Category Archives: personal

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
sun-kissed
colorful
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

This day like no other

When the mist of the possible dissipates you are left with the clarity of what is, and what never will be.

A poem, in order to remember and refocus

For Pablo Neruda
by Maketa Groves

This day
like no other
will soon pass.

But now
the glamorous sea
flaunts her diamond surfaced brilliance.

The sun traverses the sky awakening other
worlds of sleepers

The moon will climb
its silken laddered perch
and embrace us in its
milky attraction
and a little sadness.

Soon, this day
like no other
will be gone.

Deep in the night
I feel the kiss of the sun
the murmured seduction of the wind
the tingling feeling of sand on skin:

The results of this day unlike the morrow
or the morrow, or the morrow.

This day when we are alive.

A Day at the Opera

Over the weekend I attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The best part? I didn’t even have to leave Guatemala City.

I was invited by Julia Pimentel, lawyer & soprano extraordinaire, to attend the live simulcast transmission of the new opera Marnie at the Dick Smith Theater of the Instituto Guatemalteco Americano (IGA).

Me, with the lovely & talented Julia

It was part of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” program, where operas are broadcast live from the Met to over 2,200 cinemas in over 70 countries!

It was a thrilling experience… the screen at the IGA theater showed folks arriving at the Met, and the sound of the orchestra warming up filled the room. I closed my eyes for a moment and felt instantly transported to Lincoln Center.

I confess that watching the opera on a screen isn’t quite as magical as being there in person, awash in the electricity of the audience and immersed in the majesty of the Met. There were, however, some unexpected benefits to watching a performance close-up, especially this one.

Marnie is modern opera, incorporating many of the best elements of stage theater. The music is sparsely beautiful, and the sets minimalistic, relying on graphic projections to add texture, color and content to the scenery.

The acting was simply outstanding. The marvelous vocal performances were enhanced by the facial expressions of the cast, especially the opera’s troubled heroine, Isabel Leonard. Her eyes often conveyed as much feeling and meaning as the lyrics themselves.

Marnie © The Metropolitan Opera

The story is based on a novel by Winston Graham, which was also made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock (starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery.)

It is a psychological thriller, telling the tale of Marnie, a woman so haunted by her past that she cannot fully live in the present. Instead she escapes from place to place, from face to face, changing identities as easily as she changes the color of her hair. Her exhausting existence is reduced to routine of thievery and deceit. When her past –finally and inevitably– catches up with her present, it becomes a moment of liberation. “I am finally free,” she sings … as the police escort her away.

(For those of you screaming “spoilers!,” I disagree. I would argue that church and the opera are two places where knowing the ending of the story beforehand actually enhances your experience.)

The next opera to be broadcast will be La Traviata on December 15th. For more information on watching an HD simulcast near you, use the Met’s theater finder!

Silence is complicity

I’ll admit it. I’m guilty.

I’ve tried to please too many people. To not make waves. To forgive and forget. To be a nice guy.

So I’ve held my tongue. Watched my words. Kept a low profile.

Like Rodney King’s wailing lament, I’ve asked “can’t we all just get along?” Those who consider themselves to be good-hearted people would probably agree with the sentiment. There must be a common ground… we’re more alike than different… surely we can compromise?

But recently I’ve begun to question my belief that non-confrontation is the best route to dialogue. That being nonjudgmental is the key to avoid offending others. That quiet righteous indignation is preferable to constructive criticism.

What if my self-imposed silence is actually fear? What if my caution is actually cowardice?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” words attributed to Edmund Burke, remind me of the tremendous cost of not standing up, of not speaking out.

A wall of truth in Guatemala City

It is happening right now. As those of us who hope to be good… to be nice… to just get along remain silent, evil gains ground. And I don’t use that term lightly or easily. I mean evil.  Bold-faced, underscored evil.

An evil that manifests itself in ignorance, division, hatred, populism, nationalism, fanaticism, racism, sexism, classicism, homophobia, slander, lies, greed, poverty, corruption, militarization, criminalization, injustice, threats, violence and murder. (etc.)

My silence makes me complicit in that evil.

I confess that I am afraid. Truth-telling is not without risk, not without cost. To raise your voice is to risk the response of those dedicated to maintaining the status quo. To speak out is to challenge those who practice evil and benefit from evil.

Whatever the cost to be paid, however, it is nothing compared to what I would stand to lose in being silent and complicit.

Back in Guatemala… mostly.

After nearly six months in New York, I’m finally back in Guatemala.

Leaving my family was heartbreaking. It always is. You’d think that, maybe, after almost 30 years of traveling between NY home and Guatemala home, I’d be used to it.

Nope. I was as sad and anxious, stressed and depressed this time as I was during my first trip in 1989. (My first visit to Guatemala was in 1988, with a Habitat for Humanity workcamp. I didn’t start living there, though, until the following year.)

I often feel that my return to Guatemala happens in three stages:

1.  My tired body arrives in-country, complete with plane-face and aching luggage-shoulders.

2.  In the following days my mind catches up, finally allowing me to form complete (and semi-coherent) sentences in Spanish.

3.  The last to appear is my heart. I’m not sure how it travels (United Airlines, perhaps?), but it always arrives beaten, bruised and incomplete. It always takes a while to heal.

During these times of transition, I wonder: “why do I keep doing this to myself?!?”

(When I have the answer, I’ll be sure to share it with you.)

Change

“The only thing that is constant is change.”
― Heraclitus

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
― Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

Change is scary. No, wait… ghosts are scary. Change is terrifying. Like “Trump as a babysitter” terrifying. Forget butterflies in the tummy, change is like hairy bats in your belly.

Yet change can also be exciting, inspiring, and invigorating. Especially if you’re lucky enough to be the agent of that change. To design it, build it, help it grow. In those circumstances change can even be fun. Fun and terrifying.

Over the past few months I’ve begun the process of creating a new nonprofit organization to support human rights defenders in Guatemala. The official name is The Human Rights Defenders Project, but I imagine that we’ll end up calling it the Defenders Project informally. (For the bilingual among you, we opted for “Proyecto Defensores” instead of “El Proyecto de Apoyo para las y los Defensores de los Derechos Humanos” for reasons that should be immediately apparent.)

It has been a fascinating and exhausting experience so far: the paperwork, the research, the fundraising, the brainstorming, the paperwork. (Yes, I know. It warranted repeating.)  Thanks to the help of generous donors and our super-savvy lawyer, Mollie, we are now a legally-incorporated nonprofit organization awaiting 501c3 tax-exempt status from the IRS!

It’s spring, and change is in the air. For me, this means:

Changing from NY to Guatemala: I’ll be returning to Guatemala City on May 2.

Changing from planning to doing: we will soon be “going public” with the Defender’s Project, and opening the doors of our new office.

Changing the focus of this website: from now on, news and analysis about Guatemala will be on the Defender’s Project website. This site will focus more on my personal stories about work and life in Guatemala, as well as other non-Guatemalany (yes, I made that word up) topics like leadership, meditation, time management, photography, productivity, etc.

I look forward to sharing this journey of change with all of you!

PS: If anyone knows how to rid a belly of hairy bats, I welcome your suggestions.

My addiction

It’s the simple things in life that make me happy. An iced americano (four espresso shots over ice, with a dash of raw sugar and a touch of half & half) at one of my favorite N.Y. cafes, the Peekskill Coffee House!

coffee_medium

 

“I went out the kitchen to make coffee – yards of coffee.
Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved. The life blood of tired men.”

― from The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler ―