Vida de Monte, Vida de Pueblo

There are times when I get exasperated with words because they so stubbornly resist translation. Embedded as they are in the landscape, in the experience, in the richness of a living language, they simply refuse to make it easy for the translator.  You look up two words in Spanish, monte–which means mount and pueblo–which means village and it seems clear enough.  But there is a world of meaning lost in the translation.

An approximation to “vida de monte” is “life in the wilderness”, or at least, life where there’s a whole lot more underbrush and overgrown vegetation and a whole lot less in the way of the comforts of the 21st Century.  Here are some pictures of what life in “el monte” is like:


The road gets destroyed by all the rocks that roll from the cascade in monsoon season.

DSCN2065And when the river meets the road, the road usually looses and it takes years for repairs to be made.


Coffee harvesters, indigenous people called Guambianos, gather around a pickup truck on the side of the road to turn over freshly picked beans and get paid


And homes perch precariously against the hill.

Pueblo means village, of course, but it also has an undertone of disdain–to say you lead a “vida de pueblo” means your world is small, not very sophisticated, filled with gossip; it’s more frayed and tattered than slick and new.  It looks like this

DSCN2073And like this


And if you need to do some shopping


This is about as good as it gets.

I’m headed to Fort Lauderdale tomorrow aware that I’m ready to be back and sad to leave la vida de pueblo and la vida de monte I get to live here.  God help me if I ever lose the ability to travel…

This CRAZY Fun Thing I did Today!

This CRAZY Fun Thing I did Today!

Bucket Lists make me a bit uneasy.  I think it has to do with being formed in a world, and continuing to work and serve at it’s edges, where something like that is such a luxury beyond imaging that I just can’t bring myself to prepare one.  I think I’m also too pessimistic to think I’d get through much of one even if I tried.

But.  Life hands me incredible opportunities these days and early this morning, I got up, walked down the village of Boquete to Los Establos Mall and the TreeTrek de Panamá outfit, where I filled out some paperwork acknowledging that I was about to undertake something that is considered an extreme sport and was taking my life in my own hands.

Before long, I was riding with four other people in the back of a pickup truck way up into the mountains behind Boquete, into the cloud forest at 6000 ft above sea level.  After a ten minute hike, we and 6 guides were at the first platform with this view behind us

Rio Cristal

And then, then I was doing this…

It’s the longest, fastest zipline trek in Panamá. Standing on one of the platforms between ziplines, I got to see a female Quetzal–the mythic bird of Aztec and Mayan literature.  I don’t have a bucket list but I hope and pray that if I have time as I am taking my dying breath, I will be able to remember this morning.  It is one of the crazy-funnest things I have done. Ever.

Small and Charming Morning Dots in Boquete

Small and Charming Morning Dots in Boquete


  • Farmacia Any: “¿Usted no es la hija de Doña Nita?  ¡Cuánto la extrañamos! (Aren’t you Miss Nita’s daughter?  We miss her so much!
  • SuperDeli Barú:  El queso de cabra es para Don Gunnar, ¿no? Que bueno que vino a ver a su papá (The goat cheese is for Mr. Gunnar isn’t it? I’m glad you’re here to see your dad)
  • On the phone: “¡Rosita Querida!  This is your Tía Julie Fogarty–come have a cup of coffee with me. We need to talk”.

We so desperately want to be known and claimed…

Where The Stories Are

Sorting Through The Projects

Driving back from Selma in October, Sherod and I had a really good conversation about the fact that home is where the stories are.  Back in Selma for Thanksgiving, I was regaled with yet more stories, some of them so funny they made me laugh till my sides hurt.  Two days later, this morning was rainy and a cold wind from the north was blowing in Boquete.  I can still hear large rocks rumble in the river by my parents’ house; the river swollen after a whole week of steady rain.  We’ve had a fire going in the fireplace most of the day.

The crackle and warmth are comforting. I did my ritual calls–to some of my parents’ close friends who would be offended if I didn’t call and say I’m back, and then to my Aunt Inga.  We had been talking for a very short time when I heard her voice change and could tell she was crying. When she was able to, she said she almost forgot it was me she was talking to because I sound so like my mom on the phone.

My dad and I started telling stories this morning, and then looked at pictures.  After lunch and a nap for my dad, we found ourselves doing something I hadn’t set out to do.  My grandmother Rosa’s hope chest, that went with her from Sweden to San Francisco where she went to train as a surgical nurse, and then went on to Colombia, and now sits in Panamá, has been full of handiwork projects–knitting, cross-stitch, crewel, all kinds of projects, many of them abandoned and put away for another day that wasn’t going to come.  I went in looking of something and instead, ended up sorting through it all with my dad.  Some will be given to someone–anyone–who does one of those crafts.  Some just had to be thrown away.  A few I will take back with me–filled with the same hope as my mom’s, that the projects will actually get finished.  The stories have kept rolling out, one after another, bemused, surprised and amused.

And with them, yet another moment of understanding.  I have all kinds of places to call home–home is where the stories are and where someone knows your voice.

You In?


I’ve been thinking a lot about how we raise the bar on ourselves, set new goals, or run the risk of becoming self indulgent and complacent. It was a heck of a lot harder this Thanksgiving staying away from all those carb, fat and calorie laden foods. I’ve been so tangled up with work that I’ve been walking less. Bad combination. One I needed to deal with.

Yesterday, when my friend Marsha and I were out walking, we made a commitment to each other. She and I are going to do the half-marathon Mercedes walk in Birmingham on February 17, 2013. I need to loose some more weight and I have to build up my endurance from 6 to 13.1 miles including some hill walking. I’m developing my training plan and will get plenty of hill walking in Panamá next week. Here’s my question: any of you out there want to do this with me? Drop me a line. As my old boss, Walter K, used to say: Gonna do this thing…

I am thankful

I am thankful

I am thankful for the joy and pride in my husband’s face when he spends time with his remarkable son, Charlie, and for Penny, Charlie’s wife’s, happiness these days.  And I am thankful for Robert and Grace, two of my grandchildren.

Charlie and Sherod at Julia’s Kitchen

I am thankful for seeing three generations together, and for a feisty lady who is not ready to let go yet.

Sherod, Charlie and Juanita

I am thankful for the beauty of this old river town, with it’s painful past and uncertain future.

I am thankful for our friends Marsha and Cosby.  They welcome me home

I am thankful for what has been, what is, and what is still left to unfold

And more than anything, I am thankful for the Light, that sometimes shines harsh and steady, insisting I let go of what keeps me from love, and is also gentle, and kind and shows me how extraordinarily beautiful and good my life truly is.

Furniss Avenue, Selma Alabama
November 21, 2012

I am thankful.

Of Iron Lungs and Hip Spika Casts

Last week was especially busy and by Friday afternoon, when I got off work, I was fried.  Sherod already had an early evening commitment at the church; when I got home he was busy, so I decided I’d go to the movies and then walk.

I saw a movie called The Sessions with Helen Hunt and John Hawkes.  I had wanted to see it for several reasons: I’m a sucker for a love story and even more of a sucker for any movie that gets a glowing review from the New York Times.  An iron lung is central to the plot of The Sessions—John Hawkes plays the part of a man who has spent most of his life in one after having contracted polio as a young boy.  Last year, around Christmas, I remembered some of my experiences at Boston Children’s Hospital. Iron lungs are a vivid part of my memories of that time; they are charged with fear and shadows.  I don’t know what I was looking for or hoping to understand, but it seemed important to find if there was something to glean in those shadows.

The part of the movie critics have raved about—the relationship between the two protagonists, Cheryl and Mark—was not particularly engaging or illuminating to me.  This is the story of a paralyzed man turning to a sex surrogate/therapist to lay claim to his sexuality.  Although both Hunt and Hawkes are fine actors, I found little that was evocative or compelling in their scenes together.  It was more about anatomy and mechanics and I felt like a voyeur looking in on moments of gentle, bumbling humanness that should be private; I had no business being there.

What gave me much to reflect on was Mark O’Brien’s choice to inhabit his body in a way that I think few people are capable of. (and FYI, the movie is based on the life of a man who was a poet, journalist and author until his death in the early 90’s).  I paid careful attention in the scenes when he is in the iron lung.  It made the exact same hissing, pumping sound I remember from my childhood. At first, that made my skin crawl.  It struck me that I get so anxious about that machine, even though I know now that it is even better for breathing than a ventilator, because it is such an in my face reminder of a time of incredible powerlessness in my own life.   Amy Schultz, my ward mate, lay in her iron lung all that long summer of 1968, and I in my hip spika cast.   It wasn’t just that the world was narrow and closed in on us.  It was that our bodies were almost completely unavailable for anything approaching agency or intention.  There are a whole lot of lessons to learn about powerlessness in a hip spika cast and in an iron lung.

The movie insists, however, that there is a way to a different kind of power when we intentionally choose to inhabit our bodies as we have received them.  There was a whole community gathered around O’Brien that made it possible for him to finally get to say to a lovely woman, with the most delightful mischief possible, “I’m not a virgin”.  The trust and courage it must have taken to enlist the help of a colorful cast of characters all determined to help him have sex is simply spectacular to me.

There is also a small scene in the movie between Cheryl, the sex surrogate, and a character played by Rhea Perlman, that serves as a counterpoint to the experience I share with Mark O’Brien, that it takes help from our whole community to be able to say yes to our bodies.  Part of the ‘back story’ for Cheryl, is that she is in the process of converting to Judaism.  Towards the end of the movie, when surrogacy, anatomy and mechanics has led to intimacy, complication and anguish, she goes to a synagogue for a Mikvah (ritual cleansing bath).   Rhea Perlman plays the role of a Mikvah lady—she’s the bossy-pants of the bath, making sure women do this ritual right.  There’s a marvelous conversation between her and Helen Hunt as Hunt disrobes very naturally and gracefully.  The Mikvah lady takes note of the character, Cheryl’s, comfort with her own self and describes the many women and their daughters who come in and struggle mightily to hold on to at least some garment, rather than be seen naked.  At one point she says something like, “I tell them, ‘this is your body’ and I want to ask them, ‘what happens when there is nothing left to cling to but your own body?’”

The scars on my body I look at daily, the pictures of me in a hip spika cast like the one at the top of this post, all remind me that others had to play an enormous role in my ability to live—especially to walk—in my own skin.  But I am now at a point in my life when the opposite is also true.  I have little left to cling to these days. Over these past few months, after placing Maria at BARC and then facing into the truly grave financial crisis we’ve been through in the ministry I’m a part of, I have had to let go of a lot.   As I crossed over the drawbridge on Sunrise on Friday evening after the movie, exhausted from a very hard week at work and with my child, I was aware that I was walking alone, that at that moment, no one even knew where I was—and that too was as it should be.  There are hard times when I have to suffice to get to the next place.  And so far, I have.

The Holidays

The Holidays

Maria, Sherod and I went to a mall down the road from our home the first Christmas after we brought Maria home.  This particular mall has some spectacular Christmas displays and it was a time of wonder in all of our lives, though the going had already started to get tough and I’d just gone out on leave from FedEx because I’d realized how much care our child needed.  While we were wandering around the mall that day, we came by a little stand where someone was selling personalized Christmas ornaments along the lines of the one at the top of this post.  Sherod chose one of a sled with a mom, dad and little kid and had the ornament personalized for us.  It is as pedestrian and ordinary as they come, and I’ve always treasured it.

This past Saturday, Sherod and I headed to another mall, this time to buy a small hostess gift for Marsha and Cosby who will once again receive us at their home in Selma.  As soon as we walked through the mall entrance, we saw a stand with the same kind of ornaments from all those years ago.  The two of us wept.

Ms Maria is having a hard time of it again, especially at school and with us.  Last Sunday when we had the hours-long standoff, she hurled all kinds of accusations our way.  The one that was most pointed was, “You abandoned me.  I’m just a kid and you put me with all those old people and I hate it there.  I’m telling you, it’s a bad place there. You have to listen to me. It is a bad place and this is my home.”  It was torture listening to her say these things with a mixture of fury, fear and sadness.

After losing the privilege of having us check her out and bring her home for visits, and even one sleepover a few weeks ago, she has withdrawn emotionally from us.  When we come see her, what matters is whether or not we brought something for her to eat or a present. About 10 minutes of conversation and she looks at us and matter-of-factly says, “I’m ready for you to go now.”  Our girl has run headlong into the reality of far more immediate consequences for bad choices and out of control behavior at BARC, she hates it and is pulling out all the stops to get herself back to where she is in charge and as hard as this is, I know it represents more hope and promise than anything has in a long time.

All that is clear to me and there is enormous relief and gratitude that Maria has a place to be where she stands a chance of learning some new ways of belonging in a family and in her community.  But seeing that silly little booth of ornaments at the mall, even walking into Publix with all its commercial Christmas cheer, reminds me that the life I hoped for and knew as a mom has passed away.  I can’t even fathom taking out Christmas this year, and jabbing at myself over and over again with this memory and that.  I am going to rebuild Christmas for what life has become on this side of the line that got drawn on June 5th of this year, when Maria entered BARC

There is a vague blueprint for that new edifice.  Today, Sherod and I leave for Selma and a very different kind of Thanksgiving than we’ve had before– including lots of time with my mother-in-law and Fox News (no comments, please.  I am sure God is amused).  I’ve also started a  project.  A couple of days before she died, my mom was still pretty imperious and she bade me go to my grandmother Rosa’s hope chest and bring out a knitting bag I remembered from my childhood.  Inside were skeins and skeins of beautiful alpaca wool. My mom had started and never finished a complicated sweater for herself.  Now she wanted me to have that fine wool.

I’ve unravelled what there was of a sweater pattern far too complicated and beyond my skill level to finish. I’m going to knit myself a cardigan instead.  The wool feels glorious as I work with it.  The colors are gorgeous.  I am grateful for the rhythm and concreteness of knitting.  I have finished this row.  I must cast on  4 more stitches.  Remember to start a new color on a knit row, not a purl row.  When we drive through crazy holiday traffic today and Friday, I will be able to lose myself in my project rather than harp at my spouseman.  When Fox News gets to me, I’ll count stitches. Literally, it is goodness I can put my hands on.

I have no idea what else this Christmas will hold.  If I had it my way, I’d run away this year–not necessarily to anyplace exotic, but somewhere with no memories. Our jobs and our current financial realities make that impossible.  So I’ll figure it out.  And life will go on.  Yesterday’s reading from the Gospel of Mark emphasized that the distress and horror of something ending is also birth pangs.  I hold on to that and in those oh so British words, try to “keep calm and carry on”.

Absurdly Beautiful

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The stress went back through the roof in our family this weekend.  On her Saturday visit, Maria escalated into very aggressive behavior quite unexpectedly and then managed to get to the phone long enough to call 911.  Before too long the cops were banging on our door.  Maria is masterful but by the grace of God, not quite convincing enough to get herself Baker-acted despite her best efforts.  She did manage to engage the cops in conversation for almost 30 minutes though by the end, they had a hard time keeping a straight face.  Still, it was not safe for us to get her back to BARC so one of their vans and staff members had to come pick her up.  Waiting for the van to arrive, all the hostility just melted away and she sagged against me and through sobs, choked out apologies then begged me to let her stay with us.  Those moments are quite simply excruciating.

We failed to think the next step through very well and had already planned for her to have dinner with us and a pair of friends last night. We didn’t change the plan like we should have.  Everything started out well, but by the middle of dinner I had that familiar, sinking feeling watching her grow sullen all over again. Sure enough.  When it was time to go home she refused.  This time we were more prepared and would not allow the situation to escalate.  Even so, it took us three hours to talk her down to the place where we could get her home safely.  When I finally got to bed after 11 last night (which is wayyyy late for me most nights), I don’t think my head had been on the pillow for a minute before I was asleep.  Today has been busy and full of its own stressors so I looked forward with great anticipation to my ramble tonight.

There’s this house. The flamingos always look like they are trying desperately to be set free, but even more so now.  But how can you not stop and smile for just a minute at the absurdity of this Christmas extravaganza, even if it’s just the 12th of November?