Archive | November, 2012

Kindness on the street

29 Nov

NYC Officer Gives Boots to Homeless Man

Since we’ve written much recently about the importance of being with people on an individual basis, I want to include here this New York Times story about a New York City police officer’s act of kindness to a homeless man, captured by a tourist passing by.

Most of us, me included, fear caving in to compassion to any given individual on the street, since, after all, the need out there is infinite and our bank accounts are not. That would seem even more true for a police officer, who would be in more direct contact every day.

Nevertheless this man acted. See the link above.

Gratitude from Newfoundland to New Orleans

22 Nov

For which I am grateful, any day of the year.

Last Sunday at First Unitarian in downtown Worcester, pastor Tom Schade preached on gratitude. That particular emotion – or attitude, or philosophical stance, or way of being in the world, or all of the above – radiated from both Tom’s delivery and the congregation’s reception. This was with good reason: With our long-time pastor set to retire to Michigan not so many Sundays from now, one thing folks are grateful for is every Tom Schade sermon we have left.

As usual, it was a very smart sermon, discarding Hallmark sentiments in favor of subtler insights. Gratitude, he noted, was so hard to continuously feel because while we are so focused on the present and future, gratitude demands a continuity with the past.Then there is the challenge of how we construct the narrative of that past. Will it be a story that focuses on disappointments and betrayals – or a more positive plot that foregrounds the blessings?

Sitting there, I thought, “Wow, it’s so important to carve out a space for gratitude, it’s a shame we cannot carve out an annual day when … “

Oh, wait a minute.

Sly dog that Tom was, I don’t recall a single mention of the possible existence of such a holiday, one that, say, might be associated with turkey and stuffing and gravy and pumpkin pie and football and some dubious rock on the Massachusetts coast that might or might not be the rock that … well, you know. Maybe he slipped it in there, but I generally tend to notice references to food.

Instead of provoking salivation over Thanksgiving feasts to come, Tom’s sermon reminded me of a very different Thanksgiving – one six years ago in New Orleans, experienced not by me but one Chris Rose. A New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist,  Rose wrote the Pulitzer Prize-finalist 1 Dead in Attic, which collects many of the columns he wrote over the first 15 months of life during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Since I bought it in a funky corner bookstore in the Big Easy, I connected to the book quickly – but I could’ve bought it in Nova Scotia and still been sucked right in. It’s that good: The perfect example of a great story happening to a great writer, 1 Dead in Attic offers a complexity of tones as complex as New Orleans itself: It’s alternately tragic, bold, sad, funny, sobering, stupefying, redemptive, and, at times, even celebrative.

The inspection marks that inspired Rose’s book title.

Despite all he had experienced – including a crippling depression that gradually sneaked up on him during a year of covering and living post-Katrina New Orleans – Rose comes around in the last few pages to gratitude. He casts the question in a framework larger than New Orleans: He goes as far north as Gander, Newfoundland, which on 9/11 took in 6,595 stranded airline passengers for days. (The Gander story is chronicled in Jim DeFede’s The Day The World Came to Town.) To Rose, the diversity of ways Gander helped its wayward travelers is similar to how still other strangers helped New Orleans. One basis of similarity, Rose suggests, is the sheer impossibility of telling the entire story. If comprehending the catastrophic loss of Katrina wasn’t enough to strip the gears of our imaginations, figuring out who all to thank would certainly finish the job.

Rose writes: “Big Government failed and politics failed but the people rose up, giving us such an abundance of things to be thankful for that it boggles the mind. And the strange thing is that– outside of each of our own singular experiences (those who sheltered us, gave clothes or money or provided whatever needs were most urgent)–most of us don’t even know who it is we’re supposed to thank and what it is they did for us. But there are hundreds of thousands of them–no, millions!–who made sacrifices of time, money, travel, labor and spirit to help the people of south Louisiana and Mississippi get  back on their feet and become some small semblance of what we once were and of what we will become again someday.

“So, today, Thanksgiving, just who do we thank? All those people. But how do we tell them, the soldiers and doctors and Common Grounders and church groups and corporate groups and school groups and animal rescues and the uncountable and unknowable masses who came to our city to clean us up, dust us off, give us a meal, and give us a hug before going back to their own homes forever changed, just as the folks in Gander will never be the same.

‘It’s weird: I just feel like picking up the phone today and randomly dialing some small town somewhere and saying thank you for what you did for us because it’s inevitable that they did something for us.”

On a much smaller scale, most of us have our phone calls to make – more calls, in fact, than we could possibly squeeze in. My personal list would run into the hundreds, and that’s ignoring the folks who came to my own hometown after the devastating tornado of April 27, 2011. Plus, if Lady Fortuna herself had a 1-800 number, I’d be ringing up her as well.. But of course the bigger question still is how to pass on the grace we’ve experienced to still others.

Or, as Rose puts it, “since we’ll never take stock of who they all were, really the best way to thank them is to succeed here, to become a city and region better than we were, a place strong enough, unified enough – and good enough – to take in thirty-eight planes full of strangers when it’s our turn to answer to the call of membership in the human race.”

Memorial coffin near New Orleans Visitor Center.

Ubuntu Hits The Streets

18 Nov

Santa Barbara’s State Street during Farmer’s Market.

Easter morning began with me sipping coffee on the porch next to my host’s pool, watching a hawk sweep over a California canyon lush with spring. When she was ready for church, I rode shotgun, felt the swerves as she skimmed Mission Ridge. Between the million-dollar homes, the Pacific Ocean glittered in the morning sun, the Channel Islands floating misty on the horizon.

If this wasn’t paradise, it was the closest I was going to come to it. But then, I think that a lot when I’m out in Santa Barbara. Other people must think it, too: One of the more affluent cities in Southern California, Santa Barbara boasts more than it share of movie stars and other individuals of affluence. But as I was about to be reminded, that’s only one side of life in this seemingly idyllic community.

We parked next to the expansive gardens across from the Unitarian Society. While my host’s choir duties required her to sing in two services, it was my privilege as a singing-impaired visitor to only attend one. So while she rushed into the Spanish-style sanctuary, I shouldered my laptop bag and moseyed down State Street to my favorite coffee shop.

This was the main drag of up-scale shops and restaurants, galleries and cafes, but this early on an Easter morning, the hustle and bustle of commerce had yet to start.  A delicious calm hung over the avenue. Here and there workers hosed the red tile sidewalks that appeared clean enough to start with. A few folks drifted in and out of breakfast joints. Some were dining, some were on their way somewhere – and some were doing neither.

Case in a point: A slender, wrinkled man on a bench, his backpack beside him as he listened to a fortyish earth mother of a woman, wearing a flowing skirt, a vest over her white peasant blouse. Long curly hair, no makeup, a lovely kindness to her face. Vaguely hippy-ish.

“Yeah, the way I dress, people sometimes I think I’m homeless, but I’m not!” she said, laughing at the thought – and the man on the bench, who apparently was homeless, laughed along with her.

Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, a few blocks from East Beach.

As I swept through the rest of a crowded Easter social calendar, I didn’t mention the scene to a single person – nor have I since. But this singularly un-dramatic scene has stuck with me for years, for reasons I still don’t completely understand. Much of my marveling must lie in the matter-of-factness of the woman’s mirth, her utter lack of self-consciousness. She didn’t fumble self-consciously to avoid the topic of the other person’s homelessness; she didn’t ignore the reality both people knew all too well. I would be so worried about saying the wrong thing, I might not speak to him at all –an act probably worse than anything I actually would say.

On a deeper level, though, her relaxed dialogue seemed to imply a deeper attitude about homelessness – an utter lack of shame and stigma, of being embarrassed for the person’s economic situation. It suggested someone who has not only suspended the impulse to judge, but had eradicated it entirely. Along with, perhaps, the fear of engaging the homeless: Fear of not only danger, but fear of being asked for more than she could give – or of giving with a sense of futility that a few dollars won’t fix the person’s problems. Setting such obstacles aside, knowingly or unknowingly, she was rising to the challenge set forth by Rev. Sam Wells in one of my previous blog entries – the challenge to set aside our need to solve problems for people (often at a safe distance from said people) and get down to the business of simply being with them, right here, right now.

I know, I know. This is a whole lot of philosophizing to project upon a few minutes of overheard conversation, and it probably says less about the person being projected upon than the person doing the projecting.

Which is, of course, me.

Obviously I feel some of the social awkwardness, with its attached shame and guilt, myself. On a conscious level, I see the lives of people as being formed largely by social circumstance, a complex interplay of determinisms, from family life and biological predispositions to economic class and just plain bad luck. I don’t judge people I see working the street corners. But I also fail to engage them, which risks conveying a kind of judgment, intended or not.

This point was clearly addressed two weeks ago, when my Honors 200 students paid a visit to the Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project at 162 Chandler St. here in Worcester, Massachusetts. There they met with not only HOAP’s extraordinary, dedicated and generous staff, but also clients who had experienced homelessness, in some cases for decades. One client likened himself and others on the streets to being “slugs that hide during the day”, leaving only a trail to suggest their existence. “You have to understand that in our minds, you are the better and we are the worse.” That assumption so governed his daily interactions, only in recent times, since he’s found housing, has he realized to degree to which it shaped his social reality.

A week later, I found a Facebook post that made me connect in a flash the man from HOAP to that distant morning back in Santa Barbara.  A friend there has dedicated her life to helping the homeless through the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, a few blocks off East Beach. Jill posted a link to a powerful article by Suzanne Beachy – a piece that was haunting for both its heartbreak and its heroism. Jill’s Facebook note with the link stated simply, “Beautifully written and moving. Please read this if you feel uneasy talking to a homeless person.”

Suzanne Beachy.

Published on-line in Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry, and Community, the essay “Lost and Found in Santa Barbara” recounts the story of how Beachy’s son wound up homeless in Santa Barbara, where one day he was killed by the train just off East Beach, not too far from the mission where my friend works. About a year later, the writer journeys from her home in Ohio to Santa Barbara, on what would have been her son Jake’s 29th birthday.

From a hotel employee and caseworkers to people on the street, strangers greeted Beachy with warmth and compassion, sharing their own stories. One man, a witness to her son’s death, took her to the tracks, showed her where her son’s body landed, and shared with her something he’s written later that day, as he was processing the shock of what he just saw. Beachy recounts: “The words that soothed my soul read, ‘ . . . this didn’t seem like a suicide to me. It looked like the guy was unaware that the train was coming.’”

But that wasn’t enough, not nearly, for her on this trip. “As someone who is always seeking foundational truth, I try to imagine how God views homeless people. Instead of seeing a ‘homeless problem’ as many of us would describe that situation, I think he would see homeless people the same way he sees all of us – a bunch of lost sheep in need of a shepherd. … Like the kind people who reached out to me, am I, in turn, speaking hope into the hearts of the hurting or lost?”

So she walked the same Santa Barbara streets I walked – but with a very different attitude toward the homeless. As she approached them, she confessed to feeling the same psychological obstacles as most of us: “ ‘Were they a menace?’ I wondered. I felt afraid of them and somewhat repulsed. But my son had been one of them less than a year before, and HE was not scary, dangerous, or repulsive. He had been just a beautiful, lost, mess. I decided I should try to get to know some of these homeless ones, even though I did not really want to. Once again, I had to push through dread and fear.”

In the process, she did do some things for people – such as bringing lunch – but she took the time to be with them first, asking permission to bring the food. That night,

she would run into one of her new homeless acquaintances a second time – near the spot where her son had died.

What happened next? For that, you’ll have to go to her beautiful and brilliant essay, which deserves to be read directly, unfiltered. I guarantee you’ll find it well worth your time, for both its content and its form.

Instead, I’ll simply share the quote she took herself from Desmond Tutu, in which he defines “ubuntu.”

As Beachy quotes Tutu, ubuntu “. . . speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.”

When it comes to ubuntu, well, I’m still working on it. But two women strolling the streets of Santa Barbara have shown me what ubuntu might look like – as have the homeless who returned their gestures in kind.

Thanksgiving volunteers at the Rescue Mission.

Managing Spontaneity: ACE at Assumption

10 Nov

ACE kids strike pose outside Charlie’s on AC campus.

Standing outside the food court on our college campus, I watched as a group of students flowed out into the sunshine.

Not an unusual occurrence, but these kids were different. They weren’t worn down by midterms or papers or worries about course registration; they didn’t shirk eye contact or shrink away, even from my camera.

Instead, they were downright frisky – some sprinting ahead of others only to be called back by their Assumption escorts, others lagging behind begging to be in as many pictures as I was willing to shoot, seemingly devoid of self-consciousness.

That’s because these kids were the youths of African Community Education, a program I’ve written about before in this space. ACE devotes itself to helping children of African refugees close the gap between themselves and native English speakers in the local school system; since immigrant children are slotted into classes by their age rather than their English fluency, they have a lot of ground to make up. (Some were placed in seventh grade after never attending school in their war-torn home countries.) But ACE is succeeding, seeing students not only graduate from high school, but also move on to college careers.

Assumption and ACE students share lunch.

To encourage the latter, Assumption College’s Community Service Learning Program hosted the kids of ACE on a recent fall Saturday. Three of the key organizers were CSL partnership coordinator Susan Hayes, a colleague who fuses passion and attention to detail as well as anyone I know, and ACE’s Amy Connery and Julia Kilgore; a former Assumption student, Kilgore owes her ACE career to seeds planted when she studied abroad in Africa and then built on that experience by volunteering at ACE in a CSL course herself. Under their leadership, more than 40 ACE kids bussed over in late morning, had lunch in Hagan, and heard the AC Director of Admissions, Mario Silva, discuss college and how to apply for it. The teenagers asked so many questions, we had to end the session just to start the tours, led by AC students. (The visitors then wound up at Kennedy Hall, where they performed various group activities.)

But that’s just one side of this story.

The other side leads us to Assumption business professor Catherine Pastille and how, thanks to her, ACE’s kids weren’t the only students learning something from this experience. The ACE day was only possible because Pastille, a new arrival on campus who has plunged fearlessly into service-based experiential learning, saw the chance for her Management 100 students to apply what they were learning to a real-life situation – and make a difference at the same time.

ACE’s Yawo flanked by Pastille and one of her students, Lauren Cranston.

Pastille explains her concept as follows:  “The CSL project gives the students an opportunity to make a positive contribution to the community and to experience and practice the four major management functions: planning, organizing, leading and controlling.  Planning begins with a compelling vision for whatever it is that we are trying to accomplish followed by creating a plan for how we are going to move ourselves from where we are to where we want to be. Organizing refers to analyzing all the tasks that need to be done, putting the right people in the positions where their strengths can be used, and then being sure they have the resources they need to shine. Leading is all about knowing your strengths and being able to motivate others and work with them to realize the vision. Finally controlling means we keep track of how well we are doing based on what we planned and what we want to achieve; and we use the info we gather to learn how to improve next time.”

Students on tour take in the Home of the Hounds.

What ACE did for Assumption was to render the above series of often abstract educational goals into specific and concrete action, the hypothetical client you’ll only serve after you grade into the flesh and blood of these kids, with backgrounds so very different from that of the average AC student – and yet just as goofy and energetic and joyful as any teenager. Spontaneous energy abounded – but it was the culmination of a carefully planned month-long process.

One of my reasons for doing CSL is to provide students with experiences they’ll remember five years later.

Surely ACE’s day at Assumption did that for all the students, those in college – and those hoping to be.

Silva with a surprise co-presenter — his daughter.

Bird feeders and ballot boxes

6 Nov

Red-bellied Woodpecker on the Election Day fence – or at least the balcony rail.

Not that I needed reminding, but I couldn’t help take it as a sign, the red-bellied woodpecker that settled on my bird feeder.

I don’t mean “sign” as in ominous omen. The black raven might have quoth “nevermore” in the “midnight dreary,” but this rare visitor’s plumage suggested something more positive – an action to be taken.

That message? “Get out of your easy chair and go vote, why don’t you?”

Yes, my woodpecker is more wordy than Poe’s crow, but my hallucinatory birds are more prose than poetry.

But, in case you’re wondering about now, there is a connection – my polling place is Broadmeadow Brook Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. The first time I did so was four years ago, when, of course, Barack Obama won the presidency. Pulling up in front of the visitor center that morning, I felt like I had won, regardless of what my candidate went on to do. Instead of a dingy school, a line wove past a garden and into a bright sunlit lobby; I shared the voting space with a turtle in a terrarium. His head extended straight ahead, as still as death, not tipping whether he leaned to the left or the right.

Nor did my woodpecker indicate any particular political stance. There is that whole redhead/red state correlation, but then why is he in Massachusetts? Besides, the relish at which he was eating the feed makes me think that he thus supports redistribution of wealth, although he would prefer a rather unconventional currency for the payouts.  Furthermore, he’s far less monopolistic than the ubiquitous and greedy sparrows. The issue of sexual orientation when it comes to civil union? Well, is he even a he? I don’t rightly know.

The silliness of my musings was a welcome relief from the sobriety of this election morning. I woke up worried that we might move not closer to compassion today, but farther away. Then came another, more self-centered, observation – when it comes to the four-year measuring stick, it’s not only the state of the union that, as always, comes up short.

It’s also me.

While I work community service into every course I teach, that’s stuff I’m paid to do. Even with the occasional mission trip, I know I could do more volunteer work on my own time. Way more.

More to the point, like a lot of volunteers, except for election days, I don’t get directly involved in the political process. Even though I’m reasonably outgoing, I’m not one for door-knocking and phone banks, for sign-holding or street-marching – that’s not the work my disposition gravitates toward.

Which makes me like most people. I once heard a presenter at a conference cite a study showed that while volunteering in college makes students more likely to volunteer later in life, it doesn’t make people any more likely to vote. Asked why, the presenter speculated that volunteering was much more satisfying – you experienced a concrete result from your efforts. Your vote literally doesn’t make the difference in any election – unless you count committees – but volunteering does.

The problem comes when the mind’s camera pulls back from the tight shot of our personal action to the broader context. The truth is that what the government does matter – and in ways that dwarf our individual charitable acts. The persons and parties we choose on Election Day can work in a dynamic partnership to help people on the margins solve their own problems – or it can undercut everything we are doing now.

My larger problem unsolved, I could at least vote. I donned my own plumage – considerably duller than that of my feathered friend, although I do have a red cap – and headed to the Audubon. I stood in line by the butterfly bushes, breathed in the sweet mulch, shuffled past images of deer and birds. I bantered briefly with women at the ballot table – one of whom remembered me from Assumption – but the line was far too long for them to linger. They’d been volunteering since 6:30 a.m., and will be there until “it’s all over” that night.

Then I took my paper ballots and headed to the only open table, filled out my ballot and only then took in the bird poster above my station. I was surprised when I saw, of birds on all the posters in the voting places of the world, my very friend from this morning – or at least one of his/her relationships.

This one grasped the bottom of a feeder, tilting it with his weight, hanging on as if waiting to see what would happen next.

As for me, my most important political duty performed, I walked out the back door, passed below the feeders and wandered into the woods. The day was sunny but the air cold, still in the high 30s. Far more leaves below my feet than above my head. Winter coming on. Still, I smiled at the spanking new rope railings and plaques, the signs in both English and Braille, for sighted and blind alike. All done, I guessed, not by paid laborers, but devoted volunteers.

The weird thing is, somehow it mattered. Ohio might go blue or red that night, Florida might do whatever crazy thing Florida does … but either way I feel a little better not just for voting, but voting here.

Perhaps it’s all voting in the end, voting done year round – with our ballots, our hands, our feet.

Beaks? Not so sure.

Stone crossing at Broadmeadow Brook on a cold but sunny Election Day.

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