One of Those Days

March. One of those perfectly not-quite-winter, not-quite-spring days. Constant rain, but not a downpour. Cold, but not freezing.

The cat is not amused. He exudes boredom in a way I wish could emulate. I can’t seem to pull off “lethargic.” It comes off as “sleepy.” I am envious of my bored cat. It’s been that kind of day.

I have an Apple Watch that keeps track of how many steps I take. Ok, it’s not actually an Apple Watch, but rather a cheap Chinese knockoff that sells for $27 on Amazon. It’s called a Mackintosh FitBite, or something like that. It works like an Apple Watch except for the fact that you have to swing your arm really far, back and forth, for the steps to actually register. When I use it for walking I look like a Soviet soldier parading in Red Square.

Anyway, I took the watch off. I couldn’t bear to admit that I’ll be lucky to walk a total of 50 steps today.

So, instead I’ll focus on my language studies. I’m learning Italian. (Well, I’m studying Italian. The “learning” part remains to be seen.)

I’ll share more about the different methods I’m using to immerse myself in the Italian language. Now, however, it’s time for me to hit the DuoLingo.

A domani! *

* That means “until tomorrow.” Or “call Domino’s Pizza.” I forget which.

Testing, testing. 1, 2, 3

Is this thing even on?

So, hi. It’s been a while. While my attention has been distracted and divided and diverted by Facebook, Instagram, and a lovely little virus we call COVID… this humble homepage has languished, gathering digital dust and virtual cobwebs.

But it’s time to breathe new life into Because it’s St. Patrick’s Day? Yes! Wait, no. Well, it’s a good enough reason as any, I guess.

The truth is that I miss writing. Even these rambling, incomplete, and decidedly nonliterary lines. And it’ll be nice to have somewhere a bit less instagramy to share my photos.

Also: I’ve spent most of the last year living in a tiny room at my parent’s house while the virus has raged on and on, and frankly I need a distraction. Finger-painting was a fiasco (we ran out of room on the fridge to hang my masterpieces after only three days.) So now, this.

I feel like I should preemptively apologize. But, heck, there will be plenty of time for that later.

I’m back, baby!

This is how it falls apart

I’ve been sharing a lot of news lately about President Jimmy Morales’ ongoing attack of the CICIG (the UN-backed commission to investigate organized crime and corruption in Guatemala.)

The concern is not only for the individual members of CICIG and their invaluable work, but also for justice and the rule of law in general.

The continuing assault on the CICIG is perhaps the most visible action of those who desperately seek to maintain Guatemala in a state of impunity and lawlessness. This dark alliance of politicians, military officials, economic elite, and others are willing to undermine democracy, and embrace illegality, in order to maintain their power and privilege. They are known as the “Pact of Corruption.”

A blindfolded skull unearthed during an exhumation in Guatemala
Today we are witnessing three frightening results of their efforts:

1.)  The presiding judges in the corruption case against the brother and son of President Jimmy Morales have dismissed the CICIG as co-prosecutors in the case. The judges ruled (without any request from the defense lawyers!) that CICIG’s absence in today’s proceedings justified their removal as co-plaintiffs. Also implicated in the case are high-ranking officials from the previous Patriot Party administration.

2.)  The three Constitutional Court judges who challenged the arbitrary and unconstitutional decisions of President Morales to expel the Swedish Ambassador, and later, the CICIG from Guatemala are at risk of being tried for “exceeding their mandate.” A congressional committee is meeting right now to determine if they will be stripped of their immunity from prosecution in order to face trial.

3.)  Congress  is currently considering reforming the “National Reconciliation Law.” This reform would illegally grant a blanket amnesty to all military officials who committed crimes against humanity during the armed conflict. These crimes include the forced disappearance, rape, torture, sexual slavery, massacres, and genocide committed against the Mayan indigenous people. For those who have been already been found guilty and sentenced, the amnesty would order their immediate release from prison.

Mentors, Muses & Massacres

There are people in our lives who see us with eyes of unconditional love and support. They see the best version of us, the clearest vision of who we are, and who we can become.

These people are our mentors and muses. To be seen through their eyes is to feel inspired, motivated, and challenged.

I am blessed to have many such people in my life: my family and friends, coworkers and communities. They are artists and activists, people of faith, people of commitment, and people of compassion.

Julio Serrano EcheverriaOne such friend is Guatemalan poet Julio Serrano Echeverría. Julio was intriqued by my stories about working with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG).

I had told him about the exhumations of the mass graves from the internal armed conflict, and the process of identifying the remains of the massacred innocents.

“One of the most heartbreakingly poignant moments” I added, “was returning the bodies to the families for proper burial.”

This process included the ‘dressing of the bones’… placing the remains of the victims into brand new clothes as we laid the bodies out in rustic wooden coffins. These clothes were gifts of love and remembrance from the family members: painfully expensive, gorgeously elaborate huipiles (woven blouses), colorful skirts, and bandanas to carefully cover the skulls. Mementos, such as photos, toys, jewelry, or cacao beans (considered to be currency in the afterlife) were also added.

These stories moved Julio to write a poem –powerful in its simplicity– that I want to share with you.  Julio thanked me for helping to inspire the poem… but the opposite is equally true. I am thankful to him for finding beauty and meaning in the work that I do.

A un cuerpo que se viste para su entierro

Caerá tu falda sobre la tierra
como cayó alguna vez
junto a tu cama.

Te ves igual de hermosa
vestida de colores,
aunque solo seas
y hueso.

– Julio Serrano Echeverría,  Actos de Magia

To a body that is dressed for its burial

Your skirt will fall to the earth
as it once fell
by your bedside.

You look just as beautiful
dressed all in colors,
even if you are only
and bone.

– Julio Serrano Echeverría, Acts de Magic
 (my unofficial translation)


I have just returned from a visit to the village of Ixquisis, where community members are in peaceful resistance to the imposition of a massive hydroelectric project that threatens to divert their river and dry up their farmlands.

The Human Rights Defenders Project participated as part of a caravan in solidarity with the brave people of Ixquisis. I was well-accompanied by other human rights defenders, environmental activists, community leaders, spiritual guides, artists, and indigenous authorities.

Ixquisis is the very definition of remote. We were on the road (and I use that term loosely) for nearly 18 hours before reaching the village. Forging rivers, crossing mudslides, climbing rock-strewn mountains, traversing dense forest…. we finally arrived in an area so intensely green that it soothed me to my soul.

(Ironically, I’ve found that many of the worst atrocities and grave human rights violations in Guatemala occur in the most unimaginably beautiful places.)

All through the day we met, shared stories, and ate together in an open field. A sense of mutual support and shared struggle united those of us gathered on the grass.

The cooking fires of Ixquisis

As night fell, I wandered far from the cooking fires, songs and dancing.

Alone, I looked up.

In a place so free from overdevelopment and light pollution, the night sky was breathtakingly brilliant. It had been years, if not decades, since I saw a sky so iridescent with countless shimmering stars. I stood in silent awe.

Maybe you’ve had that same feeling? Of belonging. Of purpose. That perfect moment when you know (not feel, not sense, but know) that you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.

A prayer of gratitude slipped unbidden from my lips: thank-you.

I lowered my sight to the darkness of the night and searched for the light of the cooking fires. Following the flames, and the sounds of laughter and music, I returned to my people.

A Midnight Thing

As the Fuego Volcano near Antigua continues erupting with beautiful violence, I am reminded of a passage from White Teeth, the captivating novel by Zadie Smith. It describes the life of immigrants in a foreign land and the inevitable clash of cultures. In one section, the main character divides the world’s citizens into two very different groups: those who live at the mercy of the earth’s capricious quirks, and those who do not.

Guatemala’s volcanoes, mudslides, earthquakes and hurricanes  serve as a constant reminder of how fragile and precarious existence can be. Life here is, indeed, a midnight thing.

From White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

To Alsana’s mind the real difference between people was not color. Nor did it lie in gender, faith, their relative ability to dance to a syncopated rhythm or open their fists to reveal a handful of gold coins.

The real difference was far more fundamental. It was in the earth. It was in the sky. You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire, of the kind you find in Woman’s Own on a Tuesday:

(a)  Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end?

(b)  Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split?

(c)  Is there a chance (and please check the box, no matter how small that chance seems) that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?

Because if the answer is yes to one or all of these questions, then the life you lead is a midnight thing, always a hair’s breadth from the witching hour; it is volatile, it is threadbare; it is carefree in the true sense of that term; it is light, losable like a key ring or a hair clip.

And it is lethargy: why not sit all morning, all day, all year, under the same cypress tree drawing the figure of eight in the dust?

More than that, it is disaster, it is chaos: why not overthrow a government on a whim, why not blind the man you hate, why not go mad, go gibbering through the town like a loon, waving your hands, tearing your hair?

There’s nothing to stop you—or rather anything could stop you, any hour, any minute. That feeling. That’s the real difference in a life. People who live on solid ground, underneath safe skies, know nothing of this.

Dedicated to three amazing Js:

Jennifer Trowbridge: For first sharing this with me.

Julia Pimentel: This is the text I promised to send so long ago.

Stephanie Jolluck: For allowing me to share her gorgeous photograph of the Volcan de Fuego!

Paura & the Good Stuff

Una Metafora

I’m trying to learn Italian. In my studies I’m using a myriad of books and apps (DuoLingo, Mango, Babbel, etc.) But one of the most enjoyable ways of improving pronunciation and picking up new vocabulary is by listening to songs in Italian.

I already have my favorite pop stars… Arisa! Giorgia! Irene Grandi!

One of the words that kept popping up constantly in the lyrics was “paura”. It was such a oft-repeated word that I had to look it up. Turns out that “paura” means “fear”. What an odd sentiment, I thought, to appear so frequently in so many Italian love songs.

Hadn’t Italians mastered the art of love?  After all, they’re the ones who musically defined it: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…. that’s amore!” So, why the paura? What’s so scary about love?

The answer came to me last night while watching an action series on Netflix. The episode included an all-too-common plot device. You’ve probably seen it in a movie or on tv:

A driver and her passenger have just escaped some terrible danger: maybe a bomb, a chase, or a nasty villain. The background music becomes calm and soothing. As the car passes through an intersection, the driver turns to the passenger, smiles warmly, and says: “I think we’re going to be ok.” Or words to that effect.

But no.

There, in the window behind the smiling driver, you see it. Blurry at first, perhaps. But all too soon it becomes clear: a van, a bus, or a truck hurdling through the traffic light. It blindsides the car… there is a sound of squealing metal and shattering glass. The scene fades to black.

They never know what hit them. One moment it’s safety, smiles, and soothing music, and then suddenly everything is spinning out of control.

Fade to black. Paura.

On a Brighter Note

Not every Italian song is about fear. (Thankfully.)

One of the most unique and heartwarming songs I’ve encountered is “Roba Bella” or “The Good Stuff”. It started as an art project of two brothers, collectively known as Pastis, who put Italian street scenes to music. One of the most captivating videos was of Pasquale, a vendor in a public market, whose sing-song selling of his wares was music in and of itself.

Irene Grandi, a gifted singer, added lyrics to the video. Her words, with Pasquale’s voice in the background, are pure beauty:

It is the voice of Pasquale
his voice
it arrives in May
by the road
fragrant of the past
of laundry

it’s a beautiful morning
a beautiful aria
a beautiful aria
and Pasquale sings the good stuff
good stuff

he comes from the mountains
with summer in his pockets
good stuff