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.

Dental Drilling: Anybody Else Not a Fan?

“I’m sorry, how many cavities did you say I have?” I ask.

Surely I’ve misheard her.

“Eight,” she responds with certainty and at the same time a tone of apology. It’s obvious that this Mexican dentist doesn’t want to tell me this any more than I want to hear it.

“How is that possible?” I ask incredulously. “I’ve gone to the dentist every six months my entire life and I’ve never had a single cavity.”

“Well, at lot of times in the U.S., dentists wait until you need a root canal or crown to deal with things like this because the payout is better,” she explains. “But I want you to see for yourself, so I’m going to take some X-rays and photos.”

“OK,” I respond, silently praying that somehow she has this all wrong. After all, I was just coming in for a simple cleaning.

But minutes later she shows me the x-rays and the photos she’s taken with my iphone. There are in fact several, tiny, brown and black spots on my back molars – which I’d noticed before but assumed were just stains.

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“Luckily they haven’t gone past your enamel yet,” she says. “But if left untreated, over time they will go deeper until they cause you pain and require much more extensive treatment.”

I can’t argue with the evidence so instead I stare at her, processing a multitude of thoughts and emotions until they spill over… into tears. That’s right, I’m a newly-turned 34 year old crying in the dentist’s chair about some cavities.

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Why? Well, besides the fact that I just canceled my dental insurance last month and I’m afraid this might cost me a small fortune, there’s this other “little” factor called my ego rearing its ugly head. You see, I’m the girl with the “flawless smile,” the “perfect teeth,” – at least that’s what I’ve been told my entire life from dentists, friends and even perfect strangers.

For years, I’ve proudly worn my “no cavity” status like a badge of honor. But now, it’s been snatched away. And replaced with a “scarlet C.”

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And not just a “C,” a “C” with a BIG 8 in front of it!

Besides being embarrassed about my situation and response to it, I’m also angry that my American dentists never breathed a word to me about this and now, with no dental insurance, I’m having to deal with all of this in a foreign country.

“I know this is difficult to hear,” the dentist tells me handing me a tissue. “You don’t have to make a decision today, but it’s my job to tell you this so you can take care of these issues before they become more serious.”

I ponder her words and my bank account before I take a deep breath and respond.

“Can you fix all of them today?” I ask.

She nods.

“Then let’s do it.”

There’s no point in delaying the treatment. After all, why would I want to let problem areas fester when I can take care of them now?

Being a cavity virgin, I have no idea what is going to happen, which explains my shock when the dentist (without any prior warning), tightly squeezes both sides of one of my cheeks with her fingers, takes a gigantic syringe and sticks the needle into my flesh.

The prick isn’t bad, but I feel a slight burning sensation as whatever is in the syringe fills my cheek.

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This happens three more times until she has effectively numbed every corner of my mouth.

I feel my cheeks growing heavy and fat, until I’m sure I look like a chipmunk.

“Isth thaa novocaine?” I try to ask, realizing that my tongue is no longer functioning properly. As a kid I had a terrible reaction to too much nitrous oxide which resulted in me throwing up all over some poor dental tech’s hair – a big, permed 90’s “do” if I remember correctly.

“Yes, you aren’t allergic to it, are you?”

I shake my head no but inwardly I think, “Well, it would be too late now if I was!”

After a 10 minute cleaning (apparently despite my 8 cavities, I don’t have a bit of tartar on any of my teeth), she begins the drilling. See video below.

The sound isn’t pleasant and I don’t realize I’m tensing every muscle in my body until after she’s given me a brief reprieve. “Breath. Relax.” I tell myself. Though I never understood why before, I’m beginning to appreciate why some 75% of adults apparently fear going to the dentist.

I think of Natalie, who had her cleaning before my appointment and is out in the waiting room. I send her a text: “Go head and get something to eat. Long story – it’s going to be a while.”

“Why?? Is everything ok?” comes the response.

I want to tell her the truth – that I’m currently dealing with 8 cavities, 4 shots of novocaine, an emotional breakdown and most likely a few more hours of what I would describe as a form of mild torture. But considering the dentist speaks English and can read what I write, I simply respond:

“Yep. I’ll let you know when I’m almost done.”

This drilling continues again and again. Intermittently she tells me “open a bit wider,” and I attempt to, though I swear my jaw is going to break if it hinges open any further.

For two hours she meticulously removes every last speck of decay from my teeth and then refills them until finally, she announces: “NOW, you have perfect teeth.”

She takes a few more photos to show me and I have to admit that she did an amazing job.

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This makes me smile, but when I do, I realize the whole bottom half of my face is numb. I hope I’m not grimacing. Or drooling.

“Tho, when can I eath?” I ask. It’s 3 p.m. and after a morning run and yoga, I’m starved.

“Not until you have feeling back in your mouth. You might bite your cheeks or choke if you do now.”

As if on cue my stomach rumbles in protest. I nod my head sadly and pay the $280. This day certainly didn’t turn out the way I thought it would, but while I can’t say the experience was enjoyable, I know it was necessary.

The truth is that sometimes there are “cavities” in my life that are easy to overlook. Areas that, while seemingly innocuous or surface level, can turn into much more serious issues over time. If not dealt with properly, these little “problem areas” will go deep, attacking the very core of who I am and requiring a much more extensive removal process – one that will undoubtedly strike a nerve and cause a great deal of pain.

Like this dentist, God wants to bring them to my attention. Not to shame me or cause discomfort, but because he want to remove the “decay” from my life. He wants to ensure my health and help me strive toward Spiritual perfection – the only kind that really matters.

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When I walk out into the waiting room, I can see the concern on Natalie’s face.

“Thith hath been the moth ridiculoth denthisth appointhmenth ever,” I explain.

I see the corners of her lips curl as she struggles to keep a serious expression.

“Oh, iths funny alrigth,” I respond as we both crack up. “I sounth like a completh idioth.”

I tell her about everything (as best I can) on the drive home and we have good laugh.

I know even after all this work my teeth aren’t “perfect” and they never will be. And that’s OK. That even with all of my brushing and flossing, I will likely have other “issues” to deal with in the future.

But this experience reminded me that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about if I do have a few more “cavities” that need to be dug out. The process may not be enjoyable, but every time I face and work on my own shortcomings, I’m making progress – which is the most important thing.

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And who knows, in the end, it might even be something I can laugh about.