Thursday, August 14, 2014

Yours, Mine and Ours

“Mine” and “thine” – these chilling words which introduce innumerable wars into the world…

-        John Chrysostom

A rare cool morning in summer, I take Eli outside to rock with me in our disintegrating porch swing.  He is fussy over the fat front teeth pressing through his tender gums and I stroke his blond waves and croon, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…so hush little baby, don’t you cry.”  There is a melancholy breeze whispering that contradicts and compliments the gentle, sparkling, sunshine; a parallel to this song’s uplifting lyrics set to a blue melody that makes you wonder, “One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing, spread your wings, and take to the sky.  Until that morning, ain’t nothin’ can harm you, with Momma and Daddy standin’ by.”

I too am feeling the paradox of joy and sorrow, relishing this sweet moment with my precious baby on a beautiful day, while my heart is heavy, conscious of those for whom the livin’ is far from easy. Thousands are dead in Gaza, and for those that live, each day is a terror.  I am constantly imagining the minds of mothers there.  What do you do when you see your child dead or wonder if this might be the last day that they live?  What do you do when even hospitals and designated shelters aren’t safe and playgrounds are potential targets?  I heard a story of the US restocking Israeli munitions so that such attacks could continue and felt my stomach turn and a scream get stuck in my throat.  How can destroying one person’s life be seen as a way to support another?

I think with shame of buses full of children and mothers who are not much more than children, who have escaped the threat of gangs forcing them to kill or be killed, who endured a traumatic journey through hostile countrysides and deserts, only to be taunted, terrorized and threatened and locked away  in a place where they sought sanctuary.  

Earlier, when harvesting okra in our backyard, I remembered the Pakistani man who came to the US with his two children to testify about the death of his mother.  She was killed by a US drone while teaching her young granddaughter and to pick okra.  Her grandson was nearby.  He says he prefers cloudy days now, sunny days fill him with fear and anger, on sunny days drones buzz like summer bees and steal lives with their stings.  I squint at the cheerful blue sky above and kiss Eli’s hands and hair, reluctantly loosening my hold as he grabs at the chain of the swing and tries to pull himself to standing.  It’s hard to accept a society where some are expected to learn to call those most precious to them, “collateral damage.”

A creeping anxiety has begun to sneak into the evening.  It is especially troublesome when Ted is away and I think of something happening to him or to Eli.  Are we any more deserving of safety, are we any less vulnerable than the neighborhood family who just lost their three-year-old daughter?  She was even at home, yet a bullet still found her from the street.  My dreams take a dark turn.  I see my sister and nephew in pools of blood and am horrified and haunted even when the morning light leans warmly in, sending bouncing rainbows from the prism hanging in the window.  They are not just numbers to me but devastating loss of dear loves that will never be forgotten or recovered.

The next morning I sit nursing Eli with the radio on in the background.  Another young, unnarmed black man, has been shot by the police.  A friend whose staying with us tells me this happens far more than is reported, usually the media grabs hold of it when there is a community response that can add dramatic flare and detract attention from the violence and corruption infecting our police forces.  I hear the voice of this young man’s mother break as she relates the story of seeing his body, which had been left for hours in the street.  Instead of being given an explanation by the police, she is cursed at and driven away.  “He was my first born,” she says and tears run down my face as I nourish my own firstborn.  I wrestle with the awareness that because he is not brown and does not live in the Middle East, his chances of having the opportunity to spread his wings and take to the sky are significantly higher.  What good is it for Mommy and Daddy to be standing by when others don’t believe in your life’s worth?

That night Eli will not stay asleep.  Ted and I give up and let him stay up with us.  We’d been attempting an in-house date night, dinner and a movie, but welcome the interruption and expansion of the evening into family date night.  I am grateful that we are all together, and laughing and tuck away each moment as a treasure.

When we finally get to bed I think of God.  A part of me wants to be angry or unbelieving.  But overriding these reactive feelings is a shared sense of sorrow.  I meet God’s presence not with any accusation or pleading but with empathy.  I think of my own heavy sadness and imagine how much more the mother-heart of God must weigh as she witnesses her babies killed and killing and longs to gather them all under her wing and sing, “Hush, little baby, don’t you cry.”

I find myself grasping for hopeful threads to weave as I move forward through the days that continue to open, signs that will free me to be joyful and challenge me to be constructive in my conscientiousness, responsive and responsible.  I am uplifted by the actions of a group of friends who went to Syracuse to confront the Hancock Airforce base that launches drones.  They served an order of protection on behalf of the children of Pakistan and were arrested but later released with future court dates that will grant them the opportunity to continue their witness and resistance to these “targeted strikes” that continue to strike down wedding parties, goat herding youths and grandmothers. I am encouraged by my friend who started Because, I Love Peace, which shares updates about the tragedies in Iraq, but also accounts of the efforts of those bringing relief services through the Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middles East (FRRME). I am heartened to see the governor in my current home state gathering religious leaders and congregations together to consult and come up with a plan to help house and care for migrant children who have come to the U.S. seeking refuge and reunion with family.  Governor O’Malley is not only seeking available institutions but inviting individuals and families to play a role and offer foster care.

 In this morning’s daily readings the gospel selection (Matt. 18:15-20) contains an interesting juxtaposition.  Jesus talks about the reconciliation process to be practiced if “your brother sins against you.” If you are not able to work things out quietly, “bring one or two others, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”  A few verses down, Jesus seems to switch gears, saying, “whatever you bind on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” and “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”  It seems like a non-sequitar unless the repetition of “two or three” indicates that this is not merely a matter of filing a complaint or making a request but being in a reconciliation process with God akin to the one described above.  This indicates a condition not only of being heard but of listening, a need for mediation and interaction in which we are also required to allow God to ask something of us.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tough Jobs and the Joyful Futlity of Work without "Value"

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money.  By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market.  The time will come when they will sell you even your rain.  At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. 

Thomas Merton, from “The Rain and the Rhinoceros.”

A few weeks ago I saw a 60 Minutes re-run that was new to me.  The final segment was the beautiful story of a symphony orchestra in Kinshasa, in the Congo.  It is the only orchestra in the Congo, the only orchestra in the world with all black members, the result of a project started by an airplane pilot whose business went bust.  But there’s no business angle in the musicians’ passion for Beethoven.  The orchestra does not get paid.  Many work in the markets trying to make what little income they can.  Many have children.  A few are children or young adults anyway.  Two brothers who are vocalists live ten miles from where rehearsals are held six days a week.  They travel ninety minutes each way, mostly walking.  Asked when they started with the orchestra, they give the exact date, November 8th.   It is ingrained in their memory because, as they say, “it’s like a birth for us in this symphony orchestra.” 
One of my first thoughts as I watched video of these boys’ daily “commute” (what would amount to an intense hike for me) was, “how can they do this without getting paid?”  It was a question both of motivation and of sustainability.  Why would they do it, and how can they spend this significant time and energy on something that doesn’t make them money? A professional musician from Germany who was inspired, after watching a 2011 documentary about the orchestra, to travel with a few others to Kinshasa to help with their training came into the story echoing my own thoughts:  “It is difficult to relate,” She says, “people from our country wouldn’t do this.”  An NPR writer reports, “They tackle difficult pieces… out of sheer love.”

I realized that my questions belie the internal, often unrecognized paradigm that’s developed from living in a profit-driven culture.  I have been thinking lately of the pre-eminence, the god-like quality that Economy holds in our country and in the global west; perhaps most everywhere. Crimes against the earth are excused as sacrifices to Economy: the ravaging scars of extraction and war.  Crimes against humanity too: jobs that degrade the body and spirit, disregard for those who “don’t contribute” to or who “drain” the system.  Work and living things of all kinds attributed worth in direct relation to their monetary potential.

What is left in our lives that we do “out of sheer love?”  I don’t mean hobbies and entertainment that we work into our “free time” (another monetary designation?).  And I don’t mean those fortunate few who get paid to do work that brings them joy and fulfillment.  I mean, what do we ever choose to dedicate days, weeks, lives to for sheer love?

Around the same time that I saw that 60 Minutes piece, I saw a youtube video that was circulating on Facebook.  It was of a fake ad circulated by Mullen advertising agency in Boston.  The job position was called “Director of Operations.”  As applicants interviewed they were given a list of responsibilities and expectations: “constantly on your feet…constantly exerting yourself,” “no breaks,” “you can have lunch but only after your client has eaten,” “requires excellent negotiation and interpersonal skills,” “sometimes you have to stay up all night,” “no vacation.”  The applicants were uniformly appalled, “that’s almost cruel,” one said, “all encompassing,” complained another, “inhumane!”  And finally, when the interviewer clarified, “The position is going to pay absolutely nothing,” the response was, “No one would do that!”  And here the interviewer plays his trump, “What if I told you there was someone who already works in this position?”  The interviewees shock transforms to a mix of laughter and tears as the interviewer says who that person(s) is, “Moms.”

It may very well be true that Motherhood is, as the title of the fake-ad asserts, “The World’s Toughest Job.”  But more amazing than the fact that women (and I don’t want to ignore Father’s and other significant care-givers and partners, but this is Mother’s Day folks) do dedicate their lives to this “job,” and very few bother to stop and estimate how much money it’s worth or what title it would have in the working world.  Motherhood is one of the last vestiges of work that is deemed intrinsically valuable in the global West.  Perhaps some people don’t feel that it is really respected, but that hasn’t stopped moms from mothering.  No doubt there are economist studying its worth in terms of contributing to national wealth, but I don’t know any moms who’ve felt the need to consult those studies before deeming mothering their children to be a worthwhile endeavor.  My sister aptly called it, “life without weekends.”  Why would we do it?  Because, as a friend and fellow-mother commented, we are “forever in love,” with these lives that took shape in us and continue to be shaped by us.  It is something that we do for sheer love and it gives me hope.