“Total Eclipse of the Heart”

Last Wednesday afternoon I sat in a restaurant at the airport in Belize City.  A fan in front of me wafted warm air, while a speaker projected a scratchy queue of 80’s music – most notably “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – and Latin hits over me and my pesto “chicken burger.”  A kind Belizean waitress took care of me as I waited for Mr. Gian to arrive so that we could find our Benqueño taxi driver and take to the road.

Mr. Gian, watching from the back seat of the taxi as I spun from side to side, alternately grinning and tearing up, expressed the tentative whisper of my heart, saying, “Welcome home, Ms. Monica.  Welcome home.”

Welcome home.  I left Belize on June 11, 2014.  I thought then that I would return two months later.  I didn’t know that lack of health would dictate otherwise until four days before my plane was scheduled to leave.  Leaving my belongings, my unfinished tasks, and my students and community in Belize with a peculiar mixture of relief and intense guilt, I turned to face an unexpected life in the U.S.  I regained my health, but by then I had begun to get reestablished, as one must in this country.  Over the next few months I got a job, leased a house, bought a car, and eventually even found a new community.  But all year I planned to return to Belize for my students’ graduation this summer.  I anticipated the trip even more eagerly after my friends, Victor and Brynne, asked me to be their second daughter’s godmother.  And so, last Wednesday, I boarded a plane to Belize.

Sitting on the plane, writing notes to accompany the gifts for my students and goddaughter, I began to think about each person.  In what particular way was I proud of this person?  In what particular way should I encourage him for the future?  Had it really been a year since I had known each student’s strengths and weaknesses on a personal level?  And how would I fulfill my duties as a godmother?  What part in this child’s life would I have?

From the church in Benque, my student, Shamir, drove me to Brynne and Victor’s neighborhood, and I was shown to my temporary abode in Victor’s parents’ house, as Victor was in the very act of tiling their own floors.  I had never met Victor’s parents, but they welcomed me graciously.  “Es mi amiga, Monica.”  “Ahh!  Mucho gusto!”  I met my sweet dumpling of a goddaughter, Stella.  The sun set, cool breezes blew, and the peaceful evening sounds of Benque settled over us.  We talked as I cuddled my goddaughter, and tried to convince her older sister that I wasn’t even likely to eat her for dinner, much less hang her from the rafters by her toes.

I witnessed with pride the next day as the five students who had persevered through the past two years graduated, and were duly feted.  (They had a mariachi band from Mexico for the entertainment before the ceremony!  I’m not kidding, take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5FNBTcQUy4 ).  I caught up with students, priests, dean, old friends, and made new friends.  Fr. John invited us up to the new campus to exclaim over the progress on the new building – the building!  And I had been present for the groundbreaking!  I was only these students’ teacher for half of their junior college experience, and yet… “Miss, you are my teacher.  You will always be my teacher.  I will always remember you.”

Stella was baptized in the midst of the newly ordained Fr. Beau’s first official Mass in Benque.  I held my sleeping ahijada as Father spoke of the wonder of baptism in both Spanish and English, as the choir sang the Spanish songs I know and love, as he anointed her, and finally as he poured the water over her head and spoke the words that brought her into new, eternal life in the Body of Christ.  His joy radiated through the whole church, mirrored in the joy of my friends, of the other priests, of the people filling the church, of the music itself.  I choked as I tried to sing along:  “Gloria a Dios, Gloria a Dios, Gloria, Gloria a Dios!”  After Mass, we congregated in the parish hall to celebrate Fr. Beau’s ordination with the whole community.  People lined up to receive his special blessing.  They brought out instruments and sang.  They passed food, they sang Happy Birthday to one of the religious sisters, they congratulated my friends on the baptism of their new daughter, they greeted me as a long-lost friend: “Miss, I was trying and trying to see, ‘Who is that madrina?’  Then you turned around and I saw it was you!”

Later, students escorted me to a graduation party.  They told me of their hopes for the future, their candid opinion of their culture, they asked about the other American teachers, they laughed with my attempts to learn Spanish over the past year.  They drove me to the Church so that I could attend Mass.  The dean and other friends walked me back to Brynne and Victor’s after Mass, stopping for a visit in the park over sweet Central American cokes.

Before, after, during, all day long, I basked in the time with my friends, with their children, with their family.  Victor’s parents and sisters welcomed me without fanfare into their life, and we shared babies and sat in the shade as the sun beat down on Benque.  Life in Benque is different.  The priorities are different, the pace is different.  I have been struggling terribly to express this ever since I returned, and I am struggling to write about it now, as I listen to mariachi music and try to analyze the impressions left on my heart.  Describable or not, I love it.

These people are important.  I form relationships slowly and they affect me deeply – perhaps too deeply.  Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of people whose lives affect mine, whose lives I am committed to affecting, the responsibility I bear for the effect I have on them.  But the fact is, this is love.  This is human existence.  This is Christianity.  This is the Catholic Church.  We were not made for ourselves.  We were not even made for this temporary earth.  We were made to know, love, and serve God Himself, and in Him, to love His people.  But the other fact is, we need not do this alone.  God watches over the relationships we entrust to him, and he brings fruit from them.

A year doesn’t seem long, but in my year in Belize, I was transplanted from my home and my culture into a community where I had not a single human tie.  And yet, which of the ties I gained would I sacrifice for a single moment of the time it takes to keep up with them, or relief from the attendant pain of being involved in their lives?  “You will always be my teacher.”  “Providence has made for us to cross our way in this life.”  “Padrinos…Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?”  “Gloria a Dios!”  Without this year, I would not have a goddaughter.  I would not have these, some of the best friends I have ever known.  I would not call such a community home.

How can I stay away from this home?  I don’t know.  I don’t know if I can stay away forever.  I don’t know what God wants from me, or why he brought me back at this time.  But even from afar, to love truly and be loved in return is good.  To will the good of the beloved, to work for the good of the beloved – I only wish I had been more faithful in this endeavor while I had the chance.  If this is the fruit of my half-hearted labor, how much more beautiful would the fruit of total self-gift be?  My heart is broken, but I think God made it to be broken, expanded, and spread where He wills.  Perhaps he will give me another heart to replace the one I left in Belize.  Would that He would break it as well.

 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  (Ezekiel, 36:26)

And truly, this is my call no matter where I am, the call of every man, of every Christian.  I am no less called to radical love here than I was in Belize, and neither is anyone else.

Tony the Taxi Driver (along with his wife and daughter) picked me up on Sunday morning.  I kissed the babies and hugged my friends, shouted at my student’s gate so that I could give her a dish and say goodbye; and then I was on the road back to Belize City, soaking up every palm tree, laughing at the checkpoints where the guards rifled through my belongings for “contraband from Guatemala,” grinning at the inevitable Cyndi Lauper on the radio, wishing a fond farewell to every familiar landmark along the Western Highway.  Garbutt’s gas station.  The beautiful fields between Benque and Cayo.  And finally, as we neared the end of the trip, a sign I had never noticed, which proclaimed in proud letters: “Have a God Bless Day.”

You too, my beautiful, beloved Belize.  Have a God Bless Day.  Have a God Bless Existence.  May God bless you now and always.

Indeed, may you all “Have a God Bless Day.”

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About Face: Mysterious Ways

Well hey there, world-who-reads-my-blog! Long summer no see. I know I fell off the wagon at the end of last year, but I also figured that once it was summer, no one really needed to hear the details of my busy months in the U.S. I planned to pick up again when I was back in Belize.

The summer was filled with many things: the wedding of two of my dearest friends (to each other), work at the law firm which graciously took me back for the summer, and as many visits with family and friends as I could possibly squeeze in around the edges, including a whirlwind trip to Massachusetts last weekend. I had planned to finish work last week, take my little trip to MA, and then spend this week in the throes of violent preparations for Belize. My plane ticket was set for Saturday.

On Monday, as I rode the train back down to Virginia, I got some surprising results from a bunch of medical tests. I proceeded to spend this week deliberating and hemming and hawing and weighing pros and cons and talking to different people and doing research, rather than getting ready to leave for Belize tomorrow. The upshot of all this is that I finally decided not to go back to Belize after all, due to health complications from something that started out much less serious. Not that I’m dangerously ill or anything, so nobody freak out. I just think it would be imprudent to take the risks involved in going back to Belize at this point, with my health in the state it is and will be for several weeks, or even the next couple of months.

This was such a sudden and surprising change of plans that I’m still getting used to it. I wish I had known earlier, for the sake of the school especially, but there’s no help for that. They still have some time before classes begin, so I’m hoping they can replace me or at least figure out the best way to redistribute my classes.

The fact that I will not be there to settle all the new volunteers into their life, not be there to sort out the administrative tangle that is the beginning of the year, not be part of the community at all this year, in fact – all this is now sinking in. It is sad, and I think that’s a good thing. At the same time, I had been struggling for months with the fact that I find teaching so difficult, and even this week I really wasn’t ready to go back yet. The whole thing was hanging over my head a little bit. I was getting ready to push through the feeling and just go, like I did after Christmas; and after Christmas, everything settled down and I was fine. I guess God had other ideas, this time around.

I’m not sure what the next step will be. This year is a blank slate, which is a bit exciting, but will probably become stressful if I don’t settle it in a reasonable amount of time. In the meantime, I think I am going to finish the treatment, make sure I’m on the mend, and take some time to step back and figure out where to go from here. In a way this is a golden opportunity, so I guess I’d better use it.

God works in mysterious ways. And at the last minute, unexpectedly.

NB: In light of this development, I don’t think there’s much point in my continuing The Blog.  You were all following my supposedly interesting life and adventures on a mission in Belize, and suddenly my life is something else.  Before I stop blogging, I’ll probably produce a couple more posts about things that happened at the end of last year.  I had promised to post about the Ruta Maya, and about the Easter festivities in Benque, and about our vacation to Antigua.  All of that information is still floating around my head (with corresponding pictures on my computer, in a rather disorganized state), so over the next couple of weeks, I’ll probably write about those things.  After that…my life will probably be quite boring for a while.  And it certainly won’t be in Belize.

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Happy Mother’s Day! And a song.

I hope all you mothers who read this have had a wonderful day.  In Belize they always celebrate it on the 10th, so it was yesterday, but I managed to remember it today for the U.S.  Thank goodness.

Anyway, in other news…I can’t resist sharing what I’ve been working on this weekend.  I wrote a little song on a whim yesterday, and I am surprised at how pleased I am with the result (This perfectionist can’t usually please herself.).  Anyway, I wrote the original song and utilized my newfound guitar skills to figure out the chords, then brought in Melissa, who took over playing it, and worked with me for a good while figuring out the perfect harmonies.  She has a stunning voice and incredible harmonizing abilities…well, you’ll see.  In this version, I am singing the harmony and she is singing the melody, because it wouldn’t sound nearly as good the other way around…no thanks to my silly, high little girl’s voice.  C’est la vie.  At least when you write it yourself you can tailor the harmonies to your own range!

Without further ado, I hope you enjoy:

“If You Knew Me”

P.S. Please forgive a few mistakes…you’re seeing take 1 here.

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Felices Pascuas!

Wow, has it really been almost a month since I last wrote?  I feel like I am probably ducking metaphorical eggs and rotten tomatoes, poking my face in here like this.  Especially since I am about to admit the following: I am not planning to post pictures and write the comprehensive posts about Holy Week and Easter Week which have been hanging over my head in true Damoclean fashion.  I figure that it’s better to write something-at-all than to keep waiting until I am ready to write something-big.  And this will re-break the ice, right?  (“Break the ice,” who came up with that saying anyway?  I hain’t seen ice for many moons in these parts!)

Anyway, I guess I can give the quick version of a life update instead.  Holy Week was over the top, with processions, liturgies, marching bands, dramatic presentations, and company coming out of our ears.  It was great, and busy, and great.  Easter night, we all piled into Fr. Scott’s truck (he had to take two loads of us) and trundled to the Guatemalan border, where we crossed and hung out until we could hop on the night bus.  Eleven grumpy hours later we arrived in Guatemala City, where we spent another hour waiting for our ride to Antigua.  Antigua, and all its works, and all its glorious promises, were completely worth the twelve grumpy hours incoming, and even worth the >13 truly miserable hours of return trip, but more on all of the above will follow eventually.  When I get my act together.  Which, judging by my empty promises (we’ll call them…”pending”) to write about the Ruta Maya, may be the twelfth (I just spent WAY too long trying to figure out how to spell that) of never.  I’m not even that busy.  It basically comes down to pictures.  It takes so long to load them from the camera to the computer, so long to upload them to the blog, so long to decide what to include…that I just bury my head in the sand and move on with wasting time completely, rather than writing blog posts with pictures – i.e., posts The People actually want to read.

Anyway, since our return from Antigua (a jarring return to the tropics, for one thing…I literally gasped on the couch for a few days.  Though I blame that partially on my parasitic friend.  The internet tells me fatigue is a symptom, it must be true!), I have: taught my last classes for the year, written final exams, worked on the academic calendar for next year, tried to tie up all the loose ends of next year’s teacher recruitment, sweated a lot, procrastinated grading papers to a degree only rivalled by my blog procrastination, attended a committee meeting, reread several Harry Potter books, dreamed about summer, and asked myself “why am I coming back here again?”

And I have answered myself in several ways.  “Because what else would I do?”  “Because I don’t feel finished.”  “Because my services are still useful, not to say necessary (That would be overly dramatic.).”  “Because I am accomplishing a little bit of good here.”  And most of all: “Because I tend to allow my life to be governed by the forces of pure inertia.”  Use the force, Luke.  You know it to be true.

The down sides?  Almost no one else is planning to return, or at least they aren’t committing yet.  Next year is shaping up to be heavily weighted towards women on the volunteer end of things.  I still don’t like teaching, or evince a great talent for it.  I never want to see rice and beans again, and would be happy not to see bone-in chicken stewed in grease, either.  I am sick of slathering myself in bugspray daily to avoid scarring my battered legs any worse.  I miss my clean dishes remaining mud and ant free in a reliable fashion.  I could be moving on with my life.  Moving on to what?  I don’t know, so I guess it’s a good thing I’m staying.

It’s not like I’m reconsidering my decision or anything.  I’m not exactly excited about next year, but I am sure it will be better than I glass-half-empty-spect, and I am pretty confident in my decision to spend it down here.  Weirdly confident.  It goes back to that whole inertia thing, I suppose.  Or the will of God.  Oh yeah, the will of God.  I suppose He made me the way I am…inertia-governed, unsure of the future, and all.  And if He is using that to bring me back down here, then so be it.  It was clearly His will that got me here in the first place, and this year has been a good one.  Who am I to give up on Him now?

I wasn’t sure what to write about today, since I had decided to hold my breath and jump in on my own radio silence of the past month without, you know…actually blogging about the past month.  I guess this is a good enough topic.  If you ever wondered what makes the missionary tick…I can assure you that at least in my (albeit wildly imperfect) case, it isn’t all holy impulses and fiery intentions.  But surely that is not required.

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Notes from a Seasoned Procrastinator

Because anything is better than doing my actual work (don’t worry, I’ve done some of it already today.  Some.), I will give you the second post within one week.  You know.  Nothing for twelve years, then three in a row, that’s ‘So Mo.’  Remember when I used to blog like a normal person?  I could have told you then that, “this too shall pass.”

In any case, I couldn’t let my most recent post remain a serious one for very long.  That would be muy boring, especially because no one reads “words posts” (only “pictures posts,” I know).  However, I think it is at least a bit easier to slog through “words posts” when they are completely insubstantial and broken into bullet points.  Therefore etc…

1.  A couple days ago, I was taking a perfectly innocent shower when I looked down to realize that I was not alone.  Before you freak out about How Unsafe Central America is, I’ll just tell you: my companion was a cockroach.  Ordinarily I’m pretty unfazed by cockroaches these days.  Even the largest (and they come in sizes Large, Larger, and Largest. And they fly.) can be summarily executed with a shoe, so all it usually takes is a single, decisive, sudden motion of the vorpal sandal against the manxome (?) foe.  But here’s the thing: ain’t nobody wears shoes in the shower.  Have you ever realized how defenseless you are while showering?  There is nothing, nothing to use as a weapon, and you’re wet and soapy.  I mean, I guess I could have squished my germy friend with a shampoo bottle, but then there would have been cockroach guts on my shampoo bottle.  Even I quail at that thought.  Shoes are dirty anyway, but I like to think my shampoo is pretty safe.  So, I know you are on the edge of your seat (I use the singular deliberately, because probably only my madre is reading at this point.).  What did I do?  I started shouting to see if Elisabeth was still upstairs.  I turned off the shower and leaned out to open the door, the better to boost the radius of my shouts, but to no avail.  No one came bearing shoes.

Plan B quickly ensued: learn to coexist.  There’s a problem with cockroaches, though.  Any ordinary insect would be killed or at least maimed by a stream of water pouring in full force straight from the pipe (We lack first world conveniences such as showerheads.  Don’t judge.).  Cockroaches, not being ordinary insects, just run around faster when faced with drowning.  After a few more minutes of Cockroach Dancing, in which I hopped around with remarkable agility, and Germy himself scurried hither and yon (but never yon enough to leave the shower…which is extremely small), we came to a sort of armed truce.  He climbed a few inches up the slippery plastic wall (More backstory: the upstairs shower is basically a portable plastic box with one side missing.  Consider it the shower equivalent of a Port-a-Pot.), and I went back to my ablutions, trying hard not to take my gimlet eye off his crunchy self for fear that he would break the truce.  I was also afraid that the water from said ablutions would actually wash him back onto the floor, which would have been counterproductive, but I had not reckoned with the unconquerable strength and tenacity of roachly self-defense instincts.  In the end, Katie appeared on the scene as I was finishing, and since I was still defenseless (albeit wrapped in a towel by then), Germy met his delayed demise under her shoe.  And then I scooped him into the garbage, washed my hands, and forced myself to forget that our shower had ever seen cockroach guts.  These things fall under the auspices of the ten-second rule, do they not?

2. That was such a long number one that I feel the bullet-point system is misleading.  On the other hand, if you, fair reader (Mom?) do not know by now that I am nothing if not long-winded, I fear for your powers of observation.  So…on to the second point.  If you could see me mentally ransacking the past couple of weeks for news fit to print, you would realize how boring my life is, pero…  Aha!  I know.  I guess it is news that I have officially committed to Year Numero Dos in Belize.  I had figured that would happen eventually, but wasn’t rushing to give my final “yes” to the powers that be (what? Me, avoiding commitment until the last possible moment?  Never!).  Some careless words at a recent meeting alerted the powers that be to my state of mind, however, and I was effectively painted into a corner.  Foolishly, said I, “Well, who’s going to teach the summer classes?  The new volunteers won’t be here, and I don’t think I’ll be back yet…”  The powers that be pounced.  “When are you coming back?”  “Um.”  Evade evade evade, new topic.  Five minutes later: “Sooo…when did you say you were coming back?”  Sigh.  “August.”  To be honest, it was never a dramatic decision, and given how quickly this year has gone, I don’t think it will even feel like much of a commitment.  Shhh, ye dissenter, I’m trying to lull my inner commitmephobe into at least false security.  Anyway, I don’t know who, if any of the other volunteers is going to end up returning, so I am really hoping it doesn’t turn out to be just me.  I mean, I know it will be great to get to know the new volunteers, but I really prefer not to enter these situations without a security person that I already know.  And I already got to know all new people once in the past year, so haven’t I fulfilled my quota for this decade?  No?  I guess it would be too much to ask for my inner antisocialite to be lulled into false security along with the inner commitmephobe.

3. Recent local news: two high schoolers drowned in the river in Cayo recently.  They were on a school field trip that wasn’t even supposed to involve going to the river, but the group stopped, and they went out into a shallow place (must have been fast), and I guess that was that.  I can’t imagine being the teachers who allowed that detour to happen…pray for them, as well as the repose of the souls of those two teenagers, and the comfort of their families and friends.  I also heard last night that somebody or other got killed by a crocodile around here somewhere recently.  Though the details were a bit vague, I know that is a nasty death no matter what.  The person’s last name also matches with a couple of my students, but I think I would have heard if they were related.  Regardless, prayers would be good there as well.

4. On a happier note, this week is the last one before our two weeks of Easter break.  During Holy Week (before Easter) we will stay in Benque, participating in the huge festivities of the community.  Apparently Easter is the biggest holiday in these here parts.  Everyone, practicing Catholic or not, turns out for processions and masses and services, decorates the very streets, participates in the passion play, and…eats?  We are looking forward to all the excitement.  We are also looking forward to the next week, because we will leave for Antigua, Guatemala, on Easter night.  We’ll be renting a house until Friday, seeing and doing the things that Antigua has to offer.  A real vacation, woohoo!

5. Can I make it to five?  Is there anything else worthing writing?  Hm, hm, hm.  Way-uhl…I guess this is kind of a cop-out because it’s not that different from numbers four and two, but I’ll just tell y’all: after Easter, we have one more week of classes, and then it will be finals week.  Then the junior college semester will be finished.  Where did the time go?  I’m pretty sure it was January yesterday, and August last week.  I definitely haven’t built a comfortable relationship with students, gotten close with fellow volunteers, planned and executed almost four complete curricula, or, you know…learned to play guitar.  Definitely not.  I guess that’s what I mean when I tell myself that committing to another year isn’t a big deal.  It will be over in a week or two, so I’ll be able to move on with my life next month.  Not that I know what to do with my life anyway.  Year three, anybody?  Ahhhh, no!

Oops, I think a couple of those numbers may have invalidated my promise for complete insubstantiality…but at least I didn’t put you through any of my “Deep Reflections” or anything today.

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Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam: Of Sloth and Industry: Finally Something Serious

But first, can I just tell y’all…it is hot hot hot!  I rarely bother to check the temperature around here, so I usually just gauge temperature based on how much I perspire and how little I feel like moving (a lot and not at all, respectively).  And while we are all sweating buckets right now, I am aware that that could happen even if the temperature weren’t through the roof.  Also, I can tell it is getting more humid (though it has hardly rained for weeks), but again, I usually write off the humidity as “not so bad” because I think I’m just being a wimp.  I finally checked the temperature today (wiping a fine mist off my forehead repeatedly as I did so).  It is currently 99 degrees, and “feels like 112.”  Today’s high is 107.  I wonder what that will feel like?  And more importantly, how scary is it that this weather doesn’t feel exceptional, compared to other recent weather?  Has it really been that hot for all these days?  No wonder I can barely bring myself to move, let alone do anything productive!

That actually segues nicely into my real thought for this post.  We took a bunch of the junior college students on a Lenten retreat this Saturday.  The retreat center we used was out in the jungle, not far from home in terms of mileage, but far enough in terms of bumpy dirt road (I was actually a little afraid I was going to bounce out of the truck on the way back.).  The theme of the retreat was poverty: the poverty of our fallen, weak nature, the material poverty which Christ endured to the utmost, and the way that His poverty can make us rich.  Along the way we touched on social justice (an unusual subject for a retreat, but a very important one in our situation; and one which provided quite a hopeful, fruitful discussion amongst teachers and students in a non-class setting.), and we wrapped up with personalized reflections on the Stations of the Cross.  I feel like the Stations might deserve their own post, so I’ll leave my comments there for the moment.  We also took walks through the bush (“spiritual poverty, material poverty, reflection, reflection, OW that’s the scariest-looking fire ant that has EVER bitten me, love, trust, MAN is it hot…”), played volleyball and leap frog, and generally enjoyed each others’ company in a beautiful, relaxed setting.

I really did enjoy the retreat, and I think it was a good one.  My own thoughts took a tangent sparked by one of Fr. Juan’s first reflections.  He began the treatment of poverty by having us reflect on the ways in which we are (spiritually) poor, especially as that spiritual poverty is embodied in the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, avarice, lust, anger, sloth, and gluttony.  The portion of the reflection devoted to sloth and gluttony explained them as means of escape from the world.  Now, I love my food, recreation, and sleep as much as the next guy (well, probably a good deal more…especially la comida!); but I also know that he was right about escapism.

I began to think about the time I waste and my severe lack of the virtue of industry.  The funny thing is that although I frequently beat myself up about this failing, I rarely ask myself why I struggle with it.  Sure, work is unpleasant and I know that a thousand and one problems are waiting in the wings as soon as I buckle down to the task at hand; but is there more to it than that?  If laziness is a kind of escapism, from what am I trying to escape?

As we all know, work can be difficult.  Even my half-conscious guilty analysis of the situation recognizes that, and attempts to use it as a minor justification for avoiding it.  But is my work really so difficult that it explains the amount of time I waste?  Surely the amount of time and effort I sometimes put into the escape would solve most of the problems I am trying to forget?

In the midst of these reflections, I was also considering something else Fr. Juan had mentioned.  In order for us to “become rich through Christ’s poverty,” we must learn to recognize His incredible, deep, all-consuming love for us.  We must also recognize that we do not earn that love, nor can we.  The love is there, whether or not we act on it, whether or not we respond to it.  That is our life’s work: to respond with love to God’s unfathomable love and mercy.  Through our love of this God who loves us, we are also able to love and serve one another.  Our love and service of our neighbor quail in the face of obstacles if they are not based on God’s love, but properly founded, they know no bounds.  They draw on an infinite reservoir of love and strength.

But how does this relate to the vices?  How does this relate to sloth?  Of course, everyone knows that we are supposed to work with industry “for the greater glory of God.”  But although I have always known this in theory, it doesn’t seem to affect my life very much when push comes to shove.  And unfortunately, push comes to shove every single day.

I thought back to my assessment of the reason for sloth.  Work is hard.  Industry is unpleasant.  Distractions are more enjoyable than work, even if they only satisfy in a fleeting manner.  But is the work really so hard?  An infinite reservoir of help and support is boiling at my elbow, so to speak.  Surely nothing I have to do today is a task which would push an omnipotent God to His non-existent limits.  Perhaps this is the answer, then.  The challenges of each day are certainly difficult for weak, fallen, finite me.  When I try to face them on my own, ‘weak, fallen, finite me’ turns tail and runs the other direction.  Oh, sure, I can deal with these tasks if I have to, and I will…in a few hours.  In a few days.  In a few weeks, months, years.  But that is not good enough.  If I turn to God, and deliberately allow him to work in and through me, these tasks will not seem insurmountable.  This does not mean that challenges won’t arise.  Certainly I must fulfill my duties as the human being I am, and I must push my mind and body to their utmost in this service.  Such things are termed “difficult” in ordinary speech because they do demand great things of our intellect, will, and sometimes even our bones and muscles.  With the support and love of God, though, nothing can be overwhelming; and this is the key, because finally, the point at which we turn and run is usually the point at which we are overwhelmed.  This point comes pathetically soon to the average human, working alone.

But how does “the greater glory of God” fit into this picture?  If I do all things “through Christ, who strengthens me,” rather than doing them alone, then all my accomplishments demonstrate His power.  They also show his gentle love and mercy, which are evident every time He stoops to help a weak human fulfill His will.  We cannot fulfill God’s will on our own.  This is the reason that God became man, suffered, died, and rose for us in the first place.

Finally, it seems to me that each time we rely on God’s love and support in order to fulfill a task, great or small, we must become more aware of the efficacy of that support.  Each time we accomplish a goal, we must grow in our trust of the love and mercy that enfold and support us.  Will this not help us to rely on Him more each day?  Will this not strengthen our relationship with Him?  Will this not help us to begin to return that freely-given love?  Certainly a love based on gifts and help received is not enough; but it is a beginning.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.  For the greater glory of God.  These words are not meant for retroactive application.  We are not intended to live as best we can on our own, and then look back and say “I offer these works, such as they are, for your glory, Lord.”  Nor are we intended to wallow in guilt because we cannot motivate ourselves to work simply by repeating those words again and again.  “Of course I want to give glory to God, but it is just so hard.  Sleeping another hour is much easier.  I’ll give glory to God later.”  This cycle will never end until we realize that, without God, we cannot give glory to God.  That is the reality of the created universe; and it is a good reality.

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Oooookay…

I know it’s been ages since I posted anything.  I know, I know, I know.  A lot of things have happened in the meantime – notably La Ruta Maya, one of the longest canoe races in the world.  That is my excuse for not posting, really.  I have been planning on doing a nice long post about the experience (I didn’t compete, but I did go along for other reasons.).  However, that will involve uploading pictures and writing lots of words.  It will come later.  In the meantime, to prove that I am alive and, er, kicking, please accept a few random things:

1) I killed my first scorpion the other day.  It was on my foot.  I felt something small, like a normal bug, and looked down to see one with pincers like a lobster happily scurrying over my bare skin.  I brushed it off pretty snappily, then stared at it for a few moments on the ground before deciding it needed to die.  Then I squished it.  It was only a little one, really just the size of a beetle…smaller than many cockroaches.  I don’t know if it was poisonous.  They say only scorpions with yellow on them are poisonous, but I’m not 100% sure if he had any yellow.  I was paranoid about my foot for a few minutes, but it was fairly evident that this guy hadn’t stung me.  Hooray!

2) While we’re on the subject, I also killed my first tarantula.  I had to chase it around with a rock after Jack lifted up the bowl he had used to trap it.  Just dropping the rock didn’t really work, due to its inconveniently concave underside, so eventually I had to use it for a more guided and deliberate smashing.  Meanwhile my arachnophobic housemate screamed about my bad tarantula-murdering technique from the doorway, and Jack backed himself up against the fence, letting me do the dirty work (To be fair, I was the one armed with a large rock.).

3) We went tubing on the river yesterday.  The cool water and the hot sun balanced each other to make the temperature ideal.  The mild rapids provided just the right amount of excitement-sans-terror, and no crocodiles made an appearance (though several iguanas did).  It was a perfectly pleasant and relaxing way to spend Sunday afternoon.

4) Kelley paid us a surprise visit last week, so that was exciting.  We’ve actually had a lot of company lately, which has been quite fun.  Between the company and the travelling and the Ruta Maya, we had about a month between normal weekends, but things are settling back down for a few weeks…

5) …until we head out on Easter night for a week’s vacation in Antigua, Guatemala!  Enough said.

That will have to do for the moment.  I apologize again for my delinquency.  I will try to remedy the deficiency in the near future.

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Happy Mardi Gras! And also: Flores.

I don’t have much to say about Mardi Gras.  My thoughts run something like this:

1) So apparently we are celebrating a sort of hybrid festival, derived both from normal, American Mardi Gras and “Pancake Day,” an observance brought to us by our new British friends (medical students volunteering at the clinic for a month).  I am not sure whether this is a real thing, or they just decided “These Americans seem uncultured, let’s see what they will believe!”  Anyway, it involves eating pancakes and having pancake games and events.  But pancakes are crepes.  Unless they are Scotch pancakes.  I don’t know, it’s confusing.

2) LENT lent lent howdidthishappen I’mnotreadyforthis LENT what am I going to do LENT this time of year is hard LENT I need to come up with something before tomorrow LENT but why is the sugar gone LENT at least maybe the ants will go away AAACK!

3) Also, the other volunteers’ friend…who lives in New Orleans…happens to be visiting over Mardi Gras (O.k., she “happens” to be visiting because they get a week off for Mardi Gras there, no joke!).  She has promised to conjure up some gumbo and she brought a heckuva lot of plastic beads.  So…gumbo and pancakes, anyone?

So anyway.  I think that about covers Mardi Gras.  On a less spazzy note, we just returned from another three-day weekend in Flores, Guatemala.  Flores is small, and we basically did most of the same things we did the first time, so as I took pictures I kept thinking “this is going to be kind of a repeat of my post from September.”  But we did a few different things this time, and the trip definitely had a different feel to it.  In September, we had known each other for a month, and we were also a larger group.  Now we are basically a family, so our getaway was very comfortable and relaxed.

And so, without further ado, I present some highlights:

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There was morning hammock time on the roof of our hostel.  It has a thatched roof and a lake view, as well as double-wide denim hammocks straight from heaven above.

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Peaceful breakfasts at Cool Beans, a favorite restaurant of ours.  The whole back of the establishment is open to the lake, overhung with vines and quite beautiful in the morning…although the direct sunlight makes it tough to capture.

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I should mention that, like most tourist spots I’ve seen throughout Central America, Cool Beans is a hippie haven.  It has books and guitars and odd trinkets and tribal things floating around in huge concentrations, and is frequented by Americans and Europeans with dreads and natural auras.  I have to say that it is strange to be an American in Central America for a reason besides tourism, because I am not at all the type of American I generally see walking around; and Central America caters quite well to its hippie clientele.

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We basked in the sun and swam, but the swimming was a little strange because the lake was probably a good four feet higher than it was in September.  The docks were all a couple feet under water, and slimy with moss or algae of some sort.

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We had drinks and enjoyed yet another stunning restaurant with an open lake view and tropical plants (but this one had Italian food!  Oh, my fettucine alla carbonara, how I missed your pastaness.).  From happy hour at yet a different restaurant we watched the sun set over the lake…and Jack played with the “sunset” setting on my camera.  (I think it might just be a pink filter, but whatever.)

But look, look at my glorious strawberry daiquiri!  Also, I finally got sunglasses from the shopping mall in Santa Elena (over the bridge from Flores).  Eric picked them.  Can you tell?

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Also, we went to Burger King, where I got a quesoburguesa doble again, and papas fritas, and comported my Spanish order slightly better than last time.  Eric got a four-layer stacked burger thing that they don’t even sell in the states any more.  And Jack got curly fries!

And the guys rented a kayak for an hour.  I got to take it out for the last 8 minutes.  I had forgotten how much fun kayaking is (also how much easier than I expected).

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I could go on with more pictures of salads and pasta and the best frozen yogurt in history and on and on, but I will spare you a post all about food (mostly).  Not that I haven’t been known to do that in the past.

Last time we were in Flores I only managed to get a couple pictures of the beautiful old church.  This time it was all decorated with swags of fabric and flower balls (no, really, flower balls) for some reason, so they are even better.

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Anyway.  I could show y’all the pictures I forced Jack to take at the market, out of the van window, but I think I’m going to devote a special post to Central American markets.  In the meantime, enjoy this marching band which randomly showed up in the middle of Flores on Sunday morning.  (Not shown in video: trail of people and children in various unrelated costumes.  I don’t know what the occasion was, unless Halloween comes in March here, but it was exciting and highly entertaining.)

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Groundbreaking!

This eventful weekend, we celebrated the official groundbreaking for the first building of JPII Junior College.  Someone donated land up by Chapel Hill, and it had been leveled and prepared for the construction project, but work had not really begun.  This Saturday, the bishop came all the way from Belize City to bless the grounds and officially kick things off.

Students were required to show up, so when I got to the church, I found most of them sitting in a row on a wall outside the parish hall.  “Aren’t people here yet?”  “Yes, miss, there are people inside.”  “You just don’t want to go in?”  “[Pregnant silence.]”  Ahh…I see.”  (I must admit that I understood their plight.)  Although it was like herding cats (in the form of Honorable Area Representatives and Bishops), we eventually got everyone inside the parish hall for a nice little prelude of, wait for it…marimba and flute music.  I have been dying to post a video of the marimba music for you all, so this was quite fortuitous.  I have always felt funny about the idea of pulling out my camera in the middle of mass and recording the Sanctus, but here we have marimba music in a non-mass setting; and it is down where I can actually show them playing, not up in the church choir loft.  These videos aren’t great quality.  The music definitely sounds more melodic in person, but you get the idea:

Anyway, the prelude went on for a characteristically long time, but after a while Mr. David came up and speechified for a bit.  He introduced Mr. Habet, who is the benefactor for the building project, the Hon. Erwin Contreras, our area representative, and Bishop Doric Wright, amongst others.  Someone teased him about forgetting the teachers, so later in the ceremony he introduced us as well, but I thought that was funny after all the important bigwigs.

Anyway, he called up the leading student representative girl, and she speechified for a while before we all piled into a rented bus (converted school bus of course!) and bumbled our way up to the construction site.  Luckily the dry season has begun.  The road is not a good one.

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Well, the bishop didn’t pile into the bus.  He is rather older and somewhat blind and merits a special car trip.  Along with most of the priests.  Even though they are not blind.

At the site, there were readings from scripture and intercessions, read by students who were given very little notice:

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Then Bishop Doric Wright (Who is so so cool!  Just look at him!) said some prayers and blessed the grounds with holy water.

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In a spurt of normalcy rigged up just half an hour before, there was a “ribbon cutting”  (Ribbon to what?  We don’t really know.)  The bishop wielded the scissors himself, flanked by the Hon. Erwin Contreras (area rep.), Mr. Salvador Habet (benefactor), and Fr. John (pastor).  I don’t think any more important people could have fit.

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And then, everybody important got a shovel and took a “dig” at the hard, hard earth.  In the words of Mr. David, “The bishop will get the gold shovel, Mr. Contreras the silver, and…”  Yes, I actually looked at the shovels at that point.  They were all the same color.

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At some point I wandered off and got a couple shots of the grounds and the view of Benque from our little hill, though I didn’t get good pictures of either.

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And then we had a photo shoot.  Just a leetle one.  Below are the students, teachers, bishop, Fr. John and Mr. David andIthinkthat’severyone…nope, also Fr. Scott and Amin, and I think THAT is everyone.  Minus Eric.  He was floating in and out of the sphere of reality all afternoon, setting up tents instead of attending speechifying, hauling food instead of attending Pomp and Circumstance, and generally being useful…

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The teachers, Mr. David, Fr. David (yes, they are different people), Amin, and whoever-else-felt-like-jumping-in.  Mr. Hernan.  That’s who else.  (I keep trying to label these without actually taking a close look at them.  Apologies all around.)

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When the paparazzi tired (or were satiated), we piled back into our garish school bus and rumbly-tumbled our way back down to the parish hall, where we enjoyed a delightful repast of warm cinnamon rolls (The school cafeteria people make them for special occasions and oh! they might be the most normal amazing thing I’ve had in Belize.  Though I feel that claim is too strong to make without some more consideration.), empanadas, sandwiches, and juice.  That’s right, folks, cinnamon rolls and empanadas.  We sat around and chatted in raised voices to the accompaniment of plenty marimba music, which I love (you may have noticed) provided by the “Marimba Academy” of Benque (Their shirts say it.  True?  True.).

In the end, ground having been broken, all the Honorables and Venerables having been thanked, empanadas having been consumed with gusto (Jack, Eric and I at first shared one little bag of foodstuffs between us, comically passing our one cinnamon roll and empanada back and forth between bites.  Then a bunch more foodstuffs appeared on the scene, and everyone got their own, so we each got 1 1/3 bag of refreshments.), people trickled pleasantly out, the marimba academy lifted their marimbas on their shoulders and trotted down the street, and the parish hall filled with echoes and breezes.  Grounds have been well and truly broken; we have crossed the rubicon.

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Recruitment: Experiences from an Unwilling Used Car Salesman

I don’t like speaking in front of people.  I think if someone had told me when I was fourteen that it would ever be my job to go around making speeches to high school students and education professionals (let alone the fact that this would happen in a developing country, through a multi-layered language barrier), I would have laughed – and then I might have gone grey and shaky and refused to speak for a couple of hours.  I was a bit extreme about the whole nerves thing in those days.

I suppose this experience actually began quite early in the semester, just after Christmas.  It was a Friday morning, so I had gone to mass at the high school (We always have an all-school mass on Friday morning.)  I had trotted home to my tea and oatmeal, and was just sitting down to breakfast when my phone rang.  It was Mr. David.  “Where are you?”  “Um…I’m at home.”  “I didn’t see you after mass…I meant to invite you to a meeting.”  “When is the meeting?”  “At 9:30.”  I looked at the time.  It was 9:27.

“Well…I will be late, is that o.k.?”  “Yes, just come.  It’s at the school.  All the deans and principals of all the Catholic junior colleges and high schools in Belize will be there.  And the bishop.  I would really like you to come.”  “O.k., I’ll be there in a few minutes.”  Um…all the WHAT?  And the BISHOP?  “Invitation” can be said in many ways, I guess.

I shoveled down a few more spoonfuls of oatmeal, chugged as much of my scalding tea as I could stand, and then surveyed my appearance.  Wet hair, no makeup, a t-shirt and a skirt, and foam flip-flops.  Eh…It would have to do.  No one cares about me anyway.

When I got there, Mr. David was nowhere to be found, but the bishop and lots of official looking people were milling about.  After some frantic texts, I figured out where I was supposed to be, and awkwardly took a seat by the assistant principal of the high school.  At least she was a familiar face.  Eventually Mr. David showed up, looking unfairly professional, and I gave him my seat and found another amongst strangers.

The meeting commenced.  Mr. David whispered with the nun beside him, and threw a few glances my direction, laughing at my confused expression.  Eventually he rearranged things so he could sit by me.  “We are supposed to give a presentation on JPIIJC.  All the junior colleges are giving presentations.”  Ours was especially important, since JPII was the new school on the block.  As the meeting raged unproductively around us, we started looking through his PowerPoint presentation.  “Would you like to help me?”  he asked.  “Umm…sure.”  “O.k., can you give the presentation from…this slide to this slide?”  Woah woah woah, what?  Give a presentation.  I was not prepared for this.  The bishop, the deans, the principals…the whole country…  O.k., the bishop was asleep.  “Fine, I can do that.”

And that is how I ended up in front of a roomful of Belizean higher education professionals, wearing a t-shirt and foam flip-flops (Believe me, I could see those high-powered, successful woman-professionals in Belizean power suits noticing my footwear.), explaining the principles, tradition, and importance of liberal education almost entirely off the top of my head.  Good thing I had reviewed our goals over Christmas.

Oddly enough, our presentation was warmly received.  The lady next to me, who seemed to be the headmistress of one of the high schools, whispered a request for a copy of our presentation when I sat back down.  Several people thanked us for our presentation and expressed enlightenment regarding liberal education.  But never again will I walk into such a situation without changing my shoes first.

That presentation was a foreshadowing of things to come.  We began our recruitment trips last week.  We have appointments to speak to the 4th form classes at seven high schools in the area over the next few weeks.  We began with a presentation at Mount Carmel, our own high school.  I was incredibly glad to start there.  Our presentation needed polishing, and we knew some of the kids already.  As it was, the thing went over a bit…lead-ballon-ish-ly.  The presentation was long and rambling…less than riveting.  I was internally kicking and screaming for release by the end, and I’m not even in high school.

Yesterday we went to St. Ignatius, which is in Cayo.  My first forray off home turf was nerve-wracking.  As the projector and students were getting organized, I said to Mr. David, “I don’t like this.”  “Like what?”  “Speaking.  In front of people.  I don’t like it.”  And he just laughed at me.

As he opened the presentation and began to talk about the liberal arts, I started planning tactics.  They aren’t engaged.  This sounds crazy and boring.  They aren’t even listening anymore.  I need to wake them up.  They need to see that this education is something worth fighting for.  I am passionate about it…but I can never express passion.  Holy Spirit, please help me to present it the way they need to hear it.  When he handed me the microphone (Yes, microphone.  Sigh.), I switched into a bright, cheerful, awake version of myself, never seen before or since.  Well, probably seen before.  I’ve taught an awful lot of classes since I was fourteen…surely that counts for something?  I asked the students questions, made jokes, teased them.

It was better than the Mount Carmel presentation.  The reasons I know this are: 1) It was shorter.  Q.E.D. 2) Several students actually took application forms.  I think only one or two Mount Carmel students asked for them.  3) When we gave a little survey at the end of the presentation (What do you plan to do after high school?  Why?  What area of studies interests you?  How much had you heard about our school before?), more students expressed at least moderate interest in JPIIJC, and a few even put down Liberal Arts as their area of interest.  My favorite survey actually listed “Liberable Arts.”  Success.

I attribute the improvement to my footwear.  We have another presentation tomorrow, and four more in the weeks to come.  Probably by the last school, we will have a perfect presentation.  Especially if someone sends me Prada.  But seriously.  Any takers?

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