This Is My Daughter

The papa held up a yellow T-shirt to his six- or seven-year-old daughter to make sure it would fit, to make sure she liked it. She nodded and grinned. He smiled. “Esta bien,” he said as he accepted her clothing and the change of clothing we gave him. He thanked us, and as they left to get in line for lunch, I wished them buen viaje  – a good journey – because I was at an utter loss as to what to say.

This father and daughter were like the other parents with children in line for a change of clothing, so I didn’t truly appreciate them the first time I encountered them. But later I noticed that they’d each picked up a broom and were sweeping. This act of thanks and kindness triggered my tears so I hid behind the shelves of clothing to collect myself. Soon they came to where we were sorting clothes in preparation for the next arrivals and we began to talk. I asked the father where they were from. El Salvador, he said, and somberly began to describe their difficult journey. But as his little daughter approached with a swish swish of her broom, his eyes lit up and in a grand gesture raised his arm toward her in presentation and exclaimed, “Es mi hija!” This is my daughter! I asked her name. She giggled and said,” Hazel.”  His pride and love for her were evident, even as his upturned lips belied the trauma of their arduous journey. This man and daughter came more than three thousand miles, many of them on foot, and in spite of the  horrors they suffered along the way, they gave thanks for the small comforts we offered with their labor, the only thing they had to give.

This took place on my second day volunteering at the Humanitarian Respite Center (HRC) in McAllen, Texas.  The HRC, founded by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grand Valley in 2013, is the first stop of immigrants once they’ve been released from the detention camp in McAllen. At the HRC they receive one change of clothes, a meal or two, a bag with toiletries, and a chance to shower. The staff  help them understand what’s next in the process, purchase bus or plane tickets to their next destination in the United States, and send the ones who are sick to the sparsely equipped onsite medical clinic— if a volunteer doctor is available; often one isn’t.

The HRC  occupies a corner in downtown McAllen. It’s a poorly lit cavernous space divided into three large rooms: one for processing which has a play area for children, a waiting area for their parents, and a hygiene bar where they can get extra supplies like diapers, shampoo, feminine hygiene products; one for distributing clothing which also has thin sleeping mats piled high on either side; and one for serving meals. There’s also a kitchen, bathrooms, a small shower area, and even a tiny chapel. It’s a humble space with a meager staff and a collection of rotating volunteers from around the country. But it is a light in the darkness for refugees and for those of us who spent time there.


My journey to McAllen began in my body: in my in my stomach that churned as I read and watched story after story about what was happening along the border and about the conditions in the detention camps; in my eyes that began to randomly expel tears thinking about families in crisis; and in my brain that fed me terrible dreams about people in cages and children torn from their mothers’ arms. For all the rage I felt about this administration’s detention policies, I felt a thousand times more heartbroken. Calls and letters to my representatives, being outspoken —all the hallmarks of being a politically active citizen— were accomplishing absolutely nothing. I felt helpless. I was a bystander to the atrocities being reported. I needed to do something to keep the feeling of helplessness at bay, to do something tangible and immediate. I felt called to go to  McAllen because of the notorious camp there. I wanted to see it for myself, to bear witness to what our government is doing, and to learn. I’d found HRC online and then a friend who’d volunteered there last year confirmed it did good work and encouraged me. I posted on Facebook about my sadness and wonderment about what we average citizens could do about the crisis as this “calling” was being formulated in my head. That led to three of us deciding to go together. A little team of fed up, determined, heartbroken women was formed, and we booked a flight from Philadelphia.

Upon our arrival at HRC on a Monday in late August, it was empty. This was a surprise. We’d understood that this facility had been seeing hundreds of refugees per day. We were told that over the weekend the government had quietly closed the borders of Texas and New Mexico and not only were no new refugees being allowed in, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was also releasing fewer from the detention camp. We were crestfallen and wondered if our trip had been in vain. We searched for news stories to confirm this; we found none. [It was finally reported more than a month later, after the administration made an official announcement.] After about an hour, however, someone at HRC got an insider tip from CBP that 47 people had people had been released. And sure enough, 47 people showed up about 20 minutes later.

HRC receiving hall

HRC receiving hall

The border patrol bus pulled up and we watched these souls come into the center. I wasn’t prepared for the surge of sadness, panic, and the range of inexplicable, overwhelming emotions I felt when my eyes first took them in. It was as if they weren’t real until I saw them. I guess they’d been heretofore theoretical, even as much as my brain knew this wasn’t the case. It’s one thing to see photos of the immigrants which allows you several layers of mental protection and distance from the reality, but it’s another thing altogether to witness fellow human beings in crisis right in front of you. The many children made me stagger. They were bewildered. Some children were crying, some were too stunned to emote at all. The red-ringed eyes of their parents connoted recently fallen tears or prolonged fear or illness or fatigue or trauma or…all of the above. I couldn’t hold back tears and neither could my teammates. But we gathered our composure to get ready for our service. This would continue throughout the week—encountering a person, a story, or information that was too much to bear and we would take turns sneaking off to hide our tears.

It’s important to explain who was coming to the HRC. None were from Mexico. They were from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These asylum seekers were the “lucky ones” that had been allowed to enter the United States. Hundreds of others remained in the McAllen detention camp, untold others were taken back into Mexico. They came to us directly from the camp with only the clothes on their backs and subpoenas for future court dates at which their claims for asylum would be heard. Most had family or sponsors all over the U.S. and that’s where they were headed after the HRC. We were never able to properly determine how CBP decided their fates, but it appeared to be random. One day we heard they were releasing those with sick and disabled children and about sixty people were then dropped off. Another day a few more were dropped off, but with no explanation about why they’d been released. It seemed as if confusion and uncertainty were an intentional tactic.

I was surprised to learn that even at the HRC, the refugees are still not “free.” Once deposited to the HRC, they are not permitted to leave. There are security guards and the facility is kept locked. The refugees must wait for their buses or flights at the facility to keep them safe. HRC volunteers must escort them to the bus station and airport. The guards were there to keep us all safe, one guard told me, “especially after the shooting in El Paso.” It was sobering.

Our Philly team was stationed at the clothing distribution area where we helped them select clothing and shoes. The clothing at the center has been donated or purchased on behalf of the center by people from all over the country. There is a warehouse upstairs at the facility where the donations are stored and sorted. It is remarkable how much clothing, food, and supplies are there, and it was a a glimmer of hope for me that people from across the country have responded to this crisis in impressive numbers.

After the refugees are fed and settled, it is a waiting game for them. I marveled at what I saw in their waiting moments: helpers. As with the papa and Hazel, they sprung into action. Many found the mops brooms and cleaned the floors. They cleaned the tables in the dining area. They took out the garbage. They helped us distribute shoes and fold and sort clothing. They were sick, sad, tired, and worried, and yet they helped us. One volunteer asked a young man why he and others were mopping instead of getting much needed rest and he said, “It’s the least we can do for you.”

The first day I joined the food line to help give out sandwiches and fruit for lunch and when we gave them two sandwiches, they often declined the second sandwich saying they had enough and that there were other people in line to feed. I was astounded that hungry people declined extra food, that tired and traumatized people found the energy to do chores in repayment for the care they were given.

Their Stories, The Facts
Because I speak Spanish, I had the opportunity to talk to many who came through the center. I have never been more grateful for my shitty, rusty Spanish because it allowed  me to learn more about them and to hear some of their stories firsthand, stories that were often as surreal as they were sad. A few examples:

  • An almost-seven-months-pregnant woman in her early 20s told me she walked by herself from Guatemala to escape constant violence in her village. Although it was painful to leave her parents and husband, it was more painful to raise her baby amid violence, she said.
  • Some parents reported that they didn’t want their sons to be forcibly recruited by the gangs who have overtaken their towns and countries. These recruitments by the drug cartels at gun or knife point are common, and families are helpless to stop them. Resistance is often met with murder.
  • A woman told another volunteer that during her family’s journey they were kidnapped by gang members. But somehow they managed to escape together, running for their lives in the darkness of night.
  • Another explained why she left her village in simple but gruesome detail,  “The gang slit my brother’s throat and burned my house down. I cannot go back there with my baby, it’s not safe. They will kill us, too.” Read that again.

Thousands of miles they all traversed, escaping unsafe homes, in search of safety for their children and different kind of life – the kind of life we all want and deserve. We learned that many would travel a few days, stop to work to earn some money, then continue to make their way north, so that their journeys to the border sometimes took several months. They would walk miles, then hop freight trains to cover more ground, then walk again, often meeting up with other refugees to walk in the safety of groups. Sometimes they paid “coyotes” with the little money they had to protect them from the gangs. They would sleep on dirt under the stars some nights. Other nights they’d hole up in a shanty along the way.  Imagine a trek like that. Imagine the strength and perseverance it takes. Imagine getting to the border, at last, and being thrown into a cage.

One day a volunteer asked me to help translate for a man who seemed upset. When I began to talk to him he was frantic and panicked. He had misplaced his Bible (the HRC gives a small Bible to each family) and needed help searching for it. I found one and brought it to him and he flipped through the pages then said sadly, “This is not mine. I wrote something in my Bible. It’s special.” I finally located it where his child had been playing. There were scribbles on the inside of the back cover, but I felt it was an invasion of his privacy to read the words, so I didn’t. When I returned it to him, he was overcome and tears welled in his eyes as he thanked me. In it was the name and contact information of a family friend in the U.S., he explained as he showed me the page. Scribbles of connection in his little Holy Book. It struck me how they have already lost everything and yet, in an instant, they can still lose more.

On Thursday of that week, a striking young Honduran woman, who was waiting for her flight to New Jersey with her 15-month-old  (an active, adorable boy with a twinkle in his eye), came to where I was sorting clothing to help. After some small talk, she began to talk about her experience in the detention camp, folding clothes while she spoke. With each bit of information she offered I became more comfortable asking her questions. I had not asked most refugees deeper questions than “Where are you from?” or “Where are you going?” as I did not want to further their trauma by asking personal questions; instead I waited to hear what was offered. But this woman, whose name I’m protecting for her safety, seemed ready to talk. She confirmed what we’ve heard in the news and offered details I’d not known.

McAllen detention camp. Abuse lies within.

When migrants are detained, all of their belongings are taken from them —necessities like toothbrushes, diapers, sanitary napkins, hair ties, and even their rosaries, which seems particularly cruel and unnecessary. The CBP strip men of their belts and hats, and all must relinquish their shoe laces. [One volunteer, a gentleman who was on his second stint at HRC, explained one of the reasons for stripping them of their shoe laces: to mark them. Individuals with no shoe laces are easily identifiable by ICE and CBP. We gave out hundreds of shoe laces.] The camp is kept very cold, so the refugees have dubbed it “the icebox.” The bright florescent lights are kept on at all times. The CBP agents rattle the cages at all hours to keep the refugees awake and uncomfortable, and they taunt them and call them perritos –little dogs. They “sleep” on concrete floors. They are always hungry. They are fed only twice a day and one meal is cereal. She described how the children drank down the milk too quickly (making a sucking sound as she spoke) and then begged and cried for more. She was at the detention center a week and was permitted to shower only once. She said that they were told nothing during their captivity, so that when their names were called they didn’t know if they were being deported or being released, which left them in constant fear. They were put on a bus not knowing where it was going. All the refugees on her bus were completely surprised to end up at the HRC—they thought they were being deported.

I wasn’t sure if I should ask about family separation, not knowing if one of her children had been taken, but I nervously tip-toed ahead since she seemed so open. I told her our government claims that it has stopped taking children from their parents and she shook her head furiously and said, Eso no es verdad  – that is not true. CBP agents took babies and children from some women, and it was not clear to her to why certain children were selected to be whisked away never to be seen again. She described how their mothers then wailed and cried constantly. Que sonido tan triste, she said in a near whisper. “What a sad sound.”

This part of our conversation leveled me. I didn’t know how to respond, how to offer her comfort. I felt weak, felt my stomach churn, felt the tears well, willing them not to fall in her presence. But she was stronger in relating these details than I was in hearing them, I’m quite embarrassed to admit. Her eyes were sad, but she was stoic and exhibited a strength that must be reserved for those who endure extreme hardship. After a few moments of silence I looked in her eyes and said, “I am so sorry for what my country is doing. I hope you understand that most of the people in America want to welcome you.” Lo siento, lo siento, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I muttered. She nodded, her eyes now full of kindness and understanding, and she smiled and touched my shoulder. Then she went to tend to her son who was beautifully oblivious, playing with boxes and upturning laundry baskets like any toddler would. Later, I quietly offered her an extra set of clothing for her and her baby (since we were only supposed to give out one set) as a gift for helping us and she declined saying it wasn’t right for her to take more. I cried myself to sleep in my hotel that night.

Much has been made in the right-wing media of children being used as pawns to get over the border, so it deserves mention here. While it may be true in some cases, those we met were parents or relatives of the children with them, without any question. Their parenting behavior stood out to me for its absolute normalcy in abnormal conditions. Like the gentleman who, after showering, came to our area with his daughter to model their new clothes and thank us. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed and they walked away smiling, hand in hand. The mama who found a soccer ball and kicked it around with her son shouting, “GOOOOAAAL” when he made a great kick, both of them dissolving into laughter. The father who fussed at his son to throw away his lunch plate instead of leaving it on the table, “Don’t leave it. Find a garbage can, mijo [my son].” The father who asked us if we could find a headband because his little girl preferred it to a hair tie. All of these are moments of parenthood, moments we all have in common.

What has been reported about the severe condition of the camps, how refugees are being treated, the continued family separation in spite of the June 2018 order to discontinue it — it’s all true. One refugee told a volunteer that she was raped in the detention camp confirming previous media reports that sexual assault is happening in the camps, often to children. It’s notable, too, that the reports of flu and illness being untreated are accurate. At first we couldn’t understand why, with blazing Texas heat, the refugees kept asking us for coats and sweaters. We soon figured out it’s because they were cold and shivering from fever. And to remove all doubt about half of the volunteers, including me, became terribly ill with the flu as well. A report released recently confirmed the death of several children in the camps from the flu and untreated illness. These practices are designed to be cruel and to strip these individuals of their dignity. All of it is inhumane, most of it is criminal.

These are but minuscule fragments of a week that fundamentally changed me. I have left out so much of what we experienced for it is impossible to relay it all. I recognize that it is unfair (perhaps even wrong) to use the word “traumatized” to describe an experience with truly traumatized individuals, but I can’t think of a better word just now. I am traumatized and haunted by what I saw and learned. I cannot unsee or unhear any of it. The image of the immigrants’ faces linger in my mind. Their stories have taken up residence in my heart. Their plight burns a hole in my soul. My visceral responses to the experience remain with me still. The smell of cleaning solution mixed with sweat, fear, tears. The lump in my throat that nearly choked me as I gazed into the eyes of traumatized women. The feeling of a sweet baby’s skin against mine as I held him while his mother tried on a shirt. The roiling of my stomach as I watched mothers and fathers clutch the envelopes with their court papers, those flimsy possibilities of freedom. The tingle in my ears and dissonance I felt when several uttered the words Eres muy amable (You’re very kind) to me, which I believed I hadn’t earned. The children at play who conjured up images of my own daughters when they were small. The lingering worry about those children and their fraught, complicated, and uncertain futures in a country where a third of the population reviles them, where they are targets for violence and hate crimes. The mouth-gaping awe for the refugees’ astounding strength and resilience. While these feelings bring me pain, I hope I never forget them because forgetting would be inhuman.

I am so grateful that I had this experience and that perhaps the volunteers and I gave moments of relief. But I am now more profoundly heartbroken, enraged, and ashamed of our country. My feelings of helplessness have not abated at all. In fact, I feel more helpless than ever because the situation is worsening. The dreams of suffering children have only increased and become more horrifying because now they are informed by reality. My friend who’d been there last year warned me before my departure, “It will bring you no peace.” She was right. I have found no peace.

The warehouse: donations from around the country

The warehouse with donations from around the country

But I did find hope in the midst of it all. It came in the form of volunteers from all over the country who have given their time and money to be at HRC, the staff of the HRC who have made this space to provide welcome and care, and our little Philly team. I met ordinary/extraordinary Americans who wanted to do whatever they could to offer comfort, to counterbalance hatred and ignorance, and to welcome refugees with outstretched hands and open hearts. Their energy and spunk was contagious. Each was a light that shines with the best of human nature and represents how good Americans can be. Their care and kindness was a salve for my wounded soul. I was heartened, too, by their networks of friends who raised money, who donated goods, who helped spread the word, just as my awesome friends have done. As I’ve experienced before, intense shared experiences create a family out of strangers. I will be ever grateful for this family forged in crisis.

So What’s the Point?
I know that human history is shamefully littered with groups of people demonizing and dehumanizing other groups of people so that cruelty, abuse, and murder can be chewed up and swallowed by the masses at Sunday dinner. But I’ve never truly understood it and I’ve certainly never seen it up close until now. It is the most heartbreaking fact of my life that people I know and not a small number of fellow American citizens are susceptible to the forces of hatred and bigotry, eager to buy into the notion that  human beings deserve this kind of treatment, that it’s somehow a deterrent. (It’s not.)  I could blather on about how we’re all immigrants (living on stolen land, but that’s another story – well, not really). I could remind you that your ancestors didn’t come to this nation with embossed invitations or citizenship applications in hand and your claim that they did it “legally” is nonsense. I could repeat ad infinitum that it is not only legal but also necessary to present oneself  in person for asylum on U.S. soil. I could point out that all the vitriol is aimed only at brown immigrants. I could talk about how immigrants are necessary for the economy. I could scream for days about how immigrants aren’t stealing your jobs, but automation and greedy employers are. I could tell you again that immigrants are not taking public resources and benefits (seriously, for the gazillionth time, they are ineligible for nearly all benefits and they pay billions into social security and do not receive any benefits). I could try to explain how U.S. foreign policy has contributed to the rise of violent gangs and crisis in Central America and how Trump’s policies are actually contributing to the rise of immigrants seeking asylum. Yet I understand, sadly, that the people who need most to understand these things are averse to the facts, and, frankly, just don’t give a damn.

But none of that is the point. The point is that we are living in a country that has adopted cruelty, torture, and fomentation of fear and racism as a de rigueur, official response to immigration. Full stop. There was a time that I thought we could all agree, no matter our political party or how we disagreed on myriad social and political issues, that caging people, torturing them, and ripping children from their parents’ arms was amoral. That sexually abusing children was a crime. That sending babies off to God knows where and then LOSING THEM was unthinkable. I’m astounded that these practices are not universally condemned. What is being inflicted on these children and families is evil. An administration who enacts these policies is monstrous; those who carry them out are monsters. I am profoundly disappointed and confused by those who support this, and I am perplexed by the silence of those who don’t.

What about you?
I ask of all the questions I’ve been asking myself: What would you do to protect yourself, your child, your family?  What would love make you do? What would fear make you do? Would you cross a line, a bridge, a river, a desert, a country, an ocean, a planet for your child? How high would you climb for safety and freedom? Would you climb a wall, a tower, a mountain, to the moon? How far would you walk, run, ride after you watched your family be murdered, your home burned to the ground? What would you risk for the possibility of a better life? I suspect your answer would be:  anything. 

Were it not for the completely random fortunes of our birth, the refugees could be us. And as a nation of immigrants, they are us.  It is our duty as human beings and members of a civil society to protect one another from harm. It is our obligation to act in a way and support policies that reflect our values. It is our responsibility to rise up against atrocities committed in our names. I believe we are called to understand and embrace the things that connect us and make us similar – because we are all more alike than we are different. Because that little girl swish swishing her broom?  She is my daughter. She is your daughter. She is our daughter. And her father is all of us.


Note: the Humanitarian Respite Center is no longer encouraging volunteers at the moment because of the change in the Trump administration’s recent decision to disallow any asylum seekers over the southern border.

If you want to get involved, Team Brownsville remains active at the border taking meals to families in Matamoros, Mexico, where refugees are waiting for asylum. RAICES provides low-cost legal support to separated and detained families, unaccompanied minors, and asylum seekers. If you want to put pressure on your member of Congress to reverse these policies and close the camps, please contact them. Here’s how

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Both Sides Now

“Just sign your name here, write today’s date here, and you’re done,” said my divorce lawyer pointing to the blank spaces. I signed my name, wrote 6/8/18 in the indicated spot, and slid the paper across the desk to the notary, who applied that squeeze-y thingamajig to make it official. The notary, a woman of almost no words and even fewer emotions, took her leave. The lawyer stood, shook my hand, smiled, and told me that once a judge had signed the decree, it would be official. He bid me farewell. And that was that.

I stepped out into the street and squinted away the shining sun. (Why is the sun shining right now?! IT SHOULD BE AS CLOUDY AS MY HEART!) I put on my sunglasses and headed to my car. I passed people having coffee at tables at an outdoor cafe, business people striding down the street with importance, people chatting as they waited for the bus. Ordinary scenes of an ordinary day, except it wasn’t an ordinary day. A couple of tears appeared beneath my sunglasses.

Although this is what I wanted, this is the thing I put in motion, it felt strange to close a major chapter of my life with the stroke of a pen, and so weird that everyone was going about their business as if nothing has changed. Of course, nothing has really changed. We’ve been separated for five years, and I was cognizant that things weren’t working for long before that. My intellectual self was satisfied that we finally made it official. But my emotional self wondered why I felt so melancholy.

My mind keeps going to that scene in the movie Terms of Endearment when Shirley MacLaine’s character realizes her daughter, whose death she knew was coming after a long illness, has died. She wails, “I’m so stupid! I thought it would be a relief!” I don’t feel anything quite so dramatic (and divorce is only a sort-of death), but I identify with misreading how I would feel once this was over. I did think it would be a relief, but I did not count on a renewed sadness over something  that I thought I’d long ago accepted.

The icing on the melancholy cake was on that very same day when I got home from the signing, my daughters asked to watch home movies, which, by the way, they almost never do. They didn’t know what had just transpired, but kids have amazing radar, don’t they? On the screen was I, a young mother, laughing with my kids, a tiny Maddie jumping around and talking a mile a minute, and a baby Emma learning to clap her hands and shake her head no. There was my now ex-husband (whoa, that sounds weird) helping Maddie do handstands. Moving pictures of a life I once lived; everyday scenes of a family being a family. Just yesterday, but also a lifetime ago. It put a fine point of the finality of it all, and was a reminder of how rich and full much of that chapter of my life was. It reminded me that there was love. It reminded me of just how much water rushes under a bridge in the course of 23 years.

It took about seven weeks for the decree to be processed and the judge to sign it. I opened the email from my lawyer on a scorching hot summer day and just stared at the attached decree. There it was in black and white. Huh. Marriage begins with an official document and ends with one. It was a period at the end the longest sentence I’ve ever written. I was glad and sad, realizing once again how odd it is to feel opposing emotions at the same time.

Two of the walls in the basement rec room display scads of framed family photos – a kind of  still This is Your Life montage. For some reason I can’t quite identify, I’d held off on taking them down for years. Maybe because it just didn’t feel right to remove the ones of my husband and his family while my girls were still living at home?  Maybe it was because the divorce wasn’t final? Maybe because packing away the relics of another life was too painful? I don’t know. But several days after I received the decree, I knew it was time to take them down, which issued another little jab in the gut. But it also felt like a turning point that I was able to finally do it. Making the walls bare again was both a literal and figurative cleaning of the slate. So I turned on my playlist, cranked up the volume, and danced the photos into their boxes. I was feeling a bit celebratory by then, actually.

But then, just as I’d found my groove dancing and singing along to my 80s favorites, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now began to play. I’d listened to this song – the beautiful orchestral version – a million times when my marriage was beginning to fall apart and I’d cried every time I heard it. It was the soundtrack to my life at the time. I stopped to listen once again and it felt equally poignant, but different. The song still made me ache because it’s that damn good, but it felt like one final ache, an appropriate coda for this period in my life. And though I know the reality is that it was just a coincidence that it played at this moment, I felt that the universe wanted me to hear it one last time in this particular way as I packed away evidence of a different life, of my illusions, of my clouds.

The thing is, as nostalgic I felt in these moments of official ending, as much as tears fell for what was, that official ending also signaled an official beginning. I know (I know!) how trite and self-help-booky it sounds, but moving on is liberating. Accepting that love and life change is crucial to well-being. Acknowledging that good decisions can be as painful as they are exhilarating is healthy. Redefining family is normal – family is what you make it. Doing it all with kindness instead of animosity is a carefully crafted gift. I don’t remember the song that came on next after I’d considered all these things during Both Sides Now, but I do know that I felt lighter, happier, and that I danced alone in my basement. Onward, I smiled to myself. (My cats just stared at me perplexed and wondered what the hell was wrong with me.)

You may wonder why I’m sharing this part of the story, the (probably boring) details of the finale. And someone recently asked me how I could bare myself so publicly on this topic. This is why: when I wrote the post Now You Know about my decision to end my marriage, the outpouring of messages was incredible. So many people, women and men alike, reached out to share their stories with me, to tell me how their story aligned with mine, or to simply tell me they understood and supported me. It was medicine for my wounded self who didn’t know how to talk about it in person, and I had unwittingly given given a spot of medicine to them, which was more therapeutic to me than I can describe. Loss and gain, love and strife, pain and happiness, indecision and action are universal. My story was your story, too. And maybe still is.

So I end with this advice that I learned in this protracted process: recognize and embrace the messy borders, the blurred and confusing lines of love, feeling, and family; acknowledge that there is pain in taking the steps you know are the right ones; accept and appreciate the past and its lessons just as you rejoice in the possibility of the future; and, close a chapter of your book with dancing and celebrate the magnificent possibilities of a clean slate.

It’s never too late to make the life you want.

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Many Hands

Her name is Asana (AH-sa-nah). When she was just four or five years old she became a student at Heritage Academy in Breman Essiam, Ghana. She rose long before the sun to help her mother with chores, then walked five miles to school, first along the dirt road leading out of her village, then to the partially paved, pot-holed road that washes out during the rainy season, and finally to the main road that buzzes with rickety, beeping, speeding cars. After seven hours of school, she walked another five miles back home to her tiny village in the bush where she did more chores. She went to bed tired and sometimes hungry, but somehow her homework was always done.

Her father died at some point during her young life; it’s not clear to us when. Her mother has a small palm nut oil business. Asana, her mother, and her brother collect the red and black palm nuts from the lush and beautiful palm trees that adorn the landscape. They boil the nuts to make soup, then press the same nuts to make the oil which they sell roadside, as do many other families. They also collect cocoa beans and coconuts to sell, as do many other families. They are grateful for the bounty of the trees around them that provide fruits for food and a very small income, but theirs is a life marked by poverty and struggle.

Today Asana is about 12 years old. She’s in 7th grade and a stellar, dedicated student. She is beautiful, but stoic. Her expression carries the wear of hardship. Kwesi Koomson, the founder of Heritage Academy, learned of her long walk to school a couple of years ago and changed the bus route to include a stop close to her home. A welcome relief for Asana.

One typically hot evening, Kwesi and I had a conversation about our students’ varnished view of the kids at Heritage. It had struck me during last year’s visit that although we were closer than we’d ever been to significant poverty, it remained unseen in many ways. We were surrounded by kids in clean uniforms who were eager, energetic, happy, open, and friendly. We didn’t see their mud-brick and tin-roofed homes with no electricity nor running water. We didn’t see their toil at home. The school provides lunch, so we didn’t appreciate their hunger after the meager meals they got at home (some don’t get any). We didn’t see their worn clothing. I felt uncomfortably aware that we weren’t seeing their “real” lives and I wanted the students to understand them more deeply. Kwesi had long been thinking this very thing about our student trips and decided to arrange a visit to a student’s home. He selected Asana and told us her story. Although I was excited for this closer look, I was worried that our visit might seem exploitative to her family (a bunch of well-heeled foreigners piling into her home to gawk at her living situation), and that Asana might feel uncomfortable. But when he summoned her to ask, she was honored and agreed. She seemed proud, even, as she should be.

As our bus pulled into her village, one made up of about 30 families, the villagers stopped what they were doing to stare. They smiled, but watched us carefully as we disembarked in front of a tiny store that sold sundry items like small packets of laundry detergent and soda. Our students seemed nervous, both for what they were about to see and for being the objects of such intense scrutiny. Many of the villagers don’t encounter foreigners and white people often, if at all.

Akwaaba” (welcome) her mother said as we nervously shuffled into their tiny compound  – a brick house, a wood and tin outbuilding, a storage structure –  all surrounded by a wooden fence. Next to the house was large cauldron atop a fire where the palm nuts were boiling in a black liquid emitting an odd, pungent odor. Scattered on the dirt in the courtyard were blackened palm nuts left to dry in the sun. Chickens and ducks (oddly enough) bobbed around our feet. The ubiquitous tiny goats bleated nearby. Asana called for her younger brother who scampered into the courtyard to join us.

We gathered ourselves into a semi-circle with Asana, her mother, and her brother at the fore. I asked the kids if they had any questions for the family. Milo, a young teacher at Heritage Academy, was our translator and guide. Asana’s mother explained how they use the palm nuts. Asana timidly talked some about what her daily life was like; significant was how much work was involved, how little play. Although they seemed happy to have us, it was admittedly somewhat awkward. Our students weren’t sure what they should ask; her family wasn’t sure what they should tell. I could sense that the kids were shocked by the conditions but also impressed by what this family accomplishes with so little. I was too.

We thanked them for showing us their home and I asked if I could take photos of them and their home. They were eager to pose, as are all Ghanaians, who seem to love cameras. As the students left to get back on the bus, I stopped at a table just inside the gate that was covered with a nut I couldn’t identify. The mother approached me and explained – in surprisingly good English – that they were cocoa beans. And then she said in a quiet voice, almost conspiratorially,  “I don’t like that she goes to that school, even though she loves it. Her father is passed and I need her to work. I need many hands.” I replied, “It is a hardship for you. You have to choose between earning money and her education?” “Yes, madam, it is hardship. But she smiles.”  I looked in her eyes, “You chose her happiness.” She nodded, her lips turning into a small smile, and waved goodbye.

I’ve thought quite often of Asana’s mother since that day. In Ghana it is common – when only one child in a family can go to school – for the boys to be given the privilege of school over the girls. Girls are often seen as the laborers and keepers of the home, the boys the ones who should be educated. Her mother not only gave up having her eldest child at home to work during the day, but also bucked tradition by giving Asana, not her brother, the opportunity for education. It’s a tremendous sacrifice for her. She needs many hands, but in her world of few choices, she chose her daughter’s education and happiness.

When we think about poverty we often reduce it (as the privileged are wont to do) to the lack of material things, maybe to hunger. We can fleetingly imagine, perhaps, a life without a cell phone, a vast wardrobe, or three meals a day. We tend to forget the intangible luxuries and privileges we enjoy like choice, opportunity, education, freedom,  and the pursuit of happiness and dreams. Apart from lacking clean water, ample sources of protein-rich food, electricity, and money, they lack opportunities to choose a different path in life. Those with great ideas, curious minds, and big dreams are left wanting.

And that’s why Heritage Academy  is so very important.  An education at Heritage provides opportunities that these kids would not otherwise have. They graduate literate, nearly fluent in English, and have distinct advantages over their peers who have no education. They still face monumental struggles of course, for the cycle of poverty is deep and powerful, but they have better footing in their small world. Most of the students at Heritage attend on scholarships provided by the Schoerke Foundation, founded by Kwesi’s wife, Melissa. The many hands (and many donors) of the foundation keep the school in operation, and give kids like Asana a chance.

I came away from this journey, once again, with renewed gratitude for my good fortune and immense thankfulness that my own daughters can pursue their dreams without great sacrifice. None of us will forget that visit to Asana’s home. And I will never forget her mother, whose  little smile told me that she was proud both of Asana and her own difficult choice.









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Dear 2017

Dear 2017,

Right now you are in your fancy tuxedo waiting in the wings to make your grand entrance.  It will be heralded by fireworks and champagne or apple juice, silly hats, confetti, musicians and dancers, drunken revelers, grape eaters, people in Times Square with no place to pee,  hillbillies with guns, book readers, TV watchers, and fast-asleep children or adults who can’t stay up that late. I hope you’re ready. You will be met by all with great expectations. Your predecessor, the year 2016, was a steaming pile of fetid excrement, so you don’t have much to live up to. But try not to screw this up.

Try not to take away so many people who inspire us, like musicians, poets, artists, writers, entertainers, and original thinkers. We rely on great, artistic minds to bring us joy, express our collective thoughts and desires, and to soothe our troubled souls; they better us all. Please make sure to lift up science and research because only by understanding the natural world that we will be able to save the Earth and ourselves. Try to remember that peace is a tenuous and fragile thing, so we need you to be steadying and calm. Please enter the stage with an appreciation that freedoms are at risk, that truth has been beaten and bruised, and that people across the globe are suffering. Seriously, we’re a hot mess right now and we need your help.

As your days unfold, 2017, encourage us to stand up against injustice when we see it. Remind us that silence is the enemy of good. Do not let us become complacent. Do not let us give up hope. Help us be discerning. Require us to find and fight for truth.  Guide us to reparation of our divided nation and world. Remind us that we are all responsible for creating a safe environment for ourselves and one another. Insist that we listen as much as we talk. Demand that we see the light in others, and make our own known. Make us quash hatred and discrimination. Urge us to live our values, not just talk about them. Above all, impress upon us daily that the only currency that multiplies itself is kindness.

When you come to us, we’ll try to live up to our part of the bargain of existence by being better than we were last year. We have 365 new days of blank canvases on which we can create something more beautiful, or, at the very least, something that mom wouldn’t be embarrassed to tack to the fridge like she was this year. We will honor your gift of time by making good use of it, by stoking the fires of our passions, by loving deeply and laughing often, by being engaged citizens, by drowning out the voices of hate, by standing up and speaking up, by exercising our freedoms, and by resisting darkness.

Please be kind, generous, and magnanimous, 2017, and we will try to be so in return.


p.s. Please make bacon healthy.

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Mirror Mirror

My daily routine begins and ends with mirrors. When I emerge from the shower, the bathroom mirror points out that I may have accidentally swallowed a basketball. When I dress for the day, the full-length mirror reflects a creature whose attempt to hide a couple of sausage thighs is unsuccessful yet again. When I brush my teeth before bed, the mirror reminds me that my neck is trying to swallow my chin. They’re like Fun House mirrors without the fun.

For as long as I can remember, these things have been true:  I love cake, the kind with an inch of buttercream icing. I would trample you for a buffalo wing. I might threaten your family if you tried to keep me from a fried anything. Salads make me sad. Seriously, lettuce is barely food. Kale is a form of torture. But for most of my life, my food desires didn’t come with any consequences at all. I was a skinny little thing, happily eating whatever I wanted and easily fitting into clothes that could be described as “not tarps.” But as I have aged, my body has changed without all that much change in my eating habits. (Ok, a little. I drink slightly more beer than I did as a child.)

Mother Nature is cruel. I don’t know exactly why She turns on us as we get older, or after we have babies. (We make humans, for crying out loud, Mom Nature, give us a break!)  I cannot recall the moment She decided that the way I have always lived should start biting  me in the ass. I guess She decided that I should be punished for frolicking in bikinis without care in my 20s, for proudly going topless on the beaches of Spain, and for my belief that bacon was sent from Heaven to make my life complete.

In theory, I am a die-hard proponent of women (and men) accepting their bodies. I believe that we all should eschew absurd and narrow standards of beauty and that we are all beautiful. I rant and rage against shaming anyone for how they look. I want to throw a boot at television shows and burn every magazine that have made commenting on looks and bodies a spectator sport. I applaud every article/book/meme that tries to teach women to accept themselves as they are, fat or thin, tall or short, wrinkly or smooth, young or old. I marvel at (and envy) equally amazing weight loss stories, and stories about women who proudly proclaim they are happy just as they are. But then I step in front of a mirror and shame myself. Moments later I chide myself for being so damn superficial.

So I’ve found myself on  a self-esteem see-saw. I look fine. I look terrible. I should be able to eat what I want. I really shouldn’t eat what I want. I am fabulous the way I am. I am not so fabulous. Who cares what I look like in a bathing suit? Run for your lives, I’m wearing a bathing suit! Turns out I am unable to internalize my own beliefs and I struggle mightily to practice what I preach. I feel great when I lose weight, I do. Who doesn’t want their pants to zip without lying on the floor? But I also feel great when I eat and live as I want. I resent when I diet, muttering profanities at the evil carbs that are suddenly everywhere when I try to avoid them. Damn you, bread basket. The see-saw goes up and down.

So I have done what nearly every woman in America has done: diet. Over and over. A few pounds come off and they come right back, like a boomerang of blubber. I will eat a sad salad. For a few moments I’m proud of myself for these healthy bites. And then I think to myself, You know what would be good with a salad? A side of beef and a cookie the size of my face. 

I go to the gym on occasion and I walk almost every day. It doesn’t do much other than making me feel good for making the effort and show other gym goers that my cellulite can jiggle in perfect time to my playlist. I’ve walked almost 72 miles across northern Spain. I’ve climbed a mountain in the Andes. I’ve sweat my ass off in Africa. And after all that exertion and work, my thighs still snicker, “nice try.”

As a newly single person, this dissonance has kicked into high gear. I am loathe to admit publicly that my desire to look better is, perhaps, based more upon being appealing to the opposite sex than on being healthy. When I was dating the first time around I fit into that stupid box of hotness that society has defined for us (and perpetuated even by us women). I literally can’t fit into that tiny box anymore. Yea, I notice you not looking at me anymore, men. I’m not supposed to care, but I do…so much more than I’d like to admit or than is healthy.

Having been both thin and chubby, I can tell you that the heavier you are the less you are noticed. Every additional pound is paid for with increasing invisibility. The heavier I have gotten, the more I have noticed how people really feel about the overweight, too. I’ve heard women I love say to girls things like, “Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat!”  And say to me,  as if I’m impervious to how it might effect me, “Did you see how much weight so-and-so has put on? Yikes!” The message is clear: fat = bad. Of course, being overweight can cause health problems, but I have never heard anyone say, “You shouldn’t eat that, you’ll get high blood pressure!” or “Did you see how much cholesterol she put on?!” Nope, fat is worse than illness. When Sports Illustrated featured a “plus-size” model (um, size 12 is not “plus” you size-two nazis, but whatevs) that one time like a year ago, I thought it was perhaps a bit of a turning point. But a nano-second later the media was certain that Jennifer Aniston had a baby bump, when in reality she’d just maybe eaten a cheeseburger. How dare she eat actual food. Or look normal.

So am I  a fraud and traitor to women for caring so much about how I look? Am I a shallow anti-feminist for wanting to be thinner? Or a victim of society? Both?  My mind circles back to my we all are beautiful mantra. I get angry with myself for succumbing to societal and personal pressures and make a mental list of my desirable, positive qualities: smart, worldly, well-read, well-traveled, funny, fun loving, kind, warm, loyal. And then…not a one of them shows up in my damn mirror. Not one of them can be seen in photos (photos I might use on a dating site, for example). None of those qualities is evident as I walk down the street. My mirror image isn’t me, but it’s ME, dammit.

I do, with every cell of my being, want to be the kind of woman who is confident in who she is and how she looks no matter her size.  Confidence is contagious and sexy, we all know this. I also want to feel that my intellect, humor, and talents have social currency. I want to feel that my body is as good as my brain.

But why is it so hard? Why is it so hard to accept ourselves as we are? Why is it so difficult to apply what we believe in to ourselves? And why, for the love of bacon, do I have to give up so much to attain the body society tells me I should have?

I want to look in a mirror and be happy with what I see. Maybe I need a different kind of mirror.

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Just Beyond – Ghana Part 2

There was no way to cover all of what we experienced during our time in Ghana in my previous post, so I continue here. Time affords me deeper reflection, but not necessarily answers.

Poverty Has A Name

We all know there’s poverty in the world. We see it our towns and cities where we walk past homeless people on the street. We observe mothers paying with food stamps at the grocery store. Perhaps some of us work or live in blighted areas. But let’s face it:  for the vast majority of us, real poverty is a distant, faceless, nameless concept. Perhaps the most profound aspect of my time at Heritage Academy in Ghana was witnessing poverty at close range.



The children at Heritage wear uniforms of blue shirts and brown shorts or skirts and on Fridays they wear beautiful blue and white batik shirts or dresses, their “dress down” uniforms. Those tidy uniforms, the infectious smiles, generous hugs, and boisterous laughter of the children disguised their poverty from us in some ways because we couldn’t always see it. These were not the half-naked children with distended bellies and vacant eyes of those heart-wrenching sponsor commercials. Since we only saw these children on campus, we were removed from the reality of their living conditions – often shacks with no electricity nor running water. But we were there long enough to learn that behind the smiles, mischievous laughter, and curious minds of the children and young adults we met are lives marked by hunger and struggle. They put names on poverty: Roberta. Victoria. Isaac. Prince. Kofi. Kwame. Emmanuel. Emmanuel. Emmanuel. (I swear, half of Ghana is named Emmanuel.)

Most  of the children at Heritage eat their only full meals at school – a modest lunch of rice or stew is provided for them. Only children with a few pesewa (cedi coinsto spare can purchase the small snacks available at recess. Some rise long before the sun to do chores at home before they make the sometimes two-hour trip to school on a rickety bus (one with 15 seats but carries 30 children), and occasionally they don’t make it to school at all if the roads are washed out by the rains, or there is more work to be done at home. Sometimes they fall asleep in class because hunger and pre-dawn work make them tired. Some children have their lost their parents to simple illnesses and are moved around from one relative’s house to another, depending on who can afford to feed them. (The average annual income is about $400 per capita.) The reality of their lives is shocking, and they are the lucky ones. There are multitudes of  children in Ghana who have no full meals at all, no tidy uniforms, and no education. Heritage Academy is a beacon of hope and a refuge for these children.

New clothes

New clothes

One day, Kwesi Koomson, the founder of Heritage Academy and our host, brought a large clothing donation to the library and made a big pile of it where we were working. Word got out among the students and soon they were gathered at the library door clamoring to get in. He allowed them in one or two at a time to select one piece of clothing from the pile. They would pick through the pile and carefully select an item. Once back in the courtyard, they would squeal with glee and compare their new piece of clothing with their friends. Their one new piece of clothing. Some kids donned their new shirts right away and showed them off proudly, strutting around and mugging for my camera.

A few days later, the scene was repeated, this time with shoes. We had hauled about 120 pairs of shoes with us that had been donated as part of a shoe drive in Westtown’s Lower School. Kwesi laid out the shoes in a classroom and allowed a few students at a time to try on and select a pair of shoes. Once again, a large crowd of students clamored outside the door waiting for their turn to adorn their feet with new shoes.

Giving books

Kwesi giving out books

On that same day, Kwesi also distributed donated text books that wouldn’t fit in the library. Algebra. Calculus. English workbooks. American History. Kwesi would hold up a book. Who wants this one? and hands would shoot into the air. Me! Me! Yes, please! came their answers. They wanted books, any books, even if they were written in a language they didn’t completely understand about math or about a country whose history includes the enslavement of their people.

These scenes are burned in memory and I will never again huff and roll my eyes at the selections in my closet, nor take for granted my access to books and knowledge.  In fact, I will no longer take anything for granted. Yet perhaps more striking to me than what they didn’t have, was what they did: gumption, fortitude, and dedication to their education. In spite of their hunger and their need, they were so very alive, happy, hard-working, and grateful. It was something to behold.

Shoes awaiting new feet

Shoes awaiting new feet

Just Beyond 

And then there were the others we encountered – the cooks, staff, and neighborhood visitors at our guest house in Ajumako. They were always there, but just beyond. Just beyond the dining room where our nightly buffet dinners were served. Just beyond the living room as we watched movies projected on the bare walls, sometimes peeking in through a door left ajar to watch. They stayed just beyond as the students played cards at night, only sometimes timidly accepting invitations to join in.

They smiled a lot. They laughed at our antics. But they were removed. They served us food and hastily retreated. They cleaned up after us. They did our laundry by hand. There seemed to be a threshold they wouldn’t cross, and they lingered in the hallway outside of the small dining room where they chatted amongst themselves. Or, they hung out on the porch of the back house where the kitchen was or in the courtyard where they did our laundry during the day. I was fascinated (and saddened) by their reluctance to engage with us, even though they observed us with great interest. Sometimes I was sure I felt their longing to be closer.  Several of us tried small talk which would only last a few moments.  But we left it at that, for the most part, because this was how it was supposed to be, apparently.

The distance of the staff was a striking difference from what we experienced when we were on campus at Heritage where the kids were desperate to interact with us.  Add to that the fact that we came from Westtown School, founded on Quaker principles like equality and community. We have a Work Program wherein all students have jobs and participate in helping the community function – jobs like clearing plates, setting tables, and sweeping floors. We eschew hierarchy and titles; the students call teachers by their first names. So not only were we unaccustomed to being served in this way and leaving our dishes to be whisked away to be washed out of sight, but also we were unprepared to encounter people with whom we couldn’t just be together, as equals.

I knew before we arrived in Ghana that we would grapple with  the discomfort of being first-world visitors among third-world people. I even knew that we would encounter hierarchy within the Ghanaian culture because Kwesi had prepared us for it. He was part of it too, being the Lord of the Manor, as it were, as was his wife, Melissa – they were also attended to and served. But it was another thing altogether to see it in person. It added to the discomfort I already felt in being a person with too much everything by comparison. Although we weren’t accustomed to being served and had the urge to do our own dishes, we were told to let it be. Kwesi said, “I pay them to do these things, so you must let them work. They need to earn a living.” And that seemed to make sense, to honor their work and respect tradition. But I found it frustrating and uncomfortable. I wanted to know them more, and I think they wanted to know us more in spite of their distance. We all seemed to be actors in a play we had no part in writing.

But I wanted to do my part and figured doing so might be a way into conversation, even friendship. So one day after dinner I carried some dirty dishes back to the kitchen. When the staff saw me coming with dishes they halted their chatter and jumped to attention, but were clearly confused. I asked where I should put the dishes, but a young girl quickly took them from me. I said, ‘Thank you. Dinner was wonderful!” She smiled and thanked me, but I could see on her face – on all their faces –  that by bringing the dishes, I’d unwittingly communicated that they hadn’t acted fast enough, which was the opposite of my intent. I felt like a cultural bull in a china shop. It was a lesson for me, albeit one I didn’t want to learn.

What Next? 

The niggling frustration that took seed in Ghana and has continued to grow since I’ve been home is what to do about the poverty we encountered. These particular children have an education and a daily meal which is a tremendous start, for sure. But what about the rest of their lives? How do they eat when they aren’t at school? What will they do when they graduate? Kwesi, who is kind and generous and worries about this as well, has hired Heritage graduates to teach. Some of our guest house staff were Heritage students and graduates. But he can’t hire them all. Those that want to go to college (and so many do) often find themselves in the same position their families were in when they were young: unable to afford the education. One of the house staff longs to become a pilot, yet he can’t afford flight school. So he’s a house hand instead, living on barely enough to get by. A young teaching assistant wants to go to college so that he can study business, hoping that he makes enough money to one day follow in Kwesi’s footsteps and help kids like himself get an education. But he cannot afford college. The Victorias, Robertas, Kofis and Emmanuels all have hopes, dreams, and ambition with little to help them come to fruition.

I do not want to diminish the work and necessity of Heritage Academy. The education it provides is absolutely essential, as is the hope of something greater it gives its students. People who can read, write, speak English, and do math have far greater opportunities in their communities. There are success stories of graduates who get jobs befitting their education, and a select few that do go on to college (most often with the help of an “angel” donor). But for too many Ghanaians, their ultimate dreams remain just beyond their reach.

So I began to feel that I was just beyond as well. Just beyond a solution to an overwhelming problem. Just beyond the means to help them in an authentic way. Just beyond understanding where to begin.


If you would like to help a child get an education at Heritage Academy, consider giving to the Schoerke Foundation, which provides scholarships. Most of the children who attend Heritage do so at no cost thanks to donors. A $100 donation pays for one year of education for a child in need.

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