Getting past writer’s block and other thoughts on writing













Writer’s block. Since deciding to be more disciplined about writing, I’ve suffered my share of this. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, staring at a blank screen and waiting for the words to come. You know lots of people experience it, but at that moment, when you face it, you feel like the only person in the world who is stuck. You feel isolated. It’s a lonely feeling.

I used to only write when I felt inspired, when I already had an idea forming and I could just sit down and let the words flow. Now, though, I make myself write everyday, whether I feel inspired or not. Often I do have a kernel of an idea. But many times, I freeze up. I can’t develop the kernel. I don’t have enough to say. I switch topics or simply stare at what I’ve got and think for a long time.

Sometimes I avoid the discomfort of writer’s block by avoiding writing altogether. I’m pretty good at that. Today, for instance, I found all sorts of things to do instead of sit at my desk. I started a load of laundry. I picked up the house. I noticed my bowl of lemons and remembered the recipe my sister-in-law gave me to make preserved lemons. I hunted for the old recipe and made a shopping list. I finally sat down at my desk and answered some e-mails. Then I got hungry. I had to eat. How could I use up the asparagus and noodles in my refrigerator? I threw them together on the stove with some cherry tomatoes, smoked salmon and butter sauce. I was feeling like I had accomplished a lot—but I hadn’t written a word.

When I first decided to write more I cut back on my hours at work and pledged to dedicate that time to writing. Surely I would be churning out lots of great pieces! Instead I ran into a wall of writer’s block. I was trying to write was about my recent travels to Guatemala. It had been life changing and full of adventure but I discovered I couldn’t convey the experience the way I wanted and I was frustrated. After two weeks of tweaking, I had written an accurate summary of the trip but something was missing. I was so concerned in getting the big picture right that I forgot some of the rich details—the taste of the juicy mangos the village women gave us, the bump of the bus ride, and the odd juxtaposition of so many things, like the villagers’ cellphones hanging from their handmade woven belts. I would write the piece differently now—and maybe I will.

I’m realizing more and more that good writing takes time. All creative work involves patience and attention. Meanwhile, other kinds of work bring more instant rewards—and that’s alluring. I worked at a bookstore for almost three years. I enjoyed helping customers find the book they wanted so desperately they couldn’t even wait for Amazon to deliver it. Either that or they came specifically to support their local bookstore. Then I would ring up their sale. I loved working the cash register. I always felt like a kid who was playing store, as though I was handling fake money. I enjoyed shelving new books fresh out of the box. I even enjoyed gift wrapping books, from carefully measuring out the paper from our big roll to affixing ribbons and a gold sticker. At the end of my shift, I saw tangible results. With writing, I don’t always get to see a neatly wrapped package at the end of the day. I’m learning to be satisfied with that.

The most challenging thing about the kind of writing I’m doing is that nobody is the boss but me. I have to set my own goals. Only I know if I’ve wasted time surfing the internet or shopping online or reorganizing my closets. I’ve crossed paths with many creative types this past year and one thing I know for sure is that this work involves discipline. You have to show up and submit to the process, anticipating that writer’s block or lack of inertia is all part of it.

For me discipline involves a bit of hocus-pocus. I once knew a woman writing her dissertation who wore a special hat whenever she sat down to write. I don’t have a hat but instead I set up a schedule and an inviting space. I try to sit down to write at the same time everyday. I keep a notebook with two to-do lists: one with my writing goals and one with my other tasks. I tell myself I can’t work on those other tasks until after I write. Various rituals encourage this: hot coffee at my desk, a clean workspace and a pad of lined paper for jotting notes. I try my hardest to protect this time. Most days this works; other times it doesn’t.

I marvel at writers like Mark Twain who could write eight or ten hours a day with barely an interruption. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to that point—I’m not even sure I want that. What I have discovered though, is that writing leads to more writing. Many writers talk about how they feel a compulsion to write every day. They can’t live without it. The more I write, the more I understand that. Writer’s block aside, the writing process is an exciting experience of discovery. You discover new ideas you didn’t even know you had or had never formally stated. That can be intoxicating. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.

I recently read writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” She proposes that ideas live in the universe independently of humans. An idea might decide to visit you at a certain juncture in your life and if you are ready for it, you can work with it. If you’re not ready, it will find another “home.” She illustrates this with a story about how she once tried to write a book about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert worked on the book for several years but got sidelined by personal issues and put the project aside. Then Gilbert met writer Ann Patchett. After getting to know each other, Gilbert eventually learned that Patchett was working on a new novel. And what is the novel about? It’s a novel about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert is astounded to learn that her idea had migrated to Patchett! Patchett’s book became the bestselling novel “State of Wonder.”

I’m not sure I fully believe Gilbert’s idea that ideas are independent. But I’d like to. It adds to the mystery of this whole process. It also reinforces the concept that we are all intertwined and connected in powerful ways that we can’t even see. Our experiences and interactions with others become like an elixir we can spill out on the page. Our words, in turn, then influence the next person that reads them and we never quite know the outcome.

Creative work demands not only discipline, but courage. I need to believe that I have something important to say. I have something original to add to the large body of material already out there. Writer’s block often creeps in when I’m feeling doubtful and shy. I need to look writer’s block in the face and say, “I don’t believe you. I’m going to write anyway. This may not be a masterpiece, but it’s good enough.”

How do you face creative blocks? I’m always eager to hear how other writers or creative types work and think. Where do you get inspiration? How do you stay disciplined? Do you talk to other writers? Do you talk to yourself? For me the process, in all its meandering mysterious ways, is almost as interesting as the product itself.

When I worked at the bookstore, I always enjoyed hearing famous writers come in and talk about their writing process. None of them said it was easy. I take heart, knowing even the best struggle and have their good days and bad days. I know that all of this is part of the larger process, a process I’m only beginning to understand.

Exploring the mind-body connection

Do you have a favorite time of day? Maybe it’s looking forward to that first sip of coffee in the morning. Maybe it’s listening to your favorite song or podcast on the way home from work.

I have a few favorite times. One time is at the end of my day, maybe around 11:30 pm. That’s when I’m usually in bed, journal or book in hand, my Schnauzer cuddled up next to me. It’s also when my younger son TJ joins me, ostensibly to cuddle with the dog for a few minutes, but also for a little mom time and a back rub.

Not so many years ago TJ was a little boy and I would tuck him in his bed among his stuffed animals after reading to him. As he approached adolescence I knew those days were numbered and I became wistful that he’d no longer want that nighttime ritual. A few years later I did stop reading to TJ and instead he and his older brother Miguel simply chatted with each other as they fell asleep. Then, Miguel left for college and TJ felt alone in his big room. That’s when he started coming to me to hang out for a while before bedtime.

Mostly, our conversations revolve around the dog. Where is Romeo’s favorite place to be scratched? Is he putting on some weight? What does he dream about? In between, I read a few pages of a book and TJ looks at Reddit on his laptop. Every so often I’ll glance over in amazement at TJ’s lanky six-foot frame stretched out next to me. How did my little boy grow into this big man? Eventually, if TJ stays a long time, my husband will come in and kick him out. But he’s reluctant to interrupt our time together.

I thought of all this recently as I learned in my spiritual direction program the importance of engaging mind and body in spiritual practices. The times of hanging out with TJ before bedtime, being close physically and mentally, are almost spiritual experiences. It feels like time stops for a while. I get a sense of the transcendent in everyday life.

At my spiritual direction group this week one of the facilitators started our meeting by reminding us that it was holy week, the most important week of the Christian year. She asked us to pray holding our palms open and facing up, as a physical symbol of letting go of those things that were weighing on us. I thought of the many worries on my mind and the things I wanted to resolve. Then I thought of Jesus’ life. He only lived 33 years and, from a human perspective, that seems short. Think of how many more miracles he could have performed or sermons he could have given had he lived longer! Yet he lived a perfect life. As I sat in prayer, with my hands open, I asked God to release my striving to complete and resolve so many things. Our meeting continued on for several more hours, but that moment, with my palms turned up, was the most transcendent.

Lent and Easter can be a good time to remember the mind-body-spirit connection. For Lent we often give up something physical, like a certain food, to focus on the holy. This year, instead of giving something up, I added something healthy. A friend challenged me to walk to church instead of driving. Since the walk is only about 10 minutes, this wasn’t difficult. I just had to remember to give myself an extra 10 minutes to get to church. The extra walking felt good. I didn’t exactly pray during the walks but I found myself in a state of gratitude as I admired the neighbors’ blooming daffodils and tulip trees. I always paused at a small creek where I could hear the spring rains running by, down to the bay. One morning I saw a family of deer cross the street. I arrived at church on Sundays in a more contented, relaxed state. This is one Lenten practice I’ll hope to keep.

Last night I participated in our Maundy Thursday service, which culminated in a powerful mind-body-spirit experience—washing each other’s feet. We did this to commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, when he washed their feet to show his love toward them. I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant to wash another person’s feet and get my feet washed in return. My partner and I let a family with two small children go ahead of us in line. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the young children were eager to participate. They each had a turn in the chair, dangling their legs above the water bowl and eagerly leaning forward to get their feet washed. When that was done, they cried out, “I want to wash your feet Mommy! Can I do it, please!” It reminded me that kids aren’t self-conscious about their bodies. They can enter into an experience in a way adults often can’t—or can only through some effort. I wanted to be a bit more like those kids.

Today is Good Friday and I will once again go to church. It will be a somber service. The sanctuary will be dark except for a few candles that will be gradually snuffed out. At the end of the service we will take turns holding a heavy hammer and pounding nails into a large wooden cross. The sound of pounding will ring in my head for hours afterwards. I will remember Jesus’ short and perfect life. I will experience his suffering and death in a tiny way through the sights and sounds of the service. I would rather skip over this part of the story but I realize darkness and pain are part of our reality. I will attend this service, if not out of desire, then out of obedience to the truth of the whole story. And fortunately today isn’t the end of the story.

What will I remember of this Easter season? I may remember that this was a time when I saw more clearly the integration of mind, body and spirit. I will be thankful that I have many teachers of this lesson—my son, my spiritual direction group, friends and friends’ children. I will commit to living not just in one dimension, but in all my wholeness, slanting toward joy.

“I have the immense joy of being a [human being], a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” – Thomas Merton

Embracing Walden Pond

“Sometimes the truth depends on a walk around the lake” – Wallace Stevens

Several years ago I was staying with a friend in Boston and he suggested we visit Walden Pond. He had always wanted to go and, knowing I was a writer, thought I might enjoy seeing the place where Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous treatise on living a life of simplicity in the woods.

It was early April and the ground was slushy with snow when we visited Walden Pond. It took us at least an hour to slosh our way around the “pond,” which is really more like a small lake. We paused midway through to look in awe at the posts indicating the spot where Thoreau had built his 10-by-15-foot cabin (it no longer stands). Thoreau lived here for two years in 1845 and 1846 while he experimented with meditation, solitude and nature observation.

I had mostly forgotten about the trip to Walden Pond until I saw my friend recently. As it turns out, he enjoyed the excursion so much that he continues to visit the pond frequently. Something about the place has touched his spirit. For a few hours he can set aside his life as a busy doctor and soak in the beauty, quiet and stillness that Walden Pond offers.

I think of this today as I’m preparing to see several people in my new role as a spiritual director intern. For the next nine months I’ve been assigned to meet with four people and listen to their stories. I will help them identify their Walden Ponds, those places in their life that bring them solace or connect them to something greater than themselves. I’ll also listen to their wonderings, questions, and most likely, pain. As a spiritual director, I am not a counselor who will fix their problems. I am there to accompany them along whatever journey they are on, believing that the Holy Spirit is guiding our conversation. Most people will come wanting to deepen their relationship with God. Other people may be exploring God or their spiritual life for the first time.

I first experienced spiritual direction myself 20 years ago, when my pastor led a group of us through the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. I saw my pastor monthly for a year and we simply talked about life and how I was experiencing God. This was a revelation. Although I had been a Christian since childhood I had never talked with anyone about God in such a direct way. It’s one thing to believe that God spoke to people in the Bible or maybe that he hears my prayers. But it’s another thing to believe that he is speaking to me today in even small things like sunsets or synchronicities—and to give voice to that experience with another human being.

Spiritual direction is countercultural. Our culture thrives on information, entertainment and noise. In spiritual direction we light a candle, invite God’s presence and take an hour to slow down and just be. The spiritual director may ask a few questions, such as: “What was life like for you today?” or “Can you describe the time today you felt most free—or least free?” Mostly though, the spiritual director listens and helps the directee go deeper into their story. The director may notice that the directee has strong emotions around a certain topic and ask the directee to say more about that. Or the director may point out certain rich words the directee uses and highlight those as significant signposts, worthy of attention. Other times, the director may suggest a few minutes of silence in the conversation. This is the ultimate countercultural gesture and for those new to direction, it may be uncomfortable at first.

It surprises people to learn that a spiritual director is not highly directive. The title of director is a little misleading. As one of our books described, the director is more of a companion or midwife. The directee is the one birthing new ideas and thoughts and the director simply helps them attend to those. The Holy Spirit is the real director. To be sure, there are models of spiritual direction in which the director is more directive, for example in the model used by orthodox priests. The model I’ve been trained in, however, positions the director much more in the place of fellow traveler.

My journey in training to be a spiritual director has taken its own twists and turns. When I started my program a year ago I envisioned the training to be mostly a head exercise. I assumed I’d be learning facts and techniques. I was only partially right. We have learned some of these things, down to some “technical” concepts like transference, whereby a directee might transfer feelings they had toward some person in their past to the current director, because the Director reminds them of that person. Or there is counter-transference whereby the director transfers feelings they had for a past person toward the directee. It is good to be aware of these dynamics and other nuts and bolts issues. However, where I’ve really been impacted is during our “practice” sessions of spiritual direction itself.

Each time we meet for training we take up roles as either director or directee, with a trained facilitator observing us. These are real sessions when we bring our real anxieties, experiences and joys to light. In these sessions as a directee I’ve talked about everything from the desire I’m feeling to spend more time writing to the sadness I’m feeling over a strained relationship. Most of the time I’ve felt a great lightness after these times of sharing and I feel buoyed even days afterwards. Sometimes I’ve felt a great heaviness as I talk over a difficult topic and I realize I need to give that issue more attention. I believe this is the work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual direction. The director usually has not directed me in any specific way; it is the Holy Spirit leading me. When I’ve taken on the role of director, I’ve sometimes been nervous. But I relax as I take in the directee’s honestness and vulnerability and I do my best to pay attention and listen well.

There are twelve of us in the spiritual direction training program and each person brings their own unique personality and strengths to their role as director. We are a diverse group of different ages, genders, interests and faith experiences and it gives me some relief to know we don’t have to fit a certain mold. In my case, I see a lot of overlap between writing/creative work and spiritual direction. A few months ago I took a class on how to interview people. The teacher told us to look for the “gold tape,” or that part of the interview that has the most energy, and “cut” for that. In spiritual direction we are also taught to “pan for gold,” to identify those places in the conversation that glimmer and go deeper in those areas. Those nuggets will often be things that the directee wants to savor—or they may be things for which the directee feels some resistance. Both of these experiences, savoring and resisting, are things we don’t generally take time to note in a “normal” conversation. We often rush through our everyday conversations in a great hurry without much contemplation.

When I visited Walden Pond I was surprised to learn that Thoreau wasn’t in complete isolation in his cabin for two years. He often entertained visitors and walked into town every day or two. If even Thoreau needed companions on his journey, then we all must need it! There is something powerful about verbalizing thought that gives it more weight. And then too, we often discover our true feelings only through sharing our thoughts with an attentive listener. In this way, spiritual direction is a gift I’ve been given and it’s a gift I want to give others. As Thoreau said, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

When brothers become good friends

My son and I surveyed the stacks of clean clothes on his bed. Did he have everything he needed for his second year in college? And what about his guitar propped against the wall? Should he bring that along too? We bantered back and forth about packing details and I tried to imagine what it was going to be like for my son to move into his first apartment off campus this year.

Then Miguel suddenly turned to me with a bigger question. “When can TJ come visit me?,” he said, referring to his 16-year-old brother. “I don’t want to wait until his spring break or anything. That’s too far.”

This wasn’t a question I was fully expecting. But I was thrilled to know that Miguel wanted to spend time with TJ. It makes sense. This past summer my boys bonded in a way they never have before. It wasn’t something I planned or anticipated.

“I challenge you to a game to 21.” It’s one of the more frequent statements I heard this summer. Thus would start a long night of ping-pong games that would easily last until 2 or 3 am. I made sure to close my window before going to sleep so the tap tap of the balls of the balls didn’t wake me up. And this would be after a day of playing online games and perfecting various grilled cheese sandwich recipes for lunch.

It wasn’t always this way. Although my kids did a lot together when they were little, they developed different interests as they got older. Miguel likes cooking, exploring new places and golf. TJ is a gamer with a cohort of online friends across the country. By the time Miguel got to high school and TJ was in middle school, they rarely did activities together. It’s not that they didn’t get along; they just lived in separate worlds much of the time. I was sad they didn’t do more together.

All of that changed this summer. In June we took a family trip to Guatemala and the last hotel we stayed at had a ping-pong table. The boys enjoyed seeing the sights –ancient Mayan pyramids and beautiful jungles–but what they really liked was the ping-pong every night at the hotel. The day after we got back from our trip, they drove over to grandma and grandpa’s house, loaded up their old table in a friend’s van, and set it up on our patio.

“Isn’t it great we’re so evenly matched,” TJ said to me after a few weeks of playing.

“The only problem is that our friends can’t keep up,” Miguel said.

In hindsight, I now realize my boys’ relationship didn’t change overnight. It began to shift last year, when Miguel was away for his freshman year in New York. The boys spoke frequently on Facetime, mostly talking about the latest music and videos, which had always been Miguel’s domain. Then Miguel began to take an interest in TJ’s online gaming world and joined his chat forum, where he got to know TJ’s friends.

For spring break TJ and I visited New York and the boys appreciated each others’ special qualities.

“TJ is so funny. He made all my friends laugh,” Miguel reported after TJ had spent the night in his dorm room.

The next day we were walking down Fifth Avenue and I commented that it could be fun to take a double-decker tour bus around the city.

“We don’t need to do that,” TJ said. “Miguel is an expert New York City guide.”

Those moments made my heart swell. I relished the fact that my boys saw the positive sides of one another.

Ironically, if it had been up to me, I may have quashed my boys’ bonding this summer. Early on I was worried they both had too much unstructured time and several times I suggested they both do more “productive” activities. At one point I asked them if they had any goals.

“No, I don’t have any goals,” said Miguel. “I just want to spend time with friends and TJ. I’ll get an internship next summer.”

“I agree,” said TJ.

I didn’t give up so easily though. I schemed with my husband about how he could hire them to do some office work at his accounting firm. This kept them busy for a week or two but then they finished the projects and it was back to hanging out at home. (Miguel did have a catering job, but it was mostly on weekends.)

Fortunately I decided to back off and their relationship deepened even more. At midnight one night between ping-pong games, Miguel invited TJ on a road trip with a friend. The plan was to leave at 6 am the next morning and drive to a national park five hours away. Uncharacteristically, TJ readily agreed, leaving his computer behind for several days. They camped, tried mountain biking for the first time and floated in inner tubes down a river. After years of planning family vacations together, I was glad to see the boys could execute a wonderful vacation by themselves.

I’m not sure where my boys’ relationship will go next. They have so much to face still in life—college, relationships, careers. If they are like my brother and I, they will bond just as much or more over the low points than the high points. I’m just glad they have reached a solid point of friendship that has blossomed despite the distance and their differences. It gives me solace to know they are taking a genuine interest in one another and can support each other in the years ahead.

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.