It Starts With Me

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Our team at the place where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

I can’t even begin to tell all of the stories of hope and change and self-sacrifice that I had the immense honor of listening to and immersing into while I was in Israel/Palestine with The Global Immersion Project.

As we sat overlooking the shore of the Sea of  Galilee towards the end of our trip, which had been filled with meeting peacemakers, learning from people of different faiths and ethnicities and backgrounds, and traveling around Israel and Palestine, we were posed the question:

What is God calling you into that doesn’t make sense?

The answer for me was an overwhelming and freeing call to DEEP PEACE within myself. To be reconciled. To grow in my worship and discipleship of the Prince of Peace. 

As one who’s been particularly gung-ho about ACTING in the face of injustice, this call to deep peace WITHIN myself didn’t make sense. When I learn about a new social issue, I want to immediately change my shopping habits, join some kind of club or group and do what I can to volunteer my time and money and skills to help the cause.

I know this about myself.

In fact, God’s been subtly and not-so-subtly been calling me to stop and sit at His feet, especially in the moments when I most want to run out and change the world.

He’s said it before.

Bask. 

Come to me. 

Be loved.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise as I sat overlooking the choppy, wind blown Sea of Galilee, that Jesus once again called me to step out on the waves on a journey to be loved, to find peace–with myself. But it did.

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I didn’t know any Hebrew or Arabic going into the trip. I found it wonderfully poetic that the first two words we learned on this peacemaking endeavor were words that mean peace: Shalom in Hebrew and Salaam in Arabic. These words  are used as common greetings and can be heard throughout the bustling streets of Jerusalem.

Peace. Shalom. Salaam.

My understanding of shalom from Sunday School days reminds me that peace doesn’t just mean the absence of violence, but something more. Shalom implies wholeness, completeness, a life, a heart, a world undivided.

Integrity.

And this peacemaking starts at home. Yes, in our homes–with our spouses, roommates, children–but even closer to home. In our own hearts.

Our leader and fellow peacemaker, Jon Huckins, explained it like this in his recent reflections on the trip:

As our participants see and experience the pain and injustice that exists in this region, there is a natural pull to pick sides and get really pissed off. The opposite extreme is to see the conflict, be so overwhelmed with its complexities and want to simply walk away. Neither option is the work of peacemaking and my (and my partner, Jer Swigart) work is to walk with people towards a more constructive place in their formation, which usually means confronting the evil within ourselves before confronting the evil around us. It is ridiculously difficult!!

Before I confront the evil around me, I must reconcile the evil, the selfishness and greed and obsession with self- and image-preservation in my own heart.

I must first be reconciled by the Prince of Peace.

When asked how he can love and live as he does, one of the peacemakers we met replied that he can reconcile others because he is reconciled. The growth started within and the fruit is abundant in his life, in his family, in his community. (I’ll share more of his story later.)

So before I start sharing these stories of people carrying out lives of unwarranted compassion, I wanted to reiterate the need to seek Him first, to seek to be reconciled in our own hearts and souls.

And this being reconciled is not a one time thing.  The call is to grow into this new, reconciled self. Not as a means to our own happy ends, but as a peacemaking practice. As a spiritual discipline. As the first step in bringing shalom, salaam, wholeness to the world.

If you, too, want to go deeper in your journey of cultivating inner peace, here are a few suggestions that I’ve either found helpful in the past or am committed to trying as I move forward. Feel free to share your thoughts, suggestions, and peacemaking practices. Thanks!

Some inner peace cultivating practices: 

  • Practice the Prayer of Examen: Developed by St. Ignatius, the prayer of examen is a daily ritual of checking in with God, focusing your eyes and your heart on where He is moving, and praying into the areas of your life where you struggle to put Him first. Find out more here.
  • Read the Sermon on the Mount every day for 1 month and reflect on the call of Jesus. (I’ve never done this, but I’m starting now. We’ll see where it takes me!) IMG_4770
  • Spend time in nature or another favorite place with God. This has long been my favorite inner peace making activity. Just sitting and listening to the waves of the ocean or breathing in the fresh forest air in a grove of pine trees is where I am most strongly reminded of God’s overpowering, irrational love for me with all of my faults and weaknesses.
  • Pray for the enemies within you. I’ve always thought of myself as a peaceful person because of my excellent conflict avoidance and appeaser skills, but I have been struck by the idea that being a peacemaker actually requires us to move TOWARD conflict. I’ve been specifically challenged to look at the areas of conflict within myself that I’ve been avoiding and God may be calling me to enter into. If I can’t even face my own conflict and pain, how can I expect to bring peace to other people? This idea paired up nicely with a book I’m reading called When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd. She wrote, “to be spiritual is to confront our pain, rather than make an enemy out of it. When Jesus told us to love our enemies, I suspect that he was talking about our inner enemies too. He knew that love was the only means by which to transform them.” Our own inner work of restoration and reconciliation can parallel our actions as peacemakers in our spheres of influence. 
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Lives of Unwarranted Compassion

IMG_4557Years ago I had an experience with the God of Compassion that changed the course of my life.  In the aftermath of anger, depression, and outrage at injustice in the world, He wooed me with His surprising, redemptive, and mischievous face. With what I called fits of unwarranted compassion. 

Yesterday I returned from a 10 days of traveling through Israel and Palestine with The Global Immersion Project to learn about the conflict in the Middle East and between Israel and Palestine in particular (a daunting task I know).

Again, God showed up in the midst of anger, depression, and my own outrage at injustice. Although this time, God took the form of everyday people, of everyday peacemakers. 

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It was an incredible way to learn about a people and a conflict and cultures that I’ve never really known much about. I learned from and was welcomed by Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. I was encouraged and convicted by the creative seeds of hope and peace they plant daily in the most contentious soil in the world.

I haven’t even begun to wrap my head and my heart around what I’ve learned and seen. How I’ve been challenged and convicted. Called out to contend for the common humanity of the people around me. The people I often choose to ignore. Not to see.

Over the next weeks and months I hope to share with you the stories of peace and hope and brokenness and life that I was invited into. Once a week I will be blogging about these everyday peacemakers.

These people who live out LIVES OF UNWARRANTED COMPASSION. Not just fits and bursts, but entire lives dedicated to the costly work of peacemaking. Of choosing compassion and understanding when it would be so easy to choose hatred, bitterness, self-protection.

One of our peacemakers that we met at The Tent of Nations, Daoud Nassar, told us,

“The moment you open your heart to another, you are more powerful than your enemy–even if they have a gun.”

(Check out an interview with Daoud on Relevant Magazine here if you want to get a sneak peak of the incredible stories and sacrifices these peacemakers live.)

I pray that together, through these stories I am so humbled to share, we can open our hearts to new stories, to the those we do not understand, and to those we may even want to call our enemies.
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Writing, God, Depression, and Surrender

So one of the reasons, the main reason, I haven’t been blogging is because I’ve been dealing with depression. Not just a few bad days, but full-blown-take-over-my-mind-and-my-life-depression.

If you haven’t done so, please take a moment to review another Allie’s informative and–I think–pretty spot on description of depression here.


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Ok, done with that? It’s important.

The depression started with burnout at my last job. Then moved to sadness sadness sadness when I moved to Guatemala. Instead of excitement, I felt an overwhelming sense of grief–missing friends, missing community, missing meaningful work.

Then came the numbness. For some unexplainable reason I was no longer excited to speak Spanish or go salsa dancing or tutor women in reading and math–things I used to love and be so passionate about. I didn’t know why I’d rather stay inside and watch Netflix than explore the city and make new friends. I was living the dream, but it felt like I was frozen in a nightmare.

I thought I was just taking a long time to bounce back from the burnout. I thought I had a really bad case of homesickness. I thought I wasn’t adjusting well, was bad at making friends, was lazy. I thought I was a failure.

I didn’t realize it was also my brain chemistry working really hard against me.

I was really sad for a really long time and nothing seemed to make it better. Since I’ve been back, the intensity of the sadness has lessened. I like being around my friends here. I like the beach. I’m not lonely anymore.

But I still don’t feel like me. Like Allie described, I feel pretty numb (which I must admit feels better than sad). Or, more accurately, I don’t really feel anything. Just a lethargy, a void. But the worst worst worst part of depression for me, an introvert, a writer, a person who has Intellection in her Top Five Strengths, isn’t the emotional numbness, but the mental numbness. A fog. A grogginess. Like someone keeps dosing my morning coffee with Nyquil.

It’s made life pretty sucky and unexciting. And it’s made writing almost unbearable. It’s like this. Let’s say writing were a physical activity, not just a mental one. For instance, running. Writing a blog post or a grant proposal would be like running a mile. I used to do it no problem. I was born to run. I lived for the runner’s high. I didn’t mind the shin splints or the side aches. The feeling of wind in and out of my lungs as I rounded the track was unmatched.

Then I got sick. I’m not sure if it was overtraining or not cross training enough or a nasty virus just happened to pick me. I don’t know if I’ll ever know what or why this happened. But suddenly it just felt wrong. Like trying to run a mile with the flu. You can probably do it, but it feels crappy and your legs don’t work quite right and you want to just lay on the sidelines and puke or fall asleep instead.sick-mom

Unlike the flu, with depression you can look alright from the outside. Everyone kept telling me to keep running. You’re so talented, they said. You can still do it. You just have to keep training and it will work out.

I got to the point where I had to decide that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I knew for me, I couldn’t. I can’t. I feel sick. I feel like my brain has been taken over by poison or a sedative, like I’m running through molasses. It’s not fun anymore.

I’ve spent the time since I got back to the States trying to figure this out. I took a hard break from writing–hence my blogging absence. I’m seeing doctors. I’m trying different prescriptions, different therapies. I’m trying to get this under control. I have an incredible community who cares for me and supports me and has been with me every step of the way. A group of amazing women who say, “we don’t understand this sickness, but we love you anyways and we’re here to help.” They show me grace, grace, grace.

The grace I’ve had so much trouble extending to myself.

I’ve been terrified that this is the new me. That I’ll be stuck in this brain dead land forever. That I’ll never be passionate about anything again. That I may never write again.

I’ve made a lot of bad choices. Trying to feel again or numb again or distract from the numbness.

I’ve been stuck in fear. Stuck living for the hell of it. I’ve no longer felt like life matters, so I’ve lived like it doesn’t matter.

I keep praying, God, if you heal me of depression. If you give me my life back, my brain back, my joy back, I will praise your name you to all the ends of the earth. I will glorify you. I will use my life and my brain and my joy to serve you. See how much good I did while working at Plant With Purpose. Serving at church. Writing on this blog. I’ll do that again if you heal me.

To which he replied (and continues to reply), “Serve me now.”

I reel. How is this the best option? How is this good for anyone? Why wouldn’t He want to heal me of depression? To give me life and life to the full?

To which he doesn’t answer. He just repeats. “Serve me now.”

He says, “I love you whether or not you have depression. Whether or not you write. Whether or not you make wise choices. Whether or not you feel like you’re in control.

It’s your turn to trust me whether you are depressed or not. Whether you write or not. Whether you make wise choices or not. Whether or not you feel like you’re in control.

Because you’re never really in control, no matter how you feel about it. I am. And I love you. And I am good.”

My pastor gave a sermon awhile back on wrestling with God. On the importance of honesty. He said that’s it’s ok to be honest with God about our disappointments. And the truth is. I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that living in Guatemala felt so lonely. I’m disappointed that I haven’t yet found a job back here in the States. I’m disappointed that it’s all been so hard. I’m disappointed that depression stole what should have been the best year, the best adventure, of my life. I’m disappointed in myself and in my circumstances.

It’s okay to be honest with God. He knows my disappointment. He can take it. He can take my pain and my anger. He hurts with me.

In the sermon, my pastor emphasized that RADICAL TRUST IN GOD ALWAYS PAYS OFF.

Not that our prayers will always be answered. Not that my depression will be cured and this mental fog will be lifted.

But God is good and He loves us. He’s the only one worth trusting in.

So ever so reluctantly, I’m shifting my focus. I’m switching my prayers. I’m surrendering to the God of Love that I’ve failed to trust in for so long.

Today I will say,

I surrender to you, O God. I will trust in your Love. I will hope in your Love. Even if my depression never lifts. Even if I never get my brain or my life or my identity as a thinker/writer/processer back.

I am Yours.

Amen.

So I don’t I know if I’ll keep up blogging. I don’t know if writing will get easier. If depression will become a dark spot in my past or something I’ll deal with forever. I just wanted to share this with you. To explain a little about where I’ve been and where I hope to be going. Thanks for listening.

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Slow

My life since moving back to the States has been characterized by one word. Slow. It’s been slow going finding a full-time job. My days are slow. My schedule is slow. My part-time job as an elderly caregiver is a particularly slow and patience-cultivating endeavor.

It’s been a struggle to set a schedule, a pace, and to find meaning in the slow moments. To view the moments as SLOW and not (as my productivity-oriented mind is want to do) EMPTY or USELESS.

I wake in the morning and my mind races to all of the things I know I SHOULD BE doing: working out, sending emails, scouring the 7 different job sites that have become my daily hang outs.

But what happens when I don’t jump to attention? Would the world end if I spent a lazy morning in bed?

Here are some thoughts.

Maybe it’s ok to have a SLOW (not lazy) morning. To write while snuggled in fleece sheets. To not jump up and out of bed to pound the pavement. 

 

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To have no pressure to start the morning with military-like discipline and self-control lest the day “gets away from me.”

The pull to take advantage of every opportunity–my time, this city, every meal low in calories and bursting with nutrition. 

 

 

Maybe it’s enough to say, “I’m here now and I’m okay.”

I’m not avoiding, I’m savoring. I’m slowing. I’m listening. Not because I CAN’T be productive, but because I CAN be here in this moment. 

I don’t have to be on the top of a mountain or on the edge of the ocean to experience God. 

             

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 I don’t have to 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

but be here.

Because He is here. 

Send me on a Global Immersion

Hello! I’ve missed you. Missed this.

Today I am posting for the first time since coming back to the States to tell you that I’m leaving again. No, I’m not moving again. My heart and my feet are planted firmly back here in San Diego.

But I am excited to tell you that I’ll be traveling to the Holy Land for two weeks at the end of February. 

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I don’t know much the about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the politics or the history–besides the colorful maps that accompanied the pink Precious Moments Bible I had as a kid. I do know it is a region of great hope and expectation as well as a place of injustice and pain for Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide. I don’t know much, but I want to learn more.

Israel is a far cry from salsa dancing and mangos, but my desire to go stems from the same goals that led me to Central America. I’m excited to search for the bright spots. To learn from men and women who are seeking third ways and actively working toward peace. To open my heart to yet another region of the world in order to more thoughtfully and intentionally care for those in my immediate world.

When I was in Guatemala last year I was very lucky to live with a family that taught me so much about how to engage thoughtfully in really complex and overwhelming problems—poverty, civil war, genocide. They introduced me to the idea of choosing a third way in a conflict, not taking sides, but being pro-peace. Throughout my year in Guatemala, I met some courageous and creative men and women who are working to bring hope and peace to their communities.

I’ll be joining with a unique learning community made up of men and women who span the spectrum of society to learn and travel together to the Holy Land. The experience is being guided by The Global Immersion Project (TGIP), a humanitarian organization that seeks to cultivate peacemakers through immersion in global conflict. TGIP has carefully developed a network of Israeli & Palestinian leaders and friends who will help train us for the work of local and global peacemaking.


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Our cultivation will take place in three phases: (1) Understanding; (2) Exposure; and (3) Integration. The Understanding phase has already begun as our learning community is exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as developing a practical grid for everyday peacemaking. The Exposure phase will occur from February 28-March 9 on the ground in the Holy Land and will involve shared tables & friendship-making with the everyday peacemakers embedded within the conflict. The Integration phase will help us to process and learn from our journey as a whole while gaining the necessary resources to live as everyday peacemakers within the familiar soil of our North American contexts.

I’ve had the opportunity to do some grant writing for TGIP this past year, and I have been struck again and again by their thoughtfulness, integrity, optimism, and commitment to peace. There’s no one else I’d rather learn from or journey with to the Holy Land. Plus, one of my bestest friends and favorite processing pal—the daughter of the couple I lived with in Guatemala—is going too. Icing on the cake.

As you know, I am someone who longs to participate, locally and globally, with God in His work of restoration & reconciliation. I view this experience as an environment where God’s cultivation of me will further focus and fuel His just and compassionate reach to others through me. Would you prayerfully consider financially investing in my growth in this way?

The entire cost of the experience is $3000 + flight. All donations are tax- deductible and will be processed through TGIP’s organizational sponsor: a registered nonprofit called Thresholds.

To contribute financially to TGIP via Thresholds’ secure website:

1. Please go to: www.thresholdscommunity.org/, click “Contribute”, then choose the “Give Online” option. From there, select my name (the first one–woohoo!) from the pull down list of people and projects. (To reach this page directly, click here.) You will receive an email confirmation of your gift that can also be used for tax purposes.

2. To give by check, please go to the “Contribute” page on Threshold’s web site. From this page, under the “Give by Mail” section, you will be able to print out a pledge card and return it with a check made payable to “Thresholds” at the address given. You will receive a printed receipt from Thresholds for tax purposes.

I also welcome your prayers and encouragement, questions and feedback. I’ll be posting updates and musings here and would love you to journey with me here on my blog or over coffee or chai tea lattes or Skype dates.

Thanks for your love and support,

Aly

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Leaving on a Jet Plane

That’s right. My time in Guatemala is coming to a close. Tomorrow marks my one-year anniversary of living in the land  of eternal springtime, volcanos, cobblestone streets, and tortillas and mangos to boot.

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My original goal/plan was to live abroad for a year, and the time has come for me to move back to San Diego. I’ve learned a lot about myself this year, who I am whenno one’s looking, what I really value, and, especially, how grateful I am to have the friends and support I do back in San Diego. I’m sad to leave my new friends and this magical place, but am excited about the next chapter in my life. I don’t have a job or a place to live lined up yet, but I trust this is the right step for me.

I’m sorry the blogging has been few and far between lately, but I’ve been trying to soak up the last of my time here. I’ll get back to a more consistent schedule once I’m in the States. I’m sure I’ll have tons of processing and percolating to do with the new transition.

Thanks for reading, and I’d appreciate your prayers for the next few weeks and wisdom for my next steps.

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Finding Beautiful: A Whimsy Watch

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Today I’m joining the gang over at Five Minute Friday to write on the topic of Beautiful.

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I recently read an article about embracing whimsy in Darling Magazine (which is fabulous, btdubs). So I went on a whimsy walk, a whimsy watch. Sometimes I spend so much time missing my friends and family and “home,” that I forget this place, this country, Guatemala, is so beautiful, magical, delightful.

On my whimsy walk I see all things beautiful. All things magnificent.

-Flowers sprouting out of tiled rooftops–thin stems bursting into star-shaped clusters.

-A girl in a Cinderella gown, glittering tiara, white silk gloves up to her elbows, a white feather wand framing her face and up-done hair on a photo shoot around town. She’s posing by the fountain, in front of the arch. And then, peaking below the lace of her dress, ordinary flip-flops on an ordinary 15-year-old girl’s dusty feet.

-Faded tiles on out-cropping windows, trapped behind wrought iron bars. Faded beauty behind the barrier.

-A pug puppy, black snouted and snuggled into the armpit of a young girl

-A toddler with a full, black bowl cut chasing and tumbling after bubbles blown by his giggling mother.

-A baby being pushed in a red car stroller.

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-A chocolate lab splashing after a yellow ball in the fountain. Shakes off as a water flies from his Hershey fur.

-Clouds swirling the top of the volcano like whipped cream on a sundae.

-A flash of bow tie as a man drives by in a red Jetta and I dodge a disheveled drunk clambering towards me on the sidewalk.
-Two boys, 8 or so, competing to hand me a restaurant flyer. “You cheated, you ran!” complained the one. “You never said I couldn’t,” says the other, smugly. I fold the flyer into my pocket, smiling as I go.

-Paint peeling off old buildings in a splatter paint pattern.

-A crowd watching a clown juggle sticks aflame.

-A pouting girl tucked into a doorway, exasperated parents try to coax her and her protruding lip to keep walking.

This place is magical. The ice cream, the sliced fruits. The two seasons in one—clear skies in morning, rainstorms at night. It’s beautiful.

Not just because it’s foreign. The mix of people. The diversity of families–not just the tourist families with white, chunky ankles above their Teva sandals or the slim European girls in the wildly patterned leggings. But even among the Guatemalans. The indigenous families in their traje. The mom showcasing a variety of colorful scarves on her forearm. Tiny girls with skirts cinched around their miniscule waists. Dads in slacks with slick hair. Then the capitalinos–the families that came from the city to spend the day walking in the park. Trendy skinny jeans, pointy leather shoes for men and perilous high heels for women, faux hawks and chunky necklaces. The barefoot gringos with dreadlocks and braided bracelets.

Magic all around. Beauty all around. Whimsy all around.

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It’s beautiful to sit in the park and smirk to myself as the middle aged American woman stutters broken Spanish to the middle aged Guatemalan tour guide who’s always sitting on the same bench in the park, khaki tour guide vest, always talking to a different middle aged foreign woman about the weather, the city, the people. Indiscriminately commenting that “your Spanish is so good.” And she replies with a beam of pride and downcast eyes and slight shake of the head and the Spanish equivalent of “No, I know only little.”

I know only little, too, but it’s dazzlingly beautiful.

***

Five Minute Friday
This post is part of Lisa Jo Baker’s Five Minute Friday prompt, Beautiful. Every Friday, we turn off our inner critics and perfectionists and just write for five minutes straight. Zero editing. Just a stream of conscious free for all. And then we all link up and encourage each other. To learn more about Five Minute Friday and how you can participate click here.

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Rhythm: Five Minute Friday

Today I’m joining the gang over at Five Minute Friday to write on the topic of Rhythm, or, in my case, the lack thereof.

Ready. Go.

Rhythm: It’s what I can’t catch.

“Set a schedule. Make a routine.” They all told me when I quit my full time job.

But here in the land of “Fijese” and “hora chapina,” a set schedule is hard to come by.

I’m always flailing. Always floundering. Some weeks I try to “fake it till I make it.” But there’s only so much faking you can do until you just feel empty. Like all of you is fake. And you can’t remember what it even felt like to be real. To be engaged. To want to work and write and engage.

I want to pray and write and work out. Set a life rhythm that does just that—give life. But I’ve lost my resolve. My self-discipline. How much rest is too much?

When is it time to dive back in?

Should I try harder or try less? Trying harder harder harder. Knuckle down, buckle down is what led me to burnout in the first place. Is it really wise to knuckle down into another schedule, a new routine?

I think yes. I think it’s what I need.

I ache for a rhythm. To get back in a groove.

I think of a good salsa dance. The stepping in and stepping back. One, two, three, pausa, five, six, seven, pausa.

Yes, there’s a pause. But it starts again. On the next 8-count. The next 4-count.

I’ve had too much inertia, too much pausing, resting, waiting.

But the music goes on.

In salsa, a step backwards is actually the first step. (for the girl at least).

I’ve had my pausa. Even if I’m stepping backward. I’m ready to take a step.

***

Five Minute Friday
This post is part of Lisa Jo Baker’s Five Minute Friday prompt, Rhythm. Every Friday, we turn off our inner critics and perfectionists and just write for five minutes straight. Zero editing. Just a stream of conscious free for all. And then we all link up and encourage each other. To learn more about Five Minute Friday and how you can participate click here.

Sticky Love

Caramel Apple

 

Your love is sticky like a caramel apple

clinging to the webs of my fingers, the corners of my lips

stubbornly sticking in the places even I forget.

*Image by holisticmonkey

T.S. Tuesday: Lessons from Life as a Gringa

“It is not necessarily those lands which are the most fertile or most favored in climate that seem to me the happiest, but those in which a long struggle of adaptation between man and his environment has brought out the best qualities of both.”  T.S. Eliot

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I’ve been living in a foreign country for ten months, and I haven’t found my new home to provide the most fertile ground for deep, lasting friendship and personal growth. I haven’t found it to be, as Eliot suggests, a favored climate for the fruiting of my best qualities. In fact, many days I feel like moving abroad has brought out my worst traits, unearthing my shiest, most insecure, unwelcoming roots.

Ten months is hardly a long struggle and I’m not nearly as well-adapted as I thought I’d be by now, but I have learned a few things along the way.

For starters, tolerance. Not tolerance meaning anything goes, although some days it does feel like that when cat calls and butt grabs in the streets are shrugged off with a sigh and a “that’s Guatemala for you.” But I mean tolerance in the sense that I’m learning that it really, really in the grand scheme of things doesn’t matter whether the people I associate with wear the trendiest clothes or went to the most prestigious schools or use the right amount of snark and hipster references in their Facebook posts.

I’m learning that everyone has value and something to offer. Enough with the cheese, you’re probably thinking right now. That sounds like something you learn in kindergarten. You’re right, I’m sure I did learn it in kindergarten.

People matter. All kinds of people matter. No matter their age or race or language or cultural or educational background.

I’ve known it all my life, but I’ve really lived it here in Guatemala as I’ve interacted with and I’ve learned from and met people so different from me.

It’s also what’s been hard–feeling out-of-place. These ten months have been a lesson in humility. There are very few moments when I’m out and about that I don’t feel strange or uncomfortable or downright stupid. But I think (I hope) this experience is molding me, shaping me to be more accepting of others, more tolerant of what I used to see as irks and flaws, more open to simply being with people, in the moment, with no judgment and no expectations.

I’ve stumbled into trouble, for sure. I have difficulty discerning, as a guest in this country, when I’m supposed to just go with the flow and when I’m allowed to take a stand and set my own boundaries. When I’m allowed to say no. I’m sure I could write a whole book on how not to live the cross-cultural life, but that’s another discussion.

In this country where I’m daily schooled in grammar and syntax by people with a third grade education and all of my preconceived ideas of male attractiveness have been thrown out the window as tiny men with spiky gelled hair and tight jeans with sequins on the rear end  take home all the women, I’m constantly challenged to look past the external. To look past the prejudices I didn’t even know I had.

I’ve also erred on the other extreme, forgetting I have anything to offer. Sometimes I  forget my own God-given gifts and talents. I forget I can give and serve and love and encourage, but that’s another discussion, too.

I’ve become so accustomed to butchered, choppy English and my own broken Spanish that I spent a good five minutes indignantly cursing spellcheck when it “mistakenly” told me “liders” was not an equally viable spelling of “leaders” in the English language, and I don’t even hear the syntactical error when someone asks me “You have boyfriend?” or confesses to me “I am hang over.”

I just go with the flow and answer “No” and “You shouldn’t have drank so much last night.”

If there’s any level of understanding or connection, it’s good enough for me.

Isn’t that how it should always be? Shouldn’t understanding always matter more than the exact words used or the dress or education of the person who spoke them?

I think of how I pick apart the words of authors I read or the movies I watch. Or the things my friends and family say. I think of how smug and snarky and downright judgmental I can be of people back home–of their words or their dress or their upbringing. When I’m in my comfort zone. When I, warranted or not, feel like I’m in a position to judge.

I used to constantly size up the people around me. Am I prettier, smarter, more exciting? If I deemed myself to be, then my pride was bolstered and I’d continue on my merry way. If I didn’t measure up, jealousy, envy, and self-loathing would take hold, gripping me in green.

But here in a foreign country, I am learning in a deep and meaningful (and hopefully lasting) way to look for connection before comparison.

Perhaps it’s just my survival skills kicking in, aching for connection at any level.

Perhaps it’s easier because the comparison seems especially futile or comical. No matter what jeans I wear or how skinny I get or what job title I rock with whatever innovative and socially-conscious new company, here, I am still just the gringa, the foreigner, the canchita. All the striving and the exercising and the Pinterest-browsing or even the Spanish learning and cross-cultural immersion won’t change that.

But connection will.

If I have a real conversation with someone, albeit linguistically limited, that is when I become someone more than just a gringa and the someone I am talking to becomes more than just the tortilla lady or salsa instructor or a guy I met at the gym.

On my end, at least.

Where my own dark judgments used to lurk, gratitude is growing. I rejoice at the small bonds of understanding, and for new milestones like exchanging books with new friends, laughing over silly pop songs that get stuck in our heads, and praying together, in Spanish, in English, in Spanglish.

Here, the gift of unlikely friendship springs up when I least expect it. Even in my shiest, my most insecure, my most unwelcoming moments, connections form. And I am learning to cherish these both improbable and probably temporary friendships. I am growing in grace for myself and others. And I am rejoicing as the fruit of kindness sprouts around me and within my own heart as I learn to connect and adapt in this land where I struggle.

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