“Ella quiere beber leche de peche,” Gloria said to me, glancing over at me with her usual gentle smile. Her nieta was having a hard day, pulling at her mother’s clothes and resisting the bowl of food in front of her. Then turning her big beautiful baby eyes (a color difficult to identify, maybe hazel or purple) pleadingly on her grandmother Gloria, the baby gave it one last shot. Eventually her mother relented, explaining that the baby had a stomach ache. All was well with the world again as she climbed into her mother’s arms to bebe leche de peche.
“En Estados Unidas nosotros llamos este tiempo ‘weaning’,” I tried to explain in my beginner’s Spanish to the family I was living with during my time in San Pedro. I am pretty sure they thought I was trying to say the baby was whining, but that was close enough I guess.
I thought about the scripture that speaks of weaning, that says that the time comes spiritually as well as physically when we must grow up and stop drinking baby’s milk and start to feed ourselves. We fight it; we whine; we cry; but we never grow up if we don’t do it.
Growing up is hard to do.
Feeding ourselves is hard to do. The discussion of that verse and spiritual food often devolves into what type of food we are to feed to others or be fed by others. But at the end of the day, isn’t growing up about learning to feed ourselves? Learning what it is that feeds us? Learning how to be healthy and whole?
Learning to eat is just as much about learning what to say “no” to putting in your mouth as it is learning what to say “yes” to eating. Walking around the streets of Guatemala, either here in San Pedro or back in Antigua, the most frequent phrase out of my mouth is “No, gracias… No, gracias… No, gracias.” Blonde hair, friendly blue eyes and a traveler’s backpack are like a huge glowing “Abierto” sign to those who are working hard in honest jobs to feed their families. And so it goes, “¿Pan con banano?” – “No, gracias.” – “¿Mango, linda?” – “No, gracias.” – “¿Tortillas?” – “No, gracias.”
For those that sell the food, the cost is sunk. Whether they make a big profit, or a small profit, or no profit from the wares that they sell, the quatzales they can receive will feed their families a small meal or a large meal that night. For me, my money is little and getting less every day, and I know Gloria will have una comida waiting for me at home. So as often as I am able, as much as it pains me, it has to be a “No, gracias.”
This year I have been given two pieces of important advice by my mentor, the Rev. Melinda McConly, about growing up. Both of them involve the word “No.” Thankfully, for once in my life, I have been taking her advice and abiding by it very strictly. Which, considering the fact that I’m not great at taking advice, may be the surest sign of my growth.
The first piece of advice was to say “No” – not to learn to say “no” – simply to say “no.” So many of us spend our lives “learning to say no”, in other words telling other people that we are learning to say “no” while never ever actually doing so. This can go on for decades of our lives, if not interminably, and is one of the greatest sicknesses of leaders in the church. “I am learning to say no” is something that people with no boundaries can say while continuing to make themselves the burnt-out “saintly” servants of all. People who are “learning to say no” can often be the best people to get to say “yes” when you need something. Like those who are “trying to stop smoking,” those who are “learning to say no” are trying to resist while desperate for a fix.
When offers began to come in within days of resigning from a job that, quite honestly, fractured my heart, my mentor said to her vacillating colleague, “Why don’t you just stop.” Under any other circumstance, I would not have had the strength to break the addiction to “yes”, or had the courage to live the life where “no” meant a journey into the unknown. But I knew she was right. I had been working since I was 12 years old, serving the church since I was 18 years old, and consumed with the kenosis (“self-emptying”) of Philippians 2 since I was 20. It was time to say no.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn in life is that every “yes” is a “no” to something else; and every “no” frees us to say “yes” to something more important.
I was no longer “learning to say no”, I was actually saying “no.” To everyone. To some pretty amazing people. To some of you. It was hard, but it had to be done.
My journey of “no” had enabled me to say “yes” to volunteering for two months on the island of Eleuthera, and allowing my beautiful friends there to do first aid on my soul; it had enabled me to say “yes” to searching the States and listening for guidance and for the voice of God; and now it had brought me to a small Mayan town on the edge of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. I was there so that I could learn to say much more than “Si” or “No” to nuev@s amig@s I encountered in Estados Unidas, and Gloria y su familia were helping me to learn.
“Gracias!” I said to Gloria, as I got up from the lunch table. “Buen provecho!” she and her daughter responded. “Hasta luego, bonita bebe,” I waved at the pequeña niña as I went out the door.
Taking a piece of paper with me, I trotted down a dirt path. I was working on drawing a map of San Pedro and trying to figure out where mi casa was amongst the maze of unmarked alleys and dirt footpaths that traced through the homes of the town. Finally finding a cafe with internet, I settled in to let folks know I was alive, and as I did, I overheard another young searcher at the next table.
“My mother said to me, like, ‘Just so you know, I have no attachment to your name. Like none. At all. So change it if you want.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I never thought about it before, but, like, what would I change it to. I can’t think of anything, so I guess I’ll just leave it. I don’t know.”
Growing up is hard to do. And confusing apparently. And I was grateful not to be at that stage of growing up.
I am at a different place in my journey than most people I come across. Or perhaps I am just different. I stick out like a sore thumb in this place, in amongst locals and the hippies and backpackers. In my traveling clothes, I look different both from the Mayan women in traditional shirts and skirts, and the hippies in hemp pants and dreadlocks. For half a minute I was considering which costume to adopt.
And then I remembered the other important piece of advice that Mindy had given me. It is okay to say, “No, that is not who I am. Let me tell you who I am.”
Being different, I have had a lot of people along my journey this year very eager to help me “find myself.” It is as if each person looks at how I am different from them, and assumes that the destination of my journey is to arrive at where they are. Therefore, the things I have not experienced are inadequacies and innocences that need to be overcome and eliminated. Wanting to help, they try to expose me to experiences that I may not want to be exposed to, on the way to a destination where I may not be headed. Sometimes it has made me sad, sometimes it has made me frightened, sometimes it has made me mad.
When I asked Mindy what to do about this dilemma, she told me to be comfortable being who I am and telling people who I am. Being who I am is not a judgment of who they are, it is just that I have a right as well to be my own person. I may be on a journey of discovery, but that does not mean I do not know who I am. I do not need to allow others to live vicariously by trying to take control of my journey. Hearing the confused girl in the cafe, trying to decide whether to change her name so her mom could feel like a truly enlightened parent, really helped that hit home.
I do know who I am. Like the Estados Unidos and this beautiful land of Guatemala were 600 years ago, I am not a land waiting to be discovered. I am already populated. My soul is already full of identity, will, hope, and boundless strength. I have no need to be discovered, explored and colonized by those who do not understand my history, honor my present, or respect my future. I existed long before explorers found me; I had my own gifts, resources, and contours; I had my own sources of living water, my own sense of the sacred, and my own traditions to honor.
I know who I am. I do not want to be someone else. It takes strength to say that. It takes strength to say “no” to those who would take control of your journey and colonize your identity.
Thankfully, I have strong women in my life that set that example. Women who give me very good advice. And, thankfully, I am finally taking it.