Archive | May, 2012

Walleyed perspectives

19 May

OK, so I know that in the last blog I had declared myself fully in the spirit of being sans keyboard during our mission trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. That this would aid greatly in my immersion in the immediacy of the experience, rather on the work site or in cross-cultural discussions.

But as of yet, we’re still at the Day’s Inn in Rapid City, waiting for the van to pick us up — so the only immersion that’s occurred was me in the motel hot tub, in cargo pants at that. (Improvisation is at the heart of every SEND trip.)

And the computer is sitting here in the lobby, with a sign saying Adults Only, and I figure I am one — and I’ve got time to kill while my cargo pants are in the hotel dryer.

Besides, I want to tell you about last night.

So I was sitting in Northern Lights, a little Minneapolis airport grille with a massive wood carving of howling wolves out front, when the lady to my left overheard me ordering the walleye sandwich.

She expressed her approval, and I explained that back east the fish sandwich options were centered more on halibut, cod and scrod.

She then volunteered that she had just been in Panama City, as her t-shirt indicated, and she’d had grouper for the first time, at a place called Captain Anderson’s.

Which, as coincidence would have it, was the first place where I had grouper. I remember this because of who I was with (fellow church camp counselors) and how much I liked the texture of the fish. (More than I would turn out to like my first walleye.)

Then I volunteered that, in my childhood, Panama City was the site of the first Land family beach vacation — and that  I had thought the Panama Canal was there. I was so sure of this, I didn’t ask my folks and thus received no clarification on this issue — I just craned my neck at every waterway we crossed,  wondering if this was what all the fuss was about.

Of course, this geopolitical naivete is excusable in an eight-year-old; maybe it was a victory that I’d even heard of it.

Adult naivete, however, is more vexing. Especially in myself.

My new friend and I continued to talk; it turned out she was from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was back in the 1970s some kind of sister city to Tuscaloosa, Alabama — resulting in kids from my high school going to Sioux Falls and vice versa.

While coincidence made conversation easier, my new acquaintance was clearly warm and hospitable and open, grateful and blessed that she and her sisters — all 80 or close to it — still had each other’s company. She was proud and appreciative that our college group was coming to do volunteer work in her home state.

But when I explained that we weren’t going to Mt. Rushmore, as far as I knew, she seemed puzzled. I explained that we here to work, but she still seemed to feel this a major oversight. (And I myself had asked at some point in the last few weeks if that was on the list.)

Listening to her annoyance on our behalf,  I came face to face with my own naivete. Mt. Rushmore is in the Black Hills, which the U.S. negotiated the Lakota away from in pushing them to settlements to the south in the less fertile badlands. After shoving them onto reservations in much more stern environments, white America then decided to take a side of a mountain and carve into it a bunch of white presidents.

No one from the res has said as much, but it seems logical enough. It would seem antithetical, in the least, to have a week of cultural immersion become a prequel to Mt. Rushmore. It would probably serve as a sure sign that we hadn’t, in the end, learned very much.

Of course, now that I’ve put this notion out there, watch Re-Member surprise us with a trip to Mt. Rushmore.

Oh well. At least I know better than to look for the Grand Canyon.

Let alone the Panama Canal.

Nary Food Nor Laptop

16 May

Lise Keeney with the burger
she couldn’t have.

One recent morning I arose to face my harshest judge: The scale. It confirmed that, thanks to  burger, fries and Skinny Cow English Toffee Crunch popsicles — the latter of which wouldn’t have been so bad had I not had SIX of them — I still weighed the same as the day before, and the day before that, and …

A half hour later, after settling down in my easy chair with a cup of coffee and a Smart Ones English biscuit breakfast sandwich – cost $2.99  – I called up Facebook and caught an update from Lise Keeney, a former Assumption Writing and Mass Communications star now working in New York City.

Lise was informing her followers that, for one week, she was taking on the Live Below the Line challenge. This innovative approach to raising awareness and funds to combat poverty lay in a simple behavior modification challenge – try to eat on $1.50 a day for an entire work week.

Why $1.50? As the website explains:

“The challenge is set at $1.50 a day, because this is the current equivalent of the accepted global figure used to define extreme poverty. This was set by the World Bank as US$1.25 per day in 2005. Basically, if you live on less than that every day, you’re recognized internationally as living in extreme poverty. …

” ‘It’s not that bad,’ you might say – ‘$1.50 goes a lot further in developing countries’. Unfortunately not. The $1.50 figure represents the amount someone living in extreme poverty in the U.S. would have to live on.

“And for people who live in extreme poverty that $1.50 has to cover far more than food and drink – we’re talking everything – health, housing, transport, food, education… It’s impossible to imagine, but that’s the reality for an incredible number of people.

“Gandhi said that ‘Poverty is the worst form of violence’ – and we agree.”

As do I.

Of course, despite the gravity of the issue, Lise’s challenge was not without its humorous side. As she wrote me midway through her semi-fast, “I am absolutely. starving. I also can’t think or look at beans without feeling physically ill … It’s amazing to see how much thinking you do about food when you can’t have it/are limited to what you can eat. Walking past pizza places and smelling the melty cheese is so tough!”

Following Lise’s quest – and even though her fast is over, you can still go to her page at Live Below the Line and donate in her name – I naturally asked myself: “What can I give up that would be equivalent to food for Lise?”

So, OK, the honest answer is: “FOOD!”

Second, however, might just be my laptop computer. (Setting aside, of course, loved ones of the more human variety.) I don’t mean this because of Facebook, or Twitter, or the fact my fantasy baseball team is in first place for the first time since Reagan was president. I mean this because I am a compulsive note-taker and journal writer: Even the slowest of days offers some anecdote, earnest or humorous, that  I witnessed or learned of through others.

And when I’m traveling, well, forget it.

Tonight I mean that literally. For I just confirmed that in addition to other things I’ll sacrifice on my upcoming SEND trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, I will not be allowed to bring my computer.

No blog entries in the heat of inspiration (there won’t be an internet connection anyway). No typed diary entries that become cooler and calmer versions blogs of the future. Nothing but notebooks in which I, the worst hand-writer in America, will slowly scribble a few legible words, hoping I remember the entire story in all its richness of detail upon my return to the New England balcony where I write these words.

I recognize that this is a trivial complaint in the grand scheme of things. We will be working next week on a reservation of disenfranchised Lakota, struggling with per capita incomes of approximately $4,000, unemployment rates of 80 to 90 percent, and a life expectancy rate that’s the lowest in the U.S., and the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Small wonder, then, that there’s also an 80 percent rate of alcoholism and a teen suicide rate that’s four times the national average. Admittedly, I’m paraphrasing from the binder I received from Re-Member, the organization that will be hosting us, but I’ve heard similar numbers in mainstream media reports. At least from my cultural perspective — and I think most people’s — it’s a bleak reality, a world unto itself within our own borders.

Being a born writer, my first instinct in the face of something so compelling and so important is, of course, to write about it. One could even argue that, given my relative ineptitude at more physical skills, writing is my way to serve. But of course writing is one more way of distancing oneself from the immediacy of experience – as, of course, are cell phones, which Re-Member also forbids. One leaps to process into words an experience you haven’t yet fully engaged or absorbed, let alone truly understood. I’m wondering if, a week from now, students will come to see this as the most important thing they learned.

My only journalistic security blanket is that I have finagled my way into being the group’s designated photographer.

Of course, the lens can be almost as distancing as the laptop.

Oh well. With any luck, the memory card will fill the first day.

You can see now that I’m starting to sell myself on this computer-less proposition. Thanks in part to the inspiration of a student past. Hey, if Lise Keeney can live on $1.50 a day …

See y’all on the other side.

Storm and Redemption

1 May

Yesterday afternoon, I was celebrating the end of another semester of classes with colleagues in the Physics Lab, which offers the ideal combination of a full fridge for the beer and long counters for the chips. We were having a grand time sharing a wide range of topics – most interestingly the century-old tradition of tying cameras to homing pigeons and having the fowl take shots from the, well, bird’s eye view – when a friend said something even more surprising.

“So April 27th was the anniversary of the tornado,” she said.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“It was all over the Weather Channel Friday.”

Of course it would be. Even as I watched all the confused footage that night a little more than a year ago, it hit me that my hometown, in a matter of an hour, had surreally become the latest American town to be defined by a natural disaster. I’ve devoted numerous entries here to volunteer efforts to help Tuscaloosa, Alabama recover from a tornado that killed, at last count, 53 people. The path of devastation will scar both landscapes and lives for years to come.

I spent much of this April 27th scanning The Tuscaloosa News, which had just won a Pulitzer for its tornado coverage, reading quality general summary and first-person accounts, along with a myth-busting column in which they’d refuted a wide range of rumors, including that of either a dog or baby (it varies from story to story) dropping out of the tornado, alive and healthy, in a city an hour away.

I also checked the various references on Facebook pages.

Amid all these posts, I found not only sorrow, but redemption. Consider two posts by my sister, Mary Leach.

The day before the anniversary: “A year ago today I was driving by sights that I have known all my life, not knowing that I would never see them again.”

Or on Sunday, two days after the anniversary.

“This time last year we went to church. We walked past National Guardsmen with machine guns, we sat in the dark with no AC. We sat with church members who had lost everything, nothing, and all points in between. We cried, we prayed, we grieved, but we were there. It remains the most powerful worship service I was ever a part of, before or since.”

Out of such mutual vulnerability and mutual faith, ordinary human beings can band together to accomplish extraordinary things. Not that it’s easy. Six weeks after the tornado, in my first visit after the tornado, I sat in my old church’s makeshift sanctuary, listening to a preacher warn us about the spiritual challenges ahead. He compared the spiritual high of the Pentecost to that of the early weeks of selfless volunteerism, the ways in which people came together in the wake of the storm … and the long hard slog that is faith after the ecstasy. “And so here we are, brothers and sisters, we are witnesses, martyrs, and the euphoria’s quickly draining, and the short-term workers are going home … and soon, it will seem as if Christ is no longer here as well.” He paused then, added an unscripted remark. “And it is going to be hot!

And it was hot, almost hot enough to make me pass out as I made my own clumsy efforts doing debris removal – a process that, while necessary, made once lush landscapes just that much emptier. But next time down, six months later with a SEND mission group from Assumption College, new homes were springing up. Including, of course, the one our students worked on. I double-checked this weekend with our Habitat supervisor down in Tuscaloosa, and Dewayne Searcy told me that the Tuscaloosa Habitat is starting its 17th house since the storm – a staggering achievement.

I could end this by wondering why it takes a natural disaster for everyone – me included – to achieve such levels of energized compassion, or speculate on what we all we could achieve by applying such intensity to a broader agenda of service. But, if it’s not already too late, I’d rather resist the aesthetic need for a tidy ending.

Instead, I’ll end on one last testimonial by Mary, the one she posted on the anniversary itself.

“ ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’”-Charles Dickens

“It was beyond dreadful, but it was also beyond wonderful. There was a spirit in the air during those days and weeks that is impossible to describe. For just a moment there was no black or white, rich or poor, Christian or otherwise. There was help and be helped, love and be loved. I saw God everywhere I looked, dressed in skin. As awful as it was, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

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