When I was a little kid, we would always take our new clothes and shoes and show them off to my Grandma Frye. The shoes went through particular scrutiny, because as someone who spent years working in a shoe factory, my Grandma could quickly detect which shoes were going to last through the whole school year, and which ones were only for show, and would need to be saved for special occasions. She would often talk about how much we’ve grown, how quickly we grew right out of our shoes.
The way I saw it then, these remarks coming from adults around me were another way of teasing (my mother would say things like, “aw, come on, won’t you please stop growing?”) Now that I’ve moved into motherhood, I realize that adults say these things because it actually hurts to watch kids grow. The comments are a way of marking the loss of one stage and the movement to another.
My oldest daughter turned six last week. We celebrated with friends, came up with a thoughtful piñata alternative (read why here) which included handmade bags and personalized cards to each friend. We participated in a ceremony for her at school, lighting candles for each year of her life, telling stories for each one. She surprises me every day with things she knows. Her profound intuitive awareness challenges my thinking (mama, I picked these flowers for you, but not too many, because while I was picking them, I thought, “How would it feel if someone came along and yanked me out of my home.”)
But something about this growth is painful. Part of it is that she is beginning to construct her worldview in a way that is different from my own. Part of it is personally knowing the pitfalls of being a deep sensitive soul in a world that is too fast and too cruel. The other day she saw the look I was giving her, and she hugged me and said, “I think I know what’s wrong. You are so happy to love me that it hurts.” As it often goes, she said it better than I could have.
It’s been really helpful for me to mark this time’s passing with rituals that act as containers for the many things I feel in this stage. Even the hurt calls me to the moving and growing that is mine to do. It is a place where I find deep trust in God to accompany her in the places where I cannot. I note the things I have been able to give her as a parent, those small, relentless, seeds of patience, love and compassion. I can look back to the way my mother planted those things in me, and then had the faith to give me lots of space to tend them on my own. It is with this deep knowing, I can let go, and allow the beauty of this cycle to carry me.
This is a line in a yoga DVD I’ve been doing for the past five years or so. It has always struck me as a curious phrase. And in the wee hours of the morning today, I was reminded of one of my teachers. He was neighbor at our church, and over the years, he has related with us in various ways. At one point, he worked as the church janitor. He has also struggled openly with drug addiction, which has caused community and family conflict and several church members have walked with him, striving to be a mediating presence in difficult situations.
His wife ended up leaving, and about a year later, she showed up for worship one Sunday morning carrying a new-born baby and a new partner at her side. As the service began, her ex walked in and sat beside her. The congregation didn’t visibly react, but I was definitely filled with worry. During prayer and sharing, she stood up to say that she and her boyfriend were moving out of the neighborhood, hoping to get a fresh start in a new place. She thanked the congregation for always looking out for her. As soon as she sat down, her ex stood up. The rest of us held our breath.
He gave praise to the fact that he had been clean for three months, and had enrolled in a recovery program. He turned to her and said, “I will always love you, but I know why you left. And I know that your new partner and your new family can make you happier than I ever could. I wish you all the best.” The pastor tearfully thanked both of them for coming, and prayed for each one.
But my own tears were accompanied by the challenging aching thought, “If my love would leave me and start a new family with someone else, would I have the courage to let him go like this?”
Chris and I have been reflecting lately on our relationship and how to nurture it in the midst of our busyness. In some ways, our “till death do us part” commitment leads us toward laziness. The unconscious thinking is, we know that we will stay together no matter what, and as a result, the other person will have to put up with us even when we let them down, because this love will always be there. We use it as if it were a limitless savings account that we can draw from. We think things like, “but our children grow up so fast, this workshop has to be planned, who will translate this document if I don’t?”The long-term commitment we have made has somehow justified putting it last in our priorities when so many short-term commitments call our attention outward.
I am inspired by this brother’s act of courage. It was fueled, I’m sure, by the same God-filled energy that stared down demons as a part of his recovery process. I am grateful for his teaching me about non-complacent love, which is not guaranteed, and remains faithful even when its only job is to let go.
This is the non-complacent faithful love I want to strive for every day, in all my relationships, but mostly with my husband, who creates with me the nucleus of family that makes everything else possible.
At my work, we talk about cycles of violence. We identify them, we explain the familiar phases; the honeymoon period, the build-up of tension, the explosion, the repentance and the wooing back that starts the cycle off again. We explain to groups of people that we live these cycles as families, as local communities, and as society at large. We talk about ways of breaking cycles of violence, telling stories of beautiful transformation. We acknowledge that we are all involved, and in order to break them, it takes an earnest effort of all members.
The challenge of this work is that once you are in it, you begin to see these cycles everywhere. They manifest themselves subtly in layers of cultural nuance. I find it easier to see them in other cultural systems than my own.
Here in Mexico, piñatas at birthdays are a ceremonial ritual that my children have quickly assimilated as their own. In fact, when my youngest turned 3 this fall, I tried to insist that she was too little to appreciate a piñata. The thought was quickly rejected by both my husband and my oldest child (“It’s not a birthday without a piñata,” she protested). Since we’ve arrived, I haven’t liked the ritual, but lately I’m starting to figure out why.
We were at a birthday party for a school friend this weekend. The party had all the most desired elements; a party hall, a bounce house, a trampoline, and after about an hour of playing, the first of five piñatas was strung. The ritual proceeded as it usually does.
The birthday girl is the first to hit each one of the sweet Disney characters made out of paper maché. A well-known chant serves to regulate the length of each person’s turn. Determining who goes when involves a mother standing guard to make sure the littler people get to hit first.
This is one of the few spaces where aggression is allowed, encouraged, even applauded by parents. The older boys wait patiently for the others, but once it is their turn, they let loose. For the length of the song, they get to beat this object with their whole heart in a fit of chaos. They don’t seem to notice when their swings get dangerously close to the little ones standing around anxiously awaiting, or when the hit sends the piñata sideways into the crowd.
When the Disney princess decides to give up the ghost and send the explosion of candy into the air, children disperse differently depending on their technique. The most fruitful is to find the epicenter of the candy explosion and dive for it; to kick and elbow your way down to the mounds of candy, and to use your body to hover over and protect it, and then to snatch at the other not-so-protected piles around you. Another technique is to walk around the periphery, getting a piece of candy or two, but relying on your sweet sad looks to solicit the charity of those who get more.
My youngest daughter is happy to go with the one or two pieces of candy route. But my oldest is a fighter. Enticed equally by sweets and power, she heads right for the center. every. single. time. As a parent, I’m torn between rushing to her aid and letting her fend for herself.
On this particular day, the breaking of the fifth and last piñata was a bit brutal. I saw a boy pouncing on her pile, so I tried to get to her. She eventually stood and didn’t seem too rattled, but after about two minutes, as everyone stood up and began to devour their candy, I felt her face dig deeply into my back. I got us over to a quiet corner, and tried to talk to her. Her cry was a deep, loud one. The boys who were fighting with her began bringing her offerings from their own stockpiles. I asked if that made her feel any better. ¨That´s not why I’m crying,¨ she yelled. After a few deep breaths, she whispered in my ear between sniffles, ¨it’s that Rosie (Ruthie’s teacher) gave Ruthie a handful of candy to make her bag bigger, but she didn’t give me any!¨
The truth slowly dawned on me. She wasn’t (going to admit to being) hurt by the kicking, grabbing and pouncing of the boys in the center, because that is the behavior she (and all who take part in the ritual) had come to expect.What hurt her most is that one of the arbiters of justice (in this case, a teacher) did not see her cause, did not recognize her. The social nuance of this situation continues to challenge me, while my children accept it naturally.
Even as I remember it, I am nervous and shaky. I realize for me, this is not about my kid and a handful of candy. This ritual is a microcosm of the moment we are living. In our communities all around the world, individual and collective bodies are exploding (both figuratively and literally). As we dive for the spoils, we all connect with the times in our lives where we’ve had to fight to survive. In the past months I’ve taken to deep grieving, similar to what my daughter was doing.
It’s hard to know how to react creatively and positively in these cycles, in my family, my work, and as I read the news with rapt attention, in my home context in the North. I will continue to lobby for a more collaborative ritual when my eldest has a birthday next month (maybe hidden treat bags where each person will find one and then help others?). But as the rings of community broaden, my circle of influence lessens and more organizing power is required. Still, it is the challenge I leave with myself and with you. What cycles of violence to you observe around you? How will we work together to recognize, define and break them?
A few months ago, we had a friend over for dinner. She mentioned that a friend of hers was just getting in from Guatemala that evening. She had called on him to do a ceremony for her brother who is very ill. Ever the prepared Anabaptist, I had made plenty of food, so I told her to invite him along. Tomás is from a small Quiche village close to the boarder of Mexico. He comes from a long line of healers, and his family has been crossing this land to see patients for centuries (even before Chiapas was a part of Mexico). According to my coworker, the Guatemalans fought harder to preserve their traditions during the Spanish conquest, and so many of their traditions are stronger than the Mexican ones, which is why they are often invited to perform ceremonies.
Like many traditional healers, Tomás does not charge a fee for his services. He says when it has been a gift bestowed freely on him by God, how could he ask for money from others? Instead, the group of people who have invited him all chip in for the cost of his bus ride, and they agree to feed him and give him a place to stay during his visit.
When he arrives at my home, he has a visible look of relief on his face. He sits at my table, and he takes a deep breath. As we eat, he explains that a friend had advised a particular route, saying there would be no security check point. However, the route must have changed, and he was required to be part of a revision process.
You see, there is no wall on the Southern border of Mexico. In the border town of Comalapa, there is simply a gate everyone passes through, with no one watching to see who passes through. On the Guatemalan side, there is a little house you stop into if you want your passport stamped. On the Mexican side, the office is about a mile down the road. It is said that many Guatemalans walk over the boarder each day to come and work in Mexico, and they are legally allowed to do so. However, they are not able to pass into the city of Comitán. Thanks to US support of The Southern Boarder Plan, there is a security checkpoint just before entering the city, where the road veers off into a cumbersome one-lane tunnel. It curves out to a large military building where an armed guard opens the vehicle to ¨look for Central Americans.¨ I put that in quotes because as one can imagine, differentiating a Guatemalan Mayan from a Mexican Mayan, whose roots have been bound for centuries, is not a scientific process, it is a very human one. And as a result, Mexicans have been apprehended and detained in their own country because they look Guatemalan (read about a specific case here).
I am amazed by the grace with which Tomás tells the story of this surprise security check point, of the prayer he prayed, of the eyes that passed over him, of the way he is once more able to do the job he has always done. It wakes me up from the autopilot my body has been on the whole week. It makes my food taste better. Suddenly, our encounter feels like a bit of a miracle.
The other thing that strikes me is how drawn to him my children are. The three of them play jungle animals. My eldest insists on being the ferocious jaguar. My youngest crawls onto his lap and he lovingly names her tortuga. As the evening comes to an end, Ramona brings out one of her most prized possessions, a clay jaguar made in a neighboring town. He asks her if he could say something to it. He leans over and whispers in its ear, and then tells Ramona, ¨I just instructed her to protect your house.¨ I know we come at it very differently, but I couldn´t help but whisper my own prayer of protection over this person and his sacred work in this volatile place.
One of the most striking cultural norms I noticed immediately upon arriving in Haiti is that everything happens out in the open. People argue passionately on the street corner, blare their horn to clear the way when driving, crack up whenever they see a white person, and even bathe naked in rivers located close to the road. I found myself startled by this, even after many years of cross-cultural interactions.
After a few days, I realized my reaction had a lot more to do with me, and my shame for the shadows I carry that I don’t want to be exposed. In my culture, we are much more careful about what we let others see. We call it modesty, but there’s more to it than that. It’s also about the things within us that we are not willing to admit even to ourselves.
Take my double chin for example. It has been part of me for most of my life (evidenced by my brother’s childhood nickname for me, “Chinsy”). However, I grew up in a culture that has told me not to see it, to deny its existence, which is why this sibling nickname was so good at being hurtful. Even today, I am very careful when I take pictures of myself, that I only publish the ones where the 2nd chin doesn’t appear, even though it’s what most people are seeing whenever they look at me in real life.
These are the real roots of the discomfort I experienced in Haiti. But rather than responding in fear to a culture that fully accepts the reality of what is, instead of running from those parts I’ve been taught to deny, what happens when I turn around, throw open my arms, and welcome them? This is the invitation I feel when I see others putting everything on the table. It is a scary step, but it is full of courage and hope too. When I move in that direction, I can feel bold truths rising up in me, other things I have been taught to hold back. My laugh is not too loud. I don’t talk too much for a girl. My body is strong and capable.
These things, when held in the merciful, loving embrace of God, lead me to wholeness. And acting from a place of wholeness is so much more powerful than acting with care to only show the parts that others have deemed worthy. This is not an easy thing to articulate, but it is the subtle shift that is happening in me.
This is the power of the gospel in cross cultural interactions, identifying the ways my culture has held me back from seeing and interacting more fully with God, accepting the invitation to uncomfortable transformation, and finding new layers of meaning in my own history and faith journey.
If you’ve seen the TV drama, “Friday Night Lights,” you know how the phrase ends (“can’t lose”). This idea has been on my mind recently. It started yesterday, when reading an argument for one persons’ healthcare strategy over another. The writing stated something to the effect of, “we should go with this person’s strategy, because he proposes it with a more pure heart.” The phrase caught my attention and stuck in my mind. Later, I heard the same sentiment in President Obama’s swan song speech. He said, “ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our constitution and our principles in the fight.” He wrapped up his speech imploring the young and the young at heart to believe. As I started to consider those phrases, I was taken back to the long days of feeding my newborn and watching Friday Night Lights streaming on Netflix, and this catchy phrase chanted in almost every episode.
There is something about the idea that is so American. We pride ourselves on our goodness, whether it’s our faith that makes us pure, or our well-reasoned ideas and principles that make us right. And somehow we got the idea that this was enough to save us from our enemies (I would love to hear your theory about how the belief came to be), even though so many histories around the world prove otherwise.
I heard another speech yesterday that is getting passed around Whatsapp. In it, a human rights lawyer boldly declares that it’s time for Mexicans to get on their war cries (taking a line from their national anthem) against the government (who kicked off the New Year with a surprise rise of gas prices by 20%). The lawyer proposes a several million person march against government reforms. He points out that as the spokesperson for this march, he will probably be sought out and killed, but he offers his blood and flesh as a sacrifice for his worthy patria. He also jokes (much in the style of the Zapatista leader, Comandante Marcos) that in order to make it easier for the military to find him; he would gladly give his personal information. If I were to guess, the military will not seek him out to kill him, not this week anyway. If he disappears, the movement will only gain strength (certainly part of his thinking in offering himself up). Here, clear eyes and full hearts look a lot more like sacrifice than they do handsome boys winning a football game.
I think rewriting the phrase might help us as we move forward as the US, taking notes from other contexts so that we don’t continue to deceive ourselves. It should be something more like, “Clear eyes, full hearts, will certainly be threatened. Whether or not you lose will depend on the amount of people you have organized around you willing to personally sacrifice in order to defend you and your cause.” But we’ll have to play around with it if it’s going to work as a football chant.
Though perhaps a little clunky, this rephrasing gives me new direction for 2017, and dare I say it, a tiny little bit of hope. Maintaining our clear eyes and our full hearts will require both organizing and sacrifice. If we aren’t ready for that kind of commitment, we need to reconsider whether they are worth maintaining. But personally, I know that my clear eyes and my full heart are two of the few things that positively mark my identity as an American, so I am determined to keep them.
As I look back on 2016, there were some amazing moments. Moments of light in tunnels, moments of rain on parched soil, moments of grace between people and people groups. One example on my mind came in April. I was in a workshop designed for people who care for others. Our instructions were simple, create a dramatic representation of what cycles of violence look like in your line of work, and how they overwhelm you.
The dramas came together rather quickly, and took various forms; a woman gasping for air and literally wrapping herself around the social worker hearing her case, a complicated web woven around a community losing its power. In my case, I physically held the weight of each member of the family as they told their story; the father who couldn´t find work who beat his wife, who beat her kids, who beat their dog.
We made observations about each presentation, how we felt watching it, how it applies to our professional practice. The next directions were simpler; how can you change it? How can you be a positive force that influences the interruption of the violence cycle without entering into it yourself? The most startling thing was that we had no time to prepare. We all just jumped back into the scene and were forced to improvise.
There, something amazing happened. In each situation, we all knew what to do. The social worker encouraged the woman to take some deep breaths, and went for a glass of water. The community members changed their communication patterns. I went first to the person representing the dog, asked her how she felt, and told her to share her feelings with her abusers (and the cycle reversed directions as I slowly backed out of the room).
The facilitator pointed out that many times we know what to do, but we aren´t effective in following through because we get wrapped up in the complicated layers. We all left the workshop with a wonderful light feeling. The feeling that we can work for positive change without burning out or sacrificing who we are in the depths of our being.
I think back to this memory now because it is so different than how I feel as we end this year. It feels instead like the vulnerable of the world are nestled on top of my chest with no chance of moving for at least four more years.
The elections of early November seemed to be a trigger setting off all kinds of crazy in my world in Southern Mexico (where some refer to the curse of being ¨so far from God and so close to the US¨). One of these ripples came in the form of a friend and her accompaniment of migrants brought to Mexico under false pretenses. Thinking they are coming to be waitresses, women leave their family and communities ravaged by violence and unemployment, only to arrive to the reality that they have been brought to be prostitutes. It is an incredibly hard situation, as they owe the money from the bus ticket that brought them here, and they have no money to return (as a lack of money is the reason they have come in the first place). Anyway, the friend called me for help to return 4 women who couldn´t believe this reality they were brought into; one of them a mother of a starving 6 month old.
A week later she sent me an interview with these 4 (who to the best of my knowledge were returned). As one woman shared she came to Mexico in the hopes she could buy a few more tin pieces, because her mother´s house of tin was falling apart, Ramona walked into the room where I was listening. I hesitated, but kept the interview going. ¨Why do you want to listen to something so sad?¨ she asked me in her sweet Cindy Loo Who 5 year old voice. I took a deep breath and answered the only thing that came to my mind, ¨because it is real¨.
I continue to think about these women, and the reality they will return to. The reality we have all seen in the past few months; the crazy vulnerable of this world have just gotten even more crazy vulnerable.
I am writing this rather frantically in between end of the year Christmas parties, complete with posadas, a Latin American tradition, where one crowd stands outside of a door pleading for room in the inn, and another crowd stands inside, hesitant at first but then, recognizing the family of the Christ child, opens their door wide.
Ironically, I want the vulnerable off my chest so I can celebrate Christmas with all the gluttony and carefreeness of my childhood. Perhaps it´s just not going to happen this year, and maybe that´s ok. Maybe sitting with the reality of the crazy vulnerable will give me the time and space I need to know how to act. It won´t be as neat and pretty as our workshop drama, but it will have an impact. This holiday season, don´t be afraid to sit with the reality of the vulnerable. It is the only thing that will get us out of this mess we are all in together.