The Savior, Part 2: The Dream

continued from January 28 blog post, The Savior, Part 1: Breaking

Jesuit Volunteer (JV) program, Belize City, Belize, September 1994

Sister Eileen is my boss, the founder and director of the Lay Minsters Program for the Catholic Diocese of Belize. We don’t know each other well. I can count on two hands the number of weeks we have worked together, on one hand the number of parishes we have visited. To me, most of the fifty or so lay ministers around the country are names in a ledger. Some are photographs from Sister Eileen’s albums of the group’s annual retreats. To me–less than two months in the country–only a handful are real human beings who have invited us into their homes, attended one our trainings, or popped into the office at the back of a dark parish hall to check out the new space or say hello and offer their support to the American volunteer. While the other JVs teach high school and junior college classes and develop friendships with colleagues, I spend my days alone, reading the lay ministry curriculum, studying photographs of people I hope will one day be my community, organizing the office, and waiting for Sister Eileen to return from the States where she has gone to unravel the mystery of debilitating back pain that set in over the summer and has only gotten worse.

This isn’t what I envisioned. I miss my friends, my U-mates (so named because our dorm rooms sat along a u-shaped hall, two doubles, three singles, one bathroom at each tip of the hall, and somehow Dawn and I had one bathroom to ourselves while the five boys shared the other). I miss my Catholic Student Association amigas, Sunday evening student mass in the basement of Saint Paul’s Church, spaghetti dinners, making brownies in the student center kitchen, praying through final exams in the chapel. I miss my family, our goofy sense of humor, my nephews who ask me to draw smiley faces on their big toes, my Grandma China’s close hugs, my mom and dad. I don’t know how to be here yet.


In the dream a note written on blue paper greets me as I walk in the door of the Jesuit Volunteer house—my house for the next two years—in Belize City. Your mom called. You need to go home right away. The next moment I am walking off the plane into my mom’s arms at the El Paso airport. I expect her sit me down and tell me that one of my grandparents or siblings is gravely ill. But there is no announcement, no let’s talk before we drive home. Instead she asks if I’m hungry. We drive back to Deming, nearly two hours (the speed limit is still 55, even in my dream) of small talk about her classroom, painting the house, the new priest and how my grandma still doesn’t like him because he only ever talks to her about me and that’s because I went to Harvard. Finally, as we pass the newly expanded golf course with its thirsty grass and turn into our neighborhood, I ask, “Mom, what happened?”

“What do you mean, mi’ja?”

“Why am I here? Is there an emergency or something?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. You just sounded so sad when we talked to you, I thought you should come home.”

I tell her that I need to go back to Belize. I’m not finished. I haven’t done what I was supposed to do.


I wake to the same shapes, sounds, and colors I’ve grown used to in Belize: pre-dawn light on the wood walls of my bedroom, hammock hanging still from a hook in the corner, clock reading 5-something, journal from my night table, to my hand, to my lap where I write the dream and maybe something new for me in Belize. I don’t know what I am supposed to do here, but I know this is where I belong.

I don’t remember the rest of that day, only the phone call that night from Sister Eileen’s roommate. Sister Eileen’s back pain is Multiple Myeloma. I know without being told that it’s advanced, that Sister Eileen won’t be back, that the cancer will kill her and quickly, but not quickly enough to spare her pain. I know that in an instant I have gone from Assistant to Director of a program I know little about in a country that is not mine. And though I want to run, I stay because I know, at least for now, this is where I belong.

Published in: on February 3, 2015 at 2:09 pm  Comments (4)  
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In Search of the Star

Christmas Eve we were returning from posole and tamales at my in-laws’ home, carne adovada and plática at our friends’ annual open house, and hot chocolate and luminarias in Old Town. One block north of our street, Henry slowed the car to flashing lights, an ambulance, police cars, a news van parked just beyond the police perimeter. When we reached home, our 8-year-old neighbor called out to P and ran across the street, a ritual she performs anytime both girls are home and awake.

“Thank you for my present. I’ll bring yours tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to do that, honey,” I said. “We just wanted to get you a little something.” I wanted her to talk about the watercolor paints and paper I’d wrapped and sent across the street with P earlier in the day. I wanted her to talk about her baby niece or getting her tooth pulled the week before, anything but the blue-red-blue-red lights behind her house. She is the eyes and ears of Atrisco, an inquisitive girl living in a family compound of older sisters, grandparents, mom, and visiting aunties who don’t always filter their conversations.

“They found a girl,” she said.

I remember my own 8- and 10- and 16-year-old self, growing up in a place where the police blotter was read on the local radio station, where the crimes were property damage or driving on an expired license. Our small town seemed impervious to murder, to robbery, to the shootings and stabbings reported on KOAT Channel 7. I thought Albuquerque was the most dangerous place in the world. Back in Deming the brown kids were shaped by the harsh tongue (and hand) of Sister Rosalie. In a town with one high school and one stoplight, everybody knows everybody else. If nothing else, fear of God and vergüenza kept us from mortal sin against our maker and our neighbors.

“That’s really horrible,” I said, standing next to P at our open gate, Henry and K already inside the house. “The police are still there. We don’t really know what happened yet.” It was Christmas Eve, Baby Jesus swaddled in the nativity manger, the white lights of our tree blinking through our living room window. P and I walked the girl back across the street, wishing her mom and grandma a Merry Christmas, not mentioning the red and blue glow still in view.

P and K changed into pjs while I set up the couch bed (as the kids call it) and Henry searched for news of the crime online. Police are investigating a homicide in southwest Albuquerque. A woman was found covered in blood. Blunt trauma. Puncture wounds. None of us mentioned the body again that night. Henry fell asleep next to the kids. I stuffed stockings and finished wrapping gifts, tasks made easier by living with children who’ve never really been into Santa Claus.

I thought of pre-school, my Christmas show at the Gingerbread House. I wore a red leotard and tights and a band of white tulle around my waist. I sat on Santa’s lap; he gave me the Cootie Bug game. I remembered Grandma Rosie’s tinsel tree on the bookshelf in her living room, her gas fireplace with the fake log that never blackened or diminished in size. I remembered all those Christmas Eves I scanned the night sky in search of the star that led the Magi and shepherds to baby Jesus. I thought of the family that found the body. I thought of the body, the woman, imagining her final moments. I thought of women’s bodies. In Juárez. On the mesa.

It was Christmas Eve.

Her name was Idali Reyes. She was 26. Two men were arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, and tampering with evidence. One drove. The other stabbed her. One said she accused him of owing her money. They dumped her body on the street, then burned their clothes. Police are looking for a third suspect.

I am thinking of children, what they know and what they don’t, what they say and what they keep to themselves. I am thinking of stories, those invented and those we only wish were make-believe. I am thinking of Bill Cosby, all the women. I believe them. I am thinking of my 8th grade art teacher. He coached my 7th grade basketball team and, like many coaches, insisted we dress up on days we had out of town games. I told him I didn’t like wearing skirts in the cold. He said, “Wear your wooly bra.” He never touched me, never hurt me. I was never alone with him. I was in college when he was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for child molestation. I hope the children he harmed told someone. I hope they were believed. And even if they didn’t tell or they weren’t believed, I hope they know it wasn’t their fault. I hope they are healing, that the light in them feels stronger than the darkness. I hope they are well.

Healing, light, to be well. This is my wish for the 8-year-old across the street, for P and K, for our neighbors one block north, for those who have been harmed, for those doing the harming. For all of us.



Published in: on January 13, 2015 at 7:51 am  Comments (12)  
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Vessel will resume The People in Your Neighborhood next week.

ImageFelíz año, gente!

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. I tend to usher in change with my birthday or a new season. Early to bed in winter, remove clutter in spring, early to rise in summer, shed what no longer serves me in fall. This year is different. The final months of 2012 saw me not writing, not exercising, feeling sluggish, spending too much money, and not experiencing as much joy as I would have liked. After a whirlwind late fall which had me doing two plays at once, coordinating a major storytelling project for the Kellogg Foundation, traveling to Seoul with the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, and presenting at TEDxABQWomen, I wanted to hibernate until 2013.

But there were projects to finish, tamales to make, gifts to buy, and cookies to bake. K turned eight. Henry left corporate America for a job much closer to his heart. P starred in her first play, The Farolitos of Christmas by Rudolfo Anaya. She played Luz, a young girl from a northern New Mexico village whose father is off fighting in World War II. Her grandfather, Don Vicente, makes a promise to the Santo Niño de Atocha that he will cut the wood and light the luminarias on Christmas Eve for her father’s safe return. But Don Vicente is old and ill and cannot cut the wood, so it’s up to Luz to help her grandfather keep his promesa.

In the spirit of Luz, Don Vicente, and the farolitos, I’ve made a few promesas of my own. I’ll share them on the blog over the next few months. The first is to write, at least a bit, almost every day.

I realized during my slug period that I need buddies. I also realized that the book I started writing several years ago is not the book I am writing now. I don’t know what I am writing now.

Enter: buddies.

Buddy 1: I’ve handed the manuscript over to Henry. For the next month, he is my book brain. Whatever he says to do with the book, I will do. Henry is my best reader. He is honest. He respects me and my story. He is intuitive, a gifted writer, and one of the best communicators I know. It was his idea to write short stories after the fire, when I didn’t know how to find my way back to my voice. Chapter One is Chapter One because Henry said, “I think your book is really about this.” I used to know what my book was about. Now I kind of know, but I’m a little lost, and I need a trusted friend to help me find the path. We’ve already made a decision. I’m going to Texas.

Buddy 2: My mom and I are taking a trip. My grandfather was born in Dolores. His father was a coal miner. His mother’s family had a ranch. According to the Texas State Historical Association, “in 1983 Dolores had two cemeteries, an inactive mine, and a few houses.” The population is 1990 was twenty. I need to walk where my grandfather walked before he was my grandfather. I need to meet his sister Lute’s children and grandchildren in Laredo. I need to do this with my mom.

Buddy 3: Andrea Serrano turned me on to this site in the waning days of 2012. The concept is simple. Write 750 words a day. The website keeps track and scores points each time you log 750 words. If you write several days in a row, you get even more points! I’m on an 8-day streak and have racked up more than 30 points.

Buddy 4: 13 in 2013 for Writers is a challenge issued by Ryan Henry, a writer from Brownsville. Writers who sign on “commit to writing a minimum of 13 minutes every day during cycles–no excuses. Every day. No doubling up on another day to make up for a missed day.” We rest the 13th and the 26th (multiples of 13) of each month. We track our progress on the group’s Facebook page. So far I’ve drafted two poems for my reading at Sunday Chatter on January 13 and written a scene for one of those short stories I started writing all those years ago.

I have to admit, there’s a voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t need crutches. I should write 750 words with or without points. I shouldn’t need a support group to churn out my “Ode to Tamales.” The woman who started writing that memoir didn’t need buddies. She had a quiet apartment in Oaxaca. Her work was supported by a Fulbright. She was a grad student with a writing mentor who read and critiqued her work on a monthly basis. She taught writing workshops for women, and those women became her community. Come to think of it, she did have buddies. She called them friends, teachers, a grant. I love that woman. She is still here inside me, telling me to do whatever it takes to write.

Next Week: When This Man Was Well: Bobby

Published in: on January 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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