A family reunion in Guatemala

Seven days, 21 people, a small farming village in the highlands of Guatemala. It sounds like a mission trip, a service project or maybe some kind of trendy eco-tourism. As I reflect more on my recent travels to Guatemala however, the description that best fits the trip is family reunion. Although we did come with a few projects in mind, our stay in tiny Panyebar was remarkable mostly for the relationships we formed and renewed. There, among the lush fields of coffee beans and corn, we saw what can happen when you cultivate friendships over a long period of time.

Our first taste of friendship came when our two microbuses pulled up to the edge of town Monday morning. Suddenly a group of several dozen students filled the streets. Some were playing instruments and others were holding banners that read “Welcome brothers from California” in English, Spanish and Quiche, their native language. We got out of our buses and greeted the students, then marched behind them up the hill all the way to the school. There, on the school basketball court, they had planned a welcome ceremony for us complete with a traditional Guatemalan dance, a flag ceremony, songs and homemade gifts. A new charismatic young teacher, Abel, served as the master of ceremonies, narrating all the events on a portable PA system. His booming voice could be heard throughout the village.

We haven’t always received such an extravagant welcome in Panyebar. The first time my family went there, in 2008, we arrived with no fanfare at all. At that point, our group’s work in the village was rather new. We had just begun supporting the village’s new middle school a few years before. When our buses pulled up that year, I remember getting out and seeing just a few little kids hanging around. We climbed up the stairs to the school office and I met a teacher. I tried to talk with her a bit in my basic Spanish and sensed she was reluctant to engage. Was this a personality issue or was she unsure of our intentions and hesitant to open up to me?

That year we accomplished a significant project (building a bathroom for the school) and the villagers did warm up to us, but I did not establish a strong personal connection with anyone.

Fast-forward to this year again, and the landscape looks much different. In the intervening nine years various members of our group (officially a 501(c)(3) called Mayan Partners) have traveled to Panyebar many times. One year a couple from our group lived in the village for five months. As an organization we’ve gotten to know the personalities, quirks and lives of the people. Most of our resources have gone to the middle school, funding the teachers’ salaries. For the most part, the school has been a success. Whereas in the past very few kids went onto high school (for which students need to move to another city), now many kids go to high school and some even to college. This is significant in a place where most adults have only a second- or third-grade education.

Still, despite the improvements in education, the village lacks employment opportunities and most people make only a couple of dollars a day. A few years ago I got involved with a project to sell handmade Christmas ornaments in the U.S. as a way to help women supplement their income. For two years I worked with a woman named Flory, the daughter-in-law of a pastor in town. Then this year I added a second group made up of women who work at a preschool. One of my goals in traveling to Panyebar this year was to meet these women face to face and get to know them. I wasn’t sure how this would go. Would it be like the teacher I met nine years ago who was hesitant to share? Would our conversation feel natural or forced? And what had happened to Flory? For some reason she had not returned my e-mails for the past six months.

After our lovely welcome ceremony full of singing and dancing on Monday morning, I made my way down a little dirt path, through a cornfield, to the town preschool. I was eager to meet the teachers and see the 125 ornaments they had been working on for the past several months. I had the names of the women but really didn’t know much about them.

Like most of the buildings in Panyebar, the preschool is made of cinderblocks, wood slats and a sheet metal roof. It’s not modern in any way, though through donations from individuals and groups like World Vision, it has a surprising number of resources, like books and chairs and tables for the 55 kids who attend. Along one wall are small toothbrushes hanging from nails. The teachers try to cultivate good hygiene, which is a challenge in a place where most people never see a dentist and lose many of their permanent teeth by the time they are adults.

When I finally stepped into the preschool, several people from our group had already arrived ahead of me. They told me that the women had been eagerly asking about me. “Where is Allison?” they said. I entered the building and was surrounded by six women, all shorter than me, wearing traditional Guatemalan blouses and skirts. I met Rosario, who I had been e-mailing, as well as Juana, Dolores, Maria, Aracely and Dominga. They greeted me with big smiles and hugs. They had been working very hard on the ornaments and were so grateful for my help in giving them work and taking an interest in their crafts. It’s possible I had met some of these women nine years before, but this time, with our shared connection over their work, it was like meeting family. They seemed open, friendly and loving.

After our meeting, I announced to them that I’d brought crafts for their students. I had prepared the crafts as a measure of goodwill between us, not knowing they’d receive me so generously. Looking back, I didn’t really need to prepare the crafts to create good feelings, but it did provide a way for me and others in our group to get to know the preschoolers. They are a sweet bunch of kids who, like kids everywhere, love to draw, play and learn.

That day, after the craft session, and after most of the preschoolers had left, the teachers and I sat in the tiny little kid chairs and talked. They offered me a fresh mango, cut into long strips. I told them about my family and my life in California. So much time went by that they got worried I would miss the bus back down the mountain. But that’s OK, they joked, we would love for you to stay here tonight!

Then, one of the women’s daughters, a teenager named Lucia, offered to carry the duffel bag of ornaments back to the school where I would be catching the bus. She treated them like a precious possession. They represented hours of dedicated work. Along the way, Lucia told me the story of how she had been ill much of the past year but now, thanks to her family’s prayers, she had recovered. She promised to invite me to her house later that week.

It was a promising start to our week with the people of Panyebar. I’ll write more in my next post about tracking down Flory, who had made Christmas ornaments for two years but then stopped answering my e-mails. I’ll also try to distill a few other experiences from our “family reunion” in Panyebar.


 

Journey to the edge of the earth

We stood on a small precipice of brittle rock, surrounded by pools of orange, bubbling lava. The smell of sulphur hung in the air. My husband looked alarmed. My kids looked fearful. “I’ve made a terrible mistake,” I thought. “I’ve put my family’s life in jeopardy. Why hadn’t I researched this? We are going to die on the side of this volcano.” I was shaking.

The trip to the volcano had seemed like just another tourist attraction when we read the brochure. It had a large photo of a volcano with billowing smoke and a description that explained that shuttles left early every morning for a day-long trip to the famous Volcan Pacaya. We had been to Hawaii and imagined the experience would be similar. There, tourists can view the smoke and active lava fields of Kilauea from a safe distance. Hand rails prevent anyone from stepping anywhere near the lava flows. Guatemala, however, does not seem to share the same safety concerns.

The morning had started out predictably. Just as the brochure said, a van pulled up to our hotel at 6 am. My husband, my two sons, ages 8 and 11, and I squeezed into the van along with a dozen other tourists. We soon left the comfortable colonial town where we were staying and turned onto curvy mountainous roads. The air was stuffy and I prayed I wouldn’t get sick on the hour and a half journey. Upon arriving in the small town at the base of the volcano, we were greeted by local residents selling trinkets and snacks. We bought a few drinks and followed our guide to a path at the edge of town. Soon we began climbing up a steep mountain path. Tall trees and vegetation grew along the sides of the path. Tourists on horseback occasionally passed us. “Why didn’t we take horses?” one of my kids grumbled. “How much longer?” We stopped a few times to rest and I wondered if the climb was too much for my eight-year-old. We were all perspiring as the sun climbed steadily in the sky. At one point our guide mysteriously broke off a few small branches of a tree and stuck them in his backpack.

Eventually, after more than an hour of climbing, we left the dense vegetation and saw a barren black slope up ahead. We walked to the slope and our guide explained that this was hardened lava from a flow about a month ago. He stepped onto the black rock, a little uneven in places, and signaled for us to follow. We walked a little farther. This lava was fresh three weeks ago, he said. The ground was brittle and some of it had dried in strange ways, leaving crevices. At one point my foot slipped and I fell a good foot into a hole. The rock cut my leg and I was bleeding a little. But I was just happy I hadn’t stepped onto running lava.

Against my judgement and not wanting to appear weak, I followed our group and the guide farther into the lava field. Our guide had obviously staked out the route and knew just where to led us over rock that had hardened sufficiently. Finally, he stopped and proudly told us we were on a lava bed that was only a week old. By this point, we were on a high precipice, looking down at fresh lava running by us. The guide laughed and pulled out the branches he had broken off earlier He stuck them in the hot lava and stirred them around. Suddenly his hat blew off and, shocked, we watched as he jumped down, inches from the lava, to retrieve it. At that point, I had lost trust in our guide and couldn’t wait to get back to solid land. My family seemed to concur as they looked back at me with wide eyes.

The trip to the volcano was by no means our reason for coming to Guatemala. We had come two weeks earlier with the goal of helping build a bathroom for a school in a rural village in the Western Highlands above Lake Attitlan. We had spent 10 days in the village, meeting the local families, playing with the kids, and falling in love with the beauty of the country. At various times those ten days I had experienced a few second thoughts, much as I did up on the volcano. I worried that my kids might fall into the large hole next to the construction site, I worried about our dangerous bus rides up and down the mountain to the village each day, and I worried we might all get food sickness. I had calmed all my worries, however, with the thought that these were risks I was willing to take in order to show my kids the world. They would be forever changed by seeing and meeting people so different from themselves. Indeed, the kids did learn a lot and our time in the village ended well. The worst thing that happened was a few mosquito bites. Now, though, with only a few days left, we decided to do more touristy activities, like the volcano.

As it turned out, getting off the volcano was nerve-wracking. As we turned to leave for solid ground, another group of about 15 tourists began picking their way across the lava field toward us. Since there was only a narrow section of hardened lava to cross on, we had to squeeze by them, hoping not to slip into a crevice like I had on the way out. When we finally reached dirt and trees I felt relief pour over me. We practically skipped down the mountain back to the van. I hadn’t planned on this adventure when we signed up to build a bathroom, but it gave us a story we could eventually laugh about for years to come. We all agreed we would love to come back to build another bathroom, but we would never climb another volcano.

***

Now, 9 years later, we are ready to embark on another trip to Guatemala. We are going back to the same village where we built the bathroom. On the one hand, we know this village and its people. On the other hand, we aren’t sure what awaits us. There is talk about building a fence along the basketball court so kids don’t plummet six feet off the side into the field below. In addition, we’ll be playing a lot with the kids, trading English, Spanish and Quiche expressions. My son hopes to film a documentary and I hope to build relationships with a group of women who make Christmas ornaments we sell here in the U.S. We are ready to take in the beauty of a country rich in many things we don’t have here in the U.S., especially time. We are eager to slow down, learn, listen and share our lives with our Guatemalan friends.  

 

 

An ode to donuts–and Grandma

“It’s national donut day,” my son announced to me this morning as he was scrolling through his phone.

“We should call Grammy,” I said. “She’s the donut queen.”

For years my mom has made donuts from scratch, and before that her mom made donuts. We love them. In fact, when I was growing up donuts were the number one demand we had for my grandma whenever she came to visit from South Dakota. We wouldn’t even let her unpack her suitcases before she had spent a few hours in the kitchen making donuts. (My mom was prepared with all the ingredients.) There’s nothing quite like a hot, sugary donut, straight out of the deep fryer.

Making donuts is a production involving a team of cooks. My mom begins early in the morning, mixing the buttermilk dough. The dough needs to sit in the refrigerator for two hours. Then she sets up a staging area and assigns me and my kids a task. One of us gets the task of rolling out the sticky dough and cutting out pieces with a donut cutter, a round aluminum ring with a hole in the center. Another one of us drops the dough rings into a deep fryer filled with oil. Someone else will monitor the cooking donuts and flip them so they evenly brown in the oil, then remove them and place them on paper towels. Finally, one of us finishes the task by rolling the cooked donuts in a mixture of sugar and cinnamon and placing our finished product in my mom’s gigantic lime green circa 1970 Tupperware container. About this time my dad will wander in, ready to taste-test the results.

After a few too many donuts, washed down with milk, we all feel a little ill but quite satisfied. The only thing that has been harder on my stomach was the time a friend and I made onion rings in high school. My friend, who was from Georgia, had received a large box of sweet Vidalia onions in the mail, and we cooked the whole thing–then ate far too many.

Today some people talk about “slow” food, the production of traditional food using local ingredients. My mom and grandma were doing this kind of thing long before there was a word for it, with an emphasis on the slow and a focus on sweet. Around the holidays, my grandma made her own candies, everything from peanut brittle to “hooch,” a caramely, buttery candy I’ve never seen anyone else make. She and my grandpa especially prided themselves on their popcorn balls. This was a slightly dangerous affair involving mixing fresh-popped popcorn with caramel and shaping this hot, gooey mixture into a ball. Once finished they would deliver their treats to local nursing homes. For my wedding my grandma spent days making hundreds of creamy fondant mints in pretty blue, violet and pink shades. She carted them all out on the plane and between that project and making my wedding quilt, she was exhausted—a rare state for my indefatigable grandma.

My mom has kept many slow food traditions alive and, just like a good haiku poem, they serve to mark the passing of nature’s seasons. A fresh strawberry pie means its springtime. Blackberry jam is late August. Cinnamon rolls are Christmas morning. Along the way, I’ve gotten involved and so have my kids. When the kids were younger, we used to worry about having an accident with the 400-degree oil for the donuts. Amazingly, no one has ever been burned. On the other hand, we’ve been scratched up badly picking blackberries. And once, I almost started a fire with my parents’ old electric ice cream maker—the kind you put rock salt into. I had brought it to my son’s kindergarten class to make ice cream with the kids and possibly because of its age, it began to smoke. It was churning away and smoke filled the whole classroom. I turned it off and we ate mushy ice cream. Fortunately the kids didn’t care.

Today slow food and especially donuts are trendy. There are all kinds of fancy donuts with special fillings and flavors. I’ve even seen bacon donuts—bleech! My grandma’s donuts are basic, just a plain, tender dough rolled in cinnamon and sugar. I don’t know where she got the recipe. She grew up on a farm, the daughter of German immigrants. I doubt she learned it there, though it’s possible. What she did learn, though, was not to be afraid of big projects. She could do just about anything involving food or crafts. Wallpaper a room? No problem. Make Venetian blinds? Easy. Organize a church tea for 100 women. Fun! She passed on that intrepid spirit to my mother and a little bit to me. I think she’d be very pleased that in 2017 we are still making her donuts. 

Surviving my son’s first year in college

My oldest son is coming home tomorrow. It’s hard to believe he’s finished his first year in college. When he left last August to enroll in school on the opposite side of the country I really didn’t know what to expect. How would I cope without my first-born? What would family life look like with only one child at home? How would he do? I’ve learned a lot in this past year. Mostly, I’ve realized my past 18 years of parenting has taught me a valuable lesson: take everything a day at a time and be ready for lots of adjustments.

The first weeks after Miguel left, what I most missed was his companionship. He’s the type of kid who would actually ask me, when he came home, “How was your day Mom?” He really meant it and would listen attentively. At meal time, we would occasionally cook together, using recipes he found on the internet. Over the years, he found many great recipes that became staples on our table. We also watched a lot of cooking shows, our favorites being “Diners, Dives and Drive-ins” and “Chopped.”

Of course, living with a teenager isn’t complete bliss and there were a few things I didn’t miss much about his being gone. I didn’t miss his staying out late and worrying about where he was or why he hadn’t texted us. I didn’t miss his laundry or piles of stuff. And I didn’t miss some of the difficult decisions, like whether to allow him to have a party at the house.

The first couple of months I fretted about how best to communicate. How often should I text or call? So many things reminded me of him. A song he used in one of his videos came on the radio and I thought about him. I found a great new Chinese chicken salad recipe by Bobbie Flay and I wanted to tell him. I read that James Patterson, an author he had read, was canceling his book about Stephen King, and I thought he might be interested. I realized though, that I needed to give Miguel his space and let him settle into his new life. Fortunately, It didn’t take us long to fall into a nice routine. Sometime in October, he began to call me a couple of times a week when he was walking back from his girlfriend’s dorm. I was happy with the arrangement and the best part was that it was his idea.

There were some difficult milestones the first few months—my birthday, his brother’s birthday. He had never missed our birthdays before. The saving grace was that we had an exchange student living with us during that time and having an enthusiastic, eager guest made those celebrations manageable. I could forget that Miguel was missing—but just temporarily. As soon as I arrived home from those dinners I looked in at Miguel’s room and his perfectly made bed and realized he was really gone. I felt a sadness remembering the late night banter we used to have and his insistence that I tuck him in even as he towered over me.

The good thing about parenting is that change usually happens gradually. Miguel had begun claiming his independence his last two years of high school, spending more and more time out of the house with friends. During his senior year we got a taste of college life as he often ate dinner with his friends’ families and took off on the weekend for day-long hikes. I probably mourned more for his absence that year than this year, truth be told. Then I had the expectation he might be around the house more, but this year I knew he wouldn’t be coming home.

Miguel adjusted well to college life. I’d like to think this was a result of good parenting. But I think this was only part of his success. It certainly helped that he had always felt supported, loved and encouraged—and occasionally disciplined—at home. But being naturally outgoing was probably a key factor. He made a lot of friends and tried new activities, like writing for the school paper. Certainly, he had his share of luck. He was paired with easygoing, likable roommates. He was blessed with good health all year and a caring girlfriend. All this made his absence easier.

It’s funny how as parents, our targets change rapidly. Last year, we were so focused on sending off our son. It seemed so final. Would this be the end of our parenting years? The answer is a decisive no. Now that this milestone is behind us, I realize parenting never ends. Miguel will be home for the summer. He’ll want our help as he looks for his own apartment next fall. Next year will bring a whole new set of challenges as he gets deeper into his major, starts thinking about internships, and copes with the fact his girlfriend may be studying abroad.

I don’t think I’ll ever truly adjust to Miguel’s absence. My own mother says she still misses my brother and I. The silver lining is that I get to see him grow, develop new interests and navigate the world. In college he’s developed a taste for NPR podcasts and books and that’s opened up new conversations between us. He has a passion for his classes and it’s exciting to hear him talk about them.

At his core, Miguel hasn’t changed. This was what I was most worried about—that somehow his essence would change. This summer, what I’m most looking forward to is hearing that simple, caring question: “How was your day Mom?”

First steps on the path to spiritual direction

“Spiritual director? What’s that?”

I hear that question a lot when I tell friends that I have started a program to train to be a spiritual director. Most people have never heard of spiritual direction, even though it’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s understandable. Spiritual direction was a practice confined to Catholic monks and nuns for most of its history. Only in the last few decades or so has the practice been adopted by lay people and Protestants.

I was fortunate to learn about spiritual direction almost 20 years ago from my Protestant pastor. At the time she was leading a group of us at church in doing the Ignatian exercises, a 30-week period of intense study of Jesus’ life and Saint Ignatius’ writings. Over the course of the 30 weeks we met regularly one-on-one with Pastor Helen or her husband Pastor Max. The one-on-one meetings were a revelation to me. Never before had I participated in a conversation solely focused on how God was working in my life. I had been in lots of Bible studies and prayer meetings but nothing like this. To talk with someone uninterrupted for one hour about spiritual matters changed me and my whole outlook. I began to see things, even ordinary things, through spiritual lens.

Once our Ignatian group ended, so did my meetings with Helen. I could have continued I suppose, but with a baby to take care of, I didn’t think I had the time. Many years passed and I longed for the type of spiritual conversations I’d had with Helen. In the meantime Helen moved to Chicago. Then, about three years ago, as I was surfing the Internet, I came across the web page for Mercy Center, a Catholic retreat center in Burlingame. Through a program there I started meeting with a director again, and then one thing lead to another. My director moved to Seattle, I started meeting with Helen again (over Skype), and last summer I decided to apply to a program where I could study to be a spiritual director. I recently completed my first two months of training at the Journey Center in Santa Rosa.

Actually, I should say I am exploring becoming a director. The idea of directing anyone in spiritual matters is daunting. I don’t feel like a spiritual giant or mentor. I am not particularly rigorous about my faith nor do I feel like I pray enough, read the Bible enough or practice charity enough (unless you consider lavishing attention on my pets charity). I like to think I’m a good listener, however, and this is a key component of spiritual direction. Mostly the director offers a sacred space and listens deeply to the directee, It’s a type of listening we don’t often encounter in everyday life.

Here’s how my last session with my director started:

First, my director lit a candle and prayed that the Holy Spirit would be present in our conversation.

Director: What would you like to talk about today?

Me: There are so many things, I’m not sure.

Director: Well, how is your writing going?

Me: Oh, I feel like I’ve hit some roadblocks.

Director: Tell me about these roadblocks.

Me: Well, I wanted to write an article about grandparents so I decided to call some people–my aunts and uncles and brother-in-law–to interview them. But I kept putting it off. I think I feel shy about calling myself a writer and enlisting others to take part in that.

Director: So, how could you move past these roadblocks?

Me: I don’t know.

Silence.

Me: Well, encouragement from other people helps. I could talk to other writers I know.

Director: You could do that. But tell me more about the roadblocks. Can you go around them or over them?

Me: I was thinking over.

Silence.

Me: Actually, this reminds me of a roadblock I encountered before I started the spiritual direction program. I was talking with a friend of my father’s, a man who works in a seminary and has been in Christian circles his whole life and he didn’t know what spiritual direction was. I was so surprised. I realized then that if I pursued this direction thing I would have to explain it a lot. But in a strange way that made me more zealous about doing this. I really want people to understand it, maybe even try it.

Director: I hear that word zeal. Is that something you need in your writing too?

Me: Yes, I think I need to feel like my writing is important, that I have something worthwhile to say. I need to be zealous about it.

It’s notable that neither my director nor I mentioned God directly in that conversation. Instead, before beginning we asked God to be present, to direct the conversation. In fact, these conversations don’t happen in an isolated way, as no conversation does. The word “roadblock” was on my mind because another friend had used that word a few days earlier describing her own struggles. And “zealous”—that may have been lurking in my mind because my Bible reading that morning was about the apostle Stephen, one of the more zealous apostles. Perhaps spiritual direction is a place where all our percolating thoughts get mixed together and graced by God’s spirit to help us move forward, sort of like a purposeful dream.

While I don’t know for sure if I’ll become a spiritual director, the program has so far borne fruits, even in the first two months. For example, we learned about praying the “examen,” a prayer that helps you look back over each day and consider God’s movement in your life. While the examen wasn’t new to me, I learned two new aspects: one, identifying something you are proud of during the last day, and two, naming something you need God’s help with the following day. I’ve added those two components and it’s been good. Some days I initially feel like there’s not much to be proud of, but after a few minutes, God always brings something to mind, even if it’s something small. Praying about the next day has helped me take initiative in some areas I would have ignored. Some are spiritual; some are mundane. Two nights ago during prayer I realized I was really missing practicing Spanish. I prayed that the next day I would have the discipline to listen to a Spanish podcast I’d recently discovered. I made a point to do that the next day and ended up listening to two podcasts!

Another fruit of the program has been reading thoughtful books about prayer and the practice of listening. In one book I discovered a wonderful prayer written by Hafiz, a fourteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet:

In the morning
When I began to wake,
It happened again—
That feeling
That You, Beloved,
Had stood over me all night
Keeping watch,
That feeling
That as soon as I began to stir
You put Your lips on my forehead
And lit a Holy Lamp
Inside my heart.

Is the God of the universe watching over us even as we sleep? Most days I wholeheartedly believe this. But there is infinite mystery in this and I’m a long way from understanding it. If I listen closely, though, to my life and to others’, I begin to see the outline of God’s movements. Seeing this more clearly is my hope in becoming a spiritual director.

Drawn to depend on God through Lent

“A bad day for the ego is a good day for the soul” — a pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain (in the movie “Walking the Camino”).

Last week marked the halfway point for Lent, the Christian season that prepares believers for the celebration of Easter. When I was growing up, my evangelical church didn’t celebrate Lent. Perhaps it was seen as too Catholic. It was only when I came to my current church that I began to learn about Lent. We begin each Lent with a beautiful candlelit Ash Wednesday service, where we receive ashes and are reminded “from dust you came, to dust you shall return.” Then, for forty days the large gold cross on our altar is draped in black. We remember Christ’s sojourn in the desert for forty days, when he fasted and was tempted by Satan. Some in our congregation give up chocolate or alcohol. This year our pastor encouraged us to skip one meal a week and give the money we would have spent on that food to the poor.

I confess that I rarely give up anything for Lent and though I liked my pastor’s suggestion, I didn’t follow through. I suppose part of the reason is that I know I am bad about things like following New Year’s resolutions so I also doubt my ability to follow through on commitments for Lent. Maybe I don’t want to fail. Or maybe I’m just lazy or pretty attached to eating every meal and having my chocolate and wine. I think, eventually, I’ll understand what is means to fast and someday experience how that turns my attention more to God.

Fortunately though, God works with us where we are, fasting or not. A few weeks ago I took a walk to my local library. It was a beautiful spring day and I stopped to admire the daffodils blooming outside the entrance. I went in, returned a book and upon exiting, noticed a young homeless woman seated on a bench talking to a man. Instantly, I recognized this woman. I had seen her before. She was a regular client at the homeless meal where I used to volunteer regularly. She had always stood out to me, being much younger than most of the other clients, and she seemed clear-headed and sharp, though somehow homeless, always carrying many bags and a large backpack. In that brief moment when I saw her outside the library, I froze. I didn’t smile, didn’t say hello. She looked right at me. Was there a slight hint of recognition in her eyes? Was she waiting for me to say hello? After a moment she returned to her companion and kept talking. I stared ahead and walked away. I felt ashamed. I could have at least smiled. What kept me from making contact? Was it fear I would be pulled into an awkward conversation? Was it fear I would be asked to give something? I felt an emptiness. It was a difficult moment, a humbling moment, but it drew me to God and his grace. Lent was breaking through.

A week or so later I had a similar moment. I was scheduled to meet two new friends to carpool to a spirituality program we were participating in an hour away. These women had graciously offered to let me join their regular carpool. Stepping into the car with them, I felt a little nervous. The program we are in lasts two years and meets every other week so I would get to know these women pretty well. Who were they and what would we talk about on our long rides? These women were older than me and had more life experience. Would they sense my lack of experience in some of the things we were learning about it? As it turned out, the drive passed pleasantly enough, as we made small talk about our children, work and travel plans. It was only after arriving that I suddenly remembered that one of the women had just lost her father—and I hadn’t said a thing about it. In fact, she had left our last meeting in a big rush because she received news that her father was dying. Perhaps my memory lapse was a simple oversight. But I realized I had been so focused on small talk and giving the appearance I was a pleasant traveling partner that I forgot the bigger picture. I take pride in being a caring person but I felt very uncaring in that moment. God, I said, help me learn to do better next time, but in the meantime, I see I’m fully human and capable of mistakes.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of Lent is to highlight our dependence on God. We depend on God not only for our daily necessities like food and water but our capacity to work, play and especially to love. I realize that many days I take this all for granted. I depend too much on myself and think about God as an afterthought.

In our modern world, nobody wants to be dependent or humbled. Self-sufficiency and independence are valued. But God’s kingdom has different values. Christians look to God for their needs. Our Ash Wednesday service beautifully highlights this when we recite the ancient prayer of St. Ephrem. It’s a prayer of three stanzas and in between each one we either kneel or lay prostrate on the sanctuary floor. It’s powerful to see the whole congregation in a posture of humility and respect for God, praying words that were written more than a thousand years ago.

Yesterday I went back to the library to return a book and I was hoping the homeless woman would be on the bench again. This time I would smile and say hello. I would depend on God for whatever came next. Alas, she wasn’t there but I knew my awareness of God’s world had increased just a tiny bit. And I knew God would give me another chance to show love to someone. Indeed, I did have a chance to ride in the carpool with the two women again. This time I asked the one who had lost her dad how the funeral had gone. She said it was a wonderful but somber service. Since it was Lent the church didn’t allow flowers in the sanctuary. All the flowers people had given had to be displayed in the church foyer. I pictured a mass of colorful bouquets and arrangements crowded into an entrance hall, like a crowd waiting for a concert to begin.

Soon, Easter will be here. We will again decorate the sanctuary with flowers and remove the black cloth from the cross–but not before we finish the lessons and winding journey of Lent.

Prayer of St. Ephrem

O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust of power and idle chatter.

[kneel, prostration]

Instead, grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.

[kneel, prostration]

O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen.

[kneel, prostration]

Strolling around my neighborhood, through the years

There’s a four-block stretch of road in my neighborhood that I’ve traveled on hundreds of times in the last 20 years. It connects my house with my church and, next to the church, the preschool the kids attended. I’ve walked or driven this road to and from church nearly every Sunday and, when the kids were in preschool, daily. Until recently, I thought I knew this road, its houses and its inhabitants, fairly well—or well enough. That changed, but more on that later.

There is something soothing about this stretch of road. It’s actually a zigzag of three different streets—Fresno, Sonoma and Colusa—and it cuts through the heart of our North Berkeley neighborhood, filled with charming bungalow houses from the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s. Each house is unique and long ago I picked my favorites. There’s the handsome wood-shingled bungalow with perfect symmetry–two big picture windows framing a lovely entranceway. There’s the formal-looking two-story stucco house with a beautiful stained glass window on the side. Then there are various gardens I admire with their carefully chosen native plants and flowers.

I flashback 19 years ago and I am pushing a brand-new little baby in a brand-new navy blue stroller up the street. It’s December and we are both bundled up. He’s all zipped up in a flannel onesie, white with blue polka dots. And of course, he has on a hat. I was always worried he would catch a cold. It’s almost Christmas and the neighborhood is especially lovely with all the sparkling holiday lights. Every Christmas since then when the lights go up in the neighborhood I think of the magical feeling of showing my new baby the world.

I flashback 15 years ago and I am chasing my toddler down the street as he rides his big wheel. Meanwhile I’ve got my new baby strapped to my back and I’m gripping my dog’s leash as he darts around. An older neighbor passes by and says, “good luck,” while another slightly younger and sweeter neighbor tries to engage my four-year-old in a conversation. “How old are you now?” “You are getting so big!” I welcome her cheerful interaction.

For the most part, my neighbors are friendly but keep to themselves. A few, those who I know from church, are good friends. Others I am content to simply say hello as they are tending their gardens or walking their dogs. Still others in my small radius I’ve perhaps never seen and wouldn’t even recognize on the street.

Fast forward to last spring and my teenage son begins dating a girl from his high school who happens to live right next to my little four-block stretch of road. She’s not exactly the girl next door, but close. Her family falls into the category of people I wouldn’t recognize. But it turns out they’ve been there for years. They live in a Mediterranean-looking white bungalow with a wide front porch. The view out their front window looks down on Colusa, the street I’ve traveled up and down so many times. The first time I was in their living room, looking out at that view, it felt strange to be on the other side of things. At the same time, I felt an instant bond with these people I was just getting to know. Their view of the world in our little corner of Berkeley has been similar to mine all these years.

Now eight months into their relationship, my son and his girlfriend’s romance is blossoming thanks in part to the very unplanned and unexpected way life unfolds. Both Miguel and Olivia chose to go to schools in New York City. They had already decided that when they met last spring, so what might have just been a summer fling limited to Berkeley continues in New York. They see each other practically everyday and over the past months at school have forged a new life in a new place. I often wonder how strange it must feel to them to walk crowded city streets all day and hear traffic all night outside their dorm rooms. The city is exciting and non-stop in a way Berkeley, especially our little neighborhood, is decidedly not. They enjoy it but also like to escape from time to time. Like seasoned New Yorkers, they’ve already made several weekend trips outside the city. This weekend they are in Amherst, Massachusetts.

As for me, I’m happy to visit New York once in a while; it’s thrilling to walk those lively streets. I can’t think of a better place to be as a young person. But at this time in my life, I’d rather live in Berkeley. And this time of year is especially sweet. The plum trees along Colusa are beginning to pop with pink buds, daffodils will soon make an appearance in various yards and the ferns in front of my house are a healthy deep green from all the rain. Between rainstorms, I like to get out and walk around the neighborhood. These days it’s just me, no kids or dog—I take him to the dog park instead—and often I’ve got my headphones tuned into music or an audiobook. Late afternoon is my favorite time to walk. I take in the aroma of coffee roasting down the street at Roma’s. I catch the red hues of the sun setting in the west, on the bay. I see the moon rising over the hills to the east. Occasionally I can hear the sound of the campanile chiming far off in the distance.

Love of place runs deep. I sometimes wonder if Miguel will return to Berkeley someday or whether his younger brother, not yet launched, will settle here after college. What memories will they carry forward of this tranquil neighborhood? Will they remember those frequent walks around the block we once took? Will they look forward to coming home? And what new discoveries might we all make in the meantime? This answer lies just around the corner…

Of roscas, kings and friends

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“Welcome. Bienvenida. Come in and have some rosca,” said my friend Stephanie.

I stepped into Stephanie’s tidy El Cerrito house and followed her into her kitchen, where we could sit at her table and enjoy a view of the bay.

“What’s a rosca?” I asked.

Stephanie grew up in Colombia. She explained that a rosca is the traditional oval-shaped pastry that Latin Americans eat on Three Kings’ Day. It is supposed to symbolize a crown, like those worn by the kings who visited Jesus twelve days after his birth. Candied fruits represent the jewels.

I bit into the sugary rosca. “Muy rica!” I said.

In Mexico, and much of the rest of the Hispanic world, Three Kings’ Day, January 6, also known as Epiphany, is the day when children open presents, not Christmas day. This makes perfect sense. This is the day when Jesus received presents from the kings.

I had gotten to know Stephanie because her daughter was classmates with my son at his Catholic elementary school. Her daughter came to the school in fourth grade, the year I was a room parent. I helped organize a back-to-school reception and met Stephanie and her husband Hugo at the event. I was immediately drawn to Stephanie and enjoyed practicing a little Spanish with her. We went for a few walks and had coffee together. As it turned out, Stephanie was very intentional in her Catholic faith, unlike many of the parents at the school, and she observed Saint’s Days and other holidays. I remember once that we talked about the new Cathedral of Light in Oakland and she was so excited. We decided to go together for a tour, but somehow never did.

A couple of years after meeting Stephanie, and sometime after our rosca together, she started having pain in her leg. Stephanie went to the doctor and learned she had a hole in her knee. She had cancer, non-Hogdkins Lymphona in the bone. She immediately started chemo and her mother came from Mexico for several months to help. My son’s class parents organized us to deliver meals. I visited Stephanie a few times during her treatment and she was amazingly positive and always smiling. Instead of complaining about how she couldn’t walk or had lost her hair, she would ask me if I liked her newest hat or she’d want to know how I was doing. And she was so touched by the outpouring of support. I can’t remember how long Stephanie’s recovery lasted, but at the end of it her bone had healed and she was cancer-free.

**

Just like Mexico, Spain celebrates Three Kings’ Day with presents and roscas. The year we lived in Spain we happened to be visiting Gibraltar on Three Kings’ Day. Gibraltar is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. It’s a strip of rocky land off the coast of Spain owned by the British. The one small town on the rock looks like an English village with narrow streets, traditional architecture and pubs serving fish and chips. Besides eating at a pub tourists are told they must take a tour of the caves. A driver takes you up to the caves, where you can see beautiful stalagmites and stalactites. Next, you can tour long tunnels dug into the mountain, which were once used for ammunition. If that isn’t enough, you can also see many wild monkeys who roam the rock. They aren’t shy. Several crawled on top of our vehicle or blocked our path, hoping for a free snack.

After our obligatory tour of the rock, we lingered in the town plaza and were amazed to find a large parade forming. The locals were celebrating Three Kings’ Day with floats of dancers, musicians, kings and camels. I felt like I was at the Rose Parade. Apparently, these Three Kings’ parades are common all over Spain. The participants even throw candy out to all the children.

To this day, I still receive messages from my Spanish friends on January 6th saying “Feliz Dia de Los Reyes” (Happy Kings’ Day) and they make me smile. We could always use more excuses to celebrate. I think this is something Catholics do especially well. I learned this year that, in fact, Kings’ Day doesn’t have to end on January 6th. Roscas are traditionally eaten all the way to Mardi Gras, the start of Lent. They are indeed a variation of the colorful purple, green and yellow King Cakes that are popular in New Orleans. One article I read said that some groups of people have a King party ever week until Mardi Gras. That’s one long party! In some traditions, a plastic baby (symbolizing Jesus) is hidden inside the cake. The person who finds the baby is in charge of either buying the next cake or specifically of hosting a party on February 2nd to celebrate the day Jesus was presented in the temple. Ironically, we hosted a Mardi Gras party on a whim a few years ago, complete with a King Cake, but I didn’t understand the traditions.

Usually I feel a bit of a letdown after Christmas and New Year’s. The excitement of the holidays has passed and there is not a lot to break up the cold, dark days of winter. This year, though, I may look at things differently. Perhaps I’ll have a Kings’ party or two and really celebrate Mardi Gras with zest. I may even get in touch with Stephanie and make a date to tour the Cathedral of Light. It’s a good time of year to celebrate life.

What I want for Christmas

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When I was a child, the month of December seemed to pass so slowly. I would count the days until Christmas and it seemed to take forever. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning when my brother and I would get up early, rush to the Christmas tree and tear open the presents. What special gifts would be waiting there? In the picture above I am wearing overalls I got for Christmas when I was 10. I really wanted those overalls. I was serious about the overalls. I wore them every day for two weeks straight, right into January. It’s like that with kids and their favorite gifts.

These days the Christmas season rushes by. Thanksgiving is over and suddenly it’s Christmas season. Time to buy a tree. Time to decorate the house. Time to buy gifts. As an adult, there doesn’t seem to be time to fit in all the errands, shopping and preparations. In the background linger all the voices that tell you what you should be doing. Maybe this is the year you should write your Christmas letter early (if at all) or this is the year you should put up those Christmas lights languishing in the basement. So many shoulds can take the joy right out of the holiday. It’s a challenge to quiet the shoulds and live in the present moment.

That Christmas when I was 10 I had my first “boyfriend.” He was a cute strawberry blonde with freckles. A few weeks before Christmas break he gave my best friend a little folded up piece of paper for me. It said, “Will you go steady? Mike” Only a few of the cool kids were going steady so I was flattered. I wrote “yes” below the question and sent it back to him. I hardly knew him and we didn’t talk after our note exchange. Then Christmas break came and I forgot about him until one day he arrived at my door with a gift. I was so embarrassed when my mother told me there was a boy to see me that I refused to come to the door. He left the gift with my mother. I later opened the gift and it was a set of Snoopy stationery. I loved it and kept it for many years, unused in a drawer. After Christmas break I returned to school and saw Mike again. I don’t remember whether I thanked him for the gift, but I must have, considering I was always taught to thank people. One day a few weeks later it was rainy and we had to stay inside for lunch. The kids were restless. Pretty soon some of the kids decided to play truth or dare. To my horror, they dared Mike to kiss me. Not only did I not want to kiss Mike, I hated being the center of attention. Instinctively I ran under a table and hid. Everyone laughed. That was the end of our going steady.

With the small boyfriend drama behind me I could turn to my interests at the time, which included dressing up my miniature Schnauzer in old baby clothes and playing superballs with my friend Kim. I still have the album of photos I made of my dog in various outfits. I don’t have the shoebox of brightly colored superballs, but I trust some other kid somewhere is having fun with those. Kids generally have such simple interests and I take that as a lesson today. Yes, I do have adult responsibilities, but I can still savor simple things. In fact, in light of my responsibilities and the shoulds, I need to savor simple things. Simple things today can mean adding a little egg nog to my morning coffee or writing a little extra in my journal. At the top of my Christmas list is a “frother,” so I can froth milk to make foam for my coffee. Next is a new leather moleskin journal and some nice pencils. Simple pleasures to enjoy the moment.

Of course, what I really want for Christmas these days will not come as a present under the tree. It’s what most of us want—a happy family, good health, fulfilling projects—and perhaps a dash of adventure. One of my most memorable recent Christmases contained almost all of that in a comical way. All four of us, my husband and two sons, had driven out to Salt Lake City, Utah a few days after Christmas to celebrate the holidays with my brother and his family. We had a great time sitting around talking, watching movies and sledding on a nearby hill. The snow-covered Utah mountains were beautiful and a nice change of scenery from the Bay Area. For reasons I don’t remember, we left on New Year’s Eve to make the l2-hour drive back to Berkeley. We passed through the frozen Salt Flats and then crossed the desolate Utah/Nevada border where you can drive 50 to 100 miles without seeing a town. Just after speeding by Winnemucca, Nevada, the halfway point of our trip, our car began to making sputtering noises and losing power. Panicked, we pulled off to the side of the road and called AAA. Fortunately we were just miles outside of Winnemucca and a driver came fairly quickly. We were towed back to town and found out that our car’s timing belt had broken. The bad news was that, since this was a holiday, they wouldn’t be able to get the part for our car until January 2. We were effectively stuck in Winnemucca for three days! A little dejected, we checked into the Winnemucca Hotel, which boasted its own small casino and restaurant. We drove our loaner car around the town (which took about 2 minutes) and cheered a little when we saw there was actually a movie theater (playing the Muppet Movie) and a Basque restaurant. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. As it turned out, we spent a very happy couple of days in Winnemucca. Besides our outing to the movie theater and Basque restaurant, we sat in our little hotel room watching bad TV shows, writing thank you notes on Winnemucca postcards and reading and rereading “Of Mice and Men,” which my son had in his backpack. It seemed that time had stopped.

I don’t know exactly what Christmas will bring this year but as long as I have loved ones near I expect it will be good. I just hope time will slow down enough to enjoy all the right moments.

PostScript: Last summer we stayed at the Winnemucca Hotel for a night on our way to a family reunion in Colorado. We reminisced about being stuck there a few years back. There was no time for a movie or a Basque meal but I have a feeling we’ll be back again.

Missing Miguel

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There’s something about a fall evening that makes me just want to curl up on my sofa and stay inside. Partly it’s the early onset of darkness, as the sun sets quickly, even before I’ve had dinner. Partly it’s the rain, filling the sky with grey clouds and making the streets slick. Partly it’s sadness that my older son is no longer at home.

I actually had a plan tonight, to go hear an author talk about her book profiling 100 women entrepreneurs and artists. The book is filled with short interviews of accomplished, fashionable and creative women who have forged their way in the world of art, fashion, writing and business. I was looking forward to an inspirational talk. Maybe this talk would fire me up to do some of those creative projects I’ve been meaning to do. But I couldn’t muster the energy to go. I felt like it might take too much energy to hear about all these energetic women. So instead I decided to stay home, heat up some packaged Indian food from Costco, and have a glass of wine.

Fall is a busy time for most people and it certainly has been for me. I sent my oldest son, Miguel, off to college two months ago and then welcomed an exchange student from Spain for the next two months. Sending Miguel to college in New York city was difficult–so many memories, so much love. Having an exchange student for a few months distracted me from my emptiness. Now that she’s gone I am more aware of Miguel’s absence. He filled the house with energy and joy, always ready to tell me a story, ask me about my day or try a new recipe with me. There’s nothing that can replace my son’s presence. Instead, I reminisce about the special times we had and look forward to new ones ahead. In the meantime, Facetime is great. We talk several times a week and text frequently. I am confident our relationship is on steady footing. He’s gained his independence, living on the other side of the country, but we’re still intimately connected. That feels wonderful, even unexpected. I really didn’t know what to expect parenting an adult child.

The truth is, this new season of parenting has been revealing itself gradually. Like the houseplant I bought six months ago that is blooming little purple buds for the first time (and I just thought it was a plain green plant), my relationship with Miguel has grown and developed in the last few years. His first year in high school, I remembered being worried that he wasn’t getting out enough. He still preferred spending weekends with the family, watching cooking shows with me or playing golf with dad. By his last year of high school those days were long over. He was out of the house constantly with a job, sports and friends, and I spent many nights waiting up for him to come home. I’d often be a little annoyed that he was so late and my bedtime was delayed, but then all those feelings would be erased as we chatted about the day. He may have spent less time at home but our conversations were often richer. When I finally dropped him off at college this fall and we went out to an expensive dinner, I realized we were talking as two adults. He shared with me some of his dreams (lots of travel, eating at nice restaurants and marriage someday were some) and he and I observed the other diners around us just like my husband and I sometimes do when we’re out.

As for Miguel, he seems to be doing well on his own. He’s been kayaking on the Hudson River, been to a few concerts in Central Park—one with Cat Stevens, taken trips to Philadelphia and Amherst, Massachusetts, and located some excellent late night food destinations. More importantly, he gets along well with his roommates and is enjoying his studies, especially his screenwriting class. His high school girlfriend is nearby at another New York city school and she’s been a good companion through it all. He misses home a bit—his parents, his brother and his dog—and sometimes yearns for the natural beauty of California.

I now calculate life a little differently. How will I make it through Thanksgiving without Miguel? Or his birthday right after that? How long is it until winter break? Fortunately, life’s response to these questions (or God’s perhaps) is often sweet. I have another son at home who fills my life with warmth and new adventures. In December he and I will be going to Austin, Texas to visit an online friend he’s known for three years but never met. It’s the second time my younger son has cultivated a friendship with someone from Texas. Meeting his first friend turned out to be a great experience–and they’ve continued to be good friends. Hopefully this one will follow suit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from parenting, it’s that you don’t stay in one state of mind very long. You never know what new thing may come your way. I’ve grown to like that.