Friday, January 14, 2011

A Very Special Day for a Very Special Boy: January 11, 2011

Yesterday night, I returned to read bedtime stories in Maternal (the section of the Casa for the littlest kids) for the first time in 2011. I brought with me a stack of new books, which we purchased in the US over winter vacation with money given to us as Christmas gifts from relatives for that purpose. Among them were some Eric Carle books in Spanish (great illustrations!), a few bilingual books--one in particular I love about two girls, one who speaks only English and the other, only Spanish and how they become friends one day when they go to the park with their moms. The kids seemed delighted to get back in their routine of looking at books before going to bed and being read a bedtime story before saying their nighttime prayers and falling asleep. I was delighted to be back with them too.

Two days ago, one of the Casa staff told me that it was G’s birthday. G is a boy who has cerebral palsy. He is not able to speak, although he is able to communicate his emotions and signal “yes” and “no”. He utilizes a wheelchair to get around and has limited control of his arms and legs. He is cared for by Casa staff members at all times. They feed him, transport him, clean him, and love him, lots. G was dropped off at the Casa gates as a frail baby. He was not expected to live past childhood. Two days ago marked his 18th birthday. 
G sleeps in Maternal with the little ones because of his need for continual care. The woman who works in Maternal on the overnight shift (who is there when I read and is my tag-teamer for the bedtime story routine) told me about G’s birthday. She said that because they do not know his actual day of birth, they celebrate the day that he arrived at the Casa. She was one of the first workers who held his frail, tiny self in her arms. The thought of that amazed me. “That is why he loves me so much,” she commented with a smile, “and I love him too.” That love is evident. She recently took him with her to her house and cared for him over the winter vacation. 

When she informed me of G’s birthday, I told her that I would think of something special to do for him when I went to Maternal to read the next day. I asked Pete if he would come with me and play Las Mañanitas (the Mexican birthday song) before I read the bedtime story. Pete did that. The sight and sound of Pete playing the trumpet, the kids singing, and G shrieking for joy pushed me to the brink of tears. 

Each time I go to Maternal, this girl reads to G.

PS--I wanted to share with you the video of the kids singing and Pete playing for G; however, with the relatively weak internet connection here, it has been difficult to upload such a large file. I will try and post it either on my blog or facebook at some point so you can see this special video. 

Temazcal: December 2010

Pete and I have been invited on various occasions to accompany the Casa’s choir to their performances. Therefore, when we were invited to the Temazcal, we thought that was the name of the place where the choir was going to sing. It turned out that this choir trip was quite different from the others. 
Temazcal is an ancient Mayan tradition; a spiritual practice. It refers to both the ritual and the location in which it is performed. We were told by the people who led the Temazcal that centuries ago, Mayan people had Temazcales as part of their homes. They were places to engage in spiritual practices, meet as a community, resolve problems. This Temazcal was located about a 20-minute drive outside of Colima. The choir teacher picked up kids at their houses, as he often does before and after choir events. There were twelve kids or so, ages 9-15, and four adults--a Casa staff member, the choir teacher, Pete, and myself. We drove out of the city, through the open farmland, toward the two majestic volcanoes: Nieve y Fuego. We arrived at the Temazcal site, walked up a hill, and were suddenly in a lush, green, cool environment. We saw people working on the land and others standing around and chatting. A middle-aged woman greeted us all with a warm hug and said something about how beautiful or precious each one of us was. We were given a tour of the land by a little boy, the grandson of the woman who had greeted us. He led us through a castle-like structure that sat on the property. It was a mystical place to say the least. The people who were involved in the Temazcal were part of a group called Guerreros de la Luz, Warriors of the Light, which gathered together regularly for various activities, such as Temazcal, weekly meditation, and projects to care for the earth. They ended up inviting the Casa choir to a cookout and Christmas party the week following the Temazcal, at which they presented the kids with individual gifts and staple food donations for the Casa. 

Before beginning the Temazcal ritual, one of the men, led us all in breathing and visualizing exercises. This gentleman later told Pete and me that he was of Mayan descent and was taught Mayan spiritual practices by his grandparents. He taught us to breathe deeply in a way that we would need to do inside the hot, steam-filled Temazcal
After those exercises, the majority of children changed into bathing suits or clothing that could get wet, we drank an herbal tea, and prepared to enter the space. I did not wear a bathing suit. I wore a white shirt and white skirt. One thing I was told before the trip was that wearing white was recommended to absorb maximum energy from the experience. 

Before we entered the Temazcal, we greeted the four cardinal directions as well as the earth and the sky, gave thanks to them, and sounded a chorus of instruments: conch shells, whistles, maracas, and other percussive instruments. After that, we each greeted the abuelitas piedras, the grandmother rocks that were being heated in the large, oblong, stone oven. We offered a prayer of thanksgiving and threw a handful of seeds into the burning fire that heated the rocks. 

Following that, it was time to enter the Temazcal. We entered one by one, walking around the circle clockwise until we reached the closest empty space on the stone bench that lined the wall of the Temazcal. With 16 or so people in our group plus the other people there who were part of Guerreros de la Luz, the space was tight and some people were sitting on the floor. A bottle of honey was passed around the circle and we were welcomed to rub it on our bodies. Supposedly, it was good for the skin, especially when one sweats. One by one, one of the group’s leaders shoveled the large rocks, still shimmering red with heat, straight from the fire into the pit area in the center of the Temazcal. Each time he tossed one in, we applauded loudly and welcomed the abuelita piedra into the space. Once all of the abuelita piedras were inside the Temazcal, we began the ceremony, led by the woman who had initially greeted us upon our arrival. She was married to the gentleman who manned the fire and tossed the rocks into the Temazcal. She sat on a stool with a bucket of water in front of her and dipped a bouquet of herbal plant branches into the bucket. That act made the steam begin to rise from the rocks and fill the dome-shaped space. The  entryway was covered, so the Temazcal began to fill with heat, steam, and the smell of herbs. Our leader would occasionally dip the herb branches in the bucket of water and sling water around the inner walls of the Temazcal and on us.

The Temzacal ritual had four parts, between which we exited and re-entered the space.  During each part, we would go around the circle and share something related to the topic. The first round was the Presentation round; the second, the Love round; then, the Forgiveness round; and finally, the Gratitude round. After each participant shared his or her statement about the given topic, the group would clap and usually shout, “¡Que así sea!”  Roughly translated: “That it be so!” When you’re in a steamy, hot, dark, space sharing and hearing personal information about others, shouting and clapping together, it does become an energy-charged experience. 
Three hours or so later, once the entire ritual was complete, we changed into dry clothes and shared a hearty meal together; a vegetarian meal--I enjoyed soy burgers for the first time since being in Mexico. We also savored some delicious homemade agua, which had the consistency of juice rather than water; a freshly squeezed potpourri of orange, guava, and a variety of other delicious tropical fruits. 
After the kids played for a while on the tire swing and we shared parting hugs and kisses with our hosts, we were on our way back to Colima. The ride back was unusually quiet. The kids were exhausted. The adults were too. Upon arriving at home, Pete fell into bed. While the experience was rejuvenating and I felt very energized and positive the next day, I was very tired that night following such an emotionally and physically intense experience. 
I was impressed by how the children responded to the whole experience. It was deeply personal and many of the kids felt comfortable sharing about themselves--their desires for forgiveness or hopes for love in their lives and the world. They were respectful toward one another, a phenomenon that I have noticed at the Casa in general between the kids when it comes to supporting each other through personal challenges and struggles. They were also respectful towards the ritual of the Temazcal. They took it seriously and participated. The choir teacher was very glad to be able to share this aspect of his life, which is very important to him and his personal growth, with ‘his children’. He considers the choir members to be his children and loves them. I was honored to be invited to share in such an experience, to learn about and participate in an ancient Mayan practice. Being a deeply spiritual person myself, having the opportunity to engage in this spiritual ritual had special significance for me. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ella: December 2010

For the month of December, you may have noticed that I did not write as many blog posts. This is partially because December was one of the busier months at the Casa and I didn’t have as much free time to sit and write. This is also partially due to the fact that we foster parented a dog for the last month and I didn’t have as much mental space to collect my thoughts and write. We served as a casa puente (literally: bridge house) for Elektra (the name she came with)/Ella (the name we called her). Ella was a medium-size, cinnamon-colored dog, who could be very tranquil and affectionate when she was with people, especially Pete and me, as well as very anxious and loud when she was left alone or got startled. 
Ella came to us through an organization called Pro Derechos Animales, a local animal rights organization that promotes adoption and sterilization, both fairly uncommon phenomena when it comes to animals around here. I am finding myself to be more and more of an animal lover as I get older, and was happy to see that such an organization existed in town. One Sunday, Pete and I went to one of the organization’s adoption fairs, held at a nearby park. We took one of the girls from the Casa, a ten year old who loves animals and wants to work as a veterinarian when she grows up. We really like this girl (in fact, she is the one for whom I was the tooth fairy/ratoncito) and she is at the Casa every Sunday, so it was a special outing to go to this adoption fair with her. At the fair, I spoke with one of the volunteers about serving as a casa puente. Such homes are necessary because this organization has no facility to house the animals between the time they are found or rescued and the time they are adopted. The volunteer told me that they were certainly in need of casas puentes and took my contact info. 
Pete and I thought foster parenting dogs while in Colima would be an interesting and desirable thing to do for a few reasons. First of all, we want to have our own dog at some point, but this doesn’t seem to be the ideal time to permanently take on a dog, given our transient lifestyle right now. Secondly, we would not be leaving the dog alone for long periods of time. This year, we are around the house, or back and forth between “work” and “home” more than we typically are in the US. Thirdly, our house here has a nice back patio area for a dog to roam and play in and even has a built-in caged in area. Finally, connecting with this organization was another way to serve in Colima and get to know the community better. When running the idea of having an animal past the Director of the Casa, we learned that her compassion to care for God’s creatures extends beyond the human species. She is very supportive of caring for all aspects of nature, including animals, and has four dogs and several birds in her own home.  
The day after the adoption fair, a member of Pro Derechos Animales e-mailed me about Elektra--a dog who was not adopted at the fair and had to be taken to the pound (apparently not such a great place for a dog here.) Pete and I decided to give it a go and on Thursday of that week, Elektra arrived at our house. She was immediately warm and affectionate to us, as well as curious about her new surroundings.
The next few days with Ella were delightful. She loved to be with us. She loved to go on walks. She was gentle with the kids at the Casa. We didn’t even hear her bark for the first two or three days. She did cry/whimper, however. When Pete and I left her in the back patio, she would cry, and when we arrived home again, she would jump and run around in elation. We attributed her extreme reaction when we left her to her fearing that we were going to abandon her. When we returned, she was overjoyed by the fact that we had not done so. 

Just as we were feeling like Ella was a ‘perfect fit’ of a dog for us, she did something that shifted our perception of her significantly. One morning, we left her in the back patio to teach our morning English classes. When I returned to the house, I was shocked to find her inside, peeking through the front window! How did she get inside?! I surveyed the house and found the curtain on the front door was ripped and half of it was on the floor. The curtain in my bedroom was knocked down. Some of my jewelry that was on my dresser was on the floor. To top it all off, two pieces of glass from one of the back windows were on the ground, broken. Thankfully she wasn’t hurt and the window wasn’t permanently damaged. That is how she had gotten in! Ella was so anxious that she broke into the house to try to find us and she was smart enough to figure out how to do it. That’s what we thought was going through her head, at least. 
This raised a huge red flag for us about the severity of her moods. I contacted the organization that brought her to report about what had happened. We also had the maintenance person at the Casa come and fix the door of the cage built into the back patio (as well as the broken window.) We had no choice, we’d have to lock her in when we left her. Oftentimes, we would bring her to the Casa with us, but always on a leash because we did not know if she would run away; also, she was not yet spayed and a male dog lived at the Casa. 
Over the course of the few weeks that she was with us, her moods did not improve significantly. We brought her to the Casa with us often. She was generally still good with kids and they liked her. If they saw us without Ella they would say “¿y Ella?” asking where she was, just as they do when they see one of us without the other (¿y Pete? ¿y Meli?) Ella was a part of our Pete & Melissa unit. 

However, her inappropriate behaviors continued. There were a few occasions when Ella barked at kids and adults. One time, I attached her to her leash when she was with us in the library. A few seconds later, I heard a grinding sound. What could that be? I looked down and saw Ella gnawing on her leash. It was now held together only by a thread and it later broke when we took her on a walk and she suddenly bolted after two dogs who were walking with their owner across the street. 
Shortly after that occasion, we set a date for Ella to go. Pro Derechos Animales planned to take her to an adoption fair, where we hoped she would get adopted. She needed to find a permanent home with folks who could dedicate lots of time and energy to her--training her and building her confidence so that her erratic, anxious behavior would hopefully diminish. 
Despite some of the craziness we experienced with Ella, we enjoyed many good moments with her and learned a lot about what it takes to care for a dog. The kids shared some fun-loving times with her as well. We also learned that having a dog is a commitment we look forward to taking on, but a little farther down the road... 

Enjoy some of the pics of our good times with Ella.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Life, Death, and the Day-to-Day: November 30, 2010

Tonight, in our Casa Verde, life, death, and the day-to-day all converged at one point in time, as we commemorated, celebrated, and practiced each of these milestones simultaneously.
On Sunday, we learned of the death of a baby, just four days old, who was the son of two of Pete’s friends. This touched our hearts and we were deeply saddened for their loss; a life just begun.
On Monday, we learned of the death of a classmate of Pete’s from college, who died in a car accident on Thanksgiving morning. This also saddened us deeply for the loss of a life; a man so young and in his prime. 
Today, when we went to the store, I felt moved to buy to candles to light in their memory, so we did: two star-shaped candles, one red, one white.
Today, my friend from college turned 25 years old. I wished her ¡feliz cumpleaños! on facebook earlier today. My friend lives in the US but is of Mexican descent and is very connected to her culture and family here in México. Her birthday wish for me was that we drink a Victoria (beer) in her honor. Today at the store, we bought Victoria and a tequila con toronja (mixed drink of tequila and grapefruit soda) to celebrate her birthday. 
Tonight, in our Casa Verde, we lit the candles to commemorate the lives and passing of Emmett and Naeem. We toasted and drank to honor and celebrate Lorena’s 25 years of life. We also played our favorite game here: a Monopoly card game. We play this game almost every day, almost always multiple rounds. We first learned the game because it was given as a gift for the kids to play and we thought we would try to learn how to play it before teaching it to the kids. We found it so confusing the first few times we tried to play that we decided that it would most likely be too complex for the majority of the kids; not to mention that it would not work if cards turned up missing, which would likely happen soon after handing it over to the children. Once we finally grasped the purpose and strategies of the game, we were hooked. It is special to us because it is one activity that we do together--just the two of us. We understand it and enjoy it together often. It has become a part of our daily life, living in Mexico.  
I was struck by how we were celebrating life, commemorating death, and engaging in our daily practice all at once this evening. How symbolic? Doesn’t that say a lot about how life is? At any given time, it’s not all celebration, it’s not all pain, it’s not all monotony or routine. It’s a mixture of all of those things. I caught a glimpse of that truth in a very real way tonight. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Teaching Thanks-giving: November 25, 2010

As Pete and I were planning English classes for this week, we thought we would incorporate some teaching about Thanksgiving into the curriculum. Pete suggested that we find readings for our students about the holiday. I thought this was a good idea, as it would allow our students the opportunity to practice reading English, which we don’t have them do very often (especially since we do not follow a specific textbook or workbook.) Yesterday, I searched on the internet for easy-to-read (early elementary level) readings about Thanksgiving and was met with a challenge. Most of the readings were too difficult for our students’ English reading level. Most of them were also about the pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a big feast. I don’t quite buy into the story of Thanksgiving as it is often told and I didn’t feel it was worth my time or energy to explain the “traditional Thanksgiving story” and how it was problematic. That’s hard enough to explain to kids who have grown up celebrating Thanksgiving. These kids knew nothing about the holiday, so I came to the conclusion that I would just teach about the aspects of the holiday that are important to me: essentially, the idea of giving thanks, gathering with loved ones, and food! By the way, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so it is easy for me to transmit my enthusiasm about it to others. 
Per Pete’s suggestion, for my high school students yesterday evening, I decided to write a paragraph about the holiday on the board and have them write it down in their notebooks. We then took turns reading the sentences aloud. Here is what they wrote: 
“Thanksgiving is a holiday that is celebrated in the USA. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving is a celebration of the harvest season. People celebrate this holiday by gathering with their families and friends to eat a lot of food. Traditional Thanksgiving foods are turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. On this holiday, people give thanks for the blessings in their lives.”
At the end, I had them write, “I am thankful for: 1)...2)...3)...” and we each named three things that we’re thankful for. I led the same activity with my 4th and 5th graders this morning, although they wrote a simpler version of the paragraph above. 
Ultimately, giving thanks is the essence of Thanksgiving and that is what I ended up sharing with my students. 
Now for some personal reflections about what I am thankful for this year, at this moment. 
I am thankful that...
-we have purified water to drink. We recently discovered that we can buy the large 20 liter returnable jugs of water at the nearby corner store, which we put into our water dispenser for easy-access safe water. Before, we had been walking a few blocks away to Wal-Mart a few times a week to get 10 liter jugs of water. Now, our purified water lasts longer, the jugs are re-used, and we get to support the local corner store when buying water, rather than Wal-Mart. 
-my stomach has been healthy for a while. Following my two experiences with different versions of stomach illnesses during my first 3 weeks here, I have been relatively healthy, with my stomach and otherwise. Hallelujah!
-I am here with Pete. Pete is family. I cannot imagine living and serving at the Casa without Pete. The past two-and-a-half months have been so incredibly rich for each of us personally, and have allowed us to grow in our relationship as a couple. For one thing, we have time with one another, which is a huge blessing, especially after the crazy busy year we both experienced last year. The time we share this year is particularly special given that this is the year in which we are preparing to be married. Embarking on this experience of living and serving in a new environment together has allowed us many opportunities to see deeper into the way the other handles challenges, communicates across language and culture, and interacts with children of all ages; moreover, this experience gives us the chance to support each other through all of that. 
-we are able to live at the Casa “salary-free” for 8 months. Volunteering (at least in the way that we are) is a privilege that I realize not everyone is in the position to do. I am thankful for the window of opportunity in our lives to take time to do this and for the fact that we have minimal financial burdens, which also allows us to take advantage of this service opportunity. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Playing Pretend: November 11, 2010

Through working with kids regularly, my inner child gets to reveal itself at times--the part of me that loves fantasy, that loves pretending, that loves to be silly. I found that last year, when I was a teacher full-time and responsible for keeping my students “in line” for 6 hours straight, I was uptight pretty much the entire day at school. When I would get home, the inner child that really did enjoy fun came out, occasionally. I wasn’t the ideal teacher for my students last year in part because I hardly showed the fun, relaxed, real side of me to my students. I was too stressed out and under pressure all of the time. This year is pretty much the complete opposite. I get to show my whole, loving self to the kids, and I get to be that whole person with myself as well. That feels really good, a real relief. 
Two nights ago, one of my fifth-grade English students, a girl both Pete and I have become close to, approached me to tell me that she lost her tooth! I congratulated her and asked if she was going to put it under her pillow. She said that she was. Apparently, here it’s a ratoncito (little mouse) that comes and takes the tooth, rather than a fairy. One thing I love about this girl is her imagination. She’s 10 years old and has a great imagination. She enjoys playing with barbies and pretending her stuffed lion is a baby. Together, we’ve played other imaginary games with very few physical materials. I think I was a 10-year old like her. I encouraged her to put her tooth under her pillow and started secretly scheming how to be her tooth fairy (or ratoncito). 
The next morning, she was waiting outside of the library for me to arrive for English class. “The tooth is still there,” she told me. “Leave it there,” I responded, remembering that I needed to take care of that. “The tooth fairy/ratoncito can come during the daytime too,” I added. Around 5 pm that day, while she was at school and things were pretty quiet at the Casa, I snuck over and asked the Social Worker if I could get into the girls bedroom.  The Social Worker gave me the keys to the bedroom, and with the help of the girl’s older sister, I found her bed, where the tooth was laying on a little styrofoam plate next to her pillow. I took the plate and placed five pesos under her pillow. What do I do with this tooth?! I thought to myself. I quickly left the room, returned the keys, and took the tooth back home. Success! I wrapped the tooth in a little tissue and set it on my dresser. Maybe I’ll give it back to her when we leave in May. It will be ok then for her to discover my secret. 
Today in English class, she told me her tooth was gone. I gave her a thumbs up and a smile. “Do you believe the ratoncito exists?” she asked me. “I like to believe it does,” I responded.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Changing of the Seasons: November 5, 2010

The change of seasons has come to Colima! Starting yesterday morning, we could feel fall when we woke up. A cool breeze was blowing through the windows and I actually felt compelled to put on long sleeves in the morning. For someone who gets cold very easily in cool weather, it has been quite a change for me to not always be the cold one. The kids get chilly so easily because they’re used to such hot temperatures. They’ll often have on long sleeves or even a coat when I feel comfortable in short sleeves. Fall in the US (midwest and northeast) is my favorite season; I love the crisp air, the cool breeze, and the colorful, falling leaves. Although it still gets hot during the day here, in the mornings and evenings, I feel a taste of the fall I know and love, and I am so grateful for it. 
The changing seasons and cooler weather has brought an onslaught of dry, chapped lips. Yesterday at dinner, I sat with the youngest girls, who I love to sit and chat with over meals. One of them began to tell me how her lips hurt and then the rest chimed in and said theirs did too. I know how painful it is to have chapped lips and I love my Carmex, so I thought I would give them some that evening when I went to read stories to them. 
Now for a bit of a tangent, but one I’ve wanted to share about...
I have been reading bedtime stories to the littlest ones (in Maternal, a separate area of the Casa for the youngest kids,) twice a week. This is one of my favorite activities that I do here at the Casa. I love reading with kids and I love their excitement over books. The first two times that I went, I just took one or two books with me and then read them as they were lying in their beds or sitting on the floor listening. However, they kept asking me to hold and look through the books I brought, so I decided that I would take a bunch of books (20 or so) and give the kids time to look through the books, and for those who could read, read books to themselves and other kids. Then, after about 15 to 20 minutes of reading independently, (and I’ll also read one-on-one with kids during this time,) they’ll all get into their beds and I’ll read one last bedtime story. This has worked very well because they get a chance to read and handle books first and then they’re more ready to listen to the final story. They’ve loved The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein--so much so that they asked me to read it a second time last night. I highly recommend that book. Some have told me that they also liked The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, told from the Wolf’s perspective (he’s not such a bad guy after all...) During my bedtime story time, I’m also getting an idea of how some of them read, which gives me insight into whom I might be able to offer extra reading support to in the future.
Back to the chapped lips...
When I went to read bedtime stories, I took my little container of Carmex and a bunch of Q-tips. Right before they crawled into bed, I gave them Q-tips to spread the Carmex on their chapped lips. Word must have gotten out because today, another boy with super chapped lips asked me for some, so I gave it to him and other kids who happened to be around. I’m reminded that the small comforts, which I often have on hand and take for granted, can actually be quite important, especially if you are without them.