Sunday, March 20, 2011

Of Travels and Travails

Bombs away!
When you travel with a small baby, you kind of hope that your trips will be smooth and uneventful. But since I went public saying that I enjoy the element of surprise in life, it seems that Someone decided to have a little fun with me.

Here is a litany of the Things That Went Wrong:

- Forgotten visa remembered at the last minute.
- First flight delayed by an hour and a half, which sent us into Running Mode. We missed our first connection and flew on standby for our second flight. We had to jump a line of 70 people in Mexico City (with permission from the guy at the head of the line) to even make it to standby status, thus risking the wrath of other travelers. Then we had to run to make our international flight after waiting in line at the Migrations Office for me to get permission to leave the country.
- Copious poopies in baby's diaper on two flights.
- My suitcase went MIA on our return flight.
- A bird pooped on my hand while we were eating dinner on a terrace.
- Our bus back to Xalapa was delayed for a day because protesters were camped out on all of the major roads out of Veracruz. Supposedly they were protesting violence by army soldiers against ordinary civilians, but later we found out that they were manoeuvering for lower gas prices.

But here are the Things That Went Right:

- We made all of our flights, albeit with elevated heartbeats.
- Baby enjoyed the wind in her hair as Mom and Dad went running through various airports.
- Supermom was equal to the task of changing a very liquidy poopie diaper in the airplane bathroom... twice!
- Speaking of poopie, the divebombing bird narrowly missed Olivia's head. Thank God it only landed on my hand.
- We were not stuck on the highway during the protest, sitting in traffic for seven hours, which could have been a nightmare, especially since riding on buses makes me nauseous.
- My suitcase and I will have our tearful reunion tonight, God willing.
- We ended up spending our extra day in Veracruz at a beach hotel... not a bad place to be stranded.

So, on the whole it was not the most restful of journeys. But I can't complain too much, seeing as how we made it home alive!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I Love New Yawk

The epicenter of New Yawk glory: Saks Fifth Avenue.
There is something to be said for knowing who you are and where you fit.

Now, it would be fantastic to be like the Queen of the Chessboard who glides imperiously into any setting and, by the resplendence of her power, simply belongs. But the reality is... well... not quite so glorious.

Last year (pre-Olivia), JC and I took a weekend trip to Manhattan to explore and enjoy the city. I love New York because it hums with life like a beehive, and there is such a wild variety of things to be seen, starting with the people. The Hasidic Jews are my particular favorites. So, off we went to eat some good Jewish bagels with cream cheese for breakfast, along with an Italian cappuccino-- all bought, of course, from the Arab guy behind the counter.

After a morning at St. Patrick's and some symbolic shopping on 5th Avenue (I think maybe we bought a t-shirt), we decided to head downtown into SoHo. That was when I felt the sting of "I don't fit."

While strolling along in the late afternoon, we wandered into a DKNY (that's Donna Karan New York for any fashion neophytes-- yes, allow me to instruct you from the depths of my fashion erudition) to take a look around.

"Can I help you?" said the sales guy, looking very dapper all in black.

"Um... just looking," I said. JC had disappeared into the dressing room to try on a potential Symbolic Purchase. Meanwhile, I was ogling the dresses. I love dresses and I am magnetically attracted to them. I have no real gift for fashion myself-- things just sort of look okay, not spectacular, on me. But I fervently admire those women who have a gift for throwing on a dress, a necklace, a pair of vertiginously high heels, a status handbag, and the obligatory Star Power sunglasses, looking like they belong on the Champs Élysées. So I just stood around, gazing around in wonderment like a kid in a candy shop (but trying not to be too obvious about it).

"You're not from here, are you?" said the guy, crossing his arms and leaning back conversationally.

"No..." I said, sensing an unfortunate turn in the conversation. And then-- I didn't want to ask, but I was curious: "Why do you say that?"

"Oh, I can just tell," he said chattily. "You both look like you're from out of town."

I looked down at my outfit self-consciously. From out of town?  As in country bumpkin? What did he mean?  Was it my powder pink rain jacket?  My non-status purse? I felt my face flush with embarrassment.

Because I am a glutton for punishment, I asked carefully, "What do you mean by 'from out of town'?"

"Oh, you know," he said. "It's just that New Yawkas, they have a certain kind of energy, a kind of drive. They come in here, they know what they want. You guys are just, you know, lookin' around..."

Seeing my face, he added hastily, "It's cool, it's okay. So, where're you guys from?"

"Atlanta," I said icily, looking away and praying that JC would hurry up. It was sort of true. It seemed better than saying, "Oh, I'm from the hinterlands of the Uncultured... upstate New York, the place where New Yawkas never go." Atlanta was a safer choice. Plus it was temporarily true. I had been living there for 3 or 4 months already.

"And he's from Mexico," I said.

"OK, that's cool, that's cool," he said, still in Mollifying Mode. But the damage was done. My pride was pricked. This guy picked us out, I thought to myself. We are obviously Gawking Tourists, coming to the Hub of Civilization to see how the Beautiful People live. Well, golly, thanks a lot.

Then JC came out. There would be no Symbolic Purchase here, he decided. Time to move on to the next shop. So off we went... and I made sure to stride purposefully out, sure of what I wanted... to get the hell outa there.


The next time we were in New York, it was for Olivia's Mexican citizenship papers. We stayed at a hotel in Manhattan to make it on time to our early morning appointment with the consul, and went purposefully, directly (with a hurried, driven look) to the consulate. Later, we returned with purposeful New Yawka haste to eat lunch and feed and change the baby. And after a short stroll to the Rockefeller Center, we headed back to the consulate again for a second appointment and then went back to the hotel.

This time, the hotel security officer decided to chat with us. He was wonderfully human. After sharing some of his own experience from a failed marriage,  he told us that we looked very united, and of course, that the baby was beautiful. He was not speaking down at us from the heights of New Yawk Sophistication; he was just himself, and we were just ourselves. It was refreshing and real.

So there are these two sides--among many, many others-- to the New York experience. There is the high gloss of Big Money and Big Ambitions with the smooth, silent elevators that open with a muted 'ding!', the shop windows filled with the avatars of a lifestyle unattainable for most mere mortals, and the sneering shop clerks, masters of the consulates of DKNY and Louis Vuitton and Prada and Ralph Lauren, who later go home to apartments the size of a postage stamp. There is that sense of glorious ownership of "We got all this and we're all that!" that can fill hearts with a kind of proprietary pride. This is my world. This is where I belong, among the towers of steel and mirrors. What about your world? 

I get it. I'd probably feel the same way if I lived there.

But then there is also the human side of New York, the rich texture of races and people, many from humble backgrounds-- immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Kenya, Iran, Egypt, China, Taiwan, Israel-- who responded to the beacon call from Long Island's shore: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." (Welcome to the pollution.) These are people who simply are what they are, hustling to make a living in a land of opportunity. They don't have a big image to uphold or carry before them as an Identity Enhancer. They aren't wealthy, but they can afford to be human.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

I like that contrast in New York. It's the energy and the contrast of those two worlds that can be breached with talent and hard work. In Mexico, those two worlds circulate in separate orbits: there are the rich, and the not rich, two mutually exclusive categories with no mobility from one to the other. But in America, anybody can become someone.

So yes, I do love New Yawk... and that's why I keep going back. But now, as I grow out of my fear of what the sophisticated shop clerks might think of me, I'll go with a sense of pride and freedom. As Popeye once said, "I yam what I yam."

And maybe that's the real power of the Queen of the Chessboard... she is just herself.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Full Circle

Sometimes events have a certain symmetry in the way they unfold.

Right around this time last year, JC and I were in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, asking Mary for the grace to have a child. We had been married for three months and we both wanted to put all of our hopes in Mary's hands. So we passed under her image holding hands, asking for the gift of a baby.

At that time, I didn't know that I was already about five days pregnant with Olivia. It was a kind of Visitation between two pregnant women, except one was unaware of the gift growing inside her.

Now we will be going again, and it will be a kind of Presentation of our baby to Mary. I just want to stand under her image and tell her-- and the Baby Jesus whose heart beats in her womb-- here is the fruit of my own womb. Here is the promise fulfilled. Here is the prayer come to life, a cheerful little girl we named Olivia Juliette. You listened! You did it! Thanks!

A few years ago, JC and I had made another trip to the Basilica to thank Our Lady for our relationship, which had just begun in October. Two days after that trip, on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, he proposed marriage to me.  I had come home from the consecrated life just a year and a half before, so it was the second half of a transition from consecrated virginity to marriage and motherhood. An Annunciation of sorts!

And that little pilgrimage of thanksgiving was preceded by another pilgrimage (in September) to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I went to the basilica in a taxi by myself on the last day and prayed under her image for a husband. I really prayed. I think I went along that conveyor belt about twenty times just to make sure she heard me loud and clear. A month later, I met my future husband.

So these little coincidences catch my attention. I interpret them as an invitation to develop that relationship, to turn to her more often, to trust that when I ask her for something, she really answers. She's a mother, and I'm starting to understand from my own experience how strong her love for us must be. When my baby cries, I can't not answer. If she needs something, it would go against my nature to ignore her. If I refused to feed or soothe her, I would be doing violence to myself. It's like part of me now lives through my baby's experience; there is a kind of empathy or compenetration that bonds us together. And I never realized this before, but Mary must feel the same way about all of us. When we cry out, when we really need something, and when it's good for us, she doesn't just stand by filing her nails. She comes running. She is generous in her love. She wants to answer. We are always her babies.

And this is the ultimate symmetry of life. It's not just the symmetry of dates and mysteries that bear a surface resemblance to our lives. It's that all of us, no matter our state in life, begin to understand the gifts we have been given only when we are called upon to give the same (or analogous) gifts to others. Being a mother helps me to understand how to be a child, how to live with greater confidence in the reality of a love that surrounds me-- and all of us-- every day like the protective wings of an eagle... or like the mantle of a loving mother.

"Is there anything else that you need?"

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bag 'O Worries

Jolly Ranchers: the king of all candies.
When I was little, we used to go out trick-or-treating on Halloween with pillowcases as bags.  They had enormous capacity, plus they never ripped. We came home with our loot slung over our shoulders like hobos, and then dumped it all out on the kitchen table for the Sorting Process.

Those bitter, chalky Necco Wafers went straight to the Undesirables pile. Same with Bit 'O Honey, which always welded one's jaw together and wasn't tasty enough to suck on for half an hour.  Skittles, Starburst, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and the king of all candies, Jolly Ranchers: to the Highly Desirable pile, and collect $200 on your way past Go.

Well, I'm still trick-or-treating... at night... with a pillowcase. It takes a good hour or two for my wheels to stop spinning at night, so as I lie awake sleeplessly tossing and turning, I am sorting through all the assortied goodies and baddies I collected during the day. It's my Bag O' Worries.

Today, for example: while having Sunday brunch in a restaurant with another couple, we were chatting about the state of education in Mexico today. The husband had commented humorously on the "flexible morals" of the Mexican people... and now he commented on the "flexible sense of responsibility" in most teachers today. Kids don't study and the teachers don't demand from them. It's all very loose and free, he said. Now, I had seen this in the months I spent working toward an MBA here at a university in Xalapa. Even at the postgrad level, the students were cheating, plagiarizing, copying, sharing answers out loud during a test when the teacher (O Thou Enabler!) left the room. I can only imagine how it is on the high school level.

So naturally, I started to worry. What will my daughter learn?  Will she learn anything?  Will there be high standards?  Will she learn to cheat and be lazy?

Necco Wafer!  Chalky and gross!

Then there is the question of money. My parents saved and were frugal so that each of their three kids could go to a private college or university. They believed in education, so they sacrificed to give us the best possible options. Now, both my husband and I have decent-paying jobs, plus a side business. But will we be able to pay $40,000 a year (times 4) for two or three children?  What about buying a house and saving for retirement? How will we do it?

Bit O'Honey!  Wish you were a bit o' money. Or a lot.

So these worries go spiralling around and around in my head. And they all converge on one object: our daughter, our future babies, and the great task of educating them-- in the broadest sense of the word, not just academically, but for life.

When I mentioned the how-will-we-find-a-good-school worries to my husband, who never has trouble sleeping, he said, "We have five years before we cross that bridge and we don't know what can happen in that time. Go to sleep." Sage advice.

After all, a nuclear bomb could strike Mexico and then we'll have an entirely different set of worries... let's see, now what would we do if we survived the radiation...?

The problem is, I can't just "Go to sleep." I'm not wired that way. So I bring my Bag O' Worries to someone who actually has the answers of eternal wisdom.

Help us. We need help. I need help. I can't do this by myself.

I toss and turn some more. And then other, sweeter nuggets from the day rise to the top of the pile. I remember what the priest said at Mass last week when he said that money alone will not save us, that we can't put our trust in money but only in God. Yes, I believe that.

And then I realize that all I'm really worried about is for my daughter to flourish like a tree that grows up straight and strong, full of healthy branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. I just want her to be everything she was created to be. I want to make sure we give her the best opportunities we can so that all of the potential inside of her is developed, so that she is strong and good and wise and happy and holy. Whatever her talents are, I hope we can help her develop them in the context of a balanced and happy life. At bottom, I realize, I want her to be what God wants her to be.

Then I remember St. Irenaeus' words, "The glory of God is man fully alive." God wants her to flourish even more than I do! I'm not alone. We're not facing an impossible task by ourselves.

So I have the image in my mind of me giving my hobo Bag O' Worries to someone stronger who can carry them for me, to the Good Shepherd, the Jolly Rancher who took a jaunt with me through another uselessly sleep-deprived night.

And he says, "Mind if I hold that for you tonight?  You don't need to carry all that right now. Tomorrow's another day and you're on the right track. Now go to sleep!"

Sage advice.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

True Colors Shining Through

I admit, I am not an assiduous pray-er these days. I do plan to remedy that, but sometimes it also seems that God takes the initiative in the most gentle of ways. Like last week, for example.

This photo doesn't do it justice.
I was standing in the doorway of our little house, watching the way the sunlight graces the green leaves and purple blossoms of our bougainvillea tree. Depending on the angle, the light paints the surfaces of the leaves in white, or it lights them up from within so that they glow an emerald green. The blossoms become delicate, radiant amethysts.

It's such an ordinary sight that most days I don't really notice it. But for some reason, that day held a touch of God. I was just standing there, holding the baby, while a sense of quiet enveloped me, a stillness that blossomed from within. Within that halo of silence, I felt as if I were also being held in God's arms, temporarily lifted above the usual rhythm of life.

That was when the thought occurred to me that the glowing jewels before me were an image of how God transfigures my life... and how little I notice it.

We take-- I take-- a lot of things in life at face value, as facts. A fact is something inert, like a piece of furniture. But when I step back and look again, I see there are so many things in my life that rise above the status of facts; they are gifts. Standing in a doorway holding a baby-- that's not a fact, it's a gift. My husband walking through the front gate-- another gift, an answer to a prayer.

Now that I have what my heart most desired-- a wonderful husband and our first baby--it could be easy to just forge full steam ahead, relishing the present without looking back. But moments like this are like gentle reminders that I once prayed and prayed in front of the Blessed Sacrament for these gifts, and when the time was right, God gave them. They glow with the light of the giver's love.

If I prayed more often, maybe I would have the refined vision to see more of the translucence of a life imbued with divine gifts. I would also have the eyes to see unanswered prayers, even tragedies, as events pregnant with meaning in the shadow of the cross. If I prayed more, I would enter more frequently into the richness of quiet where the world falls away and we hear another heartbeat. Praying more would give a wider wingspan to my remembrance; it would nourish the kind of biblical memory that forgets not the personal times of exile, the years when "we hung up our harps by the rivers of Babylon and wept." Remembering those times makes the present gifts so much more meaningful; our small personal odysseys from longing to fulfillment somehow presage the much bigger odyssey that we are all on right now.

So, there are these reminders-- gentle ones, like the friend who touches your shoulder to remind you that he is here, that he has never stopped walking by your side.

Thank you, my friend! I see your true colors shining through.