It Comes Back to Me

Could you grab a banana? Mar asks me as I stand, pushing my chair backwards with exaggerated effort.

We’re allowed to take one piece of fruit out of the dining room, and I’ve been stashing apples in my room since Monday, painstakingly toting one red fruit out of the dining room every meal.

But she wants a banana, and I nod, step away, only to return to the table.

What for? I ask, leaning onto table, my hands planted on either side of the bowl of chicken noodle soup I’ve just finished.

I have some coconut oil upstairs and want to try making fried bananas, she says, the idea glowing excitedly in her strong blue eyes.

Ah! Fried plantains! I exclaim as I step away from the table once more, We used to make that at the orphanage all the time!

Because I might not talk about it very much on in this space, but the time I spent in Mexico, the days and weeks and months that I lived life at the Casa Hogar, are still fresh in my memory.

I still remember answering the phones in that cool downstairs office, sitting in Hermana Tere’s spinning chair and fielding questions from a woman who has a child she cannot care for, can she drop her off tomorrow?

I still remember the hours spent standing in the kitchen, skidding around on the slippery white tile. Making lunch, serving anything from carrot puree soup (not a hit) to hamburgers and salad (winner winner).

I still remember late nights riding in the van with Manuel and Tere, their family. 1am driving back from the aunt’s house, exhausted and full after a night of games and tacos with the cousins.

I still remember the women who ran the tiendita across the street, inviting us into their home, giving my sisters free bags of potato chips and kisses on our frequent visits.

I still remember Saturday night restaurants with my family, moving through that Mexican city in the mountains, trying new dishes, becoming more adventurous, with every passing weekend.

I still remember church on Sunday morning, back in the evening if I was lucky. Sitting on the faded pink pew benches, raptly attentive to the pastor even as I watched those around me, soaking in every detail of Mexican life that I could possibly remember.

I don’t talk about it very much, I know. But I remember it all.

And tonight, standing in the kitchen frying thin slices of banana in sizzling coconut oil, it came back to me all over again.

~Natalia

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The Celebrating Night

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Photos by Jo

Someone observed, recently, that their New Year’s Eve celebrations seem to always fall flat, to under-perform their expectations.

I had to think about that; stopped for a moment to think about the 31sts I’ve had, the ways I’ve brought in the New Year.

And I think I disagree.

Not because my celebrations are crazy, wonderful, off the hook shindigs. In fact, just the opposite: when it comes to New Year’s Eve, I have no expectations, and that has been working rather well.

I’ve spent years in California, watching the ball drop curled up on the couch with cousins, aunts, grandparents. Clinking glasses of sparkling juice before falling asleep to the glow of still-strung Christmas lights.

I’ve spent years in Mexico, one of them counting down to midnight with 40 of my favorite little souls at the Casa Hogar, laughing and shrieking as fire crackers, sparklers, tiny little cherry bombs exploded across the gravel.

I’ve spent years at home, at the neighbors, and traveling. It’s been different and it’s been unpredictable and it’s been a fun and this year was not different.

Kid party with the neighbors, all those family kids go from apartment to open door apartment. Here, they decorate cookies, colored frosting spread heavy on graham crackers. Then I’m playing Taylor Swift, loud, and they’re hula hooping, there in the living room.

Upstairs for Wii Dance and glitter tattoos, I’d promised the girls a movie, and then there are more, and we eat popcorn, watch Horton Hears a Who. Then, upstairs to that third floor home once more, the kids are quiet in the living room, the adults are around the dining table, fish tacos, drinks on the table. The community is festive and home and Jo brings out last year’s party hats, we pass them around, laughing.

Later, the little girls watch the ball drop (conveniently an hour ahead) and then are tucked in, while snow falls heavy, steady outside the window. Inside, there are four of us there in the front room and we notice the New Year almost by accident- suddenly it’s 11:58pm and we’re watching the number click up on the iPhone screen, and then Happy New Year, it’s almost anticlimactic but there’s not a place I’d rather be.

Later, after a bit, someone suggests a movie, and Stevy upstairs with the girls, we’re back in that cozy basement theater. And it’s fun and it’s exciting and almost a little random- Vern has the remote and we watch something Jennifer Lawrence, a thriller, before I go upstairs to check on the sleeping angels, return to the basement to find the opening credits of Holes scrolling across the screen.

And it was 5am when we flicked off the lights, said goodbye, good night, Happy New Year, and 2014 is off and running after a wonderful, unpredictable, neighbor-family-friend night of celebration, fellowship, smiles.

~Natalia

Spicy Ramen

I bought Ramen tonight,

which is odd because there’s not much appealing about Ramen,

except maybe the price.

But I wanted it, so 97 cents bought me three packs of Just Add Water Ramen.

I microwaved one bowl and took two bites,

but something was missing;

something quite important was missing from my late dinner.

Because it’s two years ago now, Manuel and Tere slept at the orphanage,

and Karen, Manuelito, Ana, little Beki and I?

We stayed home.

The cousins came over and we locked the door tight, like Hermana Tere said,

and we pulled kitchen chairs around to the TV,

and we watched Inception until 3am,

and we ate Ramen.

It’s the same pack, the same styrofoam bowl and Fill to Here water line,

but this is Mexico and we value our flavor,

savor our spice.

And we sat around the TV slurping soggy noodles, red Salsa Valentina swirling together

with packet-flavored chicken broth.

That Ramen was spicy.

And tonight I sat at my desk and picked at noodles that lacked spice,

really lacked spice.

The Roommate was going downstairs, and I followed her there,

still picking my noodles because

I’m hungry.

And down the hall, through the Tunnel, people are eating here,

people are ordering here in the Commons,

and I smelled every single hot sauce they had,

and I ended up dumping Chipotle Tabasco sauce all over my noodles,

which were quickly getting cold.

And that fixed the problem, and I slurped them right down,

and it felt so familiar because my mouth burned and my nose ran,

and it was just like that late night in Mexico.

And a preached this week said God has a purpose in everything,

but sometimes it’s hard to imagine,

hard to comprehend,

that He puts meaning, that He has deep purpose,

in a night spent eating spicy Ramen and watching Inception,

while the dogs across the street barked

and someone, somewhere, set off a firework.

But every time I get close to wondering,

I realize that it’s not my job to question His decisions,

His grace, His gifts.

So I ate my chipotle Ramen, and I thought about Mexico,

and I thanked Him for time

relationships,

lessons,

gifts,

that He’s given me.

~Natalia

Dependence

Living in Mexico

for three months

in early 2011,

I spent days at the Casa Hogar

and

nights at Manuel and Tere’s.

There were times that I was tired,

grumpy, frustrated, impatient, sad, hurt.

But

those aren’t really the times I remember.

I remember so many more times,

so many more days,

that God put me in the right place,

lead me to say the right thing,

strengthened my hands for the right task,

and it felt so right

to glorify Him that way.

I’ve been missing that feeling lately.

Missing the dependence on God while I was there,

because I knew that without Him,

I didn’t have a clue what to do,

and I wasn’t going to get anywhere

or do anything well.

I’ve lost that feeling

and have been pretty self-sufficient lately.

I mean, I know that I need Him

and I can’t live, breathe, love, serve

without Him.

But I forget that a lot because most of the stuff I do,

well, it feels like I can handle it on my own.

But I’ve tasted what it’s like

to live so dependent on a Teacher who guides all,

and I want to go back to that.

I want to wake up every morning and beg Him

to show me what to do

to prepare me to do what He’d have me do.

I want to live like that again.

And it starts with a prayer

for dependence on Him

and I think that’s a prayer

that He’ll answer.

~Natalia

Help Me Pray

I sent an email to my mexican family;

Manuel and Tere and their five children,

and the 40 hearts living at the Casa Hogar.

It takes longer for me to type Spanish that it does English,

but it’s not too bad.

It’s been a disgracefully long time since I wrote to them,

and I apologized for that.

I wished them a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

and updated them on my family here,

and asked about the family there.

I told them we loved them, missed them,

look forward to seeing them next time…

whenever that is.

At the very end, I asked what we can help them to pray for.

And blink, memory’s a strong thing sometimes,

and there’s a prayer time on Sunday morning, kneeling on thin blue carpet.

Pray alone, pray with partners: Hermana Tere doesn’t just say “pray for”,

she says Help me pray.

Help me pray for this child,

help me pray for this situation,

help me pray, help me pray.

It’s a partnership because we’re on our knees next to each other,

and it’s a partnership because help me means we’re in this together.

You and I, we’re carrying this heart to Christ.

Between the two of us,

we’re laying this situation down at the foot of the Cross.

Help me pray is an invitation to join,

to be a part of this conversation with the Creator of the World.

And once, twice, three times I heard her say it,

but Help me pray is lodged tight in my heart,

and it doesn’t take much digging to uncover memories

emblazoned on a soul.

A reminder, a word, a call to prayer in another church,

another country,

another language,

and I’m kneeling at a pew,

when she says, Help me pray.

~Natalia

Christmas Snapshot

It’s been four years since we were in this city, this state, this home, for Christmas, but if Christmas is His incarnation, redemption born in a stable, then it’s not just a day we’re commemorating; it’s a way of life. A way of life that breathes grace and mercy, wears redeemed like a cloak, and leaves God’s love deep in everything we touch, do, say.

December 25th is one day, one very special day, but it’s not so much different from any other day, because this day and those days God is truth, God is love, and God is just, and Jesus is the perfect redeemer we’re drowning without. The special of today is not that He’s more Him today than any other; the special of this day is that today we’re thinking about it.

Today just as any other this is a building of six separated, but the lines swirl unreadable between neighbors and friends, between friends and family, and there are four breakfast casseroles here. Our ceiling is their floor, all day, every day, but today, we’re all sitting around one table, please pass the mango juice, and can you even imagine the weaving of life strings in this room?

Because I’ve got a story and upstairs has a story, across the hall, too. My story is me and yours is you, but there’s one God who holds all stories in the palm of His grand Story. And I know He’s wise, I know He’s sovereign, because He’s winding each story together and I’ll never quite understand. I’ll never quite understand how story meeting story means there’s wise words to soothe nervous hearts, little hands ready to play together, and six units of family wound together tight just when we need it.

December 25th is a snapshot of a year; close your eyes, I bet you can tell me where you were last 12/25, and the one before and before, well into years behind. True for you and true for me and turn around, last year today the mexican sun was hot and white bright through the VIPS window. And it’s funny because it really all started in this mexican diner chain; Mexico City in 2008, I’d been in Mexico four hours and really didn’t know what I had ordered.

Last year little family squinting in the sun in a downtown Mexico diner, at least we all know what we ordered. This year there’s snow finally, finally, dusting the Chicago streets outside, and I’m peeling dinner potatoes when Mom says call Mexico.

I always hesitate, and I’m really not sure why, but I call the Casa Hogar and Christmas has traditions, they’re all watching movies. But the voice on the other end rings happy, hits deep in my heart. Wise woman, woman whose love binds tight and holds strong. And we’re trading words over this Skype call; asking questions, murmuring assent and understanding, soaking up details because it’s been a long time and it’ll be longer until we’re face to face.

And then Rubi’s on the line and I suddenly realize that different countries, schools, families, skin tones really don’t matter because three years running friendship, Rubi was in my class at school in Mexico. And there’s a grip, a trust settling in my heart, because I trust Him to do well, and I trust Him to do right, and these are not friendships I have to fight to keep a grasp on, these are gifts He’s given because He is gracious.

And later, later, the day’s winding down but my phone is buzzing and cousins are friends, too, and the cousin-sister sends me back to Skype, once more. And it’s funny because I can hear them maybe a little, but they can’t hear me. But a picture is worth a thousand words and a video chat is worth more; words or no words. The other side of the country is 4×6 inches on my computer screen and I’m waving and blowing kisses to family I adore.

And Christmas is a day just like any other, and God is God every hour always, but pause, celebrate: Christmas is so very special, too.

~Natalia

This, His Will

The following is the second part of my application to Moody’s Elementary Education program. The first part is entitled Why I’ll Teach.

The story of Casa Hogar, and the profound impact this orphanage has had on virtually every aspect of my life can hardly be overstated. I believe that God will continue to weave the Casa Hogar part of my tapestry, my story, for many years to come. Living with my family in central Mexico during my senior year of high school, we met and promptly fell in love with the children and directors of the Casa Hogar. Anywhere between 30 and 50 children who, for reasons as varied as the child, cannot live with their families. Abuse, neglect, abandon: these young hearts will forever bear the scars of the evil in this world. An evil they did not instigate and yet have no defenses against.

While no longer living in Mexico, my family maintained contact with the Casa Hogar, and with Manuel and Tere, the middle-aged couple entrusted with the care of these children. We visit when we can, a couple of weeks once a year devoted to sharing life with these precious individuals in Mexico. My first trip completely solo, July 2012 slipped by with the blink of an eye as I lived in Manuel and Tere’s home, spending almost every waking hour at the orphanage.

Even then, scant weeks ago, I clung to my children’s ministry title. I knew I loved working with children. I knew I would work with them. The pull of teaching, of education, tightened around me, but I fought; my heart swells and breaks alongside every broken hearted child whose hurt leaks into my own story, but surely I can’t teach, right?

My plane hasn’t been in Mexico for two hours when Tere pulls up the subject of English classes. You know English, she says with a smile as children’s voices ring out across the orphanage’s gravel courtyard. Will you teach English classes for these three weeks that you are here? I glance out the window, watching precious young ones zip past on their hand-me-down bikes, and then turn back to her.

Yes, I will teach them English classes.

Roughly mimicking techniques I’ve seen before, wracking my brain to remember how my own mother taught these children when she tutored them, I stumble my way through our English classes. The littlest students nail down their colors and basic greetings, while the older children, jr. high students by their own right, work through verb tenses and lists of verbs that we work together to create. We all make it through the three weeks, and I’m happy with the results of our time together, but something is gnawing inside me.

A lurking wondering, a gentle longing. I know what it is, but I’m scared to approach the question head on. Yet the thought will not go away, and finally, back in the United States, I am forced to deal with my unease head on: I’m a children’s ministry major, but my brief stint in the classroom in Mexico have stirred something in me.

I want to know how to teach. I want to learn how best to deal with a rowdy classroom. I want to understand how a young mind learns, what is the best way to explain a topic, how to structure a lesson plan.

Once I start thinking about it, I find I can’t stop. The tapestry grows and develops, and God gently and firmly continues to reveal to me my own heart. My own desire to teach. Clinging to His assurance that what I’m doing is right, that His faithfulness continues to the end of time, I take first one step towards elementary education, then another, my heart filling with His joy and His peace with every confirmation of this, His will.

~Natalia

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