Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

Halloween isn't quite the event here that it is in the U.S. - no trick and treaters here, and people aren't going around in costume. But the sports bar behind our house, which has turned into a disco, is certainly having a noisy party tonight as is the other disco in town. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are much more important here - All Souls is a national holiday, the day when everyone goes to clean and decorate the family graves.

I marked Halloween most appropriately, by watching a local futbol (soccer) team, named - why I don't know - New Place San José - get ready for a game in their gorgeous orange jerseys, recycled from the Everett Evergreen by Ellen Hawks. Ellen is a dental hygienist who cleans my teeth twice a year, and she's also President of a soccer league. So when their coach Alcides (back row, left) asked me if I knew anyone who might help his team get jerseys, I knew just where to go. The sixteen jerseys Ellen donated from the league have now become official good luck charms: before they began wearing them, New Place had lost 5 games. They've had two games in their orange jerseys and won them both. And don't they look great?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A new home

A few weeks ago, I told about finding a sewing machine for Sonia, a mother with four young children, a couple of whom have major health problems. At that time she was squatting with her family in a shack made out of lamina, thin metal sheets propped together, on the edge of a district badly contaminated by lead from a former battery company, and was making her living selling used clothes.

A couple of days ago, I went to visit Sonia and her family in a new home. While I was in the United States, Dina Duvon - the great community organizer who made our San Juan Opico mission possible - had found a house that Sonia could rent for a very small monthly amount. It's a small, sturdy brick house with two rooms, and a big yard with space to grow vegetables and flowers. The family now lives away from the lead contamination zone. They have good neighbors, including Reyna, one of the health promoters who worked with us last year.

Sonia was happy to show me the clothes she's been sewing on her beautiful sewing machine - pants and skirts for children that looked pretty professional to me. I was happy to see them in a healthier and more hopeful situation, and deeply grateful to Dina and Reyna who made it all possible.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A visit to Panchimalco

Three years ago, when our PazSalud medical mission was held in Panchimalco, Walther, one of the main volunteers from Panchimalco, captured the hearts of many on our team. A group of them decided to help him realize what seemed like an impossible dream for a young man from an indigenous family - to become an engineer.

Two and a half years later, Walther is studying hard and doing well at a University in San Salvador with regular support from his friends in the United States. On Sunday, I drove to Panchimalco to bring him a recycled laptop, replacing one that was stolen. The computer, an old PeaceHealth laptop that was ready to be discarded, was refitted with an Ubuntu operating system and open-source software, thanks to Jeff Bruer in PeaceHealth's System Office.

I met Walther and his girlfriend Sarai in the center of Panchimalco, and we drove a few more kilometers to his home in canton La Cruz - a good workout for the X-Trail, which did very well on the dirt roads and in 4-wheel drive. I meet with Walther often, to get him his beca (scholarship) funds, but I'd never visited his home before. It was a joy to meet his family and get them all to pose for a photo. Visiting helped me to realize the distances, physical and psychic, that Walther has to travel on his quest to become a Licenciado in engineering. It takes a lot of strength and character to manage a leap like this without losing touch with your family and your family's values - and Walther has what it takes.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The work of our hands

Korla and I were talking the other day about work we've done and work we've loved. She said that when she was writing her college thesis and working she spent whole long and tiring days in front of a computer screen, but what she really loved was making theater sets, making something you could touch and see at the end of the day's work. It's the same for me: I do a lot of my work in front of the computer, but I feel more engaged, more complete, more myself when I'm cooking or gardening.

That conversation tugged at me, and I remembered the visible joy our PazSalud doctors have in doing hands-on medicine - touching, looking, listening, asking questions - old-fashioned physical medicine without the computers and machines and tests available that are so much a part of their life as doctors in the United States (that's Dr. Anne Welch in the photo from our 2010 medical mission). Those machines and tests are amazing tools, and so is my computer, but there's a hunger we begin to feel when we've spent too much time in front of the screen and away from real bodies, real substances, real work. That's the kind of medicine Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of the astonishing novel Cutting for Stone and chair for the theory and practice of medicine at Stanford teaches: the old-fashioned and necessary arts of the physical exam and hands-on medicine.

Handwork - building theater sets, making quilts, practicing yoga, gardening, making music, drawing, tending patients - seems to me essential to our sense of well-being, of being human. The work of our hands is real work - messy, essential and holy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A new(er) car for PazSalud

After a couple of costly repairs to the 1996 Toyota 4Runner last year, Kathy Garcia and I asked PeaceHealth about the possibility of purchasing a somewhat less used car for the project, and were given the go-ahead. Today I finished the purchase of a 2006 Nissan X-Trail (seems to be a car sold in Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, the Phillipines, the UK, and briefly in Canada, but not in the U.S.). It's a crossover SUV that promises to get better gas mileage than the 4Runner, while still being tough enough to manage campo roads and it's a pleasure to drive. It will be good to lighten my carbon footprint a bit! But I felt a little sad as I parked it next to the 4Runner at the Centro Arte para la Paz, remembering the unfailing reliability and toughness of that old workhorse vehicle. Happily the 4Runner is going to be purchased by Berty Rivas and Yanira Cano, the couple who work with Peggy O'Neill to keep the Centro Arte running, so I will still have visitation rights.

Special thanks to Kathy's husband, Victor Garcia, for his help in finding just the right PazSalud vehicle!

I can't resist adding the last paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the 1st generation X-Trail: "In 2006, Nissan launched a Nissan X-Trail Bonavista Edition commercial featuring a Nissan dealer speaking in an incomprehensible Newfoundland accent. The commercial itself backfired when Bonavista Mayor Betty Fitzgerald claimed it had portrayed people in Bonavista as people who cannot speak properly. To further expose the commercial's lack of linguistic authenticity, CBC News reported the sales rep was played by an actor from Cape Breton." I don't think our new car is a Bonavista, thanks be!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

La Memoria Vive

Yesterday I had my first chance to see the new museum that is part of the Centro Arte para la Paz, and I'm delighted and amazed at all that is there, all that has been accom-plished. I haven't had time to do more than a quick look yet (this is one of the 150% of time periods when I'm getting ready for our November eye screening mission), but I can hardly wait to watch the videos and read all the posters and look at all the artifacts.

This museum is called "La Memoria Vive," or Living Memory, and it's a museum of Suchitoto history, with special emphasis on the living history that Suchitoto youth captured in their video interviews with elders, warriors, artisans, campesinos. Interactive video screens are scattered throughout the museum, offering interviews on different topics. And it's all very beautifully and imaginatively put together.

The museum opened September 26th, and already has logged 900 visitors, an impressive number in this small town. Best of all, it's attracting and educating the young people of Suchitoto, helping them to understand their own history. Congratulations to Peggy O'Neill and the talented staff of the Centro Arte who've made yet another dream become reality.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Remembering Catherine

I'm safely back in Suchitoto, but was saddened to learn today that our dear Sister Catherine McInnes died very early this morning. Catherine was one of the grand sisters of our community. Born in Canada, she trained as a nurse before entering the community and for many years was the administrator of PeaceHealth's St. Joseph Medical Center, Bellingham, the first hospital built by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in the northwest (the hospital's Sister Catherine Chapel was named in her honor). After "retiring" from hospital ministry, she was treasurer for the Western Province of the Sisters for eight years. Then she "retired" again, and promptly went to work at St. John Medical Center, where she was a patient advocate until a return of her esophageal cancer a few months ago. Here she is at our 2008 Congregational Chapter.

That tells you a little bit about Catherine, but doesn't begin to capture her. When I learned this summer that Catherine was to undergo a pharyngectomy and larnygectomy, which would mean loss of her natural speaking voice, I spent a long time in prayer, just remembering her voice, her totally distinctive voice and laugh that I knew I would never hear again. She was the best storyteller, always full of fun with a wit that was both dry and droll. She was always a complete lady, never a hair out of place, a great nurse, an excellent and caring administrator - and that laugh lit up every room she was ever in.

Catherine's last months have been voiceless as she endured many surgical procedures until just a couple of weeks ago, when she decided to put herself in hospice care. I was blessed to be able to visit her briefly during my time at home, though I doubt that she was really aware of me. Now we all will be saying goodbye to a dearly loved sister, knowing with relief that her long struggle is at an end, but sorrowed by all she had to endure, and missing her voice, her laugh, her stories.

Friday, October 15, 2010


When I flew north, almost a month ago, I had to take my big, expandable bag as well as my traveling backpack with wheels to fit in all the things I was bringing north - gifts for friends, artesania for our PeaceHealth tables, an ancient laptop that proved to be DOA as well as my very lively MacBook, a few clothes that fit the climate of Seattle better than that of Suchitoto. I thought that maybe on return I could put the backpack inside the big suitcase, check that in, and travel lightly with just the MacBook and a purse.

Unlikely. I've just finished prepacking, and I'm using every inch of both suitcases. The Spanish and bilingual kids' books are in the backpack, along with a few books that attached themselves to me. The water filters, ginger marmalade, assorted medications and vitamins, 80 or so cards with Salvadoran photos, a couple pairs of shoes, the crossword puzzles my sister has carefully saved for Margaret Jane and me, 37 tea bags and assorted clothes are nested in the big suitcase. Everything in both bags is wrapped and surrounded in soccer jerseys - the 16 bright orange soccer jerseys given by my dental hygienist, Ellen Hawks (bless her) for Alcides' equipo de futbol in Suchitoto. I'll check in both bags and carry on my purse and two laptops - one, an ancient-of-days reconstructed by PeaceHealth's peerless Jeff Bruer with Ubuntu software, is for Walther, whose laptop was stolen in a raid on the bus he was riding in. But there's no way to think of myself as traveling light, and I don't suppose there ever will be. I'll just have to content myself with traveling happy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A medley of friends

Today's odd and delightful mixture of meetings and meals reminds me why it's so essential to come back home. I had breakfast with the Sisters (my favorite cereal that Sr. Rose Anna gets for me when I'm back accompanied by a dish of glorious rhubarb sauce that Sr. Joan set out for me), then met with Sue Nies, co-director for our CSJP Associates on the west coast, to talk about ideas for the new Associate program - we opened the Constitutions and Bible and our new magazine, Living Peace, and had a grand time finding resources and making connections.

Then I dashed over to Seattle to have coffee with Lisa Dennison, a good friend from St. Patrick Parish. We talked joyfully over lattes about Ignatian spirituality, the enneagram, our families and a million other subjects. And I dashed back to Bellevue for the monthly lunch of women from the Queen Anne High School (Seattle) class of 1959 - great hugs from some dear lifelong friends and the puzzle of trying to remember what I ought to know about some classmates I haven't seen since we graduated.

Then I drove peacefully back to St. Mary-on-the-Lake where Sister Sukyi Hur treated me to a wonderful hour of acupuncture, massage, and reflexology, designed to strengthen my lungs and soothe an aching shoulder. Renewed, I stopped at PeaceHealth's System Office, in Bellevue, to pick up a reconstructed computer and connect with some fellow staffers. And then I took my nephew Dan Roben out to dinner at The King and I, a long-time Bellevue favorite Thai restaurant.

How could a day hold more than this? Time with friends, Sisters and Associates, family, my PeaceHealth community, food and coffee and conversation, and even acupuncture - what riches! Best of all, I didn't have to stop for a minute to wonder how to say something - I just opened my mouth and English naturally flowed out.

Don't get me wrong - I'm looking forward to going back to my other home in Suchitoto on Saturday, revisiting my Salvadoran friends, basking in the tropical sunshine and continuing the struggle to say it right in Spanish. But I'll go back strengthened and filled by the joys of friendship, community and connection.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Up and Down I-5

This week and next, Kathy Garcia and I are selling artesania from El Salvador at our PeaceHealth regions - yesterday at St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham, today at St. John Hospital in Longview, tomorrow at the System Office in Bellevue, next week at the Riverbend and University District campuses of Sacred Heart Hospital, Eugene. It's been great to see many friends from mission teams, meet some folk who are eager to travel to El Salvador, and sell a few Christmas ornaments. We've been delighted as well to have many contributions to the fund for water filters and to our Support-a-Tub program that pays the cost of shipping our tubs of medications to El Salvador.

It's been fun, too, to travel up and down the I-5 corridor - especially with Kathy in the car, so we could sail along in the HOV lane. But after El Salvador travel, it's almost too peaceful - I've had to drink vast quantities of coffee to stay awake, which has never been a problem in El Salvador, where the many interruptions and potential catastrophes breed hyper-alertness. Not complaining, you understand!