“How Was Your Trip?”

It’s a question we’re getting a lot these days, now that we are home again from our family excursion to Costa Rica. The truth is, the effects of this trip will stay with us a long time. The friends we made challenged us, blessed us, and made us look at the world — and ourselves — in new ways.

Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia; el Senor es contigo…

"Angie" at midwife'sOur experience at the Center was eye-opening. One fifteen-year-old girl, great with child and terrified of the pain of labor and delivery, had a healthy baby girl … and returned just days later with a dehydrated infant whose umbilical cord had become infected. “Angie” did not want to be a mother, she wanted to go back to school. But the hospital sent her back to the Center to learn how to care for her infant, and to care for herself, and to take up the mantle of maternity. Another mother, “Patricia,” seventeen with two children, came alongside Angie and empathized with how hard it was, and how important.

Benedita tu eres entre todas las mujeres, y benedito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus.

In a few days, Angie’s smile had returned, and her daughter’s cheeks began to plump. I had not touched the baby, except to smile at her in passing — it was critical that the mother bond uninterrupted with her child. But there were others in need of holding, in need of changing, in need of singing. There were older ones, too, who needed to be reminded of how much God loved them, too. We colored and sang and read aloud in my deplorable Spanish. Soon ten-year-old Lola was reading, too.

Labor room - before

Labor room – before

 

Baby Room Costa Rica 001

New Labor Room

Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores,

When my own family joined me and the Spanish-speaking volunteers who had started the trip with me left, things took a different turn. Susana, the woman in charge of running the Center, a no-nonsense “Tico” (as they call themselves, native Costa Rican – as opposed to the indigenous Cebecar who come from the mountains to have their children) had very different ideas about how much babies should be held. Susana was of the mind that there was too much house-cleaning to be done, that they should be left alone to go to sleep.

At one point just before I left, we were all getting ready for the new bishop to visit the Center, to give his blessing to the women there. Susana had everyone busy scrubbing and tidying the common areas; after doing the breakfast dishes I went out on the porch and tended the children so the others could work undistracted. Around noon lunch was served, and Susana told me to put the baby I was holding in his crib so I could eat my lunch. I had just gotten him to sleep, and the moment his head hit the pillow, he started crying. So I picked him up again … and Susana grabbed him from my arms, took him to the sink, and doused him in cold water. Above his screams, she lectured me in Spanish. Even if I could have understood her, I doubt I would have listened. At that moment, I just wanted to grab the baby and run. Instead I stood there, rooted to the floor, as she wrapped the baby in a towel and handed him off to his mother to nurse. Gradually his sobs relented and he drifted off to sleep.

I realized at that moment it was time for me to go home. A journalist from the diocesan paper came ahead of the bishop, to do a story on the Center. I chatted with her about my visit, about setting up the laboring room and sharing about the Center with people in the United States. At that moment, my daughter came up cradling a kitten, who was rapidly declining from the combined factors of not enough food (his mother had run off, and he had to subsist on whatever the dogs didn’t eat from the mealtime scraps) and too much rough handling from the older children. Animals serve a utilitarian function in Costa Rica, something Sarah had a hard time understanding. “Why don’t you take him to the vet? He’s going to DIE!!!” she sobbed. Seeing the cat’s neck was nearly devoid of fur, I wondered if he had mange. Gently I took the animal from her grasp and set it down so I could give her a hug. “I know. It’s hard. Life here is harder that it is in the States, honey. We can’t really change that. All we can do is love them as long as we are here.”

She looked at me, accusing. “You don’t care about that cat! You’re mean!!!”

Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.

Her words rattled me a bit. Yes, her teenage outburst wasn’t unprecedented. And I knew it would be impossible to explain to the satisfaction of her tender heart why I was not taking a more active role in saving the kitten. Just as I had not been able to persuade Susana that the babies needed the stimulation I had been giving them, that I was not just spoiling them. When two worlds collide, there is always the risk of misunderstanding. But it is also at this crossroads that transformation can occur.

It had been years since I’d been engaged in any kind of missionary work. Frankly, I should have learned more Spanish before undertaking this trip … though I quickly learned that not all the indigenous women were fluent in the language. I saw these women sit at the back of the church, unable to go forward to receive the sacraments, and wished I had been able to teach them. I saw the mountain of suitcases containing baby clothes from previous volunteers, and realized that they didn’t need more onesies. What they needed was for someone to tell them, in their own language, how much their Father in heaven loved them and their children.

Saida and KennethThese young mothers could not count on the support of husbands, or even the financial security of a job back on the reservation. Based on what I had seen, it was very likely some of them would be back the following year, with another baby. Would someone be ready to teach them then?

During my time in Costa Rica, I was reminded of how short and hard life can be, despite its wild beauty. I saw that love does not always come wrapped in soft flannel and warm water. Sometimes it simply stays, bearing silent and prayerful witness to the longing of the human heart. And sometimes, love cries along.

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Not Day 5…

Did you think I’d been swallowed by an anaconda? Nope … not sure where the time went! Well, actually, I DO know:

IMG_2147[1]Thanks to the generous support of the Queen of Peace “Jubilee” ladies, St. Bryce Center now has a new “laboring room.” Their donation allowed us to buy MANY bins to store clothing and other baby supply donations, paint the room a cheerful buttery yellow, and purchase some additional equipment needed to give the moms-to-be a comfortable environment for the first stage of labor.

Baby Room Costa Rica 001

New Labor Room

I have now been at St. Bryce for a little over two weeks. In addition to spending time with two permanent families at the center, I’ve also seen how St. Bryce makes a difference for other families. A fifteen-year-old girl returned with her baby from the reservation; the infant was dehydrated and had an infected umbilical cord. For the next two weeks, the new mom will rest and spend time learning how to bond with her baby — from another young mom who had her first child at the same age. Two older boys (about 10 years old) also came to the center with their moms, so they could be close to the hospital to receive treatment. One has leukemia; the other had leg braces.

Saida's family

Kenneth (the three-year-old permanent resident) is now able to take 5-6 steps unaided, which is a real milestone for him. It’s a reflection of having people around at all times who will work with him on his therapy and take him to the pool. His 10-year-old aunt, Lola, is working with volunteers to learn to read.

We have fun, too — after church last week we took the kids to POPS for ice cream. Fun!

Evening at POPSSpent several days at Colleen Mitchell’s house while Greg was in the States with the older boys. Had the pleasure of going to see Kolbe and Evan belt test at karate class — a sensei from Japan comes to test all the students in the country every six months. We made the trip with a Costa Rican family who is friends with Colleen, and she made the most delicious chicken and rice dish with saffron and other spices!

Today I am taking a break, sitting in the cabin where my family will be staying while they are here. Fast WIFI, hot showers, fresh bread, fruit trees, and SILENCE. Ahh…. two weeks of rustic living really makes me appreciate these gifts for what they are!

Here are a few pictures from the highlights of the past two weeks.  Enjoy!

labor room before

Labor Room (Before Transformation)

Paula's family

Paula and her kids with Susana (operation manager)

Day 4: Blessed Abundance

Missionary life, like motherhood, is not a 9-5, M-F proposition. The tiny routines of our lives — the feeding and tending and being fully present — are part of each day’s experience. They are part of us.

For the past few days, my tiny routines have changed. As a mother of two teenagers, I’ve swapped out nagging and exasperation for the gentle rhythms of swaddling and rocking, of returning to a kind of childhood where I struggle to make myself understood, as the adults around me patiently try to figure out what it is I want. It’s humbling, yet a bit liberating — I’ve had more sleep these past four days than in the last four years.

marketToday we took a break from sorting clothing donations to go into the city to the farmer’s market. The stalls lined a city block (both sides), with multicolor produce of every imaginable shape and color. I counted six kinds of fruit I could not name (in English OR Spanish), plus one kind of green vegetation that looked a bit like collard greens and smelled exactly like cilantro. Locally made cheese and meats (the slaughter house is just down the street from the Center), and roasted coconut completed the shopping.

While it is possible to buy the chips and chocolates and fast food that is so freely available at home, somehow I just can’t bring myself to eat it — not when so much of this good stuff is readily available. It’s too hot to eat vast quantities of food — I just keep chugging the agua con limone. Oh, and today at lunch we had lemonade with ginger. Yum.

Back at the Center, it’s nearing naptime. I assemble a fruit salad and make a cheese plate – the perfect lunch after a day on the town. No sooner have I had the last bite, I hear the cries of an infant who does NOT want to sleep, thank you very much. Tia Heidi to the rescue. Runny nose and teary eyes, the little one smiles through his tears as he looks up at me. He, too, has discovered the joy of simple abundance … of the new lady with the ample bosom who never tires of taking him in her arms and rocking him to sleep. Once I have him finally settled, the next one decides it’s his turn … and a third smacks himself in the head and starts wailing at my feet, determined not to be left out of the besos.

adorationNow, I’m not saying that life at the Center isn’t without its challenges – the on again, off again plumbing; the lack of electrical outlets to charge my cell phone, the language barriers, the stifling heat and mosquitos. But there is blessed abundance as well — the new friends, the delicious sleep under the mosquito netting, the daily Rosary (a ten-year-old girl named Lola is teaching me), the early mornings when I venture by bus to the center of town to offer prayers for the work of the Mission, and watch as local Christians gently stroke the tabernacle like the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment. Above all, the opportunity to slow down enough to breathe and sleep and revel in the gentle simplicity of life. And I thank God for the blessings of such blessed abundance.

Day 3: Adventure!

For the third day in a row, a mysterious cell phone woke me up at 4:30. I had expected crying babies … phantom technology, not so much. At first I thought it was my upstairs neighbor, until I met her, carrying a flashlight, on the stairs. “Oh, I thought it was YOUR phone!” Turns out, the phone in question was in a locked apartment that belongs to the woman who runs the Center … who was on an outreach and would be back the next day.

First Mass 052617Ah, well. I decided to try out the public transport system in order to make the 8:00 Mass at the church near the town square. I grabbed a handful of change, my dictionary and Spanish-English Bible, and a water bottle and headed out. The gate was locked, but one of the mamas offered to let me out if I’d pick her up some diapers. Seemed like a fair exchange.

Now the thing you need to know about roads in this area is that they are not for the faint of heart. They are serpentine and narrow, and the “shoulder” is an abrupt drop-off; a truck coming from the other direction could startle you into making a turn that would take out your undercarriage. No joke. At night this is particularly scary, since the fog flares at regular intervals, obscuring oncoming traffic and the hazard cones that they erect in the middle of roads in lieu of actually, you know, repairing them.

But if it was my turn to go, at least it would be on my way to Mass. So I got on the bus, sat next to a nice young woman, and attempted to ask if I needed the same bus on the way back. Judging by the horrified look on her face, I must have said something like, “Can I have your firstborn child?”  So I sat quietly until I saw the church spires, then got off the bus and hoped for the best.

First Mass 052617The Eglesia de San Benedicto offers adoration before Mass in a side chapel. I went in and found a seat, and watched as each person who entered the room went to the tabernacle, gently stroked the front, resting their hand on the vessel for a moment. Some approached the tabernacle on their knees. One white-haired old gentleman got as far as my pew before spotting a tiny white stone in his path, the size of a lentil. “Phht,” he snorted, swiping it out of his way. It made me smile … apparently piety has its limits.

Feeling self-conscious about not having properly (culturally speaking) reverenced the tabernacle on the way in, I made my way to the front as I prepared to leave. I knelt and stroked the lower edge of the ornately carved tabernacle. At that moment, I thought of the woman who clutched the edge of Jesus’ garment, desperate for healing. It is the gesture of one who is utterly convinced of her own dependency, and unwilling to bypass even the tiniest chance for healing.

EMPANADASAfter Mass I ventured out to find diapers, then some galletas (cookies) to share at lunch, chocolate chip and mango-flavored empanatas. Seeing these little pies reminded me that I had not yet found the local specialty, cheese filled pies made from Turrialba cheese. So I fixed that.

As I ate, I composed one of those letters an editor hates to send: a rejection letter to an author who had worked hard on her proposal, but I had been unsuccessful in getting it through committee. The Gospel today spoke of a woman laboring to give birth, the joys and sorrows associated with that experience. In a certain sense, authors labor, too … And its always hard when the labor doesn’t produce a real, live book. And yet, I also knew that God’s plan for that author is not foiled by one closed door. I simply had to detach, and trust.

I made it back to the Center (via taxi, which was only slightly more than bus) around lunch time, tired but happy with the outcome of my first solo adventure here.

Home. Safe. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2: Simple Joys

IMG_2105This morning when I arrived at the Center, Isabella and Kenneth were both crying, loudly protesting the interminable wait for breakfast.

Since I’m not in the habit of lactating, I did the next best thing and pulled a box of animal crackers from my luggage. One for the mouth, one for the hand… and blissful silence descended. Little things, it is said, mean so much.

Later that day I had the mamas pick out receiving blankets handmade by the ladies at my church and set to work embroidering their babies’ names: Elixson and Isabella, Angelica and Alex, Kenneth and Lola. Each of these little souls and their mamas loved by God. Little ones, each a pearl of great price.

Today was a day for simple joys: guavabana ice cream and snuggling with a baby till he napped on my shoulder. Finding a toilet with a seat and an ice cold lemonade at supper. Watching a little girl snuggle a two week old kitten and knowing my own daughter will be here I. Just a few more days. Going through the donations and giggling at the pink velvet Mary Janes, wondering whether there might not be a better option during the rainy season. Attempting my first Spanish Rosary.

Yes, today was full of simple joys.

Tomorrow will be a sad day at the mission, the anniversary of Bryce’s birthday. Please remember Colleen and her family in your prayers. And thanks for keeping all of us in your prayers as well.

Day One: Thankfulness

dc

Day 1 in Costa Rica

This morning a fat cloud sits on the mountain at eye level as we sit on the porch in the cool of the morning, Colleen drinking coffee and I sipping the precious Diet Coke I managed to liberate from the plane on my flight last On the flight, I watched Genius, the true story of author Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his literary editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). Though the movie was panned by many critics, I thought it did a great job of portraying the exquisite (and sometimes aggravating beyond words) creative dance between authors and their editors.  Granted, most dances (one would hope) aren’t quite so invasive on family life … but then again, genius has its share of big ugly gorillas.

On the drive home, Colleen and I got to talking about her new (second) book, Naked and Unashamed: The Blessing of the Female Body (Franciscan Media). I was her editor for her first book, Who Do He Say You Are? Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels. It is a powerful testimony of the life-changing power of Christ, and of her journey through grief after losing her son Bryce to SIDS and starting (with her husband Greg) the maternity home here.

I was laid off shortly after persuading her to write the second book, and so Colleen and I have been partners in loss. Listening to her describe her experience with the editorial process on the second book, I could feel myself getting angry — a fists clenched, shoulders tight, pit-of-the-stomach smoldering. Finally, I had to choose to let it go. I could not change it … and I knew that somehow God would work this out, too.

It’s been almost eight months since I was laid off at FM and six since rejoining Ave Maria on a part-time, contract basis. Despite the loss of income, I also have to admit that this change has also had its perks. In my old job, for example I could not have taken a month to spend with a friend in this idyllic setting, rocking gently on the front porch and listening to exotic birds as the fog clears from the mountain.

Looking over the valley, I can almost see the top. And I am thankful.

A Sewing Circle of Love

IMG_2078

Queen of Peace sewing day

 

Years ago, when a young woman was about to get married or have a child, the women of her community would gather for a quilting bee, creating a unique yet practical work of art to add to the young woman’s trousseau. Some quilts told a story, others were simply colorful and warm. Each was as unique as the woman for whom it was made.

This past weekend, looking around the Commons area of Queen of Peace parish, I felt a little thrill (like those blushing brides-to-be must have) as I saw nearly forty baby blankets fashioned from fleece and flannel, each soft and colorful — and each intended to wrap a newborn that most of these women will never get to meet in person. These blankets are coming with me to Costa Rica, to the babies and their mothers who come to St. Bryce Mission.

Most of these women, I had never met before that day — and yet in a short time we were chatting like old friends. Kelly Pant, my partner in crime, had brought her mother Francie — a veteran quilter who with utmost patience walked me through creating my first baby blanket, a Dora-the-Explorer confection in pink, then a frog-themed green-and-tan offering. She also made a special quilt for Kenneth, the young boy with special needs who lives at St. Bryce. Other women from the community gathered footie pajamas, diapers, and fabric. The Jubilee women’s group donated their annual collection to a special project at the mission. Another family slipped us $100 for the electric upgrade project at the Center.

IMG_2049IMG_2065Yesterday, Sunday, our pastor Father John Eze called our family up with the blankets, to bless us and send us as representatives of Queen of Peace, reciting from the Book of Blessings that God would bless and protect us as we go to share the Gospel — and ourselves — with the people who come to the Center..

I am so very grateful to my family at Queen of Peace. Thank you for taking this journey with us!