touching peace upon

Where does one feel sadness?

It’s not in the head. Not the heart really either. For me it sits at the bottom of my ribcage, quivering, where if it decided to make a run for it, it would escape by the way of my esophagus; a wrong way exit where words would scrape against the walls and form into something wretched on their way out.

Maybe it’s our efforts to restrain and contain that squeeze tears from our eyes in exertion. Because the more I live and see, the more I feed that small beast that quivers in that cave; it has grown to a size that makes crying one of the things I do best. Not only in sadness, but in anger, happiness, compassion, love, shame, horror, bliss and even emptiness. In fact, I would say my emptiness-onset tears are my most beloved and sacred – as when they are shed, I feel heaviness relieved and lightness filled, lifted closer to something divine in leaving a body of self-fullness behind. But emptiness tears are not those I cry today. Today my tears are heavy. They pull my shoulders down. They wring my neck. They choke my throat. The pinch my mouth together. They crease my forehead and scrunch my eyebrows. They plant my feet into the floor and make my whole body want to cringe close to the ground. They take my hands from the keyboard and make me put them over my mouth. Not wanting to let escape that wretched sound.


That is the term that was used to describe the women and children on the streets outside of the morgue in Guatemala City. I know. I knew Hanley well enough to understand why those women wail. Because I witnessed a few, I can see every; moment that she stepped into a life and handed a mother of seven a rice sack full of food, or provided antibiotics to a waning infant, or put shoes on the youngest daughter and sent her to school or offered skill training and a job to the oldest son, or sent a social worker to listen to the story of a missing father. I know why those women wail. Because having grown accustomed to the dark of living life in shadows, the one person who unexpectedly reached out, touched them, and acknowledged their existence and right to live, has died. And do we dare even ask, will she take the only hope she had inspired in all of us with her? No we don’t ask. We don’t want to know. It’s easier to wail and cry.

I have written about Hanley Denning a number of times on this blog. She was first my boss and then my friend and mentor. Today, I clutch my chest and hold that quivering still for a second, thanking every star that aligned in my favor to give me the opportunity, last fall, to hug her and tell her face to face, “Hanley – you are the most inspiring person I’ve ever met in my life.”

In six years of travel around the world, I have never met anyone who personally molded humanity to higher goodness more than this woman did with her own hands. She is. She was the most valuable player I’ve ever encountered, and I simply cannot rationalize why, of all on this planet, she should be sacrificed.

I don’t cry because I miss Hanley. Hanley would not miss Hanley. And Hanley would never, ever cry for Hanley. Hanley did not leave behind possessions or offspring or life partners or personal passions. She never did anything but work tirelessly to care for everyone else. In a way, there was no Hanley. She was nothing but her goodness and gifts to others. And now that I reread that sentence, maybe I can summon some of those sacred emptiness tears too. For if ego grounds us, then Hanley never lived among us. And is she was only her goodness, then she immortally walks alongside us. And if she is what she inspired, then those right intentions and actions can only be shared and grow on cumulatively.

Although I do feel the world right now cringing in her absence, after the wailing, comes always a calm. And now that I have cried, I find that it isn’t her absence, but rather her continued presence, that touches peace upon that which quivers within me.

Crash kills poor children’s ‘angel’Portland Press Herald

I Have Lice – 2001 Reflection on Volunteering with Safe Passage

www.safepassage.orgHope, Education, Opportunity


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  1. Susie G. February 5, 2007 at 1:12 am

    Wow. I never had the privlege of meeting Henley, but I first heard of her through one of my 5th grade students while teaching in Antigua, Guatemala in 2003. I asked my students to write about someone inspirational to them. Yonaton Dubon wrote a touching piece about a Hanley Denning, the woman who had made it possible for him, his mother, and his four siblings to move out of the dumps and to a safer place where they could get basic provisions and a solid education. I spent a lot of time with this family and their lives have been absolutely changed for life because of her work with them.

    This is a great loss for Guatemala, I saw how Camino Seguro positively affected so many lives while living in Guatemala. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.

    -Susie Gaskins

  2. Mel (aka: pennilessp0et) January 25, 2007 at 5:52 am

    A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.
    – Joseph Campbell

    I hope you can take some comfort that your friend was a hero in the truest sense of the word.


  3. funchilde January 24, 2007 at 6:13 am

    sol. my heart aches for your loss, our loss. through you, many more of us got to know a bit about an earthly angel. i wish you peace.

  4. Amy January 23, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Sol- I worked at the Dump, and in the offices with Hanley a few summers back. This is a terrible tragedy for that community, to have lost a soul like her. The only comfort I can offer is that the universe is still in balance, and everything happens for a reason. She touched countless people in her 30 some years, more than most do in a lifetime.


  5. suzanne January 23, 2007 at 5:44 am

    hey you! I found out about this site, your words moved me deeply, I wish a lot of trenght and love to you,
    Suzanne – Auroville

  6. lost-edge January 22, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    really sorry to hear of the loss.

  7. Will Terrell January 22, 2007 at 8:28 pm


  8. DJ FunkyGrrL January 22, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    Personally, I think it’s a tragedy. Considering it’s not very likely someone else will replace your dear friend in her efforts to help the poor. Since I do not have the answer myself, I decided to search for it online, This is what I found….

    “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That is one of the difficult questions in all of theology. God is eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, etc. Why should we human beings (not eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent) expect to be able to fully understand God’s ways? The book of Job deals with this issue. God had allowed Satan to do everything he wanted to Job except kill him. What was Job’s reaction? “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21). Job didn’t understand why God had allowed the things He did, but he knew that God was good and therefore continued to trust in Him. Ultimately, that should be our reaction as well. God is good, just, loving, and merciful. Often things happen to us that we simply cannot understand. However, instead of doubting God’s goodness, our reaction should be to trust Him. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

  9. Marilyn January 22, 2007 at 1:43 am

    What a beautiful, moving, eloquent tribute to your friend…and to grief. I’ve just read the story in the Portland paper. Will put the word out on my blog so that we might gather some donations for Safe Passage in her memory.

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