I’m sitting here waiting for the words to come. Sometimes writing is like that. Not because there’s writer’s block but because it takes a while – sometimes a long while – for the feelings to swim up…and form thought…then phrases…then sentences. At least enough to make a cohesive statement.
Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Carla Woody
I’m not sure I’m there yet. I knew it five days ago when, during the final circle of this year’s spiritual travel journey in Maya Lands, I attempted to express myself. By then we’d been in the rainforest for five days. Its soft humidity – really, something about the inherent energy ⎻ tends to open other dimensions for me, even as it retains the Great Mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the insistent, primal calling of the howler monkeys.
Having heard theirs, I’d offered some last reflections to the group on our experiences then paused. I realized I’d left out a piece I was struggling with emotionally, something well beyond my control. What I was able to say in that moment felt totally inadequate in relation to what I wanted to say. I imagine it came out somewhat flat, even though I could feel the tears in my throat.
I’d avoided reading The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú for several months. I knew the subject matter would be hard for me to ingest. My feelings about what’s been happening at the US-Mexico border run deep. It rips my heart out. I personally know Rita Cantú, the author’s mother, a retired park ranger and composer-musician. She lives just a few miles from me. Knowing more now through her son’s book, I have enormous respect for the care in which she raised him, to instill the cultural values of his Mexican heritage and respect for nature. That said, I could imagine her challenges when he decided to join the US Border Patrol. Learning so in the book, it seemed unfathomable to me.
I can’t imagine what possessed me. But I decided to take Francisco’s book on my spiritual travel program in southern Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. I guess some part of me decided that reading it from a physical distance at home in northern Arizona, difficult but still easier, wasn’t appropriate. Instead, after our daily immersion with the Maya peoples and sacred traditions of those lands, I spent most nights with Francisco’s recollections. I struggled with them.
Francisco set the stage by writing of his fascination with the borderlands, wanting to know as much as he could. He disclosed that, after obtaining a degree in international relations, he desired more than intellectual knowledge. This is what led to his work as an agent for the US Border Patrol working in the hard deserts of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico between 2008 and 2012.
I doubt he held anything back in the book. Although, he does say some of those in the book are composites of different people he worked with or otherwise encountered. Locations were sometimes changed. Done so to protect privacy and, I imagine, safety in some cases. He relayed his daily life: the range of personalities and approaches of fellow agents, tracking and capturing humans in the bleakest places, witnessing desperation, hopelessness and death, the horrific acts of the drug cartels and opportunism of coyotes.
No matter what you tell yourself and how kind you may be toward asylum seekers, after a while it’s got to take a serious toll on your psyche. I was relieved when I began to pick up Francisco’s internal conflict such that he finally opted for a job removing himself from the field, and then from the Border Patrol completely.
But that brought new awareness. He’d developed a friendship with a Mexican man who, unbeknownst to Francisco, had been brought to the US illegally at age 11, married and had children who were US citizens by birth. His friend went home to Mexico to be with his dying mother but was caught attempting to re-enter and detained. Not able to just stand by, Francisco found himself on the other side. He did all he could to support his friend in navigating a legal system that cares little of personal circumstances, and otherwise helped out the family whose father was deported. At the publication of the book, they remained torn apart.
The Line Becomes a River, named a top ten book for 2018 by NPR and the Washington Post, was a hard read but a necessary one. I was personally glad the author didn’t gloss over the most difficult parts, that he was exposed to wide-ranging aspects of the border issues, and wasn’t afraid to write honestly about it. It’s a book all should read to best inform their thoughts and votes.
I’ve spent many years developing relationships with Indigenous spiritual leaders and healers who serve their own people in the lands where I sponsor programs. Travelers’ tuitions help support the families of those involved and, through special projects, for the well-being of their communities. A range of service people are also involved and the local economy benefits. I don’t frequent areas considered unsafe. So it’s unlikely those I work with encounter the drug cartel. However, for many of them, behind the scenes of our time with them, they endure the results of acute poverty with little to no opportunity to change that state.
That hurts my soul, and extends globally to anyone seeking relief from violence, scarcity of any kind and inner demons they carry as a result. I cannot harden my heart as many can and turn away. Through a slight accident of birth and the times I was born into, I have not personally experienced these levels of hardship but a good number did down my family line.
Altar at the Cofradia House (Brotherhood), Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. Photo: Carla Woody.
So I am yet sitting here waiting for the words to arise to adequately express the sorrow I hold for a world where everyone isn’t invited to the table, and the helplessness I feel to do anything about it except my very small part to make it so.
The Metaphor: Borderlands
During opening circles for any of my spiritual travel programs, I invite participants to note any personal themes that run through our time together. Mine are not tourist trips but first to help preserve Indigenous traditions, and also an invitation for travelers to undertake deep inner work. What better way than spiritual journeys against the backdrop of sacred lifeways of foreign lands where we’re not within our usual comfort zone? The purpose, of course, is to carry the learnings home to create re-alignment and best live through personal values.
I invite them to note any metaphors that arise from their themes, providing a rich foundation and potential in-roads. Only this morning, as I finish writing this article, have I discovered my own coming from these travels: Borderlands.
There are the literal borderlands fraught with political issues that create great distress and tragedies. But also there are metaphysical borderlands. In this moment, what comes to me is the forbidden ground we’re told we must not cross in order to reinforce the status quo. But if we did and navigated those lands wisely, with great courage and heart, there’s the opportunity to integrate any wounded or unintegrated aspects of the self, and move through the threshold to enter an elevated life.
This is an area of personal depth and further unearthing. The Line Becomes a River delivered it to me, gratefully while being immersed in the Maya lands and in relationship with peoples I’ve come to love.