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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Back in the Classroom...Sort of

"I don't mean to offend you, but..."

This began two comments I received from students as I introduced myself to them the last couple of days.  I'm substitute teaching.  The two ends to the above were, "is that shirt from India?" and "I think you'd look better with a purple lanyard instead of green." Neither comment offended me, though apparently my clothing choice and lanyard color were offensive to some of my students. 

It's fun to be back in the classroom, especially at Trinity.  I love the energy that circulates through schools.  Though I don't know many of the students any more, the vibe of the school is familiar.  When I first went to work at Trinity, I was terrified of high school boys - taller than me, hormonal, unpredictable (for someone not accustomed to them), high school boys.  I learned that while they are taller than me and their hormones do dictate many of their actions, high school boys are fairly predictable and can be much sweeter than they're given credit for.  

Most of the classes I have are freshmen, so they don't know I taught at Trinity previously. "If you think you're going to get away with anything because there's a sub in the room, you can just put that notion aside.  I taught here six years and I know the ropes."  I haven't had too many problems.  Most freshmen are still in the wide-eyed, we're-the-youngest-ones, fearful stage of their high school career.  

I've been subbing for the same teacher for three days.  I'm remembering how quickly teachers know what they're up against with each class.   After just one day with a group, you get a pretty good idea of what you're in for for the semester or year.   Thoughts from the first days tend to be things like... Next time I make seating chart, he needs to be close to me...  He'll need some hand-holding...  He'll need some reining in...  He'll need some drawing out. These are my talkers... It's not usually a good thing if a teacher knows a kid's name on the first day.  Don't get me wrong, my classes have been pretty good, but there are those few boys whose names I learned before the end of one period.  Oh, boy. 

I think the highlight of my subbing so far, however, came today, when I took a water balloon away from a student.  Yep, a water balloon.  I have no idea where it came from.  The boy (a sophomore) assured me that he wasn't planning on doing anything with it until after school.  He was surprised when 1) I didn't give it back to him at the end of class and 2) that I'd give him a jug (detention) because "it wasn't distracting anyone."  Sometimes the lessons learned in school have nothing to do with curriculum.  

There is never a dull moment in the classroom. Though it's only temporary, it's good to be back.  




Saturday, August 25, 2012

One year ago

One year ago today, I arrived in India for the first time. Though there has not yet been a second time, I believe there will be.

One year ago today, I arrived to a new place, feeling that I was arriving home. I was welcomed into my new family, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.  In the streets we drove, I recognized scenes from Guatemala and El Salvador.  The small family shops and the internationally recognized businesses. The streets and sidewalks filled past the maximum.  The colors, colors, colors.  The smells of cars, of burning trash, of humanity.  The sounds of cars - engines and horns, enthusiastic demonstrators, animals.  The feel of the heat, the exhaustion, the excitement, the hope, the despair, the curiosity.  The taste of sweet fruit candy, a treat shared with us in the car as dusk approached and our Muslim driver broke his daily Ramadan fast.

One year ago today, I began to learn anew what hospitality meant - what it meant to be the stranger that was welcomed, what it meant to be the hungry and the thirsty person who was fed and given drink, what it meant to be the person who was naked in knowledge and patiently clothed through the wisdom of those I met, what it meant to be visited and lovingly cared for within the constraints of the dis-ease and inner prison of my cultural assumptions and limitations.

One year ago today, I arrived in India, relieved that I had not physically died during the plane ride, yet knowing that the 16 hours I spent in the air had not only transported me across the world, but into a new phase of life, a dying to my old self and old life and rebirth into a me I had yet to know.

One year ago today, I did not know where I'd be physically, emotionally, or spiritually today.  One year later, more than anything else I am grateful for where I have been, where I am, where I am going in every plane of my life - physical, emotional, and spiritual.   Today I am grateful.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Talking to a Possibilitite

Shortly after I returned from my travels, I met with a friend, the one who spearheaded the formation of one of the writing groups I now belong to.  As I told her my plans, she suggested I meet a friend of hers.  She told me that he is, like I am, a dreamer, someone residing in the World of Possibilities that I strive to inhabit.  I had so recently returned that I did not feel ready to meet him.

After being home a few months, I asked my friend to make an electronic introduction.  She did so last week, resulting in an in-person meeting today.  It is exciting to meet residents of the World of Possibilities, especially a person like the one I met today who has been living there most, if not all, of the time I've been alive.

Sadly, the realm of Possibilities is underpopulated.  So many people live in Can't, Impossible, Ridiculous and don't even dare to travel into Possibilities.  It is fair to say that some don't know that Possibilities exists.  Others are so comfortable in Can't, Impossible, and Ridiculous that leaving seems too difficult.  Still others fear Possibilities and that fear often extends to its inhabitants.  One not living in Possibilities may believe that Possibilitites are not to be trusted.  You just never know what might happen when you are with Possibilitites. Just to be clear, Possibilitites are citizens, either by birth or naturalization of the World of Possibilities.  Though I haven't gone though any formal naturalization process to become a Possibilitite, and though I do occasionally venture back into Can't or some of my other former homes, I think I'll still claim the title of Possibilitite. It gives me more incentive to live the title.

It is true that Possibilitites are unpredictable.  The one certainty is that they are on the move, exploring everything in their ever-expanding world and finding ways to promote the expansion.  The Possibilitite I met today fits the bill.  He has found his niche in the World.  At the same time, he continuously seeks ways to push the border of Possibilities into the other realms.  This is not to say he does so in a heavy-handed dictatorial way.  Instead, he knows that cultivating relationships, collaboration, exploration, and motivation are keys to both the well-being and expansion of Possibilities.

Some large agricultural conglomerates try to sue farmers whose crops - not growing from the corporations' seed - have been cross-pollinated from fields planted with the corporations' seeds.  Those corporations exist in Can't.  Unlike Can'tons, Possibilitites encourage cross-pollination between Possibilities and the other worlds.  Possibilitites know that it is through cross-pollination that Possibilities expands, naturally and organically. The winds and the bees act the only way they know how - crossing barriers that don't exist in the world of bees and winds, barriers that Can'tons created, know intimately, and generally don't cross.  They are the obstructions to relationships, collaboration, exploration, and motivation.  Possibilitites don't believe that their home is so special that they must exclude others.  They sense the barrier, but find it as permeable as the bees do.  If Can'tons, Impossibilitites, or Ridiculans have a change of heart and seek residency in Possibilities, they are welcomed with open arms.  Having experienced the World of Possibilities, I don't understand why someone wouldn't want to live here.

I came into the meeting today knowing that I was venturing into unfamiliar territory, perhaps without sufficient light to illuminate the path I hoped to create there.  Just a few hours after the meeting, I question whether I should have laid more groundwork for my desired path before and during the meeting. I can't backtrack now, but I hope the path is still open.

I do know that the Possibilitite invited me to explore areas unknown, some of which I had a mind to explore anyway, others I hadn't considered.  He assured me that he will do the same.  After spending just two hours with the Possibilitite, I can sense the World of Possibilities expanding and changing.  I can't see it, but I can feel it.  I look forward to meeting my new Possibilitite acquaintance again and seeing how our motivation and separate explorations may bring us together in relationship and collaboration.  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Awake my soul

It may or may or not be obvious that in the last few weeks, words have not been flowing easily for me.  Something inside me has been clamoring for release, but words have not been sufficient to liberate it.  It (something I cannot define) springs from a place deeper than words can reach.

I didn't realize until today that what I perceived as writer's block was not a blockage of words at all, but a blockage of creativity beyond words that needed to be loosed. Several times over the last couple of weeks, I've tried my hand at poetry, a creative endeavor I haven't attempted in years, maybe even decades.  I found unlined paper and my words took shape, literally forming pictures as they went from brain to hand to paper.  It was a verbal vomiting, a release over which I had very little control.  I simply let the words emerge as they chose and recorded them faithfully.  After they were written, some of the words surprised me. Some left me wondering, "Where exactly did these words come from?  What do they even mean?" I decided not to analyze.

Late this afternoon I found myself wanting poetry again.  This time my poem took the shape of a tree, not surprising, since I was surrounded by many majestic figures as I wrote.  However, during the poem's formation, an awareness dawned that it wasn't poetry I needed.  I needed color, shape, texture, something I could touch.

I had no materials, because I wasn't at my own home.  I had plans to go to my dad's show opening soon, so I'd have to wait until after it before I could do anything.  The craving to create was so strong, I knew I could not ignore it.  It was a hunger I could feel as palpably as a stomach growl.

I went to the opening and felt calmer simply by being in an environment of creativity and creation.  However, being in a creative environment wasn't enough to quiet my inner rumbling.  After the show, I went to my house, got my paper, scissors, and glue and went back to where I'm staying.

My mind's playlist has shuffled itself to Mumford and Sons many times this week, perhaps because I saw them in concert Monday night.  "Awake My Soul" has been particularly present, particularly the lines "In these bodies, we will live, in these bodies we will die, where you invest your love, you invest your life" and the chorus "Awake my soul." I knew the word "awake" would be a part of something I made.

I do not claim to be an artist, but I do claim creativity as my own and creating as a vital form of expression.  I'm not too concerned about the quality of what I make as long as my soul is satisfied by the release that creative experimenting provides.

Tonight I created two things: a simple cut-paper "Awake" and an abstract cut-paper mosaic. The process of choosing paper, cutting, fitting, adjusting, and gluing was soothing.

I invested my time and my love this evening in creative expression.  My soul is awake and calm.  My hunger is filled. The blockage from within is relieved.  Now that my need to play with color, shape, and texture is met, I hope that my words can move more freely, too.

I wish for you your own experience of creative expression in whatever form it takes.  I wish for you a soul that is awake. I wish for you love and life well-invested.



Saturday, August 18, 2012

Deserving and Giving

There are times I look around and wonder what I’ve done to deserve this life I have.  I don’t ask the question in a despairing, desperate way, but in an awestruck, filled-with-wonderment way.  That awe has permeated me this week, drenching me as I stand with my face looking to the sky of blessings raining down on me.  My fortune soaks me to the bone and I can't help but feel enormous gratitude for my family and friends, talents, experiences and opportunities, clarity, and so much more.  At the core, I've done little to deserve any of it and many things not to deserve such a life.

As I look at my own life, I also look at other people's lives and ask what they've done to deserve the life they have.  This is the question that may take a despairing, desperate tone, not for myself, but whomever I may be considering.  Why was that child (and not me) born into poverty?  Why does that woman have as her only option prostitution?  Why is it that he lost his father at age three, met his father's killer at age nine, and still, decades later, grapples with his anger?  Why is that family living like a prisoner despite an impeccable life? I don't have answers.  It seems to me that they, like me, have done little to deserve any of it and many things not to deserve such a life.

It can be dangerous to compare one's life to another's, particularly when it is the "why don't I have... like...?"  variety.  I've played it that way and know the damage it can cause to the psyche.  I try to steer clear of that version of the game now, sometimes succeeding, but not always.  At the same time, I believe that looking at my comparative abundance, rather than some particular lack, is crucial to having perspective about life.

For me recognizing the great privilege in my life is a call to action.  The call is to be generous, not to hoard what I've been given, whether it be knowledge, skills, insight, or love.  I sometimes worry that in giving I will give "too much" and find myself without.  However, I can't think of actual instances of this happening.  In fact, the opposite seems to be true.  The more I give, the more I seem to receive.  "[The one] who confers benefits will be amply enriched, and [the one] who refreshes others will be refreshed" (Prov. 11: 25).  It is humbling to be the recipient of others' knowledge, skills, insight, and love. Receiving them, I don't want to make poor use of the gifts. Receiving them leads me to want to share more.

I still have much practice ahead of me to test the limits of generosity (if there are limits of generosity).  I pray that I may faithfully use what I've been given to serve others, to share the abundance, to recognize need and try to address it:

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me...Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25: 35-36, 40).



Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Anyway

For some reason these words of Mother Teresa's have been on my mind of late.  Maybe you've seen them.  I always find them a helpful reminder of what I'm we're supposed to be doing in the world. Enjoy.   

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. 
Love them anyway. 
If you do good, people may accuse you of selfish motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies. 
Succeed anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway. 
Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. 
Be honest and transparent anyway.
What you spend ears building may be destroyed overnight. 
Build anyway.
People who really want help may attack you if you help them.
Help them anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt. 
Give the world your best anyway. 

- Mother Teresa, Meditations From a Simple Path

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Walking the Labyrinth

As might have been clear by yesterday's post, I have been feeling some dis-ease of late.  Today I decided to walk with it, literally.  The campus of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary has a labyrinth that can be walked.  It is modeled after the labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral in Chartres, France.  I visited that cathedral just a few months ago, but could not walk the labyrinth there because it was covered by chairs.

Chartres labyrinth plan
I had no clear idea of what I hoped to accomplish by walking today. I just hoped to feel more ease than dis-ease by the time I finished.  

A plaque at the entrance of the labyrinth suggests the walker focus on something particular while walking.  I thought this was a fine plan, but found my mind jumping from place to place, person to person, situation to situation, seemingly without reason.  While my mind couldn't focus on any one thing, my eyes concentrated only on the few steps ahead of me.  A couple of times I looked up, but quickly realized that the only place I needed to look was on the path immediately ahead of me.  The rest was simply distraction.  

As I walked I noticed the bugs - ants, flies, bees, spiders, a dead locust.  Both on the way to the center of the labyrinth and walking from it, I stopped to look at the dead locust and the bees that were doing I'm-not-sure-what to it. I wished I knew a little more about bees and what might draw them to a dead locust.  Under my bare feet, I felt different grasses - different in texture, thickness, temperature, moisture.  I saw a spectrum of colors.  I heard bugs and passing cars.  

I noticed my breathing and felt it slow and deepen as I approached the center.  I noticed my pace vary; it was never hurried, and sometimes very deliberately slow, particularly as I turned from one direction to the next.  

When I arrived at the center, I lay down on my stomach in the grass.  I smelled the grass.  I saw only the green in front of me.  I felt the contour of the ground, the moisture and texture of the grass on my arms and the tops of my feet.  I felt a bug or two crawl onto me, tickling me, but not enough to make me move.  Above all, I felt relaxed, taking in only the sensory details of my immediate surroundings.  

After simply enjoying the peace of it, I stood.  I noticed my internal soundtrack was playing the Switchfoot song "This Is You Life."  

How appropriate.  

I looked at my shadow in front of me and wasn't sure of my answer to the question posed in the Switchfoot song: "Are you who you want to be?"  I think so, maybe, most of the time.  I decided to start my journey back out of the labyrinth.  

As I was walking my way out, again focused only on the steps ahead of me, for reasons I can't explain, I felt a surge of calm, a feeling of peace.  The sensation didn't seem to be connected to the thoughts in my head; it simply entered my body. 

And then I knew: I am who I want to be.  I am enough.  I am not flawless, but I am enough. 

Walking now with the sense of ease I had sought, I allowed my mind to wander.  Though it still moved from subject to subject, the subjects now felt connected, not separate and incompatible as they had on the way in.  My eyes remained focused on the few steps before me.  

That's all that I need to focus on.  What is right in front of me.  What is with me right now. There is so much to notice right here, right now.  The rest is simply distraction.

If I walk too fast, I can't notice the color, the texture, the diversity that surrounds me every step of the way.  If I try to look too far ahead or away from what's in front of me, I'll only get side-tracked and confused.  If I don't approach turning points with care, I might just head in the wrong direction.   If I don't stop every once in a while to really pay attention, I'll overlook the mystery of life and death and relationship.  

I walked to the center of the labyrinth seeking my own center.  I walked from the center of the labyrinth knowing that I carried it within me.  My center, my core, my enough because God made me to be enough.  God made all of us to be enough. Right there at our center, at our core, each of us is enough. 

May each of us travel to our center and feel the peace, the knowledge of being enough, that reaching our core brings.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

When Doubt Comes Knocking

It doesn't take much for my faith to waver.  I've had some moments of pure, unadulterated doubt of late.  Maybe longer than moments.  Periods.  I can tell they're periods rather than moments because I can feel the tension in my back, the ache in my head that come when I let the doubts stick around.  Fleeting doubt doesn't reside in my body; it simply skips through, a slight diversion.  Enduring doubt commands my attention, and generally brings along baggage - my baggage that I thought I'd successfully shed.

I am thankful that God seems to know how my mind works.  Seems?  Let me try again: I am thankful that God knows how my mind works.  When I let doubt come in and set up camp, God gives me reminders for why I need to continue trusting, why I can kick out doubt and bolt the door so it can't sneak back in.  Sometimes I forget to bolt the door.

I don't doubt that the path I'm on is the right one.  I know I have to go to Iraq.  I know I have to go to Palestine.  I am close to certain that India will be a part of my future, too.  I know I need to write.  These ideas are firmly lodged in me.  I think I'm treating the notions with enough hospitality that they wouldn't consider abandoning the home I've given them.

It's the logistics that make me worry.  What will I do with my cats while I'm in Iraq? Will I actually raise the money I need to raise now that I've committed to the trip?  Will I be able to raise the money if I accepted for the long-term commitment to CPT?  What about getting my house ready to sell?  Will I have the strength to get rid of most of my stuff when it's time?  Will I find a good home for my cats when it's time to say good-bye to them?

It's the little stuff that gets me panicky. I had to go to the doctor yesterday.  Though I was sick a lot as a child, I've been a very healthy adult.  Beyond a cold, I didn't get sick while I was traveling. I didn't get health insurance when I came back to the States.  Yesterday was the first time I've gone to a doctor without health insurance.  Medical care, even for something minor, is not cheap when you don't have insurance.  I'm hoping I won't need to see any more doctors while I'm home.

It's when I worry about what other people think that I falter. Is it OK to ask people to give me money to do these things, to help me follow my gut? Lots of people are working really hard and don't get to follow theirs.  What do people think about the fact that I have turned down job opportunities in favor of a lifestyle that does not provide steady income? What does he think?  What does she think? What do they think? To get into this cycle is maddening.

When I falter on my path, when doubt blocks my way, someone comes along to walk beside me, so I can take a step forward.

A few years ago, I started two marathons, one that I didn't finish, one that I did.  I didn't finish the first because it was called off mid-race due to excessive heat.  There was a marathon in Louisville just a few weeks later. I decided I'd do that one since I'd trained for a marathon.  I wanted to finish what I'd started. At several points along the race course, my parents found me and cheered for me, just as they had along the course of the race I didn't finish.  At one point, my best friend met me and walked with me.  I did a lot of walking on the route because it was, again, a hot day and my body doesn't do too well in the heat.  I probably would have finished either way, but her presence gave me a boost to keep going.  My feet moved better with her there.

This is what God's been doing with me my whole life: putting people on my path to cheer from the sidelines or walk with me for awhile. I can see clearly the way that, through these people, God is walking with me and reassuring me right now.  When I have stressed about the fund-raising or my personal finances, I've gotten donation checks, orders on etsy, a call about house-sitting or subbing, and my mind eases.

"Trust me."

With the doctor bills, one of the costs ended up being cheaper than the price I was quoted.

"It's going to be OK."

During the times I have worried about what people think, someone comes along to tell me that they admire me or are inspired by me.  It is humbling to hear those words.

"You're doing the right thing."

As I write, I think of the Julian of Norwich quote:

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

I am also comforted by Kathleen Norris' words in her essay, "Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity."  She talks about belief not as an end-product, but rather a process and a "relationship...something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run."  This idea feels very familiar.  She goes on to say that she had a major breakthrough in her relationship with belief when she learned "to be as consciously skeptical and questioning of [her] disbelief and [her] doubts as [she] was with [her] faith."

Maybe I don't need to bolt the door when doubt comes knocking.  While my faith resides in me, maybe it's OK to let doubt in, too.  Maybe my relationship with faith will strengthen when I am as comfortable sitting with doubt as I am with belief.

Alright, Doubt.  Come in. Put down your things. Sit down and let's talk.
     

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bipolar

As I was driving a few days ago, I heard part of a Bob Edwards program about rape and sexual assault being an "occupational hazard" for women in the military.  For some men, too.  The gist of the program was that that's just a price you may have to pay to serve your country.  This is according to the Pentagon. Be willing not only to give your life for your country, but also to be stripped of your dignity, of your piece of mind, of your sense of self, and, then most likely, to be silenced. Oh, and perhaps you'll be discharged, if you don't stay quiet.  Even typing it now, I am sickened.

A friend recently received death threats while she was doing relief work abroad, work she has committed her life to.  When I spoke to her a few days ago, there were no repercussions expected for the threatener, who was not a random stranger she came across, but someone belonging to a partner organization.  Neither her organization nor the partner organization had disciplined the threatener in any way.  She, on the other hand, must leave a work she otherwise loved to go work in another country. I guess death threats are just an occupational hazard of trying to help people.  More stomach turns.  I have a strong desire to scream, but being in a coffee shop right now, I'll refrain.  

Who is protected in the above cases?  The victimizers.  What continues to elude me is how this happens. If the above were isolated cases, I could overlook them as aberrations of "the system."  But they're not aberrations.  They're common.

I'm rereading Derrick Jensen's A Language Older Than Words.  After he gives example after example of situations similar to the two above, both on macro- and micro-levels, Jensen makes the following assertion:  "It should be clear by now that a central belief of our culture - if not the central belief - is that it is not only acceptable but desirable and necessary to bend others to our own will. This belief in the rightness of coercion motivates us not only collectively but individually, not only consciously, but subliminally."  Forcing one's will on others is not only not an aberration, it is the norm.

I'd like to believe that coercion is not a guiding principle of our culture.  But I look around the world and I know that it is.  It may not happen all the time everywhere, but it happens most of the time in most places all around the world. Our will is imposed on other people, on animals, on the rest of the natural world.  This principle doesn't seem to be effective in maintaining mental, emotional, spiritual, or ecological health, and yet we continue to act under its influence.

The principle doesn't seem to be effective when world-wide, 1/4 to 1/3 of all women have been victims of some type of sexual abuse.  It doesn't seem to be working out when human trafficking is the second most lucrative crime in the world. It doesn't seem to be working out when animals are going extinct, forests are disappearing, water is being polluted, when, in general, the world is becoming less biologically diverse.

I think about this and find myself falling into a pit of despair, but then I talk to a friend who listens to my frustrations and I feel a little better.  I think of the generosity of the people in my church community and I feel better.  I think of the good work of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth I met in India and the ones I've met here and I feel better.  I know the model of coercion is not the only one.  I think of my experience of Heaven on earth a few days ago and I feel better. I know that there are pockets in the world in which interdependence and cooperation are acknowledged and embraced, where they are the guiding principles.

I'm not sure how to reconcile the different visions of the world I see. Sometimes as I think about them, I feel bipolar, swinging from one extreme of emotion to another.  I guess it's the price to pay for being even marginally in tune with the world.  Maybe one reason for spending my last year as I did and applying to be part of the Christian Peacemaker Corps for the next few years is to because I want to reconcile the visions.  This doesn't mean I expect the world to convert quickly and magically from one guided by coercion to one of cooperation.  But if I can do something to aid in any sort of conversion, I must live in the bipolarity, maybe even in the extremes of it, and, do my part, whatever that means, to bring our world a little closer to a healthy equilibrium.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Heaven on Earth

Last night I entered the Reign of God or, more accurately, the Reign of God entered me.

I went to the party expecting good food, good company, and good music. I left the party having partaken in all of those things.  I also left with an enormous sense of well-being, a sense that God had given me a peek at what Heaven must be.

At the moment of my revelation, Thomas Merton's epiphany at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville came to mind:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers...  It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race ... there is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes.  If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all of the time.  There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed... 


-Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

My own moment occurred after we had shared a meal, a meal provided by both party hosts and guests, comprised of an assortment of splendid tastes, with many dishes featuring home-grown flavors.  We sat together in chairs gathered from the homes of those present.  Children were running and playing happily.  Adults were chatting contentedly.

And then the music began.

Many of the people who were at the party are musicians.  Before the meal, there had been some musical play.  After dinner, the music-making resumed.  Though I am a singer, I am shy when it comes to singing with people I don't know.  The insecurities kick in.   It took time and the urging of my sister before I tentatively joined the circle of musicians to add first the rhythm of the claves and then the harmony of my voice.  At first I cautiously and quietly hummed, oohed and aahed through a few songs, gaining more confidence as I did so. Finally, we sang a few songs that I know well and my reserve melted away.

Often when I sing, my eyes close, so that I am immersed in the music and only the music, not distracted by whatever sights might take away my attention.  As we sang "Guantanamera" my ears took in the other voices, the guitars, the percussion, and my voice freed itself from inhibitions.  The music was all that existed.

Eventually, I opened my eyes and that's when it happened.

I looked around and saw children of different ages and different races, free in the way children know how to be, running, laughing, playing between the playground and where the adults were gathered.  We adults had arranged ourselves in several groups, some eating, some monitoring the kids, some playing music.  Somehow we'd all ended up in this moment together, even if the country, state, or city we originally came from was far from where we were now. In the way that life moves us from place to place, even in this small setting, groupings of people were dynamic: someone would stop playing music to eat or talk for a few minutes; someone else would add a sound to a song and then move on, someone would move to check on the children or try out a hula hoop with them.  There were pauses between songs, but even when the music stopped, the scene was one of pure harmony.  

"This is what Thomas Merton must have felt."  Though it was a cloudy day, the sun shone through each person assembled there. "This is the Reign of God."

Kathleen Norris wrote about her notion of Heaven in Amazing Grace. A Benedictine sister had recounted to Norris a story of when her mother was dying.  The sister, in an effort to comfort her as she was dying, told her mother that she would see everyone she loved in heaven.  Her mother had countered with, "No, in heaven, I will love everyone who's there." Like Merton saw in a moment on a street corner, like the mother knew she would see in heaven, I saw in a moment at a birthday party the "secret beauty of their hearts ... the person that each one is in God's eyes."

Norris went on to describe a dream she'd had where a group was gathered around a banquet table so long she couldn't see the end of it.  She says about her dream, "Not much happened, as I recall.  But I woke with a sense of wonder at the grace of it all."  When I opened my eyes to look around me, not much was happening, but I felt that same sense of wonder at the grace of it all.

It was perfection.  It was not that any of us was less fallible than before; we'll continue fumbling and stumbling through our lives.  It was simply a gathering of love, of mutual appreciation, of mutual care, of a desire to be together in a way that somehow perfected us all for a moment and showed us, or at least me, what the world could look like in its best manifestation.

I thank God for moments of grace, for glimpses of the Reign of God, for slices of Heaven on earth. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"They"

A few nights ago I went to see "The Hunger Games" again.  I had gone to see it in Turkey, before having read the books.  A friend recommended I not read the series while I was in Palestine, where there was enough real-life trauma to think about without adding fictional horrors.  I am glad I followed her advice.

Reading the books and seeing the movie again have given me many moments of disquiet.  In those moments, moments that, quite frankly, I'd like to avoid, I consider how much of what I read and saw is simply an exaggerated portrayal of our current world. As I was thinking about this, I found an intriguing blogpost that goes into much greater detail than I will here about the many layers of the books.  The author succinctly put into words what I'd been thinking:

"Panem is the world and the Capitol is the United States, which sucks the world’s resources into itself and delivers in return military might and media programming that shows how great materialist life is in the US, a life they cannot share. Katniss probably would have been a lot less sympathetic if she were written into the story as a Palestinian refugee or Thai factory worker but I have to think this is closer to Ms. Collins’ political indictment."

I'll discuss the first sentence in a future post.  Today let me get into why the last sentence makes me shudder.  It frightens me because I am certain that it is true.  Before I saw the movie or read the books, I read an article about how some movie-goers were upset that Rue was black.  In reader comments following the article, people remarked that seeing her death in the movie didn't feel as heart-breaking as reading about it in the book since she was clearly black in the movie whereas a reader could imagine her as s/he chose.  While I know that racism exists, it still shocks me to read such blatant bigotry.  I am certain that, as the blogger above asserts, if the characters from the districts resembled not only different races, but stereotypes of certain nationalities - Mexican, Palestinian, Chinese, Kenyan - the audience's sympathy level for them would have fallen more dramatically than it did for black Rue and the blood lust risen just as dramatically.  Katniss might lose some of her fan base, as she was transferred from the "us" category to the "they" category.

It's the willful disconnection that "they" allows:  if we are not Mexican, Palestinian, Chinese, Kenyan, or any other category we think fits others and not us, we can separate ourselves from "them," mock "them," question the validity of "their" lifestyle, customs, traditions, or even their existence.  I challenged my students to cross the "they" line many times, to see(k) beyond the the obvious and beyond the (usually hateful) generalizations.  "They" are sluts and were asking for it from their behavior (talking about victims of sexual assault).  "They" are lazy and just need to get a job (talking about the poor).  "They" are ruining our country and should work harder in their own countries to have a better life (talking about immigrants).  "They" are terrorists and should be killed (talking about Muslims).  This last "they" will forever remind me of my Palestinian students who asked me, "Do you think we're terrorists?"

I have my own internal "they" battles to fight.  I think the fact that I've written about the topic several times goes to show that I need the lesson repeated over and over.  I need to practice breaking down barriers I create in my mind, trying to refrain from building new obstructions. It is too easy to judge and separate myself from "them." However, I will continue to struggle within, to challenge myself not to avoid "them," but to seek them out, so that "they" are no longer "they," but instead Miguel, Nour, Shane, Rose, individuals who no longer fall into stereotypes, but who, above all, are themselves: complex beings, inspiring and disheartening, courageous and fearful, hopeful and pessimistic, wise, and ignorant, all at once. They are me and I am them, sometimes self-contradictory, ever-learning, always in our hearts ultimately good. Even if we act differently, speak different languages, wear different clothes, or practice different customs, we are at our core the same and we are inseparable.  Our humanity, our existence as God-created beings, connects us, even when we don't want to acknowledge the connection.

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there. -Yasutani Roshi