water aerobics

January 29, 2017

Before heading back to Boston, I visited my aunt and uncle in Florida. One of my favorite moments happened during a water aerobics class with A. Kelly (which we didn’t think would be much of a workout but it turned out to be both a workout and entertainment): While kicking around in circles on a ball, I got an episode of the giggles, couldn’t stop laughing, tipped off my ball, and swallowed some water. The older, more experienced ladies liked to show me how to do moves correctly, which also gave me the giggles. If you ever get the chance, go to water aerobics in a retirement park in Florida; you won’t be disappointed (unless you’re a grumpy person and/or embarrassed of looking silly).

On this trip I LOVED driving out to the tiny rural towns of Sebring and Avon Park to visit some friends from my mission. Waldir joined us for the weekend and on Saturday we celebrated his birthday by going to the beach and meeting up with friends. After the beach, A. Kelly & U. George cooked a special birthday dinner for Waldir, we had flan for dessert, and then Waldir opened presents. Sunday, Waldir and I went to church and visited more mission friends. It’s a blessing to still be connected to many people from my mission. As I showed Waldir around places where I spent so many days knocking doors, I felt so much love. Driving by all those orange groves in the beautiful Florida countryside had me waxing nostalgic. I truly loved my mission and I love the people I met. I wish I could go back and live one of those days again.

the duck at zumba

January 3, 2017

Hello and Happy New Year! Highlights of the last week of 2016:

-Visiting the pyramids at Teotihuacan with in-laws.

-Visiting a neighbor’s cat, Coco, whom I love dearly. He’s white with one hazel eye and one blue eye. I met Coco after the neighbor rescued him from the street a year ago. He sleeps on the roof of the house and I like to go find him in the mornings to say hello. He can’t jump from the roof to the street because it’s too high, so I hold up my arms toward the roof, he crawls down my arms, greeting me with a kiss on the nose, and purrs as I hold him. After a few minutes, I hold my arms back up toward the roof and he goes back to his spot.

-Attending the Mexico City temple with Waldir and feeling an outpouring of love and gratitude for Jesus Christ.

-Attending El Rey León (the Lion King) musical in Mexico City. We found a deal for tickets and although we didn’t get to sit together, we were in the 5th row! I loved that I could see the details of the costumes and the facial expressions of the actors. The Lion King speaks to my soul, and I was so happy to be seeing the musical that I cried a little during the opening number (I was definitely having a spiritual moment). I loved the performance, and so did Waldir! Plus it was fantastic to hear it in Spanish.

-The Flores side of the family rang in the new year with a BANG. But the New Year’s Eve party only went until 4 a.m. (not 6 a.m. like last year). Around 11:30 p.m. I decided to take a nap but by the time I got up at 2:00 a.m. ready to party, the rest of the crew was winding down. Waldir and I danced salsa and bachata for a few songs but he was exhausted. By 3:30 a.m. the entire family was slumping or sleeping on couches and chairs.

-Speaking of dancing: this morning, my mom-in-law, sister-in-law, and I went to the local park and joined an outdoor Zumba class, which was a blast even though I couldn’t keep up (the instructor started filming us live-stream on facebook and I was not happy—people who saw that gringa in the back must have thought, “What is she doing?” The answer is: I don’t know). Anyway, funny story: Throughout this class there was a duck hanging out right by the speaker. He just sat there and enjoyed the music, I guess. Periodically throughout the class, the instructor used an ipad to change the song. At the end of the class the instructor picked up the ipad to choose a slow song for us to cool down; he set the ipad back down and started dancing, and we followed. Suddenly as we started dancing to this song, the music changed—we looked toward the speaker where the duck was, and low and behold: that duck was pecking the ipad and CHANGING THE MUSIC! Apparently he was content with a faster song by Shakira. He moved his wings as if he were dancing, then turned around to watch us finish our class! I wouldn’t believe it if I weren’t there. One of the funniest things I’ve seen in my life.

Here’s to 2017! I’ll take as many cute cats and ducks and happy musicals as I can get this year.

Chiapas

December 22, 2016

In Chiapas, a southern state bordering Guatemala known for its beauty, people live in poverty despite rich natural resources. They’ve been neglected by the government since “the beginning” says my father-in-law. Structural oppression is an established norm. For people living in the USA, this oppression would be unacceptable. That’s the word that kept coming to my mind as Waldir and I made our way through the state, driving a rental car over dangerous roads supposedly taken care of by the federal government: unacceptable.

The government pays for propaganda lauding the safety of the state. Waldir and I drove through mostly rural areas (no internet or phone reception, for example), but when we arrived in cities, we saw big billboards featuring a picture of a clean, well-dressed, smiling little girl that read: Chiapas: The Safest State in Mexico. Over our four days of travel, contrary to the billboards, we saw children who weren’t clean or well-dressed. They played on the side of the roads, at the edge of the jungles, in the dirt. Flea-infested, hungry dogs wandered around them.

Years ago, around the same time that the president of Mexico made a free trade agreement with the United States, a group of civilians called Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN)—the Zapatista Military of National Liberation—rose and demanded justice because of the poverty of southern Chiapas. Among many grievances voiced against the government, the Zapatistas asked why the president made this trade deal as it allowed the people of Chiapas to die from poverty.

My own anger against the government rose on our second night in the state when, after the sunset, Waldir and I found ourselves on a treacherous road to Ocosingo, driving over continuous deep, large potholes as we slowly winded through the jungle in the little rental car. The curvy roads were dangerous enough; factor in thousands of potholes, steep drop-offs, black darkness, and only half-repaired sections of road that force you to drive into one lane (the lane that oncoming traffic drives on)—and it’s a recipe for disaster. Our bodies tense and hearts racing in fear as we realized we’d driven into dangerous territory—something didn’t feel right, but by this point, an hour in, continuing forward was better than turning around—Waldir raised his voice in frustration as he drove. I held on to my seat, praying. Waldir had decided to take this route because it was over an hour faster than the alternate route, and when we began the drive, we didn’t know we’d be moving into a dangerous area not only because of the roads but also because of bands of robbers known for placing barriers across the highway in the night.

We didn’t encounter robbers, but one of our car’s tires slashed while crossing a pothole. By God’s grace, the flat tire happened in the one stretch of jungle without curves in the road; since we were on a straight stretch of land, any local vehicles speeding through the jungle would have time to see us before slamming into the back of our car. Had we been stuck on a curve, we likely would have been hit.

Rain fell as Waldir changed the tire. Although it took nearly an hour before we got going again, only two cars drove by and they didn’t stop (for which we were grateful). This was not a situation where we wanted cars to stop to “help”—fear of robbery is strongly present traveling in this area. As I said though, at the time—even though we were scared—we didn’t know what a local from Palenque would later tell us: Never take the road to Ocosingo, even in daylight. Better to drive a few hours out of your way to avoid it altogether.

After Waldir got the spare tire on, we got back on the road, prayed we wouldn’t get another flat, and felt great relief when we finally made it to Ocosingo around midnight. We crashed at a cheap hotel, got back on the road the next morning, and made it to the famous “Cascadas de Agua Azul” (Blue Waterfalls)—many waterfalls with turquoise water you can swim in—where we hiked to the source of the falls with a local guide, Ivan, who told us about the jungle that surrounded the water. There are lots of jaguars in the area but they’re afraid of humans and they don’t attack; besides, they’re nocturnal so our chances of spotting one were slim (although I would have loved to see one; I’m a cat lover). Ivan is part of a team that protects the jungle and the animals but unfortunately, he told us, there are “bad people here, too” who hunt jaguars for their skin. Recently they caught five hunters who had killed a jaguar; they were sentenced to eight years in prison. I was surprised and heartened to hear that these hunters were prosecuted since many, many people get away with horrendous crime in Mexico (especially the drug dealers) and since so often I hear about corrupted police officers who protect trafficking and/or accept bribes.

The beauty of Chiapas—the jungle, abundant fruit, rivers, great Mayan ruins we visited at Palenque on our 4th day of the trip—starkly contrasts the difficulty of life for people in the state. After Waldir and I spent our day in Palenque at the ruins and then visited an ecoparque—a rescue reserve for wild animals where we saw monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles, turtles, parrots and various birds, a bamboo forest, etc.—we decided to walk from the tourist part of the area into the city where locals shop, eat, and live. Within just a few minutes, just outside the area of restaurants for tourists and the local shops, we didn’t feel safe, and we turned around. Waldir shook his head as if to say, “This is a great shame.”

When we’re in Mexico, Waldir sometimes gets lost in thought and then turns to me with an idea or question about how to help his brothers and sisters in Mexico. As tourists, as we enjoyed richly beautiful and safer areas of Chiapas, I lightheartedly asked Waldir, “Would you ever want to move here?” and he said yes, “to help my brothers and sisters.” He talked specifically of helping in the church. We also talked about economic development. On a different day, I had made a comment about that fact that I sometimes say, “The gospel is the answer.”  But people living in such great oppression need structural change. They need basic physical resources. Yes, people often become more self-reliant and lift themselves out of poverty with gospel knowledge, but for people living in such oppression, there is no way out.

That last night in Palenque, after walking into the town and then coming back to the tourist area, we went to a café for dessert since we still felt hungry after eating dinner—which is rare for us, but we’d been running around all day in the hot sun and hadn’t eaten. It felt like a luxury. After we finished our dessert and sat at a table outside talking, someone approached us and asked for money. I sat facing Waldir, and as I turned around to look at the voice who spoke to me, I saw an emaciated man, probably in his 60s, standing in front of us, torn, filthy t shirt and pants hanging on his little body. We’re used to this; in the country of Mexico and in our home base in Boston (especially in Harvard Square), every day we see people asking for money. But during that trip to Chiapas, I hadn’t yet seen someone in the area who looked like he or she was legitimately starving. Ironically, on the night that we went to buy dessert—a symbol of the fact that we have money to spend on not only dinner but on more food after—here was this man, our brother born into very different circumstances than us, standing by our side. We gave him some money but as he walked away I couldn’t stop looking at him, and I turned to Waldir, and Waldir dug in his pockets to find more. By this time, the man had walked into a restaurant across the street and I thought the waiters might kick him out, but I watched as even they let him ask for money from the restaurant’s customers. Even the local waiters pitied this man. I waited a minute or two and he came out of the restaurant and started walking down the hill back toward the local section of the city. As I made my way toward the man, a little boy ran out of the restaurant, holding half a sandwich, saying, “Sir, this is for you,” and then I handed the man the money I held, saying, “God bless you,” and “take care.” I walked back to the café, crying, and felt too embarrassed to sit back down there; I went to the car and wept as Waldir paid our check.

The next day, Waldir and I got back in our rental car, drove to one last waterfall before the 7-hour drive (the long drive to avoid treacherous roads and roadblocks), back to the airport to take our flight into Mexico City. However careful with money we may be, however much we may talk about our student loans and cost of living in Boston, the fact is: we’re incredibly wealthy in comparison to the majority of people living in the world. We’ve got the privilege of food and clothes and shelter and also of education and the ability to get loans for education and of vacations and of being able to freely move in and out of places, going to nice areas of Chiapas to enjoy the beauty and then leaving when we want to leave. Most of all, we’ve got our Savior, Jesus Christ. I believe the people we saw in Chiapas have the same Savior. I believe He loves them equally. And I do believe that many of the people we met in Chiapas are happy. I don’t believe our friends are constantly thinking, “We’re in poverty and we’re unhappy.” I think people do what they need to do to survive. And I know my conceptions of “poverty” and “happiness” are likely very different from that of my brothers and sisters living in parts of the world I know little about (whether “wealthy” or “impoverished” by my standard). I do know that I’ve been fortunate in just about every way a person can be fortunate. As I reflect on the state of Chiapas, I think about the scripture: “Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick, and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” (Mormon 8:39).

It’s almost Christmas, and as I think about my brother who approached Waldir and me at the café, I wonder if he feels the love of his Savior. Does he know that he is known– cherished–by a God?

And although I believe the Savior’s love can reach the darkest of places, I wonder: Would I believe in a Savior if I were starving?

Listen

December 18, 2016

Greetings from Mexico! Waldir and I are on a plane.

The weekend before my last final exam, by Saturday night, I hadn’t achieved what I had planned to achieve on my to-do list, and there wasn’t enough time to do everything I felt I needed to do (mainly, study for my last exam). I had planned to go to the temple Saturday because earlier in the week I felt I needed temple blessings of spiritual protection and guidance, and Saturday night would be the only time available to go. But as I was running out of time that night, I felt an urgent need to study for this exam. I thought, “The Lord understands that doing well on this exam is urgent for me right now.” So I kneeled to pray and told Him I decided not to go to the temple because it made sense at this time not to go. I thought about how I can go to the temple throughout my life but I only had one shot to do well on this exam and only a few hours to study. So I got up and started cooking dinner, in a hurry to finally sit down and study for my exam.

When I finished dinner, though, I knew I had made the wrong decision. I looked at the clock and realized I’d probably miss the last temple session (7 pm), but I decided to try to catch it. I ran out the door. Miraculously, I made it to the session. I don’t remember anything particularly special about the temple that night except the fact that I felt right knowing I did what I felt was the right thing to do. It didn’t feel easy prioritizing the temple at that moment, but it felt right. I squeezed some study time in early Monday morning and took my final exam in the afternoon, and the Lord helped me. I can’t imagine the exam having gone any better. This is not to say that I didn’t prepare; I’d been doing the work in that class throughout the semester, and then, when time was short at the end of the semester, as I studied Monday morning, I felt the Spirit’s enlightenment giving me motivation to stay focused and helping me remember material.

By listening to the Spirit and by being diligent in seemingly small ways, our work is blessed. We do everything better, and things come together.

I started the semester wondering how and if things would work out—and I thought I might need to drop a class—but it worked. Things haven’t miraculously become easy but I’ve learned how to stay steady during the ups and downs. My own weaknesses have been front and center for me this semester, but as cliché as it sounds, I grew immensely because of recent challenges. And looking back, I wouldn’t change it because I learned (painful but important) lessons.

God blessed me in ways I can see already and also in ways I can’t now comprehend but one day will see more clearly. “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I look forward to that future day of knowing, and I’m grateful that today we can know and see clearer as we look to the Light. Merry Christmas!

Protecting the vulnerable

December 2016

Last night at a Religions and the Practice of Peace Colloquium, I listened to a panel on protecting children, specifically Syrian refugees. I heard from a respondent who has been working in refugee camps for many years as a child trauma therapist. I heard statistics and eye-witness reports about the state of Syria and also camps in Greece and in other countries. There is a gross deficit in political commitment to protect children in refugee camps, who are prostituting themselves in the open (in daylight) to earn money for food; forming gangs; going out to work in fields as young as four years old; being sold into slavery; and being forced into child marriage. One specialist told us: “We’re in this situation because we haven’t been politically committed to meeting standards already established” for child protection. The world knows better. Yet here we are.

Of course this is not just a Syrian problem. In the world there are 31 million children living outside their country of birth and 11 million of those are refugees. That’s a 1 to 3 ratio. The ratio for adults is 1 in 20. 45% of child refugees at this moment come from Syria or Afghanistan. Yet internally displaced children are even more at risk than those who managed to flee their country. This is a massive issue not only in Syria but also across Africa and Central America (I’m ashamed of the U.S.’s treatment of the refugees at our door).

One speaker reminded us that “the obligation to generate hope rests with all of us.” She spoke of the “hope that comes from religious faith and a sense of viable future.”

This panel got me thinking about what I can do to work smarter and to be better. What can I do to make the best use of the resources God has given me? How can I alleviate suffering in my sphere of influence? Am I willing, and am I preparing myself, to go where God will ask me to go? These are questions worth coming back to again and again.

election night

November 2016

Ironically, I was with the HDS Muslims (and some other Muslims from around the community) on the night of the election, and it was painful. The past week at school has been even more painful. We’ve been going through stages of grieving. Shock turned to rage turned to deep sadness. I cried in two of my classes—not just a few tears, like, streaming-down-my-face kind of tears. Professors cried. For days, I couldn’t sleep at night…crashed around 4 a.m. to sleep for a few hours.

I’m surprised that the results of this election have been so visceral, raw, and—well, bodily. Post-election discussions at Harvard have addressed the election as a traumatic event, and I really do feel that there’s a lot of community trauma right now.

One of my Muslim friends, who is a first-year student at HDS, has family members in Michigan who have been threatened; as she kept getting phone calls from her mom about these threats last week, she asked her mom what to do. My friend was wondering if she should go home and be with family. Her mom chastised her, told her to get up off the ground (figuratively), and get to work. This response was heartening, full of energy and life. She told her daughter, “Your father and I didn’t immigrate to America for you to quit…”

And so, a fire has been lit—or rekindled—in many of us.

Chaplaincy for LDS Women

November 2016

Since I’ve been in survival mode, I’m slowing down and reevaluating my life’s direction. Rather than move forward with a summer internship in air force chaplaincy, I’m going to take this upcoming summer off. This was a hard decision to make because I love to work and I want to get all the experience I can, but I need to do this. Maybe pain is the only thing that could slow me down because I was pushing too hard and wouldn’t listen otherwise. I don’t know. I try not to make meaning of the pain—to figure out why—but I can’t help wonder what I’m supposed to learn from this. I want to wisely listen to the Spirit and to my body. Throughout my life I’ve ignored pain signals and other issues in my body and have just had a lot of anxiety held in there. So I’m working on looking into that and listening on a different level. This requires a mindful slowing-down process.

However, over the last few months I’ve been in touch with some people in Salt Lake about my request for the LDS Church to endorse female chaplains in the military. A few weeks ago I had a second phone conversation with the director of military relations and chaplaincy for the LDS Church, and also his colleague. These men were kind and we were on the phone for over an hour. I could tell they care, which means a lot to me. They did, in their September committee meeting, bring up my question of endorsing women for military chaplaincy. The committee still recommended “no” in their report to Elder Holland (because of the issue of a non-priesthood holder chaplain getting deployed). However, the director told me that things may change in the future, and that this is a historic moment because I’m the first LDS woman enrolled in divinity school, officially qualified to do chaplaincy, who has made the request. A woman requested it before but she wasn’t in divinity school so it wasn’t a possibility. It might seem hard to imagine it taking this long for a female Latter-day Saint pursuing chaplaincy to make this request—but then again, there are not many female LDS chaplains and the Church only started endorsing women for other chaplaincy roles a few years ago.

I was persistent in the conversation. The director encouraged me to write a letter to Elder Holland requesting a policy change that would endorse women for service in military chaplaincy. I haven’t had time to write that letter yet, and now because of my health, military chaplaincy isn’t looking like an option (at least not immediately), but I still plan to write the letter because I think it will benefit my sisters in the Church.