Thursday, June 7, 2012

balance.


When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

- Mary Oliver
When I Am Among the Trees

I’ve been thinking about this poem a lot today. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, I’ve started to work with a group of small family farmers who host a market in a town called El Colorado a couple of hours outside of Resistencia. It’s absolutely wonderful. My main task is a series of interviews with the families about their products – prices, preparation, and presentation – pretty basic. Along with the job, though, it has been such a blessing to sit and chat, listen to them talk about their lives and families, their work and community, and in turn to share a bit about mine.

It has also been fun to start a job after 8 months in Argentina. I am not the Spanish-master I thought I’d be, but I’ve come a long way since the vaguely panicked confusion I felt during my first meeting at María Magdalena. There have been drawbacks to the slow start, though. A month from today, I’ll be back in Minnesota, so this has been a period of both beginning and ending, diving in and stepping back. Somehow or another, the scheduling worked out in such a way that my time here with the market is on the same days as my time as the children’s workshop and women’s group meetings at the church. I’m finding it hard to really commit to this new job (and finish the task at hand) while not neglecting this oh-so-important period of closing at the church.

Last Wednesday, I spent the morning at the market and then made the three hour trip to the church, knowing I would miss most of my time with the kids but hoping to at least make it in time for a 6 o’clock meeting with the women. When I got there at 5, though, I found out that the meeting had been moved to 4. I arrived just in time to hear the wrap-up and participate in some final organization of plans. I spent the first couple minutes feeling bad for myself, wondering how in the world I was actually going to be present with this community given my current schedule. Then it occurred to me that by spending the little bit of time I had thinking about all that I had missed, I was missing out on what little time I actually did have with the women. Oh goodness, so simple.

Anyway, my favorite part of my new job is the home visits. When I can, I try to come a day or two early or stay a day or two late in El Colorado. It gives me a chance to hang out with my coworkers, sit around the office and eat delicious meals of the freshly picked fruit and vegetables we buy at the market. It also allows me to visit the homes of the people we meet at the fair. The visits are spent drinking mate, chatting with the vendors and their kids, eating yummy treats, and taking walks through their land. The days are beautiful. It is a time to simply be together. They are work trips, and we definitely fit some information gathering and planning into our conversations. These visits have given me a glimpse into the importance of diversifying production and shown me the extensive amount of time and energy these families put into maintaining a relatively stable income. But for me, the trips are so much more than simple information gathering opportunities.  Today we visited two families from the market, and after all of the time I’ve spent lately feeling pulled every which way, it was exactly what I needed. The fresh, cool air and the slow pace, the breathtaking views and the baby animals, the afternoon light and the welcoming smiles of new friends, all of it helped me slow down, refocus, and simply be present for a while.

Now go back and look at the poem again. Really. Mary Oliver and I are having a “Killing Me Softly” moment right now. It’s so easy to get caught up in the complication and difficulty, to forget to notice the beauty and move away from the person I hope to be in the midst of all of this newness and discovery. And then a slow day or a long walk or a beautiful view becomes a reminder to “walk slowly, and bow often…to go easy,” because only then can the light and the goodness of the people and places around me find its way in. Wonderful.

I’m going to leave you with some pictures from my visits to the homes of these new friends of mine. Thanks for sharing in this journey with me. :)








All my love.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

independence.

My host family went out of town last month. And while I was sad to be without their company, I was also looking forward to some time alone. I’ve spent the past two years living in community – moving in with a group of strangers and working to build a space that was life-giving for us all, a space where we could explore what it meant to live well in our surrounding communities. This year was different – instead of working to build a community, I stepped into a preexisting community and worked to find my place within the routines and expectations that had already been set. Because of this, I began to think of this vacation as a chance to be independent, to set my own routines and to do things on my own for a while.

And then I got mugged.

It wasn’t a big deal. There was never any danger, just a young boy who jumped off a motorbike and ripped my bag off my shoulder. I was fine. Fine, until I remembered that my bag contained all of my house keys and my cell phone. All of a sudden my hope for independence and self-sufficiency went right out the window. I was helpless and completely at a loss as to what I should do next.

I walked down the street in a daze, not really sure where I was going, and came across some neighbors who were on their way out for a New Year’s Eve party. I apologized for detaining them as they hurried out the door, told them what had happened, and tried to gather my thoughts. Was there any way I could get into the house? What was I going to do without keys for the next few weeks? Was I going to have to stay with a friend until my host family got home? Would I have to cancel my upcoming vacation plans? I had gotten to the point of feeling comfortable navigating day-to-day life in Argentina, but I felt so incapable of dealing with this unexpected situation.

My neighbors, however, were wonderfully up for the challenge. They consulted with each other and some other friends, adjusted their plans for the evening, and took me to find a locksmith. When the locksmith wasn’t immediately available, they gave me a set of keys to their house and set me up with some mate and fruit salad while I waited. They also gave me the phone numbers for everyone in their extended family in case I ended up needing somewhere to spend the evening.

After just a few minutes, the locksmith and his teenage daughter showed up. As the locksmith worked, his daughter chatted with me. After having had a moment to sit, the excitement of the past 30 minutes caught up with me and the tears started to come. The two of them sat and talked with me for a while and waited while I made sure I had copies of all of the keys so I would be okay for the next couple of days. They comforted me but also let me cry for as long as I needed – I didn’t for a moment feel like my tears were making them uncomfortable or like they were in any hurry to move along to the New Year’s Eve party they were heading off to. They too left me with their phone numbers and an invitation to their family’s New Year’s Eve party, and refused to let me pay for their help.

I spent the next couple of weeks thinking a lot about the extreme kindness I had experienced on New Year’s Eve, but I also settled pretty quickly into my previous delusions of independence.

And then I got bit by a dog.

It was just a little dog, but with fairly impressive jaw strength. I was rounding the corner onto my street and stepped off the curb (ironically, I moved off the sidewalk to avoid another group of dogs up ahead) and the combination of my approach and the group of barking dogs up ahead must have startled the little guy. I never even saw him coming, but he ran up behind me and took a good chunk out of the back of my leg. 

Once again, I found myself at a loss. It was midnight, and I had just gotten off the last bus of the night. I was sure my host family kept first aid supplies in the house, but I was a little worried about getting blood all over everything before I found it. More than anything, though, my mind was running through all of the rabies-vaccination related horror stories I had heard over the years.

Luckily, once again, my neighbors came to my rescue. An older man who lives down the street had been sitting outside his house and saw the whole thing happen. He immediately came up to me and led me over to his house, cleaned off my wound, and gave me a glass of water and a place to sit down. He then walked over to his next door neighbor’s house and a minute later, came back to say that he had arranged for her to drive me to the doctor. This neighbor is someone I had waved to on my way to work, but we had never actually met before. Even still, she sat with me while I got cleaned up and did her best to explain the things I didn’t understand.  Best of all, the neighbors recognized the dog and promised to go talk to the owner the next day to make sure the dog was up-to-date on its vaccinations.

The thing is, this whole time I’ve been trying to put the idea of accompaniment into practice (accompaniment is defined by the ELCA as “walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality”), but central to what we’re doing here is the idea of mutuality. I was willing to admit that I would be served here – I still seem to spend more time asking questions and being confused than actually helping with anything – but my willingness to need always had its limits. It was always controlled and superficial. I never really let myself feel vulnerable or lost, or at least tried not to show those feelings. But sitting and crying with the locksmith and his teenage daughter, or looking to the neighbor I had just met when I had questions about what the nurse at the 24 hour clinic was telling me, those experiences helped me to let go. They taught me how to need and how it’s okay to feel lost sometimes. These moments also taught me about what community actually means, what it is to be a neighbor, and what “interdependence and mutuality” might actually imply.  

All my love.

Monday, November 7, 2011

development.

This probably goes without saying, but I haven’t been blogging much. Or writing. But every time I sit down to write something, it ends up sounding very similar to what I was saying three weeks ago. Yesterday I sat down to write an e-mail to a friend, but after writing a paragraph I realized that my e-mail was almost exactly the same as an e-mail I sent her a month before.

The external change has been obvious. Working in a church is new. Community organizing in indigenous communities is new. Public education around sustainable agriculture is new. Living in Spanish is new. Resistencia is new. The food is new. The support systems are new. The options for how to spend my free time are new. Almost every day I experience a new situation or setting or question or event.

But even though the external change has been profound, the internal change has taken more time. Every once in a while I am confronted with an aspect of this change, but something I learned quickly was that understanding what has changed doesn’t mean I have any idea what to do about it. For example, a couple of days ago a friend asked me if I was growing spiritually.

Um…probably?

The thing is, the things I used to do for spiritual growth and fulfillment – prayer services at church, conversations with certain friends, meetings with my spiritual director – aren’t options in this new setting. I know what I’m missing. I know that I’ve lost the consistent space for community prayer, the sounding boards for new ideas and the spaces to talk about old questions. What that leaves me with, though, are questions and needs, but not necessarily with any answers. Recognizing (and even embracing) the change is one thing. Moving from the loss of certain things to the acquisition of new processes, routines and systems seems to be a whole different story.

I’m currently in the middle of The Way We Were: A Story of Conversion and Renewal by Joan Chittister. It's a book about how a particular group of nuns confronted the effects of large-scale social change in their small religious community and their personal spiritual practices. A few days ago I was reading and came across the following passage:

It was a time of transition, of course, but to what?

Simply dismantling the assumptions of a past era, we soon learned, had little or nothing to do with making a successful bridge to a new one.

In the first place, new eras evolve slowly. They do not appear overnight. Scripture is clear about it: the chosen people wandered for forty years in the desert “until the older generation died off.” Social transition demands that people be given the opportunity not simply to put down old ideas but to try out some new ones along the way.

In the second place, people must be ministered to tenderly in times of great change. None of us is independent of the ideas that formed us. They tell us what our world is like. They tell us our proper place in it. They tell us who we are. To lose those definitions is to lose the very mainstays of our lives. To lose all of them at once is even more traumatic.

Development of ideas and the development of people go hand in hand, then. All the time we are exploring new ways to go about life, it is equally important that we support in their personal growth the people who will be most affected both by the loss of the past and the demands of the new future.  After all, however irrelevant the things of the past may now be, they are at least familiar. However enticing the future may seem, it is at best unpredictable.

Last week I spent a day in the home of a community developer who works with indigenous communities living in and around a town called La Leonesa. Until 1991, the economy of La Leonesa and nearby Las Palmas was almost entirely dependent on a local sugar mill. In ‘91, after 109 years, the mill went bankrupt and left many people without jobs and at risk of being evicted from the land on which they were living, which had previously been owned by the sugar company. The indigenous communities organized and were able to take control of the land. As it turned out, though, that was only the very beginning of the process. After over 100 years of a local economy sustained almost entirely by sugar production, the communities had to re-learn how to use their land to produce the things they needed. It was a slow process, defined most often by long periods of information gathering and evaluation.

More than anything else, this man emphasized the slow process of development. Simply re-gaining ownership of the land on which they lived did not mean they knew how to best utilize the land as they worked to rebuild the local economy. And learning the technical aspects of running a ranch or dairy farm did not immediately lead to the shift in social customs necessary when moving from one general lifestyle to another. For example, in the past few years, a major topic of discussion has been finding ways to teach younger generations the knowledge needed to sustain an agricultural lifestyle and instilling in them pride for agricultural work. The buy-in of younger generations is a necessary part of creating a sustainable economic system, but this wasn’t something they could simply make happen. It has been a process full of many questions and a lot of learning.

I was struck by the ways that the experience of the community in La Leonesa spoke to the feelings I had been having for the past couple of weeks. It was a good reminder that this year is a process, and that I will not just know how to live well in this new setting, but will have to take the time to learn, to adjust, to try different approaches and evaluate the experiences I’ve had. I also hope it will be a lesson I will take with me as I continue to work in the world, pursuing justice and supporting community growth wherever I end up. After 20 years, the people of La Leonesa are still committed to growth, still asking questions, and still willing to acknowledge and address their weaknesses. Beautiful.

All my love.

Friday, October 28, 2011

bariloche.


Misión María Magdalena (MMM), one of my placement sites this year, is a church community consisting primarily of women and their children. Because of this, an important part of the church's work is promotion of women’s health and safety. To support this work, each year the church sends a group of women to the National Women's Gathering. A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to accompany the women as they traveled to Bariloche for this year’s gathering. We also had the chance to visit the local Lutheran church and the local YAGM volunteer, Emily! What a wonderful blessing to have some time to sit with her and talk about our experiences here in Argentina so far (and get in a couple of episodes of 30 Rock).

The National Women’s Gathering is a coming together of thousands of women from across Argentina who participate in workshops (really more like discussion groups) on a variety of subjects related to women in society. During the last session of each discussion group, a conclusion statement is written. These conclusions are read to the entire group of women on the final morning, and then all of the statements are used by the event’s organizers as a basis for their advocacy work and policy promotion during the coming year. The women of MMM attended a workshop on reproductive rights, and were recognized in their group’s final statement as positive examples of church action in social issues. This was an important moment for these women as they reflect on their work over the past years and prepare for the upcoming changes in leadership and structure at MMM (I’ll talk more about this as time goes on).

We were also able to fit in a few days of sightseeing, both in Bariloche and in El Bulson, two hours south. Below are some pictures from the week. 






All my love.