What the day of the dead teaches me about being alive

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Looking at alters made to celebrate Day of the Dead at school.

For the past several months, I’ve been quietly grieving my last year of living in Chiapas. I had my last birthday, last week we celebrated Ruthie’s. Today’s last was particularly difficult, since next year at this time we will be in a place where there’s no cultural framework for celebrating the dead. There will be no alters, no cemetery visits, no marigolds, and no sweet bread.

I tried to hold on and savor it all the best I could for one last time.

But that misses the point of the Day of the Dead. It’s a day to remember that nothing will last, and the more we deny or attempt to hang on, the more unhappy we feel. It’s a chance to greet life’s mortality; a day to mark the passing of time, and the passing of people who have influenced you.

It’s a day that speaks more to me about life than it does of death.

Life is a burst of color; here one day and gone the next. Armloads of flowers are lugged for kilometers in order to break petals into intricate designs paying homage to the beauty of the fleeting time we are granted among the living. It is sometimes agonizing, and what I have learned in Latin America is that you should never leave anyone alone in their agony; thus the parties at the cemetery. It is sometimes a cruel joke, like skeletons dancing.

It’s a chance for food made with love to defy the time/space continuum, satisfying spirits in other worlds.

This is a great chance for me to let go of my western understanding of reality. Friends from both Bolivia and Mexico have shared with me beautiful rituals around food, gratitude and fellowship (connecting with ancestors, the earth, God and the growers) and I participate with them in faith not unlike the disciples who ate fish on the shore with the resurrected Christ.

Yesterday I took some time to make a recipe of my ancestors. In it I sought to honor Eugene Miller, Anna Hot and Ralph Miller, Mary Wyles and Raymond Stapleton, Gladys Miller and Leon Frye, Chester Frye, and Hattie Mae Treese, and the many ancestors I never got to meet. I made it to thank them for the gifts they have given in creating me and surrounding me, and I welcomed them to my table.

It is a celebration of the cycle of life; a harvest of fruits which came from seeds once a part of a dead plant’s last offering.

Everything alive right now will someday die, and every dead thing, in one way or another, continues to be a part of that which is living. The day of the dead is an enthusiastic affirmation of our interconnected relationship. And paying attention to that makes me feel deeply hopefully and miraculously alive.

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Kids

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Taking a moment during our lunch break to play in the kid’s tent.

One of the aspects of MCC that we don’t talk about enough is the unique way kids of MCC service workers grow up. Their play is different. They have a unique love for one another, as they understand one another’s experience like no other; not from here, yet not feeling at home in their context of birth. In my experience, they also bring imagination and creativity to understanding reality that fills me with hope and invites me to adapt to ever-changing contexts.

Last weekend, the girls walked out with their backpacks filled.  They said they were going to a city that was more affected by the earthquake, that they’d be back in about a week. I kept listening as they walked out onto the patio to hear what they would do once they’d arrived. Attend a community meeting? Facilitate a workshop? Make tortillas with a host family? Nope, they checked into the hotel americano (thanks for the reality check kids!)

This past week was a tricky one for our family, as I co-facilitated an intense workshop on trauma (here in San Cristobal, but with a group of pastors and church leaders from the city referred to in the girls’ playing). I had 12 hour days, and could barely get the girls breakfast in the mornings and tuck them in at night. One morning, I was trying to collect some toys to take with me for a few kids who came and had to entertain themselves for hours while their parents participated in the workshop. Ruthie, only 3 years-old, was having a hard time with this idea. But Ramona, now 6, went to her toy drawers, pulled out her current favorites (3 ponies), and handed them to me. We both got teary-eyed as I told her a little more about the kids. The day before during a break, I pulled out jenga (used for the workshop) to play with them. A five year-old in the group said she used to have this game, but it got lost along with her house in the earthquake. I hugged Ramona and thanked her for her offering.

Kids caring for kids. Such holy ground.

During a week where I was feeling guilty about my lack of availability for my family, when it truly counted, my daughter had it in her to share her favorite toys. It served to transform the guilt I felt into hope and gratitude. I am honored for the space to model my values, and for what I learn from little people as they make the reality in which they live their own.

Everyone has something to give and something to receive; a key principle for any worthwhile learning experience.

Born out of the rubble; a migrant’s story

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The remnants of a house destroyed by the Sept. 7th earthquake getting cleared out to make room for eventual rebuilding. (Photo credit: Elena Huegel)

In the moments leading up to a meeting we hosted for a group of pastors in the city of Juchitan, Oaxaca, I stopped to catch my breath. It was 94 degrees and humid, and between the weather change and the images of destruction throughout the city, I was gasping for air, wondering how to summon the strength to do my part in the meeting. I sat alone in a circle of empty chairs, when a friendly voice interrupted my thoughts. It was a young woman swinging a newborn baby in a carrier. She gave me her best, “hi, how are you” in English. I said I was fine and returned her question. “Oh, my english stops there,” she chuckled. “That’s ok, we can talk in Spanish,” I said.

She began to tell me her story. She is from Nicaragua, and had been hanging out in Tapachula, a boarder town on the coast of Chiapas with her 6 year-old daughter. She was living at a center for migrants, and she spoke positively of her housemates; they would bring her food when she was too far along in her pregnancy to work. Her son was born there just a few days before the earthquake. His father is from El Salvador, and she said they had been in a big fight. When I asked if there was any chance at reconciliation she said, “No, he’s been detained. It’s complicated…I didn’t know he was in a gang when I met him.” There were elements of her story that were so raw and painful, they were hard to understand clearly, like where she actually was the moment the earthquake hit.

But somehow, she ended up in Juchitán, one of the most destroyed cities on the night of Sept. 7th. Someone told her not to bother with the migrant safe house there, and to try the church grounds where they were organizing temporary shelter and food distribution. They let her stay there for the past 10 days, and the sisters there said they’d help her find a permanent home. She was unsure of taking that offer though. She said her ultimate plan is to try and cross the Northern boarder, but she won’t try for the next four years, “Not with your current president,” she joked.

At one point, one of the busy-looking volunteers stopped to say hello. She admired the babe and the perfectly-fitted blue onesie the mama picked out of the mounds of clothing piled up five feet high behind us. “He’s getting chubby,” she praised. “He was nearly dead when they got here,” she told me. “He was so dehydrated. Mama hadn’t eaten in days and her milk was drying up.”

I could hardly believe the miracle sitting before me. An indescribable human tragedy, a center for emergency supplies, worker bees attempting to satisfy desperate human need in an orderly fashion (we walked past the line-up of people standing at the gate to receive bags of food and clothing), and in the midst of it all, room for one more desperate story sustained by nothing more than the will to survive and several open serving hands.

I heard the good news for this family at the end of my visit as mama pointed out that baby was born in Mexico with Mexican papers. “No one can throw us out now,” she said as her face beamed with pride. As I leaned down to kiss baby’s new fuzzy head, I knew I was participating in a holy act. On our way home,  I looked out at the starry night sky, trying to understand the day. I wondered if Jesus were to be born into this world at this moment, whether he might choose to be born in this family, to a Salvadoran gangster father and a Nicaraguan mother and sister, trying desperately to make their way north on the earthquake-ruined coast of Mexico.

The Four Pillars of Resiliency

Last week, I was teaching a course in the Mayan Intercultural Seminary on, “Mourning, Dignity and Resilience.” Since most of the students speak Tsotsil as their first language, the great challenge was to understand one another. Discussions arose naturally between Tsotsil and Spanish until everyone was satisfied that terms were defined and understood well. This was helpful as facilitators, because we got to the roots of the meaning of words and the depth of the human experience that we try (sometimes feebly) to express.

The first night, we worked with the term “resilience.” Here in the highlands of Chiapas, the word resistance is very common and seen as a noble attribute (especially among indigenous peoples). They asked me if resilience is the same as resistance. To answer them, we gave each person a wide and large elastic, with the indication that they could play with it, using it to stretch their arms, legs, and waist.

“What happens when you stop stretching your elastic?” I asked. “Well, it more or less goes back to its original shape” a young man replied. “And that is resilience,” I told them. “On the other hand, this large table is sturdy. Maybe I could stand on it and resist my weight. But if an elephant treads it, surely it will break. It has resistance, but once it breaks, it is destroyed.”

Right now, in these vulnerable moments that we are living in Mexico and in many places in the world, I propose that we dedicate ourselves to build resilience. To do so, my colleague, Elena Huegel, proposes 4 pillars that help us in our resiliency-building. * Here I share them, adding my family’s experience within the last month.

1. Routine: “Keep a daily routine, even if you have to invent a different routine than usual.”* In my family, we always have a routine to put the girls to bed at night. We brush  teeth, read  a story, give piggy-back rides to bed,  and then we sing and pray. This routine, developed and refined over time, helps them prepare for rest and we rarely have arguments about bedtime. But I notice that when I’m working in the evening (like the week of teaching this course), I miss out on the routine and I realize that it also prepares me to rest.

2. Spiritual moments: “Include small spiritual moments during the day.” * The morning after the earthquake, my daughters woke up screaming. It was strange to me, because they usually wake up very happy, full of energy for a new day. The reaction gave us a signal as their parents; they needed more attention, more physical contact and more spiritual moments in order to feel safe again. Sometimes we stop and breathe deeply. Other times, they ask me if I can pray for them and the pain they feel in their stomach.

3. People: “Take time to play, talk or just be with others.” * To celebrate my birthday this month, I decided that instead of inviting all of my friends and coworkers to my house, I just wanted to spend time with my family and a few close friends. It is a bit abnormal for me, but I realized that I wanted to be able to talk about deep things, and for that, I need intimate moments with the people closest to me.

4. Places: “Visit the places that comfort or renew you.” * Our favorite spot as a family is the yard at our house. There we play, dance, and pay attention to nature. I love it when a hummingbird visits us, and we laugh as we see it trying to sit and balance on a branch; its backside flipping up and down in constant movement.

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This is a photo of a wall that fell down near the office where I work. It is a physical manifestation that expresses what happened to our insides as we experienced an earthquake. Everything is shaken up. Certain parts are no longer useful (yet are hard to let go of). We feel vulnerable and need support, in a similar way that the stick is holding up the remainder of the wall. Resilience is built over time, and daily practices are the pillars that sustain the process. I hope this has helped you think about your resiliency practices and I wish you all a buen camino.

* Taken and adapted with material from the Brookfield Institute and “With Hope and Courage: Images of Nature for Trauma Healing in Children” by Elena Huegel, unpublished document, 2013.

3 points to consider on how to help

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An image of the destruction in Juchitán, Oaxaca from an earthquake that hit on September 7, 2017.

We’ve been getting some questions lately about what organizations to give to and how to help with the news of two powerful earthquakes hitting Mexico in a matter of 11 days. There are a few complicated dynamics that are important to know, yet can’t be explained in the space of a Facebook message or an email. So, from my personal experience, here are 3 things to be aware of when evaluating what kinds of initiatives to support.

  1. There is a catch 22 in the relief effort. When we suggest that folks should give to MCC (the organization we’re serving with) the follow-up question is, “Well, what are they doing?” As soon as the first earthquake hit, our direct supervisors sent an email to all partners, expressing their interest in knowing of any local initiatives or unmet needs. However, MCC doesn’t have any money to promise to these initiatives until we have raised the money. But the challenge of raising money is that in light of so many options and horror stories of corruption, people want to know what kind of relief product they are investing in before giving money (a good and important thing to do). However, instead of asking how many rolls of toilet paper are provided or how many temporary shelters are built, ask what kind of long-term relationships the organization has in the effected area (which leads me to my second point). 
  2. Efficiency in an emergency situation is all about relationships. One of the ways I have answered the “What is MCC doing?” question is by simply noting that they are supporting my family, me and the work of the partner organizations we work with. I know I have taken for granted the fact that MCC has supported us (now on our second assignment) without me ever having to set foot in a church to raise our own funds. And now, when it really matters, we are here, on the ground, listening to friends, neighbors, acquaintances, designing plans and attending preliminary meetings so that something more specific can unfold. None of these early efforts get published, because they are not yet funneled through an official relief effort (also a really important part of the process). But here I am telling you, these kinds of relationships and groundwork are what ensure that the right people get connected to the right resources.
  3. There are so many things that can go wrong in a relief effort. On one hand, being in Mexico during a natural disaster is an experience that restores my faith in humanity. On the other hand, the stories of corruption and division are almost as heartbreaking as the disaster itself. For example, there is a video getting passed around of a political official directing trucks of supplies to his own personal storage unit, with the intention of using them in order to buy votes in the election next year. On Thursday, I went with the partner organization I work with to the city of Juchitán, Oaxaca, one of the cities most affected by the first earthquake (more than half the city’s infrastructure either fell or will need to be demolished). We met with pastors and church leaders at a center of the Church of the Nazerene. When we arrived, about 20 volunteers were unloading a large tractor-trailer full of supplies while a crowd of people waited at the door to receive them. A volunteer commented to us that this particular tractor trailer was packed and sent from the state of Michoacán, where community groups and PTO organizations filled it with donations and sent it on its way. Unfortunately it was sequestered in the same state, and it took a few days for authorities to recover it and accompany it to its final destination. I have no idea how many trucks like this one have been packed and sent by amazing people, never to find their way to the right place.

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    A truck of supplies being unloaded in Juchitán, Oaxaca (photo credit: Elena Huegel).

If you have read this far, it is because you care about where and how your money gets used to accompany those who are suffering. I am so grateful for people in the world like you. May your giving be joyful, and may the love behind it create a long, powerful ripple effect, arriving to the people for which it’s intended.

So many bubbles…

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We made a trip back to the states again this summer. With so many connections of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and church family, it seems like the right way to spend our vacation time. We went for a little longer this year, and finished our time with a few days at the beach. Our first night there, it started pouring. Thanks to a friend’s hospitality, we were sleeping in a trailer and had a dry place to sleep. But my heart woke up in the night unsettled. It was the accumulation of so many emotions beyond what I was allowing myself to feel. I couldn’t name the feelings well, and spent the morning just feeling grumpy and out of place.

Our friends (who loaned us the space) came to visit for that day, and brought enthusiasm and encouragement. We ended up at the beach in the rain. Our girls loved it; the rain served a new playmate.

The day before I had noticed the variety of people who come to this particular beach, good for children as there are breakers placed far out to keep the waves low. Not long after spotting a group of Amish women in the water with their dresses, a black muslim mama waded in with her hijab, her two sons and a football. A white dad ushering in his two year-old stopped to admire her form as she launched the ball way out to her sons.

In the rain, we mostly had the beach to ourselves. In my grumpy, solitary state, I picked up a container of bubbles my mama had given the girls. As I lifted the wand into the air, I was surprised that I didn’t even need to blow on it, the wind alone formed dozens of bubbles and sent them magically up and out to the ocean. It was a moment of spiritual breakthrough. The bubbles became my container for all my leftover emotions from the trip. They were each lifted by the wind and carried out to sea. The wind felt like the presence of God in my life. Not visible, yet strong and present.

After about a half hour, the rain let up, and more families ventured out to enjoy their Saturday at the beach. This time there was a family of olive-skinned people playing next to us. Two dads waded far out with their kids, speaking to them in deep, confident tones. By that point my friend had taken up the bubble wand, which served as entertainment for the people in the water. When the dads watched the bubbles pass above their heads, one of them got a huge grin and exclaimed in broken english, “SO MANY BUBBLES.” He lunged with childlike eagerness to try to break one floating above his head. We all giggled. It was one of those inexplicable moments, where there is a synchronization of hearts. My heart with Gods. Our hearts as humans who don’t speak the same language, but live a shared experience. I caught a glimpse in that moment of how I imagine heaven to be.

Once the clouds rolled in again, we decided to call it a day and stop for ice cream on our way home. They had the news on, and I watched in horror as they showed images of Charlottesville. While I was on the beach enjoying a moment of joy and harmony, a few hundred miles away, peaceful resisters were beaten down. This is the intense reality of my country; a place of sharp contrasts right now. I know that was also true before we left. I’m sure we have changed just as much as our beloved country in the time we are living away. But the contrast of these two particular images creates a challenge for me as I think of coming back. I am worried it may take more courage to return to my home than it did to leave it. And I have been working since I got back, to tend to my worry through gratitude.

I’m grateful for our lives here in Mexico, for all my children are able to live and see beyond what I can show them in my own cultural context. I am grateful for a home to think of returning to, as so many people in this world are leaving their homes with no hope of ever returning. I am so grateful for those moments we lived together at the ocean’s edge. I am challenged to fuel my soul with those images of shared experience, to live my life with that energy force empowered by the wind of God’s spirit.

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Parsing the Clouds

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We are well into the rainy season here in San Cristobal, a time that brings two kinds of rain. One that leaves light sprinkles on the sidewalk, that is easily convinced by the sun and the wind to pass along, and another that brings torrential downpours for hours at a time. For the last thirty days straight, we have experienced one of these kinds of rain (most commonly the latter). When the clouds appear around noon, it is nearly impossible to know which kind of rain is coming. There is a very common saying among Coletos (natives of the city of San Cristobal) when they get drenched, “es que no tenía cara de lluvia” (it’s that the sky didn’t have the face of rain).

This has made dry laundry for many of us a luxury. I have found the best approach is to not let your laundry get caught in one of the downpours. If it gets dripping wet, it will take days to dry, and usually ends up smelling mildewy. One downside of this approach is that on laundry days, I have a fair amount of anxiety. I often dash home in a panic hoping I will beat the rain. I try to tell myself that even if the laundry gets wet, life will go on. It reminds me of the time when I asked my sister about her need to have two or three back-up ketchup bottles in her pantry. “What kind of a mother would I be if we ran out of ketchup?” was her response. At the time, I laughed, but seems I feel the same about clean dry underwear.

Today, I came rushing home early from work, threatened by the gray clouds. On my way I passed an elderly indigenous woman, her bare feet padding lightly along the sidewalk. I was a little embarrassed to rush past her, but feeling the need to rescue our laundry, I politely stepped off the sidewalk and greeted her as I went flying by. I got home just as a few sprinkles hit my face, gathered the laundry, and sat down to do some reading. Two minutes later, the sun peeked out of the clouds, and I thought of the woman in no hurry to seek shelter from the clouds. She knew the kind of misty rain that was coming, that it would quickly pass by.

I realize the roots of my anxiety are not really about having clean dry laundry. Perhaps my sister and I both carry the memory in our veins of our grandmothers who had to feed lots of children with few material resources. But I also think it is a reflection of the current moment in which we are living. The perception of danger, insecurity and financial uncertainty are highly elevated, causing worry over seemingly small things. The anxiety over laundry is a sign that I need to give those feelings more space in my life. I also think of the sure-footed, light steps of my sister on the street, and I recognize my need for her guidance to parse the clouds of San Cristobal. In the same way, I wonder who else I need to look to for guidance, who has survived more proverbial downpours than I have. In looking to and connecting with others, I’m able to form my own sense of deep assured wisdom that doesn’t flinch at the appearance of gray clouds.