Monday, December 20, 2010

Family Matters

     This is my sad attempt to use a Mac to edit photos...  Not so impressive.  I can't figure out how to convert file formats... so... oh well.  I gave up. 
     I spent the last couple of days visiting a rather nutty aunt of mine in Oceanside.  She came to greet me wearing a light up Christmas tree hat.  Typical, I thought.  We spent the better part of the weekend discussing family stories, and ours has more than its fair share of oddities.  Whether it's the great uncle who convinced his cardiologists to do a different surgery in order to keep his hunting arm (we're from Western Pennsylvania... hunting is a big deal), the aunt who got married in a 18ft tepee in Yellowstone National Park, the grandmother with the chronic card playing habit that paid off in Las Vegas, or the cousins who served moonshine at the Thanksgiving dinner, my family has enough eccentric stories to fill at least three seasons of a TV sitcom.
     I'm getting to the point in my life where I'm embracing the weird.  Some of the endless bizarre stories can be repulsive, but above all they make me laugh.  Despite all the crass personalities that often clash in my family, we are never short on laughter.
     I'm looking forward to going home and spending time with the family, ridiculous though they may be, but I've been thinking a lot about my students at the same time.  Some of them come from pretty broken families, whether due to drugs and violence, to immigration laws, or to poverty.  Many of my kids are going to Mexico for the holidays to see family that hasn't yet met immigration qualifications.  One girl told me she's worried that she won't be able to come back.  Their stories break my heart.  I don't know how to fix these problems, or where really even to begin.  I guess the best thought that I have for the moment is just to remember to be grateful for the ability to spend time with my family (barring any huge weather mishaps and flight delays) because I know there are many people who are not so lucky. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Return of the Prophet

     As I have again been swamped with work, the blog has been relegated to the back burner.  This is what I've been reading via audiobook recently:
     The well of love that waters your garden is at times filled with your tears.  And it is good that it is so, for no waters are purer than those precious droplets released in your moments of surrender.  Tears are seed drops of joy shed by your soul's physician.  You may curse the physician's medicine, but the cure for your suffering is in your tears.  Weep until seeds of joy take root in the womb of your soul.
     -Return of the Prophet, Hajjar Gibran

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

La Inmaculada Concepcion

     I had another Catholic moment tonight, as my roommates term my habitual inclination toward the sacraments.  This week has actually been something of a doozy - mass on Sunday night, Advent reconciliation service on Monday, and mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception today.  Tonight I was reminded again of the global reach of the Church as the mass was celebrated in Spanish.
     Mary, our mother, unites the Church on Earth and gives us hope of heaven - her purity invites our own.  As the mother of Jesus and Queen of the Church, she knows the heart of God better than any other human, and in this season of Advent, as the year draws to a close, we are reminded of the perfection of which humankind is capable.  As mother of humanity, she unites us in the Church, and nowhere is the global reach of the Church more apparent than in the mass where different languages and cultures meet in joy and harmony.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!"
Pray, O Mother, for all of us.
Pray for humanity for those who suffers poverty and injustice,
violence and hatred, terror and war.
Help us to contemplate with the rosary
the mysteries of Him who "is our peace",
so that we will all feel involved
in a persevering dedication of service to peace.
Look with special attention
upon the land in which you gave birth to Jesus,
a land that you loved together with Him,
and that is still so sorely tried today.
Pray for us, Mother of hope!
"Give us days of peace, watch over our way.
Let us see your Son as we rejoice in heaven". Amen!  

-Pope John Paul II 

Monday, December 6, 2010

America, Land of Dreams

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)
from "Let America Be America Again" Langston Hughes

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Voice Crying in the Desert

Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
     Our brother, John the Baptist, brings us news of the one who will come to set the world ablaze with the fire the Holy Spirit.  His voice echoes in the desert of our hearts during this Advent season.  A whole year has passed, and during its course our hearts (or my heart anyway) have been weighed down by a year's worth of frustrated plans, incessant worry, and exhausting heartache.  Today's readings bring hope that the light of Christ can come into even the darkest places of our hearts.  Advent is the perfect time of year to examine where our lives have brought us in the past 12 months, what we have learned, what we have gained, and what needs to be left behind.  John the Baptist invites us to prepare the way in our hearts for Jesus to enter in.  We get the next few weeks to clear out everything that will keep the light of God from entering into (and from shining out from within) our hearts.  For me, Advent is all about finding the dark places where God wants to shine His light and waiting with a joyful hope for the Holy Spirit to breathe fire back into my life and make new those things that have been worn out in the past year. 
On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
a spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
                                                                          Isaiah 11:1-2

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Poetry All Up In Here

     I'm teaching a lesson tomorrow on poetry.  
     I'm starting with Tupac and Mos Def.  
     Then moving to Langston Hughes - 
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wisdom from the Desert

     Happy Giving Thanks Day!  Given that it costs nearly $600 to fly back and forth between LA and Pittsburgh around Thanksgiving, and given my monthly income of $400, I decided to spend Turkey Day with a bunch of hippies in the desert. 
The RVs and trailers of Slab City
     Logical, right?
     Maybe not.  But enlightening nonetheless.  The idea was born from my dear friend Amy, who had to do her final photo project during the holiday week and had heard about this hippie community living close to the Salton Sea in a place known to outsiders as Slab City and to residents affectionately as The Slabs.  The slabs consists of old concrete... slabs... apparently left over from a World War II military testing site.  The concrete serves many functions now - as stages, as a place to park an RV, or as a place to set up a community kitchen and serve a Thanksgiving banquet.
The library at Slab City
     We met a whole host of characters, and, I have to say, I felt like I had walked into a very bizarre indie film.  You can't write half the stuff these people said to us.  I was quite fond of a man who looked like he had walked off the set of Lawrence of Arabia.  He towered over everyone else (must have been close to 6'5") and wore a headdress type fabrication made out of something that looked like old pillowcases.  He rode in quite majestically on a donkey, and a pack mule followed shortly behind.  I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to ride the donkey whose name I found out was Rock and Roll.  As I sat atop Rock and Roll, I asked Lawrence about how and why he came to Slab City.  It seems he had spent the majority of his adult life riding horses around the United States, going from place to place.  Evidently he rode one right across the Mexican border and back without ever stopping at a crossing.  As he was getting older (my best guess was late 50s or early 60s), he decided that it was time to try to find a home, to settle down and do some homesteading, as he called it. 
One of the trailers in The Slabs
     It dawned on me later that I had finally met my very own American Don Quixote.  Here I thought my own life would take a rather quixotic turn upon moving to the Gold Coast, and it seems that I found Don Quixote in the desert - on a donkey, no less.  He invited us to come back and ride with him around Christmas.  I might well take him up on that offer. 
     As we were about to leave, we went on the round of goodbyes, and were held up by a woman called Mama Lizzie.  She's been living at Slab City for the past 8 years (most people just pass through for a few months here and there), probably has a diagnosable mental disorder and if not definitely has a drug induced disorder, and she decided that we should hear her life story before departing.  We couldn't leave the desert without some wisdom.  As she was babbling on and on about where she came from and how she came to live in the middle of nowhere, she said something that, again, you just can't write.  "Most people came out to the desert to die," she said, "but I came out here to live."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Poetry with the Doctor

One fish. Two fish. Red fish. Blue fish.
Black fish. Blue fish. Old fish. New fish.
Some are red and some are blue. Some are old and some are new.
Some are sad and some are glad. And some are very, very bad.
     Dr. Seuss, One fish two fish red fish blue fish
      I found out today that my project on the Donors Choose website was fully funded, this just a few days after I got an email from DarienBookAid informing me that I will be receiving three boxes of books from them.  Apparently all you have to do in this world is ask and you shall receive.  My students needed books, and thanks to some wonderfully generous people, they are going to get them.  I have no words to express the gratitude that I have to all of the people that are making my little library possible.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A House Divided

     This past weekend, upon returning from a 3 day retreat in Santa Barbara, the interns convened at a fund raising event in Pacific Palisades.  It was a somewhat shocking change of pace for a few of us, I gathered.  If you don't know much about the economic distribution in LA neighborhoods, Pacific Palisades is very close to Bel Air and Beverly Hills.  A few of the interns are from pretty small towns in the midwest or northeast, and the kind of overabundant wealth in prevalent in Palisades was a bit surprising even for me. 
     It's odd to go from working everyday with the poor of the poor, to asking for money from the rich of the rich, and it's certainly jarring to witness just how off kilter the economic distribution in this city (and in our country) truly is.  I work with students every day whose families sometimes cannot afford the school lunches, and here we were mingling with people who dropped a few hundred dollars like it was pocket change.  Two totally different cultures.  One nation.
Photo by Matt Hansen
    Or is it?  We're facing a nation divided right now, and in the midst of crisis (financial and armed) our divisions are only growing.  A house divided against itself cannot stand, as our great President Lincoln said, and so I worry for our country.  I worry for the unconscious blindness festering in the eyes of the rich who even on their best days fling their money around in the name of charity but refuse to see the suffering of their poor brothers and sisters; and I worry for the resentment building in the hearts of the poor who look upon their wealthy brothers and sisters with jealousy and outrage.  So long as we refuse to recognize each other as people, as brothers and sisters, the gap will continue to increase, and this house will soon fall. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Needed Advice

It's been a while.  Mostly because every square inch of my free time in the last two weeks was spent preparing for the GRE Literature test by cramming ridiculous amounts of obscure literary facts into my brain.  However, as I was studying one night, I found this lovely passage from John Lyly, an Elizabethan writer:

Descend into your own consciences, consider with yourselves the great difference between staring and stark blind, wit and wisdom, love and lust.  Be merry but with modesty, be sober but not too solemn, be valiant but not too venturous.  Let thy attire be comely but not costly; thy diet wholesome but not excessive; use pastime as the word importeth, to pass the time in honest recreation; mistrust no man without cause, neither be thou credulous without proof; be not light to follow every man's opinion, nor obstinate to stand in thine own conceit.  Serve God, love God, fear God, and God will so bless thee as either heart can wish or thy friend desire. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Laughter Works Miracles

     This week has been kind of rough with the kiddos.  It's that critical point in the school year when the students have gotten too comfortable with the teachers and staff, and feel like it's alright to run around screaming in the hallways despite repeated reminders that they shouldn't.
     I'm also running into the problem that I want to give and give and give to my students, which is why I am teaching French lessons after school, teaching a theatre class and giving special coaching sessions to advanced students, running a Green Team in which I am teaching students about ecology and environmental science, and running a Cooking and Culture club in which I teach students about different world cultures through food and language.  Oh, and I'm building a library by soliciting and collecting donations from local bookstores since my school has no library.  I'm also serving as a mentor for many of the students who don't feel comfortable talking to their teachers about personal issues.  On top of all of that our special education learning center isn't working - so I'm taking it on myself to fix it since no one else seems to want to step up to the plate.  I took over teaching 7th grade math today, and made the students a progress calendar.  All three of my 7th graders learned two-step equations today.  (And I learned that evidently I can teach math.) 
     I'm getting burnt out.  A little stressed with all the things that I'm trying to accomplish for my kids, and a little high strung about how to handle some sticky situations.  I've been trying to keep setting aside quiet time for prayer and contemplation, but it's quickly becoming another item on my long to-do list.  So I've been getting frustrated with that too.  Lots of running around in circles it seems, and not much getting anywhere.  More frustration piles on.  Are you sensing the pattern??
     Today though, I was in History with my 6th graders, and we were learning about Khufu, the pharaoh who build the Great Pyramid of Giza, and my little special ed student turned to me and tugged on my shirt and said, "Ms. D, Ms. D."  He then proceeded to start singing "Little Bunny Foo Foo" as he copied his notes.  I chuckled to myself.  And then he told me that "Fufu is a rapper too you know."  At this point I started cracking up.  It might not seem all that hilarious, but when this kid can barely pay attention in most classes without throwing pencils at the wall or drawing on my shirt, it made my heart giggle to hear him associate his class work with prior knowledge.  He and I then spent the rest of the class period giggling in the back of the room.  I gave up the corrective tone, I gave up trying to get him to "be a scholar" and laughed with him.
     It was the best medicine that my soul could have asked for.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Up Homeboy?

     My roommate and I ran a 5K today to benefit Homeboy Industries, an organization that helps former gang members to turn their lives around.  It's a great organization that offers several programs ranging from career services to interim jobs at one of several Homeboy sites to tattoo removal.  We went to the Homegirl cafe for brunch afterward where we had some wonderful food.  If you're in the LA area, you should definitely check it out - it's down by the Chinatown metro stop. 
     It was a cool event that brought a lot of people together to foster acceptance of those in our community who are trying to make changes in their lives.  All too often it is easy to judge people on their past actions, and quash any chance they have to turn things around before they even begin.  It was also encouraging to see an organization that is doing so well and doing so much good for the community.  When my students often tell me stories about gang violence it is easy to be disheartened, but Homeboy Industries definitely gives me some hope, and in the words of The Shawshank Redemption, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On my knees in the night / sayin prayers in the street light

They say I got ta learn, but nobody's here to teach me,
If they cant understand it, how can they reach me?
I guess they can't; I guess they won't
I guess they front; that's why I know my life is outta luck, fool!
- Coolio, "Gangsta's Paradise"
      I wonder sometimes how effective I'm being with my kids.  I don't want to fail them when they've been failed by so many people around them.  I don't want to be another person who just doesn't get it.  Some of my kids today were using chalk on their backpacks and drawing symbols that were ostensibly crosses hanging from a chain.  I had to ask them to stop because they're not supposed to have any symbols or writing on anything they wear or bring to school.  They didn't know why.  A particularly cheeky 8th grader spouted "Why, Miss D?  I believe in God.  Can't I show that I believe in God?"
     Part of me wanted to pat the kid on the back and tell him of course, but technically his backback was breaking school policy (which is in place to prevent gang related symbols from cropping up), and God knows I didn't want to get into a sociological discussion with an 8th grader about the similarities (and differences) between gangs and religious groups in their use of symbols.
     I get caught up in these internal dilemmas every day, and I worry that I'm not saying what I should be in order to break through the tough shells on my kids.  They've certainly been hardened by the cold reality of gangs and poverty.  I feel responsible though to help turn them from that path.
     Thinking about it, I'm beginning to wonder if it's possible to get through to the kids unless I meet them where they are.  They don't need another teacher condescending and correcting them all the time.  They need someone who's going to be there with them, be on their team, however the prophet Amos spelled it out long ago: "Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?" (3:3).  I've got to find a way to agree to walk with them, and not worry so much about how much farther there is to go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

In Praise of Folly

"Where ignorance is bliss; 'tis folly to be wise."
Thomas Gray, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College
     I can't decide whether Mr. Gray has hit the nail on the head, or if he's a hopeless fool himself.  Despite suffering brought about by an awareness of the world's harsh realities, is ignorance really the best way to live?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I go back and forth.
      Mr. Gray seems to think that wisdom comes precisely from becoming aware that the world ain't all sunshine and rainbows.  After a long melancholy poem, his ending quip throws its hands up, and says that if ignorance makes you happy, well then, screw the world and be ignorant.  I just can't seem to agree with that defeatist attitude, but something tells me that there's more to the poem than that.
     For lack of time, here are more questions/concerns I have with Mr. Gray -
1. Is it a bad thing to be a fool?
2. What do you mean exactly by wisdom?
3. How are you defining bliss?
4. Are we to assume that bliss is to be sought after?
5. Are we talking about deliberate ignorance?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Becoming Superman

     Despite my long enduring love for Superman, in the past two months I've found that becoming a superhero is not quite so easy as running into a phone booth and speedily changing into a spandex bodysuit.  However, every day my coworkers and I are asked to make that transformation (ok not into spandex bodysuits, though I'm sure our kids would LOVE that, but you get the point).  Our little charter school is standing in the face of the gargantuan LAUSD, trying to throw a force field around our kids to protect them from the mess that has been made of American public schools (especially LA public schools).
John Legend, Shine On, from Waiting for Superman.
     Due to the mess that has been created by LAUSD and other social forces, I'm trying to teach 6th graders, many of whom are at a 2nd or 3rd grade reading level, basic reading and writing skills.  They haven't been left behind by the system, but instead they were forced up through it without the attention they needed to meet grade level.  Overcrowded classrooms and ineffective teachers who cannot be fired due to tenure are only part of the problem.
     It's a huge struggle to teach children knowing full well that the homework that we give them likely won't get done at home because many of my kids don't live in environments where they are pushed to succeed, and some of them are not 100% safe at home.  What's going to motivate a student to do her homework when her brother who just graduated from high school got shot and killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?  And what about my special education students, who are becoming painfully aware that they are not like the other students - what's going to motivate them to do their work when they believe in their hearts that they can't succeed?
     It would be easy as educators to step back and throw our hands up, do our jobs and go home, and sigh about another lost generation.  But my school is full of superheros - teachers and administrators who often come to school at 7am and don't leave until 5 or 6pm, spending extra time working with students, despite the challenges that we face daily.  For every student who doesn't believe in himself, there is a classmate willing to elbow him in the ribs to remind him to pay attention.  It's those moments that bring us back every day, willing to stay the extra hour and tutor a student who doesn't get it right away.  It's exhausting work, but it is good work.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

No Going Backwards

     Sitting at the kitchen table with one of my roommates, we began, or I began rather, venting frustrations about not moving forward spiritually.  Some of the books we are reading (or are supposed to be reading) make some rather exasperating assumptions, and while possible, I don't think I'm the only one who has been frustrated by these books. 
     One of the readings for the week, a selection from John Neafsey's A Sacred Voice is Calling, makes some pretty irritating theoretical generalizations about how to pursue a socially conscious life that responds to a higher calling, or Dream with a capital "D" as Neafsey calls it.  He does a lot of surface level talk about how to engage with the world around us, but says little that is actually of use.  My favorite example of his aggravating propensity toward vaguery comes in his three step plan for how to engage actively with society: "Speak metaphorically but concretely..."
     I'm sorry, what?  By definition a metaphor is anything but concrete.  Admittedly, I can see what Neafsey (by way of Walter Bruggeman from whom he draws this three step plan) is getting at.  However, notwithstanding the fact that all three steps essentially say the same thing in words that aren't even that different, these things are far easier said than done, and Neafsey makes no suggestion for how we are to go about finding, let alone employing, such concrete metaphors for talking about the world's suffering.  Methodologically, he does exactly what he cautions us against - he consistently speaks in abstract metaphors instead of providing concrete examples from which to work.
Photo Credit:
     Leaving aside the theoretical and methodological issues I have with these readings (I can ignore them because I know I have a proclivity for being overly academic), the point where I stumble the hardest comes in Neafsey's fundamental assumptions.  He assumes that his readers are spiritual dunces, that we aren't actively seeking God already. 
"The root metaphor for vocation centers around the... 'seeing eye,' a capacity for perception and vision and imagination.  This might, for some, involve actual visionary experiences of another level of reality, mystical glimpses into the world of the spirit.  More commonly, it has to do with seeing the reality of the world more clearly, looking more deeply into things, beneath the surface of things."
He then spends the rest of the chapter talking about what he perceives to be the more common experience of spirituality.  I think it's selling us short.  He entirely ignores and even speaks diminutively of the human capacity for mystical understanding of God's vision.  He seems to think it's impossible for us Americans.  I beg to differ, Mr. Neafsey.  And isn't it a little foolhardy to set out to examine and change the world for the better if we have not encountered God in prayer?
     Furthermore, where does this leave those of us who already have and already do mystically (though that word seems a little inflated) encounter God daily?  What advice do you have for us, Mr. Neafsey?  Needless to say, if you haven't gathered this already, I'm feeling a little stunted in my spiritual growth.  Neafsey is talking about things that I realized in high school.  I told my ever-so-attentive roommate about these frustrations, and while she demurely agreed to some extent, she offered a bit of pertinent advice - "Your spiritual journey can't go backwards."  So maybe it feels like things aren't moving forward as much as I would like, but she's right - God isn't leading me backward.  I just have to figure out why we're taking this particular detour, why we're taking the "roundabout way" (Exodus 13:18) yet again.  In the meanwhile, I'll have to practice patience with writers who promulgate nebulous advice while assuming that humanity no longer knows how to communicate with God.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Batter My Heart

     Taking a break from Johnny Steinbeck, I was studying for the GRE Literature test by brushing up on some 17th century writers.  This I found:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,' and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new,
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,' and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, 'untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish me.

John Donne Holy Sonnet XIV

Saturday, October 16, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

     Today the roomies and I went to see our newly acquired little brothers in a production of The Wizard of Oz.  It was well done, and the roughly 75 munchkins ranging from 3 to 10 years old were ridiculously adorable. 
     The show's tagline, however, got me thinking about the idea of "home."  What is home anyway?  Is it a physical shelter?  A house?  A city?  A country?  What exactly are the delineations of "home"?  Where does "home" end and the rest of the world begin?  Or is "home" dependent on the people who inhabit the place with you?  In which case, for those of us who are blessed enough to have friends and family all over the country and the world, where "home" is becomes a pretty difficult question. 
     What about those of us, however, for whom there literally is no place like home.  Living in Hollywood, it's hard not to think about homelessness.  There are at least 4 or 5 people who live on our street corner.  I woke up early one morning to go running, and right outside of our house here in Hollywood I ran past a man who was sprawled out sleeping on the concrete sidewalk.  As I ran back down Hollywood Boulevard I passed a group of people who were sleeping on top of a metro vent for the heat.  At least these few had some company, I found myself thinking.  What about that man who was sleeping by himself on our street?  It seemed he had neither a shelter nor a community.  I felt pretty helpless too - wasn't sure if there was anything I could offer him, and by the time I got back home he was already gone. 
     Last week, the readings at church were about being grateful for the things we have in life.  How fitting that the week should end with a play about being grateful for home - both for shelter and community.  Count yourself as very blessed if you have one or both of these.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Practice Resurrection

res·ur·rec·tion (r z -r k sh n). n. 1. The act of rising from the dead or returning to life. 2. The state of one who has returned to life. 
     So... usually, even if I'm not always good at it, I can at least understand how Jesus wants us to imitate His life.  Serve the poor.  Feed the hungry.  Give rest to the weary.  Give drink to the thirsty.  Speak for the oppressed.  Sacrifice yourself for others.  Ok.  Great. 
     That's more or less the story up to the cross.
     And then there's that funny resurrection thing.
     Short of physically dying and coming back to life, how exactly are we supposed to imitate Jesus in the resurrection?  Maybe it'll help to look and see what exactly happened at the resurrection...
but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.     Acts 10:40
Caused him to be seen.  Maybe that's what this resurrection business is about - seeing God working in our lives.  Constant awareness.  Life should be an offering and a prayer, the soul constantly whispering to God. 
     I could talk about dying to self and living in Christ, but I feel like that's been overdone.  And it's a lot easier to say "I'm dying to myself" with the voice than it is to speak those words with the heart.  Where do we start then?  My best guess - start where the apostles started.  Seeking God's face, seeking to see His work.  Then trust that the rest will unfold.

Monday, October 11, 2010

John Steinbeck on Humility

If you hadn't noticed, I was a little behind in my posting due to the untimely death of my computer.  Now that I have a new one, I am trying to catch up.

This I found while reading dear Johnny:
     "The ways of sin are curious," Samuel observed.  "I guess if a man had to shuck off everything he had, inside and out, he'd manage to hide a few little sins somewhere for his own discomfort.  They're the last things we'll give up."
     "Maybe that's a good thing to keep us humble.  The fear of God in us."
     "I guess so," said Samuel.  "And I guess humility must be a good thing, since it's a rare man who has not a piece of it, but when you look at humbleness it's hard to see where its value rests unless you grant that it is a pleasurable pain and very precious.  Suffering - I wonder has it been properly looked at."     John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Abundance of Need

     I've been running a cooking club after school with some of my middle school students.  We don't have access to many resources.  More than 90% of the students at my school qualify for free lunches, which puts our school in the "high poverty" categorization.  We make do with what we have though.  We all bring food in to share, and we choose simple recipes.  We only cook on two days of every week.
     At the beginning of the year, I asked my students how they wanted to divide the club up, and we decided to do themed cultural weeks.  This week we're doing French foods; last week we cooked simple Mexican foods; and the preceding week we cooked American foods.  I let them vote on two menu items for each week.  I chuckled to myself when they chose hamburgers and hot dogs for our two American food items, and I showed them Super Size Me on the days that we weren't cooking.  One student got the hint and disgustedly asked me if we were still going to make hamburgers the next day.  Most of them still tell me that McDonalds is their favorite food, and that their parents take them there fairly frequently. 
     Something seems off here.  Southern California is one of the richest areas of the country when it comes to farming.  There is an overabundance of fresh produce brought into markets daily from the over 81,000 farms in the Golden State.  According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, "California's agricultural abundance includes over 400 commodities."  The CDFA also reported that California is the sole producer (meaning it produces over 99%) of several foods including almonds, artichokes, figs, grapes, peaches, plums, pomegranates, and walnuts.
     So with all of this fresh food around, why is it that people are still choosing McDonalds and In'n'Out over the farmer's market?  An LA Times article noted that obesity is highest among the poorer sections of LA, and one thing's sure, a hamburger at McDonalds is cheaper than a bag of carrots at the market.  But we knew that was an issue already.  We've known that until we make fresh foods more affordable, people are going to keep choosing less healthy fast food alternatives. 
     The awful irony of the matter, however, is the fact that the very people who work on the farms, laboring in the fields all day long under the hot California sun, are the same ones who cannot afford fresh foods.  The LA Times reports that
[Farm work] is not only grueling but seasonal. Certain crops require constant migration. For example, lettuce grows in Yuma from November to March. Then lettuce harvesters migrate to Huron, south of Fresno, for the month of April. Then it's on to Salinas from May through mid-October, and back to Huron through mid-November. On a good day, lettuce crews make up to $14 an hour, but that's only if consumers don't suddenly prefer soup to salad. If they do, wages fall.
With such uncertainty regarding daily and monthly wages, many farmhands cannot afford to feed their families healthy foods.  What's worse, this problem has been rippling under the surface in California for years and years.  Don't believe me?  Go read John Steinbeck.  Read Grapes of Wrath and tell me why the Joad family works all day picking peaches, but none of them ever get to enjoy the taste of a sweet California peach and instead they languish on pig fat.  Things haven't changed much around here, sad to say.  I've been trying to give my students an idea of how they can make healthy choices on a slim budget, but it isn't easy when they literally do not have the money to pay for fresh produce.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Where are we going, man?" "I don't know but we gotta go."

     I have a tendency to work myself to the bone.  Ask anyone who knows me well.  It is a rare day when I am not running from one activity or organization to the next at breakneck pace.  I usually average about 6 hours of sleep, and have been known to function on as little as 4 or 5, to accommodate all of the things I pack into my days.  Wherever I go, I throw my whole self into the community, taking on jobs and service work and building relationships with people around me.  It's become something of a point of pride - how much can I do without driving myself totally insane? I generally run around with some degree of insanity, but I try to keep from stepping over the edge.  Don't get me wrong - I love to work, to do, constantly to go.  I think, at least, that my frenetic energy comes from a deep desire to serve.  I wonder though, what am I trying to prove?
     Last night I was thinking about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).  Some of the laborers work and work and work all day long, and at the end of the day they are paid the typical day's wages - others are hired at the end of the day, and they, too, receive the full day's wages.  Those who worked all day grumble and question the landowner - why are our wages the same as those of they who worked only one hour when we toiled all day long?  The landowner, somewhat shockingly, replies,
"Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?" Matthew 20:13-15. 
     What a challenge to our hearts and minds - especially those of us who live in the capitalistic American meritocracy where we earn our success and our worth.  We glory in working 50 hour weeks and getting paid overtime and raking in those bonuses.  Our culture values hard work.  We get what we deserve in this country, or at least we think we do.  Now, I could comment on the dangers of working too hard, to the point that any room for stillness and silent communication with God who rests in the truest parts of our selves gets lost in the to-do lists.  Stop and smell the roses, some would say.  
       This particular passage, however, asks us to transform our vision of merit.  I'm not saying that our culture shouldn't value hard work, but we who labor in the American vineyard have a tendency to work and work and work and expect adequate payment.  For everything we do.  Even spiritual matters.  If I pray for this many minutes a day, so and so many times a week, I should expect my spiritual growth to increase at a corresponding monthly output.  If we work hard, or pray hard in this case, we should be rewarded for it.  And we will be, in whatever way God sees fit.  Frustrating?  Sometimes, yes, but the more challenging part of the parable, at least for me, comes in reconciling the fact that those who do less than half the work receive the same reward.  We are challenged here to recognize that we cannot earn God's love at all - we don't have to - it is freely given.  It isn't about who works, or prays, the most.  We need to extricate the idea of earning from our spiritual vocabulary because no matter how hard we try to find one, there isn't a formula for grace.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Palm Springs in September

On a Desert Road

A field - a farm, electric - its harvest
The wind that breathes the spirit of the land.
Turbines, tall and proud, slice the valley floor -
Shouldn't it bleed a little? Perhaps,
But parched veins prevent exsanguination.
The lifeblood of the land lies far beneath,
Seeping away to more fertile regions;
All the while these tall giants twist power.
America's exhausted bones curve up
And outward from the arid, rocky ground,
Tired witnesses to human yearnings -
Touched by the same desert air, unstirring,
Wrinkled mountains stand defiantly and
Glare at the desert sun. They thirst for life.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Two Sides of a Coin

     Last week I wrote about a man on death row.  He was scheduled to die last Wednesday, but was given a temporary reprieve until Thursday after several days of legal jockeying concerning the drugs involved in lethal injection.  I found most of the information regarding his case on the New York Times website, but it wasn't until I looked at a site called LA Now, part of the LA Times, that I found anyone writing from the perspective of the family of the victim. 
     Back in 1980, Mr. Brown raped and strangled a 15 year old girl in Riverside, California.  He has been on death row since his conviction in 1982, for nearly 30 years.  What does that mean in terms of the family of the victim?  For thirty years, they have been unable to move on from the trauma.  For thirty years, they have remained painfully tied to the bureaucratic legislation associated with capital punishment.
     What is the best remedy?  Kill the perpetrator faster?  Less legislative argument?  Maybe, if we're disregarding the moral implications for now.  At least it would save the victim's family from the pain and suffering of thirty + years with no sense of closure.
     But isn't there another route?  What about forgiveness?  You may be balking at this statement.  How, you ask, is the family of a young girl who was brutally raped and strangled supposed to forgive the rapist?  Ok, admittedly, I didn't claim that this route was the easy one.  In fact, it's much more difficult and it requires courage, but in the end it leads to much more beautiful results.  Once they find a way to forgive, the family can move on from the horrific tragedy.  They don't have to remain tied to it for an indeterminate number of years.  They can stop feeling like victims, and reclaim their power to live again. 
     Now, I'm not saying that the crime should be excused.  According to the Mayo Clinic, "forgiveness doesn't mean that you deny the other person's responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn't minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act."  Forgiveness allows both sides of a crime, perpetrator(s) and victim(s), to heal.  It begins the process of repairing a break in society.  Endless legislation does not. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Storm Without Rain

Photo Credit: Gene Blevins/Daily News
God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth."     Genesis 9:12-16
     Driving home through the San Fernando Valley today, I saw two rainbows spanning the sky.  Traffic slowed, and it didn't bother me at all.  Odd, I thought, a rainbow, but with no sign of rain, no ensuing flood.  I began to ponder the promise God made to our father Noah.  Thinking about Noah, I remember talking about the flood story in one of my religion and literature classes - we talked about what separated Noah from the rest of humanity.  Why should God choose this one man from all the rest to save?   Was it random grace?  Was Noah a better man than the rest?  What made him so lucky?
     We finally settled on the conclusion God chose him because "Noah walked with God." Genesis 6:9.  That is to say, Noah was friends with God in a way that the rest of humanity was not.  They spent time together; they walked together, and God's promise not to destroy the world grows out of that relationship.  The rainbow reminds us to strive to walk with God every day, to trust that He will never let the flood drown us.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Turn of the Century

     John Steinbeck has a way of writing about American culture unlike other American authors.  In both Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, he includes interchapters, breaks in the plotline, that reflect ideas relevant to wider society.  Chapter 12 of East of Eden completely breaks away from any sort of plot advancement or character building and in stead meditates on the turn of the century in American culture. 
     Steinbeck does this with full knowledge, and he allows readers in on the break too: "You can see this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900."  Just as one section of the book has come to a close, so, too, does a section of American history.  Beautiful technique, Mr. Steinbeck.  In two short pages he recalls the sordid events of the 19th century, and bids them not a fond farewell but rather good riddance.  "To hell with that rotten century!... New chapter, new life." 
     Do we always need these type of bookends?  When we look back on history, or on our lives, what are the chapter dividers that make life nice and neat?  What events lead one part of our lives to a close and another to a new beginning?  What is it about the idea of a clean slate, a fresh start that is so enticing? 
     Maybe it's just an eaiser way for our brains to organize information.  I have a sneaking suspicion that dear Johnny is aware of this.  He knows that despite whatever distinctions we want to impose on one "era" and the next, there will always be carryover.  Our memories, both individual and communal, cannot be erased quite so easily as the 1800s, despite the ease with which Steinbeck's narrator would do away with them.  Boundaries always blur.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Death Be Not Proud

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull...    John Donne

     We are going to kill a man on Wednesday.  All of us.  You.  Me.  Anyone who can legally vote in the United States is an accomplice.  Whether you voted in the last election or not, the fact is that our government allows for the death penalty, and the state of California is all set to execute a man on Wednesday.  What is the government but the voice of the people, and here in the United States we quietly proclaim that we have the power and authority to extinguish a life.
     It's not that I feel that crime should go unpunished.  Justice is important, but so is his sister.  Mercy.  Gandhi said it best: "An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind."  Last year the United States dispatched 52 lives; this year we have already squelched 38 as we stealthily plot our next killing. 
     Beyond the moral responsibility we take on for capital punishment, here's another charming factoid to consider:
The California death penalty system costs taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life. Taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each of the state’s executions. (L.A. Times, March 6, 2005)
When will we learn?
     The one sliver of hope that I found in the New York Times article that I linked above was in the last sentences.  California evidently has the largest backlog of prisoners on death row.  That gives me at least some hope that this state tries as hard as it can not to proceed with executions.  Maybe somewhere, in the deep places of their hearts, Californians feel a twinge of humility when considering the implications of capital punishment.  I wonder when we, as a country that still claims to be united under God (for better or worse), will humble ourselves and act with mercy toward our own.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Way of the Wilderness

     It rained today in Southern California - which, I learned, is an event so atypical as to throw many people out of whack and into near hysteria.  It's easy to forget that this thriving metropolis is in the middle of the desert.  According to the National Weather Service, the average annual rainfall for Los Angeles is a mere 15 inches, and some years can be as low as 6 or 7 inches (a far cry from Boston's annual 42 inch deluge).
      I had almost forgotten that I chose to live in the middle of a desert for a year, but somehow it seems fitting.  I set this year aside as one to grow into a deeper connection with God, and what better place to do it than in the desert?  Maybe that sounds a little crazy, but isn't it into the desert that God led the Israelites on their journey out of Egypt and into the Promised Land?  Isn't it into the desert that Jesus must go before he embarks on his ministry?  How fitting then that I should throw my life into the desert to train myself to hear God's voice.
      It can be difficult.  I sometimes forget why I am here; sometimes wonder where this journey will lead me, and, for that matter, sometimes forget that I am indeed being led.  It would be easier if the road were straight and didn't wind around the mountains.  Have you ever driven on a straight road?  I mean a really straight, flat road.  You can see for miles and miles and miles exactly where you're going.  You can see exactly where the traffic is up ahead, where you can speed up, and where you need to slow down.  To some extent this can all be pretty comforting (especially if you've just learned to drive a stick shift).
     But after a while, driving on a straight road gets boring.  You don't really get to do much.  You get the car in gear and sit back.  A windy road, on the other hand, is much more exciting.  It calls for more active participation.  You've got to be alert because you never know what's going to be around the next bend.
     Every morning I get to drive through the Santa Monica mountains and up to stunning views of the Angeles National Forest shortly after the sun has risen over the eastern peaks.  What spectacular views come when the road winds along the sides of the mountains!  I've had to remind myself when I begin to wonder why I'm here, or why my path doesn't seem clear, that the bends in the road make the journey more beautiful and thrilling, and that God leads us in such a way that we can more actively participate in the ride.  He wants us to be able to deepen that relationship. 
So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness.     Exodus 13:18
Here I am in the middle of the desert wilderness, driving the windy roads of life, grumbling just as the Israelites did for God's nearness.  

Monday, September 20, 2010

America the beautiful

East or West.  Which do you love best?
I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east.  Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias.  It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.     John Steinbeck, East of Eden
When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle south-west, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction... The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side... I turn round and round irresolute sometimes for a quarter of an hour, until I decide for the thousandth time, that I will walk into the south-west or west. Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.     Henry David Thoreau, Walking
For say what I will about the West -- Missouri, and Illinois with its enchanted rivers, Indiana and Ohio, and New York State & New England, & all the South...represent the soft, sweet East of this world, as distinguished from the wild and arid west -- and to make a choice between the two is like tearing out & examining the foundations of one's heart, where all ideas about life are stored.  Shall it be the soft, sweet life of the Idyl? ... or the wild & thirsty life?  The life enclosed by horizons, the life of the sweet trees -- or the life of vast, yearning plains.     Jack Kerouac, Journals
I'm still trying to figure this one out myself.  The question is up for debate.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Building a Great School, or A Great School Building

Photo Credit: Monica Almeida, The New York Times
     This past Monday, September 13th, students first set foot in the Los Angeles Unified School District's newest school complex - a gargantuan 24-acre complex dedicated to the memory of Robert F. Kennedy.  If you haven't heard about it, as I hadn't until this week, the price tag on the construction was $578 million, roughly $140,000 per student.  Despite the fact that the money for the construction came from a $20 million bond passed by voters last year, the opening of the school comes at a time when LAUSD has a deficit of roughly $600 million, has just laid off over 2,000 teachers, and has shortened the school year by a full week.
     There are mixed reviews of course.  It seems outrageous to spend so much money on a building when the entire district is in debt, but for years students from the area were being bussed to schools several miles away and crowded onto campuses that had to run year round to accommodate the influx of students.  A new school needed to be built.  That much is plain.
     But why the preposterous cost?  The complex is designed as a monument to preserve the site where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.  It includes huge murals dedicated to his life, a reconstruction of the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub for the auditorium, and a faculty lounge that replicates the Ambassador Hotel's coffee shop.  Necessary?  Probably not.  Especially in light of the fact that the school district as a whole is known not to offer quality education to its students - why not put more money into hiring teachers and reducing classroom size? 
     The New York Times article has the best coverage I've found so far, and in it Adam Nagourney includes the voice of a parent:
Benjamin Austin, a member of the California Board of Education and head of Parent Revolution, an organization of school parents, said, “The best way to memorialize Robert Kennedy is to build a great school, not a great building.”

Here are links to the articles from the New York Times, the LA Times, and NBCLA.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Becoming a Child

     Working with 6th graders for most of the day has taught me a lot about patience.  They're all at a brand new school, and they have brand new teachers.  They don't know most of the protocol at the school - no talking in the hallways, raise your hand if you want to speak, no running down the stairs, no put downs. 
     They mess up a lot.  They run in the building and talk out of turn.  They call each other names.  And despite the incessant corrections from teachers and adults (somehow I'm one or both of those now), they forget and mess up over and over, day after day.  It's easy to get frustrated with them.  It's easy to get irritated.  Why can't they remember what they were told?  Why don't they realize that the rules are there for their benefit and for their safety?  Why don't they recognize that "no running down the stairs" is a rule so that they don't fall and hurt themselves?
     It makes me think about how God must see me.  Constantly falling, constantly running in the hallways of my life, constantly talking when it's my turn to listen.  Yet, He doesn't get angry; His patience is unending.  In imitating God, then, especially now, I find myself called to have the same type of patience - one that acts with a firm, yet gentle hand.
     I think there's another lesson though.  I don't think that the constant failings are what Jesus referred to when he said that
unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.     Matthew 18:3
The always-stunning realization that I have every day when working with middle school students is their willingness to take correction.  Despite the fact that they might make the same mistakes over and over, their minds and their hearts are open to instruction.  They want insatiably to learn, to grow, to succeed.  I think that's the aspect of being child-like that God wants for us.  He knows we'll mess up.  He knows we'll run when we should walk, we'll call names, we'll talk when it's not our turn.  We just need to remember to have hearts open to His advice, open to His Words, and willing to trust that He knows what is best for us better than we could ever know it ourselves.  

Monday, September 13, 2010

On Wildness

     Words of wisdom learned on the banks of Walden Pond:
     Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  We need the tonic of wildness, -to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.  At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.  We can never have enough of Nature.  We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets.  We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.     Walden, Henry David Thoreau
     If you haven't read Walden, do yourself a favor and run, do not walk, to the nearest bookstore or library and pick up a copy.  It drags in parts, but Henry's precious gems of wisdom are sprinkled throughout.  If you don't have the patience to sit through the entire piece, at the very least, you must read the conclusion.  A paltry five or six pages, but in them dear Henry has written some of his most wonderful idea(l)s concerning American life, and life more generally.
     I'm moving on to John Steinbeck this week, but I'll leave two more of Henry's quotables:
     If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.   Walden, Henry David Thoreau
      Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men.  But what is that to the purpose?  A living dog is better than a dead lion.  Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can?  Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.     Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, September 11, 2010

When You're a Jet

     The closest I've ever come to gang violence is when my high school did a production of West Side Story when I was in 8th grade.  It was great!  Of course, all the girls will tell you that the senior who played Tony was just dreamy.  We were busier contemplating Tony's stunning cheekbones than the effects of gang violence.  In fact, I'm not sure there was ever even discussion of gang related crime after the show.  You can be sure that our teachers talked about how West Side Story relates to Romeo and Juliet, but we never really talked about what it meant to be a Shark or a Jet.  We never talked about how one killing leads to three more in the course of the two hour play.  We never talked about how gangs can take the place of families when families are broken.
When you're a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You're a family man!
It all went right over our heads because we didn't know what gangs were.  Not that I'm criticising my teachers - why should we have known what gangs were, growing up in a pretty peaceful suburb of a small-ish city?
     Two days ago I was teaching a lesson on poetry to some 7th graders.  As part of the lesson, I asked the students to write about their hometowns or countries (a lot of my students are from Mexico or El Salvador).  At the end of class I asked if anyone wanted to share.  One particularly overzealous student raised his hand and nearly jumped out of his seat.  He came to the front of the class and read his work.  "If you're not from Pacoima, you don't know murder.  People steal stuff here.... Brothers get shot... Don't ever come to Pacoima."  Nervously, I thanked him for sharing. 
     According to the LAPD, there are over 250 active gangs in Los Angeles.  It's a tragic reality in this city.  In the neighborhood of my school alone there are three well-known gangs.  The students in my afterschool program can't go home at the end of the day for fear of getting into trouble on the streets.  Their parents would rather keep them on the fenced-in grounds of the school for as long as possible.  I learned this last week when I met with the principal for the first time, but it was another thing entirely to hear a 7th grader talk about murder and robbery as an everyday occurrence.  He's 12 years old. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

You Humble Me, Lord

     Leaving aside the fact that I stole my title from the lyrics to a Norah Jones song, those particular words have never felt more true than during this last week.  I've faced some pretty interesting challenges.  The arduous part of the adventure has finally set in after the initial adrenaline rush of excitement.  I went to work for the first time today, and am more exhausted than I've been in a long time.
     I'm also learning to drive a stick shift.  In Los Angeles.  Talk about being humbled.  It's not the easiest thing to do in the first place, especially if you've spent the last five years driving an automatic.  On top of that add the ridiculous LA freeways.  Now, I'm not one to scare easily.  I'm actually not afraid of much (with the exception of bees).  I've gone to foreign countries; I'm perfectly fine speaking in front of large groups; I've held snakes; I've jumped out of a plane; and I recently conquered my fear of needles (nothing weird, just ask me about that later if you're interested).  But driving a stick shift in the ridiculous traffic on the freeway genuinely scares me, hard to admit as that is for me.  But there it is.  I don't like admitting it - I have a tendency to take pride in being fearless. 
     Must be God reminding me of my place in the world.  How many people live in this city and don't have access to a car at all?  Or don't have the money to pay for the buses?  Just needed that little spiritual kick in the butt to remind me to be grateful for all the things I do have. 
You humble me Lord
Humble me Lord
I'm on me knees empty
You humble me Lord
You humble me Lord
Please, please, please forgive me      Norah Jones

Monday, September 6, 2010


Surface meets surface.  When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip.  We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not.  In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and dependently to the post office.  You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.     Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle
Part of me agrees with dear Henry on this (he's got a point about using social relationships to live an unexamined life), but part of me recognizes that this is probably some bit of self-defense on his part (jealous much? - that he wasn't receiving more letters than anyone else).  Cynical old bastard.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bioprocess Engineering

     I was playing in the dirt yesterday.  Generally not something I'd recommend doing anywhere in Los Angeles.  But here at St. Stephen's, I was asked to start some Fall seeds for our community garden.  What fun!  Here I was a bit overwhelmed by the endless concrete roads and sprawling urban undergrowth, and they asked me to rekindle my green thumb!
Soon to be yummy vegetables.
     Of course, all of this got me thinking.  As I sat there filling my little cups with dirt and carefully pushing some brussel sprout seeds into each one, I felt kind of powerful... Weird?  Maybe.  But the effort that I put in yesterday (I planted about 75 cups with easily over 100 seeds of different yummy vegetables) will allow those lifeless seeds to grow.  And some day soon, provided I don't kill the poor things between now and then, someone's hunger will be satisfied by those yummy vegetables.  It's as close to creation as I'm singlehandedly likely to get.
     Then the thought of creation opened a whole other can of worms in my brain.  Having more than a few close friends in the field of biological engineering, though admittedly most of them are biomedical and not bioprocess or agricultural engineers, I began thinking about the implications of bioprocess engineering.  Maybe not thoughts you'd expect me to have in the middle of a city, but with all sorts of controversy about the value of small organic farms run by immigrant workers in contrast to wholesale supergiants like Whole Foods, farming is maybe more an issue in Southern California than anyone wants to think.  It has been for a number of years - think John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.
     The issue seems to be the overmechinization of farming practices which, yes, leads to lower prices, but also to all sorts of problems - food that isn't well cared for and not high in quality, lower wages and fewer jobs for farmhands, and (you can argue with me about whether this is a problem or not) a fundamental disconnect with the land itself.  So what's the socially responsible thing to do?  I think it's to remember our relationship with each other, to support our neighbors in their efforts, and to prize that over saving a few extra cents at the chain grocery store.  Chew on this for a while:
Material goods and the way we are developing the use of them should be seen as God's gifts to us. They are meant to bring out in each one of us the image of God. We must never lose sight of how we have been created: from the earth and from the breath of God. In this way we are related to the rest of creation,  and we are asked to use creation according to the will of God, to whom we are related too.      On Social Concern, Pope John Paul II 1987
It's about our relationship to one another.  And isn't that what got me thinking in the first place?  I was planting those tiny little seeds, and, yes, I was moved because I was helping life to grow, but more moved because it would eventually nourish another person.  These goofy little thoughts of mine, however, probably wouldn't have been inspired if it hadn't taken me a few hours to do all the work, if I had used some sort of mechanical process to inject the seeds into prepackaged potters. 
The fact is that most farmland requires close care to be used well. That is the agricultural justification for the small holding. It permits close care in a way that large holdings farmed by hired people or even owners on large machines can’t be farmed well. The moral benefit of independent small farmers is that it broadens the connection of the whole society to the land, and it increases the number of self-employed people.     An Interview with Wendell Berry
 Hmm... all of this from planting a few seeds.  Maybe Thoreau was onto something after all...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Knowing where to look

The view from my window.
     It can be an interesting task to try to see where God resides amid the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.  The buildings are huge and terribly famous.  Billboards and tourists abound, and every day a new movie set crops up in the neighborhood.  People come, and people go.  We don't look at each other - most of us are too busy staring at the ground, looking at the names of all of the celebrities who were fortunate enough to have their names etched into a star on the sidewalk, secretly envisioning our own names on those few blank stars that we pass day to day.
Some day... my name will be... right there.
     It's a handy way to ignore each other. Staring at the ground. We never have to recognize or interact with those around us. This morning I woke up early to take LA public transit, to the terror of many of my friends, out to the Valley. In the two blocks that I walked from my door to the Metro station I passed no less than ten homeless men and women. It occured to me that if I had been in a car, I would never have really had to look at them. That's probably how this city functions as it does. Half of its residents own mansions in the Hills with more bedrooms than they can fill, and the other half can't pay for a roof for one night. We ignore each other and go on with our lives. It's definitely difficult to see where God is in all of that.
And hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.  Mark 2:17 
It's not that I think this is a city full of sinners, not at all in fact.  It just seems to me that this is exaclty where God wants to work the most.  I was a little overwhelmed at first because it has always been so easy for me to see where and how God works, and it's not so easy here in plastic-covered, bronzer-drenched Los Angeles.  There are a lot of great things about this city - the sunshine, the relaxed atmosphere (what a break from the East coast!), the Mexican food...  but all told, it seems like the City of Angels could use a few more angels, willing to look into the eyes of those around them, and a few less people caught up in the fabricated superfluity of Southern California.  And a few less Lakers fans, but that's neither here nor there.  The point is God does live in this city; it's just a matter of knowing where to look.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Words, words, words

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art.  It is the work of art nearest to life itself.  It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;- not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.     Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.     John 1:1  

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"I was locked up in the world until I learned to read." - Milton Whitley

An interesting conversation popped up yesterday, based around the question - what is the value of an American literary canon?  Or is there a value at all? 

Concerning education, what is more important - getting students to love reading, however unelevated the subject matter might be, or getting them to read classics, however culturally irrelevant those works might seem to a middle-schooler? 

I tend to incline toward favoring a distinct literary canon.  A literary canon shapes cultural identity.  It unites us with our compatriots.  What do we who have grown up in the East know of California except that which John Steinbeck has told us?  Just having moved 3,000 miles across the country to a city whose people with whom I presumably should have nothing in common, I find it telling that within the first few days my fellow interns and I began talking about books that we've read.  Coming from very different parts of the country, we all have very little actually in common, but literature provides a platform for common understanding. 

But enough of my argument for the value of classic literature - the question is can we get students to read it?  Recently teachers have been experimenting with using popular literature - things like Harry Potter and Twilight - to inspire students to read.  They put Steinbeck and Hemingway back on the shelves in favor of Rowling and Meyer.  Is this a good way to get kids to read for the sake of reading, or should we be concerned with whetting their palates for the classics?

And what about students who aren't encouraged to read at home?  I heard a story recently from a friend of mine who was working as a tutor who said that her student's parents took away their child's study materials because they were embarassed that their child was more advanced than them.  How do teachers combat that? 

A study done in 2003 showed that 14% of American adults (about 30 million people) had "below basic" literary skills, and of those with "below basic" skills, 55% did not graduate from high school.  Literacy is incontestably important, so what is the best way to get students to learn to read and think critically?  By teaching books like Twilight?  Or by sticking to our guns?

Interesting conversation to have as I'm about to embark on a yearlong adventure to help students to learn to read. 

- More food for thought - Check out