Looking to life beyond us

In the 2105 movie “The Martian,” astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after a dust storm causes the rest of his crew to flee. Watney knows he must make contact with the crew in order to be rescued. He is completely alone in the barren landscape of Mars. Yet he manages to keep his faith that somehow, some way he will reconnect with his team and make it home. He puts his efforts into surviving.

Sometimes Earth itself can be a lonely place too. It can feel quite desolate. We often feel we have to use all our wits to just make it one day to the next. Yet many of us have faith that there’s another thing out there in the universe that is constantly rescuing us, leading us “home.” This thing is called God and he is interested in every detail of our life.

Recently I’ve been challenged to reaffirm my belief that God is a God who cares about the big and small details of our lives. I’ve embarked on a program to train to be a spiritual director. The core of being a spiritual director is listening to people’s lives and helping them see where God has been present. It is an ancient practice that is enjoying a resurgence of interest at a time when many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, are seeking to know more about spirituality and God.

In my program the last six months, we’ve explored various contemplative practices, such as journaling, the Prayer of the Examen, centering prayer, contemplative listening, and imaginative prayer. In addition, I’ve continued meeting with my own spiritual director. In each of these practices, I’ve trusted that God is present and sometimes I catch a word or image that feels like it’s just for me. My general experience as a result of all these practices is a feeling of nourishment and well-being.

This is not to say there have not been challenges, doubts and fears. In “The Martian,” Mark Watney initially has success growing his own food thanks to the fact he had potatoes he could plant and his own waste to use as fertilizer. Then, however, a storm destroys the greenhouse he has built and he is back to ground zero. In the same way, just when I feel I am understanding spiritual direction or God, a storm blows through, causing me to rethink things.

Early on in my spiritual direction journey, I became friends with a woman who is a staunch atheist but finds herself in a space that is causing her to explore the possibility that God might just exist. In our weekly discussions she asks me just how is it that a loving God can allow suffering. Or why God seems so selfish in demanding our complete obedience. I’ve had to admit that I don’t have adequate answers to these mysteries, yet I still affirm that God cares about us deeply. I’ve never been in a relationship in which another person has so persistently questioned God, and, to be fair to the questions, I’ve questioned him too.

It’s easy to see God in the good things but not so easy to understand him in the perceived absences. Not long after I started the spiritual direction training program, I learned I would have to change my own spiritual director, whom I had seen for several years. I was upset. I had grown to trust her guidance and rely on her support. To make matters worse, just as I had to change directors several difficult relationship issues came to a head. How could God pull away this support in a time of need? I eventually did find a new director but not without much fretting. In hindsight, I realize we are almost constantly in a state of need and the months I was without a director made me feel even more strongly that having a director is a good thing—though it’s not the only thing. I can and did receive “direction” from other people.

When Mark Watney was left behind on Mars, it didn’t take long for NASA to realize his predicament. Although communication lines were cut, they desperately tried to reach him. Is God the same way with us, using any and all means to communicate with us? My faith tradition and experience tells me the answer is yes. And the contemplative practices and spiritual direction help me to slow down and see the signs. They even help me examine my doubts.

One thing so far is sure. God doesn’t leave us as we are. Through the contemplative practices and spiritual direction, I can see the faint outlines of change. As my atheist friend points out, personal growth is what God seems to be after. It may be too early to see the big picture of all this. That can wait.

Barcelona in my heart

It was with a heavy heart that I learned this week of the terrorist attack in Barcelona. I have spent some of my happiest moments in Barcelona and feel a special affinity with the city. It’s a beautiful place and it’s frightening to think a horrible act of hate could take place even there.

In 1993 my husband and I spent five months living as students in Barcelona. A year earlier the city had hosted the summer Olympics and was standing tall, with a shiny new stadium and refurbished buildings and boulevards. We spent a lot of time on La Rambla, the street where the driver mowed down innocent people last week. La Rambla runs almost a mile from the waterfront through the city’s old Gothic quarter to the elegant 19th century Eixample neighborhood. It is the perfect place to poke in and out of old alleyways, shops and cafes.

Some people say the Catalans are snobbish and reserved. They are overly proud of their culture, history and language, distinct from the rest of Spain. We found a bit of that to be true, but mostly we found very gracious, welcoming people. A week into our stay we met a Catalan university student, Esther, who needed help studying for an upcoming English exam. We made a deal with her to exchange English conversation practice for guided tours of Barcelona. For several weeks, Esther showed us the sights, either walking, or sometimes riding in her tiny black car. We walked around the new stadium on Montjuïc and took a tram up to Tibidabo, where you can take in a breathtaking view of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. The city’s location next to the water and its many hills reminded me of San Francisco. I was far from home, but felt like I was in familiar surroundings.

Thankfully, Esther passed her English test. Even so, we continued meeting with her, though then we tried our best to speak in Spanish. Eventually, she invited us to her home, which she shared with her parents and three siblings. Soon, we became regular visitors. One memorable night Esther’s father, a gregarious man who worked as the principal of a nearby school, made us a delicious paella meal, preparing the dish on an outside grill in his back patio. After the meal, he asked, “Os gustaría una copa?” (Would you like a copa?) We had no idea what a copa was. “Claro que sí,” of course, we responded. As it turned out a copa is a drink and he proceeded to ply us with one after another after-dinner sipping liqueur, served in small shot glasses. It’s a good thing Esther drove us back home.

Back in our own apartment, we were treated just as well. We lived with a single woman, MaríVi, and her 19-year-old son, Alvaro, who sported long neon red hair. Although they were out much of the time, no doubt enjoying the full social life of many Spaniards, at home they enjoyed introducing us to Spanish soccer matches on TV, making me an unforgettable birthday dinner (squids in their own ink), and an occasional game of monopoly. Whenever Peter was winning, MaríVi laughed and told him he was “engañando.” It took me a while to figure out that meant cheating.

We’ve been back to Barcelona several times since our sojourn there so many years ago. In fact, we had hoped to live there for a year in 2010 but instead chose Madrid because Barcelona’s schools teach in Catalan, not Spanish, and we didn’t think our kids would want to learn Catalan. Indeed, the Catalan issue is controversial in Spain. Should such a small (geographic) area insist on speaking its own language instead of Spanish? During our short stay in Barcelona, we were forgiven for not speaking Catalan. But “if you are here more than a year, you must learn Catalan,” one man told us bluntly. Esther pretty much told us the same thing. I hesitate to argue. For a place that helped form Picasso as a young artist, produced the artists Gaudí and Miró, and continues to foster innovative fashion, food, ideas and art, maybe they have the right to speak however they want.

Through the years, we’ve kept in touch with our friends in Barcelona. Esther has taken her father’s place as principal of the school, has twins who attend the school, and lives in a beach town just outside of Barcelona. After a busy day at work, she likes to swim in the sea. She still drives a tiny car. Our landlord MaríVi still lives in the same apartment, a 10-minute walk from La Rambla. Alvaro is now a 30-something man with short brown hair and has a wife and a young son. The day after the terrorist attack, both Esther and her husband posted on Facebook that they “were safe.” I hope MaríVi and Alvaro are safe too.

Barcelona has changed a lot since we lived there. The streets are jammed with tourists in the summer time. There are more immigrants. No doubt there are growing pains. The Catalan independence movement has gotten stronger. And now, terrorism has left its ugly mark. It seems very few places in the world, even the places that hold special meaning to us—be it Paris, Nice or Barcelona—are untouched by the complexities of the modern world. I just pray that my friends there won’t lose their sense of joy and their impulse to extend kindness to strangers. I have a lot of confidence in the spirit and hope of Barcelonans to overcome. It seems that a city that once endured the repression of a fascist regime has incredible strength.

When we were preparing to leave Barcelona after our semester in 1993, Esther told us we must drink from the famous Canaletes fountain at the top of La Rambla. That would ensure we would return. She drove us in her little black car right to the fountain. It seemed to have worked, as we did return several times. And I do hope to return again, someday soon.

A family reunion in Guatemala: Part 2

As I explained in my last post, spending a week in the little town of Panyebar, Guatemala recently was a little like a family reunion. Our “family” of Mayan Partners supporters, ages 7 to 50+, joined a group of Guatemalans of all ages, and the results were lovely and heart-warming. Like any family though, there are complex dynamics at work and some situations feel so fluid and unresolved you can only let go and let God (hopefully) direct.

First, I’ll start with the heart-warming interactions. The kids in our group took no time at all to relate to the Guatemalan kids, despite language and cultural barriers. They played basketball and soccer and endless games of duck, duck, goose. They helped out when we painted the basketball court and made crafts with the preschoolers. I’ll never forget seeing my big 16-year-old TJ and his friend Sammy, also 16, sitting on the tiny preschool chairs helping the little kids draw animals. Between them, they came up with the Spanish words for rabbit, cow, and butterfly as they talked about the pictures. The little Guatemalan kids thought it was hilarious that Sammy had the same name as one of them. They kept repeating Sammy’s full name: “Samuel Heller, Samuel Heller…” and they laughed and laughed.

Another comical moment came when the middle school girls in the village decided to braid my boys’ hair. Starting the first day, the girls crafted intricate braids in the hair of the girls in our group. Then, the second day, they turned to the boys. Their hair was just long enough to pull into tiny braids. The very next day, TJ decided that if his hair was long enough for braids, he needed a haircut. He asked one of the villagers where to get a haircut and someone led him down the road to the one barber in town. He got the cheapest haircut of his life: $1.

One surprise was how easily my older son Miguel related to the preschool teachers we worked with, who were mostly my age. We had written to them before coming that Miguel wanted to interview them to make a documentary. But we weren’t sure if these women would open up to him. Would they want to talk on camera? How would they feel interacting with a young man? As it turned out, they were completely enthusiastic about the interviews. Miguel completed three long interviews on three consecutive afternoons and the women were open and honest, talking about their lives, hopes for the future and dreams for their children. Juana broke down in tears. Dominga told me how talking to Miguel felt like talking to her own son. I realized that for these women, who work long hours taking care of so many children, being able to express themselves as individuals was quite powerful. For Miguel, what impacted him most was their deep faith that God was good and taking care of them. (Miguel hopes to put together the film this fall.)

Beyond the laughter and joy, which dominated most of our interactions, there were other situations which reflect the complexities of rural Guatemala and our desire to be friends and not merely rich American cousins. The first day we arrived, after enjoying a festive parade and welcome ceremony, some of us climbed up to the newly completed third story of the middle school and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the village below, surrounded by lush mountains and fields. One of the teachers introduced herself. She was wearing a traditional colorful Guatemalan outfit with a feature some better-off women now sport—a smartphone tucked into her wide faja (belt). She quickly told us her dream was to live in America and work as a Spanish teacher. She is single and wants a better life for her daughter. She had tried twice to apply for a visa but had been turned down. She wondered if any of us had a WhatsApp account so she could write to us. I hesitated a bit, but gave her my address, wondering what I could really do for her. I wouldn’t want to cultivate false hopes. I have no idea how to apply for a visa, and even if she got one, I imagined making it in America would be pretty tough. Was it really worth it to leave this beautiful place? Then again, the job opportunities are so limited here, people are very poor and the village is isolated. The school is one of the only employers in town. I haven’t heard from her yet but maybe someday I will.

Another situation that left me somewhat confused happened with a former employee of the school, a woman named Flory. Flory had been a secretary at the school until a few years ago when our group and local leaders decided to implement a policy to eliminate nepotism, which had caused some problems. (Flory is the daughter-in-law of the head of the local committee that runs the school. Her husband Feric and some other teachers also had to leave the school because of the nepotism rule.) Our group reached out to Flory after she lost her job and asked her to make handicrafts for sale in the U.S. as a way to earn income. For two years, she and a group of other women made Christmas ornaments that we sold. We sent many e-mails back and forth to coordinate. Then, this year, I stopped hearing from Flory. My many e-mails went unanswered. What had happened?

Our second day in Panyebar, two of us went to Flory’s house but only found Feric, working hard behind a huge loom. It turned out that since losing his job at the school he turned to the only other industry in the village besides farming, which is weaving cloth. He said Flory was out but would be glad to speak to us and we arranged to meet with her the next day.

The next day came and Flory received us in a friendly way, but seemed a bit reserved (I later realized this was her personality). She was dressed in a purple hupil (blouse) with matching earrings and a traditional corte (skirt). I asked Flory whether she had gotten my e-mails and she simply said she hadn’t received them (she thought maybe they had been bloqueado–blocked). In any case, she now had a new address. I asked whether she still wanted to make ornaments and she told me a long story about how she now had a part-time job in another town teaching young people to make handicrafts. Finally, though, she said she would very much like to make the ornaments. I was glad to hear this but also felt unsatisfied about our communication. I had hoped for a better explanation. Why had she not written me with her new e-mail address? It’s never easy though to read people’s thoughts or motives, especially when another language and culture is involved.

The good news is, Flory and I are now in e-mail communication again. Even better, we had a subsequent good meeting in which took she me around the village to meet the women who make the ornaments. Most are young mothers, caring for small children. One spoke very little Spanish and Flory had to translate my Spanish to Quiche. As Flory and I walked between the houses, on little dirt paths, she told me of several other projects she’s involved in, such as teaching literacy classes in her home and setting up a handicraft center in Panyebar. It’s clear this is a woman with vision.

As I reflect more on my interactions with Flory and the other villagers, I realize that most of the people we met in Panyebar did, in fact, have vision. They have dreams and hopes for their lives. In that way, they are no different from us. Just how we Norteamericanos can help them in reaching those visions is an ongoing question. Thankfully, we don’t need to depend on ourselves for all the answers. Like the villagers, we have faith that God will provide and lead. More than anything, our work in Panyebar is a trust-building exercise–with each other and with God.

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…