Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Street Talk ((sorry folks, this is a long one!))

Sunday night I went to see Where the Wild Things Are. I went alone and was thus fully engaged in the film and in the feelings it conjured. I thought a lot about perception, about family and loneliness, rejection and disappointment. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers remind an adult of what it feels like to be a kid. They remind an adult that what we brush away as little things, to the child are everything. The loss of a golden moment (when your experience of moments has been so brief) is like the loss of years and rejection from a loved one is like being abandoned by the population of the world. I thought about my ten year old brother Sam who, when he and our sister were running for “house president,” had a campaign platform that promoted “everyone doing everything together, in the same room, at the same time.” We laughed about it then and it grieves me that I did not respond to it as an expression of his longing for communion. I began to wonder, as I’m prone to, why I am here in Chicago when the rest of my family remains clustered together; one bunch far to the west, the other to the east.

Walking out of the theater I continued to gaze in the direction my inward eye had turned while remaining awake to the life of the surrounding night. Enclosed in thoughts, I still felt the cool soft air and watched, as if from a distance, the people moving about me. I was the center of my universe, the one intrusion being my inability to decide whether or not I could justify buying myself a cup of hot chocolate. I didn’t want to go home and be interrupted by ordinary life. A warm beverage would be good company to wander down to the lake with me.

I was interrupted; not by ordinary life (at least not as I know it) but by Francis. He and another man were sitting in bulky coats and ball caps, hunched on a bench a few steps in front of me. The bench faced the street, but Francis had angled himself toward the sidewalk so that he could hail passersby for spare change.
“Hey girl, where did you learn to walk like that? That stride.” It took me a minute to understand the question; he spoke with a mumbled slur. When I did understand I still didn’t know how to answer.
“Um, I just, ha, I don’t know.”
“Well, my name’s Louis and I sure would appreciate 80 cents, or more if you’ve got it.”
“Sure,” I said, handing him a dollar.
“Do you have another one of those?”
I laughed, and pulled out another. “You rascal. What was your name again? Louis?”
“It’s Francis.”
“Here, it’s on my bracelet, I just got out of the hospital.”
I asked why he had been in the hospital and he said it was for epileptic seizures. I assumed this meant seizures induced by an overdose or an inadvertent detox, especially because he smelt strongly of alcohol.
“Are you okay now?” I asked.
“Am I okay? No, not really. Not sick I guess but I’d be a whole lot better if I had a bed. Or a roof over me.”
I nodded, not sure how to respond, wondering what a Catholic Worker would do in this situation. Somehow we came around to talking about me going to school. I said I was going to Loyola.
“That’s where we were!” Francis exclaimed, explaining that he had studied Dance, Theater and Creative Writing and that his brother--he indicated the man sitting next to him--had studied History. Up to this point the brother, (who’s name I later learned was “Frank, frankly”) had remained facing the street. He looked like he wasn’t listening, like he was beyond caring about anything at all. But when I mentioned my class on Day and Merton he turned and asked, “Dorothy Day and who?” and continued to quiz me on the life and times of Thomas Merton. Francis kept interrupting us and even grabbed my wrist once, like a child impatient for his mother who is ignoring him while she finishes a conversation.
“Hey, we are trying to have a discussion,” Frank says, “I am talking to my friend Amy here, stop touching her.” Frank indicated that his brother was “the town drunk” and continually responded to him as one who was perpetually, affectionately annoyed.

Francis did get my attention when he abruptly asked me if I was going to become a nun.
“Oh, I don’t think so; it does seem to come up a lot though. I don’t know. Some people even have a problem with me thinking about becoming Catholic.”
At this Frank rejoined us, saying that denominations don’t matter, that I shouldn’t let anyone discourage me as long as I was believing in Christ and following his Way. He continued quietly but emphatically in this way and I don’t know why but I could feel that tears were beginning to form in my eyes.
“There are two great commandments,” Frank said, “do you know what they are?”
“Love God as your—no, love your neighbor with your whole heart—I mean—“ my hands were rummaging through the air as they often do but they provided no assistance in finding the words I knew that I knew.
“You can’t quote it?”
“It’s in Matthew, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.’ You do these things, and you aren’t gonna break any laws that matter.” He told me about a church he and Francis had just gone to, asking if I had heard of it. I had not.
“It’s just at the end of the block,” he said, “Here,” he reached out his hand and I took it and we walked to the corner. It was little store front catty-corner to a coffee shop I frequent with a hand-written sign posted in the window announcing days and times when the fellowship would be gathered.
“They aren’t fire and brimstone,” he said, “they’re all right. They do get excited though and might want to lay their hands on you.” I laughed and nodded.
“That’s good too though,” he added, “they aren’t fire and brimstone about things. My back was hurting real bad and they laid hands on me and it’s better. They pray for him a whole lot,” he smiled wryly and pointed to his brother, “they really pray for him.”
We talked a little longer and then they said, “Well, we’ll quite holding you up, let you get out of the cold,” though they would not be getting out of it anytime soon.
A wiry bedraggled woman approached as I was getting to ready to leave, cursing up a storm and casting it on Frank. Then she saw me, “Oh honey, you know I was just joking.”
“I know.” I said. There were hugs all around and I went on my way.

Not even two blocks down the road I walked past a couple of men who were standing next to each other. One was leaning on a fence, about as thin as one of its rails, holding a briefcase and talking on his cell phone; he closed the phone as I walked past.
“Aye!” He called after I’d passed.
“Hey” I said, turning to face him while still moving.
“Can I just—I don’t want anything—can I just offer you a compliment?”
“Um, sure.”
“I saw you walking up this way. I was on my cell phone, on a long distance call and I had to tell them to wait after I saw you. You are beautiful.”
“Oh. Hm. Ha, thanks.”
“I don’t mean anything by it—I am just giving you a compliment—when I see something, I tell it like I see it. And you are, not just in your face. Something about you that comes out.” He continued in this fashion for what seemed like a very long time. His name was Antonio and though he “didn’t mean anything by it,” he did want to know if he could buy me anything, if he could give me his number, if I had a boyfriend. I responded no to all but the last. It was a lie but one I find myself speaking more frequently, almost automatically.
“How long have you guys been together?” Oops.
“Oh, uh, not very long.” I just made him up in fact.
“Well you tell him—I’m sayin’, make sure he knows—because you really are—“
“I am going to tell him he better appreciate what he’s got!” I said laughing and walking away again. The exit wouldn’t be so easy, several more calls of “Aye!” and me turning, and him reminding me of what I need to say and to “be careful.” I eventually made it out of ear shot. After Antonio, I thought I should probably skip the lake.

I walked home feeling exhilarated, suffused with an intense energy of the kind that I sometimes feel after an enlightening class or an engaging conversation or noticing a small beautiful thing I’d overlooked before. Back at the apartment I gave Anne a rough outline of my encounters.
“It’s weird that these random people are always talking to you.”
“Yeah. It is a little. I must have some kind of air of approachability or something.”
“Yeah. It’s weird.”

I was wondering if the mark of openness (or the sign that said "sucker" however you prefer to think of it) was on me tonight as I walked down Sheridan toward Loyola's campus. A trio of men in big jackets were huddled together in front of Chipotle, talking in loud erratic tones. As I walked past, one hailed me, "Aye!"
"Can I ask you someth--oh, girl, you are beautiful."
"Thanks." I was not comfortable with this man. He was too young, standing too close. He said something about my eyes and my "face structure," and I backed off a little.
"Hey. Hey. I am hungry."
"You want me to buy you a burrito?"
We turned toward the building and walked past his friends who were surprised and irritated at his successful conquest, "What? You got to be kidding me!"
"Shut up," he said to them, then to me, "those are my friends." I just shrugged at them and smiled.
"What's your name?"
"I'm Amy, what's yours?"
"My name is Temple…Yeah, I don't know why my mom named me that. Kinda crazy. Do you think it's crazy?"
"It doesn't seem crazy to me."
He was difficult to understand, evidently intoxicated, talked a lot and was pushy. He kept asking the girl preparing his burrito why she was mad at him and telling her she had a nice smile. After a few minutes she stepped away and told one of her male co-workers to take over. When we finally got to the register I paid and he asked me for some of the change.
"No." I said, "I need it. The burrito is for you, this is for me." He thanked me and I left quickly.

I continued down the sidewalk in a bemused state. What am I doing? Why does this keep happening? What I began to realize is that what is happening around me is not unusual or even different. What is different is my response. I went to the campus chapel wanting to sit in silent contemplation; not making requests, not trying to figure anything out. A student was practicing the organ in the balcony and someone else up there was playing "Mary had a little lamb" on the piano. I laughed at myself and the context. Truly there can be no perfect place of quiet except within a disciplined mind and devoted heart. But this place was good and I had a few moments of communion before the thoughts of whether what I had done was "good" and helpful or just "nice" and potentially harmful came crashing back in. I thought of Jesus saying, "give to anyone who begs of you." There are no qualifiers attached to that statement, but how to apply it when you live in a city like this? Do I have enough for everyone? And when he said "give" does that mean, give what they ask of you, or just give something? I avoided following through with the questions that surfaced and sounded something like, "What would Dorothy Day/Peter Maurin/Thomas Merton do?" knowing well my potentially disastrous proclivity to make heroes of humans I admire.

I left the chapel to make my way home but then stopped at a statue of Mary that stand in the courtyard of St. Ignatius church. Aesthetically, I don’t like the statue. Yet, I am frequently drawn to the aura of sweetness, simplicity and warmth that hangs about it. Sitting on a bench that faced her I said,
"I want to be good and do right, will you help me?" Then I laughed at myself again for being so vulnerable to spiritual sentimentality and continued toward home.

Only a couple more blocks to my apartment and still my mind was grappling with an amorphous opponent. I thought of myself confronting the man for having spent whatever he had on alcohol, or telling him I would get him something if next time I see him he is sober. But that was not a satisfying rewrite to our meeting. The image of that girl behind the counter, so uncomfortable, resurfaced. What I could have done differently? I imagined telling the man to settle down, that he was acting inappropriately. I imagined a scene in which someone confronted me for bringing him in there and asked if I even knew his name. That question interrupted my dramatization; did I even give him the dignity of an introduction? I couldn't remember, but then, yes. Yes, I asked him his name. His name was Temple.

The instant his name came to me, my feet stopped moving and I was still. His name was Temple. My mind reached for a scripture I could not remember and found instead a quote from Peter Maurin I had read earlier this afternoon. He had been in Chicago, visiting an underground railroad where homeless men had taken shelter, Maurin addressed them saying, "You are in fact ambassadors of God." We are all, in essence, image bearers of the Divine. How much grief and glory are held captive in that phrase!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A reflection written Oct. 9, 2009

Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, which seems very strange. I can only hope and pray it acts as a kind of cornerstone, continually forming him in the way of peace. The timing is interesting as tonight the Roger's Park Catholic Worker house is hosting a round-table discussion about the role of peacemakers in our present context. Some of the following questions come to mind: how long do we wait for Obama to make good on his promises regarding Guantanamo Bay and Iraq? What about Afghanistan, can all that is transpiring there be considered actions of a "just war"? Is there such a thing as a "just war"?

As I write this my mind keeps revisiting the image of a night when my family was at a lake house visiting with missionary friends on furlough from Spain. Sitting around a campfire, I don't remember if we were listening to a radio or just talking but I know the topic was war. Desert Storm had just been initiated the grown-ups were in the house and we kids were making planes of sticks and dry leaves that we would toss into the fire to be devoured in flame. I remember a mixed sense of unease, sadness and excitement. That is my first memory of war, so distant and safe. Yet, that is probably the most connected I have ever felt to one. It was very present in my mind and in the conversations of those around me. I don't remember people close to me either trying to condone or condemn it. I do remember my younger brother Jonathan, who could not have been more than six or seven, writing a journal entry about trying to love Saddam Hussein and get him to love Jesus and change his ways. He believed that was the only true way to reach a healthy resolution.

My general reaction to war has tended to be avoidance, even in films and conversation. I have always been disturbed by films about war or even action film scenes of vast destruction, not only because of the violence, though that is troubling in itself, but also because of the sense of aching futility and tragic waste. Despite feeling ill at ease and unhappy with questions that feel too wide to be narrowed into words I do little. Resigned to a deeply ingrained pragmatism I find the cry of my heart easily muffled and brushed aside by the louder voices asking, "Well, what else can we do?" I have no answer that sounds intelligent or practical enough to be worth voicing. So, I listen, and leave the decisions up to those who do. This does not relieve my responsibility.

In, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, Day and the Catholic Workers are cited as seeing, "militarism, totalitarianism, fascism, and communism as the outcome of centuries of pragmatism and practicality...the state being elevated..." Economist John Kenneth Gilbraith, in his book The Good Society, theorizes that elevation of the state is exacerbated and reinforced through the population of affluent nations (i.e. the United States and Europe) buying into a lifestyle that demands the assistance of the state.

Thus, I am implicated in activating the war machine not only by my reliance on practicality and pragmatism but by, however much I may verbally protest, engaging in a manner of eating, dressing, traveling and general living that stimulates state regulation. A transactional relationship is established in which I become the debtor and thus diminish my power. How does one extricate oneself from such a system? There is the option of "hobo-ing it" which has an appealing dramatic flair, but in the end continues to rely a great deal on the affluence of others. Besides, that option (as with many means of "going off the grid") risks resulting in isolation and alienation, a step I am reluctant to take as a professing Christian. Where is the love in that?

Though I won't pretend it is perfect or even that I perfectly understand it, I am drawn to the Catholic Worker response to this conundrum; addressing the immediate needs the community is confronted with--feeding the hungry, comforting the lonely, confronting injustice--while persistently working toward a long-range plan that "gives the worker ownership of the means of production" (Day), and "makes our world an easier place to be good" (Maurin).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Experiments with Truth

Alone on Monday morning, I am still in Texas and the friend I am visiting is at work. I am reading the bible and thinking about what has been unfolding in my life: the gift of my pen-pals, the state of the world, the Catholic Worker movement, the events of this weekend. I feel a bit disgusted at the excess I have indulged in over the past few days: beer, chocolate cake, and meat everyday, crude talk and no exercise, prayer or meditation. I wonder, when is it appropriate to accept differences and when to stand on principle and confront them? I find I do significantly more conforming than confronting.

My quandary about how to treat my meat-eating is an example of that. I do not want being a vegetarian to stand in the way of receiving hospitality, particularly because I am not sure I am opposed to eating meat per se, but to the way it is produced and processed, the treatment of the animal and the people along the way. Then, I think of Gandhi who rigidly refused milk even when told it could cure his deathly ill child. The religious teaching he aligned himself with was against eating of any animal product and he stood firmly to that. His decision seemed so narrow and foolish to me when I first read of it. Yet, it was that type of hard-nosed adherence to conviction that put him in a position to shake the world, one consistently principled step at a time.

Sometimes I feel that the religious life is for me not because I am especially religious, but because it is the only place I can safely and acceptably practice the lifestyle I am inclined toward. It is the only way I can practice this lifestyle without being an embarrassment to myself and an offense to others. This line of thinking begs the question, why so much attention to avoiding offense? The prophets offended others and brought derision on themselves as did Jesus and all the disciples who have followed his Way, knowing that the sincere love they share will not always be received as such. This is a hard truth. I had comfortably turned away from it for a moment, but it is always hanging in my periphery, occasionally sliding around to stare me down. I do not know how to respond. It is so much easier to be nice than to be good.