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Following Through in Haiti

27 Nov

Today the Worcester Telegram began Christine Hochkeppel’s eight-part series on the efforts  of Greater Gardner residents to provide medical aid to Haiti. The main story in Sunday’s two-article package centers on Dr. John and Paula Mulqueen – who first went to Haiti some 15 years ago.

Rather than feeling they’d made their contribution to Haiti and moving on with their lives, the Mulqueens contacted the Worcester Roman Catholic Diocese’s Haitian Apostolate about another trip almost immediately. “I couldn’t get it out of my head, what I saw, and the need,” said Dr. Mulqueen.

The latest expedition included 83-year-old Doris Forte, who notes that volunteering there makes her feel “worthwhile, and that’s not an easy thing to come by at my age.” But the respect she feels from Haitians is one more sign of the need.”They’re very respectful of old people,” she tells Hochkeppel, “because there aren’t many of them.”

Follow this link to the first day’s installment, including both Hochkeppel’s first-person account and her story on the overall effort. I look forward to the rest of the story.

 

A Specific Kind of Gratitude

25 Nov
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My boss in the meals program at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco;  serving others helped James transcend homelessness and addiction. (Photo by Glide.)

Being an expatriate Southerner in New England, I’m always glad this time a year to have a half dozen or so families who invite me to their Thanksgiving feasts. One of those families has an interesting year-round mealtime tradition: They ask that each person share one thing she or he is grateful for.

The catch: You must focus something specific and concrete thing, not a general, abstract bailout concept like “family” or “love.”

For instance, imagine – and this will take some imagination – that, while standing over the Thanksgiving bird, I were to express my gratitude for the opportunity to type the minutes of Faculty Senate meetings.

Under this rule, I couldn’t express my thanks for “the collegiality, intelligence, and eloquence of my colleagues.” But I could express my thanks for the Faculty Senator who, amid a discussion about a proposed change in the Natural Sciences curriculum, observed that you have to approve of a proposal that contains the phrase “since we lack the resources for human dissection.”

In fact, I’m still grateful for that joke now, a month after I made sure it wound up in the minutes – probably at the expense of some bureaucratically serious and relevant piece of dry data I should have included instead.

There’s a similar argument for championing the specific and the concrete when it comes to serving others – the theme of this blog. Consider The Call of Service, a book by Robert Coles, a towering figure in the field of studying our altruistic tendencies –as well as a man who walked the walk himself. When listing the kinds of service, he made sure to include the service of the personal gesture, the little things we do from one day to the next. To all the personal gestures from particular individuals, I’d add all the random kindnesses I’ve received from the universe in general.

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Tony Amos, founder of Animal Rescue Keep (ARK), takes measurements on the same Port Aransas, Texas beach he’s studied on almost 5,000 morning cruises. 

But I imagine right about now you’d be grateful if I just quit hemming-and-hawing and got on with sharing some of these specific things.

Since I just finished both a memoir project – The Whole Service Trip – and an art exhibit – part of Kaboom! – I might as well focus on particular people, places, and incidents I experienced driving across the country in 2014.

 

I’m grateful for Amy Logue, Peter Salemme, Ellen Potts and so many others – including my own family – who have helped scores of Assumption students who have headed to Alabama every winter to help Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa rebuild my hometown after the devastating tornado of April 27, 2011.

I’m grateful for how, when I confessed my anxiety that I would drop one of the green sea turtles I was helping release at Port Aransas, Texas, Tony Amos loosened me up by quipping, “The turtle has a shell. I’m more worried about you.”

I’m grateful for the reunion two days later with dear friend Pat Clark in Austin – and for the fact that later that night on a Texas highway, the deer chose to dodge left as I dodged right, letting me live to tell both tales.

I’m grateful that, as I worked at Truly Living Well gardens in Atlanta, a rush-hour driver opted for polite waiting when I stopped pushing my wheelbarrow halfway across the street, if only to tighten my belt and keep my shorts from sliding off. I’m also grateful my shorts didn’t fall off.

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Green Acres in downtown Atlanta: Chinmaya schools me in the ways of urban agriculture in the middle of a USDA-designated food desert. 

I’m grateful for the Assumption student who, on the first SEND trip to Tuscaloosa, exclaimed, “Professor, your accent is funny enough back in Massachusetts, but down here it’s out of control!”

I’m grateful for the conversation of a couple in the bar of a Basque restaurant in Elko, Nevada, who, noting my new t-shirt from Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, said, “We wouldn’t have talked to you tonight, but since you’re wearing a shirt that said ‘Love Unconditionally’, we kind of had to.”

 

I’m grateful for all the specific and concrete ways that love shows itself at Glide, including the 727 meals we served the evening I was invited to volunteer there.

I’m grateful for my hike earlier that same day across San Francisco Bay in Muir Woods, named of course for naturalist John Muir, who pretty much predicted my unlikely hike-and-serve, woods-and-city day published more than a hundred years before, in My First Summer in the Sierra: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

I’m grateful for the Sierra Club post that clarified that “pick,” not “tug” is the correct translation of Muir’s “hitched to” quote – even if “tug” sounds better.

I’m grateful that the number of people and places that I’m grateful to have my own fate is “hitched” far too vast to sum up here.

I’m grateful for the Assumption student who, on the second SEND trip to Tuscaloosa, described how a Tuscaloosan in a local store asked her to move out of his way in such a polite manner, it took her a minute to process what he was asking. “That,” the New Englander said, “was when I realized, ‘We suck!’”

I’m grateful I could then list numerous ways people in New England, also my home, actually don’t suck – one of them being that they spent their precious winter breaks helping strangers in Alabama.

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Amy Logue, soon to escort her fifth SEND Tuscaloosa trip, models the true spirit of what cultural immersion means in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 

I’m grateful that New Orleans music educator Kaya Martinez told me something that helped me see my journey differently, even as it unfolded: “We’ve been conditioned to value that which gives us a return and that return has traditionally been money. Instead, we need to rethink what we value, which is actually our time and how we choose to spend it and whom we choose to spend it with. That’s a far more valuable gift that we have to give.”

I’m grateful for the gift of chatting with Hurricane Katrina survivor Gloria Guy on the front porch of her new home in the Lowe Ninth – built on the site of her old home, the roof of which she was rescued from. (She in turn, was grateful for Brad Pitt and his innovative Make It Right team who, despite criticism, have helped rebuild the Lower Ninth in ways that make environmentally and economically friendly homes available to people far from affluent.)

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Gloria Guy on her porch high above potential flood waters in the Lower Ninth. 

I’m grateful for the folks down the street from Guy at Common Ground Relief, whose efforts reach beyond volunteerism to a broader vision of creating jobs for local folks who then help local folks. (My Louisiana beer lover’s gratitude even extends to their canine mascot: Abita Amber.)

I’m grateful to have spend a morning in the New Orleans wetlands hacking away at invasive Chinese Tallow trees with kids from a St. Louis school that builds its service curriculum around the questions: “What? So what? Now what?”

I’m grateful to have had a journey that confronted me with so many “whats” and “so whats” – from preserved wilderness and domesticated animals to the economically disadvantaged and, again and again, immigrants who make me aware of how easy my own   journey through life has been … thanks in large part to my parents, who provided both a comfortable life and the wisdom to see past it to the needs of others.

I’m grateful that near the end of my “whole service trip”, I got a clue about my own personal “now what?” when shadowing volunteer Kathleen Phillips at George Mark House for children with life-limiting illnesses – and that just as I was wondering what service I would undertake upon my return, she noted that one of her qualifications for working with kids was the willingness “to act their age.” My silent epiphany: “I can do that!”

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Hard at work at African Community Education, even in the middle of summer.

I’m grateful that all those places helping immigrants, and children, and children of immigrants, led me to African Community Education back in Worcester, Mass. – where I try hard to avoid acting their age until after we’re done with homework.

I’m grateful for the two ACE kids who, seeing one of their friends approach this English prof for help with math homework, cried out, “Not him!” (If I teach them anything, let it be this.)

I’m grateful for the acoustic Delta Blues guitar licks of Jon Short that ring out right now across the hospitable space of BirchTree Bread Company, where I’ve written most of The Whole Service Trip … and this blog.

I’m grateful that as I was about to press PUBLISH on this post, former student Brad Card tapped me on the shoulder and told me his just-concluded year of AmeriCorps service in locales from California to West Virginia went so well, he’s now going to work for FEMA.

Based on the evidence above, I’m grateful for, well, whatever comes next.

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Jon Short picking and singing as I post this blog.

Passion – and Action

22 Nov

 

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Neda with father Bill, who helped her found Return to Freedom. (Photo provided by RTF.)

My last entry here, “Desert Crosses,” celebrated people I met in Tucson on my 2014 community service road trip – volunteers devoted to aiding immigrants, many refugees from violent danger, seeking a better and safer life. That blog was posted November 8th – the day our country elected a President whose racist and sexist comments disturbed not only those immigrants, but a broad range of people from border to border. Anyone who cares about our most vulnerable citizens have to admit that we live in scary times that just got scarier.

So much so, it’s easy to feel that more has changed in the last two weeks than in the two years since I took my “whole service trip” around the United States. That being the case, what could my posters about acts of human kindness have to say that don’t feel trite? Particularly when this week’s installment of my fumbling foray into the realm of visual art is about the plight of a constituency blissfully unaware of the entire controversy – wild horses?

Think again.

During a time when violent emotion boils within folks from one end of the political spectrum to the other, Neda DeMayo – the founder of Return to Freedom wild horse sanctuary in coast California – offers a story that can help liberals and conservatives (and even the wholly apolitical) channel frustrations into positive directions.

Two years ago when I volunteered for a week at the sanctuary, Neda told me how her mission started when she was “around age 10 or 11,” when she saw a television program about the abuse of wild horses.

“I remember standing in the living room. I was very upset. I don’t know if it was a Western, if it was a news broadcast… I just remember how it felt. I had a lump in my throat. I was very upset. You can ask my mother. I said, ‘When I grow older I’m going to give them a home and I’m going to tell everyone the truth!’ ”

The truth was going to have to wait a few decades. First came a wide-ranging exploration of spiritual disciplines and creative arts that took her from East Coast to West, and beyond. She studied in a San Francisco yoga ashram and with Native American medicine people – she even went to India and meditated in a bamboo hut. Meanwhile, at various points she’d pursued training in such theatrical pursuits as mime, street theater, and mask-making, as well as French pattern-making and couture drapery. Eventually she moved to Los Angeles and “just fell into” serving as a fashion stylist for celebrities.

This was the life she was living when stories about wild horse abuse broke out in the national media.

“Every time I turned on the TV, I would see [wild horse] hunts or different things that upset me and I didn’t know what to do. Then I was watching the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer and he was looking at the chess board and you hear Ben Kingsley’s voice saying, ‘Don’t make a move until you see it’ – and I literally said I’m not going to make a move until I see it. And then I started to see it, started to see Return to Freedom and get a vision together.”

Getting the vision together took some doing. Like other great organizational leaders I have known, Neda took her time learning.

“It’s passion followed by correct action. You’ve got to be solid, you’ve got to think it straight through.”           poster-final-rtf-passion-pdf-copy

Sure, for reasons that go beyond politics – including the usual November academic rush – I haven’t been able to muster much in the way of either passion or correct action, and even navigating my workday has challenged my ability to think anything “straight through.” (Hopefully, my advisees didn’t pay the price for that when they registered for classes last week.)

But the commitment I already had in place – tutoring and mentoring at African Community Education – has helped me shift a few more hours of my week from feeling helpless to feeling helpful – even if I’m being helped just as much as the kids. In times that threaten to drain my spiritual accounts, ACE has proved to be money in the bank. That only scratches the surface of what ACE has done for me – but that’s another blog for another day. For now, consider the ways you can shift emotions from anger to love, from helplessness to helping. With the holidays coming up, there are plenty of opportunities – including the Catholic Charities meal deliveries, as well as the sit-down meals offered at churches such as St. John’s. Meanwhile, consider how to build in the commitments that help you channel emotion into action year-found.

For inspiration, check out the recent Nicholas Kristof 12-step program on recovering from the election. Or, if you want to know more of Neda’s story, read the blog I posed from Return to Freedom in June, 2014.

Desert Crosses

8 Nov
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2014 in Tucson: Crosses hikers would soon bear through the desert to the spots where immigrants died. Some are marked “Unknown.”

Today is Election Day, drawing to a close a particularly vile season of hate and anger – featuring, among other appalling things, some grotesque and malicious stereotyping of immigrants.

The issues of immigration are, of course, complex, entailing some difficult balancing acts of conflicting concerns. But the people I met two years ago in Tucson, Arizona – a city far more affected by immigration than most – shows that it’s possible, even in a church congregation ranging from liberal Democrats to Tea Partiers, to maintain a profound respect and compassion for people who, in the face of poverty and violence, and in many cases simply seeking to rejoin their families up north, risk their lives to cross the desert into the United States.

Especially those who don’t make it.

In 2014 on my service road trip, I worshiped at Southside Presbyterian on the weekend it was serving as a starting point for a 75-mile memorial hike to the border. Participants – many older than I, but in much better shape – were willing to hike in the early June desert heat to leave crosses in honor of immigrants who died during their attempted crossing. Meanwhile, I also interviewed Amanda Rutherford, an outdoorsy young woman whose life was changed by her first hike with No More Deaths, a group that is devoted to keeping people from dying during the crossing – even if that means calling Border Patrol to med-evac them to a hospital before sending them south of the border.poster-no-more-deaths-2-jpg

Two years later, when Lynn Simmons approached me about being what I call the Nonartist in Residence for the Kaboom! art show at Assumption College, I combined my photo of all those white crosses for deceased immigrants with the story of how another man avoided becoming one of them, thanks to the swift actions of Rutherford and a friend. (You can read more about my time there in a blog I posted from the road in June, 2014.)

Regardless of where each of us might set the balance when it comes to immigration, there are opportunities every day to cast a vote for compassion – and for respect of those who have faced greater challenges than I’ll ever know.

‘Mike, Where Have You Been?’

1 Nov

 

faculty show 2014_postcardOne of the more comic aspects of writing a book – a story that you hope, if you’re lucky, will be first published and then read by thousands of strangers in some distant future – is that you’re tempted to neglect people you actually know in the here and now.

Fortunately, The Whole Service Trip focuses on a journey in which I recorded 139 interviews with people about their causes, including the value of the connections they formed through their altruistic efforts – as well as the spiritual takeaways for how to live the rest of my life.

So this summer, even as the work of revision was receding like the ocean before a tsunami, the wave of irony that was slowly accumulating for the last two years of writing was now cresting in the distance and rumbling toward shore. It was high time for me to heed the lessons of my own book and make a more intentional effort to get to know some of my favorite people better.

One of the first people I called was Lynn Simmons. A sculptor and art teacher, she’s also a good-hearted person who helps brings people together, making her a model of someone who’s at once artistic and altruistic – a good friend to have a beer with and process how to shift my energy into a broader social realm without losing my center in the process.

What happened next shouldn’t have surprised me. After an hour of reflective and fun lunch-time conversation, Lynn delicately proffered an invitation that was both flattering and terrifying. How would I – a words person who hasn’t done visual art since sixth grade – like to be part of an art show?

She explained that even though everyone else in the show was part of the Art department at our college, they were all doing something outside their normal “comfort zone.” Which, of course, is where Lynn had me dead to rights. “Getting outside your comfort zone” was one of the community service “terms of faith” I was exploring in my book. As was the notion of acting in faith by putting yourself out into the world, trusting that good things would happen.

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Lynn Simmons shaking things up at Kaboom!

She didn’t have to articulate these arguments – the logic was irresistible. And, like so many people I’d met on the road, I had to respond to its call. The call, in this case, to create art to be exhibited next to the work of professionals in the library of the college where I work – so that colleagues and students alike could marvel with each other how effectively I’d dramatized how, having seen my work, they appreciate the work of Real Artists that much more.

Whatever doubts remained were set aside once Lynn named the show “Kaboom!”, with the slogan, “Shaking things up!” Which was just what happened to my writerly imagination. I began seeing The Whole Service Trip in a different way. The premise of my exhibit was to superimpose images on passages from my book, highlighting key phrases in larger type. Lynn helped me loosen up and let go of my obsessions with chronology, character and context. Instead, she helped me focus on the images, and the phrases, that would “pop” visually and imaginatively – and work together to tell their own story about The Whole Service Trip?

Today I mark my return to this blog – another form of communicating I’ve neglected during my book-related labors – with the first of several posts inspired by those posters. Today’s exhibit is built on a photo was taken by my father in June 2011, in the early months of debris removal after a killer tornado had ravaged my hometown of Tuscaloosa.

The night of the actual tornado, I was busy emceeing a dinner event on campus – my only anxiety  the minor terrors of public speaking. Meanwhile, my hometown was facing fears far more primal. By the time I got home and checked my messages, hours had passed since the tornado struck – and the twister itself came only after an entire day of my parents watching the TV in anticipation of the predicted storm. When I finally got Mom on the phone, she had just been outside, immersed in conversation about the all-consuming Major Topic of The Day … The Year … The Decade.

So it was understandable that the first words out of her mouth, said with innocent amazement, were: “Mike, where have you been?

She didn’t mean anything by it. But later I would. First I would quote her question as part of a prologue about the tornado cleanup – an experience that planted the seed for the whole trip two years later. But it took “Kaboom!” to help me see that “where have you been?” could be the question hanging over everyone’s “service trip” – over both the times we volunteer and the times we wish we had.

At least, in my case, every time I choose to leave my own world for help someone else in theirs, I come face to face with the question of where I’ve been, and how I’ve been wasting, the rest of my time. I’m a man of modest material means in my world, but I have a wealth of time and energy I could be investing in someone else’s. All I have to do is acknowledge that their world is connected to my own – and shed my own inhibitions enough to go to their world and work alongside them.

So many good things happen when we all do just that.

One example, of course, being “Kaboom!”

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Homelessness in Wo Mag

12 Feb
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Team inspects local homeless campground.

Worcester Magazine recently ran an in-depth piece on the local homeless and efforts to help them. In the struggle to continue moving away from the shelter model toward what seems the sounder path of a Housing First model, some people insist that more shelter beds are still needed.

As temperatures plunge in New England, this is a particularly well-timed issue for local citizens to consider.

 

No Time for Therapy

11 Feb

In the moving Strength in What Remains, author Tracy Kidder traces the journey of Deo, who flees genocide in Burundi only to find a fresh set of challenges in New York City. He is primarily occupied with survival from day to day, with virtually no one to talk to in his own language.

But then there’s the other challenge – the way that genocide won’t let him go, even from halfway around the globe. He still endures the post-traumatic stress of the horrors he has experienced, and the loss of all he’s let go of – and for lack of communication, his cannot help assuming sometimes that his entire family is dead.

I’m teaching the book in Creative Nonfiction this week, which made this article in today’s Worcester Telegram & Gazette that much more striking. It concerns how Syrian refugees, and those who help them, are dealing with similar troubles now – how to deal not only with the need for housing, jobs, and physical well-being, but the mental health needs of people who have endured so much just to get here. It’s another reminder of what we can all do in our own communities to help all refugees. Programs such as African Community Education, Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, and many others provide bountiful opportunities to help refugees and other immigrants.

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