The other day I was paddle boarding with a friend on a particularly hot and blustery day, stuck on my knees because the wind and chop were so strong that I risked tumbling into the lake if I stood up. After 20 minutes paddling into the wind, I looked up only to realize that I was a few feet further out from shore but still parallel with the dock. So much effort, so little progress, and, honestly, that relentless wind made me feel vulnerable and exposed even though I could have just let it blow me back to shore and call it a day.
As I dug my paddle deeper into the water to renew my effort to gain some forward momentum, it made me think about the extraordinary headwinds indigenous Guatemalan women deal with every day, and what it would be like to be stuck right where you are from the moment you are born, conscripted to a life of poverty, limited agency, and lack of opportunity. Young women in rural Guatemala face quadruple discrimination from the day they arrive on this Earth: they are poor, they are Mayan, they live in a rural area, and they are female. The MAIA Impact School works to change that by connecting the latent talent that exists in rural Guatemala but has been overlooked for generations with opportunity, starting with access to robust education through high school and aiming for university studies and access to formal work opportunities (as opposed to remaining in the informal economy, which is much more common, precarious, and poorly paid).
Each of MAIA’s Girl Pioneers (or GP’s, so called because they are pioneering a completely new path for themselves, their families, and their communities) trajectories has been astonishing. Though the wind remains incessant, there’s a flotilla of support, guidance, and information available to each of them about how to improve one’s technique, navigate challenges, find balance, and move forward.
In MAIA’s first class of high school graduates, a GP won a 4-year scholarship to college in the United States through She Can, an organization that builds female leadership in post-conflict countries. There are still so many hurdles for her to leap over and hoops to jump through before this opportunity becomes a reality, including the SATs, the bane of most high schoolers’ existences. Imagine being the first person in your family to go to high school, let alone college, and trying to take the SAT not in your first language, nor your second language, but your third language. More headwinds.
Because the US college process is so unique and challenging, with the SATs in one’s third language adding an extra twist, MAIA’s US Executive Director asked the Board if anyone knew someone who provides one-on-one SAT tutoring. I texted my neighbor, who is a college counselor, and he recommended Summit Educational Group. I googled them and cold called them, stumbling over my words as I tried to explain what MAIA is and does succinctly and clearly, who the GPs are, what the need was, all the while dreading the eventual question of cost. I asked not knowing what to expect and feeling like I was asking a lot. I was glad to be on the phone when I said the words “pro bono” because my face burned bright red and my armpits got sweaty. The gall of calling a complete stranger and asking for a favor – and then asking for it for free! Completely brazen.
But then, incredibly, they said YES. Yes, we will offer 22 hours of our time free of charge to provide the tools and resources this extraordinary young woman needs to continue along her path. That yes made my heart sing, astonished that this might actually happen and truly touched to experience the goodness, kindness, and generosity of other humans.
Several weeks ago, two MAIA staff visited the US for a conference. While they were here, we thought it would be good to meet and thank the Summit Education team in person. At our meeting we were able to give them a little more context about MAIA, rural Guatemala, and the GPs. It was the appropriate, polite thing to do in thanks to an organization that gave so selflessly on our student’s behalf.
But the part that struck and surprised me most that has stuck with me was how powerfully resonant and moving this connection to Guatemala was for them. Though they had no prior connection to MAIA or to Guatemala, while I was busy sweating through my shirt feeling awkward and queasy about my bold ask, they weren’t asking themselves if at all, only how. In fact, the response was more like:
“We don’t often get the chance to help a student like this.”
“This whole experience has been the highlight of my time here at Summit.”
It turns out that my ask was a give. Your read that right. By asking, I gave the gift of meaning, joy, and connection. By connecting, we build bridges and forge deeper understanding, expanding our own world and worldview. The wind may not die down, but if we work together we all make more forward progress.
Asking for help is hard. It’s challenging to separate a need from feeling needy. I find it easier to ask on behalf of someone else, certainly on behalf of a cause that’s bigger than me, but it’s still hard. It strikes me now that while it is so hard to ask for assistance in so many aspects of life, sometimes – often? – the asking creates an opportunity to give that is meaningful to the giver. As Lynne Twist writes in her book The Soul of Money, “this unlocking of a vehicle to change circumstances is a gift.” It’s a remarkable, empowering twist and the ultimate oxygen mask moment.
A print of James McNeil Whistler’s Mother hung on the wall of my childhood home for as long as I can remember. I always found her kind of creepy, to be honest, and the poem by Baroness Von Hutton affixed below it within the frame always felt so dark.
It's a wonderful thing, a mother; other folks can love you, but only your mother understands. She works for you, looks after you, loves you, forgives you anything you may do, understands you, and then the only thing bad she ever does to you is to die and leave you. - Baroness Von Hutton
Of course since those days as a little girl staring up at this portrait and trying to understand it (and still trying to understand why it hung in the bathroom of all places), I have become an adult, and a mother, and my mother’s caregiver.
It’s been one helluva year for me and my mom. We have walked the line so many times between life and death. And she just keeps coming back dancing and laughing. Just this week she was hospitalized again. I found myself racing to her side, grateful to be freshly vaccinated but afraid I had missed my chance to be with her while she was still alive after over a year of distanced visits and screens between us. And, you know what? Even though there is only one way for this story to end, even though I have already lost so much of her to Alzheimer’s, the grief that overcomes me at intervals when I face the prospect of losing her remains immense. The words of Baroness Von Hutton resonate more clearly by the day.
My mom (and her sisters) are my guiding lights. I have noticed especially over the past year of isolation and quiet that my most profound and impassioned writing tends to be reflections on my relationship with these women. A Tribute to My Biggest Fan, Nancy Waddell, Practically Perfect in Every Way, Clips
I think about my mom and her two sisters (“Sisters, sisters, there were never more devoted sisters” is the Irving Berlin song that accompanies my memory of the three sisters together, they dancing to the beat and laughing) as I make my way through this world. And I try to channel Nancy and Ellen’s wisdom as I care for my mom.
I have begun to recognize more fully how these women were my champions throughout my entire life; how they showed me by their example what it is to be a strong, courageous, compassionate and caring person; how they showed up over and over again at ballet performances and soccer games, at Thanksgiving dinners and music recitals, at the hospital the day my kids were born. As I wrestle with the phone calls and texts and times together that I miss, though they are gone (or gone in most ways, in my mom’s case), they are always with me. They are a part of me.
I’ve got all of this on my mind, swirling in these emotional crescendos and troughs, when the MAIA Impact School (which, if you don’t remember, is what inspired me to find my voice and share it by starting this blog) announced it’s Nim Mama (“Great Mother” in the Katchiquel language of Guatemala) scholarship. The concept is centered on honoring our mothers and the collective strength, beauty, and transformative power of mothers the world over by investing in the education of an indigenous Guatemalan girl. The images of these pioneering, brave girls with their mothers at their side brought me to bellyaching tears. In these images I could see my mom and my aunts standing beside me, or pushing from behind me, saying, “Go. Be brave. Do great things.”
This campaign renewed the call of these female pillars of my life to channel their strength and rise up to be the courageous, bold, passionate, brave woman they showed me how to be. I am living their values and honoring their legacy by returning the devotion my mom showed to me in my caregiving for her and passing the gift of their strength and love onto my children, both my daughter and my son.
This Mother’s Day, I will ACT for change in their names. I am investing $3,000 in MAIA’s Nim Mama Scholarship Fund, $1,000 each in honor of Ellen, Nancy, and Beth, the fiery, loving, devoted, caring, amazing women who paved the way for me. I can’t think of a better way to honor them than to live their values by working to create a more equitable and just world and launching the next generation of Girl Pioneers to pursue their dreams.
Join me April 29 for the launch event to learn more. Find your voice! Empower another to find hers!
Life is short. We don’t know when our time will come. Make – and be – the change you want to see in the world. Now.
Go out there and get after it!
Where do I even start? I am rendered speechless by some of what I see happening in the world right now. And not speechless in a good way.
I understand rationally that anger stems from fear, powerlessness, and uncertainty, which we have in spades currently. So I get to some degree that what we are seeing with regards to the virus, opening plans, and people flouting the very simple protocols for keeping everyone safe from wearing masks to maintaining their distance are symptomatic of that. I recently read an article from Psychology Today, in fact, entitled What Your Anger May Be Hiding that explains anger very rationally. Did you know that when someone is angry the brain releases a chemical that stimulates a numbing sensation while establishing a sense of security and control over a situation? I did not, but it explains so much.
I guess I thought and hoped we were more evolved than that and that we could recognize anger for what it is and modify our behavior. Clearly not. And that’s disappointing. Most disappointing of all is how there appears to be a cultural disregard for the most vulnerable people among us currently. If I hear one more time, “oh, yea, a lot of people have died but most of them were old” I am going to explode. WTF kind of attitude is that? Damn.
“What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.” from Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Anyway, I am rambling. I felt like I needed to acknowledge that because it’s been bugging me and making me sad. But I don’t want to focus on it. What I want to do is to say a prayer for the voiceless and vulnerable, for the elderly, our elders; for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia; for those in care homes; for those with other health vulnerabilities; for those in places like rural Guatemala and rural Madagascar and so many other places in the world (including the inner city and parts of rural America) that are disconnected from the regular news cycle so we don’t hear their plight – both because they don’t have a platform to tell it and because no one is listening. Amidst all the quiet of this time, it’s remarkable the cacophony we humans can stir up to distract ourselves and still not LISTEN.
I don’t want to dwell on this. I want to focus on the good stuff, the stories of hope and kindness where you would least expect to find them! It’s my whole mission here and really this is the stuff of grace and humanity that needs to be celebrated and shouted from the rooftops!
In today’s episode, we have video footage of Girl Pioneers from the MAIA Impact School reporting from their homes in rural Guatemala on what life is like in quarantine for them, thanks to donated devices that have been distributed to the students and the MAIA Impact School’s on-going work to give these girls and their families a platform from which to be heard and seen.
You can read more about the students, their lives, and MAIA’s response to COVID @ https://www.maiaimpact.org/maias-response-covid19
More to come!
Each day is a blessing in whatever form it comes – don’t squander it!
Stay well, stay home.
You will be alright.
Touching down in Guatemala City, you’ll be surprised to see how modern the airport is. I was expecting it to be really rugged since Guatemala is a “developing country,” but it’s not – the airport anyway.
Oh, look! A mariachi band is waiting for us! You can see the glimmering floors, the drop ceiling and recessed lighting, the very modern arrivals area in the below video.
We are going to have a real adventure and take a chicken bus to a more rural part of Guatemala, mostly because I just love saying chicken bus and because, well, look at it! The chicken bus is a retired yellow school bus that migrated from the United States to Guatemala where it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a means of public transportation. Pile on. No number of passengers is too many for the chicken bus! Did you take your dramamine? It’s a long, windy route to get where we are headed.
Notice as we leave Guatemala City heading West toward Solola and Lake Atitlan all of the U.S. influence here. Papa Gino’s, Starbucks, and Domino’s abound.
Outside the dirty bus window, you can watch the stunning Guatemala countryside whiz by as we navigate the chaotic and crowded roads at an uncomfortable clip. The weather is perennially spring-time – 75 degrees or so during the day, generally sunny, and 50’s at night. The countryside is lush and verdant, the bright pinks and yellows of tropical flowers adorning the roadside even in the most barren places. In the distance, Volcan del Fuego perpetually puffs wisps of smoke into the air. The smells of cooking, wood burning, and exhaust permeate the air. There is rarely a moment of quiet between the honking cars, chirping birds, and barking dogs.
Everywhere you look you will see women in their traditional dress, the traje. The Mayan culture remains strong, despite the Spanish colonial and American influences. The cultural customs of modesty and honoring the ancestors remain guiding pillars of life here, especially in rural communities. Twenty-one (21) different Mayan languages are still the primary languages used in Guatemala’s Mayan communities.
Which is where we run headlong into an issue with the Coronavirus. This virus has the potential to be a crisis on an epic scale in developing countries like Guatemala. The health system here was already one of the weakest in the hemisphere. All of the government information – and it is abundant (Guatemala has closed its borders and has been incredibly restrictive and proactive about isolating the virus) – is in Spanish.
Most rural communities here are remote, have no internet access, do not speak Spanish, and typically do not read or write. Radio remains the primary form of communication. Which is why it’s all the more stunning and impressive to see the MAIA Impact School, based in Solola, immediately begin to assess where their skills and relationships can be most helpful and take proactive action. In this space of limited resources, MAIA leads with ingenuity and heart.
As a school for rural, poor, indigenous girls run by indigenous women, MAIA works with some of the most vulnerable populations in this part of the world. MAIA has worked hard to build relationships with families and to gain the trust of community councils in the region they serve. Family engagement is an enormous part of each student’s education (as this video shows).
As soon as Coronavirus began creeping its way across the world, MAIA realized it was uniquely positioned to assist the rural villages and address some of the issues that the they will face. The first thing they did was to quickly compile home school packets for all of the students. Without access to the internet, this pause in school could prove to be a major setback for learners who already had substantial obstacles in their way. These home school materials aim to keep the girls connected to their MAIA community and persevering through this pause on the path toward their educational goals.
The second initiative they undertook was to begin to address the major information gap facing rural villages. They created videos that translate the government’s Spanish information into the Mayan languages of the rural villages and posted those videos on MAIA’s social media pages. The videos quickly became the most viewed and shared content on their pages ever. You can watch them here. Better, though, for the state of our souls currently, are the bloopers. They exude humanity and love and light even if you don’t understand the words.
MAIA continues to explore ways to reach the rural villages, but also is trying to figure out how best to report out from the villages to media outlets. The plight of rural villages will be profoundly difficult and there is a real risk that it will go unnoticed since there is no movement in or out of these places.
As we move along in our virtual travels and in our individual worlds, in this moment of profound quiet, how can we be proactive? How are we each uniquely positioned to make a meaningful difference, now and going forward? What’s next when we get through this period of “new normal”? Back to normal? Is that good enough?
I am wondering how we can galvanize this moment of extreme slowing down and re-evaluating to shepherd in a new paradigm; how we can look to a future that does things differently, more equitably, a world that engages more people more completely. MAIA models a different way of doing things, and a respectful and bold approach to change. This is our collective moment to rise up, not only to get through this social isolation but to fundamentally change business as usual.
You will be all right. WE will be all right. And, in fact, we can be better.
Stay well, stay home.
I am currently reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.
Specific reading to Guatemala:
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala” – Daniel Wilkinson
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?” – Francisco Goldman
A Beauty that Hurts: Life and Death in Guatemala” – W. George Lovell
When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep: This is a beautiful novel that will give you a sense of time, place, and history—all woven together into a compelling narrative that makes it endlessly readable.
Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings (Kindle Edition): If Maya history is your thing, then this is the definitive guide. It gives the backstory you need to fully enjoy the numerous Maya temples you’ll visit while traveling Central America.
A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya: Descend into the Mayan culture throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala in this travel narrative that dives deep into the regional culture, ancient Mayan beliefs about time, as well as a look at modern Mayan culture.
Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya: A fascinating tale chronicling the two men who traveled through the Yucatán and Central America in search of the Maya Kingdom, and brought this ancient civilization back to the world.