Endless Gratitude

This time of year makes me quite sappy. I am currently listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Pandora station, taking a break from making Christmas cookies. To my left is a small pile of colorfully wrapped gifts addressed to James and I, and behind me is a well-fed cat cuddling into a fuzzy blanket on the couch. I have a roof over my head, food in my fridge and cupboards, plenty of work to keep me busy and secure, and a life full of people I love. And I am wondering how it could be possible that I got so ridiculously lucky.

Holiday Cheer - our tiny tree for our tiny house.
Holiday Cheer – our tiny tree for our tiny house.

While enjoying a Thanksgiving weekend with extended family in the Portland area this year, I was struck by this deep sense of gratitude a few times. When my dad’s side of the family gets together (The Pru Crew, and then some) we top out at well over 30 people. I met three new babies in my own family and one belonging to a good friend from high school on my trip. I marveled as I shared food, games, small talk, and stories with my family how amazing it is that we all get along relatively well, enjoy seeing each other, and are all relatively healthy and happy functioning humans doing amazing things (like raising twins – holy cow, my cousin just had the second set of twins in the family and I thought one baby sounded like work; two at the same time of the same age?!?! Yeah, parents are superheroes, and parents of twins are super-duper heroes). I’m not sure what I ever did to deserve to be born into a happy, healthy family support system like this, but I sure am grateful. Call it privilege or an “original birthday gift” (in my sister’s words, more on that later), I am a very lucky girl. And I am very thankful that I have such a loving, supportive, and pretty damn functional family and family of friends.

Pru Crew assembling on Thanksgiving.
Pru Crew assembling on Thanksgiving.
Braxton and Koleson, my cousin's twins and two of the four new babies I got to meet on my trip.
Braxton and Koleson, my cousin’s twins and two of the four new babies I got to meet on my trip.

After being stuck in Portland waiting for car repairs (which VW ended up paying for due to it being a known issue – yet another reason to be grateful!) for four days longer than expected, I made the very long drive home. That night I put on my onesie footie pajamas and watched Adventure Time while snuggling with my man in his onesie and our cat on the couch in our cozy tiny house. I may feel like I am struggling at times, but it’s simple little moments of bliss like these that make me realize just how great life is, and how very blessed I am to have the life I do. Especially at this time of year, the warmth and goodness that fills my life seems at sharp contrast with those whose struggles are far more burdensome than mine. As hard as it is, I urge you to open your eyes and your hearts and do whatever you can to support the less fortunate, oppressed communities and those in poverty. We all have something we can give… like perhaps a donation that could help improve an orphan’s life in a third world country, or one that could give cold neglected dogs shelter this winter?

Onesie snuggles, pizza, and Adventure Time right after getting home. Ahhh this is home and it is SO GOOD.
Onesie snuggles, pizza, and Adventure Time right after getting home. Ahhh this is home and it is SO GOOD.

And on that note, I leave you with some very inspiring words from my sister, Rachel Prusynski, who may be my little sister but is also one of my heroines. I have always loved this speech (and admired her bravery for being able to deliver it so eloquently) that she gave at the high school graduation ceremony of the high school we both attended, only 5 years after she had graduated from there, in 2010. I re-read and remember these words whenever I am feeling the weight of my own problems that seem to eclipse the rest of the world. Reading this helps me to put things in perspective and realize just how lucky I am with what I already have in life.  I realized the only place I could find the text of this speech was on her Facebook page, so I am sharing the speech here to give this inspiring message a bit of a wider audience. Hope you don’t mind, sis, but I just have to share this brilliance with the world. <3

Rachel Prusynski’s Bishop Kelly High School Graduation speech 5/30/2010

Thank you and good afternoon. I feel very honored to be here.
But I do have a confession to make. When I was thinking about what I wanted to talk to you about today, I realized that I don’t remember the subject of the speech, or even who the speaker was, five years ago at my own graduation from BK. I apologize to whoever that person is, but I figure either I was too preoccupied by my itchy graduation gown to pay attention, or maybe the speaker just didn’t make enough of an impact on me. So I decided that while I can’t do anything about that horrible polyester tarp that you’re wearing, if nothing else, even if I can’t inspire you or change your life in my allotted 5-8 minutes, at least maybe I’ll say something that will strike you enough that you’ll remember it five years from now.

But first I have a second confession. I’m barely twenty-three years old, just graduated high school in 2005, and I have no idea what I’m doing here. What could I have possibly done in the five short years that are separating me from you that gives me enough infinite wisdom to qualify me to send you off to the next stage in your life? It could have something to do with the fact that Mr. Coulter sat in the audience when I spoke to my college graduating class and he liked what I had to say. But more likely it has to do with the fact that I’ve seen and lived through things in places around the world that not many twenty-three year olds have been fortunate enough, but also unlucky enough, to experience.

But here’s where I want to start with you. Guess what? High School is nothing like real life. No matter if that realization elicits feelings of excitement, gratitude, or remorse and panic, it’s true. Everything is about to change. Everything. Even the part of your brain, called your orbital gyrus, that determines your beliefs, personality, morality, and behavior hasn’t stopped developing. That fact may have just made some parents in the audience breathe a massive sigh of relief, but it’s true. Everything could change starting today, but only if you allow it to.

I know that the next four years, no matter where you’re headed, will offer a ridiculously overwhelming amount of options for you. But coming from the same seat you’re all sitting in, here’s one thing that I wish somebody had told me. No matter what your plans are, I encourage you to leave. Go. As far away as possible and as many times as possible. Leaving, going anywhere else at some point in college or the next stage of your life, is probably one of the best ways to allow all sorts of changes to happen. And don’t think that even if you’re headed out of state or across the country for college, that that necessarily counts. Realize that an idyllic ivy-covered college campus in New England can be just as sheltered of an environment as staying at home with your parents. Speaking of parents, when I asked my mom what she thought I should say today, she told me not to forget about speaking to the parents. Even though my own mom and dad almost lost me to a collapsed building in Haiti, my mother still said I needed to tell you to not be afraid to let your children leave. Because there are things in this world that just don’t exist here. And these things need to be witnessed firsthand, encountered at close range, for the true magnitude of the experience to be felt and any sort of real lesson to be learned.

So I want to share with you some of my own firsthand painfully close-up experiences that I allowed to change everything for me. As a disclaimer, I will mention that what I’m going to say is similar to what I spoke about last year at the University of Portland’s commencement ceremony. That’s not because I didn’t have time to write a new speech, but because even after the earthquake in Haiti changed everything; after it turned my world upside down; after it made me question some of the most fundamental beliefs I had carried with me, not only did what I am about to share with you survive the upheaval that Haiti brought to my life, but it was strengthened by it. The thoughts I shared with my own graduating class a year ago were fortified by my experience in Haiti, and when you can ride a seven-story building to the ground and be trapped under rubble and get evacuated by helicopter to Cuba because of injuries, and when your best friend who gave a year of her life to work with orphans and kids with mental disabilities dies in that same rubble you were pulled from, when all that can happen and you still believe in something, when that something is all you have left and you are able to rebuild off of that foundation and pick up the pieces and live on, you know the foundation is good.

My foundation is something I call the original birthday gift. And I’m about to tell you what that means.

I’ve spent some time in the two poorest countries in the western hemisphere; Haiti and Nicaragua. They are beautiful, but also terrible. Traveling to these types of places is not a vacation, it is not relaxing, it is not even pleasant half the time. But what I brought back with me, my foundation, was a million times worth it.

In Haiti I held babies that at three and a half months old were only about the size of a grapefruit, I hugged children born with AIDS who never knew the mothers that gave them their death sentence, I did physical therapy with kids stricken by entirely preventable diseases like meningitis and malnutrition. In Nicaragua I drove through a massive landfill called La Chureca and watched thousands of people dig through mountains of burning garbage looking for food or something valuable enough to sell. The young girls who lived in the dump would be sold as prostitutes to the garbage truck drivers so their families could eat. The little boy I saw climbing over a pile of trash would never have an education, much less a full stomach.

And that’s when I realized something. Something so important that if you have not listened to a word I have said so far, if you are like me and won’t remember this speech in five years, please listen now. Haiti and Nicaragua and all of my travel experiences have taught me one essential thing. I did nothing, absolutely nothing, to ensure that it wasn’t me that was born into that garbage dump or born with AIDS to a mother that abandoned me. None of us chose to be born into these lives where we have food and clean water and families that can afford to send us to BK and maybe to college. We did not earn this incredible blessing. It was a gift. An original birthday gift.

You are here through no fault or effort of your own. You are probably healthy and full from breakfast and you have a high school education and a future, all stemming from your original birthday gift.

But there’s a bit of a catch. It’s as if your original birthday gift made you start your life already in the red and in debt to the world. As potential future college students figuring out student loans and how to pay for school, you’re probably thinking “great, more debt. The last thing I need.” But original birthday gift debt isn’t monetary, it just comes with some responsibilities. All you have to do is try to start deserving your gift. And the great thing is, every morning you wake up, you have a new chance to do something extraordinary. And please don’t think that you have to be a valedictorian or a world traveler or someone rich and famous to do it. My friend Molly that died after deciding to move to Haiti to work with orphans had an average grade point average, slept til noon, ate copious amounts of Taco Bell, and had an unhealthy obsession with Diet Dr. Pepper and America’s Next Top Model. She is the perfect example that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. I can’t tell you how to give back, or which of your talents to use to pay back your debt. But I know you’ll find your way to give back to the world in exchange for your original birthday gift. But know that you have the power to turn your life into one big thank you note. But the last thing I want to say is that Molly is also the perfect example that you have to start writing that thank you note now because you never know what might happen, so please wake up tomorrow and start paying back your debt. Don’t let today be the best day of your life.

Thank you.

All I can think of to say after that is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you, for my original birthday gift. I strive to keep trying (and trying harder) to live my life as one long thank you note. I hope you’ll join me. 🙂

Are We Allergic to Food? Or What’s Been Done to it?

This mother began looking into the food industry when her youngest had a severe allergic reaction to food, and she does a very good job of presenting what she learned in this video. Well worth watching!

“None of us can do everything. But all of us can do something.”

 

Don’t Wanna Be Just Another Gringa in Paradise

The best adventures challenge and change you, push your comfort levels and open your eyes, and this journey definitely accomplished that and more. Nicaragua presented harsh realities in contrast with beautiful glimmers of hope, the grit and the grime of third world poverty alongside gorgeous beach sunsets in a tourist’s paradise. Not to mention the contrasts between the polished and touristy Costa Rica we just visited, affluent and expensive compared to most of Nicaragua… To say the least, I have come home a different person than when I left. And that is precisely why I travel.

Hectic Managua Markets, Nicaragua 2014Tola at Magic Hour, Nicaragua 2014Touring Managua, Nicaragua 2014

During our last few days in Nicaragua, we hopped in a new friend’s car for a little day trip. Vera had gone with us to Playa Quizala and offered to take us on a tour of Granada and Laguna de Apoyo. First we stopped by her parents’ place on the outskirts of Managua. It was a beautiful gated complex full of well-tended fruit trees of every kind. We went crazy picking mangoes, avocados, guavas, starfruit, mint, tamarind pods, hibiscus flowers, limes, oranges, mandarins, grapefruit, bananas, and several fruits that were totally new to us. I will definitely miss the abundance of tropical fruit more than just about anything else in Central America.

On our way to Granada, we stopped at a viewpoint above Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake formed by a volcano, and had a nice view and a quesillo from a street vendor. A bit later we were in the colorful cobblestone streets of Granada, which was colonial and a bit European looking and reminded me a lot of Arequipa, Peru. We drove through the town, which was flanked by a volcano and the enormous Lago de Nicaragua. We stopped for delicious Mediterranean food and walked around the town square, which was in a state of awkward celebration since it was St. Patrick’s Day. There were lots of people in the streets, large dancing puppets on display and music playing, so we had a beer, haggled with street vendors and enjoyed the absurdity of Americans celebrating an Irish holiday in Central America. We all agreed that it sure beat the drunken shitshows going on in most North American cities.

Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua 2014 Artisans Near Masaya, Nicaragua 2014 Evening in Granada, Nicaragua 2014 Evening in Granada, Nicaragua 2014

On our way back to Managua, we stopped in Laguna de Apoyo in hopes of finding a place to stay for the night, but the hostels were all full. We got drinks at a hostel instead, with a nice bar overlooking the lagoon. The full moon was shining over the deep crater lake, and we decided to go skinny dipping in the lagoon to cool off. The water was perfect and we swam out to a dock to dive in and actually got a bit chilly in the water. It was a perfect night for a moonlit swim.

Full Moon at Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua 2014

The next day, we took a bus to Masaya, a bustling artisan town with big markets. We headed to the market that more locals shop at with better prices first, it was much busier, grittier, and more chaotic, but the prices were great. We got dried hibiscus flowers and cacao beans, gifts to take home and a snack. The market sold everything from hammocks to cheesy souvenirs to kitchen items to machetes to shoes. It was full of young kids who were weaving items out of palm fronds, then attempting to hand them to passers by so they could ask for money. They would literally force things into your hand or hang them on you, then come back and ask for money later. They were very creative and talented, but it broke my heart to see young kids that should be in school persistently selling useless gimmicks for pennies while they huffed glue hidden in their shirts outside the markets. The shop keepers were also very persistent and outgoing, trying to lure us into their shops with a few English words and colorful decorations. We didn’t have much money to spend, but James got a bag, I got some gifts and locally made souvenirs, and Genevieve and Ruben each got colorful duffel bags full of gifts and goodies.

Humorous Handicrafts at a Masaya Market, Nicaragua 2014

After the busy first market and some food, we decided to check out the other market on the other side of town and took a tuk-tuk over to it. This market was quite upscale compared to the last one. It was inside a castle-like fortress and had neat, organized stalls full of mostly touristy handicrafts and souvenirs. The prices were at least double what they were in the local market and it felt a lot less “real” but it was interesting to see the contrast. We shopped a bit and had a smoothie before catching a bus back to Managua.

On our last night in Managua, James’s dad threw us a going away party, and lots of friends we had met in Nicaragua came to say goodbye and convince us even more heartily to come back soon. We made veggie kebabs and meat on the grill and had lots of mojitos and local beer. It was a great reminder of all we’d gotten to do on our short trip: making connections by performing for people, volunteering, and exploring a few epic spots as we talked with some of the new friends we had made.

At the party I talked a woman who ran a children’s center for street kids, and she mentioned how easy it is to plug in and find a way to help down there, especially with skills and money from North America. People there want to work with Americans, and there are SO MANY opportunities to get involved and make a difference.

Everywhere we went, I noticed lots of litter and a lack of recycling facilities, tiny pregnant kittens and an abundance of skinny street dogs because spaying and neutering programs are nonexistent, kids living off of nothing and selling stuff on the street who should be learning in school, not to mention people begging, sleeping in the streets, and living in squalor. But I also saw so many signs of promise, creative solutions being put into practice, resourceful people willing to learn and wonderful organizations doing great work to better the lives of Nicaraguans. And I was so impressed with the people, who are in general curious, welcoming, open-minded, politically and historically aware, worldly, conscious, spirited, resourceful, creative and hard-working. As soon as I stepped on the plane home, I wanted to go back. I need to go back. I’m not done with Nicaragua yet.

Pretty much as soon as we arrived in Managua, James and I were convinced we would be back as soon as we could afford to. His dad has a nice home set up with room to spare, and connections with all sorts of forward-thinking people who are involved with exciting projects. He also got us a gig performing with glow toys at a benefit, and even though our impromptu show was awkward and last-minute, we have been invited to come back for more performances and to teach flow arts workshops. The next time we return, we hope to come armed with props to give out to Nicaraguan students, or at least supplies to make props and then teach people how to use them. Which means we both need to learn the art of teaching, a lot more spinning practice, and to brush up on our Spanish skills. We spun fire on the beach twice while in Nicaragua, and everyone who saw it was really interested and excited to learn more. We met a couple fellow spinners and even showed a few random street kids and some new friends a bit about spinning poi and flow wand. Flow arts provided a way for us to instantly connect with people there, and everyone was eager to learn more, which is a wonderful sign and gives us a lot to work on for our next trip! Of course we will get more involved with existing organizations doing good work in Nicaragua, but we can also work on bringing a little something of our own to people who could use a creative outlet and a unique set of new skills.

It is good to be back home, sleeping in my own comfy bed where cuddling doesn’t instantly mean being too sweaty to sleep and I can actually flush toilet paper down the toilet. We may still be in drought and have very little water pressure, but we have hot water and it’s available on demand, 24/7. I have internet, my own computer, my new iPhone replaced with insurance, and work to return to. I have Mendocino rain, my garden and friends…

But as I unpack and sift through the memories from my month abroad, I am filled with a deep need to U-turn and book the next flight back to Managua. I understand even more now why my sister returns to Haiti every year. Being in the third world opens your eyes to the myriad ways we can help our fellow earthlings and make a difference. It also forces you to stare your privilege in the face and leaves you feeling intensely grateful for everything you have in life. I came home so full of gratitude and very inspired. It’s an amazing elated feeling, especially considering how broke I am after that long trip!

I hope to return to Nicaragua for an extended period in the future. Perhaps I can bring my computer and work from there for a few months. We can teach flow arts, get involved with local organizations, and become immersed in Spanish and a completely different culture. I wouldn’t mind a bigger dose of the humility that comes from doing without the comforts I am used to, adjusting to a new environment and being an outsider looking in on how different cultures live. I can see why James calls Nicaragua his second home, and it has more to do with how the place feels than the fact that he went to fourth and fifth grade there. I feel the magnetism of home in Nicaragua, and it will definitely pull me back.

Nothing compares to immersing yourself in the culture of a foreign place, coming out of the shell of your day to day routine to intertwine your life with those of others in different far-away places. The thrill of the road, the chaos of chicken buses and bustling markets and chatter in a language you barely understand, swallowing a bit of salt water after getting tossed by ocean waves, jumping off a waterfall into a cold pool, not knowing where you’ll sleep the next night or where the road will take you is incomparable and essential to the evolution and fulfillment of a well-rounded life. I would not be the person I am today had it not been for travel, for tales of adventure heard and read, for road trips and Girl Scout camp, for National Parks and backpacking, for long flights to Europe and hooping at Machu Picchu. To travel and see new things is to experience life to the fullest, and inspired by my recent journey, I go back home and back to work as my recent experiences percolate through my mind and remain near to my heart…

Adios, Central America. I will return. Next time with more Spanish skills, hula hoops, poi, the ability to teach flow arts in Spanish, money, and more time to spend there. Gracias por todo, mis nuevos amigos. <3

Check out more photos from our trip on Flickr.

Love IS All We Need

Love is All You Need

The Beatles really were on to something, love is all you need. But not necessarily romantic love, the cheesy perfect boy-meets-girl scenario we see in the movies, just the very basic benevolence and compassion and connection that is the core of who we are and why we’re here. Love comes in many forms and from many people in our lives, and when we expand our definition of love, we expand our capacity to receive and see the love in our lives.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I can say that from my personal experience, the more love I give, the more it grows, the more I get, the more I see it, the more it blossoms… The more love I have within, the more I am capable of receiving. And when you really think about it, aren’t all the problems plaguing the world — war, greed, corruption, hatred, destruction — really just a lack of love and understanding? If we all truly loved ourselves, and truly loved each other as equals, and embodied that love so that our every action, word, and thought came from a place of love … war, inequality, famine, greed — all of it would be unable to exist. It really is that simple. Or it should be, at least.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I tell people that love is my religion, it is this sort of love that I am talking about: the love of having compassion for other beings, seeing that all life is connected and that we are all one. This love is the way of the pure heart: it gives effortlessly and continuously and expects nothing in return. This love is unselfish, nonjudgmental, and always kind. A lovely article I read recently called A Freeing Love describes it quite eloquently:

Love at its very purest state, is an energy, a vibration and a way of being. We come from love and it is love to which we will return. Our earliest impulse is to love and our last fleeting moments will be spent in a state of love. Love cannot be bought or sold. You cannot own love, you cannot acquire or lose it. We cannot look for love in the hope that it will complete us, because we are made of love – it is, at our very essence, who we already are.

Since we are all born knowing how to love, it must be that we simply forget over time as life drags us through the muck of the world. So returning to that state of love requires remembering. I think life is all about remembering how to be love, how to live love, and how to align our lives with love so that we can truly be happy and whole. Once we remember this, we will know that we can’t go out looking for love like it’s something that we’re missing, seeking another person’s love to complete us. Remembering and returning to the source means we are already complete, we are love, and there is nothing we lack. The hard part, of course, is this remembering who we are, this returning to source, this forgetting all of the troubles of the world and just BEING LOVE.

Maybe someday we’ll get there, we’ll remember why we’re here and the world, once full of nothing but love, will heal itself. Until then, all we can do is love ourselves, love others, spread love, be love, and change the world by looking within and changing ourselves first. I know it’s ridiculously optimistic, but I believe it. I believe in LOVE! As the most powerful force on the universe, love will prevail, once we learn how to let it.