Saturday, August 30, 2008

Warning? What warning???

Yup, that's a sign up in the sanctuary of the church I attend. In the middle of the main aisle - by "middle" I mean that there is as much space behind this sign as you see in front of it.

I understand why that warning is there: there is almost always some kind of maintenance going on there. Painting. Bulbs being replaced. Cleaning. As you can see, it's a massive space with a lot of technical stuff on the platform. No one wants to get hurt. And the church doesn't want to get sued if someone goes sprinting down the aisle, leaps onto the platform, and then falls to his or her death.

Seriously, that sign is there. In the sanctuary.
Warning trespassers to stay behind the ropes.

Who me? You mean that sign refers to me? Ha, ha.
I stroll past that sign and approach the stage.
Fearless. Undaunted. Unimpressed. Unintimidated.

I climb those stairs, approach the lectern on the right (in the photo above), and lay one of the pew Bibles before me. I gingerly place my camera there and take a quick photo.

And I shudder as I think of it:
I will stand in that pulpit at approximately 10:15 tomorrow morning next to
Jorge Prado, the pastor of the Spanish congregation of our church,
and I will translate the main Sunday morning sermon for him
from Spanish into English.
In front of as many as 3,000 people.
That's if they all show up... which they probably will not since it's Labor Day weekend.

In any case, in a church where women approach the microphone only to sing,
I will stand with a mike strapped to my head and
speak, read, pray, and show them what women can do in the pulpit.

I'd better make the most of that moment because I am convinced that it is the first and last time a woman will be allowed to stand there on that auspicious platform and speak truth.

I'd better make the most of that moment because I am convinced that,
in a country where a woman may very well become the next vice president
and, if something should happen to the commander in chief,
she could indeed be sworn in as the President of these United States of America,
my time at a church that allows women to approach the microphone only to sing is getting shorter.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Confessions on a Thankful Thursday

A confessional at the main cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua.

Tonight I have several confessions to make.
I confess that I am thankful for the journey I took to Nicaragua.
I am thankful for the ways in which that trip has tripped me up and shaken me to the core.
I am thankful for the many friends that have carried me through this time of upheaval,
that have listened to and read my stories,
and have encouraged me to stay the course of spiritual and emotional transformation that I am on.

A lush courtyard inside a small museum in Granada, Nicaragua.

Tonight I confess that I am thankful for the rain and the flowers, the grass and the trees.
I am thankful for my eyesight and sense of smell, for the ability to travel and take photos.
I am thankful for the fact that Kristiana went with me on this life-shattering trip
and that we can walk through these challenging days of reentry together.

An island home in Lake Nicaragua.

Just a few short miles from Paradise and Xiloa in Nicaragua was this beautiful island paradise.
Actually, there are several islands in the lake that are owned by Nicaraguan millionaires: the owners of the national coffee company, the largest rum company and the largest beer manufacturer in the country.
The part of the house visible in this photo is just a corner of what appeared to be an enormous mansion.
It is a spectacular home that I would love to see the inside of and swim outside of.
And so would Charlie and Paisy and all the other hungry children we met. Just for a few minutes. Just for one meal of their leftovers. Just one.

I confess that there are many times each day when I look at my own house, when I open the refrigerator or the pantry, and wonder how I can continue to live this well when so many have so little. I confess that I berate myself for my frivolous spending. I confess that I wish I didn't know as much as I know right now. I confess that living on an island with the shades closed and the dock secured is appealing; perhaps it is better to not see the needs or feel the pain. Perhaps...

The monkey in this picture had just crossed my lap. Literally put its feet on my thighs in order to cross the boat.

It isn't the monkey on my back; it's the monkey on my lap that I am grateful for tonight.
Nothing hidden or ignored, it's obvious that this trip isn't going to be forgotten or dismissed anytime soon.
Tonight I am grateful for the monkey that crossed my lap, for the children that crawled into my arms, for the bus rides from one village to another, for the heat and humidity and ants and lizards that kept me ever mindful of my presence in a central american nation, for the tears that flowed down my face, and for the cracks that have split my heart into so many pieces.

PS. At the moment, I confess that I am enormously thankful for the beauty of all the people ascending and descending the platform at the Democratic National Convention. Their stories, their sorrows, their hopes, and their dreams for a new direction that this nation can move in. Even Dr. King himself couldn't have imagined that 45 years after his "I have a dream" speech an African-American man would be accepting the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America. No matter which way you vote, no matter what you think of him or his political positions, this is an historic night. Earlier this evening, my brother said that he has been watching this entire convention with tears in his eyes; he is saddened by the fact that our father is not here to witness this momentous event. I suspect that Dad knows what is going on in Denver. And with us, he is applauding Barack Obama's ascent onto that platform tonight and (hopefully) into the highest office of the land in a few months hence.

Let there be hope!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A humid night in August

I sat outside this evening at a nearby coffee place.
Reading, journaling, writing sideways in my journal.
Adding color and images and words.
Thinking sideways thoughts.
On an emotional roller-coaster.

It was so humid that the ink on the pages of my journal spread, oozed,
and was absorbed into the paper in a strange way.
The effect of humidity. The effect of water in the air.

Eight and a half inches of rain fell here in the past 36 hours.
The creek nearest to our house flowed with force we have never seen before.
We walked (and Daniel biked) down the hill and looked over at it.
Rushing. Roiling. Rapids.

We wondered aloud: "Where was it all going? Where did it come from?"
Thank God it's here.
We sure do need it.

I am trying so hard to reconnect with my normal life here in Charlotte.
To pick up where I left off and reclaim my normal place in this life I live.
To stop focusing on what I saw and felt and lived in Nicaragua.
But I cannot forget any of it.
The photos and journal entries linger near.
I run into people who went on the trip, and we reminisce.
I run into people who knew about the trip, and they ask questions.

Did you enjoy the trip?
Was it fun?
One woman said, "Can you tell me in one paragraph about your trip?"

Yes and no.
Yes and no.
Absolutely not.

As I ponder the rain that has fallen and the humidity that lingers,
the rising streams, and the warped pages of my journal,
I cannot help but see myself in all those images.

The rain that has fallen on my soul, bringing relief for the emotional drought I've been suffering.
Sure, life was green and abundant in so many ways.
But beneath it all, cracked soil. Dryness. Thirst. A longing for something more.

Then the rain fell in a deluge. Soaking the earthen flooring of my soul.
And now that water rolls and bubbles, surging and rising.
It ebbs and flows, crashes against the shore of my life
and the pilings of the nice, neat existence that had seemed so secure.

I want to hide inside for safety, not risking loss or damage or dis-ease.
And I also want to stand under the hardest downpour to be refreshed and cleansed, made new.

Where did all of this humidity and confusion come from? I have no idea.
Where is it going? I don't know that either.
This one thing I do know: I am going to stay on this roller coaster of a life,
or whatever this is,
until it ends.

My prayer tonight is this: "Lord, please let the neat, easy pages of my life remain warped by this experience forever."

In the meantime, I will try to enjoy this beautiful city with its parks and walkways.
I will wander its streets with the two young people that have been lent to me to love and teach and take care of for a few years.
And as I reflect on this humid night, I will remember several humid nights in August that I spent in a place that changed me forever.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Letter to Nicaragua

After reading the sorrow-full, soul-full words of my dearly loved friend, Jen Lemen, I want to write a letter to Nicaragua.
To Xiloa and Paradise and Masaya.
To Charlie and Paisy, to the mothers and their babies,
to the school teachers from the two one-room schools whose stories I listened to with tears flowing,
to the unemployed adults, the hopeful teenagers, and the countless children.

I want to tell them all that I dream of on their behalf.

I want to tell them how much I wish I could be there even now.
I want to assure them that they are never far from my thoughts.

I want them to know that my silence is simply due to physical distance.
My spirit walks with them and holds them all in my arms.
I want them to understand that I cannot,
I truly cannot think about them without crying.

And I want them to know that I love them.

But when I sit down to write the letter, I realize that I don't know their names.

I realize that I don't have addresses for them;
most of them don't have addresses.

So I type these words.
I write them in my journal.
They are etched in my heart, in my soul, in the tracks of my tears.

Dear ____________,
I miss you.
I love you.
I wish I could see you again.

Be well.
Peace, Gail

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When the political become personal

Way back in the last century while I was still a naive and gullible undergrad at Williams College, I studied Political Science. Specifically the politics of Nicaragua and the politics of Spain. My senior thesis was a comparison of the two political systems. Don't ask me what the outcome of the paper was as I don't remember, but I realize now how little I knew then.

I had a Poli Sci professor from Argentina, Carlos Egan, whose passion was Latin American politics - and North American coeds, but that's a-whole-nother story. Anyway, he got us all interested in and excited about Nicaraguan politics in the early and mid 1980's. Right around the same time the the Iran-Contra Fiasco was making headline news. He wagged his finger at American politicians and their militaristic tendencies, and we all ate it up.

Some of my classmates went to Nicaragua to see the Sandinista Revolution first-hand, but I couldn't. My parents refused to let me go there; if I wanted to study Spanish, it would have to be in Spain. So off I went to Madrid, fell in love with the country and a certain young Spaniard - but that too is a-whole-nother story.

Anyway, Carlos teamed up with the athletic department at Williams, and they invited the Nicaraguan national basketball team to come to Williams for a tournament during the fall of one of my years at Williams. They weren't a very competitive team, but they opened our eyes to the real-life situation in that Central American nation. The coach of the team went home with me for Thanksgiving that year. He had never been to a large city like Brooklyn, New York, so he spent hours each day walking around our neighborhood in awe of it all.

Two or three days before Thanksgiving, as we were beginning the long hard preparatory march to the most gluttonous feast of the year, he opened the fridge and peered in. It was on one of those days when we just wanted to dump all the leftovers to make room for the turkey, veggies, and all the other holiday fixings. He stood there looking at what we were more than willing to throw away and said, "I have never seen this much food in one place in all my life." And he was the coach of the Nicaraguan National Basketball Team.

That was the first time that all the politics I'd been studying at Williams came home to where I lived in Brooklyn.

Going to Nicaragua two and a half weeks ago had the same effect.

Twenty-five years after begging my parents to let me go, I was finally able to take the trip to Nicaragua. To hear the stories of the Sandinistas from the people who lived through them. Truthfully, most of the people I met were too young to have fought the war between the revolutionaries and the US-backed Contras. But their fathers and grandfathers fought. Their mothers and grandmothers fought too. And nowadays, while most Americans know nothing about that war and precious few care about Nicaragua at all, the fallout from the political decisions made by a secretive and powerful few Americans nearly 30 years ago is landing hard on the heads of those beautiful children we met in that beautiful country.

Paradise, the poorer of the two desperately poor communities we visited, is inhabited by Contra fighters and their children and grandchildren. They fought a war financed by this country. They lost that war. The American funding stopped flowing. The winners of the war, the Sandinistas, felt no obligation to take care of Nicaraguans who had fought against them. So for all these years, Charlie and Paisy's families have squatted on land that they were promised as payment for their efforts. They squat and wait, hoping for electricity, for running water, for job opportunities, and for general acceptance at home and in the international community. Someday.

So I stood there in Paradise, thinking about Carlos and Poli Sci 104, my introduction to international relations. I thought about Gloria and Nicole, the Nicaraguan dance teacher and her daughter, who came to Williams while I was an undergrad. Little baby Nicole, who I held in my arms one night in February of 1987 while her mother directed and performed in a dance show in Lasell Gymnasium in Williamstown. Little Nicole whose presence in my arms caught the eye of a certain young man named Steve - who said that he watched me hold and care for that baby that night. Who said that watching me love that baby made him ponder the possibility of loving me.

Years later, Carlos died in a plane crash as he returned from Nicaragua where he had proposed to Gloria; she had said "yes."

This handsome young man was the scorekeeper for the volleyball games we played. Perched high on that pole, he felt quite powerful. And undoubtedly pretty alone. Kinda like his antecedents who fought for the Contras.

So I stood there in Paradise, thinking about Carlos and Poli Sci 404 my senior seminar, thinking about Gloria and Nicole (wondering where they were at that moment), thinking about and watching my own daughter whose middle name is the same as the little baby who attracted her father to me, thinking about how the political can become so painfully and despairingly personal. And I wept.

I wept over the death of Carlos and the family he'd hoped to have with Gloria and Nicole.
I wept over the deaths of all the Contra fighters and Sandinistas years ago.
I wept because the outcome of that war affects them at every level of their existence, but seems to have no effect on ours.

Taking pinatas to hungry children. Fun for a moment.
But that candy does not fill their empty stomachs for long.

I wept over the ongoing conflicts that this nation is involved in around the world.
I wept over how little we know of what those conflicts will do to future generations - and current ones.
I wept over the countless enclaves like Paradise that have sprouted up and will continue to spring up because of the hopelessness and homelessness, poverty and sorrow that war always gives rise to.

And I wept because the political is always personal.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where am I - really?

Two weeks ago right now, at 3:05 pm, we were at the Atlanta airport awaiting our flight to Managua.

One week ago right now, at 3:05 pm, we were at the Atlanta airport awaiting our flight back to Charlotte.

My spirit, my soul, lingers somewhere between here and there.

On a runway. In a pueblo. At an airport Starbucks stand.

Crammed in my seat with all my books and pens, my journal and my camera.

Standing in a open field. Or sitting next to a rock-strewn playground.

Following an endless stream of children to a church - where we would distribute 120 meal packs in a community of more than 150 families, my sorrowful tears for our inadequacy already beginning to flow.

Last March, I found THE poem that would address the way I feel now.
Thank you, Nikki Hardin, publisher of Skirt magazine.

flying home, starting over,
having soul lag, waiting for it
to catch up with my body, the
dislocation of being Here, There
Somewhere Nowhere, of being
between heaven and earth, of
flying and landing and waiting
and taking off and going in
circles, when every new wait-
ing room is filled with middle
of the night regrets and yester-
day's news and strangers and
you're a stranger too, flying
so far you break the barrier of
your own fear, flying so high
no one can reach you, flying
home and learning to kiss the
ground I step on every day.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Ones That Got Away

So here they are - Kristiana's girl is named Paisy, and my boy, who is learning English, refers to himself as "Charlie" - the ones that chose Kristiana and me as the recipients of their smiles, their love, their handholding, and, in one case, their prayer.

Yes, my dearly beloved Carlos prayed for me. I met him on Wednesday afternoon. We walked and talked together for about an hour. Then when I saw him again on Thursday, he said he had prayed for me the previous night, that God would bring me back to him safely. Again, how could I not fall madly in love with this child?

On the day that our group split up into six groups, five of which went around giving out vouchers for meal packs, Charlie walked with my group. When we crossed barbed wire property lines, he lifted them up so I could go under. When we walked quietly from house to house, he held my hand in silence. Whenever I looked down at him, he smiled at me with a love that emanated from his soul. But at the end of the day, his family had not received a voucher. He didn't complain but rather explained that he understood that there weren't enough for everyone. I apologized profusely for the oversight, gave him a warm and tearful hug, and also a few dollars so that his family could buy food for themselves. His gratitude overwhelmed me.

As he walked away from me for the final time last Thursday afternoon (Do you see his red shirt off in the distance?), I wept openly. A lot like I am doing now as I type this. I cannot think about that boy without crying.
Why me, I wonder? Why did he choose me?
(And why didn't I let someone take a picture of me with him???)

Kristiana told me that she felt a little odd at times when she was with Paisy because, unlike many of the other Nicaraguan children that crowded around our group, she didn't talk much. She wasn't constantly clamoring for an interpreter to help her ask Kristiana a question. She just walked with her, holding her hand, looking up at her every now and then, but mostly just being contented with the quiet love that my daughter so freely gives.

When Kristiana explained her discomfort to me, I laughed and said, "You two are perfect for each other. Not much to say, just a lot of love to give." I squatted down and spoke to dear Paisy in Spanish: "Paisy, this is my daughter you are walking with. Like you, she doesn't talk much, so you two are perfect for each other. You can spend all day together, doing crafts, playing games, just being together, and you don't have to say anything." Sweet, beautiful Paisy looked up at Kristiana, smiled broadly, and kept a tight grip on her hand.

When we returned home last Saturday and shared these stories with Steve, my dearly beloved husband, his first question was, "Why didn't you bring them back with you?" I wish we could have. Then again, they are with us in our hearts and will always be. And hopefully, someday, somehow we can get back to Nicaragua, find Paradise, and be reunited with Paisy and Charlie, the ones that let us get away.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Precious Ones!

Last Monday, in a tiny pueblo called Xiloa (Hee-low-ah), I sat on a rock wall and watched a group of kids play frisbee and other games.

I was not alone as I sat. These amazingly friendly and funny women and the son of one of them sat with to me. His name is Jordi; his mother is the woman in the white shirt. During the course of our conversation, she told me that the next day, Tuesday, was his 2nd birthday. I was overjoyed; what mother doesn't celebrate the first years of every child's life? The sad news was that, as happy as she was that he was strong and happy and about to enter his third year of life, she had nothing to give him as a gift.

"That is simply unacceptable," I told her. I promised her that I would bring something for him the next day. When we went back to our mission compound that night, I put together a gift bag for little Jordi. One of my roommates had brought a suitcase full of toys and goodies to give away, so I picked a blue Nerf football, a dinosaur toy, a car, and another cosmetic pack for the little fellow. I threw in some lollipops, and a few treats for his mother as well.

When we arrived in Xiloa the following morning, I saw him and his mother immediately. This is the little face that greeted me when I got down on my knees and wished him a happy birthday. He didn't let go of his toy car or football for the remainder of that day. The morning after that, he pointed me out to his father - with the car still clutched tightly in his tiny hand.

In gratitude, his mother wrote me a note thanking me for my tenderness and love for them and promising me that, no matter where I went, they would love me and think of me with affection. Do I even have to say that her note made me cry?!? We never formally introduced ourselves - I found out her name from the letter, but she doesn't know mine. She referred to me only as "mi amiga" or "my friend" in her note - but we are sisters and friends for life.

Two days later in the ill-named pueblo of Paradise, I took this little boy into my arms so that his mother could attend an adult meeting while the children sat and watched us gringos sing. Most of the time he had a lollipop in his mouth, but when he was done with it, I was able to capture this image. It was a little tough to take a photo of him while I held him, but here he is.

The next afternoon, as we were packing up and saying our good-byes, his mother, the woman in the red shirt, told me that he would turn two on Sunday - three days later. Once again, I was overjoyed for her, but sorrowful that I could neither be there with them on his special day, nor did I have time to gather gifts for him. I promised them that I would look at the photos that I had taken of them on Sunday and that I would pray for them as they celebrated his birthday. I tearfully kept both of those promises.

Happy Birthday, dear little precious boys. Your special days are now on my birthday calendar ("Xiloa boy" on August 5th and "Paradise boy" on August 10th), and I will pray for you every year when those days come around.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Early Days

We arrived in Managua last Saturday night around 7:30 pm. We were greeted by a bank advertisement: Welcome to Nicaragua.

We were picked up at the airport by our two main hosts, Guillermo and Carlos, who would serve as leaders, translators, tour guides, go-betweens, and otherwise made themselves a part of our Calvary Traveling Circus. And we definitely felt like a circus at times. In any case, we waited nearly an hour to get through customs, then rode 45 minutes in the Nicaraguan darkness to our beautiful Chosen Children Ministries "mission house." Truly it was a beautiful facility built to house visiting groups. The next two photos are of the compound.

This is the building we slept in. Rooms with at least four sets of bunk beds and either one or two bathrooms in each room. No hot water, but we were grateful for lukewarm showers after long, hot, sweaty days in the pueblos where we worked.

On the right side of this picture is the building where we had our meals, and in the distance is the covered space where we had our team meetings each night.

Nearly all of our movement around Nicaragua was on a school bus. The views were fabulous; in nearly every direction, we saw steaming, smoking volcanoes, mountains, lakes, coconut or mango trees, farms. Lush, green countryside. With lush, green, countryside, farm smells! Oh, the smells. But I kept telling myself: "Gail, you are in Nicaragua. Be here now. Be all the way here."

And I reminded myself of the reason we went. To see, to hold, to love, to teach, to play games with, and to bring hope to these children and their families. How do you not fall in love with these little people??? We were in that one-room schoolhouse with all those children one week ago today. It feels like it has been a month already.

This precious child is Sheila, pronounced Shay-lah. I held her for a while on each of the three days we visited her pueblo so that her mother could make a craft, talk to others in the group, or just get a break. And at the end of the days we spent with her, I put together a little package for her: diaper wipes, baby shampoo, toys, baby clothes. I also filled a bag with cosmetics for her mother. Small things that made a big difference to them.

How is it possible for me to miss them as much as I do?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

I left my heart in Paradise...

Home safe.
Dozens of stories.
Buckets of tears.
Hundreds of photos.

A little boy and a little girl that Kristiana and I wanted to adopt.
Will write about them later and post their photos.
(Neither of them appear in any of these photos.)
Off to journal. To cry a little more. And then to bed.

Yes, we made it home safe and sound.
But I left my heart in Paradise - which is the name of the most poverty-stricken place I have ever been.
And also the place with some of the most beautiful children I have ever seen.

Too many superlatives, I know.
Yet each is dreadfully inadequate.

Thank you all for your support, your emails, and your prayer.
I felt them all. Buoyed. Strengthened. Protected.
All is well.

And so horribly, heart-wrenchingly awfully wrong.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Nicaragua, Here We Come...

Bags packed. Journal prepared. Camera battery charged.
Malaria pills begun. Pepto-bismol at the ready.
Hair braided and tucked up and away.
Fabulous final dinner soon to be underway.
We are ready to go.

A candle to be relit.
A prayer to be lifted this night before I tuck myself into
my comfy bed for the last time... for seven nights, anyway.

A Four-Fold Franciscan Blessing

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

And the blessing of God, the Supreme Majesty and our Creator, Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Savior, and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore.

(And also with us.)