Radiance amidst the faces of Nicaraguan poverty

Granada, Nicaragua is a city transformed by political and economic catyclysm earlier this year. It is now muted and subdued, as if some of its natural color has bled out.

On Dec. 11, I flew down to Nicaragua for a week-long visit to see how people I care about were doing, and to help where I could.

Perhaps because it was not the city I experienced the first four times I visited, I saw it with new eyes. Or maybe just eyes focused on many of the same things I saw before, but did not act upon. 

Saturday morning, Dec. 15, I accompanied my friend Terry Leary out to the hard scrabble Pantanal barrio. Her freinds Jim Durham and Monica Lovely founded Education Plus there in the poorest of the poor neighborhoods outside Granada in 2012. 

In 2014, they built Casa de los Sueños, a 12,000 square foot school and social center that now serves 260 children aged 4 to 18. There is a plain poetry woven through the prose of the school’s mission statement:

“To provide the children of Pantanal, Nicaragua with food, education, and activities in order to eliminate malnutrition, instill core values, and give them the resources and opportunities they need to rise above their impoverished circumstances.”

Durham likes to refer to the “little miracles” that occur all the time at their school. As I looked at the innocent faces and the open eyes of desperately poor Nicaraguan children, kids who are guilty of nothing more than being born to poor, uneducated parents in a country with almost no economic safety nets, I experienced such a miracle within myself.

Something breaking out from a place deep within me. Something I had always believed was external to myself. 

Earlier that week, after four months of procrastination, I finally started reading historian John Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America. It is a work of profound wisdom and hope, counseling that for all the pain and unsettling weirdness in current national and world affairs, we have been through this before as a nation, and our better angels have always prevailed.

At one point I set Mecham’s book aside and took a moment to read the latest web essay from mythologist Michael Meade, entitled “Freinds of the Soul.” In it he writes of the ancient phenomenon of two people meeting and finding a commonality in purpose that creates a bond between them. As an old Celtic concept had it, “Anam Cara,” that is, soul freindship. 

While Meacham and Meade are quite different in approach and focus, both write of the challenge of these dark and troubling times, of the need to turn away from fear and to embrace the hope and love of our better angels. 

Meacham suggests that our innate abilities to tackle the challenges of this world must be protected and fostered. Like Meade, he writes about hope and fear. 

“Fear is about limits, hope is about growth,” Meacham writes. “Fear casts its eye warily, even shiftily, across the landscape; hope looks forward, toward the horizon.”

Meade notes that “Ancient traditions around the world include the idea that each soul has an inner spark of life that grows by being seen, by being truly acknowledged and supported by others.”

Soul friends, Meade writes, “befriend the uniqueness of each other’s soul and know how to support the radiance trying to grow from within.”

Jim and Monica, who are soul freinds indeed, like to refer to the “little miracles” that occur all the time at their school. Last Saturday I experienced such a miracle within myself. 

Each week, 260 children receive five healthy meals and much needed nourishment through the work Jim and Monica and their volunteers do.

I gave a donation to the school before I left, a relatively small amount, and so was a bit stunned to receive so much back so immediately. Watching those children, I felt my heart break open, felt bathed in a warm radiance. It was only later that I realized that the warmth and radience I had felt came not from them- though that was certainly present- but from me, from within me. Something within me was suddenly unblocked and free to be expressed into the world.

That light, that soul radiance, is not some airy fairy, new age touchy-feely b.s. It is how the world really works underneath all the earthly distractions we are prone to. It is how our spirits thrive.

I later found myself thinking that, since my spirit is all I’m going to leave this physical world with one day, I should start paying more attention to what it needs.

A day or two later, I accompanied Terry again, this time on a shopping trip to buy items for Christmas gift baskets to be distributed to some of those same poor Pantanal families. I followed her lead on what items to purchase; 4-pound bags of rice and beans, oil and seasoning, a gift card for perishables like fresh chicken and vegetables (there are no refrigerators in the barrio), juice and other treats for the kids, toothpaste and tooth brushes. Bath soap. 

My cost came to $27, and I marveled at how little money it takes to buy enough food, other necessities and a few small luxuries for a family to eat for three or four days and enjoy a happier Christmas than might have been. How easy it is to have a positive impact in people’s lives.

That evening I sat alone in the interior garden of Nectar Restaurant on the Calle Calzada, enjoying dinner. When the check came – for two glasses of 12-year old Flor de Cana rum and Corvino sea bass, it was $24, plus a $3 tip. Exactly $27 for a single meal; the same amount I had spent on that gift basket for five or six people to eat well for three or four days. 

In this season of giving and celebration, I want to suggest that we all could benefit from re-focusing on those with whom we share common values and purpose. And to not avert our eyes from those things that call out for our involvement. 

This world and its challenges feel overwhelming so often, seem larger than our individual abilities to respond effectively. The answer, I have found late in my life, is to support those with whom we share values and goals. To not forget that that small flame we carry within us for the things that truly matter in this life can be reinforced and strengthened when working in concert with others. 

It is my deep and sincere hope that all those I care for take a moment to look within themselves and ponder both what it is that is most important to them, and who are the people who support their pursuit of those important goals.

Being “generous” (for the lack of a better term) is not difficult. It is a simple choice to either do or to not do. There are no excuses or reasons for not doing, because how to do it is not set in stone. It is what is right, however large or small, however many or few times we choose to do it.

We always know what is right, whether or not we admit it to ourselves. We know. All there is then, is to do, to the extent we are able.

The inner courtyard at the Nectar restaurant on the Calle Calzada in Granada.

The world is waiting. People are waiting. Our hearts are waiting, to be freed, to open up, and share their inner light with the outside world. And to know that secret that I kept from myself for whatever reason- the truth that while we are benefitting others, we are giving to ourselves. 

It is a small, radiant miracle waiting to be experienced as many times as we care to be open to it. Whether two thousand miles away, or in our hometowns.  

Thanks for letting me share.

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