Reflections on Guatemala (or, What's In A Pen?)

“I didn’t expect a road-to-Damascus, life-changing snap,” I told a fellow volunteer on my last morning in the country.  “I didn’t expect it–but I guess one can always hope…”

The phrase “cognitive dissonance” keeps coming to mind: How does one work half days in an orphanage full of kids lacking toilet paper & teeth, then cruise off to swim in waterfalls with 18-year-old girls? None of it makes a great deal of sense. Much in our world doesn’t.

What follows is a lumpy mixture of the life-affirming, the very sad, and mostly the totally banal.


I joke with Google folks that somewhere in a Mountain View basement, some quant-savant knows me better than I know myself: s/he has figured out that every person who’s clicked, say, a certain three pages on Wikipedia plus a certain NYT story is a guilty-feeling liberal (likely Catholic-flavored) who’s ripe for soliciting.  And thus the YouTube ads began:

Volunteer in Africa! 2-12 week positions available now.

Soon enough I was off, having chosen Guatemala based on need (it’s a less popular destination than places like Costa Rica) & timing. I drew a placement at Mama Carmen’s, an orphanage/daycare that serves 50+ kids per day. (Mama Carmen herself has adopted 30-some kids, many with special needs, after losing her own son.) We were asked not to post photos of the kids (makes sense), but you can get a good sense of things via the link above.

We worked only half days (something I didn’t know when I signed up), though it didn’t feel very “only” at the time.  Many of the kids are starved for adult attention (as the staff has their hands more than full simply feeding & bathing the kids), and they instantly turned my partner Blair & me into human jungle gyms.  We had little prep: in you go, and climbed you will be. (There can be something quite charming, though, in having little arms appear around your neck while a voice whispers from behind, Yo soy su mochila!!”) I’d often stand with a kid on either arm, plus another grabbing each leg, only to find another quietly pushing up a chair to mount me from behind.

Days could feel long, and whatever supplies we’d bring (crayons, Play-Doh, games) would generally be torn apart in short order. The kids aren’t bad, not in the least; they’re just under-stimulated & -supervised. We did our best to manage the chaos, keeping kids from ingesting crayons and tent stakes (a toy, really?). It was largely a matter of endurance.

And then, on Tuesday, one of the little guys died.

I didn’t know what was happening.  We’d been excused early, and through my execrable Spanish, I thought I understood a lady to say that a new baby was coming to live at the orphanage–that he was about 8 months old and that his parents had died. A long VW van with tinted windows rolled up, and the workers opened up the front doors so that the van could roll into the space where we played with the kids. “Wow,” I thought, “this is kind of a great entrance–maybe the nicest thing this little guy will ever experience!” And then, finally, my fellow volunteer clued me in to the truth.

The boy’s mom had died in childbirth, and he must have suffered greatly during the process. All the antibiotics he’d taken had killed off the flora in his guts, and he needed surgery as a result. All the kids had kissed him on his way to the hospital. He died in surgery, so they returned him home and laid him out on a little card table draped in white.

I cried all the way home. I still do now.

Everyone told me–wisely, I’m sure–not to take it so hard. Maybe it’s different when one is the parent of young children.  In any case, “these things happen,” and so on.  One can’t take it so personally.

I wonder, though, whether that’s exactly the problem: maybe if we knew lives and deaths as individuals, we’d behave very differently. “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic,” Stalin reputedly said. If I remained more superstitious, I’d read more into the fact that a fellow volunteer was named John Donne. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

I don’t know how to continue writing after that. “Poo-tee-weet?”


I love solitude, and back home our kids give me very little.  Having partial days + nights off was therefore quite welcome.  Cross-Cultural Solutions provides various cultural learning opportunities (e.g. touring the rich & poor parts of town, visiting museums, taking Spanish lessons, etc.), and although I wanted to work harder, I think they’re wise to provide this variation.

My fellow volunteers were either 18-year-old girls or 70-year-old men, making me twice the age of some and half that of the others.  I spent more time with the girls, and I wasn’t prepared to be The Old Guy.  It feels vaguely absurd to write, much less complain, about it–but man, this new sense kept hitting me. It touched a nerve with the stagnation I’ve felt in recent years.

Parenting & my career have been a zero-sum game: do one better, do the other worse. Pre-kids I was kind of kicking ass at Adobe: I got the Photoshop PM gig at 26, and I was winning awards & getting big things (like the Photoshop public beta) done. I’d spend evenings & weekends reading, thinking, and writing–because I loved it. I was young & doing some damage.

In my early 30’s, though, it all started to change: I can’t work like I did, and you can tell the difference. I’ve felt I’m skating by, and what have I really done or changed in… years? How many more versions of Photoshop, how many more blog posts can I kick out, and to what end? Four years into fatherhood and I’m not a young badass, nor (this being Silicon Valley) am I some now-wealthy “genius” who’s had his ticket punched.  I’m missing my identity, wondering if I’m a has-been.

I went to Guatemala to better appreciate my life.  Wasn’t it supposed to make me shut up about my vain & trivial bullshit, to embrace those I love & thank God for our blessings?  I didn’t find myself missing my home & kids, though: I found myself missing having any life beyond them. Going out for beers, listening to music–the more I got, the more I missed it–“as if appetite doth grow with the feeding.”

I do love my wife and kids, very much; please don’t misunderstand. I do value my job, despite not doing it nearly as well as I’d like. I just… I keep hearing Björk singing, “There must be more to life than this, there must be more to life.”

I’ve said that this trip should be more a beginning than an ending. I was full of brave & empty talk for years about helping others.  Now it’s like I’ve finally gone to the gym–once. It’s exhilarating, painful, eye-opening–and just a first step.

What comes next? I don’t know; I’m working on that.


At Mama Carmen’s I spent a great deal of time drawing with the kids. I took a particular shine to a 13-year-old named Enrique, a cool & spirited little guy who drew with me quite a bit. On the last day, as I was saying goodbye to all the kids (practicing the elaborate “boom!” handshakes we’d worked out), he pointed to the pen in my pocket–the nice one I’d brought & not surrendered to the mayhem. “Su pluma?” he asked, hopefully. Of course, buddy, of course–I handed it over, deeply touched.

What will happen to that pen? What will happen to Enrique, or to any of the kids? I have no idea. I hope I whetted his appetite to draw, and I hope drawing brings him some pleasure. Beyond that, I don’t know. Sometimes it’s the little things; sometimes it’s just an onion.


So, yeah: no conversion miracles, no road to Damascus. I’ve taken a step, though–and now I hope to take more.

25 thoughts on “Reflections on Guatemala (or, What's In A Pen?)

  1. John,
    Liked your post about your journey. I am 65 close to 66 and opening a full fledged studio on a prayer and nickel. A therapist,my fear of criticism and Photoshop was the catalyst.
    I suggest two reads by a Catholic Intellectual, now deceased. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J. M. Nouwen (Its about Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son. And The Way of the Heart by Henri J. M. Nouwen.
    These books changed my think and set in motion a shift in my personal Paradigm.
    Myself I am a protestant. I was so shaken and I saw my inward nakedness. I found out I have a love for the truth, but a distaste for truth about me.
    Welcome back; I can say, your life is about to change.
    Ken in Kentucky

  2. John,
    Thanks so much for sharing. What a wonderful gift you give to us, to pass on part of the insights and feeling of your experience. Thanks for braving the internets to be so honest.
    PS I think you’re kicking ass with this blog.

  3. Thanks for writing this. While it may not be curing cancer, the products you develop and the things you share on your blog do make people’s lives happier and more satisfying; that’s not nothing.
    On the evidence, you’re having your midlife crisis a little early. But after one accepts that the limitless possibilities of youth are constrained, it’s not so bad to settle into a more mature and perhaps ultimately more fulfilling approach to and reprioritization of career, family and other interests and goals. If all else fails, you can fall back on the tried and true remedy to midlife crisis: buy a convertible.

  4. John,
    So young to be at this point. I am glad that you had this experience, are thinking these thoughts, and are sharing it all. Here at my mid-century point (just turned 50) my restlessness is almost unbearable at times. Daily parenting is drawing to a close with a son in college and a daughter finishing her junior year in high school. I am eager for purpose and current work seems to have very little of it (graphic design and photo work for a large international corporation). Life is a chain, everything connected and I want to be a more vital part. If my hard work contributed directly to providing people with what they need and contributed to others having work which then allows them to care for the ones they love… that would be satisfying. All the more if it enabled those who need to need less.
    p.s. my wife swears by Henri Nouwen and has urged me several times to read the Return of the Prodigal Son.

  5. John,
    Well done, on many levels. “I wonder, though, whether that’s exactly the problem: maybe if we knew lives and deaths as individuals, we’d behave very differently.” I wonder, in addition, if everyone went through the same level of self reflection you are going through (and then went on to share the experience) how much better the world would be. You can’t clean up the world but you can clean your corner of it. I can tell your corner of the world is especially clean and at the very least – inspiring. Keep it up – all of it. We need more voices like yours.

  6. Best post ever. I had a very similar experience. Being Mexican I live in a country that I love but unfortunately has a lot of poverty. I went to missions once and it deeply changed my mind and soul, since then I haven´t been the same, knowing that a lot of people is suffering and myself being just fine… It has been more than 4 years since I have done anything about that, I just immersed myself into my job. The satisfaction and peace that I felt when being one week living for others is just the biggest that I have known so far. The World does NOT have to be the way our ancestors arranged it. Technology is the proof. Now why can´t the most important things be a lot better? … Probably because the right people for the job, starting with me, don´t do too much…

  7. Great post, John.
    I can relate having gone through a similar realization about work and life a few years ago. I’d been noticing these issues in your posts the past couple years.
    You are correct – it is a beginning. Or rather, it is the beginning of a change. It does get easier to accept the trade offs you are making. It feels like it is the 2nd real time in your life that you must choose who you want to be and act accordingly.
    It’s hard to know where this journey will take you. The good news is that you are starting from a good place (family, friends, job, and opportunities). I look forward to hearing about your continuing adventures.

  8. I have always read your musings and have laugh and cheer at most of your postings… To be sincere, I cried a lot when I read this one… Maybe it was the same realization that you’ve found about life and how it consumes us. I hope that you find the answers John and that you are able to share them with us… I promise to do the same. God bless!

  9. What a life enriching experience that must have been for you. Tick that one of as one that for the rest of your life has made you a better man, one with lots more compassion for your fellow human race and that is what it is all about. You say it yourself, just a little step. It’s these tiny chances within yourself and Enrique that do it for mankind. It will make you cry because you found that love inside yourself. Keep doing your job, because you do it so well and keep loving your wife and children. Keep tapping into that love that made you cry, because it hurts so much. It is that insanely hurting love that will make you the most beautiful person to be around with. That will bring more chances even without trying to your immediate environment. That is success.

  10. Thank you for sharing your profound experiences in Guatamala. Food for thought for all of us. Great post, John.

  11. I do feel sorry for the little one lost. But you may have encouraged others there to much better lives. Because of you I have a brilliantly researched blog to read, updates in many areas that enrich my life, and a computer program that makes everyone think my amateur shots are better than they are. Thank you.

  12. John – Insightful post; thanks–greatly appreciated. Epiphanies are often difficult and the first steps seem the hardest. But take the second step, then the third and you’ll find you’ll be more aligned with yourself, your life, your career, and your family. The community who embraces you supports you, whether we comment or not. See you at PSW?

  13. Thanks for sharing John. I spent the last year performing better than most, but not as well as I know I could in my day to day job. So this January, I decided I was going to step up my game again.
    You are doing a great job here. How awesome that you had this experience and now we have the chance to see how you bloom.

  14. My personal goal is to leave having given more than I’ve taken. I dunno what the score is – keeping it isn’t the point. My guess, though, is that you’re on the right side of the ledger, mate.
    Write more, John. You think that you don’t help? Really? Write more! 🙂

  15. John,
    What is the name/contact of the organization through which you found the orphanage?
    I was thunderstruck by your story and spoke with my wife about it. We’re interested in doing a similar sabbatical.

  16. “To laugh often and love much:
    To win respect of intelligent people
    And the affection of children;
    To earn the approbation of honest critics
    And endure the betrayal of false friends;
    To appreciate beauty;
    To find the best in others;
    To give one’s self;
    To leave the world a little better,
    Whether by a healthy child,
    A garden patch,
    Or redeemed social condition;
    To have played and laughed with enthusiasm
    And sung with exultation;
    To know even one life has breathed easier
    Because you have lived…
    This is to have succeeded.”
    ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
    Having followed your blog for a number of years, and been privileged to see your honesty, patience, and hard work, I can say with no doubt in my mind that you are not merely getting by John, you are a success, and not only that, an inspiration to us all. Onwards and upwards good sir.

  17. One of the great secrets of Life is that you can have just about everything you truly want – just not all at the same time.
    The good news is, you have the time and ability to re-invent yourself at any time in life. Accept that for every choice, there’s a tradeoff, know which tradeoffs you can live with, and you’ll be OK.

  18. Its wild that i would read this at these times. These are things that float around in my head a lot – and oftentimes I feel very isolated in my thinking.
    I remember someone telling me that this was just the things that you go through during your mid-life crisis. Why older folk change their wardrobe and get a Miata (or did, back when Miatas were cool), and I had always resented that. To me, its never been about being cool, its been about mattering more than I do now – meaning more than I do now – if that makes any sense.
    Thanks man.. I could go on… thanks for writing this.. digged the Vonnegut reference 🙂

  19. John,
    I was happy to see your post and hear your experiences.
    My 18 year old son just left this weekend for 8 weeks in Guatemala with Cross Cultural Solutions. He was assigned to Mama Carmen’s and starts there this morning. I have no idea how he will do… but he left home a pretty angry young man, alienated from his parents and not sure where to go next in life. He is bright and a good musician and athlete, but completely rejects the Catholic faith he was raised in. He loves to travel on his own and just got back from 10 weeks on the road in CA. He finished high school early. His Godfather gave him the Henry Nouwen Prodigal Son book a few months ago but I don’t think he read it. I am waiting to see how his heart is changed by this experience. How many weeks were you there – and did you have much personal contact with Mama Carmen? I am wondering what she is like – and if she speaks much English? My son doesn’t speak Spanish (yet!). Thanks for your honest and thoughtful post.

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