Thursday, March 31, 2011

iPad bliss

I have to start this post with a confession. For months I've been lusting after an iPad, and I've been having serious discussions with myself and God about how that's not what I should be lusting after, spending money on, even thinking hard about. I was doing pretty well with that, or so I thought, disguising all those side glances at friends' iPads, only checking out the Apple website once in a great while.

And then, to my great astonishment and greater delight, some dear friends gave me an iPad, thus short-circuiting the me-and-God-and-I-shouldn't-want-this conversation. Here's a photo of me in iPad bliss, fresh from the Mac store. I am, I have to tell you, having a wonderful time discovering its charms, linking up to this and that, playing Scrabble, checking the web, and hoping that God is OK with all this fun.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Four generations

Last November my great-niece Amy gave birth to Addyson Kayanne Skalisky, the first of her generation in my family, and on Saturday we had a family gathering to meet this 4-month-old charmer and take a photo of four generations: in the group photo, Grandma Joanne, Great-great-aunt Kathy (my sister), Amy, Addy, and Great-great-aunt Susan. Shocking though it is to become a great-great-aunt, it sure was fun to meet the newest and to think about all that lies ahead in her life! May she have many joys and many adventures.

We also got to visit with Addy's Aunt Cara (above with Addy) and Uncle Jacob, with Great-Aunt Sally and Great-Uncle Gary and first cousins once removed Corina and Katie... And we had the fun of revisiting family baby songs and games, of catching up with each others' doings, of applauding Corina in her gorgeous prom dress and seeing Katie's drawings, of being family. I'm grateful, always, to belong to a family that loves and enjoys each other. What a blessing, and what a blessing for Miss Addyson.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


The first day after coming home to Bellevue, I needed to make a trip to Bellevue Square, our local mall, to get a new battery compartment for my Macbook laptop. Now Bell Square is not just any mall - it's full of high-end luxury stores, and I've heard that it makes more money per square foot than any other mall in America. So you can imagine.

The first thing I saw as I walked in was a store called "Free People." "Free People" - I'm not even going to look up the URL - features fluffy dresses for teenage girls. The next thing I saw was a giant poster at a store called Oakley: "Join the Rebellion!" said the poster. "Join the Rebellion" was surrounded by photos of a guy in swim trunks and sunglasses (sunglasses being what they sell: Join the Rebellion, wear expensive sunglasses).

What would Libyans and Tunisians and Egyptians think of those notions of freedom and rebellion?

After I got my new battery, I walked over to the nearby QFC supermarket and marvelled at the sheer excess of offerings in any category. In El Salvador, I can find three kinds of flour in the supermarkets: white wheat flour, corn flour, rice flour. Period. In QFC, there must be 65 different kinds of flour - rye, barley, amaranth, quinoa, teff, red winter wheat, and so on and on. There was a display case with 23 different varieties of gourmet chocolate bars. Mind you, it's grand fun to shop there: you can find anything and everything. But for someone who's been living in Central America, it's beyond excessive.

I know I could find grocery stores in the Seattle area that would look a lot more like my Salvadoran supermarkets, and I'd feel more at home there. The flashy wealthiness of Bellevue, apparently untouched by three years of economic collapse, imagines a world full of people who think they should have anything they could possibly want. I hope and believe that is not the truth of my Bellevue neighbors - but it is the truth of the merchandizing that surrounds us.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Barack Obama in El Salvador

I'm sad not to be in El Salvador today while President Barack Obama visits - not that I'd have been asked to the state dinner, but the television channels will have been full of images of every moment. The moment that will mean the most to many Salvadorans is captured here: Obama paying his respects at the tomb of Monseñor Oscar Romero in the crypt of the Cathedral in San Salvador. La Prensa Grafica, source for this photo, noted that a few days ago Obama had said that Romero is a point of social reference not just for El Salvador, but for all the world.

I'm sad not to be there today, but I'm proud and happy to be a U.S. citizen who lives and works in El Salvador on this day.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Feast of St. Joseph

Our western community of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace had a very special Feast of St. Joseph today - we were all invited by Father Paul Magnano, pastor of the new downtown Catholic Church, Christ our Hope, to celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Father Paul invited the CSJPs because our history is so entwined with this new church, and with its home, the Josephinum, an elegant former hotel on 2nd and Stewart in downtown Seattle.

Back in the 1970s-1980s (before I entered the community, so I don't have the precise dates), the Catholic Church bought the hotel, which Elvis Presley once slept in, and turned it into senior housing, administered by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. We called it the Josephinum, in honor of our patron saint, and put a chapel in the former ballroom. The Josephinum has since become low-income housing, serving many formerly homeless people in downtown Seattle, and about six months ago, the chapel - beautifully remodeled - was transformed into the Christ our Hope Parish. A statue of St. Joseph which used to stand in the chapel now is placed in the Josephinum lobby.

We were invited to join in the Mass and to bless and rededicate the statue of St. Joseph - we all got to take turns sprinkling Joseph with holy water (that's Sister Noreen Linane at work in the photo). And we were honored by Fr. Paul's homily, which concluded:

The example of Joseph is precious to each of us. His Sisters of Peace who ministered in this building for 23 years are also precious to each of us. These sisters continue in their ministries today the commitment of Joseph to right relationships, justice and peace. This Solemnity of St. Joseph triggers our own response to care for each Jesus and each Mary in our lives, given us to cherish, to protect, to help grow. We pray for joy in discouraging days, for confidence in hopeless situations, for joy in our heartbreaking service to all God’s holy people

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Novel without End

About a year and a half ago, I bought a copy en español of Ken Follett's World without End, or in this case Un Mundo Sin Fin. All 1178 pages of it.....and I don't read very fast in Spanish. I dithered along with it for a year and more, got to about page 300, and didn't have much energy to continue. Then Sister Kristin Funari came on a Christmas visit, and she spent every possible moment reading the English version of World without End. I decided that if she was having that much fun with it, I owed it to myself to persevere through the remaining 878 pages.

And now, three months later, I have actually read page 1178, the novel without end has ended, and I feel very pleased to have arrived there. I am also reminding myself that the next book I pick up in Spanish could well be something a little, er, shorter....say 250 pages, max? But Ken Follett is always fun, and I now have a vocabulary that includes some unusual architectural terms - who knows when I can ever use it?

Tomorrow I fly back to Seattle for three weeks of combined meetings, vacation, family time and friend time - at least I won't need to carry a three-pound book along!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Parsing a Lenten Fast

My Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace have suggested a Lenten Carbon Fast for 2011 and sent out a calendar (created by the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center - you can find it here) with 40 carbon-fast options - one, you'll notice, for each day of Lent. I could happily incorporate most of the suggested actions or changes, but reading the calendar in the context of Suchitoto, El Salvador, Central America I saw that some changes had to be made.

So here are my Central American alternatives to some Carbon Fast ideas:

Turn down your thermostat. We don't have a thermostat or a heating system. Alternative: be sure to turn off the fan when leaving the room.

Check for drafts and seal leaks. Houses in El Salvador are built full of openings so the hot air can escape. Alternative: take a morning walk in the cool of the day.

Beware of hot water use today. Like most Salvadorans, we don't have a water heater. Water comes out of the tap at room temperature - which is sometimes quite toasty! Alternative: water plants by hand, not by hose, and use a jacal (tub) to do dishes.

Try travel without flying. Not a possibility for my trip back to Seattle in a couple of days - I can't even get from here to Seattle non-stop. Alternative: donate to a carbon bank organization to offset the heat I'll be adding to the planet.

Hang clothes to dry on a rack or clothesline. This one's no problem: that's the only way we have of drying clothes here (and they generally dry in 2 hours). Alternative: mark it done, and move on.

Turn down your hot water heater. See above: no hot water heater. Alternative: pay more attention to turning off the lights when I leave a room.

As you can see, there's only a few of the 40 that needed to be rephrased for Central America. Most of the Carbon Fast ideas will work anywhere - check tire pressure, pick up litter, unplug appliances, recycle, learn about climate change. My greatest challenge is to cut back on driving - especially now that gas has reached $4/gallon here. There's a certain amount of necessary driving that goes with my mission, but my goal this Lenten season and hereafter is to combine trips and get in that car much less often.

And climate change has certainly reached us here in Central America. The weather patterns over the two years I've been here have been more violent and less predictable than the norm. This year, we've had several big rainstorms already, though the seasonal rains aren't supposed to start until May. I can't do enough to hold back the changes, but I will do what I can.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The chicken or the egg?

That old and worn-out question, - Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? - got new meaning for me on Thursday when I accompanied Leslie Schuld and Iris Alas of CIS (Centro por Intercambio and Solidaridad) to meet a group of women in Guacotecti, in the Departamento of Cabañas, who are about to start their own chicken-and-egg business, with the help of a grant from the Hilton Fund for Sisters. CIS asked me if I would be involved - the presence of a Sister in the program is a requirement - and I jumped at the chance to experience the beginnings and growth of a community micro-enterprise.

I surely wasn't there as a poultry expert! I learned a lot in a few hours: the women will be buying about 1000 young hens (they cost about $9 each) and those young hens will lay like crazy - an egg a day is the expectation - for about a year. Then they start slowing down (understandably) and it begins to cost more to feed them than than be recouped in egg production: then it's time to sell the hens for the cooking pot, get new youngsters, and start the cycle again. This is NOT a romantic business!

But it seems to be a very possible good business for the eight women who are the initial group. There are no egg producers nearby, so they should have a good chance to become the main egg source for their area. According to the women, Cabañas is a fairly poor district, with little economic opportunity. They hope that their enterprise will lead to others and to more at-home possibilities for women and families. They've taken courses in poultry raising, they've found land they can lease for minimal cost, and they're ready to go.

Meanwhile, they fed us lunch: would we like an avocado and a tortilla? they said, but what came out to the table was sopa de gallina india, (country hen soup) the afterlife of one of the local chickens that pecks around the yard - not one of their special laying hens, those haven't yet been purchased. Sopa de gallina india should be the national dish of El Salvador, next to the pupusas. It's delicious, full of fresh vegetables, and always served with the grilled gallina on the side. A true gallina india doesn't have a lot of flesh, and that flesh is tough - but delicious. This sopa was a good promise of futures to come from this venture and from these women.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fuente Ovejuna

For about a year now ES Artes, a collaboration between the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival and Suchitoto, has been training young Salvadorans in theater arts with workshops in acting, directing, stage management, costume design, scene design, dance, music, sound and light. In the last two weeks, they triumphantly presented the Lope de Vega play, Fuente Ovejuna, in which a poor village unites to defeat a brutal commandant.

The play was presented in the patio of ES Artes' traditional Suchitoto house, with the audience sitting on one side, a couple of raised wooden stages, and an intricate piece of carpentry that transformed from a well or pila into a throne for Queen Isabella. The fluid staging used the doors all around the patio - Shakespeare would have loved the effect.

What was most amazing and impressive was to see these young Suchitotense - many of them people I've seen often around the town - performing with enormous talent, great presence and obvious joy. Lope de Vega's story is a powerful one for Salvadorans, who've had their own experience of military brutality and know first hand the need for communities to unite - it was easy to hear the echoes.

It's been too long since I've been in a live theater production, and it was a joy to feel the energy created, channeled and expressed by the cast. Thanks, ES Artes, for a memorable evening!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hospital Bloom

Last week I drove Sandra, her grandmother and her uncle to a 6 AM appointment at Hospital Bloom, El Salvador's public pediatric hospital. In order to do that, I had to get up at 3:30 AM, meet Sandra and family at 5:00 in Ciudad Arce (they live in the municipality of San Juan Opico, but Ciudad Arce is closer to their very remote home in the hills). They were probably up even earlier to walk down long rough roads in the dark, but they were there on time, and we set off for the capital.

I'd already discovered that invariably appointments at Bloom are set for 6 AM, but I couldn't figure it out - surely the doctors didn't start their clinics that early? By 6 AM I'd found a parking place and we lined up outside the hospital, a commanding multi-story building, with a lot of other parents and children, a woman selling atole (a hot corn drink) and a clown selling balloons. The guard checked Sandra's appointment and let us in. We went down the hall, found the ophthalmology clinic, and sat down. And after quite a while we noticed that a long line was forming in front of the desk outside the clinic - ah yes, no one told us about that part of the ritual. I have to confess that we jumped the line - we really had been among the very first to enter the hospital, and it didn't seem fair to have to go to the very end. It may have helped that I was a gringa, because the secretary let us turn over Sandra's hospital card and appointment. And then we waited some more and after another time that seemed longer than it really was, the clinic secretary got us all lined up in chairs according to arrival time. An orderly procession had been created. This not-very-good photo gives some sense of the feeling of the corridor, full of mothers and some fathers, each tenderly carrying or watching over their child.

It was about 7:30 when we finally got in to see Dr. Dominguez, who checked Sandra's eyes (she has congenital cataracts), scheduled her for pre-tests and surgery, and told me the size of the interocular lens she will need. But those lenses won't be provided by Hospital Bloom, nor will the heart valve needed by Richard, a little boy we met in San Rafael Cedros. Unless the families can raise the money to buy the lenses, or heart valves, or tests that the hospital doesn't perform, or medications that the hospital pharmacy doesn't have in stock, health care gets stopped in its tracks.

This isn't the fault of the staff at Hospital Bloom or at any of the other hospitals. It happens because El Salvador is a poor country and in a poor country's health care system the extras - interocular lenses, heart valve replacements, expensive medications - just don't happen unless someone steps in to help. The children who can profit from ordinary care do well in this system - El Salvador has a good record of pre-natal care, vaccinations, and treatment of normal childhood diseases. And if the lenses or heart valves or medications can be purchased, all the surgery and hospital care and follow-up appointments are completely free. In El Salvador, the cost of health care is relatively inexpensive - doctors and nurses are not paid much at all by U.S. standards - but the cost of 1st world technology is prohibitive.

Children with costly or complicated illnesses are often, in effect, triaged out. Sandra and Richard who needs a heart valve replacement and Gema who needs medication Bloom doesn't carry are lucky to have encountered one of our PeaceHealth mission teams and found sponsors. But for too many children here and in every poor country in the world, the miracles of health care that we take for granted and see as any child's right in the United States are simply too costly and not available.