Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Where's the meaning at???

What's really important to you? To YOU?

Where do you get the meaning in your life?

Have you ever had that feeling, like a star burning just under your ribs in the center of your being, radiating hidden light and unlimited energy, that THIS is something you could dedicate your life to? Something you could get up to every morning and look it in the eye and no matter whether it was easy or hard that day, always be drawn back into that relationship, that journey? Something that would never bore you, something you’d always want to be with, because there’s nothing you’d rather do—because without it, nothing else would be meaningful?

If you have, and that something actually corresponded with a feasible set of possibilities in your current life situation... you are very lucky.

If you haven't, or if you have but the translation of that feeling into things you can realistically do with your time was complicated and confused... you're like most people, I suspect. Welcome to the dimension we call reality.

I, for instance, will probably never be a married Jesuit priest. If I were a priest, I could use my head to study and teach theology and write homilies, my heart for the human connections of spiritual care, and my developing organizational/leadership skills for the business of leading a church. It sounds great. Sounds wonderful, in fact. But I can't do that in the church I've grown up in. (I picked the Jesuits for my little flight of imagination because they’re intellectuals, but passionately focused on social justice too. I like to think I’d fit in with a crowd like that.)

Four and a half months ago I got back from Peru jetlagged and nauseous from flying overnight, badly in need of a haircut, hauling my guitar and two beat-up suitcases and shivering in my little Lima jacket on Inauguration Day… and despite the exhaustion, I felt like I arrived charged with a marvelous energy. I’d seen something in that insane Latin American country that I’d never seen here. Call it love, call it a simpler life, call it community, call it the face of Christ in the poor and needy and the redemption that comes from reaching out to them. It was a connection that gave me meaning. During my first days back home I felt a deep desire to ask every American I saw—What is important to you? Where’s your meaning at? What feeds your inner self, in the midst of our darling culture’s obsession with buying crap we don’t need? And what’s it LIKE here, what’s LIFE like for you? What’s on the radio these days?? What music are you dancing to when nobody’s looking???

(My answer: that really catchy one-note song, “Because when I arrive, I—I’ll bring the fire make you come, alive, I—I’ll take you higher…” And the car-dancing began.)

My volunteer experience is over, but life continues. At this point I’m interested in putting together my two very different worlds and discovering how a young, modern American can seek out and live a deep spirituality—which is to say, a deep, full life. I have no set-in-stone career plan. I’m not going to become a nun, because shutting off all possibilities of relationships and family in my life does not feel life-giving to me. I don’t know what form of ministry I’ll find fulfilling in my church; I may consider other churches that would let me do other things. But I’m on this journey, and I believe many others are too. I like it because it involves me doing crazy things and learning to laugh more.

As I move into the next phase of life, I feel it's best to end this specifically volunteer-experience-based blog (except for those vacation pictures I still have to put up) and begin a new one. (So sad! But true!) My new blog will explore my thoughts related to spirituality in a broad sense—things I’m learning about how to live as a human in this world—and continue chronicling my adventures, Peruvian and otherwise! Please see my new exciting post-volunteering blog at:


July 4th: I head back to Peru until I take it into my head to come back. Sometime within the next year, ideally February: I begin a Master’s degree in theology, and see if I can’t figure out some of this nuttiness called life in abundance.

If my musings amuse you—welcome along!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Adventures Continue

If anyone's still reading after a break of more than 2 months--Hola again! I've got news: in just over a month, on July 4th, I'm going back to Peru for a while. Incredibly, it's the right thing for me to do right now, as part of this "in-between" time of my life after volunteering and before I start grad school.

For the past couple months I've been working, working, occasionally stopping to wonder what has happened to me recently, and working some more. I taught an ESL class through the end of April; went to visit my top choice of theology school, the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, CA; and got jobs. I got a job in the office of Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, because hey, they've messed with my life so much at this point that the least they could do is take pity on a poor ex-volunteer in a bad economy. It's actually cool because I get to coordinate some aspects of next year's international program, and the people at the office are mostly young women my age, thinking about their next steps and doing something good in the meantime, like me. I got another job as a server at the Ropewalk Tavern in Federal Hill, Baltimore--only to discover after a month that the guy on the back of my T-shirt was Ronald Regan, and the place's motto, "Old School Conservative!" The people are all so cool, they had me fooled!! ;) I have not told them of my secret inner flaming liberal. And I got another job teaching voice lessons on Sunday afternoons at my local Music & Arts center--SO fun! I'd never taught voice lessons in English before, but I'm really enjoying it. I have a 19-year-old soprano, a 40-year-old beginning singer, a 17-year-old aspiring punk rocker, a 9-year-old who likes musical theater, and a young adult baritone who wants to sing backup in his Christian rock band.

So it's inconvenient that now that I'm just getting a bit comfortable, I'm turning around and going back. But I'm doing it both to check out possibilities of future theological study there, and to pursue a relationship that began while I was there. (Can you really say you've lived if you haven't moved to another country for love? :) ) And of course, to see all my friends again, and to experience the nuttiness that is Peru, the nuttiness that keeps you awake! Also it's just been too long since I was squished into one of those combis, heh heh.

...of course the truth is that I'm not truly comfortable back home yet, and I have to recognize that. Being the foreigner everywhere you go sucks. But it also wakes you up. It makes you live in the present, because you're constantly being surprised by something you're not used to. Living in the present is one thing I learned a little bit in Peru and am trying to maintain... it's much more difficult than it sounds, especially when you've gone from being on a "mission" in a foreign land with a definite purpose, to working for a living in suburban Maryland, where everything's the same as when you were growing up there, quietly scheduled and predictable. I have spent entirely too much time at the mall these past few weeks. At first it's fine, and it's good to have clothes, but then the mindset kind of seeps into your brain, and before you know it you're basing your idea of yourself on whether the shoes match the bag, etc. Lots of my friends in Tupac had about 3 or 4 outfits that they wore ALL THE TIME, and that was it. And life went on. It is SO refreshing to keep that perspective in mind--it allows you to enjoy what you have, and let it be enough--more than enough, delightful! Read Anthony DeMello's Awareness, if you haven't.

Living in the present for me is also about being in contact with reality, or the universe, or Mystery, or God. And so I've applied to an MTS (Master of Theological Studies) program at the Franciscan School I visited. There is so much in my experience of Peru, God, the poor, community, foreignness, being on a journey--that I feel I need a degree program to help me unpack it all and see what I came back with. So that's the long-term plan. In the short term, however, there will be some more Peruvian insanity coming up in just a few weeks. And I promise to try to get my Puno/Lake Titicaca pictures up before then.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

dun dun daaaaa... Kathleen's life plans

Today I decided I'm going to be a theologian or religious studies teacher. I'm going to be this because I think academia, which I've known for a long time is a good fit for my abilities and interests, could actually be a ticket for me to live between the US and Peru. Universities talk to each other. They share resources and swap professors. My hope is that I will be able to find a degree program, or a Fulbright grant, or something, that will let me spend significant amounts of time in Lima while still "advancing" my academic career in US terms.

It works on several levels. Peru is the birthplace of liberation theology as well as of its founder, Gustavo Gutierrez (whom, if I move quick and am really lucky, I may actually still be able to catch in some course or other in Lima before he gets real old and stops teaching.) So as a theology student I'd have excellent reasons to be there. And as a person, I have excellent reasons to want to be BOTH there and at home. It's not just that it hurts terribly to think about saying goodbye forever to all the people who became my world and my community there. It's also that Peru woke me up to life in ways I'd never been woken up before. In Peru I lived in a big city for the first time, traveled to great places, saw poverty firsthand, visited old sick people in their non-house shacks and was a better person for it, learned to dance, lived in a foreign language, learned not to care when people looked at me funny. I even used bathrooms that were not really bathrooms at all. (I'm sorry to be gross, but in a sense, there's something that's really LIVING about being able to say that.)

I have a feeling that studying/researching/teaching in Peru would keep me in touch with the "real life factor" that I found myself more attuned to there than at home. But at the same time, I don't want to give up my own background and culture and just move there. My hope--no--my GOAL is to be able to be a theologian in both worlds.

God, I'm exhausted. Making decisions is so draining.
Now I just have to go find out how to do this... after I take a nap.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Firecrackers, bonfires, and YELLOW

A short week after Christmas, it was New Year's, celebrated with a sleepover at Eloisa's house, MORE cooking--eating out is not so much a thing with these people, it's much more about the group experience of cooking and eating together in someone's home... amazing!--and funny noses.

About Peruvian New Year's: it was one of the things I missed last year and really wanted to see, and I was not disappointed. Like Christmas, it's celebrated with a huge dinner at midnight. Unlike Christmas, families make scarecrow-like "dolls" out of old clothes and stuff bags with newspaper for their heads, and burn them bonfire-style on the street at midnight. It's supposed to symbolize burning the old year and old things in preparation for the new. (It's also a little freaky to walk around on December 31st and see these weirdly grinning scarecrows tied upright on people's roofs.) The sisters made one of these and burned it, but I wasn't there for the burning because I went to Eloisa's, and we didn't do one there.

I thought the firecrackers were bad at Christmas, but at New Year's it truly sounded like the whole zone was being bombed. There were little shooting-light ones that took off like anti-aircraft missles from the ground and made screaming noises like the laser shots in Star Wars, one after the other like gunfire. There were all kinds of whizzing lights and flowery exploding lights and some that just went BANG without lights at all... it's less of a visual show than US fireworks and more of a big chaotic chance for the entire neighborhood to go BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG at once. Between that and the ashes of burned effigy dolls smoking outside every house on the streets, Tupac truly looked like a war zone by 1 am.

The other big tradition of New Year's in Lima is YELLOW. Yellow is New Year's color, and for about the last three days of December the market explodes with vendors selling yellow decorations, beads, headbands, funny glasses, you name it--but especially yellow underwear. I don't know how many thousands of pairs of yellow underwear must have been on display on December 31st in that market. It's tradition to give yellow underwear as a present to friends for good luck. Magdalena and I went to buy a pair for everybody in the two communities, and certain nuns, I won't name names, were even seen wearing said underwear on their heads that night. :) I tried to be tactful in avoiding the granny-style panties that Magda was picking out for everyone, and choosing out my own reasonably cute pair... but unfortunately it was one size fits all, and as I'm much bigger than your average Peruvian woman, the underwear remains more of a souvenir than a part of my wardrobe.

Christmas and the beach

It's March and my adjustment to the US is going... okay. Today I almost cried in church when they started talking about Easter, since Easter was such a special part of my experience of Peru. The isolation of living with my parents in the suburbs kills me. But as I "look around" and try to figure out my life plans, I'm doing several things at once. Teaching ESL at CASA of Maryland; looking sporadically for a full-time job; arranging to teach voice lessons at my local Music & Arts center; even maybe waitressing in the near future. I was going to go to bartending school but that's on hold for the moment.

And now to post about the great friends-gatherings I had at the end of my stay in Lima!
In December there was Christmas. In Peru everyone stays up on December 24th to celebrate Christmas at midnight, and all the partying is over by Christmas morning, so on Christmas Day nobody does anything. Since I didn't have family to celebrate with, I invited everyone to my house on Christmas Day to make a sort of repeat of Thanksgiving dinner. 15 cooks is a lot of cooks, but the sisters let us have the house in Delicias all to ourselves, because they're awesome.
Aren't my friends gorgeous? :)

This is the convent living room transformed into a dining room!

After eating we took a walk down to the beach, except they wouldn't let us in to the private beach area, so we had to come back. I got sent back at high speed on a bus because we realized we'd left our apple pie in the oven! Miraculously, neither it or the convent had burned up..

After Christmas we turned around and went to the beach two days later! This was another mega-day of shopping for food (the night before), cooking at my house (the convent in Delicias), and then going about 30 minutes to the south of Lima to a non-polluted beach.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

My concert

December started out with my concert in the school. I haven't really talked enough about this concert, not even to myself, I think because it happened in the middle of a lot of other things (I don't remember what now.)

It really was kind of amazing. Fourth and fifth grade choir, high school pastoral group, two high school girls who did several duets, and a group of girls who approached me about three weeks before to ask for a "singing class" after school. I said, only if you sing in my concert. This last group were very clearly novice singers, but luckily their songs were short. ;)

I arranged the date and time with Gaby and made flyers for the kids to color and give out to their family and friends. It was Friday December 5th, 5:30 pm, so that the parents could come but it wouldn't be too dark for everyone walking home afterward. The kids would have permission to get out of class a little early. The teachers and classmates, however, weren't going to be able to go, because class ended at 5:40... but I wanted them to be able to see what the singers had been doing all year, the result of all this yanking them out of class by their hair against the teachers' passive-aggressive resistance! So with Iris's encouragement I voiced this to Gaby, and voila, she sent out a memo saying that 4th and 5th grade would get out early that day at 5. I was stunned at how easy it was. It was like I was a sheepdog who'd been running back and forth barking at every individual sheep in the flock to try to get them in line, and they just kept wandering wherever they wanted to... and then in the blink of an eye the farmer comes driving up and claps his hands, and they all went running into the corral without so much as looking at me. ...Kind of like that.

Anyway the high schoolers helped me set up the chapel and decorate it with balloons and streamers, and a few parents came, and I was there with my guitar and Adrian filmed the whole thing (hopefully I'll get the finished, converted DVD the next time somebody travels between here and there.) The little kids sang first, then the newbie girls, then the big kids, then Jessica and Viviana. Each song was announced by a singer. I don't have pictures of the actual event but here are some of the participants:Christine and Jessica (Jessica did the duets with Viviana at the end)

Fourth and fifth grade. After I gave out the flyers, one of the girls came up to me very concerned to report that the tiny kid in the orange in the front row had been selling them in the market as tickets to the concert--at ten cents each! Peruvian resourcefulness! The next round of flyers I made had "FREE concert" written very clearly on them.

There was also a high schooler backing me up with another guitar and playing the cajon, a wooden box you sit on and play like a drum. We all ended together with the song "Danza Mi Pais"--an upbeat saya about how Peru dances through its good times and bad times with faith and hope. Everybody was clapping and moving.

The kids had never really done anything like this at the school... maybe for some of them it was their first performance of anything ever! They were really excited and the parents enjoyed it too. At the end Gaby made a little speech thanking me on behalf of the school for my two years of service, and the teachers gave me a gift--an alpaca vest, beautiful and expensive and like four sizes too big and a weird goldish color. But it was a really nice thought! (Since I knew I wouldn't wear it, I gave it to Luis to give to his mom.)

The hardest part of the experience for me was learning the humility to present something I didn't consider "good" musically. Seriously--the group of newbies was just painful at times, and the fifth graders had no concentration because they'd never been forced to be in two rehearsals in a row during the whole year, so they went out of tune with the fourth graders, and messed up their round, and... things happened that did not have to happen! It's no mystery--with consistent practice, they would have done amazing things. As it was, it was exactly what you'd expect out of a bunch of elementary schoolers. Pshaw. They're more talented than that. All I wanted was the opportunity to do something well! But that was not to be. For the kids and the parents (and I think for the school too,) it was a great experience. For me, it was... a bit of recognition after all my work, which felt like too little too late; the slightly harrowing experience of improvising the logistical details; and in the middle of all that, yes, the satisfaction of presenting what we'd worked so hard on. The music was fun and everybody liked it. So... Yay! ... I did it!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Other pictures from November

Caty came back to see us and we got everybody together just like last year. We even cooked the same food.

It was a little weird because I felt like I'd seen so little of these people all the rest of the year, and now here they were at Thanksgiving... kind of like, ok, we can do this once a year, but that doesn't fool me into thinking I won't be alone a lot in this Peruvian life.

BUT... it was a great party.

everyone walks down from Delicias together...

Celina and Magdalena...

Mary, Celina, and Ever

And this is NOT Thanksgiving... it's me getting ready for the fancy-dress wedding I went to. Celina was my manicurist and Mary was my hairstylist. To my list of accomplishments in Peru, we add: turning a convent living room into a beauty parlor. :) (Sorry that due to technical difficulties I will not be posting pictures of the actual wedding.)

November part II: the Cardinal's visit

So, close your eyes and let's travel back in time to Lima in late November. The day Katie and I got back from our retreat, Monsegñor Juan Luis Cipriani, Cardinal of Lima, came to celebrate Mass at our church in Tupac!
The Cardinal is the head of the Catholic church in at least Lima, if not the whole country. I'd never seen a Cardinal before. I learned that he travels with a whole possey of seminarians, carries a big shepherd's crook to symbolize his role as pastor of the people, and wears two hats--the big fancy one that you see above, and underneath, a small red one that looks like the type some Jewish men wear. He takes the big one off during most of the Mass. During the Eucharistic prayers, he takes off the little one too--and one of the seminarians has a little silver plate to hold the hat on until it's time to put it on again. Clearly the visit of this dignitary is a very special event.

The week prior to the visit, the Vicar of Lima came to prepare us for it. As far as I can tell, the Vicar is the Cardinal's "mini-me." He goes wherever the Cardinal is planning to come and tries to eliminate all local flavor as well as feminine influence from the celebration of the Mass. No female altar servers were to be allowed when the Cardinal came, and none of this getting up during the kiss of Peace to greet people across the aisle or across the church--complete chaos! Just a little handshake to the right and left is quite sufficient! The Vicar's homily was about how we don't want to go to hell and therefore have to resist our temptations to dirty sinful things. The undertone of repressed desperation in his voice turned his passionate energy into something a little weird and scary. (at least to me.)

So I was all ready for the Cardinal to be even MORE so-ridiculous-it'd-be-funny-if-it-wasn't-scary, especially since I've heard that the Cardinal is very conservative and has censored or opposed Gustavo Gutierrez's liberation theology here in Lima in various ways. But like so many other times in this country, reality turned out different than I expected. Cardinal Cipriani's public speaking style is the opposite of his Vicar's. He has a soft voice and a soft manner, and he spoke very encouragingly about all the beautiful things our Church has to offer by way of the sacraments. I don't remember now what exactly he said, but he struck me as a very intelligent, spiritually balanced, peaceful man. When the Vicar talked about where this chair has to go and why that song can't be played and how there will only be male altar servers, I found myself angrily demanding of him in my head--What words of life do you have for me, Vicar? What WORDS OF LIFE are you brining to us here in our church?? Words of Life were what attracted people to Jesus, after all. Jesus IS the Word of God who comes so that we might have life in abundance. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my pre-judgement of the Cardinal was quite the opposite of the truth of the man: conservative or no, his words were gentle, insightful, welcoming and inclusive... decidedly "of life."

The people were funny, they were totally star-struck by the Cardinal, kind of like a crowd of celebrity fans in Hollywood. His Eminence took it all in stride and was very humble and personable in his interactions with us. After the Mass he came (with all his seminarians!) for some light refreshments in the sisters' house, where supposedly only religious brothers and sisters were supposed to be, but Katie and I were allowed to stay seeing as it was our house too. And the Cardinal talked with everyone in Spanish or English as necessary, including a great conversation with me and Sister BJ about American college basketball! (he's traveled all over the US.) As he was leaving, the choir and the lectors, who had hung around outside waiting, got to take their picture with His Eminence. All in all it was a great night.

Monday, February 16, 2009

one month back

Ok, so my life is very different at the moment from what it's been the past 2 years.
For one thing, it's cold (in case I didn't mention that before). For another, it's sunny and the sky and the trees are beautiful, and there is a washing machine (yippee!!).
And possibly happiest of all, I can do things here like make appointments and schedules and write them in my planner and then go to them at the appointed time and THEY ACTUALLY HAPPEN at that time and that place AS PLANNED! Hahaha! SO BEAUTIFUL! Aaaaahhhh scheduling!
And of course I'm home and enjoying living with my family. :)

But weather and schedules and family aside, I won't lie to you, my faithful readers: it's rough being back. I'm in a full-blown "transition" phase, i.e. living in my parents' house, job-hunting, and all the while trying to figure out what just happened to me over the past two years, so that from there I can figure out what kind of job and life I REALLY want to have in the future. It's very complicated. There's culture shock, brought on by everything from eating cereal out of boxes to throwing toilet paper in the toilet; the isolation of living in a suburb; the lack of a faith community to feel connected to; plain homesickness for Peru and my friends there; and most anxiety-inducing of all, the lack of a clear direction in my life and work. Just to give you a sense of what this is like, imagine your career ideas consisting almost entirely of concepts like "theology," "teaching," "writing," "ministry," and "bartending" (no serioulsy. I think it kind of balances and complements the rest).

Today I gave a presentation on blogging and journaling to NDMVs serving in the United States, and I felt like a poor role model for blogging so little about the end of last year. So, for your delight and entertainment, and in order to shamelessly lose myself in remembering some of my happiest moments in the country I am now missing TERRIBLY--here come some glimpses of late December and January.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Everything's changing

*** ...So. ***

We have a new President TOTALLY different from the last one.
I'm in a cold, cold, silent, frosty, cold, quiet, organized, COLD place with huge houses and huge stores and huge distances between them. There is a new garage and a giant new black-and-chrome refrigerator that looks like Darth Vader.
There's an economic recession that's going to change a lot of people's jobs and outlooks on life... maybe my family among them.
There's no cumbia on the radio. In fact there's no radio or any other sort of noise, unless you turn it on yourself.
In church the people stand up in nice neat lines to go to communion. Also they control their small children and don't let them run around in front of the priest while he gives the homily... also there are no dogs wandering in while church is going on or firecracker explosions outside on the street.
Also the people are REALLY TALL.

...did I mention it's COLD AS ALL &*%&*^%$%#^& ? and that the sun comes up at 7 am and goes down at 5:30? WTF?
...but, at least there is a marked difference between light and dark, shadow and sun, frigidness and indoor warmth. A brittle cold with a blue sky and sun gleaming through naked tree branches lets you know you're alive. None of this dismal Lima-winter gray, 55 degrees and clammy and misting with no difference in the light between morning and midday and evening.

That's about as much as I've been able to process since I got back last Tuesday. My last few weeks in Peru, vacation pics, etc will be up soon, I hope. For now I'm just trying to breathe...