Sunday, August 15, 2010

yesterday/today: Displacement

A year ago today I wrote in my journal: “displacement makes me moody”

This was an understatement. Sometime during that week I remember cussing out a turtle because it was big and different and not like US pets. Also, I was certain that if it spoke, it would speak Spanish like the parrot and somehow this made me angrier. Don’t judge me.

Displacement does indeed intensify your day to day experiences. That same day I wrote that it felt as if “besitos (little kisses) from four year olds could heal the world, while a quiet table at dinner could send me running home.” Everything was new and different and all the tools I once had to keep myself at equilibrium had suddenly vanished. This shone a spotlight on all my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. If I was impatient or insecure or attention-seeking before, it was only amplified by the experience of displacement.

I think that displacement is God’s way of snatching us out of the usual routine and distractions and excuses that we were so comforted by in our old lives. The shelter of our daily lives now gone, God the potter finally has the chance to get His hands on us, the clay, in ways He’s always wanted to.

This stripping away, however difficult, is essential to discovering our identity in Christ. We are no longer able to hide behind our daily routine, our smooth talking, our compensatory competences. We must face our weakness. But along the way we discover our strength in God. We suddenly find that, when our competence is stripped away, what actually matters can be revealed. That is, the incredible graces God has offered us and which we have buried under the heap of other traits that were more immediately rewarded by human esteem.

On the thirteenth I also wrote, while trying to console myself over my new-found incompetency,

“Well, I guess it’s good that God is concerned foremost with my faithfulness over anything else. I can falter in my language, talents, energy, health, etc. and yet be pleasing to Him by my faithfulness. He doesn’t count how many girls are around me, or how often I’m willing to eat something questionable, or how well I can conjugate my verbs. Rather than being competent, I must be faithful and filled with love, for which I need God’s grace and guidance.”

In this way, displacement has helped me to identify the presence or absence of the values that truly matter to me. My ability to love, to be faithful, to give thanks, to be taught, to be genuine rather than impressive, etc. I can’t say that I have necessarily arrived at all, or even any, of these, but my sensitivity to them has heightened.

In the same way that a spotlight is shone on our own nature, so too is God’s nature illuminated by displacement. We are essentially powerless in our new environments when we arrive. (Maybe that’s why I raged against turtles. Easy targets.) Reduced to the state of children, we are forced to recognize what God provides for us who are too weak to provide for ourselves. I think that sheds some light on Jesus’ prayer for his missioners in Luke 10. When the seventy-two come back from mission and huddle up with Jesus, excited about the ways they have seen God working during their travels, Jesus prays, “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” There were plenty of things hidden from my eyes when I was “wise” in the US, that were revealed to me over the last year spent “childlike” in Bolivia.

Furthermore, when we stop trying to supplement our life with material comforts, we find that God really is sufficient, just as he promises us in the scriptures. “I’m realizing that the things of God are the most constant and powerful in my life. In this state of transition, they are more sustaining than anything else I’ve tried to grasp on to.” I’ve fallen out of touch with a lot of people. My computer died tonight. I’ve not a clue what I’ll be doing a year from now. And despite the panic attack this would have inspired a year ago, I’m perfectly content. I have everything I need dwelling right here in my soul. I have realized the overwhelming faithfulness of God. When I abandoned what I thought was “everything” I found that everything, that is to say everything of true, enduring value, would never abandon me.

Conclusion, straight from the pages of my journals
August 15, 2009: “It’s so hard! I know that it was always going to be hard, and that it’s supposed to be hard, that’s one of the reasons we’re called away from our ordinary lives-but I’m still figuring out how to handle it.”
August 15, 2010: “I see with such gratitude now that God has drawn me here, as difficult as it has been, to encounter Him, and His presence within me. Like Hosea 2:16: ´so I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.´”

In Defense of Year Two

In an effort to reflect on what this last year has meant to me I dug in to the nearly three journals I´ve filled since arriving a year ago Tuesday (writing has been a very important part of my reflection here). A year gone by, I see these reflections in a different light, or sometimes they do more to inform my present questions and conflicts. I hope to be a little more active this year in sharing some of these thoughts. First, however, I wanted to sum up the last year. Turns out, that’s impossible. I did find something I wrote during our MISO training, before I even got here, that did a pretty good job of expressing why I’m here and what’s been happening within me since arriving.

“Reflection Exercise 2
Part B (yes, my journal has subheadings): What is your message for yourself:
No matter how hard it gets, remember that God has led you here. Remember the feeling of clarity and peace when you withdrew your JVC application, and again when you received your final placement after initially declaring you’d go anywhere but Bolivia. You have been invited to participate in something far beyond your comprehension. As a finite individual, you cannot stop injustice, or offer salvation, or soothe pain you don’t even understand. Your job is to humbly receive the abundant love of God and offer it back in this place. This love has beautiful and challenging consequences- we must face our own insufficiency, honor the “belovedness” of our neighbors, trust our Lord completely. We must settle, and strive, to simply live well day to day. Make peace with the challenge of existence and revisit your only worthwhile goal: to love better every day. By God’s grace you can do it.”

That’s a lot to respond to all at once and I hope you’ll allow me to leave much of it standing alone. I do want to speak briefly to the very first part: the idea that God led me here.

I don´t generally make decisions on a hunch or a whim or a gut feeling. I’m not very attuned to what some might call the “whisperings of the Holy Spirit,” but my arrival in Bolivia was very irrational. I swore I would go anywhere but Bolivia, mostly because I was afraid of having to learn Spanish (the sisters and I sit around the dinner table and laugh about this story as I retell it over and over…in Spanish). I withdrew my application to JVC, my only “back-up plan” before I had actually been officially accepted by the SLMs because I felt certain that God was calling me to the Salesians, whom I’d never even heard of until about six weeks prior. Then, as I was practically packing my bags for India, having decided on the Ferando Speech and Hearing Center, I was slammed with an inexplicable feeling that I was heading in the wrong direction. Well then, God…where am I supposed to go? Cochabamba, Bolivia. My inital answer cannot be repeated here out of sensitivity to my youngest and/or purest readers. But I came, and now I’m glad I did.

Ita Ford spoke in an interview about Chile the same way I would speak about Bolivia.

“There’re a lot of things that are very uncomfortable about being there, but it’s like the right place to be. It’ like you intuit a place. This is your place right now. I can’t say it’s my place forever and ever. Right now, I recognize this is where I should be.”

Bolivia is “my place” right now. I can’t put my finger on what exactly made it so when God sent me, against my will quite honestly, a year ago, but I am infinitely grateful to Him for it now. This is still my place. I wish I had a more eloquent way of explaining to my friends and family why I’m spending another year here. Perhaps, like this last year, those reasons will be revealed over the course of time.

Monday, August 9, 2010


I recently spent two weeks travelling and catching up with my Dad and my Sister (I saw my mom in May when she came to Bolivia) and my dear friend Amanda. I spent the first week in Acapulco with my Dad and Patty, enjoying the sunshine (escaping Bolivia's winter) and the sea. I was overwhelmed, as I rode from the Acapulco airport to the hotel, by the huge buildings, paved and painted roads, and glowing lights. The taxi driver had a good laugh as I stared out the window and yelled "Look at that building! It's huge!" and "There's a costco! and a starbucks! and a McDonalds!" (none of which I actually went to, it was just exciting that these familiar places were part of my world again) and "look at all those people! Can you actually go out at night here?" It was incredible to me how pristine and orderly the city looked. When I got to the hotel I yakked my Dad's ear off, drank a huge glass of tap water, took a hot shower without being shocked by the faucet or water heater, and fell asleep (without the three wool blankets I normally pile on against the cold Bolivian nights) feeling like a queen. I hadn't seen my Dad in over a year, and now that I know just how long that really is, it was a little overwhelming to say good bye again. How do you say, " was so great to see you. I guess I'll see you in another year again." Turns just do.

The next week I spent in Nebraska with my sister, her husband Mike, and his brother Jim. My old roommie from Whitworth came over from Colorado for a few days too! My sister is good and pregnant and I'm glad that, if I won't see my little niece until she's several months old, I at least got to feel her kicking. Being apart from my sister is probably one of the hardest things for me about being in Bolivia and I had such a great time with her. We went to a soccer game in Kansas City between the Kansas City Wizards and Manchester United (I're jealous, aren't you?) and I felt overwhelmed by a new sense of patriotism during the national anthem. Though I love Bolivia, am thrilled to be there, and often am frustrated, like many people, by the politics, social injustices, and foriegn policy flaws I encounter in the US, coming back after a year away made me sharply aware that, yes, this is my country, my culture. Landing in Pheonix I got a surge of this new, strangely strong patriotism inspired by such a long absence. (Look! See that down there? That's American soil!) It's easy to turn up your nose and feel self-righteous because you've seen poverty and suffering on a scale that we can't imagine as a nation, but honestly, I felt no shame in just plain enjoying the paved roads, efficient and orderly nature of...pretty much everything, well-tended homes, clean water, etc. It's tempting, especially I think for my generation, to criticize America for living in relative peace and security (at least on our own soil) while much of the world suffers from poverty and violence we often can only imagine. There's some reason in that; We without a doubt play a role in many terrible social injustices. But I couldn't help but bask in the sense of safety and comfort I felt. Despite being even more aware of the US's role in the violence and despair so many people I know have witnessed (particularly the sisters from El Salvador who lived through the civil war), and being painfully conscious of the economic despairity between the US and much of Latin America, I couldn't deny that it felt pretty good to be back in America. I felt incredibly ambivilant, I was disgusted by, but also LOVED the US more than I ever had before. I guess, no matter what you'd love to change, you can't deny your homeland.

Anyway...I had a blast. The game was so much fun and later in the week we went to the zoo (that's the only thing I knew for sure I wanted to do. I guess I joined the Salesians because, deep down, I'm still seven), baked (and ate) ridiculous amounts of cookies, went to Costco (the happiest place on earth), antagonized gigantic rabid swans at a park, and watched a VFC fight (to experience the finest in American culture). Some of that sounds pretty simple, but I had been missing things like cookies (what kind of country doesn't bake cookies!?) and costco and couldn't pass up the opportunity.

Ita Ford wrote in some of her letters about feeling like she had turned in to an obnoxious radical when she visited her family and friends, but that it was an unavoidable change within her after spending so much time amongst Chile's poorest during the US-funded coup overthrowing Pinochet an installing a tyranical new regime. I could relate. I kept biting my tongue, resisting the urge to counter complaints with "well you know, it could be worse. In Bolivia..." Or tirelessly stir conversation about the the gospel's message to the poor and oppressed, or challenege some of the assumptions and attitudes towards the poor that seemed implied even by simple things like the homily at mass. It was an unsettling realization: I don't think like most of the people around me anymore. I don't always feel like we live in the same world. Sometimes, while I talked with people, I would suddenly get this overwhelming sense that we were not seeing, hearing, experiencing the same things, despite stting in the same room talking about the same subject. I've had the opposite experience talking to other missionaries, a doctor from Ethiopia on the plane, some of the sisters. Suddenly I feel shocked to realize that whatever we're talking about we're both seeing, understanding, in the same way. On the whole I'm so thankful for it. My world has expanded, my goals have been refocused, my priorities reframed. I'm comfortable with this, but I fear becoming arrogant and obnoxious, self-righteous and condescending. I can't explain completely the way I experience the world now, but it's different. I was back in a place I had lived in for twenty years, yet I was seeing it with new eyes and I feared people would tire of me "reprocessing" everything. That's not an experience I can make the people around me understand, I can only ask for their patience. I had a couple great talks about this with Amanda and it really helped. I suspect I may have been more articulate then than I am now. Sorry, folks.

But it was another great week that was hard to see come to an end. I already miss my sister.

A long trip back to Cochabamba (about 38 hours total, for a number of reasons) ended, finally with a profound sense of comfort and familiarity walking through the Cochabamba airport. I was worried about dreading Bolivia after two weeks of comparative luxury, but I was flooded with appreciation for the other countless non-material blessings. I remember arriving a year ago, watching the buildings and people and fields pass by, and thinking "oh ****! What have I just done?" Now here I was, a year later, arriving from the US and staring out the window feeling glad to be home. I felt refreshed and ready for another year, excited once again by the novelty of a new place. It was all the excitement of my first arrival with none of the uncertainty. I already know how to get by here. I already know things are going to be great. Arriving at the hogar, being flooded by little girls whom I had missed so much as they crashed through the front door, ready for hugs and kisses and a few with notebooks in hand ready to show off the tests we had been studying so hard for when I left, was one of the greatest moments I've ever experienced. If I knew how to capture it, stuff it in a bottle and pass it on to someone, I would give it to you all for Christmas.

So I feel like home is sort of stretched between two continents, two cultures, and two languages right now. How confusing. But, sometimes, how beautiful!

I can't dance right now because of an injury (nothing major, don't worry), which means you should be hearing more from me a little more often over these next two weeks. Hitting the one-year mark (tomorrow!) has given me a lot of opportunity for reflection.