Death and Response, Cross-Culturally

This week I experienced death in a few forms, in two different countries and cultures, and saw the beauty of embracing all of it — of making bridges for ourselves and for those who passed onward.

Last Wednesday evening, the 6th of November, in California, U.S., my Aunt Nancy slipped away from the pain and exhaustion of fighting against the cancer that had taken over her body. The same breast cancer that she had been battling for years, that same cancer that took to her brain, and wasn’t letting go of her body — no longer does she have to fight that beast. She went peacefully, thanks to her amazing family around her. Her daughter put on her favorite song of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” as artfully played on the ukulele by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, and she let go of the breath that connected her to the struggle of this world. She was at rest, she was taken somewhere without struggle, she finally had peace and was no longer defined by cancer. What an amazing woman, Aunt, Mother, Sister and Daughter. Such selflessness and gentleness of spirit I would be hard-pressed to find again.

I am miles and countries away from my family here in the mountains of Guatemala. The thing that I am most saddened by is the fact that I cannot physically be there with and for my family, especially my cousins who lost their mother too soon. Of course, I will be there with them in spirit and in prayer, in emotional support and words of encouragement. There is not going to be a ceremony or memorial or funeral for Nancy; as per her wishes, since, according to her, she didn’t want to be too burdensome. There is no pressing need, then, for me to come home early from my job in Guatemala to attend a funeral. However these ceremonies are for the family to say goodbye, for celebrating the life, for sending the dead on their journey surrounded by prayers and love and support. Thankfully we will come together at Christmas as a whole family, supporting each other in this hard time, and commemorating her life and death.

But something else has happened this week that allowed me to deal with my aunt’s death in a very unique way. I experienced solidarity and connection in death in a mountain town in Guatemala, named Magdalena.

Late Thursday night of last week, November 7th, my host father’s aunt passed away. This woman, Cornelia, was also the host grandmother of three of my students. The day before, my host father was consoling me, hugging me, and encouraging me to be strong. One day later, I was given the opportunity to show him the same love and encouragement. We were there for each other, part of the same family for this small period of time, for this shared time of grief and support.

Then beauty and God came in the form of a funeral in Magdalena. I was graciously invited to the funeral of this woman, and went to the town’s cathedral for a Catholic service that respectfully framed her life and death, and impacted me beyond what I was expecting. Four students and I sat near the back of a packed church, I covered my head, prayed the liturgy, and took communion with the mourning family and community. The priest’s words were meant for the family of Cornelia and the Magdalena community, but they were delivered with such tenderness to my heart. Words of encouragement to be happy for the soul at rest of our loved one who is no longer with us. Words allowing us to grieve and cry because they are healthy good emotions. Words of appreciation for life and the love of God and one another that weaves us together.

I have to say a few words about the astounding community of Magdalena: they come together for each other. Without fail. Without hesitation or expectation of repayment. The town is one big family of caring members who have known each other all their lives, grown up together, and have experienced both joy and pain together. When a family member dies, a vigil is immediately set up at the house, members of the community come to help the family prepare the body, the funeral, and the food. People stay up all night to keep the vigil and help the family. The funeral is the next day, everyone packs the church to the brim, and after the ceremony and prayers and communion, family members lift the coffin onto their shoulders and lead the procession to the graveyard. It is such an impressive, striking sight to see the whole village walking behind the family and coffin to the graveyard, up hills, in complete silence and reverence.

Once we got to the graveyard, still colorful and decorated with flowers and streamers and kites from All Saints Day (November 1st), favorite hymns were sung (“Pescador de Hombres” sings the hauntingly beautiful words, “Junto a ti, buscaré otro mar” Together with you, I will look for other seas). After singing and praying together, the family burst into powerful wails and cries of “Adios, mama!” and truly grieved for their beloved Cornelia. But it doesn’t end on those painful notes of grieving. The family then invites the whole town to their home as they serve coffee, beans, tortillas, and hospitality. This is after staying up for nearly two days, working through their grief for all the preparations. That is why so many women of the community come together to cook and make ready the traditions. It is customary for the family to receive condolence gifts of rice, beans, sugar, salt, and corn. This signifies sustenance and helps support the family’s basic needs.

Just yesterday, Magdalena had another death. The mother of my neighbor, Carlos of Carlos and Thelma fame (they run an art school and I have never seen them unsmiling or not joking. Some of my friends lived in their home for our stay in Magdalena) passed away. My host parents stayed up last night for vigil and went to their second funeral this week. As I type, the house is open to all those who come by to pay respects and share hospitality and food together. I look out from the roof I am on and see the rows and rows of chairs and people bringing life to a home that had been burdened with death.

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As hard as death is, there is such a human beauty that comes with and surrounding it. I was blessed enough to get to experience its fullness here in Guatemala. All the traditions and customs I was invited to be a part of helped me deal with saying goodbye to my Aunt Nancy and face my grief with hope and a new perspective. Living in another culture teaches me so much and it is something I have valued since I first lived abroad as a teenager. But this bridging of understanding between cultures got straight to my heart and God used these sad circumstances to uplift me, teach me, and grow my understanding of cross-cultural views on life and death.

May peace and blessings be on you all,

Kira

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My Heart Was Stolen

Here I am, leaving the country of Guatemala after almost three months of living, working, and learning here. This is probably the most bittersweet I have ever felt. I am excited, sitting on the verge of being back in my own culture and seeing my loved ones, feeling comforts that were sorely missed. But I have an overwhelming sense of sadness that I almost don’t want to confront, because I wouldn’t get on the plane if I did. Leaving my friends, my niche, the language and culture here, the beautiful people, the sense of purpose and drive; it is all so difficult to bring myself to leave. This just hardens my resolve to come back.

I have had some amazing times. Last night, the group and I watched a slide show of just some of our photos, and it was so clear that we have been all over this country, done all kinds of things, and seen so much more than I could have thought possible in three months. In fact, I was not expecting to Love Guatemala as I do. Guatemala was never on my “Must See” list, Central America hadn’t before caught my attention…and now it has my heart. I fell in love with the people and way of life here. I fell in love with the possibility of my life here. So having to leave that behind today is a rough task. Going home holds many joys as well, and I have to keep thinking on that to keep me sane.

I have also been deeply blessed by the group of amazing people I shared this journey with. I see them every day, and I have not gotten sick of them. My love for the entire group has just grown through every experience we share. The past two weeks, we have swam in jungle waterfalls, jumped off of bridges, drank horchata to our hearts’ content, done social work in rural aldeas, rode chicken buses, and just hung out with each other relishing our time in this beautiful country.

Yesterday I had to say good bye to my friends who live in Antigua. It made me realize how close I had grown to them in such a short time, and how much I value their friendship. It also makes me grasp at any possible opportunity to come back and live here. I have a home here, and my heart knows that. I am so grateful for the time I have spent here, I look forward to time in the future to be back here, and I pray that all my life will be filled with experiences of amazing people, culture and places like I found in Guatemala.

Namaste, –Kira

Life: En Español

More than seven weeks in Guatemala, and I am seeing a potential life here unfold. I can comfortably call Antigua my home, where I am quickly making friends, I know my way around, and I feel the sensation of settling into my rhythm, my life – En Español. I have now learned all the verb tenses there are to learn, my vocabulary is growing daily with words and phrases only the Guatemaltecos- or Chapin- say, and I love being able to talk about any subject without being limited by the language barrier. After one week back here in Antigua, I am seeing how I could stay here for months.

Last week I played my ukulele and sang at my first “international gig” at my favorite coffee shop, “Y tu Piña También,” where I felt right at home with friends from both the states and right here in Guate. It was such a blast, that they called the owner over who also owns the Café No Sѐ bar across the street, and he loved what he heard….so much, in fact, that he said I needed to play at his other place on Friday night. And so was born one of the best nights I have had, possibly ever.

Friday night at Café No Sѐ: Amazing mini-set of my favorite songs, the whole audience was captivated, I made 70 Quetzales in tips, and had the most fun with my new group of friends and met people from all over the world. Totally blew my mind with how happy I was that night. I belonged. I could do this for a long while still; this is what life should feel like. I have a few more “concertitos” lined up for this week, and I am excited to play again and say a farewell to the people who have made this all possible. Unfortunately I have just one more week in this great city. But I have the best of plans to return, come next year…

I am hoping to be the On Site Coordinator of this same study abroad program next year, and work for Seattle Pacific University by being the guide, translator, and support for the students who will be on this program next fall. I would absolutely adore being back here and being able to plug in again to the amazing group of people and the wonderful culture I have fell in love with. I am inspired to write more music and love feeding off the creativity of the people I am meeting here. In Antigua, it’s always an amazing story that follows the common questions of, “So what brings you here?” I could dive right in to people’s stories, lives, and passions here…and I want to make it mine as well some day. Who knows, next year or sometime in the future.

I am in love. With the culture, the people, the temptation of a whole other life. It drives me to look for and be more. Learn more. Soak in more. From the Mayan Ruins of Tikal, to the nights of music and good friends in my new home; I feel content. It’s a bittersweet feeling of looking ahead to only two and a half more weeks in the country, this week being my last “huzah” in Antigua. But as a good friend shows me over and over again: always have hope – it never dies. Dios les bendiga, y que la vaya bien.

Namaste, Kira

Rain and Stories: Social Work in El Gorrión

I am soaking. I am soaking with the persistent, cold rain of the Guatemalan mountains. I am soaking with the stories of the people living in the slum community of El Gorrión, who are so openly sharing with me as I start my internship in social work. I am soaking in these experiences and sights and lessons and struggles and I feel as if I will never dry out.

The street of El Gorrion

The past week here in Magdalena has been quite the adjustment. The weather has been freezing cold up at this altitude, dripping wet with day after day of constant rain that is so deeply affecting the whole country of Guatemala. The rainy season is going on longer than usual with heavy rains causing landslides, infrastructure destruction, floods and loss of homes and lives. I am getting used to expecting all of my clothes to be damp, to having to remember my umbrella everywhere I go, and knowing the only place I can feel almost warm is under five blankets in my bed. I am staying with a family who lives here in Magdalena, who have so little, but who are being so generous to me. It is humbling to see how much they have to work for the little they own and for what they call home. But if I thought I was being pushed out of my comfort zone by having to live in the rural town of Magdalena, I wasn’t expecting the kind of poverty I would have to face day to day in El Gorrión.

Water, water everywhere...

Social Work in a community of poor, displaced families involves going in to people’s humble shacks and listening to their problems, their pleas, their grievances, their thankfulness, their desires, and their hope for something better. We listen. We talk. We pray. And sometimes, if it is able to be worked out, we can help them. Thankfully, I have been able to help in a situation that really tugged at my heart.

Her name is Deliah – She is 7 months pregnant with twins, but has already had complications with her pregnancy and was thus told to be on complete bed rest. This means her husband cannot work and they have no source of income, because he has to be home to take care of their three children and many animals. Deliah has been losing weight and is not getting the nutrients she needs to make sure her twins will be healthy. She has to go to weekly appointments in Antigua, without a mode of transportation other than hiking up the hill to take the over-crowded and dangerous bus. They do not have enough money to buy the Ensure that the doctor is telling her she needs for vitamins. After sitting with them in their home and hearing this, I couldn’t get it out of my head. How many more blankets do I have that I want to give to her for her to keep warm? How easy is it for me to just go to the store and buy vitamins or get enough food? How lucky I am to have my own transportation? I was frustrated that there wasn’t an easy fix to this problem, that there are so many factors to be addressed; that I couldn’t just walk to a store and buy her Ensure, or magically make things better like I wanted to.

Deliah and her Daughter Katy

But this story is not over, and I was blessed enough to be a part of it. After talking with the social worker I am interning with, I was able to direct some funds to go towards getting her a ride to her appointment. After searching around Guatemala a bit, we also found some cans of Ensure powder. It is expensive, and especially if we want her to have it for the rest of the pregnancy, so I was able to use my own funds and the help of the rest of my Guatemala team to buy enough to last her through her pregnancy. She went to her appointment, not by bus, and the twins are looking healthy again. I really can see how God’s heart for the poor is sometimes expressed by what is placed on our own hearts, and how we can be the hands of God who can get resources to those in need. That was a lesson that took a struggle to learn, but thankfully, God is patient as much as He is faithful – even when the situation looks as if God isn’t caring for those most in need. There is always hope; it never dies.

There is really no way to write about this whole last week, and even this snap shot is getting quite long winded…so thank you for reading through it. Thank you also for the prayers and your support; I am learning much more than I expected to, which is both amazing and difficult. Now on to week two of serving, crying, listening, working, experiencing, sharing, and living in a rural Guatemalan village. May I be ready to take on whatever may come – storms and all.

Namaste, –Kira

A Normal Week in Guatemala…Far from Normal

Even a week here in Guatemala is too much to write about all in one sitting. The days are packed, as good ol’ Calvin and Hobbes would put it. I am doing more in the three and a half weeks that I have been here, than I did in the year I was in Italy — I am much more proactive about going to see different parts of the country, learning as much as I can about the history, culture and language. Living here is like a condensed version of life: pack in as much living as you can in three months. And I love it.

This past week has been one adventure after another. We started our classes at the Instituto Linguistico Maya, and I am learning multiple verb tenses in the four hours we attend in the mornings. This is the fastest I have ever learned a language and I love this pace. We have one on one tutors, so I am able to go at exactly the speed I need to, focusing on the areas I need to work on. My teacher, Lesibia, is an absolute delight: so sweet, patient, helpful and so fun to have conversations with. We chat about politics, marriage, faith, careers, and culture for four hours a day and the time just flies by.

Through the institute, we also get to participate in lots of different cultural outings, like going to a coffee plantation, seeing a Mayan music museum, walking through the many cathedral ruins here in Antigua, and even learning to dance the Bachata Salsa. One coffee tree only produces one pound (or 40 cups) of coffee per year. The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala. Santo Hermano Pedro is the patron saint of Antigua. I have the hips to dance salsa with. (Who knew?!) A few of my friends and I have even joined a gym here, and it’s great to get to know the people of this city. There will be quite different surroundings when we head off to Magdalena next week…

Maya Marimba
Maya Religion
Colorful cloth

One of the highlights (which is saying something, cause it seemed the whole week was a highlight) of this past week was the Seattle Sounders game in Guatemala City against the Guatemala Comunicaciones (or Los Cremas as they are more commonly known). What. A. Game. That was the most exciting soccer event I have been to (yes, including the time I was in Italy when they won the World Cup of 2006) and the most soaking wet I have been due to the torrential downpour that lasted most of the game. Our whole group of 15 plus the Students International staff and families piled into vans to head to the capitol to meet with the two die-hard Sounders fans that travel with the team. In total we were a loud and excited group of 30 people cheering on our team in a stadium full of Guatemalan fans. We we escorted in by armed (and armored) guards and they even put up a net between our section and the Guatemalans. Intense. Throughout the downpour we sang sounders songs, waved our blue and green scarves, and screamed at the top of our lungs when we scored our goals. In the end it was a (close) tie of 2 to 2; yet we got enough points to advance, whereas the Cremas needed to win this game to advance onwards. Needless to say there were some not so happy Guatemala Cremas fans. But thankfully we had our armored guards, and we hurried out of the stadium, wet, tired and ecstatic.

GO SOUNDERS!

This weekend, which was one of our only “free” weekends this whole quarter (where we don’t have other trips or programs planned), a group of eight of us decided to reward ourselves for our hard work in the languages classes we are taking. Best way to reward a job well done? Sunbathing at the Pacific Ocean beach. Everyone knows that. The days were spent lying in the sun by the pool, and relaxing with my friends. i couldn’t have asked for a better group to be with. We even got to release baby sea-turtles into the ocean and set them free from the hatchery they were born in. Later that night we went on a rather intense excursion along the black-sand beach to see mother sea-turtles going back into the sea after depositing their eggs on the beach. What a wonderful sight of nature — I have only seen this on the discovery channel or something, but now, it’s part of my life! I am hoping to go back to Monte Rico another time, because the sea and the sand and the beach culture is something I adore.

Mamma Sea Turtle
Monte Rico on the Pacific

However, a lot of this week will be spent preparing for our weeks to come in Magdalena, which is the poor rural community we will be living and volunteering in for our internships. I still have no idea what my internship of “Social Work” will look like in the displaced persons community of El Gorrion, but I am putting all my expectations in God’s hands and hoping to learn a lot. The directors of the social works program there even have started a bible study with all us Seattle Pacific students, and we are going to read through Luke together while reflecting on what we will see and learn living in Guatemalan poverty. I am excited and a bit nervous — but if this trip continues to go the way it has been going, then everything will meet and exceed my expectations and I will grow even more.

Thanks for your patience with my infrequent blog-posts, and for reading this monster of an entry! May peace and blessings be on all of you,

Namaste —
Kira

Comfort[able]

I love my comfort. A lot. Who doesn’t? This season is not comfortable.

I am pushed hard, probably to the limit, with school, with difficult surroundings, with heart ache, and with distance between myself and God. Depressed? Yeah, I am a little. Discouraged? No. I can’t give up, when I know the hope I have to cling onto.

That doesn’t mean that hope makes things easy. I desire things in my life right now that don’t require me to move anymore, mentally or physically. I want the simple joys of playing ukulele, reading fun novels, and having the time to spend with friends (NOT doing homework for once.)

But there is a little light, a little voice somewhere in the back of my head reminding me why I am doing what I am doing, and the importance of being exactly where I am right now. I am working hard to get my degree, I am learning to trust God with all, and I mean ALL, things, and I know that it won’t always be like this–it’s just this season.

“This too shall pass”, but I don’t want to just grit my teeth and bear it out. I remember at the beginning of the year I was committed to being content with who I am and where I am–in the moment. It is my new year’s resolution. The trials of this quarter, however, have made me quickly relinquish my grasp on that idea as being overly fanciful. But it doesn’t have to be. I don’t have to be constantly JOYFUL at where I am, but I do have to acknowledge the importance of what I am going through, what I am learning, and how it shapes me.

I need to endure these growing pains in a way that shows grace, that brings glory to God for what He is doing in me, and that speaks of the hope I have in the future because of what I am going through now–not in spite of.

So when I am seeking comfort these days, I know I need to turn to God. Because really, what can be more peaceful than knowing He has it All under control? I can’t just pray for an easy, comfortable life, though. That isn’t my calling and I know it–no matter how badly this season makes me want it. “God doesn’t call us to seek an easy life, but an obedient one.” And that’s is where I can find true joy and comfort, along with the purpose I know all this hard work is pushing me towards. But the great news is that it doesn’t just stop there…God gives us all of this AND comfort. A fuller comfort. A comfort for the broken parts of me, the hurting heart I have been carrying. He is there for me in that comfort too. I know my comfort comes from obedience to God, of standing still in his presence.

So here is to pushing through, but learning. Wanting comfort, but knowing true peace. Going crazy with the amount of things I have to do and the stresses of this life, but allowing myself to be still with God to be more attentive to His presence in my life. It is through him I am able to find comfort. He makes me comfort[able].

Namaste,

–Kira

Keep Going

So here we are, middle of week nine. Two and a half weeks more of this quarter that has beaten me down, exhausted me, and through it all taught me a lot and made me stronger.

I want it to be over now…but of course, I wanted it to be over right after it began to, so since I have gotten this far, might as well finish it out victorious, right?

I have been looking a lot at this blog today: http://loveandpine.tumblr.com/ which has been really inspiring (and distracting from the heavier problems of the day). And on it I found a piece of wisdom that is amusing as well as helpful.

The 30 steps to mastery

1. Start
2. Keep going.
3. You think you’re starting to get the hang of it.
4. You see someone else’s work and feel undeniable misery.
5. Keep going.
6. Keep going.
7. You feel like maybe, possibly, you kinda got it now.
8. You don’t.
9. Keep going.
10. You ask for someone else’s opinion — their response is standoffish, though polite.
11. Depression.
12. Keep going.
13. Keep going.
14. You ask someone else’s opinion — their response is favorable.
15. They have no idea what they’re talking about.
16. Keep going.
17. You feel semi-kinda favorable and maybe even a little proud of what you can do now.
18. Self-loathing chastisement.
19. Depression
20. Keep going.
21. You ask someone else’s opinion — they respond quite favorably.
22. They’re still wrong.
23. Depression.
24. Keep going though you can’t possibly imagine why.
25. Become restless.
26. Receive some measure of praise from a trustworthy opinion.
27. They’re still fucking wrong (Right?)
28. Keep going just because there’s nothing else to do.
29. Mastery arrives, you mistake it for a gust of wind.
30. Keep. Fucking. Going.

That’s simple enough, right? I think it’s pretty applicable as well– I just need to keep going. We all do. I want to get to Spring, I want to be happier, I want to finish my degree, I want to make it out of this business planning competition alive, I want to find love. Well– Keep going.

As Confucius dictated: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

The end is in sight! Hope is always to be found! So no matter what it is that you are going through, keep going.

“If you are going through Hell, keep going.” —Winston Churchill

 

I hope all of you find peace, and – of course – the strength to keep trying.

Namaste — Kira

Things I am Digging…

I know I am not the most consistent blogger; in fact I make very rare appearances on wordpress, and I hope to work at that this year.

However, today I just wanted to make a list of things that I am really enjoying in my life right now. It is important to recognize, acknowledge, and give thanks for the beautiful things we have, that make us happy. So I guess you can call this a “stopping to smell the roses” post!

Things I like:

  1. -“Blood Bank” by Bon Iver
  2. -The Hype Machine (a site for music finding)
  3. -Feeling alive when I do Yoga
  4. -Walking downtown listening to my iPod
  5. -New classes filled with potential
  6. -My friends Maile and Lauren
  7. -My bed in the cold mornings with my new blanket
  8. -Playing ukulele with my friends who got ukuleles for Christmas
  9. -My “new” boots from Goodwill
  10. -How easily I make friends at a new school
  11. -The excitement of a new, blank day planner
  12. -Late night talks with my Role Model cousin Kyla
  13. -Recycled notebooks
  14. -Writing letters to sweet old ladies from my church
  15. -My roommate and her awesome attitude about life
  16. -The potential of going to Guatemala this year
  17. -The new Sara Bareilles album, “Kaleidoscope Heart”
  18. -Letting go of old mindsets about myself, and being content with who I am
  19. -I have a God of Peace and Strength, which, it just so happens, I need right now

Thanks for looking at the things I am currently digging in my life! It makes me happy to read over this list and know I will be ok, and even happy with what I have, who I am, and where I am at right now.

Namaste, and blessings to you all for the Newness of 2011,

–Kira