Slaughter of the Innocents, 2018

 

Migrants disembark from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bus in Arizona

 

And are you still so certain,
Mighty One,
you upon whose sword
so many have been slain,

that this brown child,
this terrified, abandoned one,
torn from a mother’s arms
and wailing
at the half-built wall,

is not the Second Coming
of the One whose name you claim,
disguised among the Least of These,
helpless, innocent,
waiting
to be seen?

 

© 2018 Penelope J. Stokes

 

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The Mountains Are Always There

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For the past three days, it’s been raining. A lot. Three inches, according to the gauge in the garden. The two mountains that flank our new home vanished in the mist. Last night the fog closed in, shrouding us in gray.

Our little Andean paradise, our Shangri-La nestled between the volcanoes, disappeared, as if in some South American version of a David Copperfield show: Now you see it, now you don’t.

And yet.
And yet.
The mountains are always there.

Last night the rain ended. This morning the sun rose over the strong left shoulder of Mt. Imbabura, just out our front door. Water droplets hung like liquid diamonds on the trees and pooled in the throats of the hibiscus and calla lilies. Behind us, Mt. Cotacachi showed herself in all her snow-clad glory, white hair of wisdom crowning the Great Mother.

IMG_6711I learned a lesson from our dog Yapa this week. I was sitting on the front porch, watching the clouds scudding across the mountains, and noticed her, standing there motionless, staring into the flower bed. Nothing there, of course, but the detritus of the garden—some dried leaves, black earth, fallen blooms. But I knew immediately what she was up to. Every night, there’s a frog outside our bedroom window who croaks us to sleep.

Yapa wants that frog. Badly. She’s never seen it—none of us has—but she can’t stop herself from looking. From waiting. From hoping.

On those days when I feel a twinge of dissatisfaction, a momentary longing for some imaginary something I do not possess, these words from an anonymous prisoner in a Nazi camp put me to shame:

“I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining.
I believe in love
even when no one’s there.
I believe in God
even when God is silent. . . .”

The truth is, I have everything anyone could possibly need, and more than I ever hoped for or dreamed of.

I have love. I have security. I have a home in a place that takes my breath away, every single day. I open my eyes to light on the mountains and lush green all around me. I listen to the birds and the wind and the laughter and conversation of my neighbors beyond the fence. I can pick avocados and lemons in my own back yard. There is nothing—nothing—that anyone could offer me that I don’t already have. Everything that’s important in life is here already. Around me. Within me.

But I forget.

And you do too, probably. Sometimes we all lose sight of what we have in the quest for some greener pasture. And so today, in this present moment, I pause to celebrate the amazing gift I call my life. The wonders of the natural world around me. The fulfillment of love I’ve discovered in the woman I share my life with. The laughter. The tears. The adventure. The mundane. All of it.

Every bit.
Every moment.
Every day.

 

FROG PATROL

At the edge of the porch
our little black dog
holds vigil,
searching for the source
of the nightly frog song
from the flower beds.

Serenaded, we three—
my love, our dog, and I,
in this stunning Andean valley
where swallows dance
and mockingbirds sing
and hummingbirds whir and glint
like living jewels
among the flowers.

I lift my eyes to the mountains,
eighteen thousand feet above,
as morning sun flows down
like molten gold
within the folds.

The dog,
intent and focused
as only dogs can be,
stares into earth,
dried leaves,
and desiccated blossoms,
hoping for the music
to return.

How often
have I been like her,
intent on what I hoped for,
missing it all?

©2018 Penelope J. Stokes

 

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Easter: Reprise, 2018

 

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Eight years ago (Eight years? Can it be that long?) I wrote a poem about Resurrection. Pam and I hadn’t been together very long, and everything in life was fresh and new.

The backstory goes like this:  One spring morning Pam had gotten up early, as usual, and was on her way to work, when she discovered our cat Moses cornering a baby rabbit in the carport. She woke me up, and while she held Moses at bay, I rescued the bunny and  sent him on his way. Out of that brief but memorable experience came the poem.

In the years since then, life has changed radically. Our marriage has settled into a lovely routine of togetherness, tranquility, and adventure. We’ve moved to South America–to Cuenca, Ecuador–and this week we’re preparing for another move, this time to the small town of Cotacachi, nestled between two volcanoes two hours north of Quito.

But life hasn’t been all tranquilidad. We’ve had our times of struggle and conflict. Living as an expat in a foreign culture brings its share of challenges and frustrations. And it occurs to me that, wherever we are, whoever we’re with, whatever our life circumstances, we live with the reality of Death and Resurrection. The death of How We Envisioned It, and the resurrection of How Much Better It Can Be. The death of What I Thought I Wanted and the resurrection of Unexpected Gifts of Grace.

And so, on this Easter Sunday morning, I reprise the poem I wrote eight years ago, in gratitude for recent resurrections, for new dreams, for love beyond imagining. And this I pray:  May my eyes always be open to What Might Be, and my heart attuned to Who I Might Become.

EASTER BUNNY

“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you;
don’t go back to sleep.”

Crouched in the darkness
with its back to the predator,
the prey shivers,
waiting
for the final blow
of tooth and claw.

I take it in my hands,
stroke the brown baby fur
between its ears,
whisper a word of comfort,
and feel the panicked heartbeat
thrumming against my lifeline.

How safe it is
cradled between my palms,
it cannot comprehend;
cannot understand
the assurances I murmur,
cannot know
the love I feel.

And so I release it to the woods,
prod its furry backside
and send it hopping
toward its mama,
toward the dawn.

In this moment
at cockcrow,
standing at the verge of the trees
in my pajamas,
I bear witness to the ultimate grace:
resurrection
without a death. 

(Not nearly so dramatic, perhaps,
but easier on the bunny.)

And I wonder:
How many Easter mornings
have dawned without me
because
I was asleep?

© 2010 by Penelope J. Stokes

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For Pam’s Birthday

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In the midst of the chaos
and darkness in the world,
you are the light of this life of mine,
my True North,
my Guiding Star.

Yours is the hand
that leads me to adventure
and beyond,
yours the embrace
that comforts and sustains.

By some miracle,
we found each other,
two souls in a vast universe,
whose gravity changed
everything.

Your birth,
your life,
your heart and soul
are holy offerings to me,
and on this day,
I can give no greater gift
to celebrate
than all my heart.

© Penelope J. Stokes
December 2, 2017

 

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Requiem for Christianity

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Christianity is dead. One version of it, anyway.

The nails are in the coffin. The box is being lowered into the ground. The funeral is under way. But the mourners—where are the mourners? Where are those who weep for this loss of faith?

This Christianity did not die a quiet death from natural causes. It did not succumb to the inevitable demise of old age, or the ravages of attrition, or even some predictable but lamentable disease. No, this version of the faith was murdered. Violently, with premeditation. Killed by its own leaders. Leaders with famous names, television shows, huge churches, and millions of followers . Leaders who ripped the heart out of their religion with bloody bare hands and posted the snuff film on social media.

The slow torture began years ago, with an ill-conceived and illicit union between conservative Christian leaders and a political party. A party whose guiding values lie in direct opposition to those of the Deity whose name is invoked. Waterboarded into submission through intimidation, lies, and misguided patriotism, its followers banded together to elect a national leader who embodies the very worst qualities of human existence:  narcissism, greed, spitefulness, and all-consuming self-interest.

This president—their president—has boasted openly about his domination of the weak and vulnerable. He has admitted to abusing women, using the nastiest, most deplorable, most demeaning language possible. He has cheated business partners out of money he owed them. He has exalted himself and used his positions of influence for self-aggrandizement. He has insulted international leaders and threatened nuclear warfare. He has opened the floodgates of racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. He has tacitly condoned acts of violence against women, immigrants, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, gays, lesbians, transgender people. He has turned a blind eye to the abominations of the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right, and the Neo-Nazi Party. He has shown disdain and contempt for the poor, the weak, the disabled, and the discouraged.

He is vile, vulgar, and violent. Nothing in his character or action suggests so much as a hint of compassion, tenderness, or concern for others. His henchmen systematically engage in murder by lack of health care, thievery by tax code, and the rape and plunder of millions of American dreams. This Egomaniac-in-Chief is the person whose values conservative Christian leaders embrace. And now, in a small state in the Deep South, those same leaders have signed their names to an affirmation for a candidate who, according to all evidence, is a sexual predator, a pedophile who excuses his actions and dismisses the accusations against him as unworthy of attention.

Make no mistake: I am not saying that all the followers of this movement are vile, vulgar, and violent, or that they are deliberately and consciously abandoning the precepts and principles of Jesus. Quite the opposite. I believe that many are well-meaning, good-hearted people who have been blinded by their devotion to a single issue, and by their reliance upon leaders who lie to them. They have been used, abused, and irreparably damaged by those entrusted with their care. Their so-called caregivers have abdicated to the seductions of money, power, sex, and fame. The shepherds have become wolves.

And so the question arises: Where is God in such a travesty? Where is the Jesus who said, “Follow me,” and proceeded to walk among the poor and the sick and the hurting and the outcast, to touch them and heal them and make their lives better? Where is the protection for widows and orphans and strangers among us? Where is the Messiah who taught that the last shall be first and the first last, and that the one who desires to lead must be the servant of all? Where is the One who washed feet and fed multitudes and taught care and compassion for the least of these?

I think I know where that Jesus is: In the dust among the hurting and outcast and disenfranchised. Nailed to a cross of the church’s own making. Out there in the darkness, mourning for a people who have turned their backs on Truth.

There are other brands of Christianity, of course. Christians who do the work of God without fanfare in the world. Christians who feed the hungry and care for the homeless and helpless. Christians who open their arms to embrace people whose looks or language or manner of loving is different. Christians who join hands with Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus and declare that there is one God, whose name is Love. Christians who know that being true to their faith has nothing to do with borders or nationalities or sexual identities or racial divides.

So don’t tell me that those leaders, the ones who have abdicated their principles for the sake of personal gain or political power, represent a Christianity that reflects anything like the life that Jesus modeled. No one with a shred of conscience would have anything to do with such a religion. No one who has ever read the Bible and taken it seriously could believe that Jesus would affirm the values of these so-called Christian leaders.

No, there’s a new faith on the horizon. A religion of self-service rather than self-sacrifice, of loathing rather than loving, of hatred rather than helping.

And only one Bible verse applies:
“Jesus wept.”

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Why Words Matter, Part 1

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Words matter because, for better or worse, language is a mirror of the soul.

 

 

In Autumn of 1941, with the world at war, author Upton Sinclair wrote the following dedication to his novel, Dragon’s Teeth—a book that eventually won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943:

In tragic times like these, an elderly author has nothing to give but words. This collection of words is dedicated to the men and woman in many parts of the world who are giving their lives in the cause of freedom and human decency.

Sinclair’s crystalline sentiment strikes like a gong in my soul, vibrates in the very core of my being.

For most of my life I have felt that I have little to offer to the world except my words, and that offering has usually felt woefully inadequate, insufficient, as if words could never, never be enough.

I have a lot of friends who are social activists. Some are angry, strident people. Some are downright mean-spirited. Some, like peace activist David Lamott, are gentle, sensitive poets. Some, like my wife Pam, add to the Yes in the world with a quiet passion. Some are preachers. Some are organizers. Some work for systemic change, while others prefer the hands-on individual type of help: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the outcasts, and caring for the Least of These.

And what about me?
I write.

In her song, “The Work of Our Hands,” singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer declares,
“I make something barely there; music is little more than air. . .”
It’s an apt description for one who weaves syllables and guitar strings into a life’s work.

Unlike Newcomer, I don’t even have notes. Only letters, twenty-six of them, and a few assorted punctuation marks, to arrange and re-arrange into something substantial and meaningful and, God willing, life changing. At least for one life, even if it is only my own.

So I wonder–always, always I wonder:  Do words matter? Can they make a difference? Can they, in some invisible, inscrutable way, help to create a better, kinder, more welcoming world?

Well, yes and no.

Words do have power. Mightier than the sword, some have said. My own metaphor would come closer to fire—painstakingly kindled or carelessly dropped into dry tinder, a source of warmth and comfort or death and destruction, depending upon who wields the match.

Words matter, for words both reflect and inform the state of the human heart.
Words matter, for language is a mirror of the soul.
Words matter, because words generate light or darkness, blessing or curse.

If you see much of social media these days, you’ll quickly be convinced that there’s more cursing than blessing going on in the world. More negative energy than positive being pumped into the universe. More conflict than connection. More division than diversity.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Words can make a difference. Words can change the world, every bit as much as action.
Thoughtful words.
Compassionate words.
Words of peace and understanding and empathy.
Words of affirmation and acceptance.

Words like “Love.”
Like “Care.”
Like “Come.”

 

Tintagel

 

The sweetest word
upon the tongue
is
“Come.”

Come back to where
you once belonged,
back to those who
knew you,
loved you,
believed the best of you.

Row, if your ship has sailed,
Swim, if all your bridges have been burned,
Fly, if the chasm seems too wide or deep.
But come.

© Penelope J. Stokes

 

Upcoming:

Power, Patriarchy, and the Language of Dominance (Why Words Matter, Part 2)
God-Language and Imaging the Divine (Why Words Matter, Part 3)

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On God, Morality, & Priority

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I’ve waited a long time to write this post. I’ve waited through fires, floods, and earthquakes. I’ve waited through elections, inaugurations, and appointments. I’ve waited through white-hooded marches and murders and midnight tweets justifying all of the above.

I can wait no longer.

I don’t particularly like to make political observations in this blog. I prefer to play to my strengths—poetry, metaphor, connections, spiritual insights. But the world has turned political, especially the North American world, and I can no longer keep silent. My faith compels me to start turning over tables. What once was political has become a question of national morality. What once was a matter of minority opinion has now become the vocal and violent headline of everyday news. What once was priority has now become, at best,  a historical side note.

I recently heard a man say, “Everybody’s got a right to their opinion.” Perhaps. But every opinion does not have the right to be publicized or normalized. Every opinion does not carry the same moral weight. Every opinion need not be validated. Every opinion should not bear the force of law.

This past week, there’s been a lot of buzz on Facebook and other social media sites about athletes taking a knee instead of standing “respectfully,” hands over hearts, to “honor the flag” during the National Anthem.

I’d like to suggest that the flag does not deserve honor, not in the blind, knee-jerk way that Patriotism with a Capital P would have us believe. The flag is a piece of cloth. What’s important about the flag is what it stands for—in the words of the old Superman series from my childhood, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”

What’s important about the flag is what it symbolizes: Thirteen disparate colonies, banding together as a Union. The United States, born in protest, an experiment in Democracy, where gradually, over the generations, slavery has given way to a dream of equality; women and African-Americans have won the right to vote; gays and lesbians have won the right to marry; and supposedly—supposedly—we have become One Nation out of Many.

How did this happen? Through protest, from beginning to end.

From the Tea Party through Abolition, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, citizens of the United States of America have exercised their constitutional right to nonviolent protest of war and injustice and tyranny. We sit in. We lie down. We stand in the way. We sing songs. We take a knee. We refuse to move until those in power give us a voice.

This is our heritage as a nation. Not a flag, or a series of set-in-stone expectations of how one will respect and honor that flag. Not a president, or his incessant need for self-affirmation and bluster. Not a governmental majority that seems intent upon harming and destroying the weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable of its citizens. And certainly, certainly, not a country that tells its citizens (or its legislators) to sit down and shut up.

We have problems. Bigger problems than athletes who exercise their right to public protest. We’re on the precipice of a nuclear war because the president insists upon insulting foreign leaders in order to make himself feel powerful. We’ve just gone through some of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history, one after the other, while governmental officials scoff at the science of climate change. Our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters languish without food or water or adequate shelter, having lost everything. Our neighbors in Mexico have endured devastating earthquakes. And instead of reaching a hand to help, our government spends its time trying desperately to wrench a modicum of health care from those who need it most.

What troubles and dismays me most about the current climate of racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and general vileness in our culture is the way it is excused and rationalized in the name of God. The God I love and serve and worship has no traffic with racist principles, or prejudice against women, or bigotry, or violence, or meanness of any kind. God’s name is Love, and Love knows no limits.

But we’ve done this. We have.

We’ve created this god, this petty little deity exclusive to white nationalists, in our own image. Let’s face it: the God we’ve fashioned—that old white male Patriarch who sits high above it all and dispenses judgment—has little to do with the God of the Bible, or the God who dwells in our spirits. Immanuel, God-with-us is a loving Mother, a nurturing Father, an indwelling Spirit, a creative Source whose sole purpose is to bring us into unity with the Divine and with one another. This Spirit is an essence wholly comprised of light and love, in whom is no darkness at all. By whatever name we call that Spirit—Jehovah, Yahweh, El Shaddai, God, Goddess, Allah, Krishna—the glory and power of that Spirit lies in love, and in love alone.

So let’s stop talking about how awful it is that some athletes take the knee in protest against what’s going on in this country. Let’s admit that their courage shows profound respect for who we’re supposed to be as a nation, and awareness that we’re moving away from that goal rather than toward it. Let’s thank them, instead, for using that moment in the spotlight to focus our attention on what yet needs to be done. On the hatred and darkness that need to be dispelled. On the inequality that needs to be addressed. On the people who are starving and hurting and devastated and need our help. On the folks who are dying for lack of health care. On those who are like us, and those who are not, and on the diversity that once made this country great.

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We need each other. All races, all creeds, all religions, all genders, all sexual orientations. We need each other.

We’re running out of time.

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Villa of Dreams

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On the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, just north of Mantañita and Olón, lies a little fishing village called La Entrada. In Spanish, “The Entrance.”

An unlikely name for an unassuming Ecuadorian village. The entrance to what? 

We found out last week. It’s the portal to a world of dreams.

 

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Villa de los Sueños, the place is called. Villa of Dreams. A four-story retreat on the rocky outskirts of La Entrada, overlooking the ocean. A beautiful bed and breakfast where every room has a terrace overlooking the sea. But it’s much more than that. It’s a haven, a place of peace, where you can see visions in the clouds and hear the music of your soul in the waves endlessly rocking against the shore. 

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A place where Choco the lab brings offerings of rocks and tennis balls and escorts you on your walks along the beach. A place where the villa’s hosts, Marsha and Shell, create an ambiance of hospitality that welcomes and heals and morphs into friendship when you’re looking the other way. A magical place, aptly named.

 

IMG_4638Life beats us up sometimes, rushes us, digs a rut we can’t seem to get out of. We fail to recall, in those moments, the dreams we once had, the way we wanted to live, the passion and purpose that make us who we are. We lose sight of the truth that life is about the journey, not the destination.

We forget ourselves. We forget each other. Sometimes we need to pause, and let ourselves remember.

La Entrada. . .
The entrance
to a place of dreams,
where the rhythms of wind and surf
recalibrate the beating
of my heart,
slow my pulse,
remind me that I am part
of everything—
water and sand,
sun and cloud and rock,
laughter, tears, and visions
that stretch to the curved horizon,
and beyond.

 
Here, now
my soul is rekindled.
I remember
love and passion,
hope, tranquility,
and the promise of bright tomorrows.
Here, tonight,
in this Villa of Dreams,
with the crash of waves echoing
in my ears,
I take your hand
and find myself again.

© 2017 Penelope J. Stokes

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http://www.villadelossuenosecuador.com

 

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The End Is Where We Start From

Gates of Heaven

In “Little Gidding” from The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot writes:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. 

Today marks the end of the year. Some might say it’s the end of an era.  Others might even go so far as to speculate that we’re looking down a long dark tunnel to the end of Life as We Know It.

Perhaps.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s also the opportunity for a new beginning. A do-over. A chance to start again.

The end is where we start from.

God knows we need a fresh start. For many people, the year 2016 has represented one long slide toward the oblivion of anything remotely resembling humanity. It’s been a year marked by mean-spirited ugliness, if not downright hatred.  It’s been a year of divisiveness and dualism, of us and them, of vulgarity and general nastiness, spewed across the Internet without remorse, all in the name of “telling it like it is.” It’s been a year which brought to the surface a simmering brew of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and general outrage that has been only thinly veiled from sight in the past eight years.

This past year has called out the worst in a lot of us. But perhaps it can serve to call out the best as well.

This one thing I know:  The government is not going to save us. Any government. The church is not going to save us. Any church. It’s up to us, individually, to begin to funnel life and light back into the world. It’s up to us to bring loving energy to bear in a world that seems intent upon its own destruction. It’s up to us to live in grace and gratitude, to share what we have, to take responsibility for our own state of mind and heart, and for the welfare of those who have less than we do. It’s up to us to reflect the Divine Image into the world, to carry that holy spark into dark places. It’s up to us to resist the hatred and malice, the entitlement and patriarchy. It’s up to us to model inclusivity and humility, hope and justice. It’s up to us to be the Incarnation we seek.

There is no one else. We are God’s hands and feet. We are God’s heart.

It’s up to us.

 

New Year’s Eve, 2016

Blessed are those who know
that the end and the beginning
are one,
who stand at the Still Point
and wait.

Blessed are those who know
that the seeds of our destiny
ride on our first wailing breath,
and a universe is opened
at our final exhalation.

Blessed are those who suspect
that death
is a myth,
and birth
is no real beginning,
only the seamless
liminal space
where world
touches world
and souls move
across an unseen threshold.

Blessed are those who know
that there is no starting point
and no great finish,
no winners or losers,
no fear or despair,
only one blazing hope;
only the now
of love and longing,
only the space between the stars
where hearts reach out
across a vast, void chaos.

Blessed are those who know,
and who let themselves be known,
for there are many paths,
in truth,
and all of them
lead home.

©2016 Penelope J. Stokes

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Gratitude in Action

img_0396This is Thanksgiving week. Our favorite holiday. On Thursday afternoon, my partner Pam and I will gather with friends who have become family for us–expats, Ecuadorians, people from all over the globe. We’ll share a meal, a bit of wine, and probably a lot of laughter. We’ll marvel over the miraculous “coincidences” that have brought us together from half a world apart. We’ll undoubtedly talk about things we’re thankful for. And the opportunity to live in Ecuador will be high on that list.

Since we moved to South America a little over a year ago, Pam and I have experienced things we never would have known in the States.

We’ve learned, for example, that even though mañana literally means “tomorrow,” what it really means is, “Not today.” We’ve learned to be patient waiting in line. We’ve learned that gringo is not a derogatory word, at least not in Ecuador. We’ve learned that being an immigrant in a foreign land carries with it a lot of challenges.

In our adopted country, however, being part of an ethnic and racial minority is not the frightening, angst-laden experience it can often be in the United States. We feel welcome here. We feel safe. We have found the Ecuadorian people, in general, to be gentle and welcoming, genuinely kind, and muy tranquilo.

Here in Cuenca we walk instead of drive, and so we speak to our neighbors on the street. We greet each other with smiles. We pause on our walks around the barrio to say, “Buenos dias. ¿Cómo está?” We sit in the park and watch the children play. It’s a slower life, mostly, a more peaceful life–at least when we remember to let it be. A life to be thankful for.

Ecuadorians, of course, don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving, but they do have a phrase for it:  Día de Acción de Gracias. The day of gratitude in action.

Active gratefulness. It’s a concept worth considering.

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God of all graciousness,
God of all gifts,
teach me to live
thankfulness in action.

Let me be grateful
not in words only,
for words can be hollow
and hurtful
and false
as well as empowering,
faithful,
and true.

Let me bring to the Thanksgiving table
all that is in me
of love and longing,
passion and purpose,
creativity and consolation.

Let me know the truth,
even when I would turn
a blind eye
to the mirror of self-awareness,
for nothing is now hidden
that will not be revealed,
and despite myself,
I yearn
for authenticity.

God of all graciousness,
God of all gifts,
let me leap into gratitude
like a cliff diver seeking the wind,
hope-filled, trusting,
and unafraid.

©2016 by Penelope J. Stokes

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