Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Letter to my family on Thanksgiving

The clock in Danny’s Dad’s car says it’s 6:47, but I’ve already been awake for two hours. Luckily, Danny was the one to get up at 4:15 to turn the water heater on this morning for a shower. A little old fashioned, the device takes half an hour at a minimum for our water to be lukewarm, but forty minutes is optimal for the production of a steamy stream from the showerhead.

Early as always in HELPS good fashion, we were slated to leave the office on a construction project today at 6:00. Of course in Guatemalan good fashion, we left at 6:40 and then stopped to fill the coaster, trucks, and our car with diesel at the gas station adjacent to the office. It’s now 7:08 and we finally hit the winding road to Antigua. As the four lane mountain highway twists upward, I’m bracing my computer into my knees to prevent it from slipping into the lap of Danny’s sister who is next to me beneath a blanket and a pillow and waking up just enough to worry about the stray dogs darting from the dusty ditch and into the road.

As this morning’s story goes, there are 120 families participating in HELPS’ preventative health program in Santa Clara this year. The idea is to combine all aspects of HELPS work together, and track the tangible differences made. So each family combines ONIL products (stoves and heat retaining cookers and water filters) with access to a monthly medical clinic (run by Danny), basic health and nutrition courses (to teach treatments for the common cold, flu, dehydration, etc.), and referrals to the larger medical teams if hernia surgery, etc. is required. Each family has made a Q200, or $25 contribution for their stove, and makes a Q10 ($1.25) contribution for every medical consult made. The money garnered in the clinic, then, is used to purchase medication for the patients who are working to keep their blood-pressure, diabetes, and so forth under control. In this way, Danny is able to manage many of the chronic problems the regular medical teams encounter. It’s really incredible to see the difference made when people are saving money, saving their lungs with a clean stove, and learning how to keep themselves healthy by washing their vegetables and hands.

The year is ending, and ten families in the program remain stove-less. To solve the problem, Richard Grinnell, HELPS Vice President, suggested the members of the office go and install the remaining stoves themselves. He also requested they also invite their families to come along.

The beautiful part of it is that everyone volunteered, which explains the caravan of people—mothers, sisters, in-laws and children—we’re following this morning. There are 30 people packed into the HELPS coaster and three other SUVs are in line with the bus. Normally a stove takes four people to construct and a team of 12 people usually completes 10 stoves in a day, but this is sort of a special opportunity for those who work in the office to share their work with their families.

With the number of people coming along, each group will have the chance to install one stove, but this will also give us the opportunity to spend time with the families receiving the stoves. We plan to have lunch with them, and take some time to understand the way they live in their drafty, usually dirt-floored dwellings. I always say your life changes when you’re invited into a family’s home in the highlands.

Mario, Danny’s dad volunteered for the project right away, and is this morning’s driver. The picking season at the coffee farm is in full swing, and so he is accustomed to traveling into the mountains twice a month. As I write here and the others two are curled up in sleep together, Danny and his dad are collapsing in laughter.

What’s astonishing to me, though, is that we were able to coerce Danny’s diva-sister, Adriana, and her docile boyfriend, Sebas, to come along. For me, who was introduced to the highlands at an early age—this trip is old hat, but it’s interesting to hear Danny explain to his little sister where we are, and to Sebas, what difference stove makes for the people and the environment.

Both at nineteen, they’re the kind of kids who rarely get out of the city and into the highlands. When you don’t take time to leave the comforts of the waiter-filled VIP movie theater where we saw Harry Potter last night, or the beautiful restaurants and comfortable western-like homes in the city, it’s easy to forget the humbling means of the people across the larger part of this country. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Of course, the other beautiful part about today is that it is Thanksgiving.

And it is a beautiful day. The rainy season ended a month ago, and the countryside is blooming. As we pass hillsides of pines and periwinkle flowers, this morning’s sun is streaming gold and casting shadows in incredible patterns across the limestone walls of the highway. Many of these walls have collapsed and spilled into the road as mudslides that have dried and now cast extra dust into the air when the wind picks up. Sun flowers, daisies and black-eyed susans are sweeping yellow flames between a patchwork of crops cut into the mountainside. If you look carefully enough, coffee plants sometimes peek through the cover of shade that blankets their careful growth and now, their berries will soon ripen red, lining their branches like the cranberry garland of a Christmas tree. The sky is absolutely blue, and volcanoes peak above the tree line of corn on the road ahead as a chicken bus cuts out in front of us and whizzes by.

But as I gaze across this terrain the never ceases to amaze, my heart is with all of you at home.

It seems to me that I could be spending today in no better way than I would be at home; because working on the stove project in the highlands is a way I can give of myself. Though family surrounds me here and we are stopping on our way home for a proper Thanksgiving dinner in Antigua, I miss all of you—you humor and your smiles and your jokes—because there really is nothing like our family.

But I have a much to be grateful for today. In addition to a proper and competitive education, I’m bilingual, have managed to secure a good job with higher pay than I thought I would originally earn, and I get to take high school kids into the highlands as translators with that job. Geeking out as an American Literature teacher and letting kids experience the highlands as I did when I was seventeen? The way I figure it, I’ve got the best of both worlds.

I have a beautiful apartment, have been able to navigate the unintelligible twists and turns of Guatemala City, and will be dressing up like a prom date—huge dress, hair, nails and all—at a fancy wedding this weekend. Not to mention the fact that I get to attend that wedding with my best friend instead of an awkward classmate who asked me to the dance because “I am nice.”

It is wonderful to spend my time every day with the one person I connect with on all levels, and who loves me for exactly who I am, and the way that I am. Danny has been an incredible blessing to me. He is a gentleman always. He holds himself at high esteem and expects the same from the people who surround him. He encourages me, and pushes me to be better, and is unafraid to tell me when I’m in a funk or being selfish. He keeps me grounded, and as I’m sure you all know, I need that sometimes. And sometimes I need that a lot.

I won’t pretend like these three months of adjustment have been easy. There have been breakdowns—one of which just happened to fall on the week that Gram and Mom arrived in the country. For me, there is sometimes a lot of self-induced pressure to fit in… to wear and say the right thing, to cook the right kind of food the right way. There are protocols in the social circles here to which I am still adjusting: what color ties are appropriate for a daytime suit or a nighttime suit and so on and so forth. “But it matches my dress,” is my argument, and his response is, “but you can’t wear a black tie for lunch, and cuff links are only appropriate if I’m wearing a tuxedo.” Guatemalan slang is like learning another language, and in a loud club it’s impossible to follow conversations—especially of the women. Also, I’ve finally been healthy in the last three weeks after battling giardia for the same amount of time. I’ll just say it was miserable and leave out all the pukey details.

But the other day, Danny asked that I stop comparing the way things are here to what is familiar at home; and I think he’s right. The onset of Thanksgiving, and his lack of empathy or understanding for the holiday had put me out of sorts. I had been trying to think of how to share the holiday with his family, but knowing we had this trip planned, had no idea how to cook a turkey and simultaneously work on stoves in Santa Clara. I had the idea to make Thanksgiving tomorrow, but no one would have been home to spend time experiencing the day. As a result, I was sort of feeling forgotten and like my boyfriend was making little effort to make the holiday significant. I felt like he forgot I was far away from the people I love on one of the most important days of the year.

However, after a short stint with my journal I realized that none of you would want me to feel that way today, and that you, as my family have taught me more than that. You expect me recognize and understand what I have in my life, and to share both my blessings and customs with those around me. You wouldn’t want me to be soured by my absence at dinner today.

But if I am really honest with myself, the only things currently missing in my life here—aside from fall weather and the change of the seasons—are all of you.

I have this great memory of the Sunday before I left for Guatemala in September. We were all standing around the kitchen like we usually do on family gatherings, and Thomas was being passed from person to person. Food was laid out, and the carrot cake was to be cut in a little while. I hooked up my computer to the boose radio in the kitchen and fired up the play list I had been feeding on in the weeks before I left.

So Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” rings into the background, and I turn up the volume. And suddenly I look over at Nick and he’s singing.
All the lyrics.
Though Lori is shocked at her son, Anna chimes in with the lyrics and there we were—together, singing and dancing in the kitchen like I used to do when I was kid.

And it was just a beautiful moment. Simple and pure, like our family and the way we treat one another. Full of joy and laughter and an embrace of our ever-changing paths. I’ve thought a lot about that moment since I’ve left, and it floods my mind each time the song comes on and I hear,

“ … I’ll be giving it my bestest, and nothing’s going to stop me but divine intervention,
I recon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some,
But I won’t hesitate no more, no more, it cannot wait, I’m yours….

Well open up your mind and see like me,
Open up your plans and damn your free,
Look into your heart and you’ll find love, love, love, love, love,

Listen to the music of the moment, people dance and sing,
We’re just one big family,
And it’s our Godforsaken right to be, loved, loved, loved, loved, loved…”

And if there is one thing I am absolutely sure of, it is that I am loved by all of you, even though we are what sometimes feels like worlds apart.

I recently watched a pirated version (bought in the best market in Guate) of Julia Robert’s new movie Eat, Pray Love. The story is Robert’s quest to find herself after a failed marriage, but foremost how to navigate a relationship with herself. There is a scene, where after four months in Italy, she arrives in India for another stretch of time, and is discussing her past with a Texan who has also arrived to meditate and practice yoga there.

In her moment of loneliness he says to her, “I know you feel awful, but your life’s changing… That’s not a bad thing, and you’re in a perfect place for it—surrounded by grace.” She replies, “But I really miss him,” and he says, “So miss him. Send him some light and love every time you think of him, and then drop it.” What he’s implying is that you’re never going to keep your life moving if your mind dwells in another place than where you are. And I decided I needed to stop dwelling in my own loneliness, and recognize my blessings instead. Because missing all of you is wasted energy; I would rather send you my love.

Texas man continues on, saying, “You know, if you could clear out all that space in your mind that you’re using to obsess over this, you’d have a vacuum and a doorway. And you know what the universe would do with that doorway?

He answers his own question.
“FROOM! Rush in,” he says. “God would rush in… fill you with more love than you ever dreamed of. I think you have the capacity, someday, to love the whole world.

But you have to do the work.

So that’s what I’m doing now. From day to day, I’m doing the work: throwing myself into conversations and situations outside of even my own comfort level. Outside of the Guatemala that I already know. I have an incredible partner to help me along, but I’m trying not to rely on him too much because I know I need to do the work of adjusting on my own. Foremost, though, I really am sending all of you my light and love at a constant. When any of you come to mind, when I wake up in the morning, when I am folded into the highlands of this beautiful country, but especially today, when I know you are celebrating together and full of joy.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mornings on NE Main

It's 5:00AM and I'm awake.

Of course this was not by choice. But as my boyfriend left for the gym at 4:45 and set two alarms with two snooze buttons, there wasn't much getting around it. So, here I am at my computer in limbo between conventional night and day.

At this hour of the morning, when dawn hasn't yet turned the corner into my neighborhood, the whole world is quiet aside from the gentle hum of the refrigerator's cooling element. As a kid, I spent countless summer weekends at my grandparent's house in Minneapolis. But it was at this particular hour, between four and five o' clock, that I would hear Count Bassie and Benny Goodman jiving on the puce linoleum of the kitchen at 311 NE Main Street. Something, bacon or sausage usually, would be popping in time from a skillet, and if I snuck quietly enough around the corner to the kitchen, I could catch a glimpse of Teedy at his vintage range stove, dancing and singing and unaware of his audience. He never sang the words of song--only a "lie di die" sort of version, and while I'm certain he knew the lyrics, I mostly believed the habit of creating his own was simply old hat.

At 5'4" or 5", he stood in either zubas or his cut off scrubs from North Memorial Hospital, and wore a heather grey sweatshirt with the sleeves likewise cut to his forearm. Though Grandpa was a retired butcher by trade, my uncle had swiped the scrubs from the hospital where he runs cardiac machines during surgeries. In front of the tiny kitchen's wire legged table, Grandpa wore navy blue nikes and tube socks on his feet. His thinning hair was typically covered by a trucker's hat announcing he was "Proud to be Polish," or reporting latest record for the pierogi festival at St. Hedwig's Catholic Church. But this morning, he donned the white Windsor hat he had probably received at Mayslacks--a North East Minneapolis bar named for its owner and known for its roast beef.

While Grandpa stood in the kitchen listening to AM radio, beating eggs and pouring them over fresh ham in a skillet, I'd brace myself for the moment he saw me. But instead of a "What are you doing up?! Go back to bed!" from Grandpa, more often a gentle "Pssst," would ring down the hall and across the brown shag carpet in the living room. Rosie was calling for a cuddle from the set of twin beds that resided on the hard wood floor in my grandparent's bedroom. I'd pad down the hall past the wall-length rosary hung over white paint, and poke my head through the doorway.

"Hi," always escaped my lips in a whisper.

"Well 'morning Baby," she would respond.

Grandma slept in the bed farthest from the door, and I made my way there by light of the old analog clock that rested on the oak veneer of her nightstand. On her head she wore ancient curlers under a net, and I fiddled with them as she lifted the covers up to let me slide between the rose floral sheets. Soon, her 60s silk nightgown would be covered by a corresponding robe when light finally seeped through the shades and grandpa turned up the tunes in the kitchen. Once up, her curlers would be removed in the bathroom and with brushes and hairspray and picks, the woman would weave her poodle-curly hair into a half beehive.

But here in her bed she always asked, "Did you sleep okay?" and I would always answer affirmative even though the old stuffed animals in my father's childhood bedroom gave me the heebie-jeebies in the middle of the night. At six I could handle it. I wasn't a baby after all. We would chat until the sun had risen as it is now, and eventually Grandpa would call from the kitchen for breakfast. The table would be set with Rosie's homemade cherry jam, and a pottery crock of butter. Orange juice was filled in tiny vintage glasses, and our plates were arranged with the iron-skillet flavor of my grandfather's morning dance.

"Kelsey Delsey, do you want toast?"

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


It's just after 11:00pm and as James Taylor's "Copperline" seeps into the relative silence of my parent's quite house in Saint Cloud, I'm filled with a particular nostalgia tonight.

You see, James Taylor is both reminiscent and significant in my life. There were trips to the family cabin, where he came through the tape deck of my dad's old Mazda pickup. Then there were the family vacations; roadtrips to the Black Hills when my then three-year-old brother wouldn't smile for a single photo. After my father finally bribed him with skittles and a few bucks, we clambored into our white Voyaguer mini-van toward Colorado. In later days as our vehicles upgraded and held CD players, we each had the chance on family trips to choose our own music: After Weird Al Yancovick, Brent introduced us to Dave Matthews Band, Mom had an infinite love for Celine Dion and George Winston, and I, for a while was all over the pop charts. But Dad--whether real or just inflated in my memory--always represented James Taylor.

Then, slowly, as Anna joined the family, we heard "Sweet Baby James" play live in St. Paul. Brent bought a fifty-dollar concert t-shirt he never wore, and we've always mocked him for it. Tonight, I plugged "October Road" into Dad's 4-Runner as he, my mother and I took a trip to Barnes and Noble for a cup of coffee. Opening the window, transitional fall air feathered my face as I closed my eyes and let my nose become stuffy. Not only is this particular bookstore where I was first employed, it represents a whole world for me: the one in which I write. Where I become inspired by new prose and old friends between pages. And frankly, at few other times than now, have I been as compelled to write: living on the threshold of a huge change.

I guess what I'm getting at is that I never quite imagined it'd be this hard to pick up and leave my family again for the country and the person I fell in love with.

Moving anew is thrilling, but it's terrifying too. But that's where James Taylor comes in. I'll just have to fall backward toward my childhood in these next weeks and, "Shower the people I love with love; Show them the way that I feel." Because, "Things are going to turn out fine if I only will, shower the people I love with love."

Corny, but true.