And Then We Danced

I’ve been going to the day program for senior citizens here in town for almost a year. We chat, I lead seated exercises, then we do a guided meditation. I have come to love these “abuelitos” dearly. So I was thrown for a loop last month when the director told me the program was being shut down.

Hogar de Cristo, the sponsoring organization, is doing some restructuring and, unfortunately, this program was one of the ones they decided to end. They are pulling back resources from the area around the capital and sending them to programs in the remoter regions of the country, where life is typically a bit harder. I’m no stranger to nonprofit management. I know that you can’t do everything for everyone. But dang it, I’m attached to these folks. The social services and social interaction they received in this program are crucial to their well-being and I am worried about what will happen to them now.

Two young children do the Chilean national dance at a senior citizen day program

Doing the Chilean national dance

Since the closure was confirmed, I tried to spend more time at the center. The abuelitos love our kids. We went as a family for the national holiday a few weeks ago, and they got a kick out of the kids’ dancing.

On Tuesday, there was a little ceremony with the participants, family members, staff, volunteers, and some senior management from Hogar de Cristo. Chileans do love a good speech, and there were six or seven to enjoy that day.

On Wednesday, the very last day for the seniors to spend at the center, they did a special lunch and then a gentleman came to sing rancheras, a style of music much beloved by the old folks. Pretty soon Juan, Willy, and Victor were out on the dance floor with different partners – myself included.

I couldn’t help but smile as we shuffled and waltzed along.

I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that this program is ending. I have felt sad, disillusioned, angry… frustrated. Some of the abuelitos have openly expressed their discontent with the closure. But for the most part they are taking it in stride.

Think about how many transitions they’ve had to go through in their lives. Goodbyes they’ve said. Homes they’ve left. Jobs that have changed. A world that has changed.

Just here in Chile – they lived through massive earthquakes in 1960, 1985, 2010. They made it through a military coup and the darkest days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Aside from these large-scale events, each of them has had to face the innumerable challenges of living in poverty on a daily basis, for 70 or 80 years. And yet they get up every day and go about their lives. What else can you do?

Dancing to rancheras

So that day, we cried a bit. We packed up the food that was left in the kitchen and passed it out to the abuelitos along with the center’s old mugs, so they could remember all the cups of tea they drank together. We ate some cake.

And then we danced. Because sometimes that’s all there is left to do.

Let People Give You Something

Let People Give You Something


A heartfelt “¡Gracias!” for the abuelitas that work on the delivery lunches every week.


The crew from parroquia San Roque and Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep

There are probably 6 dozen things I want to write about the students who just visited Chile for their service immersion trip. I will focus on one, for now. Yesterday, we had the honor to go to San Roque parish in Peñalolen, Santiago, to help prepare meals for homebound individuals and deliver them all over the neighborhood.IMG_6511 IMG_6518 IMG_6510IMG_6513

Our actual volunteer work was minimal, which is what I expected. They run this program twice a week without our help. They didn’t technically need us there. I wanted our stuIMG_6503dents to see the power of a few people in a poor parish making a huge difference in the lives of others who are in need.

We did light work preparing the lunches for delivery. Students walked into a few homes to meet people receiving the lunches to see how they lived and to offer a smile. I think the students got the message.

But then the most amazing thing happened. We returned to the parish and the regular kitchen volunteers had made enough food for all uf us to have lunch together. IMG_6500

The “North American Me” said thank you, but we brought bagged lunches. We don’t want to take food or money from your program. Use it for the people you serve each week. Then my “Chilean Me” said to N.A. Me, “Shut up and accept their hospitality. It’s about the relationship, not the dollars and cents.” And, as I’m learning more than I care to admit, “Chilean Me” was right again.
cents.” And, as’m learning more than I care to admit, “Chilean Me” was right again.

We sat with the parish volunteers, staff, and assistant pastor (who is basically a world renowned theologian!) and ate a delicious meal prepared with love. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company and, of course, the food was amazing.

What is it about us that sometimes makes our first response to the invitation, “No, thank you”? If I had insisted on leaving, we would have missed one of the most memorable experiences of those students’ trip to Chile. True Chilean hospitality, and the best example of kinship (thank you for that word, Fr. Greg Boyle!) that we encountered during their time in Chile. At that table, we were parishioners, brothers and sisters.
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There has been quite a bit of rain in the arid northern desert region of Chile this week. The amount forecast was “moderate,” but the amount that fell was disastrous. As of today, ten people have died as a result of flooding, and dozens are still missing. It is a disaster on top of disaster, since a volcano is already erupting and there are 40 wildfires burning in the south. 

Everyone is talking about how awful it is. Kids at our children’s school have family members who work in the mining industry up north, and within 24 hours of the start of flooding people were asking what we were going to do as a community to help out. 

Chileans are great at mobilizing individual contributions in the face of disaster. As I mentioned, this country is no stranger to the whims of nature – be they fire, flood, earthquake, or something else. Schools, churches, companies, and neighborhoods are gathering supplies to send north. Ryan suggested that this level of solidarity exists because most people here have lived through some sort of emergency themselves, and I agree. 

Our school is doing a “lightning campaign” on Monday and Tuesday to collect toiletries, diapers, blankets, and big jugs of water. I took the photo above at the supermarket yesterday. You’ll notice that there is plenty of water, but the bottom shelf – where they typically stock the 5 liter jugs we are being asked to send north – is picked almost clean (and yes, that lone jug found its way into my cart). I saw three other people in the diaper aisle doing the same thing as I was; namely, buying a few packs in different sizes, clearly not for a baby at home. One lady’s cart was totally filled with an assortment of diapers and formula. Unless she runs an orphanage, she was buying that stuff to send north. 

Stores across the country are selling out of the water jugs in particular. So many people want to do something to help. 

The government has been criticized for being unprepared to deal with the disaster. As I drove home from the store, I listened to two commentators hold forth on the radio about their view of the crisis. One said that she found it “ridiculous” that people in Santiago should be buying water and sending it to the north instead of the government being equipped to supply the affected regions with aid. 

I can certainly see her point. But what she’s missing here is that people have an almost urgent need to collaborate and do something tangible to ease the suffering of these people. Yes, Chile could use a few more helicopters and a strategic supply warehouse. But the human impulse to give? That’s far from ridiculous. 

Well Understood

Tonight is the last night of summer vacation. Our sweet lovies start back to school tomorrow. The Big Girl will be in kindergarten, with big chairs and big tables and four textbooks – and feels a big responsibility to visit her teachers from last year every day. The Little Boy has expressed his deep hope that this year, he will fly a hot air balloon at school. I hate to disappoint him, but…

Ryan and I made it. We survived the summer. We had many wonderful moments and made some beautiful memories (more to come on those), but I personally struggled a bit with parenting. It was a lot more “togetherness” that I’m used to. And let’s not forget that parenting little kids is just…hard.

Which brings me to this.

The readings at mass today fit together nicely for my current state of mind. (I love it when that happens.)

First reading: the Ten Commandments. At least five or six of them should be pretty familiar to most folks today, even those who don’t hold the Jewish or Christian faiths. But I will freely admit to having memorized the version that appeared in my Catholic school religion textbook, and not having spent much time with the actual scripture.

Here’s the part that caught my attention: “Honor your father and your mother, that you may live a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you.” (emphasis mine!)

Let that sink in.

Gospel: Jesus drives out the people doing business in the temple. Fr. Jim Martins has a really nice reflection on the depictions of Jesus’s anger in the gospels (read it here). The passage ends with the news that many saw him and began to believe, but that Jesus “would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.

I take a deep breath. And despite the long days, and the bickering, and the threats of being locked out of the promised land… somebody gets it.

Flat Visitor

Flat Visitor

Do you know Flat Stanley? Stanley is the protagonist in this delightful book about a boy who is accidentally flattened (and unharmed), and then he’s able to mail himself all over the world. Teachers have been using Stanley to help teach geography and world citizenship for years. Students often make a paper version of themselves to be mailed somewhere and returned with information and pictures of their flat self’s adventures. I first encountered Stanley living in San Francisco and my flat nieces and nephews started arriving to be photographed in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and sea lions at Pier 39.

Last week, Flat Edda from Boise, ID, came to visit us in Talagante, Chile. Unlike San Francisco, Talagante does not have a lot of distinguishing landmarks, architecture, or animal life. It’s kind of a farm town. So I really had to think about what is interesting in Talagante, something that makes it different from Edda’s hometown. Then it occurred to me, something that we almost take for granted now, having lived here for six months.

We headed to the feria (street market).

The feria happens three times per week on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Typically our kids do not love to attend the feria for a variety of reasons.

First, there are a few vendors with cheap plastic toys and knock-off Disney coloring books, and we never buy them those things.

Second, the streets are almost exclusively filled with adults, especially at the weekday markets. Since our kids are still small, they are often unseen and get bumped into a little bit because people are looking at items for sale at the stands, not looking down where they walk.

Third, it can turn into a good bit of walking for their little legs, so Krissy or I inevitably carry Caleb for a decent chunk of the time.

This time when the kids and I went to the feria they had a welcome distraction. They were to be Flat Edda’s tour guides. They helped me choose most of our photo locations.

Caleb finds something he’d like to take home from the feria.

The result was a good learning experience for my kids. They took more notice of the sights and sounds around them. Maybe they realized that this is a pretty unique part of our experience living in Chile.

And since Flat Edda was such a great guest, we took her to the park, too.

Words Fail Me

The kids have been out of school for 71 days. We have 16 more days of “summer fun” before classes start up again. That’s all I will say.

I was at the Hogar de Cristo senior center on Tuesday when an earthquake happened. It was a small temblor, but it lasted a decent amount of time. Long enough for us to have a debate about whether we should get out of the building or stay put.

We had finished the exercises and stretching portion of the class and were just starting the guided meditation. Nothing like an earthquake to shatter a sense of calm. As I sat with them, I reflected (not for the first time) on what these folks have seen in their lives. They have a healthy fear of earthquakes because they’ve lived through two of the worst: the 1960 quake in Valdivia (magnitude 9.5; strongest earthquake ever recorded) and the 2010 earthquake in the central zone (magnitude 8.8; this one actually knocked the earth off its axis slightly). When the ground starts shaking, they take it seriously.

I found my vocabulary somewhat wanting while trying to calm them down. I said something along the lines of, “Calm down, it’s over” — which was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because I don’t know what I’m talking about. They looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and dismissal. I’m just a young person from another country. I have no idea what Chilean earthquakes can do. I could be more precise in English, I’m sure.

This is a common theme in my work with the abuelitos. I frequently convey less than the full meaning of what I’m trying to say because my Spanish is okay — but not great.

Leading them in exercises is challenging due to the fact that there are so many different abilities in the room. Some are able-bodied; others are in wheelchairs. There are several blind gentleman, and two adorable ladies who are profoundly hard of hearing. Several are in the early stages of dementia. Many have diabetes. Arthritis is common. Depression, I suspect, is the thread uniting most of them.

I do the best I can. When I don’t know exactly the right word to describe a movement, I show them. Then I remember the guys who can’t see, and I try to find the words. When that fails, I ask permission to help them move their arms or legs in the right way. Then I remember the ladies who can’t hear, and I go over and show them again. Then I realize that the lady with Alzheimer’s isn’t quite sure what she’s doing in the room. And so it goes.

They accept my limitations. I accept theirs. We smile. We get on with it.

Peace at the End

Happy new year! We had a wonderful Christmas and New Year celebration with visiting family. It’s funny, but we agree that this feels more like “home” now that we’ve hosted visitors from the US.

I have been going to a day center for older adults in Talagante weekly for the past few months. Run by Hogar de Cristo, the center serves a few dozen seniors who come on a regular schedule — some come every weekday, while others come only a few days per week. I’ve been doing gentle seated exercises with them (using a fantastic resource called Sit and Be Fit) as well as guided meditation and relaxation exercises. Just a few small things to aid physical and mental well being.

Let me put it simply: I love these abuelitos.

I was sad today when Isabel, one of the program staff, told me that one of the abuelitos had died a few days ago. He was part of a group of guys (really nice guys) who hung out back in the garden and didn’t really come inside for activities. Isabel said that the Hogar de Cristo staff were the ones who actually took him to the hospital, but once he was there his family descended and stayed by his side until the end. She said that his ex-wife even came to see him, and he asked her for forgiveness. I did not know him well at all. But hearing that he was surrounded by family and truly at peace made me glad for him.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death. I think he was with Don Orlando earlier this week. May he rest in peace.