour for a bowl of oatmeal and an orange

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Strawberries, and Other Implosions

Nothing could be more normal.
We were preparing for a family barbecue on a Saturday afternoon. The cooler bulged with local brew and lemonade for the kids, the tofu was steamed and the deck and driveway swept. I stood hunched at the steel sink with a Ginsu knife, completing a checklist—cutting the tops off strawberries.
Sound familiar?
I had switched to auto-pilot that morning in order to play hostess. I didn’t think, I acted. I didn’t feel, I plugged in.
And suddenly, while cutting strawberries, my father’s seamless jabber and my aunt’s commanding giggle and the sound of sports radio zoomed into nothingness, and I was left alone, panicking, to the simple rhythm of strawberry tops falling into a colander.
They’re just strawberries. Nothing could be more normal. Why do you suddenly want to scream?
I then realized that this panic marked the first moment I had recognized my re-assimilation into my birth culture.
Reintegration issues are common for volunteers and expats who spend a significant length of time immersed in a culture different from their own, particularly when they significantly change their lifestyles. What I mean by that is, entitled estadounidenses can live quite familiarly these days in almost any country in the world. Plenty of expats in Nicaragua (yours truly included, a veces), invest in technologies and comforts that make the “exotic” a little less threatening.
But if you eliminate television, air conditioners, driving, purchasing food in boxes at supermarkets and the like for two years of cross-cultural living, and then return “home,” a term that becomes as complex and misunderstood and fluid as “immigrant,” chances are you’ll find yourself gawking at the existence of a strawberry. And furthermore, gawking at your numbness to it.
At that moment my first breakfast back in the United States crash-landed in my vision. December 15, 8am. A perfect bowl, dishwasher-gleaming, with milk, local blueberries, and honeyed cereal. From a box.
I remember staring at that breakfast like it was an imploded collusion of heaven and hell.
I ate it in slow motion. The fact that outside was a frozen vivid wonderland and I had just come from dusty greenless Managua did not help steady my spoon. Nor did the fact that I hadn’t eaten in 36 hours, having refused to buy a $9 sandwich in the airport.
That first morning, possibly for the first time in my life, I noticed every bite of my meal, and with every crunch, a child from El Recreo came to mind.
Crunch Denika crunch Madeline swallow Richard. Children who ate one meal a day, always some variation of rice and beans, given to them by the comedor near the library where I worked.
Every swallow, delectable and privileged, guilty.
And here I was, chopping the tops off strawberries—it cannot be overstated what backbreaking labor and oil-fueled industry goes into harvesting this luxury crop (see for yourself)—as if Nicaragua had never welcomed me.
This has been happening more frequently as I approach the end of six months of being returned.  I watch movies. Sometimes twice in 24 hours. I spend money from a bank account. I speak English outside my home. Heck, I live at (a) home. Under a roof.
My own increasingly seamless adherence to cultural “norms” is raising a flag. To what degree should I allow re-assimilation to take its course? As the JV guidebook says, I can never erase privilege or culture. But to what degree should I continue to resist? At the very least least, how much should I strive to reflect on the delicate, improbable miracle that is a strawberry?
The problem is, in a culture increasingly driven by efficiency and consumption, and not by presence or reality, the extraordinary becomes mundane. Life becomes habit.
I am reminded of comedian Louis CK’s interview with Conan O’Brien, a segment called “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy,” which notices how unfairly whiny people are on airplanes, when boarding is delayed or high-speed internet fails. “Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, ‘OH MY GOD! WOW!’ You’re sitting on a chair in the sky.”
As these strawberries and their plummeting tops became new in the steel sink, I realized my shoulders had relaxed, my brow had softened, and my mind was squarely in the present. Suddenly I wasn’t light-speeding through chores, I was noticing the universe in my hands. I felt sorrowful and joyful all at once. Such a gift, to awake from numbness.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Painter: A Wwoofer's Reflection

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.


The following is my reflection after spending two weeks wwoofing at this farm in Southern Oregon. Wish I had a better quality camera, but cameras, in the end, don't capture much. Neither will these words. Nevertheless...
Your lover’s unbroken glow, wrapped in a wool blanket by a fire. A sisterhood of sweating trees interrupted with marble temples. A cliff, red and vast and angry, convinced of its girth and immortality, even as it dies into a blue and vaster and dancing sea.

Take a moment to recall those times you really sunk into the vibrant pulse of what surrounded you and remembered there may be such a thing as God.

Did you wish everyone, regardless of the boxes of our births, could share in the privileged surrender of that recollection?

There is a hill in Southern Oregon, six miles from the misnamed Pacific as the crow flies, where I sat at sunset to connect to you and to everyone, and recall what I knew before I was born.
Follow the Rogue River to Kimball Hill Road and weave higher until words fail and you realize you are wonderfully, horribly alone, and always have been.

Before you there is a painting made of real life. The pines and firs cling to the Earth’s scalp and to each other. Are they afraid of you, or are you the guest of honor at their fest noz? The horizon exhales a white wall—it can breathe like us, no, but they’re only clouds—that leaves only the river’s mirage unblanketed. A steel bridge at the delta gives way to hundred-ton rock arches that giants left behind, but from this hill, from your moment above and truly aware of them, they are smaller than you will ever be.

Apart from the occasional busy fly, whose self-importance reminds you of the you who scurries through the days; the only sound is far-away wind, carressing each pine needle like an orphan found. Hundreds shiver for and whistle in love. There is more than enough to go around and still reach embraceable you.

At the end of all things, this is the most perfect sound. It is the alpha-omega whisper of everyone’s Mother, leaning in to your soul through your ears, which have turned purple from screaming that everything is just too bright. This tree wind is her liquid soul expressed and she does not need to stop for breath. She is breath. Its resonance with your remembered soul massages the questions out of your pores with gentle fire. 

Shhhhhhhjust listen. Listen to nothing. At the heart of it you and I are together, Beloved.”
I sat on God’s hill and wanted to hear that purr forever, a purr accompanying the painting around me, the moment chosen for me.

Some day all I think I know will end. When it does, I want to see it sung before me like a painting. Everything that mattered and didn’t will unroll before me like the Rogue River Valley. If I have labored to love and live like a creator, the tears that have carved red hollows into my skin and bones will evaporate into blue blurs, pines, firs, giant’s stones, which in turn collapse just as gladly into the hint of an immortal horizon. And I will no longer be a gasping, grasping pine needle, a self-important fly. I will be a painter on a hill with gold in her veins.

And all I will feel the impulse to turn my head slightly and realize you are silently beside  me, and we are awake together as never before.

And all we will hear as we melt is shhhhhhh…….

Monday, May 6, 2013

Things You Give Up

Greetings from an organic farm overlooking the Rogue River in Curry County, Oregon. I am happy to be here, and to have my heart with me. I can honestly say my heart and mind are with me in the present. I wouldn't rather be anywhere else right now, and worries, fears, guilt is minimized. What a gift.
(I'll put up a picture ASAP...can't use plug-ins at this library computer)

What do you give up to live a loving life, a life in harmony with the rest of the world?
Are you a travel-holic who decides to forgo the airplane and take a bus?
Are you a mother who gives all of her time to her children?
Are you a father who listens when he wants most to talk?
Are you a partner who sacrifices her dreams and freedom to be with the one who loves her, who needs her?

How are these things loving?

In this post-Nica life of mine, I have discovered the necessity to explore a life without the following things, however much or little the cost of that sacrifice. I invite you to reflect on them with me.

A porcelain toilet that uses water to flush
Keeping up with birthdays
Health insurance and retirement benefits
Living in an accessible, plush place
Using a car daily
Staying dry
Consistent internet access
Food in bags, boxes, plastic
Keeping clean
Bananas in Oregon in January

I suppose the real question, though, is not what I give up, it's what I gain. Why does it matter, to live a life that questions the "need" for these things?
I can't yet name that.
I can, however, name the following.

1. I will never be satisfied with the estadounidense status quo. I will forever question what and who is beneath comfort, security, and privilege. I will not give them up, not completely. But I will always wonder.
2. It feels so right, to wake up in a solar-powered house, dig up weeds and plant radishes that we will pull from the Earth and consume two weeks from now, and finally, tired and smiling, watch the sun go down over the Pacific.

Thank you for the things you give up, for the ways you love.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Disclaimer

I've spent the last month revisiting friends and family whom I haven't seen in three years, and I'm (relatively) recently back from a cross-cultural experience that "ruined" me for life (JVC intentionally chooses that terminology).
The result of these two facts juxtaposed is that I find myself wanting to really say "something" but unable to do so given the circumstances, which usually involve a cup of overpriced tea and the inevitable question, "So how was it?"
And so here's everything I am afraid and unable to say in those moments.

Hello. It is good to see you, because in every interaction with you or anyone else, I am given a glimpse, whether minute or gargantuan, of the cosmos in each of us, of the reality that we hunger for the same things. Let's not gloss over that intensity with pleasantries. I am happy when you show me your soul.
That said, I'm angry.
It's beyond words, so let me try to paint a picture.
I feel that every one of my pores contains a volcano connected to the magma center of my heart, and the unfamiliar home around me causes eruptions that social etiquette demands I swallow, causing implosion. Implosion that manifests itself in nervous ticks and awkward silences and other creatures that are best left unnamed.
Allow me to be perfectly clear that I'd prefer to explode.
I'd prefer to tell you this, that I have seen poverty, I have lived with it outside my barred front door and inside my gut, and it has left me reeling, wondering if you have felt the same bottomless incredulity.
I have seen love, triumphant in the maggots-on-stomachs, laughing mindlessly while Satan strives to comprehend, and it has raised me out of bed with a drive beyond my own understanding, whispering si se puede.
I have asked questions that are knives plunged into my past, about why it's worth existing when one-sixth of the people on this paradise planet barely survive, and it's in our grasp to change that.
And now I'm here with you. As I cautiously sip from my styrofoam cup, my feet are silently crossed under this transparent marble table. Say, I do like your shoes, but I admit I'm stuck on how many extra pairs we have between the two of us that could be sold to give a single pair to Denika and her brother Brian, who walk barefoot in broken glass. And while we're stuck on shoes, allow me to admit that HDTVs make me vomit a little inside.
It's hard to enjoy this tea while I'm vomiting.
I know that soon we will collapse full-bellied into your recently-washed Lexus and head home, where even I will happily dull my mind with a movie or two. Plasma-projected. It will be pleasing, even for me, for a little while, but I apologize if afterwards I must excuse myself and take a long walk alone with little faces dancing in my memory. Could I tell you about them?
I also know my words are dripping with swords. But it's not personal. It's buried where I cannot expunge it in the deep end of me, not you. I wonder if you are the sort of person who will jump in with us.
While I get used to this dark water, please forgive the judgment, and know that I do love you and thank you for receiving what you may or may not understand. I look forward to the moment when this disclaimer will no longer be needed. I sincerely ask, would you like to get tea again sometime? Even if I'm erupting, I can't stop trying. Peace.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Top 10 Reasons I Love the United States

I'm past the three-month returned mark.
Allow me to say...

I love being back in the United States!!!

Maybe if I write it emphatically enough, it will come true.

In all seriousness, in order to let culture shock "gracefully" run its course (actually, it feels more like I'm a ballerina repeatedly pirouetting into concrete walls), I have been advised to focus on two facts. One, what I am feeling is natural, and it will end. I'm not crazy. It's okay that I feel the ground will cave out from under me every time I enter a Walmart, and that I gawk at $9 airport sandwiches realizing that amount of money could buy dinner for five in Nicaragua. It's okay, because some day I will be adjusted to being back in this place. Some night I will be able to put those marbles away (see last post).

The other fact is a little peppier. The fact is that there are good things about being back here, and it would be a disservice to those who have welcomed me lovingly "home" and to the Nicaraguans who sent me off with a (sometimes joking) "Get back where you belong!" if I didn't acknowledge these things.
And so here they are.
10. Biking
There's nothing quite like not going five miles in ten minutes without using any gasoline--no guilt involved! And Oregon, where I've spent the majority of my returned time so far, is brimming with velo-culture. I especially love country downhills after angry uphills where you realize as you fly that you earned all of it.
9. Enough sleep
Adios to the days of 5am "good" mornings and 10:30pm goodnights. I will guiltily leave those to the world's hardest workers and accept my privilege to be a culture-shocked bum. At least for now.
8. Winter
I don't much miss Managua weather in December-March. 37 Celsius. Creeks that evaporate and leave festering beds in their place. And I never felt comfortable in clingy clothing for more slender women. Meanwhile, in Oregon, my colorful scarves and cobwebbed boots await, and rain will make the flowers grow ;).
7. Inspirational people
I'm not saying there aren't inspirational people in Nicaragua. But I would like to thank those of you who have learned to love committing your lives to simple living, community, spirituality and social justice, without having to leave the States. You inspire me to keep trying. Keep in touch.
I've always been someone who prides herself on her expression. Though my Spanish grew in Nicaragua (duh), I couldn't be true to the introverted, sarcastic intellectual in me, not only due to a lack of vocabulary, but due to a lack of people who understand the hilarity of LOLCats and Monty Python. Instead they laugh at Chapurin Colorado. Cheers to English wit. It is good to be back in your presence.
Disclaimer: I miss Spanish everyday. But I live in the United States. Se encuentra en cada parte, y va creciendo!
5. Music
I made an intentional decision to not bring my iPod into my JVC life. What joy to hear Nickel Creek, Muse, Shokolo and Bill Whelan again! Not to mention that in the past three weeks I've participated in jams involving banjos, ukelele, and steel drums. Bagpipes to come. I suppose not having los Mejia-Godoy around isn't so bad. Heck, it's my opportunity to pass them along to new communities here. Say, have you heard of los reyes del son Nica, Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejia-Godoy? Check them out.
4. Food
Alas, no more rice and beans three times a day. I may feel guilty surveying the seven varieties of spinach and mushrooms at eco-friendly Oregon supermarkets, but when they make it on to my plate, sauteed with long-missed curry, I realize I have newly come to appreciate the beauty that is food. Healthy (or not), delicious food. May it be available to everyone.
So you know, almond milk, frozen blueberries, and granola is the best breakfast God ever desired for humankind.
3. Wide Green Expanses
Grass. Trees. Large meadows in the center of the city. Call Avatar cliche and call me hippie, but they DO have healing powers. That's why all Catholic Worker houses grow a garden. And the ability to roll in grass daily is a privilege not available to the urban poor in Nicaragua. Or the United States.
2. Diversity
My favorite salsa partner is a 65-year-old Chinese grandpa named Tom, who speaks a single phrase of Spanish, "No toques mi culo."

1. Family/Friends
Relationships are the hardest and most rewarding thing about being alive. I've got good people near me who care about me. Nicaraguans taught me the importance of taking care of them and allowing them to take care of me. After one-half of my JVC experience was over, I told my friend Yelba I was considering staying in Nicaragua. "You can't do that," she mandated. "Shame on you. You have to go back to your mother."

Monday, February 4, 2013

Have You Ever Seen God in a Marble?

There’s not much to do for fun if you’re a child in the inner city in an abusive, poor family.
You don’t go to school because you don’t learn anything, even when the teacher does show up, and because your mother doesn’t notice whether you go or not.
She doesn’t notice because apart from buying herself a coke or some beans every few hours, she stays in “your” cardboard hut, spending your father’s drug sale money, whatever’s left after his nightly boozing, of course, on cable television. She watches telenovelas (soap operas) that you don’t understand.
Your older brothers are trying to keep themselves alive by robbing buses all day, so they can’t give you something to do.
Luckily for you, in your barrio, next to the Comedor (eatery) that gives you a free meal every morning, there is a humble library. It has lots of books with pretty pictures that numb your mind for a few minutes. There are words on the pages, but you never learned to read, and even if you can sound out a few letters, they switch places on you and your eyes blur them together, such that reading hurts too much.
Esteven and Alejandro outside the library
The life I just described belonged to a frequent library “client” named Alejandro. He lived across the alley from the library, so like it or not, I saw him every day. He played all day in the dirt, with various cheap games.
One favorite was top-spinning. Alejandro and his cronies—Laura Fabiana, Esteven, Cambell, and so many I can’t name—would place chipped sidewalk pieces in a circle they drew in the dirt, wind their adobe-colored tops tightly in dishwater strings, and hurl the tops at the ground, aiming to hit the chipped concrete. I remember how their biceps flexed and eyes grew firey and focused before releasing the tops. Such strength, determination, anger, potential. To be NFL quarterbacks. Or world-class archers. Or farmers. Or mechanics. Or pistol-wielding gang members.
But being too poor for dreams and too young for gangs, they play with tops.
Or marbles.
Marbles were the weekly treat. Perhaps mom decided it was high-time Alejandro bought her a coke, so she gave him six córdobas, and risking the spanking if she found out, he bought himself three marbles. Or perhaps he found them in the dump, remnants of a richer kid’s boredom. Or perhaps it was Friday, the day the library loaned out marbles.
However Alejandro found those marbles, it happened weekly. Then he’s lose them or they’d get stolen. Which is why the humble library would hesitate to loan them out.
The sight of those marbles in Alejandro’s hand is one I will not forget. I’d place them there and look into his eyes, hoping to convey the importance of returning a loan so precious to so many children. For a few seconds he’d just look at them in his grungy palm. His eyes contracted and relaxed and glistened. Three smooth crystals in a cracking calloused shell. As round as his protruding, foodless belly. Three gemstone tickets to hope in a grey-brown world.
I came to understand that kids most liked the games and activities that gave them control of something resembling money or food. Monopoly, Candyland, marbles. Temptations of a life they’d never lead.

This past Friday I went to see Jack, a spiritual director. To get to his house in Portland, I drove a car, shinier than any marble Alejandro would ever see. Before Jack said a word, I spent a long time crying, thoughts and heart flying too fast to comprehend, and then zoning out by staring at the startling blue and green of the Oregon outdoors. Blues and greens that reminded me of the crystals in Alejandro’s hands. I told Jack that I don’t how how to find the space to grieve in this place.
Years ago, Jack spent time in rural Guatemala, and described the first time he left the campo to go to the city to buy some medicine. He entered a supermarket and found himself staring at an aisle stocked with weight-loss products. On sale.
Weight loss. Money spent to lose weight. What would Alejandro think of that?
Then Jack placed before me two netted bags of something small, round, beautiful. One bag blue, the other bag green. “I just bought these, and you’ll be the first recipient,” he said. “These marbles represent your tears. Every day, you need to hold them in your hand, and give them as much space as they ask of you. God needs you to cry God’s tears.”
I took three blue, three green, and held them in my hand. My world crashed into itself. “You don’t know…” I tried to begin, but tears congealed the memory. He told me to take my time.
A few minutes later, I was able to tell Alejandro’s story. “In Nicaragua, children would save up to buy marbles. Their favorite game. What all the poor children played, in order to distract themselves from food they didn’t have and things they couldn’t do. Marbles were so coveted, so cherished.”
As the salty tears from my eyes mixed with the gemstone tears in my hand, Jack whistled. “Oh. That hit a heart-chord for you, didn’t it. Perhaps they’re going to be too much for right now.”
Not too much. Too perfect.
And so, because I cannot give them to Alejandro, I hold these treasures in my hand, and cry God’s tears.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Initial Thoughts on "Being Back"

I doubt this post will be of much interest to people who haven't experienced culture shock.
Then again, I'm doubting a lot lately.

How does it feel to be back? They say. This is actually the best of the hardest questions I've had to answer. The worst has been, Do you know what's next? Presenting that question is like calling for directions from someone who's caught in a hurricane. "Say, do you know which way to What'sNext?"...I'm sorry; I don't. But perhaps you could tell me which way is up.

Here's my best answer to that well-meaning question. Firstly, am I really back? Perhaps physically.Though there's very little physical presence in sitting for an hour and a half by a full-blast heater, staring out a frosty window onto a suburban lane, my eyes and mouth stuck only slightly open. That happened this morning.

Some days I do plug in to this beautiful Oregon world. I must admit--its colors, cultures, fresh air--it is beautiful. I go to MLK Jr. marches with Sisters of the Road Cafe in Portland. That was sweet. I take long walks and order fair trade tea and read A People's History of the United States, a book that reminds me there ARE people in this breathless, pounding country who think the way I do. That was a good afternoon.

And then there are days like today when I wake up with Carlos Mejia-Godoy's voice in my head, singing about "el Dios de los pobres,"  and I feel so far away, misunderstood, and before I know it my forehead bunches up and eyes squint and I am crying, wondering how I'll ever be. here. again.

Music is the hardest part. It is the Nicaraguan jewel I miss most. In college at LMU, the musical side of me was largely suppressed, by the push to achieve, by "whiteness" (I could only take so many cold sacred hymns without looking for something meatier), by fear. In Nicaragua it awoke again. The music of that (I can no longer say "this") country embodies the spirit of revolution, the yearnings and faith and poetry of a people eternally victorious against their oppression, an oppression which "this country" (here I am again!) has played a--if not the--major role in causing. The music of Nicaragua--the feminist three-step of its folklore dance, the way guitars are played with the lyricism of harps and the power of drums, its rhythm that convinces my soul it could march on accompanied forever--has awoken a volcano in me, one that is rumbling and ready to burst.

But now there's a million-ton boulder called the United States over my crater. And I can tell you, it doesn't feel good to have lava stuck in my stomach. No quick-fix highly-processed antacid can clear that up.

Allow me to slow down and see more of the horizon. I'll be okay. This is all expected. Some day the clouds of purposelessness, longing, and isolation will melt away, and I will see the beauty of where I am, and more importantly, I will see all people, Nicaraguan or not, for what they are--worthy of love, on their own journeys, though worlds different from mine.

But in the meantime, while I figure that out, Two Thoughts (Estha in The God of Small Things, anyone?):

1. Some things, I hope, will NEVER make sense again: daily car usage, a closed mind, making choices without taking into account a preferential option for the poor (So long as I live comfortably and others live dismally, my well-being should not be the principle motivation behind  my decisions), power and privilege. So long as I continue to question these and other realities, I am living true to the person I have become. To the person I have always been that Nicaragua has showed me.

2. Aunque se aclare el horizonte, el volcán nunca se apague.