The Year Of Us

While many people do their reflecting and goal-setting at the end of each calendar year, I typically wait until my birthday at the end of January to look back at the year that has passed and to make my plans for the year that is beginning for me.

The year that followed my turning thirty-six broke the mold of all years that came before. It broke me.

And now that my birthday is, once again, here, I find that I don’t want to do things as I have previously done them.

I don’t want to look back and reflect on the year I became an only child. I don’t want to examine all of the ways this year has changed me. I don’t want to make silly lists of all of the things I plan to do on this next trip around the sun (Get back in shape! Visit new countries! Find life’s purpose!!)

My windows of time now are shorter, more fragile. Long term reflecting and planning have both been abandoned out of necessity rather than any rational choice.

Instead of ruminating about all that has occurred since my last birthday, I can only reminisce about my most recent experience. Instead of formulating plans for the upcoming year, I can only arrange for today.

*

When I booked my trip to Guatemala, life looked a lot different. It was a new country to visit, and an opportunity to connect with friends, but it really didn’t extend past that for me. Once it came time to leave, however, the circumstances of my world had so drastically changed that I was now assigning a new weight to everything, counting on each trip to save me. I worried that Guatemala, or I, might crumble under this pressure.

I arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela to locals) with three suitcases full of clothing and random belongings to distribute to the children and women at Education and Hope, an organization founded by my friend Julie Coyne that brings access to education to impoverished children in nearby areas of the Western Highlands. Specifically, they provide scholarships, bus tickets, school supplies, clothing, day care, food, and love to the Educación y Esperanza family.

What they actually do can only be encompassed in one word: miraculous.

I was intimidated by the closeness I witnessed, each person who walked through the doors of the Proyecto offering a hug and kiss to Julie, her husband Gordon, me. I was intimidated by my elementary grasp of Spanish, and what to say to people who spoke no English. I was intimidated by the enormity of what happens there. As the week went on, I tried to memorize all of the faces and names. I didn’t succeed but I managed with a few.

*

On my last night in Xela, Lorena walks with me to set up my ride out of town the next morning. I am taken care of here, never left to fend for myself, and Lorena takes over this duty happily tonight.

I ask her how long she has worked at Education and Hope, and she tells me she has been there for twelve years, first as a student and now working there. She loves it, and loves the people. They are my second family, she says. I ask her if she has children. She tells me she has nine siblings and that as the second oldest, that is enough work for her.

She asks me if I have brothers or sisters.

It’s the first time someone has asked me since my sister died. It’s the question I have been most dreading each time I meet someone new. I anticipated it coming up on a first date, or maybe even a job interview at home. Instead, it hits me in Spanish, with the force of a sledgehammer. Tienes hermanos?

I say no, only me. But that doesn’t feel right, so I think of how I can say this in Spanish. Mi hermana está muerta. Mi hermana murió. Mi hermana no está vivo.

Sometimes even when you don’t want to know the words, your body, your mind, your heart still knows them.

Lo siento, she says. I can feel how deeply she means it. She pauses for a moment while I blink back tears, before touching my arm and telling me, Now you have a second family here, too.

On my final morning in Xela, I spend thirty minutes with the smallest of the children, letting them climb all over me, playing peek-a-boo, pretending to sleep while they shriek with laughter above me. I don’t worry about the language barrier anymore. There is no language for their smiles, and no miscommunication in their fierce hugs. The love they offer me is simple and crosses all cultural divides. As it is happening, I think I have maybe never been this happy.

It’s nearly time for me to leave.

I make my way to the kitchen to begin saying goodbye to the ladies working there, who have fed me so lovingly all week. The little kids are napping, and the bigger kids are across the street in class. The kitchen is almost empty; I discover it is because all of the women are waiting in the main room, in a receiving line of sorts, to send me off.

They each hug me, and somehow I have no trouble understanding the things they say to me, my Spanish coming through in a way it hasn’t all week. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Please come back again to see us. We love you.

Rosenda is there, one of the younger women, hugging me intensely, before drawing back and putting her hand firmly on my heart while she looks straight into my eyes. Tu tienes un gran corazón.

I cry, because I can’t fathom how she can see this, especially with the big fault line running through its center. Until I realize that she sees the fissure too, and maybe loves me just a little more because of it. I cry harder. For Kelly, for my parents, for the women here, for all of our collective losses, for myself.

And a tiny piece of the crack fuses back together again. Not healed, not like before, but held together somehow from the purest form of love I have been shown in this special place. When I walk outside and find all of the students standing in the street yelling, Adios Katie, before running to hug and kiss me goodbye, I understand that this is the kind of day worthy of reflection. This is the kind of day worthy of planning. This is the kind of day you learn how to change someone’s life.

*

This is the year I turn 37.

This is the year that will remain largely unplanned.

This is the year that I turn the front facing camera in my mind around, and point it outwards.

This is the year of ordinary and extraordinary miracles.

This is the year of doing more, for others; of giving back that love I have received.

This is the year of sharing, nurturing, assisting, comforting, trusting, hugging, believing, smiling.

This is the year of love.

 

This is the Year of Us.

 

***To learn more about Education and Hope, or to make a donation (I can make this request, it’s my birthday), please visit http://educationandhope.org/. It is so easy to make a difference in the lives of these wonderful people. Thank you!

Mis nuevos amigos

Mis nuevos amigos

Confession: I Learn Most Of My Life Lessons In Airports

It happened again.

I’m sitting in the lounge at the airport in Panama City, Panama, waiting for my flight to Ecuador. It’s very hard for me to concentrate on writing, because my ears are straining to hear and understand every conversation going on around me. With my high school Spanish, I struggle to piece together stories. A couple traveling on to Brazil. A woman who works for Proctor & Gamble in Albany, Georgia. A group of businessmen who don’t care for Rihanna’s music. The cacophony of voices seems so much louder than usual, my sense of hearing heightened to a new level.

I realize how often I walk around hearing nothing.

When I travel within the US, it is so easy for me to tune out what people near me are saying. Their words altogether too familiar to me,  I just don’t pay any attention. Similarly, I can ignore the chatter in cities where I don’t have any knowledge of the language spoken. In Bangkok, or Brussels, the conversations become just a vague buzzing noise, like that of bees flying around nearby in a swarm, too far away to cause any alarm or require any action. I can stay in my head, alone; no one else makes their way in.

But toss in a few words I actually understand, followed by many, many more that I don’t, and my brain does not know how to proceed as planned. It allows everyone in, crowding out my thoughts and trying to process theirs instead. Suddenly I’m present in a way I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been before. And now I see it, my eyes functioning at once as well as my ears now do.

I learn many of my most valuable life lessons in airports.

In Los Angeles, I learned how to be less judgmental.

In Newark, I learned about how to pay attention, when I carelessly tied up a handicapped bathroom stall, changing my clothes, for five minutes, only to emerge and see a woman in a wheelchair being forced to wait because I had been on my phone, and not noticed the sign on the door. I also learned how important a genuine apology and a little humility are, when I was seated across the aisle from said woman minutes later for six hours on our cross-country flight.

In Vegas, I learned about love.

In Albuquerque, I learned about kindness and compassion when I watched a mother struggle to travel on her own with two young, ill children, and resisted the previously typical urge to pray that I would not be seated near them. I learned that offering to help rather than just saying, “not my problem” is one of the most rewarding things we can do.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I learned that asking for help (oh, and a little preparation), can aid you in being less terrified in the middle of the night outside a closed airport halfway across the world.

In Tokyo (well, in the air above Tokyo), I learned that a person can watch a flight map on their personal television for nearly ten hours straight. Okay, that’s not really the lesson. I learned that what makes us happy is a deeply personal choice, and sometimes involves staring at an image of a small virtual plane flying over a static map for hours.

And tonight, in Panama, I learned how to hear–rather, to listen–and be present.

As I make my way to the flight that will join me with my friends in Ecuador, before we head together to a week-long Thanksgiving adventure in the Galapagos Islands, I am grateful for this particularly timely lesson in Panama.

My ears are open, attuned to any language I may overhear. Ready to make sense of the symphony of sounds that nature and animals always provide–or to appreciate its beauty if I cannot really understand it. Excited at the music of laughter, and tears, and awe, and gratitude that awaits me.

Determined to stay present.

Signing off from Panama!

Katie

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