Category Archives: Happiness

A Gift for Marisela

 

Almost from my first visit as a member of WPF, Marisela has been part of my Nicaragua experience.  Her Cuallitlan Hotel in Esteli is one of the most charming and unique places of rest I have ever encountered, a direct reflection of its owner and the artistic genius that she has brought to its development.  We choose to stay there whenever our agenda allows it.  It’s like stepping into an enchanted forest, with small cottages and lush greenery accenting the trees and exotic animals found there.  Over the past 13 years I have teased Marisela by proclaiming that her lodging is my favorite hotel in all the world.  The claim invariably brings a blush to her face and an exclamation of “oh my God!” to her lips.  She is humble about her achievement with Cuallitlan but appreciative of her guests’ enjoyment.  As she says, “I have made this place my home and I love to invite people in to visit.”  But sadly, no more.

Last week, during our first visit to Cuallitlan in more than a year, Marisela uncharacteristically met us with great weeping.  With her trademark welcoming hug, and through her tears, she exclaimed, “I thought that I would never see you again!”  We protested: even if there had been many months since our last visit, there would always be more to come.  But she punctured that hope by explaining that health reasons were forcing her to sell the hotel.  This oasis which she birthed, nurtured and held close to her heart for so many years, had to be sold for her own well-being.  As it broke her heart to say it, the news was also a heartbreak to hear.  For Marisela is Cuallitlan.  And much more.

In an age long before women had much of a platform on which to claim equality- and especially in Nicaragua, which is to this day still full of machismo attitudes- Marisela blazed her own trails.  While raising her three children, she inherited and managed a sawmill as the only woman in the entire organization.  And once the men began to test her strength and resolve by sabotage and deceit, she met their challenge by dismissing all but one of them.  The resulting legal claims filed by the men were addressed and defeated one at a time.  So much for strength and resolve.

There are remnants of those sawmill days within the hotel grounds;  an enormous cross-section of a tree serves as a table top in the central reception area.  Hand saws and blocks of exotic wood adorn the grounds.  But it’s the hotel that has absorbed the creative talents of this high-energy hostess.  Every vestige of the inn carries a reflection of its owner, from the bath towels folded into animal shapes to the signs of wise and witty sayings that dot the premises.  Marisela has brought unique meaning to the term “destination hotel,” for there is more to see and appreciate than a single night’s visit could ever afford.  

But for me, it was always about reception.  When I first visited the hotel in 2006, I was an anxious newcomer to Nicaragua.  I did not speak Spanish, I carried with me into the country the appropriate guilt of a North American  and I had little idea about the role I might play in coming to this destination.  Everything was new, and all of it held  potential for an awkward loss of confidence.  Perhaps it is difficult for some to imagine such uneasiness, but as one who carried serious intentions of representing the Foundation with familiarity, openness and equality, I saw each encounter as a moment for either connection or distancing.  Marisela ensured that at her home, there would be no chance of the latter.

Always the smile, her absolute joy at receiving her guests.  Always a hug, her recognition of past visits and moments shared.  Always an enthusiasm, her means of ensuring me that I was welcome there.  And even before she had ever met Katie or one of my daughters in later visits, always her inquiry about them, as though she had held a personal concern for their well-being since my last visit.  Marisela possesses the gifts of hospitality and warmth, the values of which eventually relaxed the trepidations of an aspiring Foundation worker  and affirmed for me the expectation of embrace wherever I traveled in the country.  Marisela opened the emotional and psychological doors for me one visit at a time.  And at each visit, I became further affirmed.

I doubt that Marisela acted in these ways with any grand psychological objective in mind.  I believe that she was simply being herself, someone whose personal joys are derived from giving of herself.  Indeed, when pressed about what she might seek to do after her days at Cuallitlan and attending to her own health, she says without definition or hesitation, “I want to help people.”  The notion is deeply embedded in her DNA.

We have promised to remain in touch, to continue sharing photographs and family stories and such stuff of which friendships are sustained.  She has already asked where my next visit to Nicaragua will take me, calculating out loud how long a drive might be required of her.

Future visits will not be quite the same, of course, without the oasis that is Cuallitlan.  But that’s OK.  For the essence of Cuallitlan lies in the heart of its creator, and not solely in its buildings and greenery.  Marisela bestowed a tremendous gift upon those who visited her, and none more than me.  In return, I can only render to her my profound appreciation, for the greens, the cottages and the warmth of her being.  And I hold great anticipation for whatever the next reception may be….                              

 

 

 

 

Falling In Love Again

I’ve been thinking about a blog post written by my colleague, Rene Mendoza, and posted here last month.  The title of Rene’s article was, “Can the Youth Fall in Love with the Countryside Again?”  It’s a provocative idea, in that the data suggests the Nicaraguan youth see little hope in remaining on the family farm, their conclusions relying on analyses of family farm economics as well as, ironically, their own education.  (My apologies, Rene, if I have over-simplified or simply missed their outlooks!)  Rene goes on to offer an alternative and hopeful conclusion, one that I’ll affirm here, though for different reasons.

I’ll first need to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.”  The independent producers in rural Nicaragua are, for the most part, extremely poor.  They have little margin for error in their production cycles, whether the difficulties are the result of natural calamity, market gyrations or corruption.  At best, farmers face incredibly difficult logistics: availability of crop inputs do not always coincide with available finances, most producers rely on mill services at other locations, the roads are often little more than unimproved paths, and transport of the harvest to  a reliable marketplace can be a game of chance.  So, yes, let’s acknowledge the very real and complex issues facing the grassroots producers.

Next, I guess I should recognize the “rhino in the room,” the seductive “siren call” of modern society.  Though rural Nicaraguans lead lives far-removed from the technologies and industries of large urban populations, they do not live in solitary confinement.  Televisions, smart phones and Internet access provide an all-too-clear depiction of conveniences and gadgets that are sleek and enticing enough to beckon even the most resistant young person, even those who are prone to remain in the countryside.  It’s a call that reaches nearly all youth these days, with amazements that have names like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Google.  The names even sound like a playground.

Then, there’s also the “hippo in the room,” that vast and universal gulf between one generation and the next, where the elders are seen as archaic and the youth as inexperienced children.  Although Nicaraguans do not have an exclusive monopoly on this circumstance, they do endure the contextual reality of being called the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  That’s more than just a bad name, it’s a brand, and one that any new generation would not appreciate receiving from an older one.

So, locked in a small room with the beasts of the wild, is it realistic to really believe that the youth can fall in love with the countryside again?  I think the answer is yes, and for reasons that transcend the presence of the beasts which prowl there.  The beasts are capable of being tamed.  It’s part of the reason Winds of Peace and others are there, in the effort to at least tame the wild game.

The beasts are not immortal.  While their visits can be life-threatening and sometimes long, they can and do move on.  What’s required is the chance to eliminate their feeding grounds: despair, lack of education and a forgetfulness.

Our partners in Nicaragua have never lost hope.  Despite battles with natural disasters and man-made troubles and sometimes fickle and deceiving markets, some Nicaraguans are seemingly impervious to despair.  It’s a critical matter, because where despair is denied roots, hope grows, confidence takes hold and what was once old becomes new.

New.  It’s what seems to attract youth no matter what the context.  The next generation is always focused on charting a new way, their own way, and even if the way is remarkably similar to the way of their elders.  The education of the youth permits them to experience the countryside and its character in ways very different from their parents.  Education of the youth is the fundamental building block for the progress of the country; ability to read and write and conduct basic math are the keys to doors long-closed for many in rural Nicaragua.  But sometimes what the youth learn in class contradicts what they have experienced in the fields: the taskmaster of economics and the glamor of a technological revolution can quickly mask the solitude of the morning, the presence of neighbors, and the strength of community.  Economics might suggest that money is made by selling off components of life, by trading what is inside them for things that will never be truly part of them.  The Internet allows access to virtually everything that is fantasy and fact, but sometimes overlooking that which is really of value.  The education of the youth is the essential ingredient for their development, but only when  they are  taught within the context of all of life’s values.

The real hope for the youth falling in love with the countryside is perhaps not so much found in the technical and operational teachings derived from their education, nor in their search to separate themselves from the known; children eventually come to recognize the wisdom of their parents.   Maybe it’s as much dependent upon the youth remembering what it is that they have loved before, in the days when they climbed trees and fetched water and helped in the fields with family things.  Maybe it’s in the recollection of a history wherein basic dignities of life were worth a family’s struggle, and where human compassion and decency outweighed the heavy obligations of a competitive modern life.  Maybe it’s the discovery of liberation that comes from truth.

Can Nicaraguan youth fall in love with the countryside again?  Yep.  And maybe a good place to start would be for them to talk with those of us who actually search for a love of countryside ourselves, seeking capital in its non-financial forms, hoping to satisfy a longing for honest self-sufficiency, and to remember life in its most basic components….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Except For…

We’re finally into flat-out, full-bore, blossom-laden Spring in my part of the world!  We haven’t had any freezing temperatures for weeks now, the sun is high enough to quickly warm even the coolest mornings and every living thing is in motion.  I took a long run along the river over the weekend, just to listen and smell and hear the magnificence of Spring in northeastern Iowa.

The water is flowing freely right now, the beneficiary of snow melt and early rains.  The water is clear at the moment- no chemicals in the mix as yet-and not yet affected by the farm field runoff which still carries too much valuable soil and nutrient to the south.  The bubbling rapids are pristine and there is joy in the sight and sound of them; clean water is not only an essential, but a wonder for which to be grateful.  I am delighted by its language, except for the realization that its abundance is shrinking everywhere in the world.

Already, fields have been plowed and crops are being planted for a hoped-for bounty by Fall.  All around the area, the smell of lilac and pine are at their intoxicating peaks, crabapple and black locust permeate entire neighborhoods.  The essence is nearly transformative, lifting me on my run.  I am saturated with gratitude at the sweet scents of the earth, except for my memory of the smells of urban decay, both in the U.S. and abroad, which can quickly overpower the natural beauty of a Spring day.

I encountered five other runners and walkers on this day, each showing elation at the emergence from hibernation with smiles and greetings.  We are all in moments of leisure, blessed in a communion with the beauty of a Spring idyll.  I am glad, not only for myself, but for the experiences of my fellows, except for a sadness that so many others may never know this kind of moment.  Maybe their days will be filled with other joys, but I selfishly want them to feel this moment the way that I do.

I am amazed at my running.  For fifty years I have traversed wilderness and  street, winter freeze and summer swelters, from the Superior Trail to Budapest, Managua to Kyongju.  I have run for my own good, for a sense of accomplishment, to be healthy, and to spark creativity.  I’ve been blessed with good knees and strength, and I recognize every day what such activities have meant to my well-being.  And I find myself full of joy, except for the nagging realization that elsewhere, people conserve their energies for more practical tasks, such as survival.  The thought most often slows me down, even if my step remains light.  Wherever the journey leads, the contrasts are the same.

“Whether you are writing about anger, love, jealousy, desire, hate, it does not make a great difference whether you use a plowed field or a city alley, a garbage can or a rural dump, a city park or Quabbin Watershed Wilderness Area.  The great central human considerations may be found everywhere.”                                                                             -Joseph Langland, Poet

So I run on, in a delicate balance between the sublime and the disquiet, knowing that what I hear is not always heard, what I feel is not always felt, and the others I see are but a fortunate few of the many unseen.  Wherever I am, I run between the conflict of beauty and decay, health and hurt, confidence and despair, for we are whole except for where we hurt, helpless except for when we choose otherwise….

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All About You

We are bombarded with advertisements all the time, whether on television, radio, Internet or printed materials.  There’s nothing new about this at all, though the ingenuity used to invade our consciousness is sometimes surprising.  (I still maintain that the ads over urinals in public restrooms is arguably the most captive approach.)  But I’ve encountered a number of messages lately with the same refrain:  “It’s All About You.”  There’s the recurrent ad on the radio for a local bank which uses that line in its musical imprinting.  (As if banks these days are even conceivably “all about” their customers.)  One of my favorite retailers has begun to use the phrase in its website ads.  (In reality, it’s more about my purchases than about me, I’m quite sure.)  And it’s a message that makes me uneasy.

I understand the implication:  I’m worthy of the product being offered and the benefits that it will provide.  I must have worked hard in life and am entitled to the luxury-pleasure-convenience-status of the item being offered as a visible affirmation of my worth, one that others will see with admiration and maybe even jealousy, because they, too, are worth it.

It’s an easy trap for us consumers to fall into.  The latest versions of luxurious living and tempting toys are alluring, indeed.  Caribbean cruises on floating hotels and cars that drive and park themselves are nearly beyond imagination.  Even in the far reaches of Nicaragua, cell phone accessibility has become an increasingly commonplace wonder.  If some of the chronically poor peasants enjoy such technology, surely the rest of us are entitled to that and more; we must be entitled.

But the promise of “all about you” and the attendant requirement for acquiring more items in our lives is a misnomer for fulfillment, whatever our socioeconomic status.  Not only because shiny things become dulled in time, but also because they- and we- are all so temporary.  We don’t get to take any of our toys with us when we depart the planet, and they will come to the temporary ownership of someone else.  The cycle will continue indefinitely and we will have been owners for only a second in time, nothing more.  We are only stewards of things, whether they be greater or fewer than others, but they are never truly a part of us.

 

In reality, it’s not all about me.  It’s hardly about me or any of us at all. (I was even reminded of that recently in church, sometimes not a bad place for new perspectives.  See the message from January 25.)   Each of us is but one seven billionth of the planet; a mere one one hundred and eight billionth of human history.  Clearly, it cannot be about you or me; we are not that unique.  So it must be about something else, a perspective that makes the center of attention somewhere other than ourselves.  If not me, if not you, then our focus must be on “the others,” the marginalized among us who need and deserve our consideration.

Yet the more I consider the notion, an unexpected reversal of thinking occurs to me.  Maybe it is all about me.  Not in the sense of the receiving and entitlement, but in the giving and opportunity.  Maybe it truly is about each of us individually taking ownership, not of our things but of our stewardship.  Maybe instead of competing in the marketplace for the most goods, our competition ought to be seen in divesting ourselves of the incredible wealth we have accumulated during our lives of privilege.  Is it possible that the hallmark of success could be measured by the number of lives touched, the number of hungry fed, the number of homeless sheltered?  For we do lead lives of great privilege in contrast to most of the other humans on earth, present and past alike.  How even those kings and emperors of antiquity would be astounded at the lifestyles most of us live!

I received a product ordered online the other day, another manifestation of my own consumerism.  It arrived in a carton marked, “Happiness delivered.”  I was immediately struck by the presumption that the product delivered would make me happy, and that I never even had to leave the comfort of my home to achieve such joy.  The presumption was yet one more attempt to equate a purchase with personal and lasting fulfillment.  In reality, the item was one that, yes, I felt (right or wrong) that I needed, but it did not make me happy. That emotion has to come from somewhere else, somewhere from within.  And that is all about me, and my relationship to other human beings.

I am informed in my thinking by Native American perspectives on the idea of ownership, not only the impossibility of owning individual lands but of things, as well: ““It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome… Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving… The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have—to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.” (Charles Alexander Eastman, Santee Dakota Physician, 1858-1939.)

I’m not an ascetic and thus cannot call others to such a lifestyle.  But I recognize, like Native Americans long before me, that what we have- whether in material, opportunity, education, energy or aspiration- is never owned by us.   Rather, any of these are gifts to be shared in the best ways that we can, part of a collective competition of largesse, and our lives are truly about discerning how to do just that….