Friday, November 27, 2009

A Poem for Thanksgiving

Here's a fun fact: The word "eucharist" means "thanksgiving." So, in a sense, giving thanks is a sacramental act; it makes one aware of the ways in which grace emerges in everyday, common life. Lately I haven't been very grateful, especially toward friends and family. I've been so consumed with work and the immediate goings on of this community in Minnesota that I've neglected them, and in so doing have not mirrored back to them their love and commitment. I haven't "broken bread", so to speak, with a lot of them in a long time. So, besides my renewed efforts to maintain relationships, this poem is for them.


So, this is what it feels like to have eaten one's fill and to be aching in hunger
For the bread of life? Broken open and shared across miles and months.
A hand stretched from eternity, offering a loaf of dark, Jewish rye, even.
God help me, so that I might just gather up small crumbs of grace
Holding them on my tongue, pungent and present.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


The other day, I blogged for the first time since I've started my year of service with Lutheran Volunteer Corps. To give an overview of some of my experiences so far, I thought I'd use LVC's core values as a framework: intentional community, social justice, and simplicity and sustainability. This post is about the first of those core values.
Those who take refuge in community while fleeing from themselves are misusing it to indulge in empty talk and distraction, no matter how spiritual this idle talk and distraction may appear. In reality, they are not seeking community at all, but only a thrill that will allow them to forget their isolation for a short time. It is precisely this misuse of community that creates the deadly isolation of human beings. Such attempts to find healing result in the undermining of speech and all genuine experience and, finally, resignation and spiritual death. "Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community." Such people will only do harm to themselves and to the community.... But the reverse is also true. "Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone." --Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Life Together"
I live with five amazing people and a rescued stray cat in a 99-year-old house. The past two weeks have been idyllic: together we've eaten dinner, made raspberry jam, explored the city, planted a garden, played board games. Recently we celebrated our housemate's birthday by putting silly signs all over the house for her to find (The toilet flushes, "Happy Birthday, Michelle!"). Since this is the first year an LVC group has lived in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood, we have been given the charge to name our house for future generations. We've narrowed it down to five potential names, and while we won't make a decision for at least another week or two I' can tell you that "Wellstone Ho use" is looking like a pretty good possibility (named after the late Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila, who championed progressive change in Minnesota and were very connected to the communities they served). All in all, these people are marvelous; they are sources of joy.

The Bonhoeffer quote above is in good, if dislocating, conversation with this experience. With such creative, nice people, I should not be surprised to find myself taking refuge in community and fleeing from myself. When I first heard these words from "Life Together" during orientation, they echoed loudly around the barren space that I've been carrying inside of me for a while. That part of me where vitality has a difficult time taking root, a part of me that is in dire need of greening by the Spirit. I've written about this barrenness in previous posts, and recently it's been emerging in similar fashions. I've been harboring resentment-- sometimes without realizing, even-- which has been making me tired, distracted, and feeling as though I am less-than. I still have yet to unpack my room; something seems to be holding me back. But I need to: in this one, tiny instance I need to stir up some creative love in my life-- or invite some in-- and transform the imposing brown wallpaper of my attic room, or else I will suffocate in the place where I am supposed to be able to be alone and in peace. I look at some of my housemates' rooms, and they are bursting with personality, memory, meaning. I hear Bonhoeffer's words and fear the entropy that will leek into this community like radiation, and the need to resist becomes more pressing.
I also need to reach out-- not necessarily to these people whom I have only known for three weeks, but to friends from the East Coast. I'm in love with Minnesota, home of the "All the Milk You Can Drink for a Dollar" deal at the State Fair and of coffee-flavored beer from Surly Brewing Company. But this past week has been peppered with missing folks something awful. Last night I had a dream in which I went to a big party and saw a whole host of people from college, and when I woke up I wondered whether I will ever see some of those people again. It was surreal and sad. All this week I've had similar experiences, and I'll think of the person in Virginia or Pennsylvania who would relate. Frankly at this point in time I don't feel comfortable unloading to my housemates, in spite of their being creative and compassion people. Thus, to sustain my spirit and to hold up my end of the friendship deal, I need to make some phone calls and write some letters.
Because she's been providing some wisdom and solace lately, I'll leave you with some Mary Oliver. A couple of my housemates have a real passion for Mary Oliver's poetry, which I can appreciate. This is poem is "Wild Geese."
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Reporting from Minnesota

Has it really been three weeks since I've been living and breathing and sleeping in the rhythms of Lutheran Volunteer Corps? Have I really been living in Minnesota for only two weeks?

Holy crap. But "Holy crap" in the best possible sense.

For folks who might be confused or in need of an update, I've recently begun a year of service with Lutheran Volunteer Corps, working at an agency that prepares and deliverse meals to people living with chronic illnesses, most of which are people living with HIV/AIDS. After a marvelous, life-giving week of orientation in Washington, D.C., I hopped on a train for the Twin Cities and arrived late on a Sunday night two weeks ago. Because our house doesn't have reliable Internet access, I haven't invested the effort into updating this blog. That changes today.

To give you all a decent overview of my life in the heartland of Lutheranism so far, I'll be writing the next few installments along the lines of LVC's core values: intentional community, social justice, and simplicity and sustainability.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thousand Red Birds

While sorting through all of the crap I have in boxes, I found this poem-prayer, Thousand red birds, by Phil Porter written on the back of a notebook from last semester. I thought I would share.

Thousand Red Birds

We clutch our tiny bits of faith in tight fists.
Shoved firmly in our pockets.
We clutch it suspiciously, so unwilling to let it go—
we don't want to lose it.
We clutch it fearing that once it is spent,
we will be without hope,
cast adrift, out of luck.

Help us loosen our grip.

Help us to pull our hands out of our pockets.

Help us to uncurl fingers stiffened over time.

to grow,

to shimmer,

to pulse,

to explode into the air

like a thousand red birds.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The crazy

Over the last week I've become more aware of something that I've simply been calling "the crazy." I know that it's an indelicate way to talk about mental health, my own or others'. But in conversations with friends lately, "the crazy" seems an apt label for those compulsive, irrational, anxious, even destructive thoughts. I don't know how to use it in a sentence, exactly. Do I catch the crazy? Does it latch onto me? Is it more about the crazy within speaking up and drowning out those better parts of me that want to see the good others and myself? Or is it merely the product of being in a messed up situation/a broken world? I don't know.

What I do know is that lately I've stumbled into periods in which I'm gripped by a terrible blinding resentment, when I fixate on the inevitably dismissive/contemptuous/resentful/spiteful conversation about to take place or event about to occur. Like in Union station, coming back from a fantastic visit with friends in Philadelphia, wondering whether the folks with whom I'm staying would be angry that I missed the regional train that goes right by their house. And, of course, this wouldn't be the case-- they even said that they wouldn't mind picking me up from the metro station before I left. But the crazy had grapped ahold of me and I had to sit in a stall in the men's restroom to calm down enough to think through what was going on inside of my brain and my heart.

And then, when I was sitting on the Metro, having called and confirmed that I would be at the Springfield/Franconia metro station, I got this terrible tightness in my chest and the waves of self-resentment started. That's how it seems to go with me: All of the pent-up anger towards others flows out first, and then like the tide it rushes back over me so that I'm angry at myself for letting myself get so goddamn crazy. And then I start analyzing all of my mistakes, all of the ways in which I miss the mark. Sitting on the train, slumped in the seat, my heart was aching and I realized that I wasn't breathing.

These days I try to ride out the waves of crazy, knowing (having faith, perhaps) that they will eventually subside-- either my episodes or those of the people around me. Part of the riding out means changing my situation in the ways that I can, and so I pulled out the book I was reading by Anne Lamott and flipped through to find the story about stumbling our way towards grace. I mean, all of them are like that, but I found that one that I was thinking about in particular ("The Muddling Glory of God"). "That's me, trying to make any progress at all with family, in work, relationships, self-image: scootch, scootch, stall; scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch." I would read some Anne Lamott, and then take big, gulping breaths of air-- enough air to remind me that I wasn't drowning (physically, at least) and enough air to undo some of the tightness in my chest. Breathing out was accompanied by this relieved chuckle-- "ha ha ha, isn't this ridiculous? But I'm soooo glad that I'm breathing again, so I might as well laugh a little."

I'm trying to eat healthier and got more rest (uh huh...), and I know that I should be making time for exercise and prayer. Maybe that would create some room for the Spirit to enter and sweep some of the crazy out of my head and my heart. Or maybe Spirit would come in with some all-purpose cleaner and clean up the shit that is stinking up the corners of my brain, along with the craziness that might be festering in that shit.

So that is what is on my mind. Only a couple weeks left before my Lutheran Volunteer Corps housemates will meet me and we'll determine how each of us is doing with that wrestling match between our selves and our craziness. Hopefully they won't mind my brokenness. Maybe good vegetarian cooking will make up for it. Oh, and grace. Somehow, grace will probably arrive on the scene, even if it's less than spectacular and more bog, bog, scootch.

[Creative commons photograph from coincoyote]

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Context Matters, Part 1

In the last week I've had two experiences that re-affirm my commitment to paying attention to how social systems influence my understandings and assumptions. They were unsettling and thought-provoking, and I am curious if others can locate themselves in similar situations.

The first experience happened within a conversation I was having with a self-described "radical non-denominational Christian" friend on our way home from visiting her church. Emerging out our (admittedly uncomfortable) conversation about race and access to the Abrahamic covenant, I had a startling realization. My friend, who is mostly Malay, was sharing with me her perception of being racially excluded from the covenantal grace extended to the biblical/mythic figure Abraham and his descendants (à la Genesis 17-- a perception that seems to me to flow out of Christian discourse than to be a view held by the vast majority religious Jews). As I was responding with what it meant to me-- someone of Anglo-European descent-- to identify Abraham as my spiritual ancestor I suddenly wondered how much this identification had to do with me being white.

And by invoking my whiteness what I am really invoking is white privilege.

White privilege means that “white” is defined as “normal.” Being white in the U.S. means that I don't have to think about my race or my ethnicity. Some white people even experience a sense of not having a race or ethnicity due to the way that whiteness is portrayed as normative. (See this intriguing article by Ashley Doane for a deeper exploration of this.) Because I come from this context in which whiteness is the racial standard against which all other people are held I wonder if that extends to the way that I easily see myself connected to the Abrahamic covenant. I wonder if this connection has less to do with some rationale provided by the Apostle Paul regarding heritage-through-faith (see Galatians 3:6-9), but because I assume that my race-less-ness allows me to transcend the racial boundaries that my Malay-American friend sees.

Additionally, I realized that the Sunday school image of Abraham and Sarah as an elderly white couple is still present in my mind, even though there is little chance that these two Middle Eastern nomads look much like my Northern European-heritage grandparents. This rocked me, since of late I have been getting antsy with idea of reading our modern assumptions about religion and race into Jesus, who was not a Christian and who certainly was not white. I find that by emphasizing Jesus’ Palestinian ethnicity and Jewish religious identity I can resist falling into the trap that I “know” Jesus—i.e. his cultural and religious sensibilities are like mine. In the same way, the conversation I had with my friend makes me think about the ways I kid myself by thinking that I “know” Abraham.

What are other folks’ experiences? How else does white privilege blind us? What are the ways that we’ve suddenly become aware of how racism affects the texts and issues we care about?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Good times at Orientation

I'm sitting at my desk in Thompson Hall 233, with a new student on her laptop listening to her iPod sitting across from me. She's waiting for her friend, also a new student, who is taking the French placement test on a computer across the hall. I'm glad for the quiet, since there have already been six other students taking placement tests today, some with anxious, over-involved parents in tow.

Yep, it's that time of year: Orientation.

And I have to admit it: as tired as I am by the end of my shift, and as cheesy as this probably sounds, I love this season.

I love beginnings. There is openness, promise, possibility. I love being a part of that for people.

Yes, helicopter parents are annoying. Some even piss me off when they answer for their student, incorporating their student's success into their own self-image. But even in the midst of that I love how I get to look their student in the eye and talk to them like an adult. Like they're able to make their own decisions. Because that’s part of what college is about: for better, or sometimes for worse, we learn how to make our own decisions. Let me tell you: interrupting parental control dynamics can feel great.

A lot of memories from my freshman orientation are coming up, stories that I can tell the anxious parents in the office waiting for their daughter or son. Stories about how hectic my orientation was and how in hindsight it's better to take care of ourselves than to stress out ourselves and our loved ones. Stories about how my parents were baffled by the notion of a Parent and Family Orientation, that when they were my age they just showed up on the first day of classes and winged it.

And a lot of memories from my summer as an Orientation Leader (as in, old-school Patriot Leader, circa 2006) wash over me, too. I remember helping people register for classes, especially that one girl who was the last person left in the room, who just needed to hear that it wasn’t the end of the world that so many sections were closed and that she could change things later at home. I remember proctoring the math placement test and telling students once they had finished the exam, "Go do something fun.” Because I sit at a desk in an academic department—and because I give people the time of day—I’m answering a lot of the same questions that people directed at me when I wore the green polo, and it feels good to be helpful in such a rudimentary way.

(Also, who could forget the interpretive dance about drugs and alcohol set to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Ecplipse of the Heart"? That right there is orientation gold.)

It also feels a little weird. I’m the guy at the desk. I’m not there to project my experiences on people; I’m there to explain the Spanish placement test for the billionth time. I’m not there to comfort parents; I’m there to make sure that they don’t walk into the freaking testing area (“Sir? SIR! CAN I HELP YOU???”). And I’m well aware that I’m on my way out, and that my job is to get myself to Minnesota in one piece, and that these folks are going to have their own experiences and make their own choices. So maybe it helps if I’m not a total jerk. But no one is going to remember me fondly (hell, the people in my small group probably don’t remember me). (Tangentially, I ended up living with my OL for the summer, years after my freshman orientation. Weird…)

At least these folks are taking the placement test now, when they’ve retained a little more French, than in the summer before their senior year. Really, if you need to take the test, just do it. Call me or one of my good looking co-workers at 703-993-1220. Peace.

OFPS 2006! I can't believe I found this picture! From left to right there are: me, Scott Picone, Byron Edwards, Javon Thompson (even though you can't see his face, I'm pretty sure it's him), Marc Moore, and Matt Berlejung. HT to Monica Block for taking the photo, and to the Mason Gazette for keeping it floating around the Internet.