Say hello to Doris, the pet turtle at the Hogar. He or she (Doris’s gender is a perennial mystery. All zoologists out there—that’s you, Grandpa Schneider— please offer clues on how to answer this burning question. For now, I’ll refer to it as “she” because Doris seems to me a name for a lady. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself wrong on this account. But I digress.) Doris appears out of the blue as I walk through the grass. She is, by all rights, just minding her own business until some clunking homo sapien tromps past her perch, at which point she retracts her head with a hiss akin to air leaking out of a deflated bike tire. Said homo sapien, unaccustomed to her protestations, apologizes for the intrusion but Doris isn’t having it. And she certainly isn’t about to pose for pictures. Her head is firmly tucked within her shell, whose posterior is missing three panels from an unfortunate run in with a fire. To the great relief of the girls, she was rescued and clearly has lived to tell the tale.
Leaving Doris for a moment (I don’t think she’ll mind), I’ll rewind to September 20, six days ago, when I rolled/lugged/some extra eighty pounds worth of stuff through the airport in Cochabamba, Bolivia where I found four smiling faces and a sign “Bienvenidos a Bolivia Megan” waiting for me. Erin, the current SLM (Salesian Lay Missioner), and three of the girls from the Hogar—Salet, Mary Luz, and Maria Belen—relieved me of my bags and a short taxi ride later we bailed out in front of Hogar Maria Auxiliadora, my home for the next twelve months. In the six ensuing days, I’ve started the crash course of life at the Hogar.
(late night games in the cancha)
Within these days, I’ve felt many times the temptation to retract, to pull away from the people and the tasks in front of me. Fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of rejection–they dog us all. And the more I let them get the best of me, the quicker I am to retreat into my shell.
These same fears that dog me, that tempt me to recoil, I suspect are shared by these girls. The Hogar where I live is home to 40 girls who have been orphaned, abandoned, or abused. To see them vital, strong, laughing, playing, caring for each other, and yes, fighting, crying, disobeying, is evidence of the resilience we possess, and of beauty in being present to one another. And I refuse to see these realities of suffering and joy as dichotomies in need of reconciling. As John Doherty wrote: “Where there is love there is always pain. Where there is pain, there can be love.” (A Cricket in My Heart) Let me try to explain, lest you think I’ve developed a penchant for pain.
(Melody and Katerin)
Erin, the rockstar SLM who has been here now for a year and is showing me all the ropes, described it well during one our short afternoon strolls from the convent back to the Hogar. These girls have not had it easy. But the way we care for them, the way we look at them and are present to them is not determined by the hardships they’ve had. These girls are poor, in the sense that they have been deprived of loving and stable parents and family. But so too are the people around us poor—it’s just a little harder to see. I find myself returning to this again and again, this poverty each of us experience. It is the poverty of feeling unwanted, of not being known by the people around us, of living without purpose, of being blind to and fighting tooth and nail against our need to be known and welcomed and loved with all our quirks and especially our failings.
(Belen and Lizeth)
In the six months or so leading up to graduation and then in the months post-graduation as I prepared for my departure, I found it difficult to describe to people what I would be doing, and found it most difficult to receive compliments along the lines of “You’re such a great person” or “I could never do that.”
To the first, “You’re such a great person” I suppose because what I am doing here is only one way of doing the same thing we are all asked to do: to be present to and honest with each other in sharing our lives.
To the second, “I could never do that,” because we’re all meant to be present in different places, to different people, in entirely different circumstances. The Hogar doesn’t need me AND my twenty-some cousins AND my dog AND my dentist. We are needed where we are, and what is necessary is in front of our noses: it is in my grandmother sending birthday greetings, without fail, to every member of my family. It is in Katie carrying her baby boy. It is in David’s patience with another less than pleasant patient in the ER waiting room. It is in the extra fifteen minutes my dad spends with a co-worker. It is in Mel’s meticulous study guides that she will recall during some future physical therapy session. In Michelle accompanying an anxious roommate to a doctor’s appointment. In Steph’s cookies baked for fifteen stressed out college girls. In Rachel’s calm reasoning with her son as he’s pooped his pants, yet again. I could go on.
I see it witnessed to me again and again—the small decisions to choose mercy, and to see the challenges of life as opportunities to realize what a gift it is to be able to love. “Where there is pain, there can be love.”
(Jazmin with Dia Del Estudiantes cake)
So much is sweet here in Bolivia. I can see how living here fills someone up—the generous hugs and kisses from the girls, the mountains which peek from behind the porta negra (the front gate), the smell of cows and dirt which to me will always be home, cool morning breezes, and the small inconveniences which help me remember my own human frailty, and the accompanying strength we are given. It doesn’t escape me that I have chosen these things that for me are a comfort and to others are realities of a physical poverty neither glamorous nor just. But I am not here as a fixer. I’m here for forty girls.
(Jhenny Elizabeth, Alejandra, and Yolanda)
Jarled, one of the youngest girls here at four years old, has developed a recent love of Doris, the fire-tested turtle. Erin describes that about a week ago, Jarled had a sudden epiphany—“Hey, we have a turtle.” Apparently one day Jarled spent about an hour “playing” with Doris—covering her with her blanket, petting her, and trying to feed her, and the next day some forty-five minutes bathing her. It’s a poor metaphor perhaps, but that image sticks with me. Sometimes, the small daily “yes’s” are as simple as sitting with the turtle. Sometimes they’re a bit harder, like convincing five occupied stubborn little girls that they need to wash their dirty clothes before school, or trying not to fly off the handle when the patient in the ER room is cussing you out, or doing the dishes after a long, difficult day because your spouse has had an ostensibly longer, more difficult day.
The big yes is the easy one—the yes to move to Bolivia. The harder yes’s are all these that follow. Specific. Small. Simple. To fight the urge to retreat into the shell. To sit with the turtle.
So indeed, “Hola, Doris.”
In the months to come, I’ll be trying to give you a peek into daily life here, and hopefully will be using this space for the girls to tell you a bit about themselves.