Friday, July 22, 2011

Be Here Now

     Lucy wrote a blog post a few days ago for the EUIP blog about the Hollywood House mantra for the year: "Be Here Now."  And with less than a month left in LA, it seems more appropriate than ever to keep reminding ourselves what this year was, no IS, about.

     But it's difficult when you're in the middle of a transitional year not to think about where your life is headed.  Isn't that exactly part of why we all signed up for this year anyway?  A year of discernment, questioning, figuring it all out.  However, given a variety of factors that I'm not sure anyone saw coming, the program year didn't play out in the way a lot of people expected.  I can't speak for all the houses, but in Hollywood, from Day 1 everyone's schedules were jam-packed (shocker, living in LA), for the greater part of the year roommate-time was down to about two exhausted waking hours a day if we all ended up at home in the evenings, and weeks flew by with little sign of a reprieve. 
    Toward the spring, everyone started to worry, sometimes visibly, about what the coming months, and years, might hold.  We were all making plans and decisions, and not just about whether or not to head to the beach over the weekend (let's be honest, that was never really a question for us anyway), I'm talking big life-changing decisions, the kind that after they're made you feel a thousand times lighter, as though you might just float away. 
     And THAT'S when the "Be Here Now" mantra came in handy for me.  I've had a million (only a slight exaggeration) decisions to make in the last few months, most of which drew the greater part of my thoughts, dreams, and hopes away from the West Coast.  (I'll be moving to DC in less than a month to start a graduate program.)  And this thing that we keep saying to ourselves in Hollywood, be here now, has been one of the ways that I keep reminding myself to stay engaged and connected to the community I have here, to this place I've recently started catching myself referring to as home. 
    Despite the schedules and the seemingly nonexistent time to figure our lives out, discernment, and eventually decisions, bubbled up through every empty space in our go, go, go Hollywood lifestyles.  And now that most of those decisions are made and we can all float away if we so choose, I know my Hollywood girls will continue to live out and into our community, to be here now.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Twitterpated

     I've decided that I'm going to take over Twitter.  With no ill intention, of course.  On the contrary, my conquest has a benevolent purpose.  After initially remaining mostly silent on issues connected with Twitter, I've decided that NOT to use it is almost as (or potentially more?) unhelpful to the values to which I cling so dearly - namely human dignity and social justice - than to jump on the proverbial bandwagon.  Twitter is, after all, a platform - to be used however we see fit.
     Thus far it has been used largely to perpetuate a fabricated sense of celebrity, or to practice a dry and stultified sort of wit in response to the many absurdities of American mass culture.  What if, however, we use it to promote worthy causes?  Can we use it to redefine a generation?  I think it just might be possible.  So I'll be tweeting about community service, social justice, and hope.
#heresanidea #shakethedust #americanrevivalproject #generationserve

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cities That Speak


Sometimes I sigh and simultaneously hear the tired murmurs of the blood in my veins softly whispering of my yesterhood years when I rested feet dangling along the banks of the Allegheny or of the Ohio - rivers who in turn whispered back to me of their yesterhood years when steel and whiskey flowed freely down on toward the great mouth of America. Pittsburgh, the work of your hands and of your heart has flooded this nation, and your mighty struggle to reinvent yourself breathes hope back into the land.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dreams of America

America, you land of dreams and hope and wishes and destiny manifest in all the rocks and mountains and rivers, you have failed your aching children.  Bullets ring inside our brains and it is heavy.  We are all left behind these days, running to catch up to the rest of the world.  Which of your people will courageously step forward?  Can we save you, America, land of dreams?  Land of the free – to what?  Free to speak words of hate.  Stay out, intruders.  This is my land.  It is not yours. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Backyard Poetry

Tomorrow I’ll Remember


These days I do not hear the poetry
Laughing in the spaces between my ears.
I sit at night, listening patiently,
And hear the musty house settle and creak
In its old foundations, and hear
My lungs emitting nighttime sighs
That would be silent otherwise.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Story of a Lifetime

     Have you ever read any of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude?  I started to read it last summer, and actually never finished the entirety of it.  It required patience and resolve that I just didn't have at the time.  The story spans, as its title indicates, one hundred years in one family.  You see generation after generation of complexity, and Marquez captures the magic and the myth that gets passed down from one to the next.  He is a brilliant storyteller. 
     For many reasons I have been thinking recently a great deal about stories and how they function in our lives and in our culture, personal and public narrative if you will (with a wink to fellow ESCers).  What is my life story?  What will it amount to?  Will it have all the structurally sound elements - strong plot with clear conflict, resolution, and character development?  What about a theme - will my story have a moral? 
     I'm not sure at this point what my story is or where it's going.  It's hard to analyze the theme when you're in the middle of the book.  I do think I have settled on one thing though, which is that I don't see myself as the author.  I'm leaving that job up to the Big Man.  His stories are far more magnificent than I could ever write, so I'm fine with letting Him tell His story through me. 
     I can feel an argument about agency coming, so without trying to get into a debate, I will only say that allowing God to write your story is a choice.  It is agency.  I choose to see my life as part of a story told by God to his creation, and it certainly takes a great deal of courage to hand over the pen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fix You

     For the past week I've been doing some interesting experiments with my students.  Along with one of the resource specialists at my school, I've been designing some cognitive tests for my special needs students.  We're trying to assess where the gaps in processing skills are, and then trying to figure out what types of intervention activities can help build skills. 
     In doing all of this I've been speaking with several different people about the fundamental assumptions of special education.  One of the school psychologists told me that these kids have certain disabilities, and it's not a matter of trying to fix their brains.  My kids' brains are how they are, and that's all there is to it.  Our challenge is to find a way to help them find strategies to overcome their disabilities (calculators for example...). 
     I'm not so sure I can accept that though.  My friend (the resource specialist with whom I've been doing all of this) and I believe that our students can overcome their disabilities.  Yes, it is incredibly difficult for them, and yes, it will take some inventive strategies. But, the brain is an amazing organ.  It has the capacity to rewire itself, to create new pathways.  We just have to figure out how to generate those connections.  Will it be the same as normally functioning students?  No.  Absolutely not.  But can it be done?  I have to believe it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I AM

     I was talking with a friend today about the passage "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (John 14:6).  We were discussing the idea of a personal transformation that can be lived out every day, and I was led to think about a film I saw recently.  It is called I AM, and it is by a director named Tom Shadyac.  The film is rooted in the idea of personal transformation that can go on to change the world. 
     Here is a description of just that from the film's website:
...while he does explore what’s wrong with the world, the film’s overwhelming emphasis is focused on what we can do to make it better.  Watching I AM is ultimately, for many, a transformative experience, yet Shadyac is reluctant to give specific steps for viewers who have been energized by the film.  “What can I do?” “I get asked that a lot,” he says.  “But the solution begins with a deeper transformation that must occur in each of us.  I AM isn’t as much about what you can do, as who you can be.  And from that transformation of being, action will naturally follow.”

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Night Already Devoid of Stars

      Yesterday, after watching Americans flock to public spaces in celebration of Osama bin Laden's death, I posted a quote from Proverbs on my Facebook page: "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles. Proverbs 24:17"  A friend took issue with my post, saying that it was a judgmental use of scripture against those who would celebrate.


     I sent him an email, some of which said:
     It (my post) was intended, rather, as a reminder to be wary of our actions, both outward displays and also the inner actions of our hearts.  The fear and anger inspired by the (9/11) attacks, though justified, have been identified with one man.  That's what worries me most.  Osama bin Laden has been turned into an object of fear and hate (in much the same way that America has been objectified by al-Qaeda to represent vanity and excess), and I take issue with the objectification of any person, no matter the evil they may have committed. Objectification dehumanizes both parties, the one who has been objectified and the one doing the objectification. 

     What's more, if you take a look at what some of the families of victims are saying, this event brings no closure for them.  One more man's death does not bring a beloved family member back.  It doesn't rebuild the towers.  (And in my opinion it still doesn't justify ten years of war.) 

     Revenge is a childish reaction, as is taking joy in it, and for this reason I cannot say I am surprised that most of the revelers last night were college students.  It is much harder, but much more adult, to choose the path of forgiveness and mercy.  I am disappointed, yet not surprised, to see our country once again represented to the world as one of childish reactionary impulses. 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Let It Move You

I wrote this last summer after spending an afternoon talking about life with a old man named Nick.  He passed away this Fall, and I've only recently recorded this.  Click the link below to hear it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

At Least I Know I'm Free

     I had a conversation today with a dear friend of mine during which I expounded from the depths of my patriot heart upon the notion that the great democracy is standing in the doorway of decline. 
     "All empires eventually crumble," she said with a bated smile.
     "Sure, but there have been empires that were close to the brink of decay, yet underwent a resurgence of vitality.  We are the generation," I said to her, "that can make a change.  We are the new decision-makers." 
     "And what will our choice be?"
     Well right.  That's exactly the point.  We stand in the midst of a recession, staring almost powerlessly as our troops march into yet another war, while on our own turf we have an education system that seems almost beyond repair, and our integrity and self-worth are drowning in the rising tide of consumerism.  We are the generation, though, that can begin to change this country.  To bring it out of the jaw of recession, and despite what John Mayer might suggest, we can't afford anymore to wait on the world to change.  It is up to us to pull this country up by its bootstraps and make its citizens once again proud to be Americans.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reading (?) in the Car

     Ok, so I didn't actually pick up that dangerous habit.  I have however finished the entirety of Seven Years in Tibet in spurts during my commute to and from work for the past few weeks.  A while back I was at a thrift store, and to my great joy I discovered, or re-discovered I suppose, books on tape.  Given that my car is a particularly old and junky piece and still has an old selectively-functioning tape deck, I decided that rather than listening to the same five songs on the radio for an hour of my life every day, I would pick up a few of these inexpensive bits of nostalgia (yes, cassette tapes are nostalgic for me) and expand the literary region of my mind that has recently gone into atrophy due to a severe lack of me-time.
      I'd recommend reading the book if you're at all interested in Tibetan culture or history or religion.  It was fascinating, and written in a style to which I am not at all accustomed - long, narrative prose with no dialogue at all.  It seemed odd at first, but after a few minutes of puzzled distraction, I settled nicely into the story and was transported to the unforgiving mountains of Tibet and the windswept plateau on which the capital of Lhasa sits. 
     I'm excited to start my next set of tapes - Medieval Jewish philosophy of Maimonides.  Light reading, as always.
    

Monday, March 21, 2011

Working Catholic

Rather than writing a huge post about where God is in my life right now, I'm giving you a link to this New York Times article about Dorothy Day.  If I'm ever confused about where God might be in my life at the moment, I find it helpful to turn to the stories of those people whose lives were undoubtedly touched by God.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Here and Now

It's a problem of our time.  The range of human knowledge today is so great that we're all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him.  The lunchtime here-and-now stuff is a specialty too.
Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Monday, March 14, 2011

De-Electrifying Life

     I was recently reading an article by David Pogue in Scientific American entitled "Gadget Politics."  I can just see many of you tilting your heads, wondering why I, the perpetually humanities obsessed bookworm, would ever be reading something that has anything to do with science, but I'll remind you that I very nearly chose to spend four years studying higher level physics.  In any case, apologetics aside, the article addressed some issues that have concerned me for the past few years, but upon which I was neither articulate nor astute enough to remark. 
What’s going on here? Why do people work themselves into such a lather over their choice of phone, for heaven’s sake?
First, tech companies these days work hard to link their products to style and image. Those colorful, silhouetted dancing iPod ads never mention a single feature—except how cool it makes you. The message seems to be, “You’re not worthy if you don’t buy one”—and suddenly, if someone disses your gadget, they’re also dissing you as a person.
A second factor is that gadgets are expensive, and they quickly become obsolete. You become invested in the superiority of your purchase. People see you using it, judging your choice—so you defend your choice. Insult my gadget? You’re insulting me...
But why gadgets?
...the Internet effect. The kinds of people who peg their self-worth to their gadgets are precisely the kind of people who live online, where the standards for civility are very different from the real world’s. When you’re online, you’re anonymous, so you don’t experience the same impulse control you would if you were face-to-face with somebody.
Is there hope for a d├ętente in the electronics wars? Not as long as nobody knows your real identity online, as long as the gadget mill cranks out new models twice a year, and the marketing machines make us believe that our self-worth depends on the brands we carry.
David Pogue, March 2011
      I hadn't thought about it until Pogue pointed it out, but he's absolutely right.  The uneasiness I had felt about all the incessant gagetry in the world comes not only from the effects it has on person to person interaction, but from the effects it has had on self worth.  I see it every day in my students who constantly judge each other on who's got the best phone (despite the fact that they're not allowed to have them at school).  I've had several students comment on how expensive my MacBook is with an approving tone.  (Mind you, I only bought it because my PC died, so I decided to try a different operating system.  I couldn't care less about the brand; I just want a machine that works.)  This self worth thing is a pretty big problem though.  So long as Americans keep pinning their self worth on superficial things like technology and not on the dignity of personhood, our culture is going to continue its downward spiral of moral decay. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dirty Foreheads

     Every Ash Wednesday, I am always led to contemplate just why Catholics (and Episcopalians as I found out) come crawling out of the woodwork, even and especially those who don't practice during the rest of the year, to attend a religious service during which we literally smear dirt over our foreheads.  What is the appeal?
     Why are we so enthralled and compelled to get dirty?  Is it because it's one of the days that you get to take something away from Church?  (Let's remember that the other day that the church-going population spawns, aside from Christmas and Easter, is Palm Sunday, the day when we get to take home a few palm fronds.  Give the people free things, and they will come to your service.)   Or is it to show that we belong to the cool religious club?  To brag silently that we are better than the heathen we pass during the day who don't share our ashen marking and smugly nod to those of our brothers who do?
     There was a meditation in the Lenten Magnificat on Ash Wednesday entitled "Actors."  It reads:
It takes someone who knows and loves art to know how sad it is to cheat oneself by only pretending to know and love art.  It is the same with God.  Jesus is not angry with the Pharisees for their practices of prayer, alms giving, and fasting.  He is angry and sad because they are content to take their practices as evidence that they have genuine knowledge of his Father.  They are actors who have forgotten that they are playing a part.
I think the point is that the outward symbol of a smudge of ash on our foreheads is not actually meant for outside observers.  That smudge of ash on my forehead is not for the other people I encounter in the day - it is for me, a symbol of my own mortality and weakness.  If we go into the Ash Wednesday services, and the Lenten season for that matter, with a spirit of showmanship, i.e. look at all the fasting I'm doing, look at how holy I am, we're going in for the wrong reasons.  This season is an intensely personal time to reflect on our own lives and how they might become better. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Change of P(l)ace

From Terrier to Cardinal?
     After a few weeks of wondering whether or not I had somehow failed in my quest to obtain a Masters degree, I just received word yesterday that I have been admitted to Catholic University.  I celebrated with Megan and a glass of wine.  I'm still waiting to hear back from the University of Pittsburgh, but it feels nice to have a door open after so many windows have recently shut. 
     The news forces the question though - am I ready to haul out to Washington DC after just one measly year in Los Angeles?  Maybe it's time for another change of pace - away from the frenetic rush of teaching middle school 55 hours a week, and back into the steady churn of higher education.  The theoretical side of my brain has begun to atrophy.
     In any case, I now find myself with more than a few options.  Washington DC, Los Angeles, maybe Pittsburgh, and I have been considering moving to France to teach English.  I had been wondering what the right choice might be, and how to begin making that decision.  I have friends in all of those cities and a million external reasons to choose each place, so I wasn't sure how I would begin to make that choice.  Recently though, I had a few doors slam in my face - perfect timing really - so it seems that God is helping me to make this discernment about me.  I have a habit of making decisions based on other people rather than for myself, but I think this next year is clearly going to be about what I need. 

Monday, February 28, 2011

It Still Moves

     I just recently visited the Gene Autry museum of the American West, and I picked up a cheap book called "It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways and the Search for the Next American Music."  I'm inconceivably thrilled to read it.

     The book starts with the following epigram: "A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image."  - Joan Didion

     In the meantime I am plugging through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Chronicles of Narnia.

     Other suggestions??

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Capitalist National Treasure

Lake Mead and its dramatically falling water levels.   
     After having spent the last few days in Las Vegas, I could write about any number of social issues.  I could write about the dignity of women (and men), or lack thereof, in a city where people line the streets handing out prostitution business cards.  I could write about the unnecessary decadence in a city that draws its energy and water from resources that are being visibly depleted.  Take a look at the picture of Lake Mead, which lies behind the Hoover Dam.  Its water levels are dropping drastically due to shamefully wasteful practices in California, Arizona, and Nevada.  The once mighty Colorado River can no longer even make its way to the Pacific Ocean as anything more than a trickle.  I could write about the escapist behaviors that once set this city apart from the rest of the country but are now permeating American culture.  What happens in Vegas, after all, never really stays in Vegas.
     But truly, these are all things that I knew I would encounter in a town that proudly claims the title of Sin City, and as such I had no visceral reactions toward any of the nonsense.  Disappointment that Las Vegas is perhaps the city that is most indicative of American culture, yes.  But also somehow coupled with a sense of apathy. 
     I did get angry unexpectedly, however, upon trying to visit the Grand Canyon.  Perhaps ironic that events outside of Vegas actually got me more worked up than anything Sin City could muster.  My aunt and I decided to get out of the city and drive over to Arizona to see the West rim of the Grand Canyon which lies in the Hualapai Indian Reservation.  A foolproof plan, we thought.  We drove miles and miles and miles through the Mojave desert, surrounded by red rock and Joshua trees, and as we climbed higher into the mountains, by junipers and snow.  We drove carefully through 20 miles of unpaved mountainous terrain before reaching a road block.
     We were instructed to park and enter the visitor's center.  Evidently the tribe owns the land at Grand Canyon West, and they can charge whatever prices they want for people who want to ooh and awe at the magnificent natural land features.  They asked a paltry $45 per person to ride a shuttle the remaining few miles over to the rim.  And if you want to try out their SkyWalk, a glass bridge that extends out into the canyon so that you can look down into its mouth, well, you've got to fork over another $40.  Appalled, we turned around and drove away. 
This is the closest I was able to get to the Grand Canyon.
     I was disgusted with the idea that natural beauty should be commercialized like that.  As an AmeriCorps volunteer living on a stipend that comes to about $4/hour before taxes, I literally did not have enough money to see one of America's most distinctive features.  Here I was ready to be moved with awe at America's natural grandeur, my heart already swelling with national pride as we climbed into the mountains, and lo and behold, capitalistic nonsense shoves its foot right down America's throat. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bioethics

     Amid my recent apprehensions about the mind numbing pace of technological advances (go read the Time article about the singularity, and you'll know what I mean), a priest's homily gave me some perspective.  He told a joke.

     There were some biomedical engineers working in a lab, and one day after years of grueling work, they finally announced that they had developed a technique that allowed them to create life.  God came to them and said, "So you think you've found the secret, do you?"
"Yes, we now have the technology to create life.  Your services are no longer needed."
"Ok, prove it."
So they began mixing some mud and water together.
"What do you think you're doing?" asked God.
"We're creating life.  This is the first step," said the scientists petulantly.
"Ok well where'd you get the mud from?  That's my mud.  Get your own materials."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

From the City of Angels to the City of Sin

     I'm getting ready to go on an a weekend trip to check off a few more states on my list.  I'm going to visit my aunt in Las Vegas for a few days, and we're taking a side trip to the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.  Check and check! 
     As I'm packing and cleaning before leaving, I'm thinking about the monikers we give to our cities and what significance they might have. 

LA - City of Angels
NYC - Empire City
Vegas - City of Sin
Pittsburgh - Steel City
Detroit - Motor City
Chicago - Windy City

    What truth do they hold about the people who live there and/or the people that pass through?  It makes me giggle a little to think that the City of Sin lies in such close proximity to the City of Angels.  Perfect for those weekend getaways to blow off steam.  We've created something of a sacred geography in this country that fascinates me endlessly.
     I've never actually visited Las Vegas before, and I'm trying to withhold judgment, but I've a sneaking suspicion that it won't be my very favorite of the great American cities.  I guess I'll be looking to see what kind of things God is up to in Sin City, or if there's room for Him at all.  It very well might be that because that city needs Him the most, I might unexpectedly find His work in the cracks between the concrete. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Art of Journaling

     I recently found a creative writing journal of mine from senior year of high school, and I have to say that I'm rather impressed with my confidence and optimism.  One of my assignments in that particular class was to write an entry about where you saw yourself in 10 years. 
     "I hope to be an advocate for poverty awareness... I hope to be able to change people's opinions about third world countries.  With the current state of affairs in places like Darfur in the Sudan how can countries like the US remain unmoving?  It's so important to me that people become aware about what's going on in the world, and that we can all make a difference."

An Untitled Poem from High School
He has hands like yours.
He has a face, and hair,
and lungs, and a heart like yours.
He breathes, and he sweats,
and he coughs, and he bleeds,
and he cries like you.

But he is on the other side of the world,
so when he screams in pain
you cannot hear.
You close your ears to block out the sound
you don't want to hear.
And you sit on your couch,
on your cushy couch,
in your air conditioned life
where it is easy to forget.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Be Mine XOXO

Happy Valentine's Day! 

I bought flowers, dark chocolate, and red wine for my roommates today.  And I played Frank Sinatra while we were making dinner.  It was glorious.

Here are some snippets from my favorite love poetry:

SONNET 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

William Shakespeare
On Love
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep,
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
  Khalil Gibran
The Passionate Shephard to His Love

1 Come live with me and be my love,
2 And we will all the pleasures prove,
3 That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
4 Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

5 And we will sit upon the rocks,
6 Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
7 By shallow rivers, to whose falls
8 Melodious birds sing madrigals.

9 And I will make thee beds of roses,
10 And a thousand fragrant posies,
11 A cap of flowers and a kirtle
12 Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle:

13 A gown made of the finest wool,
14 Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
15 Fair lined slippers for the cold,
16 With buckles of the purest gold:

17 A belt of straw and ivy buds,
18 With coral clasps and amber studs;
19 And if these pleasures may thee move,
20 Come live with me and be my love.

21 The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
22 For thy delight each May morning;
23 If these delights thy mind may move,
24 Then live with me and be my love.
Christopher Marlowe

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hamburgers and Heart Attacks

It ain't that big. The whole United States ain't that big. It ain't that big. It ain't big enough. There ain't room enough for you an' me, for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat.
The Grapes of Wrath
      There is a homeless man named Mike who has been living at the end of our street.  One of my roomies and I thought it would be good to bring him some food a few days ago.  We went to Subway and ordered a meatball sub (we thought it would be good to get something warm since it has been getting rather chilly at night around here). 
     When we took it to him, he was definitely grateful.  We hadn't seen him in a few days, so we asked where he had been, and as it turns out Mike had just been released from the hospital.  He had had a heart attack a few days before, and someone had called an ambulance.  He's 58.  His diet consists of a daily pint of beer and a hamburger from Jack in the Box.  It's what he can afford.
     I've written before about the deplorable state of the American food industry, but it became all the more apparent to me after talking with Mike.  It's cheaper for Mike, and other homeless citizens like him, to get a daily meal from a fast food joint than it is for them to get fresh fruits and vegetables.  His diet leads to poor health, and then taxpayers have to cover his medical bills. 
     Something needs to change.  To my eyes, it's the food industry.  If we make fruits, vegetables, and whole grains cheaper, people (poor and wealthy alike) would be more likely to buy them, and we would alleviate an unthinkable number of the stresses on our healthcare system.  If we can't do it out of concern for the people who hurt the most from social ills, then surely Americans can begin to make changes out of concern for their taxdollars and pocketbooks.  

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Attitude is Everything

     This snippet came from the Sunday bulletin at the Catholic Church I've been going to:
Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.
Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, and pray continually.
Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass... it's about learning to dance in the rain.  It's not what you gather, but what you scatter that tells what kind of life you have lived. 
Life is too short to wake up with regrets.
Love the people who treat you right, and pray for the ones who don't.

Hope

There could be love.
     Jonas, The Giver

Monday, January 31, 2011

Teaching Literature Ain't For Wimps

     I just spent the day at a professional development meeting with my entire thirteen-school organization.  There were well over a hundred teachers present, all of us trying to figure out how to become better teachers.  I went to a workshop on teaching writing. 
     While the workshop I went to wasn't entirely riveting (it was actually pretty dry), it did get me thinking about how and why we bother teaching literature and reading.  Why does it matter what happened in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, or in The Giver.  I mean really - is it essential to the development and job readiness of these children that they know the details of plot and setting? 
     No, maybe not, but literature is about far more than learning stories.  It's about learning to think, learning to analyze and synthesize information.  In an age when information is readily accessible by a million and a half venues, some credible, many not, we have to find a way to teach students how to analyze information critically.  And that process starts in literature.  We learn and teach how to see and express the big ideas, how to find and support with evidential details.  And those aren't skills that get lost once students leave the classroom - critical analysis (not just literary) is a life skill.  The responsibility is daunting, but the necessity is irrefutable.

Not One Crumb Shall Go To Waste

     Uncharacteristically I made a rather impulsive buying decision last week.  Only about an hour after learning from one of my roommates that Amos Lee was playing at The Music Box, I walked the half a block and bought myself a ticket.  Now I'm not usually one to spend money unplanned, but I couldn't pass this concert up. 
     I went alone, and stood by myself as note after note floated from the stage and drenched the room in American-sounding harmonies.  His newly released album called Mission Bell made up the majority of the songs during the night.  I was surprised that so many of the songs were about God.  One song is even unabashedly called "Jesus."  I was even more surprised when the entire audience got into it.  It's got a strong beat and sounds something like an African spiritual.  And people danced.  They loved it.     
     I don't really have anything profound to say about the concert experience except that I found it refreshing that new music can be both creative and spiritual.  Recently it has seemed like you have to sacrifice one or the other - musical innovation or spirituality.  I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to find that they are not mutually exclusive. 
   

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

America's Heart

     I sat in with some of my 8th graders in their history class, and I discovered this gem from the past in their history textbook: 
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America's] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
John Quincy Adams Fourth of July Oration 1821
     Is Mr. Adams right?  Did America become the dictatress of the world, at the loss of ruling her own spirit?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bleeding Hearts and Iron Fists

       Looking around Hollywood you get a fairly decent picture of everything that is wrong with this country.  Not that I want to pin America's social ills on the entertainment industry, but Hollywood is a grotesque (as in distorted) microcosm of American culture.  You've got the glitz and the glamor of the walk of fame and the Kodak theater (home of the Academy Awards) next to the shamelessly prevalent strip joints, night clubs, and liquor advertisements.  The billboards are gigantic.  The lights flash constantly. 
     And the people - well you've got the girls who dress in 7 inch heels with 7 inch skirts, the guys who wander around boisterously yelling at the girls; you've got the drug addicts and sellers surreptitiously lurking in sketchy allies; you've got homeless men and women trying to rest their tired bones on cracked concrete sidewalks; and you've got the concerned believers trying to save them all with fear of damnation. 
     It's easy to look around and feel terrible for all the social injustice in the world, to feel sorry for the drunks and the drug addicts, to feel pity for the homeless.  It can also be easy to look at all the social wrongs and get angry, to get frustrated with the prominence of sexuality in advertising, to get aggravated with the people who seemingly won't take control of their own lives. 
     No matter your reaction, the question remains - can we fix America?  Which reaction is better?  A bleeding heart or an iron fist?  Do we seek mercy or justice? 
     The answer, of course, is a balance of the two.  We cannot look at them as opposite impulses.
Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; and justice without mercy is cruelty.
St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas basically summed it up in this system of equations: 
     Mercy - Justice = Dissolution
     Justice - Mercy = Cruelty
What do you get when you add them together, though?  In my humble estimation,
     Mercy + Justice = Love
     The best way to begin thinking about America's, and the world's, social wrongs is with love.  Love is constructive instead of destructive; it builds up rather than degrades.  And not only do we need to think about people with love, but also our country if it is to change.  I love America.  I love our tradition and our ideals, but I am not blind to the cracks in our bells of liberty.
     For more about the coextensive nature of justice and mercy, check this article out: Justice and Mercy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jack Kerouac, The Virgil to My Dante


This was written shortly before graduation last May:
So here I sit, thinking of Jack, my friend, who knows my heart better than anyone here.  Thinking in French, longing to curve my lips around la langue francais.  It is so beautiful, amorous. Compassion drips in the cave of my heart.  Drip drip drop stop.  Oh God.  I don’t know where I’m going and it’s scary a little, to sit and feel the heat against my skin.  I want to live again. Please God I want to live again. To scream tonight. At the top of my lungs if only you would hear my broken voice. I used to sing of you, and now I find that I have to remember the notes, struggle to push them from my throat until it’s raw.  Unnatural.  It is too much.  This life. These times when bombs go off and the world might end at any second.  Are we ready? We who sit in awe of natural creation. We who wander around this earth, with our shopping bags full of useless trash, on to the next thing already. We forget so quickly.  Haiti. Chile.  Turkey. China. We forget you.  You are gone. Only us. Only me. Only me.  Here we are, we humans, are we ready? For the end? Maybe. Together we will wait, and only together can we be ready.  We were made for each other.  Oh God, show us how to love.  Teach us how to comfort each other and teach us how to live, for life is precious and every moment holy.  Jack said that once.  He was right, that sage who drank himself to death.  But, God, how he loved life.  To the bitter end.  He savored it.  Not just tasted here and there.  God, he knew every nuanced flavor, and he savored them all.  Life is, God.  Life is good.  Life is.  Life is beautiful and tragic and we are here to feel it all and feel each other and give each other our lives.  I love.  I love you.  I love. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

We Can Never Be Satisfied

     Last Friday I showed Dr. King's Dream speech to my new after school theatre club.  They paid attention in varying degrees.  Some were entranced; some tapped their fingers in boredom; some couldn't get into it at all.  To be fair, these kids are at varying degrees of literacy - ranging from 2nd grade to 7th grade - and the speech's rhetoric goes over the heads of many adults.  And I showed them the whole fifteen minute speech, not just the iconic ending. 
     They knew though, the minute Dr. King began to say "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama..." the tone had changed.  Fingers stopped tapping; eyes stopped wandering.  One girl even emphatically said "Amen!" when Dr. King began saying "Let freedom ring..." 
     It was pretty moving to see my students, all of whom come from immigrant families, perform the speech after having watched it.  These kids deal with discrimination on a daily basis.  They live in an area of Los Angeles that is known as the Mexican barrio - its neighborhoods are ridden with poverty and gang activity - and their socioeconomic position puts them in a place never to overcome the challenges they face.  Many of their peers at other schools will drop out of high school (if they make it there at all), and very few of them will enter college.  My students have something of a better chance - our school demands a huge commitment from our students and their families.  Our charter organization is committed, in its very name, to uplifting the whole community.  We ask for involvement on all levels.  The idea is to foster an awareness of and appreciation for the good things that the Mexican barrio has to offer in order to help nurture students who will go on to college educations and then return to help change the community for the better. 
     I know these aspirations for our students are very difficult to achieve, and that kind of awareness does not come from one lesson, taught in one day, but instead from years of encouragement and motivated teaching.  I am hopeful however as I look around at my fellow teachers who all share my impassioned concern for not only our students, but also for our community and for our country.  These are the young people who will go on to make the next great American speeches that will change the country for the better, and make it a more welcoming, accepting, and loving land where freedom truly does ring from every hillside and mountaintop.  And we can never be satisfied, as Dr. King said, until that day comes. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Those Who Persecute You

     Last Sunday we had an intern gathering at the Hollywood house.  My roomies and I were each asked to lead a small Bible study with the others in attendance.  Having led a million of these in the past thanks to four years spent in the BU Catholic Center community, I of course had no qualms about it.  My group had a great discussion.  All four interns participated and shared views despite our differences.  We were practically finishing each other's sentences by the end of the short 25 minutes that we had.  I was super impressed with my fellow interns - this being the first real discussion I've had with anyone out here who seems to put as much thought and effort into their relationship with God as I do.
     The small group closed on a pretty awkward note however.  One of the members of the group, not one of the interns I should say, chose that particular moment to share some pretty negative sentiments toward the Catholic Church (ok, I've heard it before... this didn't surprise me too much), but she also had some rather negative things to say about Catholics in general.  These comments did surprise me - actually, "surprise" may be too light a word; "shock" may be more suitable.  She claimed that Catholics are not faithful like other Christian denominations and that we are close-minded because our Church does not accept homosexuality.  I didn't know whether to laugh at the absurdity of the claims (when is it ever valid to make such broad-sweeping generalizations?) or to defend myself and my faith (it hardly seemed like the moment or the place to get into an argument).  I took the middle ground and poked fun at her comments, to which she fired back some more antagonizing statements.  I let it go because we were running out of time, and I had to go play hostess.
     After having thought about all that transpired, I've found a bit of resentment, no... sadness, maybe even pity for this person.  Here she was claiming to be as Anglican and open-minded as they come, and yet she could not find it in herself to open her heart to her Catholic brothers and sisters.  To her, we don't know God.  To her, we prance around doing a lot of rituals, but don't understand their meanings.  And to some extent maybe she's right.  I read a study recently from the Pew Center that said that something like 70% of Catholics don't know that the eucharist is actually, truly God.  But I hardly think that these problems are limited to the Catholic Church.  I know people of all sorts of Christian denominations, some of whom talk to God on a daily basis, and some of whom look at me like I should be locked up in the crazyhouse when I start talking about the Holy Spirit.  The point is, Catholic or Anglican, Baptist or Methodist (I'm limiting myself to Christianity for now), we're all at different stages on our faith journey.  We're here to learn from each other and grow together, and I found it terribly ironic that this woman has such strong prejudices against some of her fellow Christians.  I suppose it fitting that the passage we had just read was the one from Matthew in which Jesus dispenses advice for dealing with adversity.  "Love your enemies," He says, "and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 4:44).

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Giver

     I've been thinking quite a bit recently about the idea of giving (in many different senses and for various reasons), and then it occurred to me that I should perhaps pick up a copy of The Giver since my students have to read it this year anyway.  Apparently I made it through American public schools never having read it.  How bizarre.
     It's rather different than John Steinbeck - no extravagant prose, no broad sweeping biblical themes, just simple, straightforward storyline that makes you question everything you know.  It's a quick read - I read for maybe an hour and am almost halfway through it - but it obliges concerted thought about how society functions.
     Pick up a copy and reread it if you get a chance.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

One Nation Free From Poverty


      This morning I woke up super early (my body still thinks it's on the East coast) and went for a run around Hollywood.  Almost immediately I passed a man who was curled up under the 101 overpass.  I nearly stopped to offer to run back home and bring him food, but he was sleeping.  I spent the rest of my run contemplating poverty in the United States.  How many people passed this man and didn't give him a second thought?  How many of those same well-adjusted citizens pat themselves on the back for donating to charities that send aid to third world countries?
     Not that tremendous need doesn't exist in places outside the US, but we Americans are very quick to turn a blind eye to the injustice that runs rampant in our beloved country. 1 out of 10 Americans lives below the poverty line.  The rate is higher in cities.  1 out of 3 people in Detroit lives below the poverty line.  The numbers are staggering.  And embarrassing.  We claim to be a nation of abundance, a country of hard work and innovation, a land of hope, yet a tenth of our citizens cannot make enough money to support decent lives.  
     Something is amiss, America, when a person who works full time for all 52 weeks of the year on minimum wage only makes about $14,000 a year, which puts them just above the poverty line... before taxes.  I don't claim to have the answers.  But I think the first step in beginning to resolve this problem is recognizing that it exists. 
One In Six

Thursday, January 6, 2011

City of Angels

     Upon my return to southern California, and reluctantly to work, I was greeted excitedly by the wonderful people who have become yet another family to me.  I had almost begrudgingly left Pittsburgh behind, and in fact gotten awfully sentimental about leaving my high school friends and family again.  It was something of a new experience for me, always the go-getter off on some kind of wild and crazy adventure, to feel a twinge of regret at leaving home. 
     There was a bit of apprehension building as well surrounding the notion of returning to hours upon hours of work with children who half the time pay next to no attention to a word I say.  Could I handle it again?  Did I want to handle it again?  Was I wasting my time?  Lots of these types of questions floated around my head as I sat on three different planes to get between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. 
     However, immediately upon arrival, I was picked up by a friend who made no resentful remarks about driving the 45 minutes out of her way to come and get me after a long day at work.  In fact, the car ride was a good way for both of us to catch up and decompress from stressful days.  Shortly thereafter, I returned home and was greeted by my roommates, one of whom actually made dinner for me.  Thanks Al!  What a lovely gesture that made my heart smile.  I was frazzled and had a million things on my mind as always, and the last thing I wanted to think about was scrounging up something tasty to eat.  I was perfectly ready to settle for bagged baby carrots and some Ramen noodles, but instead I was treated to a yummy poached egg in marinara sauce. 
     Today I reluctantly returned to work.  Right off the bat, even before I got there, one of my coworkers had to come and give me a ride, which she did without hesitation.  She was happy to see me, she said at 5:45 this morning.  One friendly face asked me if I was excited to be back at work, and I chuckled and said, "Debatable. Ask me at the end of the day."  Everyone laughed.  Throughout the day I was greeted by several coworkers with cries of "Welcome back!" or "Good to see you!"  One of my students walked into the classroom, flung her arms around me, and yelled, "Ms. D!  I missed you!  How was your break?!"  Later in the day, several students came to me to share stories about break and to rehash our inside jokes.  I was somewhat shocked that they were genuinely happy to see me.  Oh God, I thought at the end of the day, I may actually love my job.  Despite the day-to-day crazy and the ridiculous hours, this many good vibes just don't happen in every workplace. 
     Another coworker turned real friend gave me a ride home, and we ended up sitting in the car for another forty minutes catching up from the break.  You know, I had heard that people call LA the city of angels, but I hadn't figured out until now that the moniker doesn't refer to any superabundance of golden cherubs that flit about the city.  I have only to look to the wonderful people who surround me to find that this city really is full of angels. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

On Commodities and Language

I woke up early a few days ago and picked up a book of Emerson that sat next to my bed.  I had forgotten how much I used to love him. 
The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Aeolus's bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat. To diminish friction, he paves the road with iron bars, and, mounting a coach with a ship-load of men, animals, and merchandise behind him, he darts through the country, from town to town, like an eagle or a swallow through the air. By the aggregate of these aids, how is the face of the world changed, from the era of Noah to that of Napoleon! The private poor man hath cities, ships, canals, bridges, built for him. He goes to the post-office, and the human race run on his errands; to the book-shop, and the human race read and write of all that happens, for him; to the court-house, and nations repair his wrongs. He sets his house upon the road, and the human race go forth every morning, and shovel out the snow, and cut a path for him.
...
The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, -- and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, and make others believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature. But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dear 2010,

(This may be a bit belated, but I think it may still be worth while to post.)

     You were an extraordinarily eventful year, one from which I learned and grew more than I ever realized was possible.  You filled my plate constantly, 2010, with opportunities for leadership, service, travel, and love.  You started off not with a whimper, but with a bang in Chicago with the wonderful Sam Smith and Leo and Mary Gameng.  Mary and I made a list of resolutions for you, my dear 2010, that I don't think either of us entirely kept.
     Then, despite the wearying work that came in January and February, you afforded me the beautiful opportunity to help lead a community in reigniting their passion for prayer on the Get in the Game retreat, a retreat that I reluctantly agreed to direct and in which I subsequently invested my whole heart.  My team members, Rich, Elise, Rochelle, Gabby, and Matt, and their dedication and tireless work were etched on my heart.
     March and April brought about the last InnerStrength Gospel Choir concert and the final production of Everyman, two performances drenched in very different memories.  With these shows, 2010, you brought me into contact with some of the hardest-working and fastest-trusting people I have ever known.  You taught me a deeper appreciation of the value in perseverance, trust, and honesty with each rehearsal.
     2010, in May you drew a four-year odyssey at Boston University to a close.  I said "so long," but not "goodbye" I hope, to many professors and to many friends.  You saw me bind and present my senior thesis, the culmination of years of the study of religion and literature.  I finished work at Orientation amid roars of laughter and counted the many blessings my coworkers had been to me.  And, in May, you brought a truly terrific group of friends to Montreal for a few celebratory days that I don't think any of us will soon forget.
     In June and July you allowed me to stay in Boston to spend time with some wonderful people who stood with me, sat with me, cried with me, and mostly laughed with me as I struggled through numerous sets of life-plans.  As it turns out, my best friend for the summer, the irrepressible Jonny Snow, became a best friend for... well, more than the summer.  Just can't seem to get rid of him (lucky me).  I spent our nation's birthday in historical Philadelphia and reconnected with other best friends, Genna, Emily, and Jason.  You brought me also to Walden Pond twice, with Sam and Erin, there to "live deliberately" and read my dear friends Whitman and Thoreau.  Summer 2010, you were a lesson in simplicity and joy.
     You filled my heart with hope in August, 2010, though you probably laughed when you saw me scream as I got a tattoo.  You told me that my future road lay in Los Angeles, and I prepared to say "so long" to my beloved Boston, the city I had called home for four years.  In August, you also brought me to my heart-home in Pittsburgh to celebrate with Kelly and Ryan as they said their marriage vows, and allowed me to travel to a farm in the mountains of West Virginia to visit an old friend and meet many new ones.  And then, 2010, you saw me pack my life in a few cardboard boxes and fly 3,000 miles into the golden American West to begin a new adventure.
     2010, in September you provided me with work and with a community that has definitely been "getting things done for America."  You saw me learn that I could teach as you threw me headfirst into a gang-ridden Los Angeles school.  You also saw me learn fitfully to drive a stick shift on the LA freeways.  And, 2010, you opened my heart in a new way to ecumenism by allowing me to live at St. Stephen's with three beautiful new sisters, Lucy, Allison, and Megan.
     In October, 2010, you brought me to San Jose to celebrate the wedding of my dear friends, Floyd and Rochelle.  You also blessed me immensely, 2010, by bringing my Sister Olga to Los Angeles.  You continued to teach me about steadfast dedication, since our school year is a marathon and not a sprint, and you watched me run my first 5K in seven years at the end of October, 2010.
     November brought me to Joshua Tree National Park for a weekend of hiking, climbing, running, and camping under the desert stars, and home to Boston to visit many wonderful friends.  You smiled on me and sent me to Santa Barbara for a community retreat on my birthday, 2010, where I learned a new way of looking at my faith and discovered a new reason for my year of service.  Then you afforded me the opportunity to give thanks with a bunch of hippies at Slab City, and Amy Donnelly of course, for health, for friends, and for life.  You brought Colleen to LA at the end of November, and reminded me to take a chill pill and frolic at the beach every once in a while.
     And then, 2010, in your old age, you continued to teach me about community and the value of simple conversation.  December saw me have several thousand "Catholic moments" throughout my favorite season of the year, Advent.  We lit our candles and prayed together, and knitted together, and cooked together, and laughed together, and the heart of our community grew several sizes that way.  You watched me adventure another 2,000 miles west to Hawaii with my dear friend Shelysa to spend Christmas with a wonderful adoptive family.  And finally, in your last days, 2010, you again brought me to my beloved Pittsburgh to reconnect with family and old friends, to reminisce about where life has brought us thus far, and to look forward with great hope to the adventures that lie ahead.
     2011, you have some big shoes to fill, but I think you are up for the task.
          With a grateful heart,
          Anna