On the next to the last day of 2012, I was still doing my holiday rounds, catching up with yet another neglected friend before the year ended – and, of course, so was she. Since she’d read my October blog about Rev. Sam Wells, my friend knew about his assertion that the key problem of human existence is not mortality, but isolation. By this logic, the most important thing we can do is not to solve problems for people, but simply be with them. I mention Wells again to my friend, if only by way of saying that by that standard, my Christmas Eve spent at home nursing a cold fell far short of the standard.
As we talked, my gaze settled on her lapel pin, a shining green dragonfly. The sight send my mind skipping back to another depiction on the species, one outlined on a quilt in progress I saw back in May, in the living room of a Lakota woman on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
While students worked outside on replacing her two porches, she kept quilting; she told me the star quilt was for her son, hospitalized from injuries suffered while serving his country on the battlefields of Afghanistan. I would learn later that the dragonfly was a common decoration of Lakota warrior shields, based on the Native American belief that the dragonfly had an uncommon ability to dodge projectiles.
Later, when I headed home from my holiday catch-up session, I remembered that brief stream of consciousness – and discerned a deeper implication. Sure, I had failed to truly be “with” people on Christmas Eve, but the year as a whole blessed me with a richness of connection. I’m not even referring to my wealth of loved ones, but to the service-related experiences described in this, the first full year of this blog. So naturally I want to spend part of this year’s last day meditating on – and celebrating – some of those moments of, as Wells might say, “being with.”
For your sake, I’ll try to channel this particular stream of consciousness into something close to chronological order – this is an end-of-year essay, after all. As it happens, 2012 started with a level of connection that set a near impossible standard for the rest of the year – students and staff from Assumption College, my employer, came to my tornado-ravaged hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Sam Wells would have approved: Our SEND students not only helped build a house for victim of the tornado, but asked a lot of questions and did a lot of listening, trying, as one student put it, simply “to understand.” In the spirit of cultural immersion, they insisted on the purchase of Alabama t-shirts and other fan apparel the very first afternoon, already looking ahead to the national championship showdown with LSU the next Monday night. I was surprised at the enthusiasm, then dismissed it as stereotypical tourist materialism – then to realize, finally, that this was in fact cultural immersion. What faster way to bypass all the differences between yourself and the place you’re visiting than to adopt your hosts’ sports teams? I’d done the exact same thing when I moved to New England. But the most significant image of connection came on the final night, when each student and staff member hugged my mother on the way out the door of her house, after a night of sharing barbecue and memories with some of the folks from Habitat Tuscaloosa.
As previously noted, it seemed the service year could only go downhill from there. And yet, for the most part, it didn’t.
Sitting here on New Year’s Day, I remember tudents sharing their service experiences at both our Community Service Learning colloquium and at Campus Ministry SEND programs. Colleagues, meanwhile, shared their elegant course designs at our CSL Faculty workshop. Then there were the three colleagues whom I got to watch in our dual English/Sociology course, “The Literature of Social Resaponsibility,” built around the HBO series The Wire. Most conspicuous was Sociology professor Rich Gendron – my partner in the shaping and teaching of the course – and his ambitious, passionate approach to lecture, leading students through class after class of astute sociological analysis. But I was also deeply engaged by guest appearances by professors in two other disciplines: Philosophy professor Josh Shmikler filling a wall-wide whiteboard with a chart delineating the ethical journey of a single Wire character, and Diane Myers telling her personal story of working in the juvenile system and inner city schools in a way that was as insightful as it was entertaining. It was another reminder of why we need to work harder to facilitate cross-disciplinary experiences.
While teaching that course, I also got to break away long enough to wander the streets of New Orleans with three of our most accomplished English majors, there to present papers at the Sigma Tau Delta Convention. While they were not there to do volunteer work, they asked a lot of good questions, not wanting their first visit to the Big Easy to be intellectually wasted. After they left, I tried to honor their attitude with some politically correct tourism, allowing two young guides to take me through the economically run-down Treme – the subject of the next series by the makers of The Wire – before going to hear Treme-theme singer John Boutte in a small jazz club. There I asked a lot of questions of a couple who’d jut moved there from Mississippi; they offered both their insights and a place to stay my next time down, setting up a dynamic email exchange after my blog.
Only two months later, I was lucky enough to ride the plains of southwest South Dakota with 13 Assumption students and the people of Project Re-Member, working to help the shockingly poor Lakota of Pine Ridge Reservation. Students all seemed to open their minds to lectures and language lessons – and threw their bodies into the work, tearing down old porches and building new ones, when we weren’t digging holes for outhouses or repairing roofs. Among the experiences that stick with me: One Lakota walking us through the cemetery at the Wounded Knee massacre, then leaving us to take in the names on graves dug to either side of the old mass grave. A few days later, children at one house riding student shoulders in a game of chicken – a few hundred yards from their grandfather’s old sweat lodge.
The laughter of the language lessons, turned into a game by a radiant Lakota woman who taught in the reservation school system. The last night, talking about the week with a fellow volunteer, taking in the sharp clarity of the stars so far removed from what most of us wound consider a city – until a neighborhood dog materialized out of the darkness like an apparition, sniffing her calves before we even knew the dog was there. The hugs all around the next morning, as the various volunteer groups took off in different directions. How, when Delta betrayed us and split our group, I stayed behind while the students departed – and, with the students gone, felt the sadness of the trip having ended, even though I was still sitting in Rapid City, alone with my copy of Lakota Woman.
There was more than I have time to write or you have to read, from the day the kids of African Community Education spent on the Assumption campus and my visit to the Lilly Foundation conference in Indianapolis, where I got to experience Taize-style meditation, the participants circled around candles and cross, mostly meditating in silence while listening to chants, trying to connect with something beneath the words – the spirit that, despite our very different backgrounds and approaches to life, still seems to bind us. I was so moved, I was one of the last to leave – another of the few being Wells himself, although at the time I didn’t know whom he was, or how his speech the next day would reach me.
One more point of connection out of the many: The people I met delivering meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This isn’t nearly as virtuous as it might sound: During my Christmas morning run, I noticed several other volunteers delivering their own packet meals to still other residents. It came to me that Catholic Charities could’ve bundled all those meals into one delivery – but that would have defeated the point, which was giving us – in my case a man living alone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas morning with another human being – the opportunity to duck the holiday depression and connect with someone other than ourselves, feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.
Two-way ministry? Well, yeah.
The Facebook fans among you might notice that this 2012 nostalgia trip has only acknowledged being with people in a physical sense – in classrooms or chapels, streets or countryside. But as much as people express worry about cell phones and laptops as things that take us out of sharing moments with the people sitting next to us – as I’m doing even this moment, sitting at an oyster bar in the Baltimore airport – I would be remiss not to acknowledge the opportunity to be with others on-line, whether in this blog or elsewhere.
I think of this only because of a Facebook post by former student, current colleague Taylor Nunez, now a regular contributor to Worcester Magazine.
Taylor challenged me and other friends with this message:
I’ve decided that 2013 will be about connecting – to myself and to others. I want to blog more and express myself more, but what I really want is to connect with people. One-to-one. Heart-to-heart. Who’s up for being a pen pal for 2013?
The written word is the one thing in this crazy world that I truly believe in. Let’s use it, people.
Reading her post, I suddenly knew my resolution for 2013.
More of the same.
If, of course, I can only be so lucky.