After months of packing up the contents of Decorenza’s Décor Studio; amid random tears that came and went with every memory and every object within the studio’s walls; I searched for a journey to acknowledge and reward the 14 years of blessings I created in my life through the beautiful teacher called Decorenza and for a pause to allow my tired self to breathe and catch up to all the emotional realities that had occurred since the gift of clarity arrived on my 51st birthday (November 12, 2015); the knowing that I had reached conscious completion with my business. 

I pondered one spa and retreat after another but none of them really jumped out at me. Exotic locations like Bali and India were enticing but I was not connecting with the idea.  Something was not clicking so I did what I often do when I want to be inspired, I reached for a copy of one of my favourite magazines, Spirituality and Health.  I did as I always did, flip through page by page first, before reading it from cover to cover.  When I got to a 2-page advertorial for Utopia Foundation that said If you have a month, volunteer somewhere that will have your friends asking – “You’re going where? You’re doing what? And are you crazy?” something clicked in me that the exotic locations and spa retreats didn’t do. The page seemed to come to life and the more I read, the more it filled my heart with warmth.  Utopia Foundation’s founder, I discovered while reading this advertorial, was also the founder of the magazine Spirituality and Health. I knew instantly from the years of comfort that the pages of the magazine had given me that I could trust Utopia Foundation, led by this magazine’s founder, to be just what I needed to comfort me and fill me up as the magazine had always done, and then some. 

I called Utopia Foundation’s New York offices and spoke with a coordinator named Deborah.  She, although going through a serious medical family matter at the time, answered my call and continued to speak with me over the next couple of days in between her hospital visits with her loved one.  To say I was impressed by her commitment to the Foundation in spite of her serious personal situation is an understatement.  Deborah ultimately was the reason I jumped at the opportunity to apply for a volunteer position with Utopia Foundation and did not research any others providing similar opportunities.  

Utopia Foundation had volunteer program opportunities in Kenya, Nepal and Guatemala.  I have always wanted to know Africa and Nepal; however when your childhood friend of over 40 years is your travel agent, you don’t make a decision like this without her caution.  Evacuation notices, bomb scares and virus notifications filled my inbox for a few days until finally she agreed that of all the destinations available, the safest country at that time was Guatemala.  I took her suggestion and selected a two-week Service Work Project named “Mamma Care” in an Orphanage in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to assist teenage mothers with their babies and toddlers.  It was a Government facility and these young girls were there under protective custody because they had been victims of sexual violence.   My service was to assist the girls and help them with the care of their babies. 

The application required a Police Information Check. And essentials for travel to a third world country included immunizations, a prescription for antibiotics and a laser wand to filter water.  The antibiotic prescription was accompanied by a step-by-step guide to follow to determine when a fever required antibiotics to be self- administered so that I would have some protection against infections. 

The program provided accommodation with a host family within walking distance of the orphanage.  It included bare essentials; a private bedroom, a shared bathroom and three meals daily with the host family.  I settled into their way of life, their reality and their culture.   They were so accommodating and truly welcomed me into their home with love.  I was grateful for Google Translate that made it possible for me to converse with them and the young moms at the orphanage.  In the absence of fluent language, I relied mostly on human understanding and body language to navigate daily interactions. 

It’s interesting what lack of language can open up. It was an invitation to surrender to human connection and understanding and to let the power of “being” operate as a rule rather than an exception.  What a gift it was to have no language and rely on intuition of human needs to lead me forward in service to others.  It was an invitation for me to experience more human “being” than “doing” and it was incredible how quickly I realized that we all have an innate ability to be there for and with each other.   The power of being was something I had known only theoretically; I was practicing so hard at it for years, but when it became the only way to communicate and connect with others, I finally got to experience it. For all the times in my life I tried to “be” and not “do” and failed, I now had experienced it fully and could see the beauty of this way of being.

Coming home after an emotional day in the orphanage left a lot of thoughts and emotions to be processed.  I took to social media not only because I have always believed deeply in the power of sharing stories but because many of my friends and colleagues had asked me to share my experience, so they could live vicariously through my posts.  I shared stories that were deeply emotional and I shared my feelings for the beautiful babies and their unique characters.  I even gave them nicknames and chose animated characters to represent each baby because as you can imagine, being in protective custody does not allow for pictures to be taken in the orphanage.  The posts about the babies and my description in detail of their characters immediately took hold of the hearts of my Facebook friends. 

Friends started commenting on my posts saying  “you missed your calling.” “Empathy and compassion comes through your words.” “ Through my tears I want to hear it all” Amazing how you pen your experience with such feeling.” “ You are a powerful story teller .” “I felt your emotion and pain with you in that moment” and finally “please keep posting we want to read more”.  A couple of friends even urged me to write a children’s book, which I have not ruled out and probably will write some day in an effort to raise funds for the orphanage. 

So you see among all of the beautiful gifts of my experience in Guatemala, the one that lead me here to write this blog post is the gift I received when I was validated for my ability to connect with people through my stories.  This deeply heartfelt validation that surfaced on my Facebook comments during my Guatemala journey rooted in me the courage to move beyond my fear of not being good enough to write and brought me to the frontline to hear and answer the calling - to write and speak and be a messenger of hope with a deep knowing that it IS what I am here to do.  My gratitude for those individuals who followed my journey in Guatemala and who took the time to read and to comment on my posts will always feel as close today as it did in those moments half way across the world.  Their validation and support lives in my heart and feeds the courage within me to keep telling stories.   

My trip to Guatemala, I thought, was an outward facing journey.  Connecting and being of service to others was my way of showing gratitude for my blessings and allowing myself to truly embody the “I am enough, I have enough” belief that had transformed my life from a human-doing to a human-being and paved the way for a pause, a sabbatical to guide me into my next chapter. 

The real gift of Guatemala however, was the inward journey of clarity and focus for myself that validated and revealed my gift for storytelling and slowly built up my courage to see that the new chapter was guiding me down the path of becoming a voice, a messenger and an advocate for what I embody in my beliefs, based on my life experiences through mental illness. 

A new path was forming and I was simply “being” and “being enough” to allow it to appear before me.  I was not leading, pushing or impatient.  For the first time in my life, I was paying attention, watching and living in curiosity to see what was really before me and where I was being guided to go. 

Within just six months after this extraordinary and deeply healing experience in Guatemala I knew that my voice was ready to be heard.  I was ready to sometimes disrupt and disturb.  I would no longer keep the silence.  I knew there was hope and that I could carry that hope into everything that I did.  I knew there was a world to re-arrange and that I would be the change.

For now, I am this change in the pages of this blog. And for later … well, I will keep practicing and strengthening my skills with paying attention, waiting and living in curiosity. And where I am guided to go next, where I am needed and where I can stand alongside my desire to change how we see and treat mental illness… well, when it’s revealed to me, I’ll share it with you.