Category Archives: PHILOSOPHY

WHERE YOU ARE

I was once being led through an unknown forest by my baby brother, and when I accused him of not knowing where we were, he assured me that he certainly was NOT lost. He further elucidated that he knew exactly where he was, as he was “right here.” He simply was not completely sure as to where he was in relationship to the things around him, like, say, the path we had wandered away from, or the car, to name two items. He, himself, though, was not “lost”. He held up his hands and showed them to me, to prove that he knew where he was. And he tried to reassure me by adding, “Come on! You know where you are! You’re right here! We’re not lost!”

In certain disease processes, we lose some of our ability to find ourselves in space. I am not talking about getting lost in the forest, or forgetting where we are. But literally not having that natural awareness we take so for granted, of knowing where our hands and feet are, what position we are in, whether our arms are crossed, and such. There are a multitude of feedback loops processed through muscle, joints and tendons that constantly let our brains know where we are and how we are positioned at any given moment. These mechanosensory neurons are known as propioceptors, and give us what some doctors now call our “sixth sense” of body awareness in space: propioception.

I was with a patient whose disease was not named to me, who was undergoing an evaluation of his impaired propioception. They did things like moving his hands or arms into specific positions with his eyes closed, releasing them to neutral, and seeing how closely he could recreate the pose. They also posed one arm to see if he could mirror it with the other arm, eyes closed. But his brain could not receive all the signals we take for granted. He was unable to mirror his arm positions or bend his elbows or hands to match. And like an alcohol-impaired driver at a field sobriety test, he had difficulty in touching the tip of his nose with a finger after stretching out his arm.

Many diseases can impact our ability to locate ourselves in space and get appropriate feedback about how we are positioned and the movements we make. Parkinsons, Huntingtons, ALS, even strokes and arthritis can impact it. I can only imagine what it must be like to lose some of this basic function. To not know where my own arm is in space. To not feel whether it is bent or straight. Imagine how you would walk, stand, or balance, or even pick up a plate, without the myriad of constant and consistent feedback loops that we all take for granted, unless and until they quit working.

Luckily, for this patient, there will be a series of exercises that he can learn in order to stimulate and strengthen these connections and feedback loops. He is also being trained to use his sight more in order to have the additional information about where his limbs are in space. Some balance exercises may help as well. He is strong in limb, and otherwise healthy, and I hope for him that whatever his disease is will progress slowly and allow him many years of active life. Just one more of the countless precious things most of us have and don’t ever have to name or even consider.

There is so much for us to be grateful for at the most basic level. To walk through space on an uneven surface without falling. To dance. To have a sense of where my whole body is at, and to know constantly what I am doing with my hands, how tightly I am grasping something, whether I might burn a finger or drop a glass. To sit here and run my fingers rapidly along the keyboard with such facility. To be fully embodied and in touch with every limb, the tip of each finger and toe, to feel all my skin, and to know where I am in the space that surrounds me. I am right here, right now, and so are you all. Isn’t it a pleasure, isn’t it a huge gift, to feel it?

HOLDING LIGHTLY

I had the opportunity to engage with a spiritual worker from our hospital the other day. I had worked with him before in crisis situations such as intensive care, rushed meetings with grieving family members, and other end-of-life emergencies. Because let’s face it, patients doing great in the hospital don’t tend to invite a stranger – possibly from another religion – to come and comfort them at their bedside. But now it was “just us” with no patients in sight – his smiling face appeared at our online weekly interpreter meeting. He had come to encourage us to share our stories, and guide us into some new thoughts about hope and resilience during COVID.

Being an interpreter, I was delayed and missed half the meeting, and most of my colleagues couldn’t make it at all. Welcome to our world. But I still learned something very valuable that has stayed with me. This spiritual worker talked about hope in a way I had never considered, and he started by saying that although most of us think of hope as a “positive” feeling, in fact it has an edge of sorrow and loss. Because after all, we only hope for things that we do not have. Or to keep things that we fear to lose. So there is also sorrow. And when we hope for “things to get better” we are hoping from a place of not accepting this present moment. That really struck me.

He also said something that offered such a powerful image. He said that he regularly (and I am sure gently) cautions his patients and family members to “hold hope in a light hand.” To hold onto hope lightly, and not white-knuckled. Do not let yourself go into that dark night of “this HAS to happen! I cannot HANDLE it if this doesn’t happen!” Or the converse: “This CANNOT happen! I cannot HANDLE it if this happens!” Where hope becomes a plea, a demand, a fist raised to the face of God, the face of the universe. And we become so puny and helpless and outraged and alone.

As interpreters, we see it all. Surgeries fail. People die. Quite regularly. One might even say, on schedule. Not on our schedule, of course. And yet there is hope, which I am just now trying to digest in its fullness. Hope doesn’t mean “things are bound to get better” any more. Because things are not bound to my most fervent, white-knuckled demands, hopes, and desires. Things are as they are. Whether I like it or not. And so I am left with a hope (ironically enough) to become humble. And a hope to become accepting. And a hope to learn to hold hope in a light hand.

VALUE CONGRUENCE

In addition to the ongoing vicarious trauma interpreters are exposed to through our work in healthcare and court, we also come upon vicarious healing, advice, and ideas that can guide us forward. We learn so much both from caregivers and patients, crime victims and the accused. I have been interpreting for many trauma therapy patients lately, and find the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach quite enlightening. It seems a way to move from talking about something to taking steps toward integrating the new thoughts and feelings into actions that create a positive feedback loop and lead to healthier thoughts, feelings and actions.

“You learn something every day” is a true motto for the interpreter’s life. In discussing with a patient various aspects of self-care, I was surprised to hear the therapist add in something about defining one’s values. I had expected the more typical suggestions for self-care, like take a bubble bath or listen to music, along with other ways to self-soothe besides the obvious harmful ones. But I had not considered defining one’s moral values, and investigating the degree to which one is aligned with those values, as a form of self-care. It is an interesting way to take stock of one’s life.

The approach in looking at value congruence that I have seen in therapy is to start by thinking of someone whom you admire. Several severely traumatized people have answered there is no one. Even when they are told dead or alive, real of fictional. They have not had the luxury of looking up to someone. Admiring someone. Seeing characteristics they wish to emulate. Identifying with someone. Trusting someone. With one therapy client, she was finally asked to find anyone she had ever admired even for a moment, even if they later let her down, and she was then able to mention her brother.

What about her brother had she admired? He had been protective. He had been strong. He had been tough and handled physical suffering like starving and being cold. And being beaten. Through all of that, he had been encouraging to his young sister. He took initiative and tried a lot of ways to make their lives better. He was trustworthy and reliable. Until he left. But while he was there, she had admired him.

Then she was invited to bring the focus back to herself and consider whether these admirable traits might represent some of her most dearly held values. Indeed, they all were very core and central to her sense of right and wrong, her moral code of conduct – the way in which she wanted to live. She was then invited to notice that most if not all of them were well-developed in herself, especially her resilience, her ability to be safe and strong with her children, her “toughing things out” and continuing to try. Her face lit up when she was able to see that she was indeed “being a good person” and living up to her own value system on the whole. It helped her to see that she was so much more than the sum of her mistakes.

Finding qualities that we have externalized and considered out of our reach, and then locating them within ourselves, is a rich discovery. Especially if we have been in a process of “beating ourselves up” for not being better, not being stronger, not being kinder, not “figuring things out by now” in that invisible and false race we sometimes convince ourselves we are participating in. To find that like other humans, we are still struggling along and just as frail as the next person, while humbling, is something we each need to accept. And yet on the whole, to discover that we are living a life that is mostly congruent with our core values, hey. That’s not such a bad place to find ourselves. And it makes it easier to then accept and forgive our humanity in our areas of frailty.

If we keep looking for our inner treasures, and keep finding the areas in which we can respect ourselves, where our actions line up on the whole with our core values, we gain in strength and we learn that we can trust ourselves. Then it can be easier to make those adjustments where our values are either not well-clarified, or are in actual conflict with our actions. These gaps, or conflicts, cause quite a bit of our stress, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. Forgiving ourselves and building on our strengths is the first step toward integrating our thoughts, feelings and actions into further alignment. Or so I have learned in my vicarious therapy sessions.

Getting into alignment with ourselves is an adjustment well worth the effort. Getting to know ourselves, as Oscar Wilde famously stated, “is the beginning of a lifelong love affair”. Pinpointing those few areas where we are out of balance and misaligned, and gaining the strength and courage to face our inner turmoil, is not as overwhelming then. When we can start by really noticing the many areas where our values are already congruent with our actions, we have a framework and a platform. From there, we can launch into aligning any outlying thoughts, feelings and behaviors to match our core values. It is pretty wonderful to have the honor of watching other brave souls going through this process, and see their transformation over time. And it encourages me to continue my efforts toward reaching my own atonement and inner harmony.

SCOPE

I had the unhappy experience of watching a scope enter into a very long and deeply laid tube. As a medical interpreter, of course I had seen hundreds of colonoscopies, but this time it was closer to home. The scope had a light and a camera on it, one man operating it quite carefully, the other standing by and telling him to pull out, or move further along the tubular structure, while he explained to me what he was seeing and his diagnosis. There was some yellowish liquid and bits of almost dissolved fecal matter, and things were looking bad. But it wasn’t a colonoscopy. This tube was filled with invading birch roots. It was the tired and worn sewer pipe of my nearly 100-year-old home.

A century of settling earth, prying roots, and normal aging had loosened each joint along the old concrete pipe and it was no longer solid. As sewage welled into my basement, and the bile rose in my throat, I was lucky to get hold of anyone. Our plumbers have been overbooked now that everyone is at home. I was even luckier that the one who returned my call came highly recommended by several neighbors. Yet now I had to make a rushed, on the spot decision regarding a very expensive repair – projected at ten to twenty thousand US dollars. I had made the decision with another plumber to make a limited repair five years ago, and apparently that had failed.

This plumber was very friendly and approachable, and we even joked about how similar his scoping was to a colonoscopy. But I must admit that I didn’t understand everything he was telling me and I didn’t ask all the reasonable questions that an “informed buyer” would think of. I was too scared. I was literally flooded with anxiety hormones, trying hard not to choke up in front of the plumber, and feeling a huge impulse to flee and hide somewhere, sell the house and move abroad, or otherwise wash my hands of the whole problem. I was staring at the screen and hearing the plumber’s words, but too panicked to process them correctly. I felt myself free-falling into my anxious inner child, whose life is fraught with disaster scenarios out of her control, and who suffers immensely from things that never happen – but could. Oh, dear! The panic – the heart in my throat! The “sick tummy” that my mother always carefully reminded me came from my dad’s side of the family!

“This problem isn’t going to go away – it’s only going to get worse. So you tell me what you want to do.”

I was in his hands, because there was no way I could take care of it myself. And who knew when I could even reach another plumber? He offered to start the very next day, and I agreed. It wasn’t life or death, even if my trembling nerves and shaky body thought it was. It was happening in my yard, not in my body. It could have been a doctor with a scope. It could have been cancer. It could have been a forced leap of faith into the darkness of a long, drawn-out medical situation, irreversible and permanent. It could be a myriad of things outside of my control, with information I cannot process because I am in a panic, and decisions that have to be made right away – about my own health and longevity.

As I see my garden torn up and mysterious work being done, the quality and correctness of which is above my understanding, I have to trust this unknown expert with something I absolutely could not do for myself. And it gives me even more compassion for my patients, who most often get sudden, unexpected news that they have something quite serious or even fatal. The information given is overwhelming. The decisions to be made are stabs in the dark, and I truly understand why the most common response is, “you’re the doctor – you tell me!” And unlike houses, which can be sold, there is no escape from our own bodies, except for that one final journey.

So as I wait for the inspector and the final invoice next week, and make tentative plans about rebuilding my garden, I lift my gardening hat to my patients, their struggles, and their courage in adversity. And I am humbly struck by how very much we are asking of our patients when we expect them to be “informed consumers” and “ask questions” and be “proactive in taking charge of their own care” when they wish nothing more than to have their problem just disappear and leave them with the life they had right before the doctor spoke. Especially for those patients, who, like me, have an incurable nervous stomach on top of whatever ills life throws at them. It is not as easy as it looks, believe me.

PLENTY

As a very young lass, I had the opportunity to live in a less industrialized country with a fledgling government in power, promising a new era of equity and social justice that had been a distant dream during years of puppet governments and foreign interference. It was all very exciting, from my point of view. Revolution! Yet there were mass shortages of basic goods and even electricity, and the water supply was turned on for two-hour increments daily. People started hoarding basic food and supplies, and profiteering occurred. The government responded with very strict rationing and other measures, but the shortages went on. There were trade embargoes in place and even things like glass soda bottles became precious. I had come from the land of plenty, where empty shelves were unheard of. I asked a respected local elder what she thought about the shortages. Her response surprised me.

“I think it’s great! Now people are more grateful for what we have. We don’t waste as much. We are more protective of our resources, like running water and electricity, because there has to be enough for all of us to share. ‘We are only as rich as the poorest person among us.’ That is our motto! So I do agree with the strict rationing of basic food items. When everything is run on money, the rich can pay starvation wages and hoard the wealth. Before, poor people could not get what they needed, because it was put out of their price range by profiteers. Now, everyone in the country has the right to the basics, like food, housing, even healthcare and schooling. Share and share alike. Then work hard for your luxuries, if you want them, but nobody should have to starve or steal to feed their children or take care of their sick and elderly.”

I don’t claim that I will revel in it if we get to a point of scarcity where we have to turn off our water for part of the day, or have regular electrical shutoffs, or food rationing. And of course it will be terrifying if people where I live get to the point of civil unrest and even starvation – and let’s pause and acknowledge that this is the reality today in many parts of the world, through no fault of their average citizens. But I do think that this slowdown and even partial shutdown that we are experiencing in an attempt to mitigate the current virus can be an opportunity both individually and collectively to take stock of how we want to live and what matters most to us. What are we working for? Where are we rushing to?

For those few who thrive best in the rat race, there seems to be an anxious urgency to get back to work, not just for food and shelter, but as their recipe for personal success and self-worth. I had a chat across the lawn recently with our new megacorporate neighbors who are both able to work remotely on full salary. But they are “going crazy” as they told me, with their own two toddlers underfoot while the daycare is closed. The little buggers need so much time and attention during Mommy and Daddy’s workday! “Expect to see arts and crafts displayed in the windows soon because we’ll have to find SOMETHING to keep them busy so we can get our work done! We might even have to take some vacation time, because it’s so hard to stay productive!” The gym is closed as well, so they just set up a treadmill in their driveway, and they take turns running in place.

And what about the rest of us, the many of us who don’t measure our success by money, and yet need money to survive and keep paying our bills? Natural to panic and wonder if we will go under before things improve. But I do believe that much of our money problems will resolve themselves. Money, after all, is simply a socially agreed way of owning property and exchanging goods and services, and as policies change, so will our money woes. Remember, the only thing that cannot be forgiven in our society is individual failure: “Don’t go under – or go live in a tent. Your fault if you didn’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” But if we all sink or rise together in a shared economy, then large-scale adjustments will have to be made to accommodate the changing circumstances. Dominoes will fall in all directions, and those living hand to mouth will fall first. But collective collapse means a collective solution, and that means our government will have to take action and readjust some basics. Lots to think about. Lots to process. And we have a wide variety of examples from around the globe of how different nations are meeting this challenge. Lots to learn.

In addition to the money woes that all contractors face, in common with the many employees without secure jobs or benefits, and our fellow freelancers and small businesses, those of us who are healthcare workers face a much increased risk during a pandemic that sends contagious patients to our hospitals. While others are ordered to stay home, we are ordered to go to work and care for the sick and dying. Fortunately, many of us have come to peace with death through our years of work. I have accompanied many people on their final journey, and I had the honor to be holding my own dear mother’s hand as she passed away. I can now see death for what it is: the natural and inevitable end to each human existence. And I can see grief for what it is: love that has nowhere to go.

Interacting with other cultures around death and dying has been illuminating, because in our dominant culture, people seem shocked and dismayed by anyone of any age in any condition passing away, as if we just never expected it – as if we didn’t know we are mortal. It is a shame that every death must be a shock and a tragedy in our eyes, rather than the natural next step, and one we can accept. It is enough to lose a loved one and grieve without being in denial and shocked at our mortality as well.

More relevant to me than the specter of death is that I still find great satisfaction in living. I truly treasure the opportunities I have been given to interact with and serve others. I value my health and strength. I am grateful for my home, and my several jobs – including the ones that are not paying me right now (I am a contractor for the bulk of my income). I appreciate the ocean, mountains and forests of my home. I am happy for art and music and learning. Grateful for my readers, of course. And I am most especially happy for the strong connections I have, for my social network, for the people who love me, and allow me to love them. Happy for the outpouring of love and offers of help during my illness. So many people encouraging me as well as offering direct, practical help. Even my childhood sweetheart got in touch, to my exquisite and unmitigated delight.

In all this abundance, all this safety, even in illness, my heart goes out to those who for whatever reason, do not have a soft place to land. Who truly feel that their missing paychecks will lead to economic disaster in a matter of weeks or months. Who are facing health challenges that mean exposure to the virus could put them on a ventilator. Who are isolated and alone in their lives, whether due to relocation, poverty, or family separation, to such a degree that they simply don’t have the comfort of close friends and family nearby who can and will check on them, help them, relieve them. Who don’t have enough people in their circle – even during illness or a crisis – to ease their weary hearts, and provide them with practical help.

Not long ago, someone in my family was asking me how we can best support another family member, a common question for us. What if this happens? What if that happens? How can we help then? I answered, we do what we always do. We run around like a bunch of firefighters with a safety net and we just keep moving it underneath them so they always have a safe place to land. That’s our job. On a small scale, and on a large scale.

As to looming death, speaking philosophically, I can truly die happy, if such is my fate, with renewed appreciation for all that is precious in my life. Hopefully much later, because I am not yet tired of this fragile, scary, beautiful world upon which I am destined to live out my life in this even more fragile, ephemeral and yet resilient snippet of human flesh. Wishing all my readers good health, long life, and lots of love.

LEECHES

“Yeah, so I know you read the pre-sentencing report and all that and got the deal about my childhood, but I wanted to add that if you were looking at my recond and wondering like why, why would I just keep making the same stupid mistakes, why would I keep doing the same stupid things, you know, it’s like, I have to answer that I doubted any opportunities that presented themselves. You know what I’m saying? I never thought, I never thought I could be more. I was never, you know, told that. That I could be more.

“And the leeches, Your Honor, the leeches, they’re always there. Right there, telling me I’m nothing. Telling me it’s all about the money. Telling me I’m nothing without the money. Gonna lose my woman. Gonna lose my kids. Gotta get the money. Gotta play the game. Do what you know, kinda thing. “

Judge: By leeches are you talking about people? Are you talking about the company you keep?

“Yeah, I mean my so-called friends. But you know, now I’ve been in lock-up and I’m facing all this time, hard time, prison time, you know how many of these friends have come to visiting hours? You know how many call my wife and ask how I’m doing? Nobody. Not one. Nobody even asks how I’m doing, how I’m holding up. They don’t care if I’m dead or alive. I’m all alone in here.”

Judge: If you’re talking about leeches, let me tell you something. The leeches are always there. Each and every one of us in this courtroom, myself included, have leeches. Trying to tell us what to do. Giving us bad advice. Acting in self-interest. Trying to break us down, get us to make poor decisions. But you have to decide the company you want to keep. You have to decide what messages you are willing to hear. And especially after you get out, you can’t let the bad people try to get you back to where you were. So do everything you can to move on, to get away, while you have your time inside. Move far enough away that the leeches can’t get you. This is your chance to get yourself together, to make a better life.

“Yeah, Judge, I appreciate that. It’s still just kinda sad when you know, prison, prison is my big opportunity for change and success. I would have liked to have other opportunities, you know, early on. I would have liked to have just one adult, didn’t have to be my mom or my dad, they weren’t in that frame of mind. But just – anybody, you know? Just one trusted adult to say hey, man, you can be something. You can do something. You don’t have to mess up over and over. You can do better. I see the good in you. I trust you. Judge, I never heard that in my life. I just heard what a loser, what a mess, what a disappointment I was. But it is what it is. My chance has got to be prison, because it’s the only chance I got.”

GOOD INVESTMENT

The doctor I saw at the farmworker’s clinic told me to expect the worst. He said the reason you got tired and passed out at the warehouse is because you have a serious problem with your heart. Your heart is not built right and it backwashes some of the blood. So you made a blood clot that traveled from your heart to your brain and it’s gonna happen again and again. It’s called a stroke. There is really nothing we can do. So sad to say it, but you have to prepare to die. Any surgery would be too expensive and it might not work and you already had one of these strokes anyway. That’s what the doctor told me.

Well, I am at peace with my Maker so I understood my time had come. I was able to live almost 40 years and not all of it has been easy but God has been with me every step, even when I was beaten, hungry and scared. Even when I was so tired that I cried, still I found rest in God. And I was able to have a child later in life, after I had given up hope. The man didn’t stay with me, it turns out he tricked me. He had a wife back home, and then he got deported, but he left me a daughter. And for that I am grateful.

When that doctor told me to prepare to die, I explained to my girl as best I could that Mommy will not be able to stay with her until she is a grownup and God is probably going to take Mommy soon, so she will have to go live with her grandmother, whom she has never met. Because I don’t have any family here at all. Not even a cousin. She was wondering and scared, but she seemed to handle it fine, I thought. Then again she is awfully young – not even school age – so how do they handle change, let alone death? I don’t know. But she seemed to be okay. She hugged me and patted my back with her chubby little hand.

That night, while she was kneeling at the bedside and saying her prayers, I heard her say all the usual blessings like I’ve taught her. But after I tucked her in and lay down in my bed beside her, I heard her start to quietly cry with her pillow over her face and her voice was muffled but still I heard her whisper, “Father in Heaven, please do not take my Mommy. She is all I have in this world and I just can’t do without her! I really need her, God. Can you please, please wait a while? Please, Father in Heaven, please!”

I picked her up and I rocked and soothed her and she slept in my arms instead of on her little mattress beside me. The preschool teacher told us that she shouldn’t sleep with me in my bed, so she has her own mattress. But this was a special occasion and I had to keep her close. She fell right asleep and I lay awake for hours and hours. My heart was breaking to realize that even if I could handle and accept this, my little girl could not. So I had to try to stay alive, if God would let me. So I put it back into God’s hands to see if He would consider my daughter’s prayer. And I prayed. And I vowed to take all the steps I could myself, to see if God would open a path.

So I went to my boss the next day and I told him about my thing, and I showed him the paperwork from the farmworker’s clinic, and he read it aloud and he read to me that I have a Patent Foramen Ovale, and that means a hole in the heart. But he said he would help me to come see a heart surgeon here, at this specialty heart clinic in the big city. And I got an appointment, and I got a ride here, and I got an interpreter, and now this surgeon has changed my whole life. My whole life. Praise God, because nothing is done without God’s grace, God heard my daughter’s innocent plea, and found us this surgeon. He put this doctor in my path.

“This is totally fixable. It’s a very simple heart repair,” this surgeon told me. Imagine my surprise! “I have seen all your imaging and it will take me maybe 15 minutes to repair,” he told me. Like it was nothing at all.

“But I have to be honest, I don’t have the money for the surgery,” I told him. “I’m a simple farmworker with a child to support. I can make you payments. But I fear that even if I pay you a hundred dollars a month the rest of my life, I don’t think I could pay your full fee,” I told him.

He smiled at me, and I know it sounds weird but I saw God’s love in his eyes, and he asked me, “So how old are you and how many years have you worked?”

I told him, I said, “Well, I am 39 and I have worked 32 years in the fields, first on our own land, and then here in your state. Before that I went to school for one year, but then they needed me at home.”

“Wow,” he said. “We are about the same age but I have only been working as a fully trained heart surgeon for five years. And all the years that I have been studying, you have been working!”

“Well, that’s okay,” I told the surgeon, “Don’t feel bad about it, because God put you into your position, and God put me into mine. It’s okay,” I told him.

“Well,” he said, “Let’s get back to your case. Here’s my thought. You have worked 32 years already. You are not well enough to work now. But if I repair your heart, you’ll be healthy enough to work another 32 years, and so I consider you a good investment, and that is why I am going to do your surgery for free. And the hospital won’t charge you either, because they have a special fund for charity care for people like you who work hard for low pay, or are too sick to work. So don’t worry about the bill. Just wait here and you can see my scheduler, and we’ll get this set up. A simple surgery. The actual procedure will only take me fifteen minutes.” Then he patted my hand and left the room. And I sat there stunned.

A simple surgery! A good investment! My lips tremble to repeat it because my gratitude overwhelms me. A good investment! All I can say is that God must have thought so, too, because He let me live to see this day. Thank God that the surgery went well, and I am healing up and should be able to work again in a few weeks. Stronger than before. I will never stop praying for this very special surgeon and his family. And my boss. And all the others who have helped me. And I will do everything in my power to earn this new life. Soon I will be able to work again, with joyful steps. And God willing, I will be around to watch my daughter grow up. I am so fortunate, so blessed. What could be more beautiful?

AIR AND LIGHT

This is how I know that God exists: because we are surrounded by air and light. Nothing on earth can live without these precious things. We cannot see air and light directly. We only know them through their consequences, just like with God’s actions in our lives. No one can stop air from being everywhere. No one can own the air or control it. Just a few moments without it, and we humans die. And what human can live in full darkness? It’s not right. We are born from darkness into light. Sunlight warms our planet, makes our plants grow, keeps us alive. Who controls the sunlight? Only our Creator. Light is life. We cannot live without light.

Why then are we so egotistical? Why do we think we can decide whether there is a God? Do we decide whether there is air and light? That is just the devil up to his usual tricks, trying to lead us back into darkness, before time even existed. The devil cannot take us into physical darkness, or course. Because ever since God commanded, Let there be light, there has been light. The devil cannot do a thing about that. But he can try to lead us into spiritual darkness, and he is good at that! He is very good at that. How? Because he finds people who have closed their eyes. They see only darkness. He tries to keep them there. And it works quite often, sadly.

Who keeps their eyes closed? Mostly two kinds of people, who are sometimes one and the same. Scared people, and guilty people. They close their eyes because they don’t want to see what is around them. They don’t want to see reality. They don’t dare to feel their own feelings. They don’t want to see and know their own actions. These are the people you see on the outskirts. They are using something to not feel, not live, not see. Some even seem to be doing okay, with good jobs and good families, but no spark. You can see it in their dull faces. No light inside them. Extinguished, while still breathing. So sad. They distract themselves and numb themselves. Eyes tightly shut to this wonderful world. Pot, porn, heroin, alcohol, whatever it is, it becomes their master, and they are led around in chains.

It is the saddest thing in the whole wide world to see someone get something as lovely as a whole human life of their very own, and then watch them just shut their eyes on it. Just choose to shut their eyes and be an addict, instead of enjoying, breathing, observing the miracle. Sharing in it. Helping others, and living this miraculous gift to the fullest humanly possible. Addicts are crippled. They cannot help others. And they cannot receive the help and love they need, because their eyes are shut. They keep them shut, and the devil smiles. One more in darkness. One more in chains of their own making. One more who cannot see their way to freedom and peace. It breaks my heart. It really does. So many lost.

That is why it says in the bible: he who has eyes, let him see! God is exhorting us to open our eyes and look upon creation. God is telling us to see our place in it. Find our tiny part in the infinite plan. Helping others. Enjoying our lives. Being good people, avoiding sin, avoiding harm. Mostly God just asks us to live, in harmony with His creation. Mostly He wants us to spend our time here seeing and breathing and loving. Open-eyed. Wide-eyed even. Seeing this miracle. Embracing it. It isn’t much for Him to ask.

Even now with this cancer, sometimes if I am lying half-asleep, because of the drugs, with my eyes shut tightly, I will start moaning to myself in pain, and my wife will gently shake me awake. “Open your eyes,” she will tell me. “It hurts less if your eyes are open!” And it’s true – it hurts less when I see God’s air and light. I can relax then and remember that I am held in the overwhelming immensity of God’s loving hand. I wish everyone could feel this way. I really do. Life is too short to suffer needlessly. It is over before we know it. Why waste the time walking about in darkness, when we are surrounded in light? Infused with light. Anyone with open eyes can see this! Soon I may close my eyes on this world for the final time, but I am glad and grateful that I have lived with my eyes wide open. I didn’t waste this gift. I embraced it fully.

HOLE IN THE HEART

I remember the first time I passed out. It was right after I had my first baby, and my mom was there. No one knew why I passed out. We didn’t ever go to doctors, you know? It’s like a nine hour bus ride, and then they want cash. Nobody from our village went to the doctor. So I never knew why I sometimes got faint, or why I started to pass out. My husband said it was just hysterics.

My husband was mean, may he rest in peace. I don’t know why. It’s like he had a hole in his heart, and all his love leaked out. No matter how nice I was, no matter how patient and loving, he just got worse. Even his own Dad asked him, why do you treat her so badly? I never treated your Mom like that! There must be a devil in your heart. My husband, he used to tell me that I was not lovable.

Luckily, I have God. So even when I sat and cried, feeling faint and sick, with my baby on my knee, rocking her in our hammock with my feet on the dirt floor, God was with me. Even when my husband was yelling nasty words at me and then leaving for days at a time, I was not alone. Even when he told me over and over that no one could love me, that I was worthless, I was able to be calm. That is the power and the comfort of God.

You see, I heard my husband’s words, and they hurt, but they didn’t get inside of me. Okay, I thought, he cannot love me. I bow to my fate. I accept it. But God loves me. So how can I be unlovable? God stays close to me, and strengthens me. God shows me that I am lovable. Yes, of course it is sad that my husband could not love me. But it is not everything. There are much worse things. Imagine if God did not love me. That would be disaster. That would be damnation!

Last summer, I fell to the ground, but instead of just waking up like usual, I was paralyzed on my left side. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to walk or talk again, but God is great. I was mostly healed by the time I got an appointment at the clinic, a few months later. The whole family pitched in to pay for it, and my mother traveled with me. But it was very bad news. The doctors told us, expect the worst. You have had a brain infarction, and we don’t know why. But we think it is going to happen again, and there is nothing we can do about it.

My mom was devastated – like her soul was torn into pieces. But the first thing I thought when the doctors said they cannot do anything to help me, was, wait a minute. This sounds familiar! Remember? When my husband said he couldn’t love me, God still could. And now these doctors say they can’t help me, but God still can. You see, everything is possible with God. And God healed me. And then I came here to work so I could keep my daughter in school back home. Except I passed out at work, and they sent me here. This is the second time I have seen a doctor in my life.

This doctor, sorry to cry, but I am so grateful. This doctor is unbelievably kind. He said, you just have a tiny hole in your heart. That is why you got a blood clot. That blood clot went to your brain. That is why you had a stroke. But we can fix your heart, so it won’t happen again. It is an easy fix. It is not even a major surgery, he told me. Just a little procedure that will take me maybe fifteen minutes. You won’t even need a stitch, he told me. You have a river of blood that we can use to travel up from your groin to your heart with a tiny camera and tiny tools and fix it, he told me.

So weird. I told him, we all knew my husband had a hole in his heart, because he was not loving – his heart was empty and cold, but why do I have a hole in my heart? Does it mean I am bad? No, he told me. Everyone is born with a hole in their heart, but almost everyone grows a seal over it. You did not seal your heart, but we can seal it for you, very easily. Then you will be strong, and able to work again. Good, I told him, because I have worked since I was five years old and I really wouldn’t know what else to do. The doctor was surprised. It turns out he didn’t work as a child.

I didn’t start working until I was almost your age, almost thirty, he told me. I spent all those years studying and training, and a lot of people helped me. I am really impressed with all the work you have already done. Let’s get your heart strong and healthy. It really is an easy fix. I wish every heart were as easy to repair as yours will be, the doctor told me, smiling. Don’t worry. We can expect a good outcome. And he was right! Here I am.

Such kindness. Such love pouring out upon me. My healed heart. Such a miracle. The doctor thinks I have had a hard life, I can see the pity in his eyes, but I feel truly blessed. Think about it. Just because I passed out at work, all these people helped me. What generous people. And God willing, I will be able to work and support my daughter so she can study, so she can fly from the nest with stronger wings than I had. She is just at that age where they get their feathers, so the timing is perfect. All is done in God’s good time. Even a heart like mine can be healed.

WHERE ARE YOU FROM?

Where are you from? Why do you ask? The author’s intention is not to answer a question with a question, but to ask you to ask yourself why you ask this question in the first place, if you do, and to consider what it might mean to the person questioned. And if the above wording is a little bit hard to process, it is because I am suggesting that we are all capable of understanding more than we think we can, even if the language is a little non-standard, with just a little bit more effort and good will.

May I introduce you to a friend? He started off washing cars when he first immigrated to this country, because he did not have the language skills for other work at that time. As he washed cars for long hours out in all kinds of weather, his boss would sometimes come by and signal good job with thumbs up. He would point out parts of the car and instruct my friend: This is the hood. Repeat after me. This is the door. Repeat after me. Hood. Door. The boss started telling him, some day, your English will be good enough and you can start selling cars for me! My friend would shake his head in doubt. He was a midlife immigrant, already in his 40’s when he arrived, and he feared that he might never be able to learn enough English.

But his boss was encouraging. My friend kept trying and learning. As time went on, his boss gained a heartfelt respect for him. And why wouldn’t he? My friend is hard-working. He has a heart of gold. He has a great sense of humor. He has an excellent memory and he learns quickly. He is very optimistic and has a lot of gratitude. He is creative and gifted. He is honest and has good character. To me, it is especially delightful that he is so playful, and still has a joking, innocent and charming way about him. He can talk about pretty much anything and bring a smile to the listener. But at that time, most people he interacted with in his new country could not understand him. His boss must have been quite intuitive because he was able to see beyond the language barrier and see my friend as a whole person even before the English developed. He knew him beyond words.

I think my friend’s boss is very special. In my experience, many people cannot get beyond a language barrier to try and see a person as they are, allow for their personality, or even fully recognize their humanity. Many people, when they face someone who cannot speak much English, just shut down and turn away rather than reaching out. There is an unbearably deep well of loneliness that many immigrants face, and the language barrier is just one more wall among many. One more separation.

Years have gone by since my friend’s car-washing days. More than a decade. My friend is now wonderfully fluent in English. He has been able to buy a home and put both of his children through college. And yes, he now sells cars for that very same boss. He is great at his job. People like him and trust him. He speaks with a slight accent. He is friendly and bright, and knows how to talk to people. He knows about the product he sells, and he is a good listener. But as he chats with customers, he tells me, they inevitably try to place him. He estimates that it takes his customers around 20 minutes of chatting before they are comfortable enough to finally ask their burning question, “Where are you from?”

He lets them know he lives here in town, so he is from right down the street. So they ask him where he lived before that, and he mentions a nearby town. But they don’t stop. They cannot stop themselves. They need to place him somewhere that is not here. They continue to question him as he gives a history of where he has lived since arriving in the United States, and then they finally break down and ask outright what they really want to know, so they can place him: “But where are you from from? Where are you from originally?”

He will act surprised and ask them, “Wait, why? Do I have an accent or something?” Then his eyes sparkle and his face breaks into a friendly smile and his customers laugh with just a gentle touch of embarrassment. Then because he is so open and friendly and patient, he usually goes on to talk about his ethnic background, his place of birth, and his language. Maybe he adds just a little bit about his journey. And this question session can happen several times a day, adding up to ten or twenty times a week, fifty or hundred times a month. It accumulates to five hundred or a thousand times a year. He has been here 15 years now, so we can estimate that he has fielded this question around ten thousand times since he arrived. If he hasn’t quite reached that number, he will, because he is still getting questioned.

My friend takes these question sessions very nicely, and is able to find the humor in it. That is one of his gifts. But for a lot of people, whether based on looks or language, it gets tiring to relentlessly be reminded that one is “not from around here” or doesn’t seem to be “one of us”, wherever those lines are drawn in a given community. I appreciate my friend’s gentle humor in turning it back to the curious, and drawing them out until they finally admit that they want to know “where are you from from?”

Yes, it is natural to see and notice people who don’t look like us, or don’t sound like us, whoever “us” is these days. I get it. But we need to be exceedingly careful as we explore other people’s histories and placements. We need to be careful not to pigeonhole others by getting the name of their country or religion or ethnic group, and then presuming we now “know” who that person is and can place them into a little box in our mental framework of what we know about other cultures, places, and people. When we do this, even with the best of intentions, we are bound to miss out on a person’s deeply unique humanity, and a wonderful opportunity.

When I met this friend, 35 years ago, I was working in his speech community. I was the second-language learner. I was the one with the accent. He reminded me the other day that we were once in a group of five or six sailors, sitting in a little cabin aboard a huge fish processing ship at sea, joking around, and then he noticed everyone was laughing but me. I could not understand the joke that was told. I was the outsider, even in this friendly set of shipmate buddies. And a lot of the other sailors on the ship kept telling me, as if I didn’t know, that I was a woman on a ship. I didn’t belong there. Some of them, including the captain, were very verbal about how they didn’t want me there, and how I was bad luck for fishing, too. But this friend just very naturally treated me like a real person. He saw me. He acknowledged me. And I will never forget that lovely, healing, expansive feeling. It wasn’t about his becoming an expert in my specific culture or gender, or about my language skills. It was about recognizing our common humanity, and honoring it. His doing so is why I remember him 35 years later, and still call him friend.

If I worked with my friend at his car dealership, and one of the customers asked me where my friend was from, I would answer this: He comes from a deep well of bubbling happiness, like a spring in a meadow. You would probably want to go there, but it is only accessible through a lifetime of experiences, some of them very hard, and challenges that most of us have never faced. He comes from an outlook of humorous acceptance, where laughter is soul medicine. He comes from a place of gratitude for the opportunities he has been given. He comes from a place of struggle, and risk-taking, and overcoming. How did he get here? He arrived here through a hugely optimistic leap of faith. And his faith and his hope and his charity made it here intact and are still with him. He has my utmost respect, and he deserves yours. So thanks for asking. And please spend some time thinking about the way you choose to question others about their place in the world.