Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tangential, Quixotic...Me

Although one might consider the benefits of having a cast far outweighed by the drawbacks, and while I would generally agree with them, one benefit is that I have the ability to blog instead of going to sleep, because hey...what am I really going to do tomorrow? There is a bit of bitterness in my voice, but not too much. The cast will be off Thursday morning, and then I can return to regularly scheduled programming, as it were. Be warned...this post makes little sense and has even less continuity.

I am a cynical person. I have had some incredibly lofty and wonderful ideology, and my goal is that I can get back on that horse, as it were, in spite of being sadder and wiser. It's a fight, though, and right now I would have to say that I'm a recovering cynic. This experience of service has been difficult not only in discovering more about me, but in dealing with knowledge. I have talked about the beauty of individual people in several blogs, and no blog entry would capture the beauty and wonder (despite the flaws) of any person, least of all those who have been closer to me, and certainly not by any stretch of the imagination she who has been closest during this experience. However, I somehow find myself in a paradoxical situation: as my love for individuals grows, my view of humanity somehow diminishes. I think (but haven't gotten it into my heart) that this view comes from a misattribution.

You know, I also paradoxically think of myself as a great person and a really lousy person. I'm in the process of searching for equilibrium, and this journey was a blessing from God to show me how desperately I need it. In all my complaining about society, I fear that I've been hesitant to venture into it. Heck, I haven't even registered to vote! It's easy to be the unregistered naysayer withdrawn from the world, talking about being a responsible voter and the ridiculousness that is the contradictory stances either US political party holds as their own. And there's always a truth in what naysayers and even hypocrites have to say...but man alive, I have to wonder how I sleep at night, sometimes.

I went to the National Catholic Prayer breakfast in 2009. I was probably more arrogant and cynical then. I heard the introductory speaker speak on Christians as cretins or viewed as idiots, counterproductive, etc. for their views. It was smart, it was intelligent, and it informed the American citizen that being a Christian means opting for what people who take easier or more immediately pleasurable routes might consider incomprehensible. Then, the keynote speaker, a bishop emeritus spoke. I recognized his name as being one who was very much anti-abortion, so I prepared myself. Don't get me wrong, I am NOT a fan of abortion and have some very, VERY strong views, but I also take issue with the current conservative view that makes it a single-issue ticket. I won't get into them here, but let it suffice to say that if for no other reason, it makes politics very, very boring and predictable. I had this bias going into his speech. I was probably the only one in the auditorium with this sentiment. Had I heard this speech by myself, had His Excellency been addressing me alone, I might have had a very different reaction to his speech. Instead, I was immediately turned off by what I perceived as mindless yes-men applauding to every other sentence. I am impatient; I wanted him to get to the point. It's hard when people break out into applause every half-minute. His speech, predictably, though very fairly, talked about being responsible Christians and citizens, and how having the courage to speak to one's representatives in order to ensure that one is in fact being represented is important, especially regarding the values of life. He arrived to a point about politicians wanting to avoid getting implicated in something that might (heaven forbid) jeopardize their spot as a politician or make their voice unheard, how sometimes they'll talk about wanting to save that voice and that pull for another cause that is also important and in line with the Christian faith. Now, when a politician needs to be called out and, well, grow the courage to be a discordant voice of truth amidst a throng of common trend and self-deception, I support that. In fact, sometimes a person needs to really weigh how much the cause they want to support is the cause that they need to support. The bishop's words were not incorrect, uninspired, or anything of that nature. HOWEVER, somebody interpreted what he said in a very different way...or at least I thought so. A woman at the table next to me (I will avoid description because I do neither of us charity by judging her down to her jewelry) sneered, "Social Justice," as he arrived at this portion. I feel I'm justified in my interpreting her sneer to pertain to the subject at hand, citing a specific example of what other causes a representative might wish to support instead of the taboo "abortion" dilemma. This...sent me over the edge.

Thinking that one law or Supreme Court ruling will eliminate the problem or change the culture is simplistic. To me, it is the very idea of social justice that has the ability to change the culture and make legislation more feasible and more effective. If we look at low-income families and the poverty of finances and education (both in general and regarding sexual education...which is distinct from talking about different sexual positions and contraceptives), and look at how to remedy those problems, well, that's a bit more holistic. Much more difficult, granted, but addresses the root of the problem. In the end, though, what experience has shown to me as the "liberal" idea that legislation and more government initiative solving everything isn't the answer, either. As long as the man next door doesn't care for his neighbor, as long as a man lacks the conviction that he needs to give a crap about another, the letter of the law is ineffective. The spirit is what brings that perfection. That's my soapbox. The reason I bring it up is because I had little faith that humanity could really pull it off. With that woman's sneer, I wondered if the people proclaiming themselves as Christian from either side could ever bring themselves to see the sense in some portion of the other side, because neither side has got what it takes to bring about the kind of peace that Jesus preached if they go it alone. Of course, there's the fact that we'd still be Christians, and many people aren't and don't share those views, and...well, there you go.

I meet so many people. So many really, really, good people. Some of them take the time to think and be awake, some of them don't. Even with those who don't, I have a really hard time seeing how the cogs of society crunch and grind and go in so many directions I don't want to go down, that I know beyond any shadow of doubt are ways to certain...well...unconsciousness.

It's hard to fight that cynicism, that discouragement, that temptation to give up hope and give into impatience and despair, in the midst of a giant cloud of black. There's a certain guy who would always call me naïve for my views. A part of him was right, because eventually I let my own broken heart make me condemn and judge everybody in sight and see the world as a place incapable of goodness and change, or a place unlikely of it happening...and instead of fighting my best anyway, I let myself become bitter. Becoming bitter is easy. Being judgmental and arrogant and sanctimonious is very easy (Exhibit A: this post). The title has "quixotic" in it...but perhaps that's not quite right. "Quixotic" means overly idealistic and impractical. I think that this experience has helped me take what was originally me--idealistic, hopeful, uncompromising in stuff that counted--and took out the naiveté. I had had my heart broken...and it was rebuilt here, and I've been shown without minced words what the world is like, and what it's like to try to live seeing the world as it is while aiming to make it as close to "as it should be" as possible. I'm sure it will happen again, and harder, and I hope that I'll be ready for it. Only way to do that is to learn to trust. Here we go. Still.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holy Family

Many things have happened: Thanksgiving was a wonderful event even if the turkey didn't get cooked all the way, December and Advent have been nothing short of beautiful experiences (albeit very challenging at times), and all of a sudden, quick as the madness began, it stopped. Here I am, the day after Christmas, one of maybe 40 people in Ciudad...about 15% of the normal population. I won't see most of those kids ever again, and while I almost started crying when Hermano Hugo called us up at Mass on Saturday night to be given a farewell blessing, I was glad to see these boys go. I was glad to see them walk confidently and happily out of the pabellón into the promise of a summer that won't be as carefree as one might hope, but in any case is summer. The promise of summer is a privilege whose full benefits, I think, are reserved for those in the academic sphere. The passage of time has helped the boys be confident: having a few months just being in your own skin while the changes of puberty start really setting in help tremendously. Knowing the routine, going from a new kid to a veteran, having the swagger of being "not freshman" and/or "upperclassmen"...I know the self-assurance such happenings can give a teenager, and I had a bit of pride to see the boys I'd seen as short, awkward kids walk out as not-quite-as-short, almost-confident-in-social-situations teenagers.

It'd be arrogant to think "My work is done," because a lot of that work is the natural course of time unfolding; I was merely a witness and cheerleader, adding the occasional formational remark. It was sad for me, and will be sad still...it'll hit more when I'm on the plane heading to the States, and more so when I realize that I can't just strike up conversation with whatever gringo is around about the ridiculousness of these boys and have them truly understand from sharing that same root experience of being in this place. I know that even in the midst of coming home, even in the midst of being welcomed back, of coming back to people who've been missing me, I'll be struggling with feeling very alone. I'm coming back a different person with different experiences, a different diet and different preferences; people will rely on my description of Jhon to form an image of him, unable to just draw on their knowledge of his quick-as-a-whip friendly tongue-in-cheek from encountering him in the kiosco. This is very tangential. The point is that as I feel more alone, as I feel my time in a community in which I've become comfortable comes to a close, the realization that I might not ever see these boys again will become more acute. And that's the way of things, and I'll fight the negativity tooth and nail and work on being grateful and trusting God as the time comes.

Now to the point of my post: Today's the Feast of the Holy Family. I could go on at length, but I'll let this suffice: Like those of the Holy Family: In every one of our relationships, may we have the Father as our first father, the Son as the first child born of the relationship, and the Spirit as our first lover.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Recurrent themes

This post originally was going to be about something completely different, but the title remains the same.

My junior year of college, I had what many would consider an awful 1st semester. A friend died, a family member died, a friendship went freefalling, I had a million responsibilities, a lot of academic work, and then, as icing on the cake, I sprained my ankle shortly before Halloween. I hated that time, I was mad at myself, I resented the situation, dwelled on the negative, and really let myself get to a bad place. I had found it hard to pray before that had started, but I certainly had no desire to pray after. God was unfair, He was my competition, and I could tell that He wanted me closer to Him, but man did He have another thing coming.

Of course, my desire is to say how foolish I was, how immature, how self-damaging and infantile in my tantrum, and...well, yeah, I was. I hurt myself, I closed up a lot, I hurt others, and everybody felt that energy coming from me. It was so easy to go to that place, and while the loudest voice in me told me to continue in that vein, there was a voice that told me that I had to try. That voice was muted at times, distant, or even without any passion: a monotone radio announcement, a bored mantra. All the easier to shut it out. And man, I shut it out. I didn't give up on school; I put more effort into school, as I was doing well with it and I derived my sense of well-being from it (I also liked my classes a lot...well, mostly. Some classes I was awful in. I'm sorry, Dr. Mc). I worked really hard at Esto Vir. Here's the thing, though: I didn't tell anyone what was bothering me. I didn't pray because it was just that much easier to ignore my need to do so, having had active reasons to rage against God (so I thought).

I am pretty sure that 3 years later, exactly to the day, I found myself once again without the mobility I'm so used to. Slightly different reason than before: This time I dropped a pot of boiling water onto my right heel and got a nice 2nd-degree burn. This is the same foot that got severely sprained 3 years prior. October 28th (day of said injuries) is a special day here in Perú. It commemorates the feast of El Señor de Los Milagros. Years ago, there was a huge earthquake in Lima. The whole city was decimated, save for one mural of Christ Crucified, which stood completely intact amidst the wreckage. It came to be known as El Señor de Los Milagros (Lord of Miracles). Of course, at first I thought it a very ironic occurrence to receive a burn and be confined to rest and a crutch on a day associated with Miracles. It's easy to make a joke about how God needs to resort to physical injury to send me messages or that He just enjoys watching me in pain.

This time, though, I really needed to fight the negativity. Somehow, I put on a fun face for everybody last time and let it eat my core. This time, maybe I won't tell people how hard it is to fight going stir-crazy or to fight my mind's crazy formulations or impulses due to boredom, but I feel more honest and less angry about life. I can't tell you what the differences are between this time and last, but I feel the message is the same: "Trust me, be with me, talk to me, follow me. And Hope!" Last time I was in such pits and so pissed and...wanting the world to give me some recognition and loads of sympathy. I found some. To everybody who interacted with me then: thank you, you have shaved several years off of purgatory, I'm fairly positive.

I've had my moments of frustration, despair, of being brought to tears, of doing stupid things like eating crap in huge amounts due to boredom even though I know it'll drive me crazy because of how unhealthy it is later on and the fact that I can't do exercise that I'd love and want to do. I've allowed myself to go paranoid partially out of boredom, partially out of being so alone and feeling so vulnerable. It's easy to think that people despise you or resent you when you're so worried about having to ask for help or admit you're weak that you inadvertently become self-involved. When forced to grapple with yourself, it's easy to avoid that battle and fall into a spiral of self-pity and frustration because you wish you weren't a burden. I've sat staring at the ceiling at night because I've rested all day and while my mind is exhausted, my body (having done little more that be vegetative and recuperate) is wide awake, ready and reporting for duty.

I've needed to deal with the same things, and I've been able to receive some of the same gifts: Wonderful, genuine people who have care and concern and show me love in a way that is very touching. It's amazing how those small acts, like people asking if they can get you something from the market or bringing you dinner when they come to visit or ask after you whenever they have the chance can be so very powerful in the experience of somebody who is needing to feel assured and embraced and loved.

Bright sides seem easier to find this time. Part of that is being willing to let my girlfriend in, and her willingness to keep me from dwelling (even when I really want to). Part of it is a desire to hope and a knowledge that I can't give in to all of that anger and resentment, all of which stems from...fear and from pride. It's a tough battle at 3 AM when you're wide awake and can't sleep no matter how much you'd like to do so, but it's nice to think that through the grace of God both in my all-too-imperfect openness and in others' love and presence, I'm at least willing to try to see what He might be saying to me. It's a tough thing to do because I hate not having all the answers, knowing what will happen, how it will happen, etc. I like being in control, I like being on top of everything, and to even admit that maybe God's trying to tell me something is to admit an imperfection which is a blow to my pride and sets my anxiety alarm off. I was lucky enough to have a bright side: now I have time to do what I complained I didn't have time to do. I can pray, I can write applications to grad school, and I can rest. And I can keep learning how to believe and have hope.

It's tough to have to admit that you have to learn something. I was too wrapped up in myself 3 years ago to see it. I'm still too wrapped up in myself in some ways to see lessons that I'm sure God's been trying to scream; I hope that continuing in the spirit of surrender I might unclog my ears a little bit and maybe take my fingers out of them, too.

At the end of it, though, this has been a miracle. And...how fitting for me that the only thing that stood in a city with all of its solutions for problems, all of the ways that people look to escape (granted it was the 18th century, so this is my own 21st century spin on things) that you can find in a city, the things that can absorb us entirely, the one thing that remains intact was a mural of the crucifixion. The message "The road of love leads to Calvary" has been on my mind, and the idea of surrendering to that is my (life's) task, but how fitting that the only thing that will stand strong and endure is that paradoxical image of selfless love and perseverance; that, with the eyes of faith and hope, speaks of the resurrection and immortality that lies after the death and the initial pain.

Intellectual processing of this: 78% complete (roughly)
Holistic processing and integration of this: 5% complete. Estimated time remaining: rest of natural life, and perhaps then some.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Rejoice in the Lord Always"

"I say it again, rejoice!" I'm not a major Bible fiend in the sense that I can quote and then cite passages with perfect accuracy, but reading the Office of Readings sure gives me some awesome things to read each day, and I get a rush out of reflecting on the readings for each Sunday and finding some of the ways that they connect and send a message. Sometimes, context and full meaning aside, little passages and/or phrases just jump out to me...This portion of Philippians chapter 4 (verses 4-7, de hecho) always makes me think a little bit. I know this is a recurring theme I talk about, partially because my own journey right now and forever will always be about learning to trust and have faith, to hope, and to know the peace that comes from that, a mystery to those who experience it and confounding to those who see it from the outside.

One of the boys who was in the pabellón where I worked named Alfredo Navarro, 15 years old, has a benign brain tumor. Of course, when tumors decide to take up residence in the brain and are freaking large, it's hard to imagine a tumor being benign. He's had a biopsy and now has had a device put into his skull to help with fluid from accumulating and building up in the tumor's area. I need to visit him soon. A part of me is scared. Don't get me wrong, a part of me is selfish, but the selfishness and callous attitude I'm tempted to have comes from someplace completely unexpected: a fear. I know it's silly to post confessions on blogs, but hey, you all wanted to know me better, anyway. Lauren and I were the same year in the same school since age 5. We went K-8, Freshman to Senior year of high school at the same schools. Then we went to the same college. I remember when I first heard that she had cancer...I prayed for strength. I didn't pray for strength for me, or at least I didn't think so: I wanted strength to not doubt, to be there for others...and because I didn't want to acknowledge how awful a thing cancer is. She and I weren't best friends. We actually fought a bit back in 4th grade when I was acting up and stood behind her in line. Haha, I kissed the back of her head on accident in 3rd grade and was humiliated for the whole day. Everybody forgot within a day, at least as far as I know (though I was never one to be in the gossip circles, nor would said circles' opinions really influence me, so who knows?). In any case, we kinda went our separate ways in high school and college. But did we? There she was, a small reminder of home in a strange land in college, a reminder of what we both experienced at our parochial school in high school. And then we heard her cancer had come back, full force. And then she gave her final showcase the summer after freshman year of college in our high school's theater. One of the moments of my life I regret most, I think, happened that night. Instead of waiting to talk to her, instead of acknowledging how seeing her sing even though I knew that she was in pain and that she was tired made me feel both so sad and incredibly hopeful, instead of even just meeting her eyes and giving her a hug and saying hello...I bailed. I went with my friends who didn't go because they didn't feel they knew her (and a few who went but didn't know her well) and went in search of ice cream. I can't say I enjoyed my time with friends, I can't say I enjoyed the time I stole to avoid the discomfort of acknowledging that, unbeknownst to me before seeing the showcase, I was a little bit destroyed (a little, not totally) that she was not going to be a constant for the rest of college, that I'd only hear her astounding singing voice in youtube recordings made before I was 21...I was so terrified of facing that, and yet I was miserable not doing so.
I sometimes wonder, especially now that Alfredo reminds me of her situation, and even of her, with certain facial expressions he makes, how life would have been different if I had just stayed that night, if I had allowed myself to see her, if I had allowed myself to cry, if I had allowed myself to admit where I truly was in that moment. I doubt that life would be incredibly different, and yet the significance of that one small act/omission is vast. My mind has so many places to go with this thought.
The first thought is nothing new: a life lived in fear is hardly a life. It's the difference between surviving and thriving: it's a huge difference. You can read old blog posts to read about that.
The second thought relies on a quote from our pal St. Paul: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:28). Well, people can be against you, cooperate against the grace that's trying to be there, but the lovely thing about God is that...well, He Is Who Is. In the end, if we're receptive to Him, His grace is enough to bring us to what we all want. I look at the moments wherein I've let fear I've misattributed to strength or sensibility and my answer to Paul's question is, quite simply: We can be against us. We are our greatest and truest obstacle, and when we let fear or pride (the two actually go hand in hand, at least in my experience) call the shots, we don't give grace much opportunity to act. I mean, it's still God, so He doesn't ever give up, but yeah. I want to be strong, which I often take to mean hiding my weaknesses, not showing them, not even taking time to realize I need to confess them or justifying myself IN Confession. But...it's precisely in that brokenness that we can find grace waiting to wash us over, peace, love, and we can tune our strings to the true tone.
Third thought: People think of hospitals as depressing, and I can understand. There's so much illness, sickness, bureaucracy, dehumanization, mortality, etc. Somehow I see myself there for another reason, and perhaps not as a doctor or nurse. Perhaps due to experiences in the past, or my experience now with Alfredo, I feel like it's a place that offers so many profound invitations for us to recognize where we are, both in how we feel and that we are not perfect and that we need other people. I know that the feeling of there being people there to grasp your hands when you reach them out is incredible, affirming, strengthening, and ennobling. When that happens, there's a light that one can't help but ignore. In a way, it highlights some of the key points of the human experience: birth and death (clearly), but also how to deal with suffering, what it means to be social beings...I have begun to ramble.

I had a fourth thought, but sleep deprivation has killed it. Perhaps in a later post.

In the end, it boils down to more how one is rather than how one does. The latter will have significance only if the former is there. And I'd like to be in a place of trust, of rejoicing in the Lord at all times, in all things, always. I'd like to be in a place of faith.

God willing, I'll see him this week. Send prayers, any of you folks who still read...and feel free to send me your intentions, too!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Post-Retreat (s)

Halfway through my stay in Panama I almost found myself troubled over the state of peace which had been granted to me. There amidst the lush green, the fecundity wafting in the air rife with stifling humidity that makes the ceiling tiles droop and fall into convex bumps on the ceiling grid, there was a sense of tranquility that I didn't expect. As I sat in a chapel revealing my humanity and discovering that of others, rain cascading like waterfalls onto the tin roof, I was home in the unknown.
My gecko roommates (as opposed to the human and infinitely cooler roommate sleeping on the bed that was NOT atop a desk) scurried along the walls and squeaking blithely into the wee hours of the morning served more as a source of wonder than a source of annoyance. Not even the roosters who were so dedicated to waking the dawn as to begin crowing mere hours after the sun disappeared from the sky could shake my appreciation and joy at seeing skies and sunsets that God had apparently decided to take out of his private collection of art straight from his own palette.
In the midst of the sun and humidity that left me drenched, a huge wave of contentment rolled over me. Going from the retreat I had with the Ciudad personnel immediately before hopping my plane to Panama to the CapCorps International Retreat put me into official "Retreat High," I think. The mere fact that I felt much more connected to Ciudad's community after that retreat was terrific, and then we were in PANAMA, moreover with very cool people we hadn't seen in over a year! I was so excited to go to Ciudad back in August 2009, but it was crushing to bid farewell to the two Nicaragua communities as they passed through the security gates in the Milwaukee Airport. Alyssa, Tania, and I were a community, but we were gifted as an international group with a sense of overall community, too, and to feel a distinct connection and kinship, to simply be able to bask in the wonderfulness that is these 8 other incredible people, makes parting a bittersweet act of faith. So yeah, that was definitely present as the 6 lovely people living and learning in Nicaragua headed out into their own unknown. I savored the existence of this imminent retreat with all of us together from the moment I heard it was happening, so it's safe to say that the excitement of being with them helped give me such a feeling of ease.
To get the less important part of this post out of the way, I'll start with my reactions to just being in Panama that were entirely individualistic: I felt an awakening of the sense of adventure that allowed me to come to Peru in the first place, that same feeling that, though sleepily, has sustained me and helped me to fight off fear in any number of circumstances. A breath of the air on that first morning in Central America vividly told me that my days of travel are not over, made my excitement for the future and its possibilities and uncertainties truly present and alert. A breath of that air gave me the feeling that anything and everything was and is possible, similar to what happened when I was in Honduras. A part of my heart most definitely belongs there, and God willing I'll be able to travel there again and spend more time than a week or two. I felt...alive.
The most immediately moving thing for me during and after these retreats, clearly, was the sense of community, the rejoicing in being very much in an element that allowed me to grow, be challenged, and to laugh and have an incredible time all the while. After a year of growth and challenge as an individual, with retreats in Ciudad first focused on the individual, the change to focusing on the essential nature of living as a community as Christians was welcome and a necessary step. Of course, it felt a little bit sad to have a feeling of, "Oh...duh," as I was there with the Ciudad community, being reminded of all the things that are poisonous to this essential component of Christian living and how many of them we'd allowed to permeate our daily interactions, as the immediate inclination for me was to think, "So glad we've got this piece of the puzzle here as time winds down," in a sarcastic or bitter way. But, as several folks mentioned in Panama, one of the keys to these next four months is to think of them more as beginning, or of their own time, rather than just the winding down of an 18-month experience. In Panama, we focused on Eucharist and what and how we are supposed to do in memory of Him. We had the opportunity to re-realize that we weren't perfect as humans nor community, to offer nothing more nor less than ourselves to God, each other as a big community on retreat, our respective communities in the rest of our time together, to the new community members, and to those with whom we work. The fact that we who all enjoy each other's company were able to go a little bit deeper, reveal some of our own struggles, receive others', and find a connection in our humanity (i.e., both our faults and the desire to do better and to overcome the obstacles that arise due to those faults), perhaps gain insight into our own situation from others' brokenness....what a wonderful gift CapCorps, our coordinators, the prayers that everybody back home offers for us, and the financial backing that people are generous enough to impart have given to us!
How wonderful it has been to have an experience that makes me realize that everything I learned about Church, about its necessity, its universality, get a little more integrated into my heart! And how wonderful it is to welcome Mike and Jeanette into the community! How genuinely blessed it was to see my parents for an incredible 10 days this month when they came to visit! How amazing to have even more excitement for seeing my brother again in less than a year! How exciting it is to be careening into October, a month of insanity, and rush toward another transition, but to know that a beginning started when I walked off the plane in Panama City!
More than ever, the idea of The Communion of the Saints has become something that gives me strength, sustains me, and moves something in me. The thought of perhaps not being able to ever be with them in that community setting that we were lucky enough to experience this September and in July and August of last year is saddening, but the gift of knowing that we enjoy each other's company is so wonderful. And when I miss them, it actually now offers me a great deal of comfort and joy to think that I'll see them in the Eucharist. And my family. And those others whom I miss. And those with whom I clash.

What a blessing, this life. I think I need my resolution from those retreats to be that: The constant realization of that blessing. From realizing that blessedness, that love, from incorporating that into my core (with God's grace), God only knows what will follow...and at the moment, I'm perfectly content with that.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cusco, Las Alturas, Y Más

I do realize it has been a long time since my last post, so there is a lot of ground to cover.

I have a new stamp in my passport. It's a ridiculous ink imprinting of Machu Picchu. I mean, I am thrilled to have a stamp saying that I've visited what people consider a marvel. I feel that the stamp's over-the-top nature kind of demeans the purpose of having it being taken seriously. I guess that's what I get for being a tourist.

The trip to Cusco was amazing, in all honesty. My stomach, as it has vowed to never let me be at peace for more than a moon cycle, piped up now and then, and I had some emotional outbursts due to stress and having to be with people during what I dub "me time," but it was a nice learning experience. The latter part. My digestive system doesn't like anything I give it. Meh, what can you do?

We went to Cusco while the kids had winter break. From Lima, that's a good 22 hours (the books say 20, but don't believe their lies) by bus. We would have gone by plane, but it only would have been cheaper if we were (all) Peruvian; the cheapest fare is reserved for Peruvians. If foreigners try to buy tickets with that tariff, they get charged a good $175 more, at minimum. While sitting on a bus isn't the most fun experience, it can have its advantages: beautiful scenery, some time to unwind. When we arrived, we realized we were much higher up in Cusco than Lima (duh). Lots of climbing! Our hostal wasn't just at the top of a hill leading to the central plaza, nor was there more climbing upon reaching that hill; the hostal itself had three distinct areas, and ours was the topmost, meaning two more floors' climbing. The hostal was really cool, in a cool place, and I'd like to think that needing to do that prepped me for the days ahead, so I really don't complain!

As is standard, I believe, the weather was much better than Lima. In winter, except for the rare day of glorious, glorious sun, we are enshrouded in gray and cold. While the nights in Cusco are definitely cold, the days were brilliantly sunny and warm. I LOVED this. So we stayed in Cusco for 2 days, being awesome and exploring places that didn't cost us money and enjoying the atmosphere. The air was crisp and clean, the people incredibly friendly and respectful, and there's a connectedness with nature in that kind of city that one just doesn't get in...well, Lima is my obvious comparison. Friday morning, we embarked on a Jungle Trekking excursion that was truly epic. Day 1: riding in a car up a mountain, then biking down, the valley, the jungled hills, the river, etc., as our backdrop. I might have screwed my bike up once...I like biking fast, and in order to avoid somebody who braked suddenly, I was sent into a ditch. I was lucky enough to jump clear, but the bike...not so much. It still functioned, so I was fine. The afternoon was spent in Santa María, a little pueblo in the valley. We hung out, and it was lovely. I have to say, I have gotten accustomed to it being cold in July (which goes against everything my body and mind has been taught for 22.5 years). To go to this valley and be very warm and sweaty due to heat and humidity was...well, odd, in what I've come to accept as winter. To still be this way a few hours after the sun went down was mind-boggling. I do not complain, though!

The next day was hiking. All day. 9 hours, more or less. It. Was. Awesome. LOVE hiking, and with the sights and the challenge, I had the time of my life. I would say more, but...well, it was just really cool. All kinds of scenery, annoying mosquitos, walked along the Inca Trail for a bit, ridiculous uphill, painful downhill, riverbeds, waterfalls, roads, jungle canopy paths...we covered everything. I then enjoyed an ice-cold shower at our hostel in Santa Teresa, another pueblo (a bit bigger) along the way. The dinner was lovely. Oh, that day at lunch we had the most amazing guacamole ever. Ever. No contest. Delicious. After a good night's sleep, we began a long walk on Day 3 to Aguas Calientes, the base for everybody who heads up to Machu Picchu. This walk was a lot less strenuous, but definitely full of beauty. Got to see banana trees, eat a banana from said trees, see the ruins of Machu Picchu perched atop their hill. Then we got to explore Aguas Calientes in the afternoon, which is a cool town, albeit completely touristy. At dinner that night, we discussed our plans for the next day: Machu Picchu. There are two options to head up to the site: foot or bus. The bridge that leads up to the city opens a little before 5 AM. Now, our tour began at 7 AM. Everybody wanted to get up there early for this reason: Wayna Picchu. 400 people are allowed to climb the mountain per day, and there are 3 time slots you can enter. We wanted the 10 AM slot, so that we could have our tour without worry (the other two are like 8 AM and noon, one being kinda late and the other in the middle of the tour). Thus we wanted to get there fairly early to a) be allowed onto the young mountain, and b) get the time slot we wanted. Taking the bus is a nice idea, because it takes just 30 minutes to ascend. However, to get on the first bus, one has to be in line at the bus station at about 3 AM. The buses don't leave til 5:15 or something. Yeah. The other option was walking, but the guide said that he took 2 hours to climb that. Edinson and I wanted to walk. We wanted to get there early. This meant waking at 4 AM to get to the bridge before other people.
The girls decided to ride the bus; it had been a grueling few days. Edinson and I, sadly, discovered that no matter how early you arrive for something, somebody will always be there before you. Or, you know, 100ish people. Yeah. When that bridge opened, and after we had shown our admission tickets, it was pretty much a mad dash to...get in line behind everybody else as they climbed up some 1200 stairs along a dirt winding path up to the summit. Of course, people will weave between each other, and there's a bit of separation that occurs maybe 2 minutes after the initial block. I was very courteous and didn't touch anybody, but people still said many nasty things. Then, without reason, some gigantic German man stopped and I crashed into him. He turned around and said, "If you push me, I will push you." SHOOT. "Okay, that's fair." "DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" "I SAID THAT THAT'S FAIR. WITH HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE BEHIND YOU, DON'T STOP FOR NO REASON WITHOUT WARNING!" I didn't actually say that. I just walked ahead of him. I ended up making it to the summit in 40 minutes or so. It was glorious.
In all honesty, the nature surrounding that little city is far more impressive to me than the city itself. I am fascinated by the masonry, the technology that this culture had, but being there really didn't augment my awe for Machu Picchu. I was more amazed by the views we had, the sheer magnitude of it all, the verdant peaks in all directions, a valley and river below. The fact that breathing came easily and in the heights I was connected more to everything that surrounded me than I am in hard concrete clanking honking clamoring metropolis awed me more than the ruins we saw. Still worth every minute? Of course.

Then we went back. Now I'm here, busier than ever. The new volunteers are here in Lima! Still in their host family stay as they study the language and get to know Peru a little bit more. They'll be here in Ciudad on the 12th, so we're getting geared up for that! It's crazy to think about how time flies. Back when CapCorps told us when the volunteers would be coming, how they'd be coming to Ciudad the same weekend we returned from the International retreat, I thought of how long it would be til then. Lo and behold, it's upon us, and the rest of the year will snowball to a close, I'm sure. I remember thinking that the days kind of acted weird when I was here this time last year. Now they're just going by in the blink of an eye and I don't know what to do! Savor it, I guess, be in the moment and don't stress out...let go and let God, as they say.

At this point, my brain has failed, and I've been working on this for a month. It's high time to publish. I'm sorry for the brain fart, I'm sure that next blog post will be far stranger and at least superficially thoughtful. Cheers, all!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Variety Post

These are invariably longer than usual.

Things here are winding down a bit. Vacations are literally in two days, I'll be going on adventures of the crazy (but clean) variety the week after, and then...who knows? Time goes more quickly with every passing day.

I went a little ballistic at the beginning of July. We had a very frustrating meeting, and I saw so many things that I had seen in October happening again, and I didn't want to have a part of it. Rather, I did, but I wanted to be somebody with a voice. So I went and I talked with the director, and it was very favorable...to an extent. I was given the gift of knowing I'm not alone in my observation. This is wonderful beyond words. As a foreigner, I can't tell how much of my reaction is just me being financially well-off, white, and Estadounidense (i.e., from the United States). Some things appall me, like the noisiness and lack of respect in meetings (though you'll find that in teenagers across the board. They will look at you like you are from another planet if you get mad at them for punching each other even though you have said three times beforehand that there is absolutely none of that permitted). It's hard to cross so many boundaries and make accurate or useful observations and/or criticism. A lot of the time, I think that's cowed me into not saying anything and chalking it up to an internal battle of patience with myself and the new sphere in which I find myself. Maybe that's a final thing to do, but I've missed a step, and that's in actually daring to see how right or wrong I am in my observations. This time, it would seem I'm right. Of course, my observations fit for children of any lower class background, essentially, but being in a less affluent and developed country sure affords more obvious (and very often, more extreme) cases. It felt good to get angry and impassioned about it. My challenge, of course, is to keep that passion, do what I can to better things, and not lose hope of doing any good. It's easy to do that when there's no hope of finding people equipped to work with teenagers who would give up their lives as they know it to help problem kids. I'll do my best.

I have started writing reflections on Sunday readings again. It helps me tremendously. Thank you, Fr. Regis Armstrong, for giving me that tool. At this moment, I've been given the opportunity to look at myself through the readings and through my frustrations with others, and it's been a tough but awesome introspection. I still need to work on being motivated to change what I need to change, of course, because inertia and homeostasis are always the easier things to do. But whatever, I'm staying positive.

I rediscovered an online journal I kept in high school and sparsely updated in college. I fought internal change and challenge tooth and nail. Admitting that maybe I haven't gotten everything figured out for myself, really admitting it, and starting the work to become a better person, was something my pride hated, hated, hated doing. In fact, I know that this difficulty hasn't gone away. I think it's hanging around now. Yuck.

One of those journal entries read pretty much as follows: "The world is in need of some real, genuine, good men. Because I'm tired of hearing how much men suck." I've heard about a lot of men sucking in this world. Random passerby, exes, friends, fathers, brothers...you name it. I've had the opportunity to hear people share their struggles recently, but it's by no means a new thing for me. My reaction was the same in the past, too. My immediate reaction is generally pain. To see the hurt hurts me in turn. If I let it, the hurt becomes overwhelming.
Perhaps to counter that, or perhaps because it's the right and natural next step, I feel anger. Rage, even. My heart accelerates an incredible amount, my temperature rises, and you might think that my hair actually became fire. I want something to be done. I want there to be accounting for what has happened. "Father, forgive them: they know not what they do," actually fuels my rage, because instead of their ignorance serving as a grounds for sympathy, empathy, or mercy, it makes me think that they are stupid or willfully ignorant. After all, I happen to know (or at least to some extent, maybe) that what they've done is wrong, inconsiderate, hurtful, etc. I can get stuck in this stage for an indefinite period of time. It's easy, and it's certainly easier than struggling with what comes next.
That said, the next stage is me wondering how much I really want to beat these folks to smithereens or somehow give a devastating blow to their ego. That kind of anger is parasitic. That kind of anger is hate. That kind of anger doesn't make me feel better, because it's not exactly just retribution, is it? My anger in part starts in a just fashion, because that is the reaction that injustice, hurt, and sin need to have. This discontent is enough to send me back to just being fuming, or denying it all until the issued gets brought up in conversation, which will then trigger Michael on Fire again.
I then realize that, more than some physical punishment, more than some nauseating voice in my head desires vengeance for a perceived wrong, I want the person to KNOW. I want them to understand, to see in some measure how their actions affected another person's life, what pain they have caused. That's more painful and possibly better than anything I could ever hope to afflict. "Better" meaning "edifying," not "more damaging". It's powerful. Knowledge is power, but it's also, on occasion, immobilizing if there's not hope of mercy.

I started thinking about this, actually, two Sundays ago, with the parable of the Good Samaritan. It's well and good for me to want to be like the good Samaritan and help somebody whom I hate or who hates me if I see them half-dead on the side of the road. How many times does that literally happen? Hopefully not too often. However, it happens all the time on another plane. It's mind-blowing to realize how much hurt there is in this world, to see how much we suffer at the hands of ourselves and other people. How often we are the ones dealing damage! I know that I have been a man who has left at least one girl in a position where she could complain about how I've hurt her. In any case, I figure responding mentally and spiritually with mercy to those who are hurting and who hurt us is a way to be neighbor to another. Those are always necessary. Sometimes physical response is also necessary. I desperately want mercy, so I guess I should start practicing it in any way that is available to me, even if it's in asking for the ability to be merciful, because sometimes it feels so beyond me.

So where does it lead me? Do I know if they'll ever know what they've done? Nope! Do I get justice for their actions? Well, was it ever mine to ask for, anyway? Even if it was, I'm supposedly drinking from a cup full of the blood that's more gracious than that of Abel every Sunday (...well, not really, they don't really offer that species of the Eucharist in Peru these days). Does it leave me in a better place? Yes. And them? Well..it can't hurt to have somebody opening themselves to them and hoping for them.

In the end, I still find that humanity, in some huge ways, is in a deplorable and miserable state. It can make my disposition less sunny than Lima in winter (this place is seriously set in a semi-permanent cast of gray misery). I still sometimes wrestle with hating men in particular. There's such a lack of good manhood in the world. However, I feel that being willing to accept where I am and go from there allows me to find a way to channel the anger in a threefold way: 1) look to myself to remove the beam in my eyes before going to remove the splinter in that of my brothers'; 2) fervor in following Jesus to the cross and praying for mercy for the persecutors; 3) passion in helping those who are becoming men become men of the right quality to the best of my ability.

...Though that third part requires that I go to sleep right about now. It's okay, it was about time for me to get off the soap box, in any case.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Breaking and Making Up

This story begins with a confession. That confession is that in my life I have been a videogamer. Not just like, a guy who likes video games. My brother and I played so frequently and obsessively that my parents came to call the TV room in which we played "The Hole," or "The Pit." I would secretly give thanks in college for being freed from the obsession. And then I would come back home and some shiny new game would be there, and gee, well, I'd just HAVE to try it. Occasionally I tried using the nicotine patch equivalent and would look at youtube videos in order to both feel satisfied but not consume all of my life. This was a failure. Most recent failure: viewing Final Fantasy XIII's storyline in its entirety via YouTube. I wasted so much of my life, so many waking hours. Sure, I did other stuff at the same time, but that's a lot of time spent sitting in a bad posture in front of my laptop. Yuck. If that weren't recompense enough, there's a terrible repercussion: The theme of the video game is "My Hands" by Leona Lewis, and it is irrevocably stuck in my head. I have played it on repeat. I think this is tantamount to handing over one of my "man cards", if we were to speak in Scrubs lingo.

As a small tangent, TVShack.net was seized by the federal government. This is very good news. Now I can't watch movies or tv shows with the same frequency. God's got my back. Or at least the very protective Federal Government of the USA. Thank you for saving me from myself. Ish.

Okay, point being, that song. Yes, I am going to discuss this song, at least in brief at the beginning. It's about recovering from a breakup or parting of some sort, essentially, and how everything's gonna work out, and then just having a day when that all falls apart, how there's just some part that can't let go, that keeps you stuck. I think that might be why the song stuck in my head.

There was a point between sophomore and junior year of college (so yeah, summer) when I was lying in bed, that a whole bunch of questions flooded into my head. I kept on asking, "Well, why this?" and an answer surged from within, "So that this might happen." "Yes, well, why that?" "For the sake of this." "And why is that important?" I felt like it was God actually telling me why He had said "no" explicitly to a question I had asked while in the Adoration Chapel earlier that year. And at that point, I finally just felt fed up, and said, "Dude, God, this is too much. What point and purpose? Be clear and precise with me. I want to know your intentions. You know what? No, no I don't. It comes down to trusting, and I don't trust you, Lord." And it was like I broke up with Him.

That moment right there. I mean, maybe it had been coming for a while. I would have small temper tantrums in the intimacy and privacy of that chapel, saying, "Okay," and "Thy will be done," and biting my lip and feeling miserable. I finally snapped. I aid what I felt. And then I felt disconnected. It was like the phone receiver had been pushed down, or that in the middle of a very important discussion via skype, the connection died. It was that instantaneous. I wish that it had been just as ephemeral. I needed to say it. I needed to come to the point where I knew where I was instead of lying to myself. But after discovering where one truly is, there are a few options: do you stay and work on it or do you cut it and go a new direction? I opted for the latter. I decided to do what I wanted and God could help out if He wanted to, but I wanted Him to be helping ME out in the way I wanted Him to. I don't even think I know that I opted for that path, but it was nevertheless the path I chose. Whatever noble reasons I gave for finally grunting the words "Romantic relationship...I'm interested," that one day at the beginning of October 2007 (my eloquence in and of itself an indication that I was not moving in the Spirit), they were rationalizations. It was what I wanted to do. Was it was I should've done? I knew, I KNEW, deep down, that it wasn't. But something urged me to do it, and I gave in, and I wanted to blame the disconnected, treacherous God that I had painted in my mind as the guy responsible. He made me ask, He made her love Him in such a way as to prevent the relationship I thought I wanted. He was the guy that was responsible for the next semester or so being so painful as a result. And He stood there and suffered the abuse, stood there with arms wide open, waiting and hoping that maybe I'd let myself fall into His arms, let His blood and His suffering wash over me and assure me that He loved and loves me, and I...I wounded Him more. I broke His heart and hardened my own. And you know why? Because deep down, I knew He was right and I was wrong, and I didn't like that.

I would joke about it, I would laugh and say how I was over it, and God became a distant entity in my life. I knew that prayer was important, that I needed time to reflect, but it always was so hollow, because...well, because of the post break-up tension, I guess. There have been moments of incredible beauty regardless, I have been allowed insight, and like the genuine good guy, He's always willing to lend a hand when I need it. Regardless, I've been trying to be a Christian and be a functional athiest at the same time. Or profess my belief in a God, Father Almighty and then go contrary to that, placing limits on what God could do in my life.

And it's in the moments that I thought that I was getting away with it, that things were really looking up, that I would get involved in my life as I knew it, that I would be gripped deep, deep, deep in my being. Every time I try to deny how much I care, how much I need, how central He is to me, it leaves me broken-hearted, hearing the Psalms of Individual Lament and letting out a silent sob. I am afraid to trust God. I am afraid to put everything, everything, EVERYTHING in His hands, to say, about the things that are the most important, the things that stand to hurt the most, the things I invest the most in, and place them with full confidence in His hands. When I know that I have personal motives at times, when the people that unto whom I give entirely too much of my trust break my trust, it's hard to belief it when I hear and feel that all that He's ever wanted is that I have life and have it in abundance. It makes more sense, from my defensive point of view, to err on the side of caution and try to go it alone.

But...well, my heart keeps getting in the way. I cannot dare to not dare. Or die trying. I'm delusional to think that I don't need that love. I'm crazy to think I can find happiness outside of what is true and enduring beyond my limited and insignificant being. To try and put something else as my first love could never, ever make me happy or content. But just to think of Him as my first love, the truest one, the one who is the reason for the others' existence, and the one to whom the others point me (and thusly give me cause to love them), the reference for it all...that's one thing that washes me with bliss. And gives me peace. And gives me resolve.

Oh, yeah, the breakup reference was to God, nobody else.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

In the House of Tom Bombadil

Well, this post will have relatively little to do with my work. I will say that a group of students was here. Very good people, and it was cool to see them. It was funny when their leader accidentally (this was after owning up to speaking very bad Spanish) told all 300 of the boys in Ciudad that they were very tasty.

As the sky becomes grayer and grayer here, the rare day of sunshine becomes all the more meaningful. The drudgery breaks when the sun cracks through the clouds blanketing the troposphere and said gray slinks to the confines of the horizon while the sun enjoys its brief victory over the smog and we poor citizens rejoice in its rays. Slight exaggeration. Regardless, it's an exponentially more joyous day when the sun can break through and reveal the green hills beyond the hills turned brown from natural sand and the overabundance of houses, huts, and cardboard boxes lining it, when the green becomes more green in the golden contrast, when the beach is clear and the rocks become something less gloomy, when birds' songs sound joyful instead of the routine, "I'm a bird, so I need to chirp" warbling.

On days like these, and on those rare, rare occasions I've been given to venture outside Lima (though less rare than what the majority of Limeñans gets), I've taken a breath and felt euphoria fill my lungs. In the instances outside of Lima, I can't attribute that to carbon monoxide poisoning. Within the city confines, it's a possibility. Regardless, a wild, fierce joy grips me when the sun comes out, when nature is present. It's the joy that makes you sing any song that comes to your mind, that permits your mind to be soaring with the condor though your feet clumsily trudge up the mountain, that makes you tear up the canyon even if false prudence urgently shrieks that your quadriceps will be unhappy in the morning. It's the joy that gives way to peace, to a sublime kind of appreciation and quiet smile in the midst of greenery and majesty, to joyfully opening your arms to embrace the sky and falling into a patch of green grass, to watch the sun set the sky on fire as it sets with a warmth within you though the temperature is urging you to shiver.

I have walked in the forests to reflect in the beauty that the shade of the green canopy can offer, I have touched the tree trunks just to remember the feeling of bark on my skin, have jumped into cold springs to get the shock of the freeze over with, and it's not my song that fills my lungs and my heart and spirit, but that of Tom Bombadil, or the natural force that he personified, and I have heard him singing and striding in the forest with the rustling of the underbrush keeping time and the whole of creation singing along. Perhaps his house is not the highest good in the world, but to let it be destroyed or to destroy it is to kill the song that's waiting to burst forth from without and within us, is to destroy the harmony to give more meaning and beauty and sense to our own songs.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pondering the Precipice

I can't remember the exact day I decided to take the position with CapCorps Midwest in Ciudad de los Niños. It was a May day. I've written about my thought process before, so I won't bore you with the details of one instance of bravery or clarity in a moment of haze and fear, i.e., the rest of my life.

It is amazing, though, to ponder what I was thinking while I was writing my applications. I had at that point worked with the Center for FaithJustice as a member of the LeaderWorX program, worked for two summers in medical records with my dad's practice, was a member of President's society, had been a few positions in Esto Vir, did some stuff in high school, helped with various Campus Ministry activities at CU, officer of Chastity Outreach, but...I realized how little of it converted into something that really translated into "youth ministry" or, in my pessimism, anything that a volunteer organization could look at and say, "That's useful!" And in that moment, it was like my life opened up before me, and I saw that I was standing on the cliff of everything that was familiar, concrete, that I had known and knew, and what lay before me was a vast expanse of the unknown, profound and ultimately unknowable, and THAT was what I had to jump into in order to move on. Well, in that instance, I didn't see what other option there was: I considered the abyss, shrugged, and forged ahead in trying to figure out what I could possibly offer to an organization.

And I think of all of you who are on the brink or have surpassed the brink of graduation, be it high school or college or whatever. It's an interesting time of year, and invites everybody to experience a little bit of change, whether it's moving up the ranks, experiencing the world of unemployment (or summer employment, equally exciting!), a world of uncertainty now that the last 4-year period of their life (unless they go for PhDs or something) has come to an end and trying to figure out the next step isn't just written in stone. Sometimes the change is watching people undergo change and facing the consequences of what that does to one's own life. Maybe it's the mere memory of what happened last year and realizing what has changed and what hasn't that places the idea of change and the abyss back into my mind. Maybe it's just realizing how small that little piece of land of what I've known and experienced is in comparison to what's out there, and that being here in Peru has made me even more aware of that.

What an experience it is, to realize over and over again that that footing to which I so constantly return and wish to return is not nearly as big as I thought it was. In the end, perhaps my footing isn't as sure as I thought. That maybe things that I considered fact are other facts. That maybe the way that I've painted the picture of my life isn't quite accurate with all its embellishments and artistic twists and tendencies to make me look like the good guy. I won't beat myself up over it, but I'd rather see a portion of the real picture so that I can be a little more honest in the brushstrokes I use in the present moment and for the future. Is Michael capable of writing without metaphor? Not really.

When the unknown tries to teach us something about ourselves that we thought was so solid, or that makes up some component of us (in my case, thinking that I'm very mature...I'm not sure who I thought I was kidding) gets challenged, the easy thing to do is to run away from it, assume that it's wrong, ignore it, shut it out, and clamp your eyes and ears shut. But it might be life, the Holy Spirit, trying to knock on the door. Maybe it's something more insidious. The question is: Will one discern the spirits or will one let one's need to maintain their own painfully limited concept of oneself make the call? I've done the latter all too often. I'm a stubborn one. Sometimes all that one needs is to come to terms with the love that's present in their lives to make the more comfortable to venture into the beyond. Sometimes that is made manifest in prayer, in being able to be grateful for every thing that happens. Sometimes it's in the actions others show us. Sometimes it's just spontaneous. Sometimes it's when somebody is willing to stay on the line.

"Good luck exploring the infinite abyss!"

Congratulations, class of 2010. May your lights shine unto others and may you never tire of going deeper. Godspeed.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Saying Yes

Well, the weather is bipolar. As soon as I griped about how sweaty I was, the temperature lowered several degrees (though not without a final shout of rebellion on Saturday and Sunday that burned my cheeks and lips and probably scalp, which means really awesome dandruff is on the way)*. Now it is pleasantly cool to chilly here in San Juan, and Laura informs me that it is foggy and cold (por lo general) in Miraflores. Hrm.

I learned last Thursday that our family's golden retriever, Reilly, has a very short time to live due to a tumor. He's been in our family for a good 9 or 10 years. I can't express how grateful I am to my very own fuzz therapist for all that he's given me in that department. It makes me sad (like, tearing up now) to think that I when I return to the States, there won't be an 80-pound dog convinced he's a lap dog forcing his muzzle between my hand and my leg in order that I pay attention to him. It's sad to think that I won't have the excuse of walking him to go on hour-long jaunts through Portland and Beaverton Suburbia. It'll be bittersweet to see apples actually growing on our apple tree because Reilly hasn't jumped up and eaten them as soon as they started growing. Who will clean our plates before we put them through the dishwasher? It is sad to think that that individual who is so obviously welcoming, friendly, eager, and enthusiastic will be gone. I won't need to jealously guard my ranch dressing, we won't need to worry about leaving pans of brownies out anymore for fear of him eating them, and it will be peaceful when people walk by the house. It's a rough thing to think about.

I'm not sure if it's more difficult to be completely unable to come home to see him through to the end or if it would be worse to be there and watch and feel powerless regardless. I've stopped thinking about that particular "Would I Rather" because the decision is made and there's not much I can do. Regardless, I'm still very sad sometimes thinking that the walks will get shorter and shorter until he can't even play in the yard.

The timing in learning this was rather uncanny. I had been thinking about the future and how it's truly a roller coaster, and I decided to get a bit of my "Screw you, fear," attitude and say, "I'm ready for the future...I'm ready for change." I have learned from the past to not say, "Bring it on!" because Fate laughs mirthlessly and says, "Ok," and then gives me a huge dosage of unfortunate events. But, in reflection, how beyond-coincidental that the dog that has been in my life since my adolescence, now is quickly waning away as I approach 23 and the advent of adulthood in the tangibles of higher education, employment, total financial independence and responsibility, life vocation, etc.

That and a billion things have induced, much to the disadvantage of the blog-reading community at large, a thoughtful mood. The day I found out about Reilly, I had a good cry and spent some time in the chapel. I like going into the chapel at night, when it's dark and the pigeons' wing-fluttering seems to echo more dramatically and the electric light next to the Tabernacle fake-sputters and it's really the only source of light that's there.

The invitation I've been getting every day--what my talk about Confession and "Stay With Me" and a life without fear holding the helm have really all been about--is one to trust. I remember thinking years ago how being ready for things like the future, for being a priest, for being married, for being a parent, stepping out into the unknown, isn't so much measured by how much preparation one has had (though certainly that is a part of it), but also by the amount of trust one has that things will be all right. The Christian can't live without hope: it would make them a functional athiest, bandying about theological platitudes and living a rough and jagged life that is impressive, perhaps, but punctuated by bitterness.

I can't figure it all out, but...well, hope springs from a faith in something. The Christian hope ultimately springs from a faith in God's undying and unflinching and immeasurable love. On occasion, it's been hard for me to believe in that. When things seem so hugely unfair, confusing, painful, or otherwise counter-intuitive, how tough it is to trust that it'll be okay! When wounds from the past still sting or shame still haunts us, letting go, opening our hands, and letting someone gently grab them and lead them onward toward what will ultimately be the greatest joy seems the most difficult thing of all. But...how much more difficult it is to NOT trust, to say that there isn't that love out there, that wisdom, that hand that's willing and WILL grab ours, provided we attempt to meet it halfway and attempt to unclench our fists! I've been tempted to do that in the past, but something inside just won't let me ignore the feeling that I'm covering up the truth, silent and persistent, with a bunch of flimsy noise that melts away if I would just be still for a moment. And in the end, the acts of faith are acts of trust.

After sitting in the chapel, looking at that little light bulb that barely illuminates the Tabernacle, I left feeling a bit more at peace. Being able to see that Sacrament amidst the darkness, being able to see the Tau, a symbol one can take as a cross or as the sign of renewal to God's people or both (or the Greek letter, but shut up), strongly outlined in the wood and made bolder with the contrast that shadows provide...that's what one needs, isn't it? That is the stable future to help me through a tumultuous present. Love. And while I know that I'll be foolish enough to not trust on occasion, I think I'm still able to say, "Yes, I am ready. Or, I mean, I will be, when it (the future) comes. So...yes. I'll trust."

*I am aware that that was too much information

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April Sans Showers

I think I have gotten even more sweaty during this month than I was during the peak of the summer. Maybe I should consume more electrolytes. Anyway, Easter was a lovely affair, but I can't really go into too much detail, because my arms are fairly sore at the moment. This is SUCH a welcome change. The last time my arms were this sore was when I decided it would be a good idea to see how many crates I could fill with eggs before muscle failure. Okay, that never actually happened, but I did look at egg-collecting as a great exercise. Sadly, I see no promise of the hens coming back to the Ciudad. There's still time in the year, I suppose, but I'm still...well, you know, sometimes I hated that job. I guess I just miss the consistency of it, and I do miss feeling tired at the end of most days. Except the days when they made me clean up the sick chickens' quarters. Those days I just was bitter.

Enough about chickens! I have sore arms because I have been moving boxes upon boxes of books. When we first arrived here, our apartments already were occupied...by libraries. Shelf upon shelf of random book. It had its charm, don't get me wrong, but it can get mighty claustrophobic, and I don't know the next time I'll need to know how to perform Thorax surgery with the help of an outdated Spanish text. I refer to that particular book a lot. There's also about 10 million copies of Princess Di books. We might burn those, not out of spite for the late celebrity, but out of spite for the books themselves. Whatever. Anyway, we packed up the books in Alyssa's and Tania's apartment and moved them over to the computer room. It truly was a joyous day. Of course, it leaves the question of what we'll do with MY books...because I am farily sure that there are more books and shelves in my room than in theirs. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it!

Anyway, life here is very good. I've had some struggles in maintaining my spiritual life, but I'm getting back into that. I'm able to understand people who used to fall into the category of, "I'll listen to what you say and make noncommittal noises to show you that I'm listening, but in reality I have no idea what you're saying and therefore cannot contribute meaningfully. Or at all." This is nice, because it makes me feel like I have managed some amount of progress. Though I can't really pat myself on the back for that, as I have no control over what, how, and when my brain decides to absorb information. I'm just...here. Thankful. More comfortable with myself than I have been for a while, but also getting more driven to be better than I have been in the past.

Okay, before total muscle failure, I would like to talk about Hermano Polo, supervisor of the pabellón San Juan. He was in the military, is naturally gifted with music, is short, has gigantic hands, and used to really intimidate me. I'll still use the formal "usted" as opposed to "tú" with him, because I think that he functions better in that capacity within San Juan, but I can just get along a lot better with him as an almost-peer these days. Part of this has to do with his Harry Potter glasses that make it almost impossible for me to be scared of him. He is one of very few people who can really pull the look off, but I'm glad he can. Anyway, he's a bit of a joker. On Tuesday of Semana Santa (Holy Week), he told me as I was walking to the meeting room before being sent off to do work in the afternoon: (Though he said it in Spanish) "Michael, the Sisters called and wanted some help taking measurements for the Altar of Repose they're going to make and put in the chapel for Holy Thursday. They were looking for somebody tall, preferably lighter-skinned, and handsome. I told them I didn't have anybody like that, but I had you, so I'd send you over." He was very proud of this joke, and rightly so.

Then, last week, he was teaching kids some new praise and worship songs, and one of them begins: "Jesús, el más hermoso de los hombres," or "Jesus, the most beautiful of all men." Hno. Polo took a moment to have us reflect on this line. "Yup, most beautiful guy. Nobody's prettier. Not one of you in the Ciudad can beat him. Not even Michael." And then as the entirety of the population of the Ciudad broke into laughter, he stood there grinning, evidently very pleased with himself. Now the ladies on staff call me "Pretty Boy."

Life in Ciudad has been tumultuous, trying, lovely, and fun. This is a lame update, but I figured I should write something so that people don't think I'm dead. Though speaking of death, my left arm has given out, so it's high time to publish this post. Chau for now, folks!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stay With Me

(In which Michael goes on a theological wandering which may or may not be accurate in the eyes of those who are far wiser than he happens to be. Thus take it with a grain of salt.)

I now have two songs with that particular title in my ITunes Library. One is by Clint Mansell and appears in Darren Aronofsky's film "The Fountain" and is heartbreaking to hear. The other is a Taizé chant that I first heard at Catholic U on Holy Thursday when we moved the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle in St. Vincent's over to the Altar of Repose in St. Paul's Chapel in Caldwell Hall. If the first song, without words, accurately captures a feeling of desperation an individual feels as the already almost impossible chance of saving his or her loved one becomes more and more eclipsed by the hard and terrifying reality of the situation at hand, the second one in 10 words nearly perfectly depicts what I can imagine Jesus feeling during the Agony in the Garden. This simple chant has been and remains part of what I associate with a fruitful Holy Week and Triduum.

Stay with me, remain here with me...watch and pray. It seems a very simple request. The Apostles come across as being pretty stupid, insensitive, and unobservant a whole lot of the time. And, you know, perhaps rightly so. It's hard to be attentive to the needs of somebody, even a loved one, when you don't understand what they are experiencing or why. Of course, in this case, the what is taken care of because Jesus reveals at least thrice that He's gonna be turned over and killed. Oh, silly Apostles.

I have at least three tangents here. The first is probably the one that I've thought about the most. There's a phrase we use in Catholicism: "Mystical Body of Christ." That'd be the Church (well, Augustine would call it the actual Body, actually, and Berengar changed everything, but let's ignore this history of the terminology for now). Paul talks about the Church being a body. Even in secular areas, we have Volunteer Corps, the Corps of Discover (that was a while ago, granted), corporations, and all of these have "Corp" as their root. "Body." There's a connectedness that goes beyond just amity, enmity, or general knowledge. Each component is a part of the whole, not quite a full thing on its own, though it has its own name. In the case of the Church, we have Christ as the head and we are a body IN Him. Pope Benedict made the assertion that Christ not only broke through the confines of death in His Resurrection, but He broke the barrier of "Other". Thus it was that the Holy Spirit came after He ascended and the Apostles shared in One Spirit. Thus it was that when the devout and fervent Jew Saul was knocked off his horse, the voice in the blinding light asked not, "Why do you persecute my followers?" but "Why do you persecute ME?" Thus it was that Jesus said in Matthew 25 "Whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me." Thus Blessed Theresa of Calcutta talks about seeing Christ's face in the poorest of the poor, Bonaventure blurs the distinction between Francis, Jesus, and each of us. It's thusly that in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick we look at those with injury and illness as sharing and being with Christ in His own suffering and that we, the rest of the Church, strive to be Christ the healer and supporter. It's because of this that taking Communion is both accepting Christ's sacrifice and agreeing, "Yes, I am a part of the Body of Christ." It's a cornerstone (at least in my mind) of sacramental theology, and beyond that, of what it means to be a Christian.

In that mindset, I have joked about how here in the Ciudad I have the opportunity to see the face of Christ every day in at least 35 different people. And every day I have the opportunity to tell Jesus that if he doesn't stop trying to pull my arm hair that for some reason fascinates him more than pretty much anything and do his homework, bad, bad things will happen to him. Joking aside, the opportunity is there for each of us in every day to be with somebody in their dark hours. People don't always let on, and you might not ever know that you've been there for somebody, but you'd be amazed what taking the split-second longer and mustering the emotional effort required to give somebody an authentic smile and greeting as you pass by can do. In my mind, the reality of life is that we are IN Gethsemane daily, both trying to cope with our own burdens and trying to remain with Him in remaining with others, even if it's just staying awake, or watching, or praying. Would that we had the awareness and the disposition to remain awake and to see who remains awake with us! Because in both ways, Jesus is there. Daily, though especially in the threshold of the holiest hours in the Liturgical Year, one can hear the heart-shattering plea of Christ in both His human self and in the members of His Mystical Body (everybody): "Stay with me, Remain here with me. Watch and pray."

The second tangent has a bridge in the first. Time is a funny thing. I find it interesting that people use the threat of Hell or a Final Judgment to get people to act in a better manner, that at the end of all things, some jacked Arian Jesus (to see the Upper Church of the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception tell it, that is) with an angry face will judge us. I mean, I am of the conviction that there will be end-times, that He will come and be Judge. But as incentive, I am not sure how I feel. The more I experience of time, the more I feel that time itself is incentive. The more it slips through my fingers, the more I see that the life of man on earth is no more than a passing breath, how it never goes as quickly or as slowly as I want it to, how 7.5 months have already passed here, how even though I want time to move quickly so that the weekend comes I don't want my time here to come to such a quick end, etc., the more I realize that the only passivity I can afford is that of making myself disposed to listen to the Spirit that speaks insistently to my even-more stubborn and insistent and willfully deaf soul. Of course, that makes me question why I'm sitting on my butt for such a long time writing a blog post, but I'll ignore that for the moment and you can call me out on hypocrisy later, dear reader.

Regardless, I feel like what Jesus says about the Kingdom of God is right on (I mean, I guess it would be, believing that Jesus is, you know, the 2nd person in the Trinity): The Kindgom of God is AT HAND. The question is taking the time to live in the now, realize that the present is the canvas for painting the future, refining the past, and a picture in and of itself, and whether we choose to listen to the Spirit (this also involves learning how to listen) and the voice crying out "Stay with me!" It is now, and whether we take the time to have our eyes open to what the now entails (as far as we are able) in large part determines whether we live in joy and hope or despair.

The third tangent...deserves its own post, perhaps to be posted during Triduum. It's to much its own thing and this post is far longer than I intended, anyway. Happy Semana Santa, I hope it is a fruitful time for all of you.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Intimacy of the Spiritual Variety

Please note that the following is not directed at any individual, nor is it the aim to condemn those who think differently or disagree with opinions expressed during this musing, nor am I seeking to be an apologist. It is honestly just the result of reflecting these last couple of days.

So in community the other night, we started talking about reconciliation, which, being Lent, is appropriate to discuss. Canon Law says that the Catholic individual is obligated to confess serious/mortal sins once a year, preferably during Lent, due to the appropriateness of confessing sins during the season of pruning. It recommends that the faithful also confess venial sins once a year at least, but it's not a requirement.

I remember in high school how I was scared to death of going to confession, and it didn't matter which priest was hearing it. My parents had me go, and I'm thankful for that now, but I remember that at the time I really didn't like it. If it was a priest from Jesuit (my high school) hearing my confession, he knew me and I didn't want to be spilling my guts in front of somebody who, though they're supposed to have everything under the seal of confession and not talk about it, I couldn't help but think would think of me differently and let what I let slip affect the way that they treat me. If they were a stranger, I was awkward and self-conscious and didn't want to be confessing to a total stranger. Why should I tell them stuff, from my actions to my failings to my thought processes, let alone become vulnerable to them? Thus it was a very guarded individual who entered the confessional once a year to talk about some things that bothered him but couldn't bear to actually share what was such a burden to his soul, who dared not daring to ask the questions about the faith and about life that were plaguing his insecure teenage mind.

When I got to college, I went on the Freshman Retreat. There was somebody there who said that they really, really, really didn't like confession and didn't feel guilty for what others considered sins. This didn't make me judge them, but it did make me do some self-reflection. The retreat was beautifully done, the leaders so earnest in their belief and their praise. A whole score of priests had come from over an hour away for a paltry 3 hours to hear the confessions of the mass of freshman that had assembled. In a rare moment of clarity, I decided that I didn't want the secrets I had kept for years weighing on me for any longer. I didn't want to consider past actions or thoughts wrong, because that would be so much easier, but the fact of the matter was that my conscience wasn't willing for me to ignore it without torturing me. As much as I was loathe to talk to another person about my sins, I was more loathe to feel like I was living a life that wasn't mine (I didn't kill anybody or anything dramatic like that). So I stood up from my kneeling and marched over to confession. And I confessed to Fr. Bob, the university chaplain, whom I'd certainly see again and with whom I'd definitely interact in the future, but he was the one to talk to, I knew without question. I'm glad I did. He assured me that if not for the grace of a priest hearing confession, he was bound to forget my confession due to the large number of people who were confessing. My fears were allayed....for a while.

I started going to confession more regularly. I started being more open. I would consider this my period of coming to take the faith as my own, I suppose, so it was new to me. After a while, when I kept on confessing the same things over and over again, I began to become worried about having the same priest. I usually confessed behind the curtain, and there wasn't really any chance of them recognizing my voice, but even so.

There's another struggle I have, which comes from confessing face-to-face, and that comes from the fear I mentioned earlier: I don't want somebody with whom I have a relationship of some sort hearing my greatest shortcomings. Sometimes the fear is that this person will put two and two together and ask me to change something in my life, because I'm stubborn, proud, and cowardly, which means that I'm okay confessing my sins as long as I'm not inconvenienced or needing to grow. Sometimes it's just shame at being so gosh-darn human and having to admit it, really admit it. As such, I'll sometimes opt to go to a priest I don't know and I probably won't ever see again.

But I guess that this is where intimacy comes in. I won't pretend to be an expert on the sacrament, but I do know that Christ is present in a special way in the priest hearing the confession. I think that this discomfort I have of sharing my secrets, my incredible weakness, and just how human I am...well, that's natural. Trust is scary. Trust is tough. Trust sometimes leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, and that's in mild cases of trust being broken or manipulated or ridiculed; it can be destroying when people let us down and hurt us. It's a special thing when one can find somebody whom they totally trust. Sharing the good things is easy (not to say it's not beautiful), but sharing what is bad in our lives, whether it be what we've suffered at the hands of somebody else or what we've done to ourselves or to other people...it's so incredibly frightening but so incredibly beautiful to take that which we find almost more essential to our self-ness or who we are (I feel there's a reason we use "personal" to describe these experiences) and place it in the hands of another, and for the other to take it and accept the sharer. It's transforming. It can help the sharer see that there's something else to their person (if they had that problem).

Like I've said, I'm not a Reconciliation buff, so I should add in my disclaimer that this might not be in line with the Church (though hopefully not heretical). But when I pray, even if I'm telling God some personal stuff, I make God abstract on purpose. It's easier to talk with a source of and sustainer of all life or a bodiless being or something that's so far beyond my understanding that I can't hope to comprehend the smallest portion of its infinitude than it is to converse with a living, breathing, tangible human being. It's a lot less...personal. It's not intimate. But then I have to remember the lovely event known as the Incarnation. And then I have to say, "Aw, shoot, God's been wanting that personal relationship." I can't really think of any other reason for it, you know? Well, I can, but it's one of the huge reasons, I think. So I've been running away from God's call for a personal relationship.

Should I confess to the same priest every time? Not saying I should, but I need to look into my reasons for choosing the same priest or not. Because Christ is present in all of them, but I can choose to acknowledge Him there or not.

I guess, in a nutshell, intimacy is tough for me, but worth it, both on the social and the spiritual planes.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

La Vida Sin La Esclavitud de Preocupación

My second year of college, during Lent, a very awesome priest and Capuchin friar made an audacious resolution: his fasting in Lent would be a fast from fear. This decision made me raise my eyes in wonder and surprise. First, it's unusual. Chocolate is far more common (not knocking people who give up food items, it can really be a spiritually enriching endeavor if done with the right disposition). Secondly, give up fear? Really? Is that even possible?

Maybe just saying that he gave up fear isn't the right way of putting it. Giving up the involuntary response of fear is like saying that one is going to give up being sexual: it doesn't work that way. He sacrificed giving into the fear that he felt in those moments where the unknown and the unwanted raised their heads, when the uncontrollable and the unpredictable surfaced, and when the sense one gets one one weighs the powers at work in the world against one's own painfully obvious limitedness creeps to mind.

I've been thinking about that a lot here. I think about it when it comes to having responsibilities with the kids, when I have no idea what to do, when I'm the voice of authority, when maybe I don't want to share what I've been doing with the community, when I'm ashamed in Confession, when the future looks grim and undetermined and insurmountable...in a phrase, when I feel tempted to give into fear and to worry.

It's made me question how often I let fear meddle with my decisions. It's forced me to ask, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" and the subsequent question, "And is that really so bad?" Especially when it's at the price of integrity or being as good of a person as I imagine I am capable of being.

I'd like to say, "That's it! I'm tired of it! Never again!" but I'm human, so I know I'll succumb every now and then. But the other day, I just had a crystalline moment of what life would look like without fear or the forgone conclusions that fear can etch into my mind under the pseudonyms of "Realism" or "Practical" or "Reasonable" or "Honest" or "Ease". It's a much more open life, where love as any Christian worth their salt would want to participate in is possible. Possibilities abound.

My final decision to come to Peru really had to do with realizing that I was afraid of the prospect of everything from the language to the food to the workload being different, and saying, "I'm not going to let that be my determining factor!" When I decided to put fear in its place, many of my reasons for staying seemed weak and all of my reasons for not going melted away.

The trick for me is acknowledging when fear's playing the puppeteer in my mind, because once I see it for what it is, once I name the infernal thing, I have an internal "Oh, no you don't" moment.

Is this my Lenten practice? In part, perhaps, but not officially. It certainly has been on my mind, though, as you can tell. How often do we take the time to let us see what factors are really behind our decisions? But imagine life without fear behind the wheel. It's a much brighter world.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

January's End

We're now a little over the 1/3 mark of our stay in Peru. I'll not evaluate my 1/3 of the year here (though this reminds me that I need to evaluate both the CapCorps retreat and the experience thus far for my lovely organization), but I do feel the need to put out a few thoughts.

We're planning on revamping the way we work here, so that we'll be able to be fully engaged, but also have more than just the one day every other week off. It's nice to be able to re-evaluate, and I'm looking forward to the future year with a different context. That'll be nice.

There will be a Norwegian guy coming here in the middle of February and staying until Mayish, I think. I believe that he'll be moving into my room, which will be cool. Though very, very crowded: my bedroom is the smallest of the 3 apartments here, and definitely the least outfitted for having 2 people using it simultaneously. Maybe I'll move into the small nook in the library: That way, he can have the mattress that has more firmness than a marshmallow, I can continue to sleep on the floor (don't ask), and we'll both have room to put our clothing. Yeah, sounds good to me. We'll see how this all goes.

Being a theology nerd, I'm thinking about Lent. They don't call it Lent here (big surprise, seeing as that's an Anglo-Saxon word and all): they call it Cuaresma (40 days, roughly, from Italian). It's fitting that they don't call it Lent, because Lent means "spring," and from the natural perspective, we are definitely approaching the beginning of fall and entering into winter as this liturgical season approaches here in the southern hemisphere. It's so weird, because the nature worked so well for my spiritual life during liturgical seasons in the states. Cold just seems so perfect for imagining Advent and Christmastime, i.e., the Light coming into the world that lay "in sin and error pining", and I love how Lent begins in winter, when everything's been stripped of its ornamentation, and the idea that we're like the trees budding as we progress in our practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation for the great mystery of faith that is "Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life; Lord Jesus, come in glory," and what it meant to be a part of that. I love that while Pentecost doesn't occur at the harvest time (as it originally did pre-Christianity), it occurs as everything is at the peak of flowering and about to go into bearing fruit. The naturalness in which nature provided insights into the general milieu of each liturgical season was great.
So I'm anxious and excited about the atmosphere that I'll encounter here during that time. Without such a great exemplar as nature here as a guide in the way I'm accustomed, there's a world of opportunity for new ways of looking at things, having internal motivations, etc. Though of course I still miss that unto which I'm accustomed.

On sunny days when my family and/or friends would go on hikes up in the mountains, the air was so clean, the sunlight so brilliant (yet without humidity), and there was a smell of sweetness...the sweetness almost like ripe blackberries that had gotten enough sun, but I swear it was coming from the trees, nature's assurance that yes, today IS a perfect day. I love that smell.

I saw the Nutcracker back in December. It certainly was no performance like I saw back in the States way-back-when, but the kids had an earnestness, and such care was put into the choreography, and I could feel the family and friends in the audience and their joy and pride in their friends; and family members' performance, it was lovely. The music wasn't live, but the venue was too small for that, anyway. Even so, hearing that music was like meeting with an old friend. Seriously. I've been seeking out classical/romantic/orchestral music ever since.

Well, until our next meeting, January, and the embarking of a whole new adventure as this one ends. After many joys, new experiences, old struggles, homesickness, newfound friends, frustrations, and insanity, and after 12 months, we'll chat again. Until that time, be well.