Margaret Stortz – Santa Cruz

Margaret Stortz served as a Salesian Lay Missioner at an orphanage in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for one year beginning in September 2009.


All the Things I Didn’t Say…

“…I stood awed and bemused between two realities and two dreams.”  So says Charles Ryder, a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisted, as he is startled down memory lane by an unexpected visit to a familiar place.  So has been the experience of the last few weeks in Bolivia and my first few days in America: I have crossed the divide and what was held the dream has become the reality and the year-long reality has become a far away dream.

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I knew I had been there for close to a year as I noticed the season repeating itself:  the wind blew ferociously all the time, stirring up the sand that paves the streets so that I would walk around half-blind, rubbing my eyes and blinking wildly all of the time and feeling like a living sand castle.  Half of the trees were barren and the sky had a strange orange glow due to the seasonal burning of the fields.  The girls had started to steal salt and get their flip-flops stuck in the trees due to their insatiable desire to eat green mangoes that end up making them sick (they throw their flip-flops into the trees to make the mangoes fall).  And as my time came to its close, I thought about all the things I had never written about:  how the girls would reach out their hands out like baby birds, chirping “a mi, a mi”, when I gave out medications at night, regardless of whether or not they had any ailments.  And there was the update partially composed in my head entitled “Chicken Soup for the Bolivian Soul” describing in detail the soup that the girls eat made with entire chicken feet, and what it´s like to watch them suck on the chicken toes, skin and all, and then spit out the little bones, leaving a small pile of pebble sized debris as the only evidence that they just ate the feet of an animal that spends most of it´s life walking through the dirty, feces infested streets of Bolivia.  Which then reminded me about the update I was going to write called “On The Streets of Santa Cruz” characterizing the landscape of the city and its outskirts which portray a strange mix of poverty and progress, much like the country itself.  Going down the same paved street in front of the hogar at any given moment are a horse and carriage with the driver selling his wares announced by megaphone, a brand-new 4Runner with the driver on a cell phone, a “rancher” with his cows grazing on the weeds and the torn-up bags of trash in the road, indigenous women with their baby tied to their back, loose chickens, stray dogs, drunk men and the hogar girls on their way to school.  I could have written everyday about the adventures with Talia, who at moments brought tears of joy to my eyes to see how much she had improved and at other moments brought tears of stinging pain to my eyes after receiving one of her strong, unexpected, unprovoked slaps across the face.

The depth of my experience in Bolivia, however, apart from the crazy adventures of everyday life in a developing country and a poorly organized hogar, was the interior struggle to find my mission and to live it out each day.  I didn´t come to the hogar expecting to accomplish great things.  And I found that I did not go to Bolivia to be the Missionary, but I was rather, the Mission Field.  The girls evangelized me, enlightened me to myself and the love of God simply by living their lives while I was privileged to live amongst them.  Through their constant rebellion, resistance and disobedience, I discovered those same sentiments buried deep in my heart directed towards life in general and God especially.  Through their constant, oftentimes overwhelming affection of wet kisses, powerful hugs, overly inquisitive questions, and simply their daily presence, I discovered what it means to love unconditionally.  Good moods or bad, they loved on me beyond my comfortable limits and reminded me that love is the true driving force behind all of our actions and we seek it out in whoever we can in whatever way we find possible.  Through their constant joy, laughter and energy to play and have fun, in spite of their histories and their sufferings, they taught me what it means to forgive, to let go of the past and to let our wounds heal simply by living life fully, always moving forward and not looking back.

I had an important revelation several months ago when Sor Magdalena, the Japanese nun we were sometimes sure grew “special plants” in her room, invited me to do origami with her in order to break up the monotony of life at the hogar with disobedient girls.  Origami was a childhood hobby so I was delighted to learn a new creation from a true Japanese master.  She led me through all the intricate steps of bending and folding and creasing and it looked like we were almost done.  “Now, undo everything”, she told me.  “Really?”, I thought, “I just worked hard on getting the bends and the folds perfect only to un-do the whole thing?”  But I followed her obediently and unfolded the whole piece of paper only to fold it in nearly the exact same way just in the opposite direction to reveal the final creation.  And it occurred to me that sometimes we are asked to fold in one direction, not because that is the way we are supposed to go, simply because it makes us easily bend-able towards our true path, and sharper creases one way make for easier folds in the opposite direction.  As Fulton Sheen so clearly states, “We always make the mistake of thinking that it is what we do that matters, when really what matters is what we let God do to us.”

So I am home again, after a few days of vacationing on the beach in Miami, evaluating the ways I was asked to bend in Bolivia and looking to see what direction to fold myself into next.  After the constant noise and rebellion of 120 girls at my side 24 hours a day for a year, there is a tangible emptiness to my days.  I feel the loss of not being poked and prodded and hugged and laughed at and kissed and loved by all my girls, girls that became like my own children, like my sisters and my true friends.  My first day back in the states, I was out in the ocean fighting with the waves, feeling the powerful rhthym of the force of the water, feeling intensely the loss of leaving all their beautiful faces behind, and wondering, in the end, what it was all for.  I could hear echoes of their voices whining and laughing and asking me for something and telling me their scores on their tests as they came home from school and I realized how deeply I had come to love them.  And I realized that’s just the point: love is what it’s all about (how many times in our lives we have to re-learn that simple lesson!).  I have nothing to show for my year abroad, nothing, that is, apart from a wrist full of mangy friendship bracelets, and a pile of beautiful cards and letters written on crumpled and wrinkled notebook paper, given to me by an hogar of girls that I will always love.

Thank you to all of you for following along on this journey with me this year and most of all for holding me in your thoughts and your prayers, it truly gave me strength to face the most difficult of days.  I look forward to seeing you and filling you in on the rest of the stories.
Blessings and Prayers,

PS – I am lice free now!

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