Saturday, December 31, 2016


"Call the Smithsonian I made a discovery
Life ain't forever and lunch isn't free"
 - Smithsonia, by The Avett Brothers

I sifted through the coins in my wallet, thinking about how I used to fill a jar with spare change until it was full and heavy. I'd haul it to the bank and pour it down the coin sorting machine and out would pop crisp dollar bills in exchange. I still have a place where I keep coins: a small mug on my desk which I regularly reach into to get bus money. Every coin is quickly used up. I save up dollar coins and quarters for transportation and buying fruits and vegetables at the tiendas (corner stores). Instead of money saved for a rainy day, it's used quickly for everyday, practical purposes. 

I hadn't thought about a coin jar in a long time. It's one of those things left behind in the US. Here, there is no wondering what to do with spare nickels and pennies. They are counted up and handed over before I get on a bus or as a tip when buying a cup of coffee. Maybe one day I'll once again have coins I don't need, because of course in the US it's easy to pay for anything with a card, and if you pay in cash no one cares much about exact change, not the way they are here in Ecuador, where if you're not as close to the exact amount as possible the store owner may shrug and tell you he doesn't have the change, making it seem like the customer's fault that he just lost a sale. 

I forget those kinds of things sometimes. Coin jars and buying milk in a jug instead of a box or bag. Or being watchful of the price of gas and being surrounded by my native language, little things which used to be everyday until all at once they flood over me. Or of course the way my family fits together around the long table by Dad made, eating and laughing, sharing stories and inside jokes. I miss all that is known, all that has pieced me together forever. While at the same time, I'm glad to walk out each day and use Spanish, to sit at different family tables and feel a new kind of fit, and to even count out coins for the bus. I miss the wide Texas plains where one can see for miles and miles and miles, though I love the mountains, especially in the evenings when the setting sun casts a pink-orange light on the brilliant snow. (It's not everyday I can see this, but when the clouds lift and there's a clear view of Cayumbe, it can be breathtaking.) 

Right now, Spanish music is playing loudly out my window. There's the traditional percussion and beat, easy for swinging ones hips to, easy to pick out the bongo drums and brass instruments which come in every song in that genre. The singer is enthusiastic and sounds just like Ricky Ricardo. One song blends into the next. Does American music sound as similar to foreigners? 

I'll put in my headphones. Hear my own preferred beat. Walk down the street with coins in my pocket, ready for the bus. Decipher culture differences around me, miss home, love here, and gather little things to remember in bits and bursts, like coins in a jar and someday, the cost of a bus ride and the importance of paying in exact change. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Pieces Of A Home

"I'm gonna sing this song
To let you know that you're not alone
And if you're like me you need hope, coffee, and melody"
 - New Day, by Robbie Seay band

I've been thinking about how I've set up a life here in Ecuador which is likely not permanent. My roommate and I just had our apartment painted, something we've wanted to do for some time. The living room is a blue-grey, the dining room is pale yellow, and the upstairs landing area is a pale sage green. I love it, while knowing that eventually I'll have to leave it. Other parts of this life which have been established which will have to be left behind include work and friends and favorite spots (parks, coffee shops, restaurants) and favorite traditions which come from living in another culture. Yet specifically I'm thinking about setting up an apartment: all the physical things which fill and help make a home. 

I won't have the option to bring with me the window seats, bed, and multi-drawer cabinet I picked out at a local furniture market. I'll have to leave the large desk I bought from a friend. It's possible the afghan I spent ages crocheting will be too heavy to bring, needing to be jettisoned along with a slew of other items. 

However there are a few things which already I imagine packing careful into my suitcases. I have a set of dishes I hope to bring: white with paint streaks of color dashing across them, and the French word for each color on the artists pallet painted in swirling script. I saw this set and fell in love. So I hope to bring them, any future damage not withstanding. Thus, upon moving back to the US and once again setting up an apartment in Texas, I will have clothes and shoes, various odds and ends both collected and gifted, enough books to set up as temporary furniture (some with me though boxes upon boxes kindly stored in my parents bodega), and a set of dishes for four. Also a French press. Throw in a frying pan and I have breakfast covered! I can even picture the shopping trip to get one: weighing the pros and cons of grabbing a cheap pan to make due versus investing in one, or a set, which could very well last me forever and a day. I know, you may be thinking, Why are you focusing on something as small as a frying pan when you'll have a whole home to furnish? Bird by bird, darling. One piece at a time. 

On my wall is a painting of a girl looking out at the ocean. Her hands are clasped behind her back and her hair and dress are being gently tugged by the ocean breeze. Yet my favorite part of the painting is that actually, the girl is not the focus, the ocean is. The painting is huge, stretching six feet long and about two and a half feet high. The ocean spreads to the very edges of the canvas and away while the girl looks out, surely enchanted by the vastness, power, and beauty. On my wall it's like a window, and I have every intention of taking the canvas off of the frame, carefully removing each staple from the back, then rolling it up to have it re-stretched onto a new frame and hung on some future wall in a hypothetical home. Because what home can feel empty when you have a window to the ocean? 

My head thinks practicality, while my hearts yearns for beauty. Between the two there is usually a satisfactory middle ground. 

I'm writing this in bed, typing clumsily on my smartphone because my computer is in the living room, my notebook is in the dining room and honestly I didn't think the stray idea I wanted to jot down would come pouring out of me like this. I look around and think how I've had many homes, yet I'm not a nomad or gypsy. I set down roots, I gather branches and build a nest I hope to be satisfied with for years or merely months, whichever finds me first. I can't plan exactly what will happen next. I can only dream that maybe the future will still hold a French press, books, a paint pallet dishes set, and a painting of the ocean. Though even if none of these things make it, it'll be okay. There are always other things, just waiting to be found, used, loved, and turned into a home.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Little Drummer Boy

"It is not a failure to be flawed
It's beautifully symptomatic"

 - Human, by Brooke Fraser

On Sundays I attend a large, charismatic church with the Casa Gabriel boys. Each of the three services packs in about 500 people: I've arrived late before and had to stand against the wall, the services are that full. Worship is a forty-five minute celebration. On stage, there always at least two dancers, twirling with flags or scarves. There can be as many as ten singers, several guitarists, a drummer, pianist, and one-to-three saxophonists. My favorite part? The pastor is one of the saxophonists. He wears a hat when he plays, then takes it off when he stands up to preach. I love it. Makes me happy every single Sunday.

Last Sunday I was standing with two of the Casa G boys, singing, when I noticed the flash of drumsticks three rows ahead of me. A teenage boy was sitting and drumming in the air along with the music. The drummer on stage was enjoying a particularly enthusiastic part of the song, and the boy in front of me was just as excited, if not more so. When he turned his head, I noticed the almond eyes of Down Syndrome. As the drummer on stage faded into the music, solo over, the boy continued to tap his sticks into the air, quietly entertaining himself. He glanced around the room, one of the few sitting down amidst a sea of people standing, singing, and clapping. The drumming seemed to be the only thing which truly interested him. I wished for another drum solo. I wanted to see him light up again, grinning widely as he abandoned himself to drumming the air with a purity of joy rarely expressed so openly in public. Instead, the music ended and everyone sat down. I lost sight of him among the crowd, and in trying to concentrate on the Spanish sermon.

 Not long after the sermon started, there was a loud, high laugh from the back of the church, followed by several other outbursts. People around me looked back, muttering about the interruption. Soon after, a teenage girl was escorted outside. She was giggling, and as she was led out it was obvious that her gait was stilted, uneven, something effecting the muscle control in her legs and arms. She too, it seemed, had some sort of mental challenge. For the boy, his drumsticks were enough to keep him occupied, at least that morning. The girl however wasn't so easily distracted.

I wish it didn't matter. I wish that, just as I loved to see the boy with his drumsticks, we all could just smile with understanding when a girl in the back breaks out in a high laugh, however ill-timed. Yet I too was looking around, thinking, "Who is laughing and why? Can you calm down and let people focus?" Instead we have our social norms and expectations. Anything outside of that, it seems, needs to be taken quietly outside.

I love that the boy's parents let him bring his drumsticks to church. I love that he sat and drummed the air, so happy. I even love that the girl in the back was laughing, of all things. It had a happy sound to it, those high outbursts. Whatever was going on in her head was amusing, and she couldn't help but express it. I hope to hear her laugh again, and as I'm standing in church singing along with the large band on stage, watching the dancers twirl up front, I hope to see the flash of drumsticks, and the smile of a boy who drums the air with contagious enthusiasm.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Forward From Today

"Rise to her knees in the morning again
Giving herself to the sky
Searching for answers to all her regrets
Wondering, should she even try
But the hope it shines like pearls in her eyes
She asks are you giving up on me
Not today, not today"

 - Not Today, by Andra Day 

This past May, one of my closest friends nearly died. I've known Lindsey for over 12 years now. She's seen me through the whole process of going to the mission field: learning a second language, raising support, moving to Ecuador and starting a life here. I've seen her through engagement, marriage, building a home, and becoming a mother to three children.

After a rare and serious complication following the birth of her son, Lindsey went into a coma and was unable to breathe on her own. From over 2,000 miles away, I wept when her Mom posted a photo on Facebook of Lindsey, unconscious beneath a network of tubes. My friend Rachel, who has seen me cry countless times, told me over and over, "She's going to be okay," not as a platitude, but because she believed it. She was right.

Though Lindsey has fully recovered, able to breathe on her own at last and slowly waking and regaining the ability to speak and walk, it still makes me catch my breath, thinking of loosing her. It's the same with thinking about my brother HJ who was born blue, or who had a sudden febrile seizure when he was three. Or when my sister was caught on a boogie board in a series of waves which slammed her against the ocean floor, nearly drowning her if she hadn't been able to gasp for breath and call for help. Or about the Casa Adalia girl, Ana, who attempted suicide. Even, sometimes, about the car accidents siblings and friends have been in which could have ended in death. My heart stops, then races, full of thankfulness that they are alive, along with a shot of fear-based adrenaline at the thought of them being no more.

I don't want to live in fear. That is one of my biggest mantras. Be brave. Be strong and courageous. But feel the rest as well; the grief and sadness, even the fear, as long as it doesn't paralyze but spurs onward towards thankfulness. Not that I can help feeling these things. I'm wired to cry when I see someone cry, to cry at a kind gesture or compliment, to cry at a moving story, to cry for no other reason than that I feel the ache and beauty of the world mixed up in a way which doesn't make sense. Some people understand, some people assume something is wrong, yet always I find it's easier to apologize than fully explain.

In thinking about Lindsey, I picture it in two halves: the grief and fear of losing her, of seeing her in the hospital and not knowing if she'd speak or walk or live, and the flood of thankfulness and joy that she recovered and is fine. The truth is, the second can't come without the first. For that reason, I don't want to forget. I'll take the painful pause of remembering, simply because it accompanies the rush of relief. I hope too, to be reminded of thankfulness for everyone in my life, whether or not I know of any near-death experience they may have encountered. I think that in this life we don't know of all the times we may have been spared, just as we don't know why others were not. Had Lindsey died last May, a lifetime of people would have begged, "Why?" in confusion and grief. Yet when someone lives, no one asks why. We are merely grateful; normally, no answers needed. May we then be thankful without near-death experiences, and within the most painful ones. May we be brave, strong, and courageous, knowing what there is to loose and stepping forward anyway. May we learn from fear and not be shaped by it. May we be okay to cry when needed. May we remember well, hold onto joy, and live with hope.

Monday, October 17, 2016

To Deserve A Name

"The house of my soul is far too small, still I will sing
I hear You softly speaking secrets that enclose
Words that softly linger with sweet repose"
 - Enclosed By You, by Josh White

During the week this summer when I was volunteering in a very poor part of Quito along with the team from Holland, I saw a mural which has stuck with me. It was painted on a cement wall along one of the dusty roads, and showed stick-figure children, smiling and playing. In large Spanish words, the mural proclaimed, "Children deserve - " and then went on to list things such as "education", "love", "hope", and "respect", all painted in individual little bubbles floating around the wall. The one which struck with me was this: "a name". The mural was reminding people that all children deserve a name.

I've been to more baby showers that I can count. I've known numerous friends and co-workers who became pregnant, excitedly announced the news, and were then asked the same things over and over and over again: "Boy or girl?", "Due date?", and of course, "Name?"
Many people decide to keep the name a secret, announcing it only at birth. It is special, important, and personal. A child's name is a large part of their identity. It is cultural, familial, meaningful in different ways.

Seeing the mural made me think once again of the things which, growing up in the US, I take for granted. Here, some people have enough "unwanted" children they may not even bother to give them a  real name. My friend Rachel worked out in some very poor areas and, seriously, she once met a family whose children were named "Primero, Segundo, y Tercera." Or in English: First, Second, and Third.

I quoted the song above because I love how it talks about softly spoken secrets from God, encased in our souls which can seem too small for such glorious things. I believe that even if a child has no earthly name, God knows their eternal name. It is not a number, or a repeat of other siblings names, or anything less than chosen by our Creator.

What does one need in order to deserve a name? Love. Hope. Enough respect to say, "You are a human being coming into this world; you are alive, with a future unknown except by God, and you deserve a name."

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Moonrise Morals

"It's been proven by history: all mankind makes mistakes."
 - Captain Sharp, Moonrise Kingdom

My favorite director is Wes Anderson. The more I watch his films, the more I adore them. "Moonrise Kingdom" was one of the first I saw. Initially, I liked it very much. By about the 7th time I saw it (recently, and having by then seen all his other feature-length films), I loved it so much it made me cry. Between laughing at the ridiculous hilarity of most of the characters and marveling over the beautifully detailed scenery and costumes, I was once again invested in the plight of two misunderstood children and the adults who champion for them in the end.

I believe that as a child, much of the world is a bit frightening in it's enormous reality and permanence. There is make-believe, and then there's the real thing; consequences coming one after another like a long string of dominoes. Adults learn to be chess players, anticipating results of actions. Children roll the dice, or have it rolled for them, and hope for the best.

There's a scene in "Moonrise" where the protagonists, Sam and Suzy, wish to get married before running away together. They are only twelve years old, but they love each other with all their childhood hearts and they wish to escape the confines of a dysfunctional family and impending orphanage. During their planning, they meet a camp counselor who states that he is able to perform a marriage ceremony, upon hearing Sam say, "She's my wife. Well, actually, we're not married yet." Instead of dismissing the runaways, the counselor tells them that though the ceremony won't actually carry any legal weight anywhere, it will carry 'a moral weight within yourselves', and subsequently instructs them to deeply consider their decision before proceeding. The two children talk it over and agree; they wish to be married, if for nothing more than the promise to each other of faithfulness as they begin a new life together.

I remember playing marriage as a child. My siblings and friends and I would go through the whole thing: dating, proposal, wedding. It all had a certain sacred feeling to it. It wasn't real in that moment, but was a rehearsal for the future. It is so terribly disheartening as a child to have any type of imaginings crushed. To be told, "That's not real. Do you know how that actually works? You're too young to understand," hurt with a deep-seated ache. Instead of feeling like you have more of a grasp on the world, you feel tiny and unimportant.

The counselor in "Moonrise" was comically over the top. Yet - in taking the children seriously, he gave them dignity. Les then, were they an orphan running away because his scout troop disliked him (and unbeknownst to him, that no foster family wanted him) and a girl who discovered that her parents though of her as a troubled child. They were instead husband and wife; a title solely symbolic, more than they could truly understand, yet which gave confidence and meaning to two overlooked children as they continued forward.

Quickly after the ceremony, the runaways were once again chased by parents and authorities, until the scout master and sheriff, who had become allies of the children in need, stepped in to protect them from any forces which could cause them harm.
"He's not going to juvenile refuge!" they insist to the coldly factual woman known only as Social Services. That is when I cried.
"He is not getting electroshock therapy," the sheriff declared, referring to a possible plan mentioned offhandedly by Social Services as a way to treat a troubled orphan. (Far from troubled, the character of Sam is endearingly earnest). Gathered in a church while a storm raged outside and the two runaways clambered to the roof to escape, the sheriff and scout master stood up for the children, championing them. Because of the two men, Suzy's parents rallied, giving their support as lawyers when the sheriff offers to adopt Sam. Believed and aided at last, the children turned to the adults with hope. Not knowing just what the future holds, Sam tells Suzy with heart-wrenching sincerity, "I just want to say: Thank you for marrying me. I'm glad I got to know you, Suzy." In the end, Suzy is back with her family and Sam is the Sheriff's son. Finally he was in a stable home and able to see the girl he cared about, each of them able to grow up and figure out life with the support and dignity of the adults surrounding them.

It's a theme I've seen many times while working in childcare: children simply want to be believed and not dismissed. They want to grasp and understand the world around them and play a part in it. For me, "Moonrise Kingdom" is meaningful (as well as hilarious and colorful) because of the people with power who took two children seriously. Not only the adults: Sam ran away from the camp to find Suzy because the other boys strongly disliked him, yet eventually those same boys had a change of heart and banded together to help Sam and Suzy. They had the power to continue to dislike Sam and dismiss Suzy, so when they chose to acknowledge that they were in the wrong and make amends, they further empowered the runaways to not give up hope. As wonderfully ridiculous as the story is, I love it completely because of the themes of trust, hope, love, and belief, all coming together to change the lives of two children and everyone around them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Incident At The Bus Station

"But I couldn't see
That the joke was on me"
 - I Started A Joke, by The Bee Gees 


So there I was, at the bus station, waiting for friends to arrive so we could go downtown and visit with women in prostitution as we did about twice a month. At the bus station there are two roads where the buses run, and a platform in the center where people change buses. I was sitting on the platform, watching for my friends, when I saw a blind man crossing the road towards the platform. He walked carefully, his cane moving back and forth in front of him. An elderly gentleman was crossing at the same time. He wore an old but neat brown suit and had a frailness to him. He and the blind man walked parallel to each other, each heading towards the platform, when the elderly gentleman nearly tripped. Instinctively he reached out and grasped the arm of the blind man, steadying himself.

The blind man flipped out. 

He raised his cane and struck at the gentleman, hitting him across his shoulders and head. The two men crumpled to the ground. I jumped to my feet and rushed to the edge of the platform, along with several others who saw the surprising scene. A police officer and a couple of other men reached the two men on the ground just as a bus drove along the road between myself and them. When the bus rumbled past, the police officer was holding onto the arm of the blind man. His cane was bent. The gentleman was walking away with a look of pure confusion and bewilderment. Someone rushed towards him, handing him his thin wire glasses, which had been knocked to the ground. The blind man gestured wildly, speaking to the police officer. Though I couldn’t hear what he said, it seemed clear what had happened: 

The blind man felt a hand grab hold of him and made the snap judgement that he was being robbed, so he reacted with self-defense. Likely, he had been robbed before, taken as an easy target, so he resolved not to let it happen again without a fight. 

The men went their separate ways. The spectators standing near me went back to waiting for their buses, murmuring. It was such a strange and violent scene, unfolding in a moment of misunderstanding. 

Eventually, my friends arrived and we boarded a bus to go downtown. I keep thinking about those two men. It would be so interesting to know what went through their minds during and after the incident. How they told the story to others. I would be so curious to hear it from their perspectives. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Leave A Light On

"Come on, my little ruin, won’t you open up and let us in?
Time has not been kind, but you're still standing here.
Leave a light on in your window, won’t you let me see a sign?
It’s gonna take more than smoke and mirrors now for me this time"

 -  My Little Ruin, by Glen Hansard

September 10th is National Suicide Prevention Day. This year, it was also the day in which a woman I've worked with in Casa Adalia attempted to take her life.

Maybe it grows wearisome to read my essays about suicide prevention. I know I write about it a lot. In all honestly, I feel I have good reason to do so: in my two-and-a-half years in Ecuador, I've encountered four attempted and actual suicides. 

:: Two women I've work with at Casa Adalia (one who tried more than once).
:: The teenage son of fellow mission workers.
:: The man whose suicide attempt (driving 90 miles per hour the wrong lane while over medicated) caused the death of my aunt and cousin. (He then took his life the day before the case went to trial).

When I heard the news about the woman at Casa Adalia, I was angry. I was swearing furious. I realized, quickly, that my anger masked a deep fear and grief, but I held on it, not wanting to feel anything else. I heard the news when *Phil called and asked me to be in charge of the Casa Gabriel boys that day, handling lunch and taking them to play soccer. He had been in the hospital all night  with Debbie and they hoped to get a few hours rest. I was warming up a mug of coffee when he called. Afterwards, I flitted about the kitchen, opening cabinets and taking things in and out of the freezer, trying to decide whether it was best to cook for the boys or take them out for lunch. I decided to make tacos, gathering up ingredients, bursting with productivity and anger.
"She's come so far," I thought. "There are a dozen people who love her and are there for her. Why didn't she reach out for help? Why did she give up?"

I had been to Casa Adalia earlier in the week. As I came in the front door, "Ana" had run upstairs sobbing, locking herself in her room. Truthfully, she is dramatic. She has a big personality which can make her a good leader ... or a bad influence, depending on her choices. That day she was weeping because she had been messaging with her family. The ones who trafficked her to a brothel when she was a young teen. The ones who continuously lied and manipulated to try and get her to return and be a little money-making slave once again. Because it is her family, and she feels obligated to help them if she can, it has taken everything the staff has to keep her safe and out of their entrapment. But we can't stop her from talking to them if she chooses. We can't stop her being emotionally hurt.

Ana is home from the hospital. I haven't talked to her yet, though I've envisioned that conversation many times. In the first vision, anger continues to course through me. I want her to see and feel it. I want her to know that what she did wasn't just sad or frightening, it was hurtful on an extreme level. It was so utterly foolish - to throw away everything - that I want to shake her. It was a betrayal. I know; her pain and darkness and confusion must have overwhelmed her. I know; maybe she thought that by taking herself out of the equation, everyone else would be better off. Thankfully, she felt regret and a change of heart very quickly after taking the pills, which was how Debbie and others were able to get her to the hospital in time. My fear, which is coming out sideways as anger, is that she'll try again and there won't be time for a change of mind, or to save her.

I'm processing through everything with trusted friends. Praying for Ana and that she remembers all the hope and healing if she again feels despair. Praying that she won't try again. Praying the other girls and staff can handle and process Ana's attempt in a healthy way. Anger feels more powerful than sorrow in a powerless situation. Towards the end of a long day, I pushed back tears, preferring to swear than cry. As much as I may post about suicide prevention and have open conversations, there will still be those who try and do. No anger or any other emotion can stop it.

So let us continue to have open conversations with real emotions. Let us not be crushed by the things we've experienced, again and again, but spurred on to action. Let us not be still, let us not be silent.

*Phil is the director of Casa Gabriel, the home for boys living on the streets, and his wife Debbie is the director of Casa Adalia, the home for girls rescued from human trafficking.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Thank You

"in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you"
 - Thanks, by WS Merwin

Today, I was thanked for saying thank you.
"It means a lot," a friend told me. 

The thanks had been in a simple email; it probably took me five minutes to write. It's not something I always remember to do. I can definitely be bad about writing someone back after they've written me, or having things on my mental to-do list which just don't get checked off. I just know that when I receive a little note which says those simple words - thank you - it can mean so much. An acknowledgement, not just of someone as a person, but of their worth.

Thank you for your help.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you for your thoughtfulness.
Thank you for your insight.
Thank you for doing that. 
Thank you for being there.
Thank you. Just thank you.

I'm a believer in paying things forward. Give, while allowing yourself to be poured into as well, and keep on giving. The pouring into may be things as simple as going out to appreciate nature, or playing music on repeat which renews your soul, or having a conversation with a friend who will listen and understand over trying to fix things. The giving may be as easy as being the listening friend to someone else, or paying someone a meaningful compliment, or bringing them a meal or gift, or saying thank you.

My pastor showed a video once where a guy sits on his bed, sighs, and prays, "I'm really struggling. I don't know what to be thankful for." He goes to sleep. When he wakes up the next morning, he wiggles his toes under the sheets, and words appear saying, "I can move. I can walk." As the man gets up and goes about his day, more words highlight all the daily blessings of his life: Good food, A fulfilling job, A Home, A Car, Family, Friends, Interests, Clothes, Entertainment, Freedom, and so on. By the time the man once again sits down on his bed at the end of the day, the viewer feels sure that the man will smile, having been reminded - even blown away - of how thankful he should be for such a good life. Instead, the man sighs in just the same way, saying with the frustration of a broken record, "I don't know what to be thankful for."

There's a gorgeous poem by WS Merwin called "Thanks" which I have read dozens of times. Each time, it takes my breath away. Unlike the man in the video who doesn't know what to be thankful for, in this poem, thanks comes bursting out of people in ordinary, even terrible, situations.

"back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you"

The verses build with an urgency which makes me want to run outside and shout, Thank you, thank you ("dark though it is").

So, let us.
Let us say thank you, for all the everyday blessings in our lives, detecting them diligently and growing agog with the wonder of their rediscovery. Let us say thank you, purely, as we did when we were children and surely had a moment of awe for simply being alive. Let us pass forth thanks before complaint, making it a contagious, beloved habit.

Thank you for the reminder to say thank you. Thank for for grace when I am ungrateful, unobservant, and self-centered. Thank you for a lifetime of chances to say ... thank you.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Language Of Beautiful Feet

"We bring this to the streets because we knew the streets
I pray that more would be burdened to have beautiful feet
You never knew the streets but truth is what you preach
I pray to God you'd be burdened for beautiful feet.
Go, go, go (run with those beautiful feet)
You hold the truth that saves so run and shout it to the world
They can't believe in something they ain't never heard
Go, go, go and run with those beautiful feet"
 - Beautiful Feet, by Lacrae

I hadn't seen dust like that - so permeating, clinging to everything as though it desired to become a second skin - since visiting Tanzania. There, the red dust rose and covered all, traveling with you throughout each day.

A team of twelve people from Holland was visiting Ecuador for three weeks. They were from Desi's home church, and I loved seeing Desi able to speak with them in her native Dutch. As with most Europeans, the team also spoke some English, though no Spanish, so Desi asked if I'd help with translation.
That first week, we took a bus to the edge of North Quito, going as far as we could go before getting out to walk. The road turned to dirt and the dirt to dust. The dust was so soft and fine, laying the ground inches thick like snow drifts. We waded along the road, shaking it not only off our feet and legs but our arms as well, shielding our faces when the wind caused a mini cyclone to spin towards us.

The team was there to lay groundwork for when they'd return in a week and a half. They'd spend a week at the coast (while I watched baby Sael), then return to this community. A woman in Miguel and Desi's church, Maria, lived there and had several families in mind who could use help and love. She and others went around and invited children to come participate in games. We set up in the road - a part with harder packed ground - and played games before crowding into Maria's small home. All the buildings were made or cement blocks. Must were unpainted, simply one grey building after another, with dogs keeping watch from the flat roof tops or doorways. Most of the team went inside with the children to tell a Bible story, while three of the guys and I went with Maria to meet a family she wanted us to help.
"They have five children. The oldest son is 23 but has an illness which effects his muscles and won't let him speak. It's very difficult. But he's smart. They also have a fifteen-year-old daughter who is pregnant."
Maria explained this to me and I translated it in English to the men.

We came to the low-ceilinged home, nicely kept outside with flowers planted around the clothes line. The mother led us inside and introduced us to her son, Angel. I wasn't prepared for how tiny he was, a man who looked more like an eight-year-old boy, terribly skinny, his limbs curled in a fetal position. He lay on a bed, flopping one way and another, turning his head to look at us while grunting. We introduced ourselves and asked if we could pray over him. The men prayed in Dutch and some English, and I closed in rapid Spanish. When asked, the mother explained that the biggest need in their home was to have an indoor sink. She only had one outdoors, away from the house, which made cleaning and doing dishes difficult. I explained this to the men, cautiously trying not to promise anything beyond the team's skills and resources.
"My husband can install the sink, we just need the parts," the mother explained. So the team agreed to get a list of parts from her husband and see what they could do.

When we returned a week and a half later, the men bought the parts and delivered them to the home. They had also noticed that, taped above his bed, Angel had a couple of hand-drawn posters for the Ecuadorian Barcelona soccer team. So they bought a jersey, child-sized, as a gift. Angel's mother handed the jersey to him, and to our amazement he held it up in the air by his toes! He turned it this way and that, admiring it even as he lay on his back with his arms twisted at strange angles. Then he placed the jersey in a bag hanging from the wall, keeping it safe.

We asked if Angel would like to come with us to hear the worship music we were playing for the kids. His mother and sister (2 months pregnant and not yet showing much) strapped him into his wheelchair and up the hill we went. Maria had set up a small one-room building for us to use. There were 15-20 kids there, including an adorable, gap-toothed, African Ecuadorian boy named Surgio who sidled up to me and eventually held my hand as we watched the team perform a funny skit. I stayed near Angel in his wheelchair, becoming more and more amazed at what he could do with his feet. The children played a game where they had to dash and grab a ball, so Desi placed the ball in front of Angel 'to guard it'. Angel stretched out his legs, so I picked up the ball and immediately he grasped it with his feet. Throughout the game children would run up, gently take the ball, and when it was abandoned I'd hand it back. Later, when the children were doing a craft, I tossed the ball to Angel, who enthusiastically kicked and caught it. His fingers remained stiffly twisted upwards, while his toes flexed more useful, I'd think, than my own. When his sister came to talk to him, he nodded yes or no with his feet. It was encouraging to see people communicate with Angel. He couldn't speak, and often couldn't look anyone in the eye, his head lolling and jerking, yet it was clear that he heard and could respond in his own way.

Before we left that day, Maria thanked everyone for coming to show love to her community.
"Look at your feet," she said, smiling. We all looked down, laughing especially at those wearing flip-flops, their feet grey with dust.
"Your feet are proof of your time here, of how you've stepped into this community and given time and love. This dust is part of our lives, " she said, gesturing to the coated walls, "And you'll take some back with you."

We said goodbye, and thank you. The sun had blazed all through the day, and as it went down everything cooled enough for sweaters and hoodies to be pulled on. We waded back down the dusty roads.  Desi and I talked about trying to get Angel's sister into a home which helps young pregnant girls, helping them finish high school and make a plan for motherhood. I though about Maria, selflessly reaching out to people in her community. Every day the dust clings to her skin and seeps into her home, yet she is not deterred. She can communicate with Angel just through the motions of his feet. She sees the dust on the feet of strangers, and finds it beautiful.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Semi-nonsense verses in the grain of fantasy. 

The day I was supposed to die
It never, ever came
And so I grew all old and grey
But never, forgot my name

So now I roam about the earth
A ghost, with good intent
I watch the living and all the
Guardian angels, who are sent

I asked one once what must I do
To be, an angel like him?
Hapless roaming I tire of
Yes at times, it feels grim

The angel spoke to me he said
“Dear soul, I wish I knew
It’s different for each soul who roams
Across the earth like you”

He said that he would recommend
My soul, to God above
And so I wait, and roam, and pray
To heaven, to show me love

I'd be a guardian of the living
if this was granted to me
To guard and protect I hope for yet
So I may be set free
To guard and protect I hope for yet
So I may be set free

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Guilt and Grief and Gratitude

"I would give anything
To make you better"
- Better, by Brooke Fraser 

As I said in the previous post about watching one-year-old baby Sael for a week, the sweet boy was sick with a bad cold. When I took him to a nearby clinic, I explained to the doctor that his parents were especially concerned because when he was six-months-old he had a bad bronchial infection. At that time, there was one night when he stopped breathing. His mother Desi screamed for her husband Miguel, who grabbed Sael and ran into the street, jumping in the first taxi he saw and racing to the hospital. Miguel rubbed Sael's chest and patted his back and tiny Sael breathed shallow, difficult breaths. They spent the night at the hospital, and though Sael recovered and was fine, Desi and Miguel are understandably cautious when it comes to their son having any kind of cough and congestion. Desi describes how, as Miguel ran with Sael to get him to the hospital, all she could do was sob, her three-year-old daughter clinging to her, both nearly catatonic with fear. "It was the worst time in my life," she's told me.

I explained the concern to the doctor, who examined Sael as he sat, surprisingly calm, in my arms.
"There's no infection," she told me, and I was filled with relief. I repeated it back to her just to make sure. "No, but you need to give him these three medicines for his cough, congestion, and mild fever," she said. I pushed Sael in his stroller to the nearest pharmacy and bought the medicines. I gave them to him every day as prescribed. At the end of the week, he was still coughing but seemed better. He was congested but was falling asleep fairly easily. He was playing, laughing, smiling. I too, was still coughing and congested so I thought, "It'll just take a little more time. He'll be fine soon. We both will be."

The evening Miguel came and picked up his baby, Sael puked again. Concerned that he still wasn't well, Miguel took him to the doctor - a different one - the next day.
"How is he?" I asked, when I saw the two of them that Monday afternoon at Casa Gabriel.
"Mal," Miguel said, shaking his head. ("Bad"). "The doctor says he has a serious infection, all through here," to which he placed a hand over Sael's chest.
I was devastated.
"The doctor at the clinic said no. I asked specifically."
"It's okay, he'll be alright," Miguel assured me, though I could see he was worried. Sael looked at me with tired eyes: tired from the doctor visits, tired of medicine, tired of being sick.
"He'll be alright," Miguel repeated. Yet something in me felt broken. I couldn't shake it. I said goodbye to Miguel and Sael and headed out to run some errands. Walking down the street, I began to cry behind my sunglasses. I couldn't stop. I cried for hours.

I wish I were exaggerating. Finally home, I messaged Rachel while sobbing, trying to make sense of why I was such a basket-case.
"They trusted me with their child. I feel like I should have known he was more seriously sick, maybe taken him to a different doctor. I know that I didn't know and did what I could, but I feel terrible for him."
"Oh Sonnet, " Rachel exclaimed, "You must be exhausted! You were sick while caring for him and doing everything else. You were running around feeding the Douce's dog and doing the orientations and finances. I know you took good care of him. It's not your fault."
"Thank you, I know, I do, it's just that for nearly eight days all my emotions and energy went into caring for him, feeding him, rocking him to sleep, bathing him, carrying him with me everywhere, trying to make him feel as safe and loved as possible - so to have him gone and hear he's not okay is a little devastating," I admitted. "It feels like the worst kind of failure."

We messaged back and forth while I kept thinking I was done crying and being proven wrong. Feeling sick and tired certainly makes emotions that much more vehemently earnest.

The next day I went with Miguel and Desi to help them translate for the team from Holland. I cried a little when I saw Desi, but not too much. The team was split into those who could fit into Miguel's car and those who had to take a bus. I went with Desi and the bus crew and we talked about their trip to the coast. Desi smiled warmly as we chatted about the mission outreach to the coast. Her friendship is a huge blessing, another reason why thinking I had let her and Miguel down in caring for their precious baby was so terrible. We drove and walked out to the northern edge of Quito, to a very poor neighborhood with plain cement homes. We did various outreaches there while the sun beat down, giving me and others a wicked sunburn. We spoke and sang in Spanish, English, and Dutch. I love seeing the mixing of different cultures and languages. The different tones of skin and eye colors, just like Miguel and Desi: dark African-Ecuadorian, pale Dutch, and the beautiful children who are the result. Or like my own parents, Hispanic and Caucasian, and the freckled, dark-haired children who are my siblings and I.

When it was time to head home, Miguel drove, Desi walked with the rest of the team to get taxis, and I sat in the back with Sael. Miguel told me, "Someone else from the team was holding him yesterday, but he kept crying and reaching for me. He knows you, he'll be happier with you."
 The team and I were all dusty and hungry and content. Four of us squished into the back of the car while Miguel drove in true South American fashion: changing lanes without a blinker, honking to communicate and warn that he was passing a cross street and had the right of way, and of course having his two kids in the car held in laps without car seats or even seat belts. I settled Sael in my arms. He looked up once to see who was holding him, then began to play with my phone. He nestled in my lap, cuddled cozy, fell asleep in my arms. It felt redemptive.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Murphy's Law

"Loo, loo, loo, I'll take you dreaming
Through the rainy night
To a place behind the raindrops
Where the stars are bright
You may not find gold or silver
But a richer prize 
Waits for you behind the raindrops
If you close your eyes"
 - I'll Take You Dreaming, sung by Danny Kaye

For months my friends Miguel and Desi were planning a mission trip with a team of 12 people coming from Holland. Part of this trip included going to the coast for a week to help with earthquake relief. Desi asked if I'd go as a leader and translator; however, the week they were going was one in which I had to give three Orientations (which is when a short-term team visits Casa Gabriel and I give a presentation about that ministry and Casa Adalia). There was no one to take my place, so sadly, I wasn't able to go. Instead, Desi asked if I'd consider watching their nearly one-year-old son, Sael, during that week. I've spent enough time with the family to nearly be an aunt to their kids. So, I said yes.

For the most part, it was a smooth week. Yes, Sael was sick and I took him to the doctor and had to give him medicine every day. Yes, he gave me his cold. He woke up every night around 2:00 or 3:00 am to eat, and again around 5:30 or 6:30. But overall he was happy, he was incredibly sweet, letting me soothe him fairly easily. My biggest concern was that he'd want nothing to do with me: he'd cry for his parents, inconsolable, pushing me away. Instead, I learned that he loved to look outside, so if he was crying all I had to do was take him to a window, cradle him with his head resting on my chest, and he'd quickly calm, letting me feed or rock him. However there was one day which seemed to be a comedy of errors ...

In catching Sael's cold (my second one in three weeks), I completely lost my voice. I could only whisper. Ironically, of course, I had the three Orientations to give. The morning I woke up with no voice, I scrambled to type up a synopsis of my memorized talk, so the team leaders could read it in my place. I got Sael and myself there before 8:00 to set up the videos, prayer cards, and EsperanzArt jewelry for sale, ready when the team arrived at 8:30. I stood in the back of the room holding Sael, feeding him apple slices and answering questions in a whispered rasp. Overall it went well, but by the time everyone had left at 10:00, Sael was more than ready for a nap. He started to melt down while I scrambled to put away the jewelry and lock the money in the office. He fell asleep on the way home. I stood in my doorway, twisting around until I could extract my keys from my purse which was strung from the arm holding Sael. I made it inside, laid him down ... and he woke up immediately, not to be comforted.

I carried him into the kitchen to make him a bottle. Of course the can of formula was nearly empty, and as I opened a new one, the metal peel-away top sliced open my finger. I paused for a second, then continued to make the bottle with my right hand while carrying him in my left arm and holding my bleeding hand aloft. Bottle made, I wrapped a tissue around my finger and sat down to feed crying Sael. He relaxed and so did I. I expected him to just drink a couple of ounces before falling asleep. When I realized he had nearly finished the whole bottle, I thought, 'He must really have been hungry!'
That was when he sat up and puked everywhere.

For a moment, I simply held him in stunned confusion. "Oh Sael," I finally sighed. I left the puddle of puke and took him to the bathroom to clean him up. I changed his clothes and commenced rocking him back and forth. He calmly stared at the ceiling as though it were the most fascinating thing ever, then looked at me. I smiled back, wishing I could sing to him, yet unable to do anything but walk and rock. Finally, finally, his eyes closed and I laid him down without incident. I washed and bandaged my finger. I cleaned up the puke with a towel. I stripped off my clothes and threw everything into the washing machine. I re-dressed.

When he woke up, the day commenced more as less as "normal". Him: playing, eating, second-napping. Me: feeding, rocking, cooking, cleaning. I love to have music playing in the background, and that week it was all about upbeat music. The Beatles, David Bowie, Cage The Elephant, Gallant, Fitz And The Tantrums, and soundtrack compilations such as "Guardians Of The Galaxy", "Stranger Than Fiction", "The Martian", "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" and "500 Days Of Summer" comprised our playlist. There were other ups and downs of course. Nothing quite like that one day of blood, puke and tears ... thankfully. He is a darling, beautiful baby boy and I was honored to watch him. Many more tears would come later, on a related note. Yet that's a story in process for next week.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Little Change

"When paying with cash, be the change you want to see in the world."
 - my brother, Huck

I stood there, holding my few purchases, staring incredulously at the woman behind the counter.
"Really?" I said.
She shrugged. I set my milk and eggs and fruit on the counter and left, unable to buy them not because I didn't have the money. No, it was more like I had too much money, you could say. Or not the right kind. I had been turned away by a woman who didn't have $5.50 in change to give me, when I tried to buy $4.50 worth of food with a ten-dollar bill.

This has happened so many times.

Friends and I joke that, "Here in Ecuador, you can buy more with a few dollar coins than you can with a twenty-dollar bill." Laugh to keep from crying. Pull out a twenty to pay for anything less than $10, and it better come with a near-grovelling apology. The country is practically run on cash, yet no one has any change.

This is so counter-intuitive to me, because in my head I think, "You're the owner of a small family-run corner store, and you're turning away business just because you don't have a few dollars in change?" I suppose to them, it's normal. You didn't get the change so you can't give it. Oh well. No apology even, just a shrug and that's it. For me it doesn't make sense that when this is a reoccurring problem you wouldn't do everything you could to keep stocked with change so as not to turn away sales. It's foreign. For them - I suppose it's just how they were raised. Not foreign at all.

I listened to a podcast recently about the very first McDonald's which was introduced to communist Russia. The people interviewed told about how at the time, every product was in such high demand that customers were treated with disdain because the employees had the ability to look down on anyone wanting to buy anything. He said that it was not uncommon to go into a nearly empty restaurant, be looked up and down and told, "We're full, there's no tables available for you." This of course is absolutely the opposite of the US standard of service, where employees are instructed to bend backwards for the customer, who is 'always right', so as to make the sale. Making money - being successful -  is of bottom line importance in the US. So we are taught to smile, be friendly and complimentary, because the customer wants to feel welcome and valued.
Smiling and acting friendly was something which had to be taught to the Russians.

In the podcast (a series titled "Invisibilia"), the people interviewed talked about how in school they learned about "The American Smile".
"In America, people who are smiling aren't necessarily happy, and they may not be hiding anything either," they were informed. "There, people smile just because. To us it feels very suspicious, but to them it's normal. You don't have to be wary of it."
Because service with a smile is part of McDonald's presentation, Russian servers were taught how to grin, how to greet people with a cheery attitude, instead of the disdainful, control-ridden air of most employees. They said it was contagious. People coming in for a meal would actually smile back, and it became a place people wanted to go and hang around. I know what you may be thinking: of all places ... McDonald's? I guess if they're making the world a more unhealthy place at least they're also trying to bring smiles as well?

The thing is, we all have different points of view. Different perspectives on what is right, what is most important. Whether it's being sure of making the sale or smiling even when we may not feel like it, to just not caring enough about having change to do anything about it, we all have cultural norms. Here, I've gotten used to being squashed on crowded buses by people who aren't partial to personal space, asked all sorts of personal questions by strangers, and turned away by small business owners without change. It's foreign, but I have to accept it. We're all foreign to someone: our traditions, our perspectives, the way we handle things and the choices we make can all be bizarrely different to someone else. So as my brother said, be the change you want to see ... at least when paying with cash.