“Do What Matters” is a reflection from Starfish board member Susie Rinehart on her recent visit to Guatemala. Susie is a writer and educational consultant (www.susierinehart.com). She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and two children.
I am home after two weeks traveling in Guatemala. A year ago, when I was recovering from multiple skull surgeries, I swore that one day I would return to the land of chocolate, coffee, and cardamom, and bring people I love there with me. My doctor told me that it wasn’t a priority. But I knew that it was. I want to do what matters with people who matter to me.
I spent one week traveling with my Mom, plus Natasha, my dear friend, and her Mom, connecting as mothers and daughters. The second week, I spent with my best girlfriends from childhood. We were celebrating our 45th birthdays (a year late), a whole year of health, and over thirty-three years of friendship. While we were there, a group of young, indigenous women graduated from high school, the first person in their families to do so.
Why Guatemala? Because the land and its people teach grace and grit. Three years ago, I met some remarkable girls from Starfish; an indigenous-led organization that gives girls the education and mentorship they need to keep studying despite being born with triple discrimination (female, indigenous, poor) and the practical tools to transform their communities out of poverty. I wanted my Mom and my friends to meet these young women. I wanted them to experience the depth of inspiration that I felt the first time I met them.
While traveling, time slows and we slow down with it. Gradually, we shed our armor built from the busyness of life to notice the color of the hummingbirds. My mom wakes early and discovers orchids, roses, and jasmine plants just steps from her door. A fisherman asks me how long I have been in the country and I confess that I have no idea: a week? Ten days? I forget. I forget my age, too. I assume I am in my early twenties, because that is how I feel. My go-to feeling of responsibility is replaced with curiosity. I speak Spanish and listen to my tongue roll r’s in a way it hasn’t done in years. The funny thing is my voice feels more true in a foreign language, because I listen more intently and speak to connect, not to impress. This curiosity also inspires me to wake before sunrise, load my flashlight with new batteries, and head to the dock to watch a papaya sunrise over a green lake.
That same day, we are invited to a small town across the lake, into the home of Sara, a Starfish pioneer, just days before she graduates from high school. A few of her peers tag along. The house is simple with cinder block walls, a wood-fired stove, an outhouse, and a skinny strip of corrugated metal for a roof. The floor is immaculately swept. We sit knee-to-knee with the girls, Sara, Petronila, and Rosa, as they teach us to make tortillas. They giggle at our clumsiness, and urge us to keep trying. We share a meal of poorly-shaped tortillas, eggs, and beans. Then we share our stories.
The girls want to be doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers, and writers. I listen and worry that their dreams are too big, too unrealistic. I think, Maybe I should help them make more practical goals. Petronila, Sara, and Rosa describe their greatest achievements as moments of perseverance: “I am most proud of continuing to study even after my mom died” or “after my dad got sick and couldn’t work,” or “after our crops were wiped out by a landslide.” I feel the emotion in my throat. I fight back tears. They have been through so much, and have every reason to give up, but choose instead to rise each morning and dig in to do what matters, In the narrow moments between working and caring for their families, the girls study. Lately, in my day-to-day life, I have been feeling tired and overwhelmed. I can’t access positive thoughts easily. I am full of doubt. But Sara, Petronila, and Mari remind me of the batteries I loaded in my flashlight that morning–they line up behind each other, facing positive. The girls inspire me to be tenacious and to keep doing what matters. Sitting there, I recognize that the problem isn’t that their dreams are too big; Could my dreams be too small?
Sara’s father speaks humbly, “I am so proud. My daughter is very smart. She sees solutions to problems quickly.” I look over at my Mom who introduces herself the same way wherever we go on this trip, “I am Lyn, mother of Susie.” I let my tears finally fall, out of wonder and gratitude.
Later, my friend Alli says wisely, “If the land shapes who we are, no wonder Guatemalans are resilient.” She is referring to the way that the landscape is dominated by tall, volcanic mountains, deep lakes, and steep cliffs. There is no easy way to get around; there are no shortcuts.
We experience this fact of geography when the Moms, the girlfriends, and a few Starfish graduates and staff members climb a near-vertical slope together to celebrate the Day of the Dead. To honor their ancestors, Guatemalans gather in families at cemeteries and hillsides. They roast corn and chicken on steel drums, and build giant paper kites, the size of two-story homes. They write messages on the kites or on pieces of paper that they tie to the kite tails. One note I saw said, “My only wish is that this message finds you, and that you are happy.”
The words remind the dead that they are not forgotten. Actually, most of the messages on the kites remind the living not to forget the gift of life. The kites are shaped like bears or the Earth, and often feature a woman at the center, surrounded by water, birds, and trees. We walk among the kites as three generations of women (moms, friends, and graduates), humbled by the people’s commitment to make something so beautiful that will be gone tomorrow.
I buy a small kite for 20Q (about 3 dollars). My girlfriends and I are determined to fly it, but we are lacking skills and such basic equipment as kite string and a tail. We try anyway to get it into the air. It reminds me of when we first met at age 12, just like the Starfish girls, entering seventh grade at a large public school. Together, we made impossible things happen. In the 8th grade, we ran for student council and when we won all seats except the top one, we convinced the newly-elected president to step aside and let us steer the direction of the school without him. I think he handed the reins over because he saw how much work it was to make change happen. But we kept our eyes forward, on the possibilities and impact. When we asked the principal for our own office at the back of the cafeteria, we didn’t doubt that he would say yes. We were already picking out paint colors for the office walls.
As teenagers, we were stubborn and overly confident, brace-faced and brave. I remember painting our new office walls blue while planning the first-ever fundraiser to support families devastated by a tornado. I remember licking hundreds of envelopes with letters inside to every parent, trying to get the 100% approval we needed to host dances at night at the school. Somehow, we did it. We accomplished more stuff too; I just don’t remember all of it. What I do remember is the feeling I still have when I am with these friends traveling together over thirty years later: that anything is possible. I tell Rosa and Sara this story because I want them to know that if they work at it, their friendships won’t end when they graduate.
When our kite won’t fly, we try again. I ask a man for a little string and he generously shows us how much to use and how to attach it securely. Next the Moms toss us advice as well as plastic bag scraps to help build a kite tail. My friends Natasha and Teza get the kite in the air, but it crashes down with force onto the ground. We get the kite in the air again, and this time it lands like a hat on the head of a little boy. He is surprised, but unhurt. The locals smile at these foolish gringas who won’t give up.
When nothing works, my girlfriends and I pool our resources and find another kite. I scribble a note and attach it to the string. It says, “We will not forget how much family matters, how much friends matter, and how serving others allows us to do what matters. Thank you for the gifts of life, perseverance, and shared time together.” This time, the kite launches easily into the air and stays up, sending our message high on the wind.