Previous month:
August 2007
Next month:
October 2007

Happy Birthday T.S. Eliot

Today is the birthday of T.S. Eliot--a fact that I was made aware of by my morning email from The Writer's Almanac. In honor of the occasion, I offer this short tribute.

When I was a senior in high school, I was looking for a new challenge. I had been involved with high school Speech competitions for the previous two years, almost always in the Original Oratory category. One afternoon, I was organizing my parents books for a little extra cash, and came upon a collection of poetry by T.S. Eliot, probably from my mom's undergraduate days as an English major at Boston University. I opened it up, read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and was so struck by it that I spent the rest of the afternoon memorizing it.

A couple of weekends later, I entered a speech competition in the Poetry category. I was thrilled to share the poem--I felt like I had re-discovered an little-known masterpiece (I had never heard of T.S. Eliot, after all) and my heart swelled with the idea that I was bringing something very special to the world that day.

To my horror, the first contestant in my first round of competition that morning recited, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Not only that, he began his recitation with a few minutes of introduction of T.S. Eliot and interpretation of the poem. I hadn't realized that was part of the competition at all, so I listened very closely to what he said so that I could repeat it in later rounds. His basic assertion was that the poem was the words of a middle class Englishman, spoken from the grave, looking back on his life with regret.

I did pretty poorly in competition that day--fumbling through a plagiarized introduction, my confidence shaken. But the truth was, there was something about that contestant's interpretation of the poem (almost certainly supplied to him by his coach or English teacher) that just didn't sit right with me. I had never read any formal studies of the poem, but I knew in my gut that it wasn't about death, and it wasn't about being English. It was too alive, too universal, too much about me, a mid-western American, on the brink of graduating from high school, leaving home and growing up.

Is every step of my growing up, growing old, a step away from the limitless potential I sensed that year before college? I was aware of it even then--our imagined lives, our imagined future, have a kind of vitality that actual life never has. So we linger there in our imaginings, assuring ourselves that "there will be time."

I still find myself muttering at times, "No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be..." And at other times I say, "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" When do we push forward into life, and when do we need to receive with gratitude the role that we have received?

I gave up competing with the poem quickly, but the poem has stayed with me the rest of my life.

More Marie

I had another wonderful conversation with Marie this week, and with her permission, I'd like to share a bit of what she told me.

Marie said someone once asked her if she wrote a book, what it would be called. She said it was "Lessons I've Learned", and that she'd write it for her daughters. She told me this with a bit of a laugh, and quickly explained that she understood that she's probably never going to actually write the book. But since every time I see her, she speaks another chapter of that book, I feel a real temptation to be her "ghost writer" here on our community's blog.

Marie was telling me about how her relationships with each of her three daughters deepened and changed during her time in the hospital and in recovery this year. As she struggled to define that change, she told me about one daughter's comment that she saw her mother differently now that she watched her interact with the hospital staff.

"It's terrible to say," she told me, "but I used to be a bit of a snob. There was something about my experience in the hospital that changed all of that, though. I found myself so deeply grateful to the people who brought my meals or transported me to a test or changed my sheets. Those people did their jobs with such care and such love. One day, a woman was emptying my trash, and we got to chatting a bit. She was such a dear, dear person. I told her that I really appreciated the gentle spirit she brought into my room. And she just looked and me and said, 'No one has ever told me that before.'"

As Marie talked, I thought of my experience earlier in the week at the Columbia Time Bank orientation. In time banking, one hour of work is equal to another hour, whatever that work might be. That might seem like a generous gesture on the part of the administrators, or maybe a shortcut to make accounting easier. But Marie's story reminded me that it is often absolutely true. For her, the woman who emptied her trash at the hospital was as much a part of her healing as her time with the cardiologist.

Bean Juice

Hello KC Community!  It has been far too long since I've posted and there is so much to tell that I'm not even sure where to start!  I suppose I'll start by saying that life is really good right now.  I love everything about my placement - my roommates, my apartment, my job, my coworkers, and of course Portland.  I posted some pictures here from the year thus far if you want to check them out.  Here's a rundown of what's been going on...prepare yourself for a loooong posting! 
My roommates are wonderful!  There are a lot of different personalities in the house which makes things a lot of fun.  So far everyone is getting along really well and there seems to be a good balance in the house.  We sit down together 4x a week for meals and have a Spirituality and Community night once a week.  There are some house meetings thrown in there too.  We're slowly discovering that even though we all committed to living out the four JVC values (social justice, simplicity, spirituality, and community), we all define those values differently.  Here's an example of one issue we've run into - We spent two hours at one of our house meetings discussing how to spend out community food money.  Some are in favor of buying as much local and organic food as possible for obvious justice and environmental reasons.  Others are in favor of buying whatever is on sale and affordable since buying organic is a privilege and we should try to live in solidarity with those who are also living on a tight budget.  So do you buy according to justice reasons or out of simplicity and solidarity?  We're still finding the balance on this one...

My apartment is fantastic.  It's actually directly above the JVC Northwest office and has 8 bedrooms which is a definite perk.  There is plenty of room for anyone that wants to come visit!  I'm definitely lovin Portland. It's a beautiful city and there is always so much going on.  I guess it was a no brainer that I would fall in love with a city that has a local coffee shop on every corner =)

Work has definitely been the biggest adjustment so far.  From little things like no longer having to wear heels (thank goodness!), to interacting with the homeless community throughout my day, working at Sisters has been a big change...but one that I am loving.  I spend my mornings in the cafe as a cashier and/or floor manager and my afternoons in the development office.  I've taken a liking to working on the floor and chatting with our customers.  I really feel privileged to be able to work at Sisters.  I learn so much everyday from the customers and from my coworkers.  And not just stuff like how to work the cash register, but I'm learning about the power of nonviolence and how important it is to restore dignity to those living on the streets.  Some of the most important lessons I've learned so far have been through my mistakes.  I sure make a lot of them throughout the day and am constantly learning how to better handle situations.  It's a bit mentally draining, but I have great support from my coworkers and my roommates who are experiencing many of the same ups and downs as I am.  There are always little redeeming moments that make me want to get on my feet and try again, which is why I wanted to end with a story about my friend Wendell.
I was pretty intimidated by Wendell the first time I met him.  He's about 6'5", African American, has a shaved head, a deep voice, and a look that means 'all business'.  Wendell comes in about two or three times a week and orders the same thing - rice in a bowl, beans in a bowl, and cornbread on the side. (I learned to remember that the hard way when I messed up his order the first time I took it. He got a bit aggravated with me.)  Last week Wendell was sitting at the counter talking with Patrick, another floor manager.  I overheard Patrick tell Wendell that he couldn't give him more juice for his beans.  A few minutes later Wendell motioned me over.  I started to panic a bit because I knew Wendell was going to ask me for more bean juice, and I had no idea what I should say.  I knew customers could make special requests, but I didn't know if Patrick had some other reason for saying no to Wendell, and I certainly didn't want to step on his toes.  When I asked Wendell what I could help him with, he said in a flat tone that he wanted more bean juice.  I stumbled through some words, but said something to the effect that I overheard Patrick say he couldn't have any and I could ask Patrick to come back over to resolve the issue.  Wendell looked at me intently for another moment after I was done speaking and then he slowly dropped his head into his hands.  He looked upset, sad, angry, and vulnerable all at the same time.  I felt awful.  With his head still in his hands he asked to speak with Nikki, the Cafe Operations Manager.  I wasn't sure what else to do so I ran upstairs and grabbed Nikki.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach for the rest of day and felt like I had made the wrong decision.  I really wanted to give Wendell extra bean juice (I mean, it is just bean juice!), but the other half of me aired on the side of caution and thought it best to follow the lead of another staff member.  I got a chance to talk with Nikki later and asked her what I should have done in that situation.  She said that I made a good decision by trying to remain consistent with Patrick, but Patrick shouldn't have said no to Wendell in the first place.  It turns out that Wendell had been rude to a number of staffers and customers earlier on, and Patrick got caught up in a power struggle with him and refused to give Wendell what he requested.  Nikki ended up giving Wendell more bean juice and talking with him for awhile.  Turns out he had just received an eviction notice and was also trying to fight off the urge to light up a cigarette since he was trying to quit.  He was just having one of those days where something little, like bean juice, just pushes you over the edge.  I finally got the nerve to apologize to Wendell a few days later.  He didn't exactly smile, but his face softened and he told me not to worry about it.   
It's incredibly easy to take the one up position when the opportunity presents itself, and that's what Patrick got caught up in doing - saying no to Wendell because he had the power to.  The Sisters' philosophy is to share power with our customers, and as you can see, staff fail in doing that sometimes.  But more often than not this philosophy is lived out at Sisters and is something that distinguishes Sisters from other services.  The cafe is customer driven and keeping cafe operations running is just as dependent on our customers as it is our staff.  Our dish washer is just as vital as our executive director because without either one, the cafe couldn't operate.  Earlier this week we stopped serving meals for 15 minutes because we couldn't find anyone who was willing to barter work as a dish washer.  I suppose I've quickly grown to love working at Sisters because it's a place where our customers can ask for extra bean juice (or should be able to!), where they can ask for another plate if theirs wasn't served correctly, where they can decided what they're going to eat that's a place where they have the power to make decisions.  It never occurred to me before working at Sisters that some people don't have the power to make these simple decisions since I've always had the power to do so.  It's a privilege I've grown up with in large part because of my class (gender, ethnicity, status, etc. are also part of this equation), but I'm beginning to see the importance in sharing these privileges with those that have been stripped of them.  And I'm not even sure if they're my privileges to share.  I feel more like I need to give back the privileges that are as rightfully theirs as they are mine, and humble myself before the homeless for blindly hording these privileges for so long.  Creating an organization like Sisters that is customer driven is part of restorative effort to give back power and dignity to each and every person that comes through our doors, and that is a beautiful thing to witness and be a part of.  This is something I'm still very much processing, and I'd love to hear from any of you that have thoughts on this topic... 

I said earlier that I'm constantly making mistakes at Sisters, but that there are always redeeming moments that get me back on my feet again.  I'll leave off with one of those redeeming moments. -  I randomly ran into Wendell yesterday as I was walking to Backspace (a yummy coffee shop) with one of my coworkers, Catharine.  I smiled and said hello, and Wendell asked how I was doing.  I said I was doing well and asked him how he was doing.  He stood still for a second, waved his hand in a semi-circle, and said "Oh-tay!"  I heard him booming in laughter as he walked off.  I turned to Catharine in a state of shock wondering if she had picked up on The Little Rascals reference as well.  We both started laughing in hysterics, and I wondered if I had really been intimidated by a guy who quotes The Little Rascals?  I guess so...but not anymore.

Banking Like Jesus Would

Yesterday, I went to an orientation for Columbia's new Time Bank and now I can barely think of anything else. The group has been up and running only since February 2007, and already it has over 130 members. The concept is simple--it's a network of people who barter with each other, not directly but through a central hub which keeps track of credits and debits. So if I rake your leaves, I earn credit in the time bank. I can then ask for help with my website, and get it from someone in my community with that expertise, not necessarily the person whose lawn I raked.

There are so many things I like about this. For one, a basic principle of time banking is that everyone has assets. Everyone has something they can contribute to a community--there aren't a group of people who can only give and another group who can only receive. For another, I appreciate the idea that an hour of leaf raking is equal to an hour of website design. There are very few places in our world where that is true, but in the context of neighbors helping each other, it feels exactly right.

Most of all, I appreciate a system which enables me to connect with neighbors around their needs and their gifts in a way that removes the social awkwardness of asking for favors. My friend Jen Lemen says she makes friends out of neighbors by asking for so many small favors from them that they feel connected to her and eventually ask for something in turn. I admire the community Jen creates, but could never, in a million years, go about it that way. Maybe it's because I grew up in the Midwest, maybe its because I grew up Presbyterian, or maybe it just goes against my understanding of the rules of civility. I would have to be in very dire straits before I asked my neighbor directly to help me rake my leaves.

But now that I've joined the Columbia Time Bank, I have an image of never raking leaves again. I have no problem with the idea of bartering an exchange of services with my neighbors. In fact, yesterday I kept thinking of things I would LOVE to do for my neighbors. I started off with giving rides and running errands, but soon found myself dreaming of giving pie-baking lessons. Then, mid-day, I had an idea that ran through my body like an electric shock. I could sew someone a Halloween costume! Making Halloween costumes is one of my great joys in life, and I am soon to be done with Rosa's mermaid costume. I love the thought of making a few more in exchange for...well, never raking my leaves.

Between time banking and Columbia Freecycle I may be able to go completely off of cash money soon! Could it be that this is what Jesus had in mind when he told people to give all of their money away? Maybe he wasn't recommending that they live in destitute poverty. Maybe what he was really suggesting is that they live more cooperatively with each other, exchanging services, sharing things, piling up storehouses filled not with grain, but with good will.

The Pros and Cons of Being Distinctly Anything

Like almost ever person I know--in the United States and abroad--I vividly remember where I was when I first heard that the World Trade Center had been struck by a plane. I remember, too, the questions that attack raised for me, most of which are still unresolved.

I was the pastor at the time of the First Congregational Church of Somerville, MA at the time, and by mid-day I put a sign outside the church that said simply, "Pray With Us 7:30 pm". We kept the lights low that night, lit the candles we use on Christmas Eve, and sang a refrain from the Taize Community: "Bless the Lord my soul, and bless God's holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life." It was probably the realest, rawest communal prayer I have ever experienced.

That week, as I tried to write a sermon for the coming Sunday, the words of that song came back to me again and again. I thought of Moses' final words to the Israelites as they stood at the edge of the Promised Land: "Choose life!" he commanded them. Clearly, there was another option, the one the 9-11 terrorists chose. Although the consequences were horrific, death was a choice that was available to them. It's available to us, to everyone.

So given that choice is not only ours, but everyone's, how can we live? Since we can't eliminate the choice between life and death, we have to try to influence other people as they make that choice. In the end, I have to believe that our choice of life is, in itself, persuasive. By embracing life, loving it, and celebrating it in a hospitable, open way, we can make it easier, more likely that others will choose life as well.

That was, at least, what I preached that first Sunday after 9-11. I still believe what I said, but I'm haunted by one piece of the story of 9-11. The people who committed those attacks lived in the United States for some years prior to their crime. They probably had some bad experiences with Americans, but I'm sure that there were plenty of shopkeepers who wished them a good day, plenty of people who smiled at them on the street, plenty of children who giggled and skipped as they walked past them on the sidewalk. They were surrounded by people who chose life--why didn't they catch it from them?

The answer, it seems, has something to do with living "in but not of" a community, a culture, a people. Somehow, those men were able to live in our culture while holding themselves apart from it. So we didn't influence them. So it was still possible to kill us.

And yet...

One of the things I have come to understand about my own religious life over the years is that I am interested in preserving distinctives. I like being a Christian--being the follower of a particular path--and have no interest in transcending those particulars are becoming One With Everything. I enjoy finding connections between my religious path and those of others, but I don't want to focus only on the things we hold in common. I want hear about the particularities of other paths--cultural distinctives but also the stories and teachings and specific rituals and beliefs that make us distinct. In a recent conversation in an interfaith group, I found myself siding with the rabbi much more than the Unitarians. I like the idea God having particular relationships with particular people, primitive and magical as that can be at times.

So am I part of the problem? Are Christians like me--Christian LEADERS like me--who encourage distinctiveness, who talk about having a distinctive witness to the rest of the world--part of the problem? If we are to choose life, and influence the choices of others in the same direction, do we need to speak more and more in universal, cross-cultural terms? If we do, could we still tell stories?

As this week draws to a close, I still can only wonder....