Category Archives: Personal Notes

The Giving Trees

With acknowledgement to author Shel Silverstein who gave us the classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, I use the title here to consider two “giving trees” which are  reaching an end of sharing their extraordinary gifts.  And while my musings here are premature- neither of the two are yet completely gone- I cannot help but reflect on their importance, their meaning and their impacts, not only upon me, but on the world in which live.

Northeastern Iowa, where I live, is home to many emblems of rugged survival.  The high river bluffs of the driftless region, the forest cover overlaying the limestone beds of ancient geologic formation, and the burr oak trees of those woodlands, all stand as watchmen against the march of time and evolution.  The oaks, in particular, with their gnarly limbs and diminutive acorns, are omnipresent here,  bookmarks of an earlier age, a time before settlements and agriculture and highways.  I have come to deeply admire them, for both their arboreal beauty as well as their symbolism of a time that was somehow better.

The oak at the north end of the college campus here has enjoyed its own history and prominence.  It has graced a hillside there since the very earliest days of the school, likely gaining no notice in its fledgling years as first a shoot and then little more than a sapling.  But as the burr oaks are wont to do, it  survived.  It  stood by as settlers migrated to this area to farm and as educators traveled here to teach and preach.  It withstood the winds and the winters of the Oneota Valley, and the inexorable march of settlement and development of the territory.  It became a visible boundary of the college, a sentinel to the people and histories that emerged from that place.  And it continued to grow.

Over time, the oak commanded attention, as an imposing tower at the north end.  A  building was built in its shadow.  A road passed under its limbs.  Students sat beneath it, considering the deepest questions of  our lives, while contemplating the directions of their own.   In more recent years, an entire native grass savannah and rain garden became cultivated around it, to show it off, call attention to its prairie heritage and to reclaim a piece of what once was: a prairie oak savannah.  It steadied us, was a visual touchstone to certainty and continuity, and embodied a needed constancy.

Last year, in the bloom of Spring, nearly half of the burr oak failed to leaf out.  Arborists attempted some treatments, but with no effect.  The tree was reaching the end of its service and accompaniment.  Last week, the tree was taken down.

There remains a wide space in the savannah where the tree’s umbrella once shielded deer and fox, birds and learners alike.  A stump remains for now, chronicling the 125 year life of what was a fixture of the prairie.  For now, I can still walk to the base and sit upon what remains.  The world may not notice its absence.  But I do.

Concurrent with the loss of a great tree is the impending departure of a colleague in Nicaragua.  Ligia Gutierrez will end her consulting role with Winds of Peace Foundation in March, not so much in retirement as in opening herself to the next possibilities in a world which she has so richly served already.

Ligia has served as consultant for Winds of Peace, particularly with regard to the circumstances of the Indigenous people of Nicaragua, as well as working with women’s groups in helping them to discover their collective and individual voices.  To state here that she will be missed is an absurdity, because it does not begin to tell the story of this remarkable individual.

She is a child of the revolution, a committed and activist member of the Sandinista vision of a country free of the dictatorship and inequality that had fouled the country’s circumstances for generations.  She is a psychologist by training, a philosopher in practice, a teacher of holistic and cooperative living that extends far beyond social norms and legal statutes.  Her work is defined by the closeness of the relationships she creates: she is a mother to the youth, an intimate friend to the women, a friendly-but-persistent agitator within a still-machismo culture, a persistent prospector for equal rights and respect, both within the law and within the heart.  For me personally, she has been a Nica mentor, providing context and perspective that has helped me better understand the history and culture in which the Foundation works.  She is a student of physical and spiritual health.  She is a friend.

Ligia is also the source of one of my greatest frustrations in my Nica experiences: I have never been able to speak with her without the voice of a translator.  We have never been able to exchange thoughts and ideas directly with one another, thereby greatly reducing the interactions which might have educated me in untold ways.  My regret over this is a palpable wound that does not heal.

Like the burr oak on the prairie, Ligia has given of herself over a lifetime of service to ideas and others beyond herself.  Though small in physical stature, she is a powerhouse.  She is one of those rare individuals of the universe, seeing both the complexity and the beauty of the whole and striving to manifest it.  That personality, that persona, is what draws the rest of us toward her, for our own sakes.

And like the burr oak, the seeds which she has planted- ideas, self-regard, respect, justice- will far outlive her active service.  Hers is a testament that branches across generations and shelters the hopes of those in need of wisdom and  love.  And like a strong oak suddenly gone, her absence will leave both a gaping space and a magnificent legacy.

The removal of the burr oak tree did not elicit notice even in the local newspaper.  Ligia’s retirement will not be the stuff of international news or perhaps even local notice.  Their respective “graduations” are but the latest examples of the ongoing stream of life.  But they are to be missed.  The beauty, the lessons, the lives that they modeled are gifts for which I will be always grateful….

 

 

Wondering

For several weeks I have been absent here, for a variety of reasons.  I wonder if anyone noticed.  Does it make any difference?

I have wondered about a lot of things.

I wonder why the 1% of the wealthiest people in the world feel compelled to have more.  What will they do with it?

I wonder why some people go to bed hungry while the U.S. alone wastes about 31% of its food each year, or 133 billion pounds of food.  Do Nicaraguan children throw food away?

I wonder how an elected official can be called a leader when he/she only represents a few wealthy citizens.  Can one actually lead a “force” of, say, 12 people?

I wonder if President Donald Trump realizes that the man in the Texas floods who helped to save an infant who had stopped breathing is an immigrant from Guatemala.  Does humanity have borders?

I wonder what the Earth will be like for my grandchildren when they reach my age.  Will they still be able to breathe the air and drink the water?  What will they use instead?

I wonder if there will ever be an end to poverty.  Is there a statute of limitations on servitude?  Who will free the marginalized?

I wonder why we think that teachers and social workers and the like are content to work for the love of the job and do not care about financial security.  Is teaching and caring for others really that unimportant to our economy?

I wonder what would happen if doctors and other caregivers decided to treat only those people who were part of a “special club” and had paid their dues to join.   Would that even be legal?  What if you couldn’t pay the dues?

I wonder why I do so many things that I ought not to do, and leave untended so many things that I ought to do.  Isn’t my intellect capable of informing me of what is essential?

I wonder who first posited that the poor seem to lead very happy lives despite their poverty.  Was it a wealthy person seeking to assuage his/her discomfort?  Is acceptance the same as happiness?

I wonder what would happen if men and women suddenly recognized what would happen in the world, if women were simply treated equally.  Is there a genetic trait for equity blindness?

I wonder if there will ever be a female U.S. president.  Are there too many men with money to allow that?  Why would any woman want to join in that game?

I wonder whether any member of the U.S. Cabinet has ever missed a meal or been denied health care or been homeless.  Would it make any difference in their policies?

Despite my lack of entries here over the past three weeks, it really has been a busy time, indeed….

Four Days in November

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us here in the United States, which means that we have moved into late November and early Winter.  It’s always a transition time, with the reds and golds of Autumn giving way to dormant brown and, eventually, snow white.  Lots of people don’t care for November here in the upper Midwest of the country, but I love it.  It’s another promise of change and of time moving on, hallmarks of getting out of the “comfort zone,”  and that’s a good place for us to be.  But this month has already presented a series of “moments” for me, three significant days in a row, even before the promise of turkey.

The first day of note was the U.S election.  To my knowledge, and certainly in my experience, there has never been a contest as coarse, demeaning, undignified and as utterly devoid of fact as the election of 2016.  Much has been written about the candidates’ behaviors by others (nearly everyone), but from the perspective of one rather ordinary citizen, I characterize the fiasco as an event which oozed disgrace and lack of civility at every turn.  If this is, in fact, democracy in action, then my own sensitivities suggest that we search for an alternative form of government altogether.

Yet the discouragement and even despair that I felt during this election season is ironically what made the second day of my November journey stand out so brightly.  On the  day following the election, I met with both the Managing Director and the Program Director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.  We convened to meet one another for the first time, to talk about some of the new aspirations for the Forum and to discuss a potential presentation by Winds of Peace at next year’s assembly.  The conversation was a stimulating and hopeful one.

I mean, how could it NOT have been, when elements of the discourse included the names of past laureates, the efforts being made around the world to convene peaceful resolution of conflict. Yes, members of the Tunisian Quartet, the 2015 recipients of the Peace Prize, would be in attendance.  President Obama has been invited, in addition to his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is among the faculty at peace and conflict resolution institute in Hawaii.  Congresswoman Gabby Giffords will be in attendance, with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.  And many others, less celebrated and completely anonymous, will be present over those days to talk about their own initiatives and experiences with peace-building.  Against the glow of enthusiasm and commitment of my hosts, a feeling of hope seemed to lift me a bit straighter in my chair.  I walked back to my car with a little more bounce in my step, I think.

On the third day of this sequence, I was to speak to a University of St. Thomas class about the work being done by the Foundation, and how it mirrors, in many ways, the strategies and attitudes brought into play in my former for-profit organization, Foldcraft Co.  I arrived on campus a little early, so I took advantage of the beautiful morning and walked around for a while, taking in the surroundings and feeling the promise that only a university campus can provide.  Quickly I noticed the scores of banners hung around every sidewalk and building, which read, “All for the common good.”  I was struck by the rightness and optimistic promise of that phrase and truly moved to see its presence everywhere.  It was an advent to the class experience to follow.

The presentation went well ( I was told).  The class participants were engaged and curious and full of outward excitement at ideas of organizational wealth-sharing, broad participation and transparency, collaborative work and rewards, and the practice of capitalism without distinction of class, the sanctity of human worth. The questions penetrated the essence of broad ownership and widespread involvement.  The students were intrigued and enthused.  I was pumped and energized.  Together, we had a good time.  After the class period, several students asked for my business card so that we might talk further about the marriage of business and social responsibility.  On this day, I did not notice a bounce in my step as I walked back to the car; I rather had the sense of floating

Within the span of three days, I experienced the lows and the highs that I know are inevitably a part of our human existence.  The outcome to all of it was simply this: I am reminded that the lows are to be found wherever we choose to see them.  There are enough to bring the entirety of mankind to its knees and complete dysfunction.  But just as assuredly, the highs are at least as numerous, and carry the potential to raise us above the mire of surrender.  It’s a matter of where one’s gaze seeks direction.  With heads down, we see the world as a dark place, indeed, and its paths lead to seemingly endless disappointment and loss.  But there is a great deal more to seen with heads up,  absorbing the brighter prospect, allowing us to see and draw strength from the hope that still does surround us.

All of which leads me to the fourth important day of this month, the one during which we are encouraged to be thankful for every blessing of our lives.  What a great idea, gratitude.  What a terrific posture for looking up, noticing the uplift that surrounds us, for acknowledging and embracing it, and for choosing to be the very engine for change, “all for the common good.”

Wow, Happy Thanksgiving, indeed….

 

 

A Little Bird Told Me

Sometimes, the way things happen leaves me breathless.

At the Certificate Program conducted in rural Nicaragua during the week of September 5, I prepared for two and one-half days of presentations on the topic of open book management.  I have a long history with the subject, having adopted an aggressive open book management initiative at Foldcraft Co. in the 1990’s and having spoken frequently on the topic, especially within the employee-ownership community.  This should have been familiar ground for me.

But sharing OBM experiences at Foldcraft is a lot different than trying to teach the essential components over the course of a few days, especially to an audience which has heard little of the concept previously, produces crops as opposed to commercial seating, has likely received limited  other education of any kind, and which does not speak or understand the English language.  I confess to experiencing reservations about my ability to effectively engage and teach.  Nerves, even.

I began Monday morning tentatively, feeling the group and measuring the level of its receptivity, as I always do.  But my audience quickly calmed me down.  I sensed their partnership in this learning event immediately, a feeling of collaboration that fed my own confidence and, in turn, their own.  We took off together in ways that presenters often dream about, with interest, enthusiasm and absorption mutually fueling our energy.

This rural Nicaraguan cohort proved to be among the most interested and receptive groups with whom I have ever worked!  I had quietly hoped for careful listening and signs of eagerness; what I experienced was rapt attention and ideas being internalized even as I spoke.  They exhibited a hunger, perhaps giving example to the notion that “there must be a hunger before food for thought can satisfy the need.”

By Tuesday, my sense was that our learning together was becoming something special, a collaboration which had begun to feed upon itself, elevating to not just a good session for conceptual learning, but a memorable event that might, in fact, hold transformative capacities.  I think we were all sensing it.  And then, a little bird told me that it was so.

I had just begun reciting the tale named, “The Snowflake.”  For the uninitiated, I reproduce it here:

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a tiny bird asked a wild dove.

“It is nothing but a crystal, so it is nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the tiny bird said.  “I sat on the branch of a fir tree, close to its trunk, when it began to snow.  Not heavily, not in a raging blizzard.  But just like in a dream, without a wind, without any violence.  Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch.  Their number was exactly 3,741,952.  When the 3,741,953rd flake dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing as you say, the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the tiny bird flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for change to come to the world.”

On Tuesday, I had no sooner uttered the words, “a tiny bird,” when a hummingbird suddenly flew into our meeting room through the open door and landed, stunned, upon the floor.  I stopped talking. The participants went silent, watching this little creature in wonder.  They looked from the bird to me, as if somehow I had orchestrated its arrival at that very moment for effect.  But I was as stunned as the hummingbird and, realizing that, the class erupted in utter amazement and joy.

Yeris, a beekeeper and friend of creatures great and small, scooped up the hummingbird, cradling it as though its arrival had been a most special gift.  It remained quite still in his open hands, as if willing to share the beauty and symbolism of its presence.  It was then gently escorted from the room, to be administered a few drops of sugar water in order to revive its energy for flight.  Yeris returned to the room with thumbs up, and within minutes the intrusion was complete.

Some in the room looked to each other to understand what had occurred.  Others bore enormous smiles in realization that they had just witnessed something rather incredible.  I noticed two in the group who appeared to wipe away tears.  My own heart was absolutely racing.  When I had sufficiently composed myself, I could only ask whether the group felt blessed in some way, to which there was universal assent.  Do you believe in messages?

“The Snowflake” was intended to be but a small contribution to the week’s lessons, albeit a powerful one.  Amidst days of workshop rigors, knowledge transfer and difficult exercises, the story occupied but a tiny fraction of our time.  But on occasion, those fractions can become like the weight of a snowflake, significant in their importance and memorable for reminding us what we are capable of knowing and feeling….

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365 and Counting

I was surprised a week or so ago to see that I had posted my 365th entry at this site.  ( I refuse to call them “blogs.”  I dislike the term and the way it sounds.)  That’s a full year’s worth of observations, reflections, ideas and opinions concerning just about anything.  Certainly, Nicaragua has been at the center of most of these musings, but the scope of the topics has been admittedly wide.  (It’s always been difficult for me to be very narrowly focused; that’s good for, say, getting dressed in a coordinated style, but more demanding for tying one’s shoes.)

I started writing here because a decade ago I began my staff work with Winds of Peace Foundation and became witness to circumstances in that country of which I had been previously unaware.  I deduced that these realities were likewise either unknown by most of us in the United States or, if known, then at least greatly under appreciated.  However limited my audience might be, I felt a call to describe matters of concern in Nicaragua, whether economic, cultural, social or educational in nature.  Particularly since we in the United States have permitted such intrusive and destructive actions by our government against the people of Nicaragua over decades of interference,  the recording of my own awakening and periodic reflections seemed like a worthwhile effort for “infecting” unsuspecting readers.

I have attempted here to present issues from Nicaragua as perceived through the eyes of someone who is likely representative of an average North American.  I have described poverty that is easy to read about but heartbreaking to experience.  I have recounted relationships- formed immediately and out of mutual desires to connect- that were as rewarding and precious as friendships in the U.S.  I have witnessed the love and respect shared between Nicaraguans and North Americans, overcoming the stereotypes and caricatures often presented by handmaiden media.  In short, my intention has been to bring elements of Nicaragua north, to shorten the distance between two countries, two ways of life, that are very different and yet much closer than we are willing to recognize.

At the same time, I know in my mind and heart that I have fallen very short of the objectives I have sought to achieve.  Like seeing the vast panorama of Nicaraguan mountains, punctuated by breathtakingly precipitous valleys, my words will never do justice to the realities at hand.  My own perceptions about Nicaragua and the people who live there are always filtered by my own life and bias and self-interest, even when I do not intend it.  My stories are no better than “Nica via Steve.”

But if for no other reason than my own need to write what I experience, for accentuation, I will continue to offer brief glimpses into this one small part of the world.  I’ll offer up pictures of people, just like you and me, who face the daily struggles of survival and, in the terminology of Maslow, self-actualization.  Maybe in another ten years time the contrasts will be less dramatic, the injustices less egregious, the disparities lessened through growing appreciation of our mutual obligations to one another.  And if these entries will have contributed anything at all to that, then the journaling will have been more than worthwhile.

Thanks for coming with me this far….

 

Mother’s Day Reflection, Redux

I’ve been thinking about my Mom this weekend.  She’s been gone for six years now, and I think about her often, but especially this weekend, as we in the U.S. celebrate all things motherhood.  I felt as though I wanted to say something in regard to that, and then realized I had already done so a couple of years ago in this very space.  So I offer it here again, because I know how much my mother meant to me, and I to her:

It’s nearly impossible to overlook Mother’s Day today.  In the U.S., stories on the news, on the Internet and incessant commercials on television have been constant reminders that we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our mothers and we’d better pay off a portion of that debt today!  Such reminders are frequently followed by suggestions of gifts to bestow on our moms, ranging from flowers to diamonds.  (Personally, I’m not sure what my own mother would have thought about receiving a diamond bracelet from me on Mother’s Day, although I suspect that she would not have accepted it.)

Mother’s Day is a world phenomenon, with versions of it having been observed for centuries.  Its United States version was created by presidential proclamation in 1914 and we’ve been buying greeting cards ever since.  In a sense, it’s too bad that we need a day to show gratitude to our moms.  In another sense, we’re grateful for the official day to remind us to do so.  If my Mom was still alive, she’d be hearing from me, as she always did.

Of course, motherhood is one of the undeniable, universal ties that binds us together, men and women alike.  Not all women become moms, and no dads (that I know of) have become moms, but we all have a mom and thus a shared experience.  As different as our cultures may be around the world, the connection with our moms is one of the great equalizers of humankind, transcending borders and customs alike.

I watched a news program last night, the final story of which had to do with Mother’s Day.   It featured an entire classroom of six year-olds engaged in the task of creating handmade Mother’s Day cards.  As adorable as the children were to watch, their sentiments were even more precious to hear.  Each recited thanks for a special gift from their mothers that made these  moms so wonderful.  “Thank you for getting me breakfast every day.”  “Thank you for letting me watch movies.”  “Thank you for cooking dinner.”  “Thank you for making lunch for me.”  “Thank you for loving me.”  And one little boy reflected on the fact that when thinking of his mom he thought of chocolate cake.

As I listened to this litany of gratitude from the hearts of little kids, it occurred to me that not all little boys and girls around the world would necessarily be thanking their moms for such blessings.  While Nicaragua will not celebrate Mother’s Day until the end of this month, the gratitudes expressed on that day are likely to be quite different from those heard on the news segment: breakfast, lunch, dinner and chocolate cakes are less frequent amenities in Nicaragua than they are in the U.S.   But while the specific thanks might be dissimilar between the countries, one thing is not.  The hopes and aspirations of the mothers are very much the same.

Nica moms love their kids,  have hopes for a better standard of living, aspire to see their children be able to read and become educated, pray that their young evolve into decent people, and envision lives for them that are free from the exhaustion and indignity of poverty.  I can imagine hundreds of mothers in Nigeria today whose visions for their children reach far deeper than breakfast, lunch and dinner.   As well as in Ukraine.  And Syria.  Motherhood in such places is not the same as in the United States.

If the dreams that are dreamed by Nica moms are the same longings as U.S. moms, the likelihoods for those dreams are not.  For U.S. moms, dreams still hold the very real possibilities of becoming true, and kids can and do grow into their mothers’ yearnings.  For far too many Nica moms (and Nigerian, Ukrainian and Syrian moms), their dreams are the gift to their kids, because there are limited chances of such hopes ever becoming reality.  It’s the most and the best that they can do.  

If the sentiments of Mother’s Day are shared across cultures, the context of life and the future are not.  As we celebrate the love and sacrifices of those who brought us into the world, we artificially limit our regard for motherhood if we do not acknowledge the love and sacrifices of all moms….

Undue Burdens

I spent the first week of this month in Nicaragua, my first visit since April of last year and a revisit that was long overdue.  Like most things in life, one cannot truly know a reality without personally experiencing it and long absences from Nicaragua quickly dull the memory of what life can be like for many who live in onerous poverty.  I do not pretend that I experience the same conditions that plague daily life for the impoverished, but I know it more clearly than I ever could by simply reading or hearing about it.

As usual, I spent the week learning: understanding more about the gaps in education at all levels in country against a cultural reality which has been forced to prioritize work over learning;  sitting face-to-face with grassroots producers who experience all of the same vagaries of raising crops as growers around the world, but with the additional hurdles of unscrupulous coyotes who manipulate and cheat the markets; encountering great development works by local organizations which place human dignity and voice at the top of their resource lists; participating in a territorial workshop where small producers are willing to share intimate details of their work, their obstacles, their dreams and their lives.  Who could ask more from the content of a week?

My reflections of that week just past are nothing new.  They include the recognition that the human struggles in Nicaragua are far more basic than the battles which most of us are compelled to fight in the U.S.  Not easier, not more noble, not enviable, just more basic to the work of making a living and just living.  But also, that a large part of the struggle there is the result of manmade barriers to sustainable daily life.  Of course, there are the realities of natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, but even those have taken on a decidedly man-impacted intensity in recent years.  There are inevitable gyrations to the economic markets which Nicaraguans serve- as diverse as insulated wire and coffee- but also North American market perspectives which view the entire Central American neighborhood as a second-rate trade zone.  There is the rich cultural history of Nicaragua- full of achievement and natural opportunity- but one which has been largely gutted by  outside interventions, by the U.S. and others,  over generations and to the present.

Effective development work in Nicaragua thus requires a re-setting of the clock and of the starting line.  If some of those manmade obstacles are to be corrected, as they ought, then consideration of our collective economic, political and social attitudes have to precede such changes.

It’s a shift which will not be easy.  In talking with one well-intentioned North American last week, I discussed with him some of the roadblocks that compromise Nicaraguan development.  I broached, gently, the notion that we in the North bear a fair amount of responsibility for economic difficulty there.  His reply belied an all-too-frequent posture toward those in the developing world: “If they would just learn English,” he said, “it would be so much easier to work with them.”

Speaking the same language, indeed.  That would be a circumstance which might substantially level the playing field in all kinds of ways, for Nicaraguans and North Americans alike.  But the reality of a universal language is not a particularly likely answer to creating sustainable justice, whether economically, politically or socially.  For many people in Nicaragua, learning comprehensive language skills in their native tongue is a stretch by itself; indeed, a third-grade education in Nicaragua hardly qualifies a child as a linguist.  Learning a second language-let alone, the most difficult language to learn in the world (English)- is neither a practical nor a reasonable solution to development needs.  It’s also a little condescending to expect another culture to adapt itself to our language; there is nothing wrong with their own.  A leveling of the playing field requires some other forms of more mutual adaptation.

It’s easy to fall into such colonial thinking.  We are surrounded by our own, comfortable ways which feel right from their familiarity.   A friend of mine recently made the observation that, “In Nicaragua they just don’t work the same way that we do, do they?”  (No, I thought.  They work much harder.)  Yet, as we know intellectually, if not emotionally, comfort does not always translate to sensibility, and certainly not to justice.  In fact, oftentimes those comforts of ours translate to someone else’s burdens.

Getting out of our comfort zones is an important element of expanding one’s line of sight to such burdens.   I was very glad to be back in Nicaragua last week, to see, to hear, to know….

 

 

 

Ordinary People

It’s been weeks since I last posted an entry, but the absence hasn’t been for the reasons you might expect.  Yes, the holidays came and went during this time, but as filled as they might have been with family at home, time for posting was not limited.  I did not travel anywhere nor did my computer suffer a winter hibernation.  Nonetheless, my time has been impacted by the passage of the holidays and two other significant events: the a two-week bout with the flu and a cold, and the birth of a grandchild.  As commonplace as all of these events might be (though for any grandparent there is no grandchild who is commonplace), their presence in recent days has had me thinking about the ordinary disruptions of daily life, how we experience them and the extent of their impacts.

The holidays themselves pose any number of distractions that can take me out of my daily rhythms.  We plan and prepare for family visits (a household of two is a very different space than a household of ten), change the quantity and content of our meals (cookies are terrific but not very forgiving) and a visit with an elderly neighbor becomes not just a nice time to chat but a holiday expectation (even though she professes to have had all the Christmases she needs).  I suppose that such distractions are among the attractions of the holidays, as they force us out of the sameness of everyday life, even if the routines are the same as other years gone by.  At least they aren’t the same as May or September routines.

Succumbing to illness, especially at this time of year, is especially interruptive, since we have expectations of gaiety and joy; indeed, every advertisement on television informs us of just the right gifts needed to provide giddy ecstasy over the holidays.  Illness, even if not particularly life-threatening, dims the brightness of the days and extends the wakefulness of the nights in a grotesquely unfair example of poor timing, which no amount of tissues or hot liquids can erase.  Holiday illness is the taskmaster of patience, at a time when Godspeed is needed.

To lighten such a load, the birth of a grandchild is highly recommended.  Tiny Claire Elizabeth came into this sphere on January 7, bringing with her the usual fanfare of newborns: the stress of childbirth, the anxiety of families, the thrill of new life, the introspective gravitas of a new legacy, the first cry of perseverance and finally, the unbridled joy of those who will be her family.  What event could be sweeter than this-  the newest piece to life’s puzzle.

So our days have been filled with mixtures of celebration, struggle, anxiety, fears, comforts, dreams and spiritual balm.  The rush of the holidays has passed by for another year, the discomforts of a winter illness have finally sought new victims for their misery and a newborn child has begun her journey of enriching, teaching and loving.

After ten years of working between two cultures and world views, the passage of these past weeks has given me pause to reflect upon the ordinary events and people of that other space in my life, Nicaragua.  What are the holidays and illnesses and births like for my friends in that country, and how do they unfold?  How do such occurrences impact the activities of those who experience them?

I think we can guess at the reality.  The holidays occupy a significant part of many Nicaraguans’ lives, as the celebration of the birth of Jesus is national in its importance.  But there is no frenzy to buy lavish gifts and to host overflowing holiday feasts for most: sufficiency at the table and in the home is difficult enough to maintain on ordinary days, though worthy enough of deep gratitude.

Nicaraguans become ill just like anyone else, so cough remedies and Indigenous recipes abound.  (Honey mixed in rum is what I have been recommended.)  Nicaraguans are not immune to the viruses that seem to stop us in our tracks.  It’s simply a case that Nicaraguans have a much more difficult time stopping in theirs; there is no safety net for such work stoppage and the margin of sufficiency too small to allow the luxury of staying at home or sipping hot chicken soup.  They cannot afford to stop for fear of falling further behind.  There are occasions when illness gets in the way of keeping up.  It’s when one of the particularly virulent strains of virus or bacteria attack the health of a worker and the ability to keep going is lost to the emergency of simply staying alive.  Poverty has a way of breeding brands of illness that make my cold of the past weeks seem like a hiccup.  It seems our respective senses of the ordinary are quite different from one another.

And when it comes to having children and grandchildren enter their lives, Nicaraguans feel the same range of emotion that the rest of us do, I suppose.  But whereas the dreams for Claire Elizabeth include notions of education, achievement and wholeness of life, dreams for the newly-born in Nicaragua may be far different.  The family of a newborn Angelina may dream first of survival and good health for their little girl.  Their prayers might include petitions for enough to eat, water to safely consume, and strength enough to be able to work on the coffee farm at an early age.  Their hopes likely include visions of their daughter being able to stay in school past the third grade, maybe even being schooled to high school, though the hope may be, practically speaking, a long shot.

What constitutes the ordinary for us depends very heavily upon where the miracle of birth and the journey of life occurs.  When we spend even a few moments in reflection and appreciation of that truth, it changes things.  Like the way we choose to celebrate the joys of our lives.  Like the acceptance of a temporary illness as a minor distraction instead of a major roadblock.  And like a growing awareness of just how extra-ordinary our own lives really have become….