Km. 81 – 1961
OUR FAMILY HOME at the leprosy station was a red brick L-shaped structure, with a veranda running all the way along the two sides. It was set back in the woods, maybe 100 meters from the other houses on the station. To get from our home to the other cluster of houses, we had to walk through a dense east-Paraguay forest of cedro, lapacho, ibyraró, and palo rosa.
By the age of ten, I’d spent many hours in that forest. I ripped out a narrow path with a machete as deeply as I could into the woods, winding around trees that provided a good barrier against possible intruders. At the end of the path I cleared an area for my own little home. Pieces of lumber crudely hammered together became my table and chairs. Empty rice sacks neatly lined up on the ground served as my bed. In the center of my kitchen, I built a stove by placing several old bricks on top of one another to surround a small area that held my fire. When I was finished, I had a fine home. Our family’s house was often cluttered and dusty. Everything in my forest home was always neat and orderly. Precise circles of stones around the perimeter marked my walls. Within them, I felt safe. For hours at a time, I lay on my rice-sack bed or sat on my makeshift chairs and tried to come up with more and better home improvements.
For my meals, I stole vegetables from the main gardens of the leprosy station. Carrots mostly, since they grew in a relatively hidden area of the garden where no one could see me pull them out of the warm earth. And parsley too, which was planted in the beds right next to the carrots.
Here’s the recipe for one of the most common meals in my forest home:
3 carrots, greens pulled off, broken into pieces
1 small handful of parsley
Pour water into an old tin can dug out of a garbage pit
Light a fire in the stove, and place the can of water directly on the fire
Once the water boils, place the carrots and the parsley in the water
Cook until tender.
To this day, like Proust and his madeleines, the smell of parsley and carrots cooking takes me back to my first forest home and the domestic pleasures of cleaning and cooking in my own little space.
I also had a toilet. I cleared a little area directly behind my kitchen and dug a hole in the center of it with a spade I borrowed from the leprosy station’s tool shed. I worried that my doctor father would find out about my toilet. Believing that hygiene has a lot to do with contracting leprosy, one of his main missions was to teach people not to pee or poop near their food and water supply. There was little chance he’d discover my hiding place, though, busy as he and my mother were with finding and treating their patients. So I believed I was safe in my own little home.
One of the first things many of us ask when we meet someone, after their name, is where they are from, or “where’s home?” We ask because we believe the answer may tell us something about who they are. My answer for “where are you from?” is usually Paraguay. But for me, “where’s home?” is a more complicated question.
Km. 81 – 1951-1961
On August 23, 1951, the year of my birth, we embarked on the SS Brazil to sail from the harbor in New York to Rio de Janeiro. My devout Mennonite parents had been called to leave their comfortable life in a small Minnesota town and take their five kids to Paraguay, South America to establish a leper colony. At four months, I was the youngest.
Their major sponsor, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), chose Paraguay as the recipient of leprosy relief work as a thank you to that country’s government. In the 1920s and 30s, when no other country would give Mennonite groups from Russia and Germany the military exemption and religious freedoms they requested, Paraguay’s leaders invited them to settle in the western part of the country called the Chaco. At the time, this vast desert was thought to be largely uninhabitable due to lack of water. By the 1950s, the industrious Mennonites had developed prosperous farms and ranches. Now MCC called on them to provide a regular stream of young people to volunteer their time (in lieu of military service) to assist Dad in establishing and running the leper colony they envisioned.
In many ways, going to become medical missionaries with the Mennonites in Paraguay felt like coming home for my folks. They were both born and raised on the plains of Kansas, descendants of persecuted Mennonites who escaped to North America from Russia and Prussia in the 1870s. The Mennonite groups who migrated a few decades later to establish colonies in the Chaco of Paraguay upheld the same religious ideals and principles of non-conformity as their North-American counterparts. Like my parents’ Kansas communities, the Mennonites in Paraguay established farms, spoke Plautdietsch, the Low-German dialect of their ancestors, refused to join the military and ran their own German schools.
The site chosen for the leper colony was eight-one kilometers east of the capital city of Asuncion. It came to be known as “Km. 81.” My parents spent most of the first two years clearing the land, and designing and constructing the buildings, while living in a rental unit in Asuncion. Sometimes they would stay out at Km. 81 for days at a time, sleeping in makeshift tents and eating whatever rations they had taken with them. “Helpers” from the German Mennonite colonies in the Chaco of west Paraguay came to assist them at Km. 81, and some of them stayed in Asunción to watch us kids. That’s what my folks called them, their Helpers.
I was too young to remember the Helpers who took care of us during those early years in Asuncion. But Helpers continued to be our primary caretakers and homemakers throughout my childhood, while our nurse-mother was busy helping her physician-husband with the leprosy work. Our parents often reminded us that the Helpers were “volunteers for God’s work,” so we kids needed to be good and mind them. I used to wonder, but never asked, why taking care of us constituted God’s work.
Together, my folks oversaw the clearing of the land. They plowed the ground and planted trees: orange, tangerine, grapefruit, loquat, avocado, guayaba (guava) and mulberry. My father personally drew the architectural plans and managed the construction of the hospital and other buildings on the station.
On April 23, one day before my second birthday, our family moved into our home at Km. 81. Our house wasn’t finished. The outer brick walls were up, but there were no windows or doors. During the cold rainy winter months that followed, we had to wear our coats to bed in order to stay warm. But we moved in.
There was just one problem. My parents had not seen a single leprosy patient.
Dad scoured the land, searching for people with leprosy. He often went alone, sometimes with a Paraguayan worker, in a Jeep or on horseback across the mostly roadless countryside. At night, he and his horse often slept under the stars.
Eventually, he began to find them, usually in hiding. In the early 1950s, Paraguayan lepers, if discovered, were still locked up in a squalid, isolated colony called Santa Isabel in Sapucai. They suffered under conditions that my father believed were unacceptable for any child of God. So he made his own plan. Contrary to MCC’s vision of a leper colony, Dad began treating patients in their homes. He brought only the most severe cases back to stay with us at Km. 81. I remember him always saying, “We don’t want to coop people up and hide them from the public.” And he often reminded us, wagging his finger in our direction, “We don’t ever call them lepers. Never. They are people like you and me who have contracted an illness called leprosy.”
Other than morning prayers with all of us together, our parents were hardly ever home. Dad prayed long and arduously for global peace, for the wisdom of the world’s political leaders, for the health of each extended family member, and for the wellbeing of those less fortunate than we. His prayers went on and on. And then my parents would leave for the day. I was never sure exactly what they were doing, but I knew it was important work for the Lord.
We kids attended a one-room German school on the leprosy station with about fifteen other students, children of the Chaco Helpers. I was one of the youngest children and there was no one else my age on the station to play with. I tagged along behind my three older brothers, trying to learn to roll the clay-rich mud into marbles; to use green, bendable branches to construct traps (to catch what I no longer remember); or to walk on homemade wooden stilts. But they didn’t want me around, and finally teased and tortured me sufficiently that I got the point. My two sisters were inseparable, leaving me pretty much on my own.
One day I overheard one of our Helpers talking to my mother. “Marlena sits in her room a lot, brooding. There are no kids her age here on the station, so she spends an awful lot of time alone. She seems very cross most of the time, too. You know I’m busy taking care of all of the laundry, the cleaning and the cooking. And there’s the baby to watch. I just don’t have time for that angry girl of yours. I don’t know what to do with her.”
Mom spotted me standing near them and called out, “Marlena, come here. What seems to be the problem?”
I wanted to say “I hate it here. I don’t have anyone to play with. I feel like I’m in a prison with no way to ever get out. And I don’t know why this God-work is so important to you.” What I said out loud was, “The problem? What problem? She always says everything I do is a problem.” And I stomped outside.
That’s when I conceived the idea of my very own house in the woods. I knew some of the older kids on the station had made forest-homes that I wasn’t allowed to enter. But I had sneaked around close enough to get ideas about how to construct the rooms. The forest house became my safe haven.
Our parents often asked us kids to sing hymns for the sickest of the patients who lived at the station. I loved to sing, so that was no hardship for me. One night after singing, I lingered at the open doorway of Doña Ramona’s one-room shack. I was only nine and Doña Ramona had been really old as long as I’d known her. She was one of the first patients to live on our station after her family abandoned her. When she came, she was covered with pus sores, she was blind, her nose and ear cartilage was broken down and her extremities were bloody stumps. Today, she was still blind, her cartilage was still caved in and she had permanently lost most of her toes and fingers. But she smiled a lot.
She sat on the dirt floor in the center of her hut next to the red-hot coals from an earlier fire. Sensing my presence, she turned toward the doorway. “Sí…?” Her voice rose into a question.“Doña Ramona, soy Marlena,” I said, moving toward her.
“Thank you for singing,” she said in Spanish, her wrinkled, sunken, dark face breaking into a smile.
She seemed so ancient and so wise. I wanted to talk to her, wanted to know why she was always happy. But we spoke Plautdietsch (Low German) on the station, so I understood almost no Spanish. Besides, as much as I was drawn to her, she also repulsed me, with that creepy broken-down face. I turned and ran from her place and didn’t stop running until I got to our house. I shut myself into the girls’ bedroom and threw myself facedown on my narrow hard bed. Deep down, I longed to be a good Mennonite who could love these people the way my mom did, always holding their hands and wiping their foreheads. And just as deep down, I screamed to get away from it all.
I knew my mother was sometimes concerned about the risks of raising us kids on the station. I remember one evening in particular, not long after my visit with Doña Ramona, when I overheard my parents talking in low voices to each other in their bedroom. “We don’t even know for sure how leprosy is spread. Do you think we’re putting our family at risk, our children, here, in the midst of these patients?” My mother’s voice was heavy with anxiety.
“Waut sajst Du?” Dad often reverted to Low German whenever he was upset. “Are you saying that you want to run home to your mother? We have work to do here. The Lord has called us to do His work. Now let’s get some sleep.”I froze. I thought about Doña Ramona.
A shiver ran down the edge of my spine and I shuddered. Was Mom saying that I might look like her if I hung out with the patients?
As I made my way across the veranda to the girls’ bedroom, I clenched my teeth together hard to keep from screaming. Who was this Lord God of theirs that was so important, more important than anything else? I wanted to pummel that Lord, pound on him, make him disappear. But I didn’t know how. And I immediately felt guilty about having such evil thoughts about God.
Shortly thereafter, one early evening, Dad rushed into the house, slamming the door behind him. He waved a letter at my mother. I was setting the supper table on our veranda and could see them through the kitchen window.
“Clara, I can’t believe this! Look at this letter.” His angry voice reverberated off the tile floor. I sank into a chair. It was always so scary when Dad became upset, even if it wasn’t directed toward me.
The letter was from the American Leprosy Mission (ALM) in the U.S., one of the financial supporters of the leprosy station. Mom began to read, looking up to search his face after reading out loud the part that said…we have no choice but to withhold funding….
Dad interrupted her reading. “Even after I’ve proved to them that the patients are out there and that most of them are able to stay in their homes as long as they’re on their medications, MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) and ALM continue to criticize my approach, and now they’re telling us they’ll no longer support the work.” He began stomping around the kitchen. “I’m more convinced than ever that ambulatory treatment is the way to go. But they can think only in terms of a traditional leper colony.”
“John, please lower your voice. We don’t want to scare the children,” my mother said, folding the letter in her lap. She was silent for a moment. “Let’s help them understand. Let’s write a long letter inviting MCC and ALM representatives to come check it out for themselves. To see how well it’s working.”
I was only nine and didn’t know much about MCC or ALM. But I wasn’t at all sure I was on my dad’s side on this. Secretly I wished they would shut down the station so we could just be a normal family like everyone else.
In the end, Dad had his way. Almost two decades later, then president of ALM, O. W. Hasselblad, well acquainted with the treatment of leprosy worldwide, published this statement:
“The spirit of cooperation between the Government of Paraguay, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the American Leprosy Mission has permitted the work of Kilometer 81 to become a fine example of a successful program of leprosy control. Three elements are essential in such a first-rate program. One is domiciliary treatment of a patient. So far as I know, John Schmidt was the first to try such a program any place in the world. That was a courageous and pioneering venture and it has become the basis for leprosy control work throughout the world today. It virtually eliminates the need for the “settlements” of several decades ago.”
Today over 180,000 people worldwide are infected with leprosy, according to the World Health Organization. And most countries currently follow my father’s revolutionary model of integrating leprosy services into general health services, rather than ostracizing patients with the disease.
Km. 81 – 1961-1970
By the time I reached fourth grade, our little school had no upper-grade teachers, so we kids were sent elsewhere to continue our education. My oldest siblings went to the U.S. to stay with relatives. I was sent to Asunción, living with people who I supposed owed my parents a favor. Dad often came into Asunción on Fridays to do his weekly shopping for the station. Sometimes, if there was room in the car, I could get a ride back to Km. 81 for the weekend. Grain for the livestock, machinery for the metal workers, big bags of rice – those were the sorts of items that would load down the station wagon.
We had a specified meeting place, usually around the Pettirossi outdoor marketplace, which was on his way out of town. Dad was almost always late. He was always frazzled. Sometimes he even had a migraine headache.“I’ve waited on this corner for almost two hours. It’s dark and it’s late,” I grumbled one rainy cold winter Friday evening. My brown cotton dress, which hung appropriately below my knees, was soaked.
“Just get in. I don’t have time for diene Kloage – your complaints,” he growled.
I jumped up into the station wagon. The musty smell of the wet burlap sacks assaulted my senses.
If we were alone, I got to sit in the front seat with him and my job was to talk a lot and occasionally slap him on his legs to keep him awake. But on this evening, one of the other station workers had come into town with him, so I sat in the corner of the back of the vehicle on top of a sack of grain.
I watched the countryside roll by and daydreamed inside my own little world. I imagined that I was beautiful, with pretty new clothes and nice shoes. I imagined that I had breasts, and that my bra would show through a soft white blouse, so everyone would know how grown up I was. I imagined that I had my very own room with a soft, cushy bed and deep red velvety drapes on the windows.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to be daydreaming. My mother often reprimanded me, saying that a lot of daydreams lead to sinful behavior. I wasn’t sure what she meant by this and I didn’t ask. I just kept daydreaming about how beautiful my life could be.
After weekends on the leprosy station, I returned on Sunday by bus back to Asunción. I remember a hot summer day in 1963. I was eleven. Often I walked the two and a half kilometers to the Ruta, where I would catch a bus into the city. This time my father drove me. After waiting for a bit, it became clear that we’d missed the bus we were waiting for. “I’ll take you to Caacupé (twenty minutes away),” he said. Sure enough, in Caacupé, we caught up with a city bus, ready to leave and packed solid. Sweaty bodies were crammed in on top of one another. Limbs hung out of the open windows and doors.
“Sei gaot – be good,” he said, as he pushed me in against the bulging human mass. I caught my bag on a wooden crate carrying three chickens. A dirty naked baby in his mother’s arms tugged at my shirtsleeve. An unkempt old man rubbed himself up against my buttocks. I wanted to step out of his way, but there was nowhere to go. I wanted to tell him to stop, but I didn’t know enough Spanish, and besides, I was afraid to.
As the diesel engine started up, everything jostled side to side and I fought to not lose my bearings, standing with my feet far apart for stability. I looked out through the dust-covered large flat rear window of the bus just in time to see Dad’s brown station wagon disappearing over the hill behind us. Tears spilled out of my eyes and landed on my shirt. I hate those chickens. I wish they would quit squawking. And how do I get my body away from the awful man behind me? Through my tears, I kept staring at the place where Dad’s car had disappeared from view. A strong magnetic thread seemed to pull my heart along behind that brown station wagon, even after it was out of sight.
My lips silently mouthed, Please, Daddy, let me stay home.
Even though there was much about Mennonites that I didn’t understand and didn’t like, for example, why it was a sin to have long beautiful hair, I loved singing in the choir of the Mennonite church in Asunción. It was my favorite pastime. When I was home at the leprosy station for weekends, I made sure I got back to the city in time to sing at the service on Sunday afternoons. At twelve, I was by far the youngest member of the choir. I didn’t feel very comfortable in the church, but when we all sang those exquisite hymns in four-part harmony, I felt like I was a part of something sacred.
One stormy October evening, as thunder and lightning tore across the skies over downtown Asunción, all of us choir members fought our way onto one of the teeming buses on the Avenida Mariscal López. We were headed to the Defensores del Chaco soccer stadium, where the Billy Graham Crusade – we called it La Festival de Esperanza (Festival of Hope) – was to be held that evening. Hundreds of churches from throughout Paraguay, including my own, had participated in preparing for this event. For over a year, church leaders had trained thousands of “counselors,” who would help people come to Jesus, and had arranged a group of several hundred of us to sing in a choir for the Festival.
Billy Graham boomed into a loud speaker, his interpreter following along in Spanish, “Tonight, you can leave this place prepared to go to heaven. We are all sinners, but the Bible says that God loved man so much that he sent his Son to redeem our sins. No one can come into God’s presence except by the Son, by Jesus Christ….”
His sermon that night was a sharp warning of judgment to come, a trumpet call to repentance. I couldn’t rip my eyes off of that intense face. His eyes were mesmerizing, his deep strong voice compelling. His words unleashed within me a kaleidoscope of fear, hope and confusion. I was there as a church-going choir member, not as part of the crowd that needed to find Jesus Christ as their Savior. Yet I knew at that moment that he was speaking to me. My sinfulness lay like a heavy weight on my heart. And heaven seemed like the reliable safe place I’d longed for my whole life.
After the sermon, our choir sang a few more hymns. I managed to mouth the words so I wouldn’t stand out, but the notes stuck in my throat.
He rose again and thundered into the microphone, “By coming forward you’re saying to God, ‘I’m a sinner, and I’m sorry.’“ He continued, “God is the One providing your salvation, and it’s free…. By faith you have to believe that and accept Christ in your heart and in your life.”
It was an invitation to eternal life through Jesus Christ. And when he extended the invitation, they came, thousands of them, out of the bleachers and to the center of the stadium, seeking salvation and new life from the Savior of the world.
As if possessed, I felt myself rising from my seat and making my way past my choir group and down the steps. As I moved past the other choir members, I saw the look of surprise on their faces. This is really embarrassing, I thought. But I kept stumbling forward.
By the time I reached the center of the stadium where the counselors were stationed to speak to people one-on-one to clarify questions and pray together, my tears flowed freely.
“Forgive me, dear God. I am a sinner, but I really want to go to heaven,” I prayed.
As far back as I can remember, I knew I was a sinner and I knew I needed to be saved. At the same time, I was drawn to the forbidden, like too much daydreaming about being beautiful or about kissing a boy. As a child, I felt like I was always the kid with my nose pressed against a window, looking at everyone inside belonging to a normal family and having a good time. In my teen years, my loneliness turned to rebellion. By the time I was twelve, I was living in pensiones (boarding houses) without adult supervision in Asunción, making sinful behavior even more appealing and easier to access. I wanted to disassociate myself from my Mennonite-ness. After years immersed in the Mennonite world, it began to feel like a forced identity. It was a uniform that defined and proclaimed who I was without my understanding of why I was wearing it.
My Escape – 1970
The Braniff International Airways flight banked over the red tile roofs of Asunción heading north. I dropped my head into both hands and sobbed. I was nineteen and leaving Paraguay. Escaping. I glanced up in time to see the last of Asuncion’s roofs disappear from view. The same paradoxical push-pull that had characterized my whole life sliced through me: I wanted to escape and at the same time I wanted desperately to stay home. But where was home, really? I never felt like I belonged in my family or in my church, and now I was off to a strange land. Would I belong in the U.S.?
Our sense of belonging is a basic human need. For most of us, “home” fills that need by providing an important piece of self-definition. We do things like decorate our houses and take care of our lawns, publicly displaying our unique home as an extension of ourselves. As a kid, I did that in my little forest home. But in Asuncion, I had no markers of my self-definition other than the increasingly uncomfortable Mennonite identity I’d inherited from my folks.
I escaped to the States, married, had children, divorced, remarried, and eventually pursued a successful career. No time to think much about the little girl on the leprosy station.
My Return – 2001
When my dad turned ninety in 2001, the leprosy station and I both turned fifty. There was to be a grand celebration at Km. 81 to mark this milestone of the leprosy work. Mom and Dad and all of their children were in attendance.
For me, this big event was about celebrating the leprosy work. But it also represented a return to a home where I never quite felt like I belonged. It was an occasion for me to reflect on the lonely chapter that had been the first nineteen years of my life. To arrive where I started, as T.S. Eliot said, and perhaps know the place for the first time.
One of my older brothers met me at the airport. We made our way the eighty-one kilometers east of Asunción to the leprosy station. I hadn’t been to the station in many years. Along the highway, nothing seemed changed. The Ruta was still narrow and rough, with deep potholes. My brother leaned almost incessantly on his horn, as we wove around cars, buses, motorcycles and ox-drawn carts.
We turned left at the Km. 81 marker onto the familiar narrow dirt road. A few buildings, low brick structures with tin roofs, stood near the Ruta. The dirt road curved its way up a gently sloping hill, deep ruts making it a road almost easier to maneuver by foot than by car. My mind wandered to the many times a bus from Asunción had dropped me off at the Km. 81 marker and I had walked the two and a half kilometers up this road from the Ruta to the station.
All around was a mostly barren landscape with wild grass and little clumps of scrappy trees, not the lush rainforest kinds of trees of Brazil farther east but also not the dry brush of the Chaco of west Paraguay. We passed over a small bridge that crossed what used to be a stream we swam in as kids. It had long since dried up. The boards were loose. We clattered across it and made our way up a steep hill. Abruptly, on our left as far as we could see were rows of blossoming orange trees and mulberry bushes exploding with purple bounty. On our right were fields of corn, the stalks just beginning to push their way through the rich red soil.
At the top of the hill, we drove through a thick grove of mango trees and in front of us lay what looked like a quaint little German village with neatly trimmed hedges and raked dirt walkways around each of the homes. Nearby barns were filled with horses and cattle. Large garden plots displayed precise rows of carrots, green beans, onions and mandioca, a root vegetable that was a daily staple in our diet when I was a kid.
The celebration at the leprosy station was a huge affair, including friends, colleagues and government officials from all over Paraguay and other parts of the world. Preparations for it clearly had been going on for a very long time. Km. 81 looked like a resort, with freshly whitewashed buildings, manicured lawns and bushes and bright-colored flowers. Brazilian Portulaca with tube-like leaves sent large flamboyant flowers shooting from the ends of sprawling stems. Pentas, called starflowers in the U.S, showed off their hairy foliage and bunches of star-shaped flowers in bright tones of lavender, red, white and pink. Cockscombs were everywhere. The softly textured bushes were bursting with flowers in shades of purple, yellow, orange and pink. It was a veritable feast for the eyes.
Dad had suffered a slight stroke some weeks before the event. So by the time the rest of us got there, he was disoriented and had a hard time communicating. Although he seemed to understand the purpose of the celebration, he was uninterested in it. He knew who each one of his children was, but remained mostly off to the side, alone, a blank look on his face.
We were headed for the large auditorium that the station workers had prepared for the occasion. “I can’t believe what they have done to this place,” Dad muttered as he stumbled along beside me through the profusion. He held onto my arm for support.
Thinking my father was pleased to see – thirty years after he left his station – how beautifully taken care of the grounds were, I said, “Yes, it’s pretty, isn’t it?”
“Ne! Dot ess veschwenderisch,” he said, mouthing the words emphatically, even if with some difficulty. As usual, he reverted to Plautdietsch when he was angry. “It’s a waste. That’s not being good stewards of the money people contribute for this mission work. That cannot be God’s will.”
I pressed his arm close. At that moment, I became aware of how different the place really did look. I glanced at my father. Did he resent that his leprosy station scarcely resembled what he had built fifty years ago? He had planted the trees, planned the construction of the buildings and organized the grounds. The trees were still here. The buildings still stood. But the place looked nothing like it had when we lived here.
I realized that I’d expected the physical space I used to call “home” to still be the same. But it no longer existed, except in my memory. Others now lived here, creating their own unique narratives and dreams, extensions of their own identities. As Heraclitus said, ”No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
So why is my sense of connection to this place so strong, I wondered? I felt a warm vibration flowing through me, expanding my chest. I had returned willingly to don my Mennonite uniform (at least temporarily), instead of it being handed down to me, and it felt good and right. I hadn’t thought of myself as a Mennonite since the blistering summer day in 1970 when my church in Asunción banned that rebellious teenaged girl from singing in the choir and from playing the organ. But here I was, in the midst of a congregation of Mennonites, feeling oddly at home.
After the formal program ended, huge piles of food were served to the masses. It was a traditional Paraguayan feast: Boiled mandioca (a potato-like root), asado de carne (barbecued meat), cabbage slaw, and sopa paraguaya (a cheesy cornbread). People wandered around the grounds as they ate.
I made my way alone past what used to be the forest where I had constructed my own little safe haven as a kid. The trees were gone. The area had been completely cleared. My little forest home was no more. A tear and then another made their way slowly down my cheeks. I felt none of the old familiar shame about being sinful, nor did I feel anger about being lonely or misunderstood. In that moment, I was filled with deep tenderness and compassion for the young child who never seemed to be able to find her place in this spot she once called home.
MARLENA FIOL, PhD, is a world-renowned author, scholar, speaker, and a spiritual seeker whose writing explores the depths of who we are and what’s possible in our lives. Her most recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Summerset Review, Under the Sun and The Furious Gazelle, among others. A sampling of her publications on identity and learning are available at marlenafiol.com.