Chau Bolivia

A Goodbye Bolivia, Hello United States Note:

I wrote a different version of this two months ago. It read exactly as it should have: as if it were written by a grieving, anxious, quietly angry person. And as I write this today, it’s true that those parts of me are still voicing themselves, but I seem to have found a peace and clarity in this past month that leaves me less overwhelmed by grief and sadness, and instead dominated by a hope and a trust in what comes next.

Today, I write in thanksgiving that I was given these two-plus years. I know I am grieving because I am leaving behind a beautiful time in my life, because I am leaving family, because I am leaving a chapter that was full to the brim with struggle, tears, and suffering, but all held in the palms of a loving Father who used those things to bring to bear peace and trust within me.

My perspective on life has certainly been shaken up a bit, and some crucial truths have finally truly moved from head to my heart.

Like the fact that my happiness and peace is not determined by ticking off the boxes I’ve convinced myself I must tick. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to figure out any big plans awaiting me. This is it. This is the big plan. I’m living it, right now. It will not suddenly become the plan when I enter my vocation, or land on a career track, or live in a perfectly decorated home. This is it. Now.

My life in Cochabamba is simple. The plumbing rarely functions. I don’t know the last time I had a hot shower. My digestive system may never quite be the same. I’m not in a long term relationship, I have no job lined up, heck I don’t own a couch or pots and pans. But I have been full to the brim every single minute of life here. And the only way I can explain that, given the suffering I’ve lived and seen, is that I’ve known that this is where God has willed me to be.

This truth has finally settled:  Big things take time. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Trust in the slow work of God.” I remember hearing that phrase when I was at orientation with the Salesians, and found myself push back against it. I’d always lived by a timeline, the requisite milestones easily measured, and I sincerely believed that life just might end if I didn’t nail down every achievement I imagined for my future. Now as I look out into the unknown future, I feel less as if I’m about to fall off a cliff, and more like I’m between Platforms 9 and 10, running full force at what appears to be a brick wall because I have an irrational trust that it’s not a wall but a door, with more miraculous-ness awaiting me on the other side.

I’ve come to accept that struggling, inching ones way along, feeling oneself fighting against pride and plans and expectations, isn’t such a bad thing. As Brother Isaiah sings: “Every good thing is born of a struggle.” My fellow missioner and friend Sarah Jane quipped: the phrase is not “Every good thing is born of my perfectly executed plans”, or  “Every good thing is born of my color coded to-do list.” I realized a couple months back as I started to “plan” my time for back home, that my planning had turned into an attempt to manage things to the nth degree in the hope that if I orchestrated everything perfectly, it would mitigate the pain of leaving here. Which just ain’t how it works!   

It’s been a blessed two years, and yet, I trust that what comes next will be just as beautiful, even if it will feel a bit like wandering through the desert in search of the promised land. And when I have left the desert, I will look back fondly on that time, knowing it was necessary and willed by my loving Father.

I ask for your prayers for the girls and the sisters. I have every confidence that He will be taking care of them, as He always has.

I ask for your prayers for my family.

I ask for your prayers for me, especially that I may maintain my peace as I navigate the challenges of the transition ahead.

And I give thanks to God for you all, who have walked beside me in so many ways during the past two plus years.

Que te vaya con Dios,

Megan

 

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*Reflection from 20th of October*

This afternoon sisters were over at church with the girls preparing the decorations for tomorrow’s First Communion.

I was stationed there finishing up the entrance mural, while the girls left in the house pecked away at their ropa and limpieza and verdura so they could go join the little girls watching TV.

And I thought about the peace that has come over me in this past month preparing to leave. I’ve felt oddly calm leaving my responsibilities in other hands, while my own are busy painting and painting away the murals in the playroom and out front.

I ran up to the house this afternoon a few times, in search of sweets. And remembered again in the middle of it all why it will be so hard to leave–because here, I have found another family. I don’t know when it happened, but I know well that I am more than just a “volunteer” here. I have found friendship in the sisters, loving, trusting relationships with the girls. Last night as I picked up Cristabel, a new little one, I realized a deepening affection I had for her too. And there was that moment yesterday after dinner, as Roxana looked up with big eyes, “Lave me plato, puedo ver tele?” (I washed my plate, can I go watch TV?) And then her excited smile, zipping off like a cartoon figure, squealing with delight to go watch whatever those little ones were into.

It still catches me by surprise, again and again, how very much I am in love with this place, with my family here, with these girls.

That peace, I know it comes from the simple things, the moments when I witness the girls taking care of so much, so excited to help around the house. In competition to go ring the bell, to help me serve dinner, to supervise the little ones’ limpiezas, help with the other girls’ homework, get their younger counterparts showered up. Even 6 year old Jharlet is there tucking 4 year old Cristabel into bed.

Last night Hermana Leti ran in with a big bag of anticucho, what a gran invitacion that was. And tonight, returning from church decorating, Luli brought back the remainder of a big bottle of CocaCola, which she handed over to me, three little plastic cups perched on top. I don’t know why, but that will always be so delightful to me, the sharing of everything that happens–three cups, surely used by at least ten people.

And I simply felt loved. Because yes, they do love me so well.

The fear, the pain of it, the feeling of my heart being squeezed, has begun to set in. And it all feels impossible, impossible that this could end. But I know it will. I’ll be the same Megan I am today, in the airport back at O’Hare, hugging Dad and lugging my suitcases into the November air.

And I will be oh so very glad for all that has come to pass in-between.

Dios Sabe: Updates from Life at the Hogar

Life is full to the brim here at the Hogar, could it ever be anything else?

In a fast flying few months, Christmas has come and gone, a new school year arrived, we saw sisters from our community leave to new placements while other sisters arrived to our community in Itocta, and we sadly bid farewell to one of sisters from the Hogar but are excited to welcome Hna Filomena to what we endearingly term the “nut house.” A few stories and some pictures to illustrate the fun!

Party Central!

January and February could have been aptly dubbed the months of cake–I lost count at ten. The congregation recently elected a new superior general, Hna Amarilis, who visited us from El Salvador, and whose presence merited the necessary line up of dances and dinner as well as, you guessed it, cake! shared together in the salon as we danced the night away under typical explosion of balloons and decorations. 

Then came a duo of important birthdays, the 5th of February our dear Hogar Momma Hna Leti, and then on 15th our tiniest member, Belen, officially reached her 2nd year. Not to be outdone by the Hna Amarilis’ shindig, we enjoyed pinatas, cakes up the wazoo, another round up of dances, cards and presents from the girls, and a blissful evening with the speaker blasting our favorite numbers, seeing how late we could push the bedtime bell. 

A smattering of other events–sisters’ birthdays, farewells for sisters sent to new placements in Bolivia–guaranteed that the cake count surpassed ten. Of course, no one here is complaining, least of all the kiddos. 

When it Rains it Pours?

February and March brought with it rain, in both the literal and the metaphorical. It’s been pouring buckets here, unfortunately causing major flooding in parts of the city. We shipped off mattresses and blankets from our storage room to families whose houses have been quite literally washed away in the storm–a valuable reminder for myself and the girls to be thankful for a standing house and a bed to sleep in!

But indeed, it has also been a time filled with rainy day sort of happenings. Illnesses spread through the ranks of the girls and the Hogar sisters and myself. I’m thankful to live in the age of modern medicine, for our patient neighborhood-over doctor, and for my own personal medical attache–momma and brother, my pro medical experts who have provided excellent diagnosis and advice via FaceTime. From stomach ulcers, fevers, bronchitis, and pneumonia to usual infected cuts, sores, and bug bites, with their assistance we seem to have weathered the storm. 

In the midst of the flurry of illness, the beginning of the school year, and more, we also encountered some plumbing problems–stopped up drains so stubborn that no quantity of boiling water, antisarro, or wire fishing seemed to do the trick, water pumps officially condemned to the machine junkyard, and pipes broken in just the right spot to cut off water supply (which is no small matter when 40 humans need to wash their clothes, shower, and do their cleaning chores–not to mention the water necessary to cook for them all!) Luckily we were able to pin down the best plumber around, who has graciously trooped around the Hogar for the last week and a half fixing toilets, shower heads, drains, water pumps and pipes and tanks, and some electric work on top of it all. The great relief of functional plumbing of course carried the requisite concern of how we were going to pay for it all. Hna Leti simply instructed that we had to have faith in Divine Providence. And would you know it–just a few days after the repairs were completed family of one of the community’s sisters sent a donation to cover all the plumbing costs and to buy cleaning supplies. Divine Providence indeed! Time and again generous people have stepped forward to assist– providing funds to cover surgeries for the girls, donating mattresses for all 40 of the girls, and bringing us new bookshelves and shelving units for the house. And every time it happens, it’s just as overwhelming. So, yes, perhaps when it rain it does pour. But the small acts of ordinary people scoop up the gathering water and we find ourselves on dry, solid ground. 

Those Bolivian Things 

There’s a grand menagerie of happenings or circumstances that are very “Bolivian,” some of them simply unique to life here at the Hogar. They will I imagine stay with me for the rest of my life and make me laugh as they do now.

For example: Up until three weeks ago, every shower I’d ever taken here was somewhere between freezing and cold. When I went to take a shower, it resembled less a normal, leisurely activity as it did a planned military maneuver. (PSA, given temperatures and humidity levels, one really only needs to shower every 3-4 days). I would hedge my bets that I could sneak in a shower during the relatively warm parts of the day, either Sunday mid-morning when all the kids had left for catechesis and I had a free hour, or on a weekday afternoon when the oldest kids and a couple of the youngest are around the house and I can leave them unsupervised without great risk of fire or loss of limb. Given that those free moments weren’t usurped by some task, one then had to hope that it wasn’t particularly cold outside, making said cold water even more unbearable. And then the actual act of showering itself was a coordinated dance–turn the water on before the water heater (which turned the water from freezing to cool) to avoid shocking oneself on the metal knob, hold ones breath and force oneself under the stream just long enough to get sufficiently wet, hop out of the stream, lather and scrub as quickly as humanly possible, etc. Not a leisurely slow dance, more crazed-hop-dancing. So tonight, as I climbed the stairs to my room I thought, I should probably heat up some water and steam out my congested chest and nose. And then I realized I could actually go take a shower that was HOT, thanks to our magic plumber/electric man. I laughed out loud to myself, shocked by the simplicity of it all. (BTW the girls are also enjoying their hot water, which has been even warmer of late thanks to a streak of sunny days).

Another particularly Bolivian happening is the molle-burning that happens this time of year when the mosquitos become unbearable. Given our house is semi-open-air and that we are in peak mosquito season, the girls solve this in the most entertaining way possible: FIRE. Mosquitos happen to not tolerate smoke, particularly from burned molle, and fall out in masses when exposed. So our resourceful girls gather up molle (think close to eucalyptus) branches from nearby trees, and then set to work getting a fire started with recycled school notes and the driest branches on top of no longer usable for cooking metal cooking trays or in the wheelbarrow. After a good half an hour of this flurry of gathering and fighting over best ways to get the flame going, they’ve got that sucker lit up, and then the real fun starts. They parade into the house with the tray and a good haul of extra molle, and then enter a room, shut all the doors and windows, and smoke the room up to the brim. All the while, the brave occupants of the room refuse to leave, especially if they’re in the middle of dancing or watching a movie, and instead endure the smoke, which I for one, am not capable of doing. Then when they’re sufficiently satisfied with the volume of smoke (usually when they can no longer see more than two feet in front of them), they scurry to gather the molle and the tray and they move to the next room until they’ve smoked out the whole house. There is of course the hilarious scramble by the older girls to remove the rack full of school uniforms from the bedroom, lest they go to school the next day smelling like they’ve spent the evening round a molle camp fire. 

Dios Sabe

The phrase “Dios Sabe” or “God Knows” is one that is repeated often here in the Hogar. It’s not some trite platitude, it’s not some bandaid for the hardships faced. It is something we live, something that steadies us and transforms our chaos. Just this past Holy Week we lived it in a profound way, as one of our girls fell ill and needed emergency surgery. She was smiling and requesting Good Friday fish as I sat with her in the hospital late Thursday night awaiting news from her labs, and smiling even bigger yesterday as she shuffled around the Hogar, assisted by her eager sisters.

New faces arrived at our door late Wednesday night, and by Thursday afternoon the crew was enthusiastically assembling beds to welcome the Hogar’s newest residents.

With the sisters at the helm, we keep celebrating and living. 

We filled our week with biscocho and egg hunting and 5 Am Via Crucis processing through town, and with dancing to bless the Holy Saturday water. With Día de Peatón strolling through town as the sun sets on Easter Sunday. With that great anticipation for music to fill the house again after the silence that follows Good Friday. With the excitement of fresh cheese made from a donation of milk from neighbors. Short on Padres, we filled the wait before masses with song, gathered around the fire or squeezed into pews as the little ones nodded off.

In the midst of constant uncertainty, it could be easy, even understandable, to fall into a state of chronic worry, frustration, and self-preserving guardedness. But the sisters continually instruct the girls to live in a state of openness, joy, generosity, and ultimately, trust in Divine Providence. The oldest girls are now well versed in transmitting that message to the younger ones, admonishing them for taking an extra piece of bread and trying to hide it away, repeating another phrase that echoes in this house, “The moment we start guarding what we have, is the moment that Divine Providence leaves us. The moment we start hiding away and refusing to share, we refuse to trust that God will provide when we most need it.” 

There’s no naivety, no false prosperity gospel underlying this attitude—it’s just simple, pure, time-tested trust that if we use what we need, and give what we don’t need to others, we will always be taken care of. 

This morning as I scroll through social media, I find myself reflecting on the myriad ways that people interpret the Easter message. And it strikes me as sad to see what springs forth from Christ stripped away from his person, as if to expect that the message could bring to bear without the bearer itself. Confounding, that in light of his Resurrection, this life which many would label unjust and nothing more, does not actually speak to the reality of what we live in our home in Itocta, which is not primarily injustice or suffering but a joy, a trust, a family. The girls say, “We are rich as Queens.” I believe them—they have lived through rejection, abuse, abandonment. And yet, they call themselves Queens. Will you call that naive? Will you call that blind, stupid faith? Will you instruct them to live as victims and call for reparations, to put on the mantle of the disenfranchised, when they know, deep in their core, that they are Queens? 

And ultimately, will we look within ourselves to see what we have guarded, what we are afraid to give away, what we are unwilling to place into the hands of Divine Providence? Be it comfort or status, vanity or pride, bitterness or anger, an ideology or point of view. Will we play the last card we wouldn’t lay on the table so that we can look at the cross and at our lives and say with pure, simple, trusting hearts, “We are rich as Queens.”

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Back to Bolivia

I spent a blissful October in the U.S., visiting with more family and friends than I could have wished to! Now it’s back to Bolivia and these 40 crazy kiddos I’m so lucky I get to live with. In lieu of hashing it all out in writing, I’m leaving some pictures here to capture some of the goings-on over the past month.

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Hanging out in the Schneider household enjoying quality company, jam sessions, puppy cuddles, and vittles. 

Returning on Dia de Difuntos (Day of the Dead)

I returned on Day of the Dead, just in time to head to the cemetery with the girls to pray in front of the altars set up by family members. Diligent prayers are rewarded with all sorts of goodies–fruit, breads, handmade candies, sodas, and some avocados if you get lucky.

Confirmations

Three of the girls were confirmed in early November. I was almost reduced to a puddle of tears just looking at them, so grown up and beautiful in their confirmation dresses.

 

End of the School Year!

The girls are officially on summer vacation and enjoying the freedom from classes–they all participated in end of year dances and presentations at school, which inspired a new obsession with human gymnastics.

Pool Day

As a celebration for the end of the school year, we made a big excursion to a public pool–given they only go swimming about once every couple years, they aren’t the strongest swimmers, but they blew me away with their dedication. Despite the cold water and overcast day, they spent nearly the entire day in the pool. I for one was very tired at the end of the day after giving “swimming lessons” which mostly constituted of hauling the girls around the pool. On the trip there in the morning our bus suffered a blown tire and our driver may have overshot a crucial turn by about 10 miles, resulting in the hour sojourn turned into 2. But the girls were all smiles, no complaints, not a single sad face in the bunch.

The Sisters

Sisters, sisters. These women never cease to amaze me, and certainly never fail to make me smile. I get to live a bit of El Salvador (since many of our sisters are El Salvadorians) which means in addition to Bolivian cuisine, I also get tortillas, papusas, (and their sharp wit and humor). They’ve given me a new appreciation for the limits of party decorations–I swear I’ve never seen so many balloons in one dining room before as for one particularly exuberant birthday celebration (unfortunately not pictured here).

We’ve Got an Itty-Bit!

Shortly before I left, we welcomed a new little member to our ranks–18 month Belen–who is (Thank the Lord) a very calm, sweet girl. Laurita, 3 years old, has recovered from her ousting as the youngest and cutest, and all the girls are loving the opportunity to try out their parenting chops with her. Belen loves keys and attempting to open any and all doors, breaking into the pantry and covering herself with corn starch (upper left) or sneaking sugar by the fistful, dancing whenever music comes on, and giving kisses to her 40 big sisters. We’re working on not hiding from strangers, but tough cookie that she is, she’s definitely got her inquisition face down.

Visit from Bolivia’s “Miss Congeniality”

Bolivia’s own “Miss Congeniality” visited the Hogar–the girls performed a number of traditional dances for her, and spent the better part of the evening following her around and marveling at her height. I was happy to no longer be the “freakishly tall one”.

The Usual Shenanigans

Group gymnastics, fancy hair-dos, Daisy–a ginormous stuffed bear–gifted by Hna Leonor to the girls.

Christmas decorations, down time for obligatory selfies, and Sunday afternoon giggles.

More selfies at the Hospital waiting for head x-rays after rough run-ins with the floor, helping friend Allison paint a mural at another Hogar on my free day, beautiful Belen and sunflowers from our garden.

Always time for cuddles and for the inseparable Lourdes and Jenifer to get into “cheek-pinching” matches.

Advent is Upon Us!

The Hogar is decked out in tinsel and Christmas lights, all carefully arranged by the girls. As always, the only constant here is change–good friends Allison and Catherine, Franciscan missioners in the city, are leaving for the U.S. this week after two years here in Cochabamba. They were the veterans and the welcome crew when I arrived here, and have taken care of me with many Monday game nights, memorable music making, homemade food when I most needed it, salsa dancing, and celebrations which brought us extranjeros together.

At the Hogar we also said goodbye to one of the girls who’s been there for 4 years–she is thankfully returning to a healthy, stable home situation, but we do miss her sweet smile and generous hugs.

We’re also down sisters–one of the Hogar sisters, Hna Reina, has been in En Salvador for the big Capitulo, where they recently elected a new Superior. So it’s been Hna Leti and I with the girls since mid-November. Thankfully, things have been relatively calm (as calm as can be:) We’re looking forward to Christmas visitors, and more fun outings over break.

‘Til next time!

 

 

Hopefully

I was home in Rockford, IL when the watershed of sexual scandals broke. In the rare position to actually pass multiple hours scouring the internet for news and commentary, I found myself borderline-obsessed with the sad spectacle, if I can call it that. My poor parents, who probably would have preferred more uplifting dinner conversation, were treated to rundowns of the latest accused, and analysis by yours truly.

You all (my parents included, sorry) have been bombarded with news coverage, and commentary, and outrage, and #MeToo. Perhaps like me, next to the disgust and sadness, there is a sense of relief, even satisfaction, in seeing what we felt lurking right below the surface finally confirmed as hundreds then accumulated thousands of victims make claims of sexual assault and harassment against figures often lauded, admired by the public.

In my time stateside during a visit with one of my high school teachers, I expressed my struggle in finding what to write, or, I suspected, my struggle with giving voice to the experiences that provoked a strong movement within me. The wise woman that she is, this former teacher told me (in so many words) that we have a responsibility to write about the truths that we live. I’ll take her advice.

I know that my reaction to the great unraveling of sexual scandal is not what it would have been a year ago. Yes, people whom I love, family and friends, have been profoundly affected by sexual abuse. But this past year is the first time I lived and passed my every day with young women overwhelmingly affected by sexual abuse, or by home environments and interactions which exposed them to sexual experiences not appropriate for any young person. Please know, I am not by any means trying to manipulate, minimize, or selfishly use their suffering a la “What happened to them is so terrible, but look how it has helped me appreciate the depths of damage it causes.” Sexual misconduct, toward children in particular, is undoubtedly one of the gravest and sickening phenomena that individuals continue to perpetrate. The truth, though, is that seeing the effects first hand has shifted forever the way I regard the evil that this is.

I am no expert on the effects of sexual abuse, or exposure to explicit sexual content, or even on the navigation of natural sexual curiosity without guidance and education from a loving parental figure. But I can tell you this, from living with these girls:

Sex is powerful. Please, let’s stop kidding ourselves. You can’t have it both ways, a mere contractual physical exchange between two people and a deeply personal and intimate expression, which, when violated, provokes the kind of outrage (as it should) that occupies the public’s attention for months on end.

Sex is powerful. We have girls who as young children brought to the Hogar engaged in what could be described as normal play, attempting to make sense of confusing interactions and images they had seen, re-engaging in behaviors of a sexual nature that had garnered them attention and praise in their home environments (often unstable home environments where male figures were transient). These same girls, ten years plus down the road, continue to struggle with these early experiences of a sexual nature. I’ve had countless conversations with our psychologist where she notes that the normal difficulties of navigating puberty and sexual curiosity are heightened for these girls. These are the girls that we are particularly cognizant of when we decide where to place their beds, whether to put them in charge of helping a younger girl with getting ready for day, where they are during the quiet hours of the day to make sure are not alone in a room with another girl. There is no blaming, no shaming, no judgment, nothing but an extra dose of caution on our part as we try to help them. I look at them, beautiful and capable and whip-smart young women, who carry with them the impacts of early encounters which have written themselves into their bodies and minds.

Any one of us can be a part of the problem. Anyone ever taught you that you’ve got a Nazi within you? I’m under the impression from my family and friends working in the education system that you’d probably be fired if you proposed that to a class of 6th graders. But frankly, it’s one of the most useful things you could teach. We’ve all got monsters within us, and if we don’t become familiar with them, given the right circumstances, the monster is the part of us that takes over.

Almost without exception, the girls that I live with are victims of choices made by individuals. Abandonment, violence, abuse. That’s why they live in the Hogar. There is only one girl who is an orphan by death of both parents. I will not discount that many of their parents or abusers were themselves victims in one way or another–brought up in unstable homes, themselves victims of abuse, addicts or alcoholics at a young age, you name it. Following in the example of the girls, I’ve got no interest in continually begrudging what was done or fostering bitterness toward these adults. But that doesn’t mean these girls can erase what came to pass in their lives, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it won’t happen again if not faced on an individual level.

I look at these girls, for whom I feel a sort of protectiveness that is the closest to “maternal instinct” I’ll experience until I birth my own children. My responsibility to them is to love them, educate them, form them, so that they become individuals who will not make the same choices that the people responsible for them made. And though it is perhaps a bit rich of me seeing as I’m a young, relatively green member of the adult world, I would implore any parent, any adult, to take that responsibility seriously. Get to know and own up to your own monsters. Take responsibility for them, for the fact that your porn habit happens to fuel child sex trafficking, or that your “recreational” alcoholism will certainly not lend itself to stable parenting. Stop kidding yourself, letting yourself off the hook. Straighten yourself out for the sake of the young people who will follow in your footsteps, for good or ill. Humility, allowing ourselves to see the truth of who we are, is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s freest cure around. Free because it is neither coerced nor mandated. Free because it requires no check to the government, to a third party, who’ll solve the problem for you and therefore absolve you of personal responsibility in one fell swoop. Free, but not easy.

(For those of who who know me well, I hope this goes without saying, but for those who don’t : What I’ve written above is not flippant, nor an attempt to minimize the difficulty of managing and working through the scars, coping mechanism, habits that all of us accumulate in the process of living. But I firmly believe that the greatest evils we see on a societal level are most sustainably and effectively addressed on an individual level. I observe an underestimation of the effect that our daily, personal decisions have on our fellow humans, and especially on young people. I firmly believe in the prudent limitation of legal intervention in personal decision-making. I have no interest in finger-wagging moralism. My scruples with personal decisions lie in that, to begin with 1) personal decisions carry a heavy weight which cannot be balanced by said finger-wagging moralism, manifested as anything from social-justice-warriorism to religious fundamentalism-pietism and 2) personal decisions carry a heavy weight in who we are to others. We are all victims of life, and on the whole we seem to arrive at the conclusion that we’d prefer to live out our life sentence in hopes that joy and fulfillment will give meaning even to the suffering implicit. Indeed, we’ve all got our fair share of baggage we’re carrying along. Refusing to deal with it is not just our business though.)

We are all part of the solution. I don’t know how many times I’ve been through “Protecting God’s Children” program (training for identification/prevention of child abuse). I vividly remember sitting in an auditorium in high school as we went through the steps to prevent sexual abuse–never be alone with a child, always keep doors open and interact with them in public places and in large groups, etc. And to be honest, I was a bit defensive, thinking “Okay, this is all common sense, and I’m not the one who’s going to abuse children and the ones who are going to certainly aren’t going to listen to these instructions, so why ya telling me?” It wasn’t until my orientation with the Salesians more than a year ago, receiving Safe Spaces training from former SLM Amber Kraft that suddenly everything clicked into place. She laid out how the intent behind following these guidelines is to normalize for children what/when/where child-adult interactions look like, so that when a potential abuser attempts to engage in an abnormal interaction, warning bells will go off in a child’s head. These programs are meant to train adults how to train children what normal behavior looks like so that they can identify behaviors which are dangerous or abnormal.

We are all part of the solution. I live in a Salesian community, which essentially means that our religious congregation and as an extension, our staff, strives to live the charism of St. John Bosco, a 19th century saint who dedicated his life to serving the young. No child should ever be in a situation which leads to them being brought to an Hogar. And unfortunately, many Hogars carry reputations of being as equally unhealthy places to grow up in as many of the home environments from which children are removed. But in the absence of their own family, they are lucky to live in Hogar Maria Auxiliadora. Those aren’t my own words. Those are the girls’ words.

When we encounter situations of older girls interacting sexually inappropriately with younger girls, our girls are met with understanding, and forgiveness, and education, and a path forward.

We teach the girls, from the smallest to the oldest, the importance of their physical autonomy, their control over their own bodies, the beauty of the bodies which are their own.

We constantly reinforce the power of their own voices, their own say. There are forty girls, but each day I try to make sure I individually ask each of them a question just about them, and I listen to their answer. When they tell us about the small details of their days, or something clearly burdensome or important, we make sure they know we believe them, that what they say is important.

And yes, I take all those things that I learned in sexual abuse prevention training and put them into practice.

Whenever possible, I make sure I am not alone with a girl in a room. The girls know that I will never invite them into my own room or volunteer community room, and if they are, it will be in a group with a known purpose–to distribute clothes amongst them, to work on a group activity, etc. Hopefully, if one day someone tries to lure them alone into a private space without pretense or under false pretense, warning bells will go off in their heads. 

On the rare occasions when I have to administer medicine to one of the girls (always one of the little ones) in a part of her body that is private or that I believe she could be uncomfortable with, I always talk with her beforehand, asking her permission, and then also asking if I can bring in an older sister or one of the older girls who takes care of her. On those occasions, I always talk with them about our private parts, which we touch when we’re showering to clean ourselves, or which one of the sisters or volunteers might help us clean, or that a doctor might need to touch if we are sick. The nuances multiply in my explanations–when we go to the doctor, another adult should be there with us. Just because it’s a adult in charge who’s helping us, if we feel uncomfortable we should always say something. We put on mock doctor’s visits to help accustom them to what is normal. Hopefully if one day someone tries to touch them inappropriately under the pretense of medical assistance, warning bells will go off in their heads. 

When they are playing, we teach them to play in places that are visible and not hidden. We stress the importance with the older girls of not isolating the younger girls in one-on-one situations. Hopefully if one day an older person tries to isolate them, warning bells will go off in their heads. 

Above all, we try to teach them to speak. If they see something that makes them uncomfortable, find an adult, and if not another adult, then an older girl and tell them. If someone is touching them or playing with them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, run away, find an adult, and if not another adult, then an older girl and tell them.

Sometimes the opportunities for conversations make themselves glaringly apparent. I try to seize them. To remind them that people who will attempt to hurt them will often seem very nice, they may be regarded as professional, the best at their job. They will be close family or friends. And always, Speak. Speak until someone believes you. Someone will believe you.

As heavy as it can all seem, on a day to day basis, the reality of the impact of the sexual abuses or experiences they have lived are not at the front of my mind. Indeed, it is a part of them just as every experience we live becomes a part of who we are. But they are people–children, yes–with their own voices with which to narrate their stories. In our home in Itocta, they write that story each day, in vibrant color (trust me, vibrant is an understatement). They become part of a family. They are given responsibilities. They aren’t let off the hook. They fight with each other, and make big messes and beautiful memories together. I’ll never know the complexity of the internal lives they lead, even when I catch glimpses of it, even when they invite me into it. They are determined, though, that the stories they write for themselves are their own. They are proud of them. They take them seriously, more seriously than many adults I’d venture to say.

Perhaps we’ll take a page from their book. To write our own stories knowing that those powerful experiences will always be a part of the narrative, but on our own terms. That our stories carry weight–every small, insignificant choice in the face of suffering making us into the kind of people who will be strong enough to keep at bay the monster within, or so weak as to let it take over without our knowing. To write stories filled with moments where we wrote another’s good along with them, teaching them their power over their own body, the power of their own voice.

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“The one joy in the world is to begin. It is beautiful to live because living is beginning, always, in every instant.” -Pavese

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Jazmin, Fabi, Lizeth, Andrea, Ana Maria, and Maria Belen dodging water balloons mid Carnaval celebration at school

At times it seems that so much has passed that there is no way to recollect it all, and I find myself frightened to put pen to paper for fear that I will realize how much has come to pass, without adequate words to express the half of it.

 

It’s six months into living tucked away here in this valley, in a town few trufi drivers know of, (save the 104, the lone wolf public transport van that trucks faithfully along our meandering, nameless street) and even fewer taxi drivers, which always leads to a long and confusing explanation about this few kilometer long stretch called Itocta.

 

And yet, it is here, in a place that few know exists by this name, Itocta, that I have returned to many parts of me the world has stripped away or that I myself have chipped away over the course of twenty-three years. It certainly isn’t a matter of finding answers—without a doubt, I will return with an abundance of questions, and perhaps a few answers. And it isn’t about finally straightening that crooked line—on the contrary, my daily life is scrawled in jagged zigzags as I scramble between thirty something different voices, each with its own will and desires.

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Jazmin, a very proud two teeth lighter. Older sister Sandra was the brave yanker-outer.

Instead, written in these six months is something that has seeped into me like returning home, to my origins, to the forever possibility of a new moment.

 

My life here is a messy one. Primary school teachers probably can commiserate with that feeling at the end of the day when you find your skin and clothes covered with an abundance of different substances, and you do your very best not to think about what all that sticky stuff actually is. But these are the realities of this kind of living: cleaning up spurting bloody noses and peed on sheets and helping kids without the best aim collect urine and feces samples and bathing and hydrogen-peroxiding scrapes and bumps and bruises multiplying, sore ribs from the newest stealth poking game a few girls find immensely entertaining, cracked hands and dirty fingernails, a collection of cuts from the peeling and cutting that occupies a day in the kitchen, lipstick smeared on my cheeks and forehead born of budding makeup artists and models-in-training. At the end of a day, marked on my clothes and skin, is the proof of living a closeness to people.

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Laurita, always ready with a hug

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Lizbeth, Jazmin, Jazmin and Sandra: pyros in training

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Zulma and Kami hard at work washing clothes, Belen cheesing

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Zulma being Zulma

We—forty-some people that is (plus Doris the turtle and the stray cat that despite being chucked out onto the street multiple times hasn’t yet gotten the message that he’s not welcome here)—live within the four walls of Hogar Maria Auxiliadora. We share most things, though myself and the other volunteers and sisters enjoy the luxury of having our own rooms, and our own supply of toilet paper. All the girls bunk in two different rooms roughly divided by age—above or under twelve years old. We all wash our clothes and hang em out on the line for everyone to see. When someone wets the bed, or gets sick, or is in trouble, or has her period, everyone knows. Everyone.

 

It’s a confusing reality to live, this forced openness, the closeness, the startling lack of privacy, especially as someone who is only a visiting member of this family.

 

I remember acutely the cautious easing into the Hogar in my first months. Being painfully aware of how difficult it must be for these girls to have to open their lives up to another new person who they know nothing about, and yet also carrying the responsibility of carrying out a number of jobs which are inherently intrusive—waking the girls up, ushering rambunctious kiddos into and out of the showers, picking out their lice, serving food, handing out cleaning supplies and toilet paper and toothpaste, cataloguing the clothes hung out on the line by the letters that are painted onto the hems to make sure that our serial avoiders of washing haven’t stashed their dirty clothes into the back of their casillero or under their pillows or in the bushes. Everything felt slow—words in Spanish dropping from my tongue lead-like, the careful observation of every new affection or joke each girl gave permission to share, the learning who they were as I cautiously tapped the feet of the older girls to wake them at the 6:30 hour.

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Myself amused by Anita, Anita amused by my early attempts at speaking Spanish

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Kami and Lourdes, triumphantly arriving at our afternoon stroll destination

I know very little about the lives of the girls before they arrived at the Hogar, ostensibly very little about who they were before the day I arrived. It was a conscious decision made upon arrival—their lives, their stories are their own. Where so much of their privacy is relinquished without permission simply by the act of my entering their home, their stories I refuse to take from them.

Indeed, I know very little about their lives. But I know them. It’s the natural consequence of accumulated hours and days and months living here with them, closely.

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Jenifer, bday girl Belen, Celia

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Yolanda and her sparklers (not pictured), New Years Eve

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Ruth Ana & Lizeth

A few weeks ago, friends from the city came out to the Hogar to visit with the girls—they arrived in the middle of a baking frenzy as the girls made up an enormous batch of donuts. A finicky drain in the kitchen floor had been acting up, spewing gray water all over the tile that was half-mopped up in the chaos of dough-frying. Mid-chocolate-glazing, catastrophe struck as one mishandled wok pan of chocolate sauce resulted in a good deal of the brown stuff splattered on the floor. Fear not, these economy-minded young ladies didn’t let any go to waste, proceeding to lick it directly off the still dirty-drain-water streaked floor. Perhaps a bit shocking for our visitors. For us, just another normal occurrence in life at the Hogar.

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Laurita, Jazmin, Zulma, Jharlet & Belen unhappy about being informed they have to go do their chores. 

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Jharlet

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Hna Lourdes & Rosa Liz, pensieve pre-haircut

It’s not easy to live closely. It gets uncomfortable quickly. I’ve seen more tears and screaming matches and tussles, and had more trying conversations and moments here than perhaps in any other period of my life. People call things like they see them, say things that are offensive, and abrupt, and tough to hear. But the words always speak a truth—about the speaker, about the recipient, about their relationship. And many times over a day, I see people fight and forgive. And I think of those words: “the one joy in the world is to begin. It is beautiful to live because living is beginning, always, in every instant.”

 

It doesn’t always feel joyful when I live it—the difficulty of living closely with other people. It forces you to confront who you are: your impatience, and pride, and expectations of the people around you, your tendencies to judge, your anger, your deep fear of the ugly parts inside you. And it exposes all this to the people you live with, forcing an abandonment of any pretense we carry that we’ve got it all together.

 

Jharlet, one of our youngest at four years old, and a handful at that, often walks around the Hogar with a baby doll (or a Coca Cola bottle filled to the brim with water that she insists is a baby) secured in a jacket stolen from one of the older girls. She meticulously wraps the doll, then slings it over her back and ties the sleeves around her neck in the same way that many women still do the world over. She then proudly parades around the Hogar, insisting that we all admire her beautiful little baby, or instructing us to pipe down so as to not wake it from its nap.

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Jhenny Elizabeth engrossed in Korean soap opera, best buds Jharlet & Jhorlin

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Jharlet using alternative methods to secure her baby doll

When I think about what it means to feel that I’ve returned to parts of myself, to my origins, it is these things I think of: the girls gleefully licking chocolate off a dirty floor, a screaming match and profuse tears followed only moments later by former adversaries cleaning up the shared mess made, lock hand running out to the garden to make mischief together, and Jharlet proudly parading her baby doll around the hallways.

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Teresa (staff member and beautiful bride) and Nilva

Living closely ain’t easy. It’s messy, and humbling. It shows us we aren’t perfect.

 

Perhaps that’s why at least among my generation we seem to avoid it like the plague. On the surface, we may live closely. But living closely in proximity isn’t comparable with living closely in a proximity of heart.

 

Indeed it is a great risk to take another person seriously, with all the weight that carries—their ability to both cause you pain and bring you great happiness, to show you your flaws and to urge you to grow, the differences in how they live and think that will drive you up a wall as you realize how angered you feel when people do not fulfill your own selfish expectations for who they ought to be, the ways they speak that will offend your sense of self or the world you live in and invite you to realize I don’t got it all figured out, their flaws or strengths that strike to some fear nestled squarely above a point of pride. Is it not worth it though, to invite this discomfort if the people around me are always a help to me, not problems, not merely offensive packages of ideas or viewpoints or ways of living?

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Master griller Jazmin

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Jhenny Elizabeth, Laurita, Melody

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Anita, Marisol, Padre Pepe, Celia

 

I see Jharlet, with her baby doll secured safely to her, and of all the possibility that lies in each new moment, in the risk of living closely. I imagine my own mother holding me as an infant; she with no guarantees of who I would be, or with the impression that I would never pose myself a challenge to her.

 

But that is the privilege of living closely, of taking others seriously. Each time we allow people to settle close to our hearts, instead of immediately distancing them in a sense of justified indignation for the threat they pose to our settled views of ourselves, of the world, we learn again who we are. Close to an awareness of our wretchedness provoked by our interaction with another, closer yet to the hope that springs from allowing ourselves to be constantly formed by the people around us, we learn to live.

To begin. Always. In every instant.

Me Invitas

 

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Yolanda, Celia, Rebecca, Nilva, & camera shy Salena 

 “Me invitas?”

Well here we go. Excuse the fact that my own Spanish is at best passable, but I’m going to just go ahead and put my best foot forward to explain how these two words have become the two that speak most truly of my own experience of Cochabamba. These two words simultaneously belong to a New Years Eve four years past, and to a door sketched in a notebook, and to a small girl sitting on my knee with an open bag of popcorn.

 

“Me invitas?” I hear this phrase many times over every single day here at the Hogar. Usually it’s spoken to ask—“Will you share that with me?” Most often, it’s one girl asking another to share food. This phrase translates more or less as –“Do you invite me?”

 

Last night, as I sat on a stool in the kitchen watching Paola and Lourdes fuss over a massive pot of fideo (pasta), Kamila climbed into my lap with her bag of pipoca (popcorn), which Rebecca and Jhenifer made in bulk that afternoon. We’d just returned from a beautiful Sunday hike from the Hogar to a nearby town with Padre Pepe, and that familiar feeling of a tired but satisfied end to the week seemed to cloak the Hogar. The lights from the cancha reaching over our front door bathing the jardin in a quiet glow, the patter of feet in the pasillos playing liga-liga, doors opened for the girls to retrieve their chompas to keep warm as the cool of night descended.

 

Kamila, who’s perched in my lap, is a particularly observant, whip-smart drama queen of a girl who enjoys quoting Snow White “Soy la reina” (I’m the queen) and on the whole, exemplifying the word “sassy.” She’s got a mind of her own, and a fearlessness that compels her to go scrapping for the soccer ball amidst the older girls, though she’s only in first grade. She gifts her sweet smile and infectious laughter frequently, boisterously singing through the day—Ducha, ducha, ducha (shower, shower, shower, during shower-hour)—and intently following the dance moves of the other girls (for the record, she can move her hips better than me).

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Kamila & Jhorlin

 

She’s in her own little world as she sits on my knee munching on her popcorn, as perhaps I am in my own, but she turns to profer her bag of pipoca to me. I remember those words, “Me invitas” which come out without my having to think through them. The filter between my thinking and the Spanish that comes out seems to grow thinner and thinner every passing day. Kamila nods at my request, and then it’s the two of us munching on her popcorn in this little corner of the kitchen where it is quiet for the moment, no matter the building noise of an argument between the liga-liga players just outside the door. And for the first time, I stop to think about those words: “Me invitas.”

 

Rewind to New Years Eve, the beginning of 2014. In a a few days I would board a plane to spend six months abroad, but that evening I found myself in the living room surrounded by family and friends, some who had traveled far to send me off for the semester. As the minutes slid by, the stroke of twelve drawing nearer, my friend Katie reminded me of our New Years’ eve ritual of choosing a word for the year—a word that somehow would provide a guidepost or a lens through which to live the next twelve months. In the minutes left before midnight, we scrambled, laughing at our lack of preparation, to find the word. Both of us twenty-somethings, unsure of what this coming year would hold, smiled as we arrived upon our respective words. For me—cherish—a word that I carried with me through airports and along unfamiliar streets and into new relationships as I left the states. For Katie, well, to be honest I don’t remember—sorry Katie! But not a month later after this moment of laughable uncertainty, she was dating the man who would become her husband, and then the father to her precious little boy.

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Marisol, Pacu, & Paola

This past New Years eve, I stumbled not less than a bit wearily into 2016. Exhausted and confused by what had been the most trying six months of my four years in Des Moines, the future seemed more obscure than ever. But I had with me in my notebook a sketch of a door and this word, Invitation. Like most else in my life at that particular moment, I had no clue why this word in particular, only that this was it.

 

Eleven months later, that word returns to me now with clarity, as I see how I have been invited into so much.

 

On the road to where I am now, in Cochabamba, are a number of invitations—to catch a plane to spend less than 48 hours in New York City on the weekend of graduation to meet the Salesians; to make the phone call saying no to other plans, to other possibilities; to sign a contract; to say goodbye to home. And others as well–invitations to let go of the pain of a disorienting six months, to confront my own fears of an uncertain future.

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Afternoon hike

But here in Cochabamba, in a tangible way, I have been invited into the lives of these forty girls, into their home, into the ministry of these sisters. It’s not a position I take lightly, being invited like this. It strikes me as particularly radical to offer a stranger the opportunity to come be a partner in your life—with this invitation comes the possibility that I could really screw things up and with the certainty that my presence will cause at least some disruption.

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Nilva posing for glamour shot, myself in background combing out lice

“Me invitas”—“Will you share with me?” This understanding of invitation as sharing, to my mind, is the most honest way I can view why I am and how I am here. I’ve been invited here, and while surely I will give in these twelve or more months, the reality is that while here, much more will be shared with me than I could ever give. Now yes, God willing, I’ll hopefully keep the kiddos from losing limbs or burning anything to the ground when the sisters aren’t around. And it is my hope that my presence will be one of patience and love, and that when I leave, they will know that I loved them and loved being with them. But at the end of every day, it is these girls and these sisters that have opened the porta negra, the door to the Hogar. I am the lucky one to share pipoca with Kamila, and watch Sandra carry her little sister Laurita over a muddy patch on an afternoon walk, and try to coax girls down from the wall as they tease the boys on the other side of the gate on the last day of the school year this past Wednesday, and to gasp in solidarity with the older girls at the latest plot turn in their Korean soap opera.

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Jessica, Rebecca, Ruth heckling boys on other side of the wall, Sandra disapproving

 

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Afternoon hike

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Myself & Celia

The door is open, an invitation. It is not one I take lightly, especially as I consider that this is their home, and that these girls are people, just like me—complex, to put it mildly. Please give me a friendly ‘could’ve had a V-8’ slap to the head via electronic message if I ever start talking about these girls as if they are some sort of project, as if I am somehow the beneficent one in this equation.

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A vision in yellow: the girls & Hnas. Caridad and Reina after performing for the Salesian family reunion this past Sunday 

“Me invitas.” To be invited into someone’s life is no small act. It is the same form by which we were and are called into life with our creator. The Word is not enough in a book, our creator knew, if not also in the flesh, if not in a person.

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Zulma & Jharlet & Jharlet’s baby doll secured under several layers of sweatshirts

This radical invitation into another’s life carries with it risk, and if accepted, should give birth to change, to consequence. It is this that I ponder today, as I see the trees in Plaza Principal adorned with Christmas lights. The risk that this community takes in opening their lives to me, the generosity of this act, should never escape me, in the same way that I should not be seduced by a tamed, fluffy version of the event of God made man. These risks, these invitations, are not meant to leave us immobilized in fear of their import. And if I find myself joyless, I’ve missed the point completely. But taken seriously, these invitations ought to move us, to make us pause as we sit in the corner of the kitchen with a small child on our knee and an open bag of popcorn.

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“A person dies as he lives.” Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy

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Kamila

“Farewell we come to send you on the way.”

We sing these words every time a member of our family passes. The “Schneider family band”–my aunts and uncles and cousins and brother and parents–fill in all four parts and piano and guitar and violin as we gather to fill up the space with these familiar words. With this melody we’ve sent on Mildred and Ralph, Lawrence, Janet, Tom, Larry, Ron, Harold, Snapper, Lenore and Art, Susan, Adeline and Joyce, and Robert, and of course many many more before I first saw the world this side of the womb.

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Afternoon trek back from the cemetery, All Souls Day

Years of partaking in this ritual, of gathering to sing a farewell and share stories, have taught me well that sometimes only in bidding farewell can we truly enter into the present and usher in the new.

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Girls at the cemetery, All Souls Day 

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Maria Alejandra & Yolanda with All Souls Day treats

These days for me, farewells seem to take all sorts of forms.

There’s the flying off to some new destination kind of goodbye.

And the counting of the cost kind of farewell. It’s the knowing that come November 23th I won’t be in the kitchen with Grandma baking pies, and instead will be here where November 23th is just another day.

There’s the letting go of expectation kind of farewell, which gets me day in and day out as I discover some expectation I carried here with me, or one I’ve acquired in the days since.

And there is the watching of someone else say their farewell, which is in itself a farewell for those who remain.

These goodbyes are a constant process of discovery for me, as I realize how much energy I spend day in and day out trying to manage external realities over which I have no control.

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Rainbow behind the cancha at the Hogar

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Marisol-mi ahijada-& I at her confirmation Nov. 6

So why all the thinking about farewells? (especially since I’ve got quite a while before I board a plane bound for the states)

The most obvious answer is that tomorrow I’ll say goodbye to Erin, the SLM who’s spent the last fourteen months here, and whom I’ve been lucky enough to share my first months with. She is one of the most remarkably generous and genuine people I’ve had the pleasure of living and working with day in and day out. I’ve got no clue what the next ten-plus months will hold, but I do know that I will always be able to look back on these first six weeks with gratitude, affection, and laughter, thanks largely to Erin’s presence here.

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Erin & Laurita at the cemetery, All Souls Day

Witnessing her leaving has been a gift for me.

Her sorrow has made me aware of my own growing affection for these girls, which sometimes I find almost inexplicable. How does one explain the way they tug at my heart even at their worst moments when they’re throwing shoes, or screaming through mass, or refusing to listen to anyone? I feel the urgency of wanting to know them more, of wanting them to know how much they are loved, of wanting them to know the beauty they radiate.

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Velky

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Melody

Her desire for their good moves me to live with more courage, more generosity, more freedom.

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Erin, Laura, & I dancing for the girls, Sep. 21

Her hope for their future, and her trust in the next steps in front of her, give me the strength to root myself in the present, confident that choosing to dig deep here will not disappoint me.

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Erin gives Rosa Liz a new hairdo

A person dies as he lives.”

 For me, the thought that has recurred again and again in these past few weeks is the necessity of our radical openness to the present, to be willing each day to say goodbye to expectations and plans and grab ahold of the opportunities in front of us (which often look like inconveniences).

 

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Jarlet & Doris

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Jazmin & Kamila

At the despedida or farewell gathering that is held here in Bolivia we recall the living that has happened, we acknowledge the passing from one place to another. Too often I think we censor our experience of life, and are unwilling to take stock of the goodbyes we’ve had to say—to places and people of course, but also to old ways of living and thinking and moving through our life. To rejoice in the painful letting go we’ve done, we slowly are molded to view our lives more and more as given to us to be shared with others, as opposed to be guarded lest we give it all away. I am reminded of Mother Teresa’s words: I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.

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Mother Teresa and child, watercolor ’13

Life does not belong to me, or at least if it does, it is only because I have been given it totally and freely each and every day. How joyful I must be, then, at every moment I am asked to let go of my plans or expectations, because this is evidence that I am using it how it is meant to be lived—without reserve, without fear of losing it in service of others. So that today or sixty years from now when the farewell ushers me from this world, I’ll have spent what I’ve been given so lavishly that I’ll arrive with empty hands.

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An inseparable duo: Erin & Laurita

Despedida. Bitter and sweet, these farewells should always be thus. And we ought never to let them slip by, so that we cannot rejoice in the ways we are asked to entrust every change within us and without us to the person who has such an urgent need for our happiness.

So today, and tomorrow, I’ll be saying farewell to something too, even as Erin is driving away from this place that is her home and catching a plane back to the states. What comfort there is in knowing that we are not alone in this daily work of saying farewell, and that every step we take in trust, with courage, is a hand held out to those walking beside us.

 

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Que te vaya bien my friend!

October

(reader’s note: this was written a week ago, but hey, wifi’s gonna do what wifi’s gonna do)

“The world’s thy ship and not thy home.” –St. Therese of Lisieux

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Watercolor, December 2014

The changing of the month always gets me. Turning the calendar page can stir me into a panic, as the familiar thought recurs—how it is that another 30 some days have passed, and I feel as if I’m standing in the same place I was 30 days ago?

Today marks the beginning of my fourth week here in Cochabamba. And at moments, I feel as if so much has happened, so much has changed. I now know the names of 39 girls, and how to make breakfast to feed them all, which way to turn the key in each of the thirty some doors I lock and unlock in the course of a day, whose hair I can manage without making them look like Einstein, and even how to say a few new things in Spanish. But at the end of some days, as I look back and wonder what I actually accomplished, it is easy to succumb to the overwhelming feeling that I’ve not done anything at all.

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Zulma

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Ruth & Jessica

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Laurita & Rosa Lizbeth

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Melody, Maria Belen, and Lizeth

Which brings me to good ole St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day we celebrate on October 1st. Just a few months ago my brother and I spent a couple days in Lisieux, France, where Therese lived as a member of the Carmelite order. As we walked together through the town and climbed to the Basilica, I smiled as her words, her life rushed back to my consciousness as they had not since I was a senior in high school and first read I Believe in Love. I won’t attempt to summarize her life, or convey all she has taught me, but a few small things kept returning to me in this past week and a half since I turned the figurative page of the calendar to greet another October.

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Basilica in Lisieux, July 2016

For a great deal of my life, I was intensely preoccupied with the notion that I must accomplish some great, grand thing. Not for my own good name, but out of a sense of responsibility, or duty, I suppose. I’ve nothing against great, grand things, but viewed incorrectly, they loomed as a constant burden, the burden of what I must accomplish. The problem, which Therese gave voice to on the pages of a book I read as a college-bound eighteen year old, is that to view our lives as a series of grand things to accomplish is to miss completely the fact that the grandiosity which fills us up and gives peace is not achieved by our human efforts (no matter how good our intentions). All grandiosity precedes us and is presented to us each day. And the most grandiose thing imaginable is simply the affection in the gaze of the one who made us. If we fail to see it and receive it, we will forever be burdened by the weight of our lives, by self-imposed “duty” and “responsibility.” How exhausting to see my life as a series of things I must do! As Therese put it, we are “Little Flowers,” tiny and simple, who have been given everything. And the one who made us doesn’t want us to walk around burdened by the lives we’ve been given. Instead we’re left with just this question: “Do you love me?”

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Hma Leti and the morning hair routine

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Donia Lauria making delicious bunuello

Which leads me to St. Therese’s words: “The world’s thy ship and not thy home.” Not some five years ago, I would have read those words and felt even more intensely the burden of all I had not accomplished, of all I had failed to do. But these are the words of a woman who saw herself as a little flower, who saw that the primary concern of life, (in fact the only thing that could give life,) as the acceptance of how little she was—given everything, loved in the most grandiose of ways before she could “accomplish” anything in the eyes of the world.

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Laurita

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Morning mountain views 

This weekend at the Hogar we embarked on a gardening “revolution” as Hermana (Sr.) Reina put it. On Saturday Hermana Leti proudly presented to us a menagerie of roses, and put the girls to work on every square inch of grass and dirt to be found within the compound. What a sight! Celia running the lawn mower, Katerin chopping patiently away with a scythe, Maria Belen and Rebeca and a whole crew hacking at weeds with tools I imagine are used on railroading projects. Hermana let me loose on a thick tree limb with one of these mystery tools—the dismembered limb narrowly missed the angel statue which Pacu and Hermana Leti then fortified with hand mixed concrete and christened with a fresh coat of paint. After a failed but applause worthy effort at rolling a massive clay urn out of the courtyard, Erin spent a solid half hour emptying dirt from the urn’s belly til we could move the darned thing. Cadres of girls barely big enough to haul wheelbarrows filled them with rocks and brick, which they placed in meticulous arrangement around newly planted roses.

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Gardening revolution in progress

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Jazmin 

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Celia

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Pacu

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Admiring the new roses

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Jazmin, Rebeca, Jarled, Jazmin, & Velky

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Post urn move: Hma Reina, Salet, myself, Rhiannon, Erin

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Lizbeth & Jazmin

And man, do we have roses. As I tamped down the dirt, I recalled my grandfather’s words. Don’t leave any air down there or the roots will dry out. And I stooped down and the scent that brushed against my nose is the fragrance I’ve known a hundred times before. It’s the fragrance of an affection and a grandiosity that precedes everything else, and it asks: “Do you love me?” Will you accept this affection I have for you?

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Salet & Maria Belen

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Myself and Jarled

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Zulma, Camila, & Marisol ft. Padre Pepe’s truck

When I remember to receive—to receive the fragrance of a rose, the shared task of a weekend of gardening revolution, my own little-ness—the words of St. Therese give me peace instead of triggering anxiety. “The world’s thy ship and not thy home.” Do not be burdened by this life I’ve given you! And then with freedom, we can look to the people and the work before us, trusting that somehow, all of it has been given to us, for us.

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‘Til next time

 

 

Hola Doris

Hola, Doris

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(Doris)

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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.”

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(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.

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(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.

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(September 21, 2016)
‘Til next time