God, Dogs and Horses

"I'm one of those people who think its no coincidence that dog is God spelled backwards," Sandy told me with great seriousness over lunch. She had proof, too, an email she had just received from a family who purchased a border terrier puppy from her about a year ago. They wrote to give Sandy their heart-felt thanks for bringing them to an animal who had connected the whole family to each other, taught them to play again, and brought them "true joy".

She was pretty convincing, and I'm not one to wax poetic on the spiritual power of animals. In fact, my friend Nancy hasn't let me live down a comment I once made that I love my cats like I love my furniture. And while I realize that sounds a bit cold, I meant it in the best sense of the term "furniture". My cats are homey and companionable. Dogs, on the other hand, lost a bit of their appeal when one of my parishioners told me in vivid detail the story of their beloved pet lab biting off the nose of her youngest son.

But I'm willing to grow, and as usual, God has given me some wonderful teachers in my congregation. Ann introduced my daughter and I to her horse, Nemesis, at the height of Rosa's interest in horses. Not only did she let Rosa groom and feed Nemesis, but she took her for a ride, bareback. The day has become, I'm sure, a lifelong memory for Rosa. Something shifted in me as well when I saw the way in which this horse was careful with my daughter, awed as she was at Nemesis' size and power.

This past week, Nemesis reached the end of her long and full life, and Ann and Wayne bid her goodbye with very heavy hearts. Ann wrote up her memories of Nemesis and let me read them. Her writing had the tone of a spiritual memoir, and I'll conclude with a short excerpt. Ask Ann if you'd like to read the whole thing!

My real memories of Nemmie though are of our many, many rides in the woods and along the Patapsco River. She and I would go for hours just walking and looking at all the gorgeous scenery. I had my favorite trail which followed a lovely creek up and away from the river and then hooked up with another creek even more gorgeous back to the river. On the return I would usually get off and walk, letting Nemmie graze as we walked leisurely back to the farm. Her presence in the spectacular beauty of the woods was such a gift. She never spooked (other than she didn’t like the trains that went by periodically) and just generally was such an amiable companion.

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 day...it'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.