Presents in Presence

I take a wobbly step off of the dock and onto the small boat that will take us back from Playa Blanca, Colombia to Cartagena. It’s a pretty simple boat – a few rows of bench seats and the captain’s chair. Rachel and I are both a little sad to leave our Colombian island paradise, but we’re feeling rested, rejuvenated and ready for the next step in this adventure. The boat ride back to Cartagena is supposed to take about an hour, and honestly, I can’t wait!

Not because I love boats… I’m pretty indifferent about boats actually, but because I really appreciate a little quiet time. And as a natural introvert, sometimes I need time alone with my thoughts. Boats, buses and planes are perfect for this. They give me plenty of time to think through whatever happens to be on my mind.

We strap on our life vests and start motoring into the harbor; passing by another island on our way out to sea. Rachel and I jokingly termed this island the “Party Island” – basically because it’s a party island. Yesterday, we kayaked to this island with some new friends that we met at our resort, Francisca and Felipe. When we arrived, we laid on the beach, drank out of coconuts and watched as all the youngins danced to Justin Bieber on boats.

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Today, the island looks pretty much the same as we pass by. And in a few moments the “Captain” opens up the throttle and we start flying through the bay into the Caribbean Sea. Even though I’ve been here for a few days the water’s shade of blue-teal still amazes me. It looks so beautiful as it laps against the islands rocky shorelines and sandy coves. I take a deep breath, turn my face to the sun and happily prepare for my hour of quiet time.   The Captain quickly shifts the boat into a higher gear and we break away from the coast into the open Sea.

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The usual thoughts start filling my mind – what’s going on back in the US? How are my dogs doing? (They’re staying with my Mom in California while we travel internationally) And the classic question – what is my life going to look like when all of this is over?

My mind starts wandering down a few rabbit holes as I ponder these questions, and just as I’m settling in to my thoughts our Captain hits a huge wave at full speed and I fly up out of my seat. Two seconds later I’m hit in the face by a huge spray of salt water. “Wow,” I think to myself, “glad I didn’t shower before we left!” The ride is getting bumpier and bumpier, but I shake it off and try to go back into my reflections. Then we hit another wave. This time the entire boat flies into the air and we’re all sprayed with salt-water. I hear Francisca shriek from the back of the boat. I look at the Captain and to my surprise, he’s not slowing down. In fact, it looks like he’s smiling!

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He speeds up even more and barrels into the oncoming waves at full speed. I’m sitting in the front of the boat and I have grab ahold of the railing because I’m legitimately scared that I might be thrown out of this boat. And that’s when I hear it – the sound of Rachel laughing like crazy as the boat bounces from one wave to the next.

I look across the tiny walkway and see her giant smile as she bounces up and down. In this moment, I can’t help but start laughing too. I mean the rate at which we’re hitting these waves is so dangerous that it’s ridiculous! And as I bounce around in my seat, I think, “To hell with my alone time, this is actually pretty fun!”

All of a sudden, I start noticing things I hadn’t seen before. I look across the aisle at Alejandro, an employee of the resort who we’ve gotten to know over the past few days, and I see him starting to chuckle at our reaction to the boat. He’s sporting the uniquely Colombian style of acid-washed jeans, a Tommy Hillfiger T-shirt and huge gold sunglasses. He’s sitting next to another employee of the resort, who is somehow sleeping through this ridiculous boating experience. Next to them is a German couple that do not look amused. In fact, every time we hit a wave I see the wife’s face turn a slightly darker shade of green… yikes.

Then my eyes pan to the shoreline, where I can see the clear blue waters hitting the tan rocks and splashing up into the air. The boat takes a huge turn and my stomach drops as we catch some air and free-fall for a second or two. When we hit the water again, a huge ocean spray coats me, and I’m laughing.

“Remember this…” I think to myself.

We’ve been in South America for nearly six weeks and in a couple of days we’re leaving this continent to head for New Zealand. On our way there we’re meeting our friend Katy who’s decided to take a huge leap of faith and join us. But as exciting as it is to take the next step in this journey, it reminds me that this is only temporary.

So as we pull off of the choppy Sea and into the Cartagena harbor I look around, hoping to imprint every moment in my memory. Because someday soon, life will be different, and I won’t remember the thoughts I pondered during my alone time. I’ll close my eyes and think of the crazy boat ride we took during our amazing trip around the world. I’ll remember of the taste of the salt-water, the sound of the laughter and the look of the queasy Germans across the aisle… then I’ll smile and thank God for every moment.

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The Kiss

CAVEAT #1: So, I’ve never been one to kiss and tell, and certainly not in a public forum. And the fact that my parents (among others) read this blog makes me quite averse to writing this at all. But in the spirit of authenticity and sharing my heart, here goes:

It’s 10:30 p.m in Cartagena, Columbia, and Natalie and I are finishing a nice dinner outside in a plaza just off “Bourbon Street.”

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As a Louisiana native I know that apart from a few bars and balconies, this street is nothing like its namesake in New Orleans. But being that it’s still 80 degrees with 90% humidity, it does make it feel a bit more like home.

Natalie steps inside the restaurant to use the restroom when an attractive guy about my age approaches the table. He’s the “maroon-shirt guy” that I’ve caught looking at me at least a dozen times over the last hour from across the plaza.

“Do you speak English?” he asks in a broken accent that I can’t quite place. I nod my head yes, inwardly amused that even when it comes to pick-up lines, some questions come first when you are traveling internationally.

“I just had to come over here and say hello,” he begins, “I noticed you earlier and….I….you are really beautiful,” he stumbles.

“Thank you,” I respond with a smile. I have to give the guy credit for his courage and honesty, and I can’t say that I don’t appreciate the compliment.

Small talk ensues for a few minutes as I learn how he is from Portugal and here on business.

His friend/wingman (who must have seen that he hadn’t ‘crashed and burned’) approaches the table as Natalie returns. After brief introductions, they ask to sit down and join us for a drink and we agree.

Meeting new people is one of my favorite things about traveling. I love learning about their lives back home, reason for traveling and hopes and dreams for the future. Plus, it adds a certain level of novelty for Natalie and I who spend just about every waking moment together.

Turns out we hit the random guy jackpot. They are interesting, great conversationalists, nice and funny. Score. We laugh, take turns asking questions and even decide to engage the random hat vendor who approaches our table eager to make a sale. Apparently the guy Natalie is talking to really wants to take home an authentic Colombian sombrero.

We spend the next 15 minutes trying on a plethora of Fadoras, Indiana Jones-ish hats and a few extravagant (and pretty incredible) ones, though Natalie and I make it clear that we are NOT buying anything. Of all the things I need on a round-the-world trip, a huge, Jackie-O statement head-gear piece is definitely not one of them.

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We take photos and everything is fun and games until somehow the price is lowered to an unbelievable deal, the guys tell us how amazing we look in the hats and suddenly we are the not-so-proud owners of two, that’s right, TWO, gigantic hats that we have to find place for in our backpacks.

The irony of it all? Everyone BUT the guy who wanted a hat bought one. (This is why I can’t watch QVC or infomercials)

Needless to say, it’s now past midnight and with an eye glance and slight head nod, Natalie and I are in agreement. It’s time to head home. We’re a good ways from our hotel and considering that the streets were eerily empty earlier, when the guys offer to walk us back, we accept. Safety is paramount when traveling as young women and we try to be extremely vigilant – especially at night and with men. These two, I trust and I can tell Natalie does too.

With hats on heads we make our way down Bourbon street in pairs, me and maroon-shirt guy just behind Natalie and his friend.

We’re chatting and laughing like old friends. I’m genuinely enjoying his company until suddenly I realize he’s giving me “the look.” My stomach flips and my pulse quickens, but not in the way I want it to. I glance away immediately as multiple thoughts barrage my mind:

“Was that the look? I think that was look.”

“Oh no, I don’t want him to kiss me! What do I do?”

“Say something, Sherburne. Change the subject or at least make a joke….”

“Shit! Why can’t I think of a joke??”

I’m trying to come up with a way to kill the mood but before I have a millisecond to devise a strategy, he’s somehow found a way to access my face under my enormous hat and his lips are on mine.

SHIT! Abort, retreat, get away!

CAVEAT #2: This is not the first guy to kiss me in South America (sorry, Mom and Dad). And despite my reaction to this experience, let me just say that there have been others that I thoroughly enjoyed.

But in this moment, despite having zero desire to kiss this guy (though he’s perfectly nice and attractive), I let him kiss me. Why? Because I don’t want to embarrass him. Or hurt his feelings.

Yes, I know. In hindsight, this sounds totally lame. And though I claim to no longer need the approval of others, I clearly need to work on my ability to be assertive and speak up when someone crosses a boundary I don’t want them to cross.

CAVEAT #3: I do have boundaries! Despite the fact that it’s 2016, I’m a divorced, 34-year old traveling the world and casual sex is considered normal and often encouraged, that’s not what I’m looking for. (You can breathe easy, Mom and Dad)

So, after I’m free from the kiss I tell this guy that I’m a “Good Catholic girl” and “not going to sleep with him.” My turn to be direct. Thankfully he doesn’t push it any further and we join back with Natalie and his friend who are busy taking ridiculous photos with her new hat.

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A few minutes later we are back at our hotel and things end on a friendly, but slightly awkward note as I quickly say goodbye and head inside. Even though I stated my boundaries, I get the feeling he is hoping he can change my mind.

But I’m resolute.

It was my Catholic faith and a “True Love Waits Program” I attended in junior high that convinced me to remain a virgin until I got married and continues to call me to celibacy until I remarry. But it’s also my heart. As much as I’ve enjoyed some South American romance, I know that I want so much more than a kiss on Bourbon Street after midnight with a dude I’ve known less than 2 hours.

I want a real connection with a guy, who, while he might have initially found me beautiful from across the courtyard, finds my personality, heart, and Spirit even more-so when he really gets to know me. I want a relationship with a man who understands and respects my boundaries and knows that a holy, Godly woman is worth the wait. A man who pursues me and my heart second only to Jesus. A man who inspires me to be a better person with his faith, integrity and selflessness. And a man who knows what REAL love is and is ready to share that with someone.

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I’m not saying that I expect to find this after a few hours, a first kiss or even on this Great Enlivening. But I know this: if kissing is all I plan on doing before marriage, then I want it to mean something. Maybe that makes me sound old-fashioned. Maybe that means I’ll miss out on some make out sessions. Or maybe, just maybe, it means that the next time a man goes in for a kiss, the heart-pounding and stomach flipping will be a really good thing.

 

 

Earnin’ It

I look out over the crisp blue of the Caribbean Sea as the cool breeze blows against my skin, and for the first time in a while I feel – healthy, rested and balanced.

I’m sitting on the second floor deck of our hotel’s restaurant in Playa Blanca, Colombia. The view from up here is gorgeous, but every time someone walks by, the entire structure shakes. And it makes me wonder if I’m a few moments away from the entire thing crashing down. But the view is too good to move, so I stay.

 

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We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia a few days ago with no agenda besides relaxation. Which might seem a little crazy, since “world-traveler” isn’t exactly a stressful job description. But in the past five weeks Rachel and I racked up some pretty impressive stats:

  • We took 12 flights, 3 buses (two of which were overnight), 2 boats and 1 train
  • We slept in 16 different hotels or hostels
  • We took 6 cold showers (I didn’t bother counting the hot ones… for some reason they were less memorable)
  • We met and befriended 31 other world-travelers
  • We ate the most amazing ceviche on earth (thanks Peru!)
  • We contracted at least one, possibly two, parasites (thanks Bolivia!)
  • We saw countless animals including: Llamas, Alpacas, Emus, Deer, Butterflies, Tucans, Rabbits, Donkeys and Flamingos
  • And, we saw one of the New Seven Wonders of the World

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While all of this was amazing, we were craving a little rest and relaxation (and a few days without packing up our backpacks). Cartagena itself is a beautiful city, but everyone we met said that we needed to see the amazing beaches of the Rosario Islands – and they were right. The white-sand, the sparkling teal water and the coral reefs are spectacular.

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And that’s the view I’m enjoying now – a beautiful cove near Playa Blanca. We went for a swim this morning and found out that the water feels about as perfect as it looks, and it’s full of adorable little friends.

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And though there’s nothing on the agenda for the next few days, I am hoping to accomplish one very, very important task – to even out my tan lines. I know this sounds pretty vain, but please withhold judgment until you see the extent of the damage:

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It’s bad.

How did I do this to myself you ask? Well, it all started about a week ago when Rachel and I decided to check an item off of our respective bucket lists and climb Machu Picchu.

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There are several ways to access Machu Picchu, ranging from eight-day treks to thirty-minute bus rides. But we opted for the one-day route where you climb from the town of Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu. The hike itself takes about an hour and a half, and we trekked nearly five miles and ascended over 1,300 feet on a stone staircase.

 

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There weren’t many other people who chose this option, probably because the climb was… exhausting. But when we reached the top it was totally worth it. Instead of taking the fast track to the end, our sweaty brows and sore, shaky legs proved that we earned it!

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But in my hurry to see the ruins, I haphazardly used my sunscreen stick and forgot to rub it in. So now, I’m on the beach in Colombia, looking like a zebra. Or as Rachel puts it, looking like “someone took an eraser to my tan.”  Thanks Rach!

Oh well! I’ll have plenty of sun over the next few days to even it out. And the scenery here can’t be beat. Although, getting to this island was no easy task. In fact, there were a few moments when we didn’t know if we would make it at all. Rachel and I booked this hotel yesterday morning, but we neglected to think about the logistics involved with moving ourselves to an island. And unfortunately, we literally missed the boat.

And after a few phone calls with the hotel, they set it up for us to take a truck with four-wheel drive. There is a bridge to this island, but the roads themselves are not really roads. The only car we passed on the drive was stuck in the sand on the beach and I worried that we were about to succumb to the same fate.

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Yeah… we’re in a car, and that’s the ocean.

While we drove, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the sparkling ocean at sunset. It was a really unique, if not slightly dangerous, way to see the island. Luckily, we made it to our hotel about an hour later. And since then we’ve settled in to our few days of a stress-free agenda!

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Thinking back on the trip to this beautiful place, I realize that the most memorable moments of our journey happened when we took the path less traveled. The times we chose to climb the mountain rather than take the bus, or drive through the sea rather than sail over it. It may take more time, sweat, and sunburn to do it this way, but in the end – it’s worth it. And that’s a lesson I want to take with me on this Great Enlivening. Well that… and sunscreen.

Parasites and Pity Parties in the Land of Peace

I used to have a blue stone with the word “Peace” printed in black letters on it. I can’t remember who gave it to me, only that it sat on my work desk for many years.

When my marriage was unraveling and peace was what I needed more than anything, I would look at that small stone by my keyboard several times a day. And when I felt particularly anguished and like my entire world was crumbling around me, sometimes I’d hold the smooth stone in my hand. I’d close my eyes, and pray that somehow God could supernaturally impart peace into my heart.

He did. But not always right away, and not without my cooperation.

Rarely was peace the result of a change in my circumstances. Rather, it was the fruit of a deepening relationship with my Heavenly Father. Peace found me when I intentionally sought God. When I took time to look at Him, instead of the world around me. When I choose to rest in His presence and love. And that’s when I would experience the “peace that surpasses all understanding.”

I didn’t know how much I was craving this kind of peace until I tasted it firsthand. Then I was hooked, a lover and cultivator of peace in my own life. Perhaps that’s why when Natalie and I felt God calling us to La Paz, Bolivia, I was thrilled. Going to a place called, “The Peace?” Surely God was going to take me to a whole new “peace level.”

Over the last seven days we’ve had some incredible experiences, like the cable-car tour of La Paz we took to explore the city from new heights.

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Not to mention the walking tour of the city.

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Then, there was the three-day excursion to check out the salt flats in Solar de Uyuni.

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Which made for some fun photos!

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The scenery was unbelievable and ranged from mountain lagoons with flamingoes…

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….to volcanoes…

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…to lush green pastures with llamas…

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…to wind-shaped rocks…

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…and geysers!

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And it was just as breathtaking when we arrived to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca two days ago.

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But despite being in a state called La Paz, peace hasn’t exactly been at a premium in my life over the last week.

Perhaps it’s the result of not sleeping well thanks to altitude sickness, uncomfortable beds and freezing hostels. Or being sick – I mean really sick to my stomach for 6 days. Or maybe, nearly a month into this whole trip, I’m just a little homesick. But whatever the reason, yesterday I woke up feeling the opposite of peace.

Besides feeling terrible, the clothes I tediously washed by hand in the bathroom sink, and hung to dry the night before, were still soaking wet.

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We had a 10+ hour overnight bus trip that evening and not wanting moldy clothes in my backpack, I knew I had to find a dryer. This doesn’t sound like a monumental task unless you understand that clothes dryers are a rarity in South America. It took asking three people, walking nearly two miles, and a frustrating exchange in Spanish with the man with said “dryer” (who wouldn’t actually tell me whether or not he had one) before I was back at the hotel.

I was hopeful that my clothes would be dried by the time I picked them five hours later, but more exhausted and annoyed than anything else. When Natalie woke up, I recounted my morning to her as the emotions spilled over into tears. “I don’t even know why I’m crying!” I lament. “I just think the S.H.I.T. factor is at all-time high.”

Natalie knows this acronym I coined years ago. It stands for the four major physical factors contributing to my overall well-being at any given moment:

S: Stress: Like when I pulled out my Macbook yesterday and discovered it’s now making a constant grinding noise (which is driving me crazy and I have no idea how I’m going to be able to fix since Apple stores and Best Buys don’t exist here). Or how 9 out of 10 times I try to use my debit card it doesn’t work – despite my repeated correspondence with my bank to let them know where I am.

H: Hunger: Like how I have to eat the bare minimum not to starve but also not to upset my already angry stomach. This was last night’s dinner.

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I: Imbalance: This can be hormonal, emotional, physical, whatever. Like right now with my stomach issues.  Let’s just say that I have to plan my entire day around the availability of a bathroom.

T: Tired: Like how I didn’t sleep a single minute the night before last and how I’m probably only averaging about 4-5 hours of sleep when I do.

Needless to say, Natalie and I agreed the S.H.I.T. factor was at play and decided the first thing we needed to do was be seen by a doctor. After our examination, we learned that while we both have some sort of bacterial infection, mine was “mas fuerte” [very strong] and would require some serious drugs to treat. Great. I was prescribed a concoction of antibiotics and anti-parasite medications to kill whatever has been wrecking havoc on my system.

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After that, we stopped in the nearby Cathedral to pray. But just as I began to quiet my mind and tune into God, I heard it. An awful wailing coming from behind me. I waited about 30 seconds before I turned around and spotted a very disheveled homeless woman sitting in the back of the Church with tears streaming down her face.

I whispered what I had seen to Natalie and then she asked, “Do you think we should go pray for her?”

“Yeah,” I said.

So, we got up and walked to the back of the Church before handing her and the other homeless woman near her some money. Then, I sat down in the pew next to the one weeping. There was an obvious language barrier, but after looking into her eyes and placing my hand on her shoulder I began to pray. I asked the Holy Spirit to ease her pain, fill her with God’s peace and remind her of how much He loves her. “Peace, peace, peace.” I whispered as her cries turned silent. The prayer seemed to have worked – at least in that moment.

After I finished praying, I looked into her tear-filled eyes and squeezed her hand. She nodded her head and said nothing. I didn’t know what else to do, so Natalie and I left the Church to walk back to our hotel.

As we stepped outside, I noticed a big wet spot on the right hip/thigh of my jeans exactly where my leg had been pressed against the homeless woman.

“Ummm, my leg is wet,” I say to Natalie as the thought dawns on me, “Oh my gosh, I hope she didn’t pee on me.”

Natalie grimaces and I just shake my head dejectedly. The S.H.I.T. factor is bad enough, do I seriously have to deal with pee too??

At this point I decide that I hate Bolivia and I’d rather wallow in my own pity party than talk, so I trail slowly behind Natalie until I can be alone.

I see her enter the hotel, but I’m not ready to go in. So, I plop down on the grassy shore of Lake Titicaca and pull out my journal.

In a flurry of words, I vent all of my frustrations on paper before I write, “God, why did you bring me to La Paz?”

In an instant, I know the answer: To remind me that peace is not found in ANYTHING in this world, only Him.

I know this is the truth, but I had temporarily lost sight of it. As I drop my head and take a deep breath, I notice a smooth stone near me. And with my pen and newfound conviction, I make my very own peace rock.

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I hold it in my hand and talk with God as tears began to spill down my cheeks. “Lord, give me your peace. Peace, peace, peace,” I pray.

And that’s when I detect a slight movement behind me. I quickly turn and less than a foot from my face is a gigantic mass of fur and two eyes.

“Oh my God!” I wince, bracing myself for an attack. Thankfully this huge, street dog isn’t affected by my reaction. He doesn’t even move. He just stares into my eyes and pants softly.

I reach tentatively to pet this “bear dog” and the minute my hand meets his face, he pushes lovingly into my hand.

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Again and I again I stoke his fur, amazed by his affection and the palpable peace he seems to exude. Street dogs in South America usually don’t even acknowledge humans, much less allow them to touch them. But sitting right next to me on the bank of Lake Titicaca is the sweetest dog I’ve ever met.

“Thank you, Lord,” I whisper, as fresh tears fill my eyes and my heart lightens.

As I sat on the bank with my new friend, I was reminded that God never asks us to suffer alone. Sometimes He sends a person to sit with us and be a channel of peace – like I had been to the homeless woman I prayed with earlier. Sometimes, he apparently also sends big, cuddly dogs.

But even after my furry friend left, I knew I wasn’t alone. God was with me, inviting me to rest in His love and cast my cares on Him. And reminding me once again that peace isn’t found in the absence of pain, in all the wonder and beauty of this Great Enlivening, or even in a place called “La Paz,” – but in Him, and Him alone.