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.

4 things I learned on the border

Last week, we had meetings with MCC in the border towns of Agua Prieta, Sonora and Douglas, Arizona. They tell me that before, it was a single town. But now the two are separated by a wall that measures 3 meters high and extends for about 8 kilometers. We had a profound experience as we talked with people who live the daily reality of the pain of separation between the American and Mexican people. Here I share 4 things I learned from my experience.

1. The desert is an extremely hostile environment.

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Cow fencing replaces the big tall wall about 4km out of town.

We arrived at 4 in the afternoon, when the sun was beginning to set. It was terribly cold with powerful winds. We did not want to spend more than 5 minutes outside the van. Migrants who cross spend more than a week in the desert. I had read a lot about that, and I have seen a lot of documentaries as well, but it does not compare with the experience of being physically present where all this happens. And now, for many people, this is the last step in a very long trip that begins in Africa, or in the Middle East, or in Haiti. Many arrive in South America and travel a few months before arriving to this part. There is no room in my mind for the desperation that brings people to this point in their life.

2. We have to pray for the patrols along with the migrants

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On the Mexican side of the wall, there are several murals depicting the experience of separation.

That was the plea of one of the patrols who spoke with us. He is a character that I will never forget. He lives in the tension of many contradictions. For example, his wife is Mexican and his church has a ministry for migrants. On the other hand, he voted for Trump. And his vocation for 17 years has been to capture migrants escaping through the desert and to return them to their land. He pointed out that the patrols are traumatized by what they see in the desert. And that although he is determined to offer the migrants he finds empathy and dignity, many of his traumatized colleagues become very hard and are violent with migrants. He also described that in order to cope with the trauma, many of his colleagues struggle with addictions. I have lately been praying for each exchange between migrants and patrols in one night. These moments are very vulnerable and need a lot of spiritual support.

3. The movement of people is a force of nature, like the rain and the wind. You will never stop it.

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The guide who led us along the wall showed us some scars that the wall bears as a result of cutting open and patching back up. In fact, one patch includes large screws which left posts sticking out on the Mexican side, almost creating steps to facilitate jumping over. Also, in the town of Agua Prieta, there is a factory that makes seatbelts. On the wall you can see these belts hanging down that people use for climbing.

4. My family is one among thousands whose hearts build a bridge between the two countries, no matter what happens in the political sphere or what is physically built between the two places.

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A heart with wings transcending the barrier is a strong image I took with me.

This was perhaps the most painful reality for me. When I stood on the wall on the American side, I thought about the love I have for my country. For the playground songs I learned in my childhood. And I looked towards the Mexican side, where my daughters learn children’s songs, where Ramona learned to read first in Spanish. This bond is so strong that the physical presence of a barrier between these deeply loved places caused me a strong pain in my gut. But in my prayers, I am weaving / imagining, asking God to weave a great and powerful network of love between the two countries that no thing or person can break.

Growing up

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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.

Be grateful for your teachers

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On a somewhat unrelated note, I am grateful for youtube tutorials that teach me how to use soft pastels, and for my auntie who brought them for me and reminded me that I am an artist.

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.

Why I hate piñatas

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A sampling of some of the many piñatas offered at a party store in San Cristobal.

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?

Dinner with a Curandero on Mexico’s Southern Border

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A local healer points out plants that can be used as medicine in a workshop sponsored by INESIN in the forest near the village of Siberia, Chiapas.

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.

 

What traveling to Haiti exposed in me

 

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.

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My new friend Rosita and I and our beautiful double chins.