Sunday, November 20, 2011

Playing for Keeps

Running through my neighborhood is a study in contrasts.  It’s where you’ll find some of the priciest homes in Asheville.  Half a mile from my small 2-room apartment is a public housing complex.  Across the street from the house I live in – a house that is now 4 small apartments – are two bed and breakfasts, one on each corner.  (makes it easy to find my house, direction-wise)  One of them has rooms that go for up to $700/night.  Not kidding.  There are houses beautifully restored and/or renovated to show their former glory.  Sagging porches and peeling window frames exist a mere block away from the star of the parade of homes. 

“…as you get older, you begin to find things that are worth holding onto, forever.  All of sudden you’re playing for keeps, as children say, and it changes the very fabric of you.” (T. French, from The Likeness)

As I navigated brick sidewalks, parents pushing strollers and tackled the hills of the cemetery in the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, I found myself thinking about just what it is that is worth holding onto forever.  For this diverse neighborhood I live in.  For my tiny life that exists in such a vast universe of beauty and need.  There are some obvious things for me, of course.  I’ll keep holding onto the firm belief that the gaps that are evident in this wonderful place I get to live can be closed, bit by bit – that it’s possible for our community to take better care of one another.  I’ll continue to work toward that reality I know can happen.  In some ways, that’s the easy part for me, professionally anyway.  I’m lucky enough to get to work toward that through my job everyday.
But as the insanity of the cultural “holiday” season ramps up, and the first world scrambles to buy itself happiness, I realize that we really are playing for keeps on a soul level.  For the soul of our communities, our neighborhoods, our families.  My daughter has piles and piles and piles of toys.  Most of them are what I would term “good” ones – creative, learning-focused, etc.  And she doesn’t need 80% of what she has.  I have piles and piles of stuff, too.  It’s probably not too far off the mark to say that I don’t need 80% of what I have either.  Time for me to tread more lightly.  To give more, and get less.
For the soul of my community.  For the soul of my neighborhood.  For my daughter’s soul.  For mine.  We’re playing for keeps.  Nothing we can buy is going to get us there, to that world where bridges are built and crossed, differences honored and celebrated.  It’s that world I want for Abigail, it’s that world I want her to help create.  No Black Friday deal will make it happen. 
But what we share just might.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Beyond the Gate

"Why must the gate be narrow? / Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened. / To come in among these trees you must leave behind / the six days' world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes. / You must come without weapon or tool, alone, / expecting nothing, remembering nothing, / into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf." --Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir
Berry is talking about Sabbath – true Sabbath.  A concept I don’t know that I’ve ever managed to wholly understand or experience.  There have been moments, days, that I’ve had glimpses.  Overall, though, I resist it.  Struggle to stay still even for the length of a movie because I think I should be ‘doing’ something.  I haven’t done much research about Sabbath, though many of my clergy friends have.  Seems to me that it’s about balance, the ever-elusive carrot I have been sprinting after for most of my life.  There have been brief periods of time where I have come closer than others to some balance, some measure of rest, play and work that was healthy and good.  But those periods are the exception. 
I know I am doing the work I was made to do, the work I am continually being created to do with increased insight and skill as I stumble my way through it.  I also know that I am meant to be Abigail’s Mama, even if it must be in a far more limited capacity than I had hoped and dreamed it would be.  I am a loyal and loving friend to some of the most remarkable people I could imagine knowing (though I could do with at least a couple of my many-years-friends being in ‘let’s have dinner range’ – the consequence of pursuing the next best thing for my entire adult life, never staying anywhere longer than 4 years).  And now I’m an aunt to beautiful little Zoe.  It’s an incredible life, wonder-filled beyond anything I could have ever scripted in all the years I spent wanting to be someone, anyone else.  In the last couple of years it’s been a gift to discover that I no longer want to be anyone else, that I haven’t for a long time, and that I actually like me, just the way I am. 
Which is not to say that I no longer have any issues.  Quite the opposite.  The difference may be that I’m aware of most them.  Aware enough to know, anyway, that there are probably more.  I want to learn how to get beyond the gate.  To let go of whatever burdens I may be carrying so I can become even more myself.  I suspect if I can learn to do that, even a little at a time, that I will see more fully than I do now.  The world will be even more remarkable, more painful, more beautiful.  I know the world can be different than it is, that this little corner of the world I live in can be different – more whole and holy for every person who lives here, housed or not, sober or not, mentally well or not.  But it also means the non-profit world, the advocacy world must also shift.  Shift to a place where we do not run ourselves into the ground before we can finish the job.  We’re really good at what we do, we’re smart, we’re compassionate.  And we’re human, we need space to play, to rest and to work.
 So, I think I might stay put for awhile.  Put down my own roots in these mountains, mingling with the old and tenacious blood of my ancestors.  Search – and find – a new and healthier way to do advocacy work.   Have some fun. Try and change the world a little.  Find the path that passes through the narrow gate.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nickels, Dimes and Social Change

I spent part of my evening last night sitting in the overflow room used for Asheville City Council meetings when the chambers fill up.  The meeting is projected onto a screen, just like watching live TV.  Truth be told, I mostly wanted to be elsewhere.  I was tired.  Kind of hungry.  Bored with the minutiae of how leaf collection happens in the city.  I also know how important it is to show up when something’s at stake, and enjoy the ‘showing up’ part of my job.  So I sat there, learning about the budget, equipment and personnel it takes to collect leaves every fall.  I was glad I had a smart phone (though wishing for the 100th time I had downloaded a game onto it – Facebook doesn’t generally entertain me for every long) and waited for a seat to open up in the Council chambers so I could be on hand to speak to the agenda item I showed up for.  Item: “What to do with Occupy Asheville.” (okay, that’s my language, not the official agenda line item)

Like many communities, we have folks connected to the Occupy movement.  I’ve been interested in reading and watching how this has played out all over the country, heartened by diverse groups of people talking to each other and speaking out against systems that divide and oppress and take away from those who have little or nothing already.  I have to also admit that I’ve been cynical.  Thought and intention behind action is vital for me.  Memorable moments in my life are those that include conversation with loved ones and strangers about justice, philosophy, politics, theology – I was a preacher, after all, so I can talk all day and into the wee morning hours without hesitation.    At the same time, when it comes to needed social change, I want to get to the solution, and get it done.  The Occupy movement is a struggle for me, as I have not found enough direction to satisfy my need for focus and a plan of action.

Once we finally made it to the long-awaited agenda item, there were lots of comments from those who identified with the Occupy Asheville movement.   It seemed to me that every one of those speeches and statements was based in a “my way or the highway” mentality.  Either you allow us to camp somewhere 24/7 or you don’t support us.  There were a few comments from individual members of the community and a group representing some independent businesses calling the whole movement irresponsible and ridiculous.  Again, “my way or the highway.”  A chasm that neither side was willing to bridge.

Our radical individualism is killing us.  Our radical liberalism, conservatism – it’s all killing us.  Separating us, dividing us into right camps and left camps, leaving no room for the mess and beauty of what humanity actually is.  Diversity is not at all about everyone agreeing with one another.  Living in true community means diversity is accepted and respected, that disagreement is okay.  Even when it pisses you off.  Maybe especially then.

I will work for the social change I believe in for the rest of my days.  I need lots of nickels and dimes for it to happen - from government and from those of us responsible for electing that government.   What I need just as much is to find the common ground with those who live here with me, however far their belief and action may be from mine.  Does everyone sitting on City Council agree with me that housing is a right and not a reward?  Probably not.  Do we all want people off the street?  Absolutely.  And that’s where we started.  Asheville-Buncombe’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness got off the ground in 2005.  From that beginning – with the leadership, help and partnership of countless individuals, groups and agencies -- chronic homelessness has decreased by 75% in our community.  It’s messy, hard work.  I want everyone around the table to believe housing is a right.  They don’t.  But we’re working together in all the mess. 

That number – a 75% reduction in chronic homelessness – represents a move away from radical individualism and a move toward community. Hundreds of faces crowd into that number.  It’s a number that means lasting social change is possible.  And happening, right here in Asheville and Buncombe County.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Beauty of all the Mess

View from Mt. Pisgah
It’s fall, my favorite time of the year.  Temperature, the shift to crispness in the air, leaves doing their magical color-changing that leads to an explosion of color in the mountains I get to look at everyday.  Perfect weather for weekend hiking, playing outside with my 3-year-old, satisfying jogs through the neighborhood.   Early morning walks to work give me the first glimpses of a pink-orange sky becoming visible just above the Blue Ridge.  I am beyond fortunate to wake up, every morning, into the stunning beauty of this place.
       I walk into work, embraced by the sunrise, and enter a world that does not notice the sunrise for the same reasons I do.  As I weave my way through the men and women huddled together for warmth on the porch, I realize they wait for the sunrise not because of its beauty, but for its signal of the temperature rising.   The cool, brisk evenings that bring me such joy mean a need for more blankets and sleeping bags in the campsites many of these folks sleep in at night.  Holding together beauty and brokenness, in the same place, in one moment makes it difficult to open the door.
A HOPE Day Center front steps
            There’s a lot going on.  In my life.  At work.  Around the world.  My patience with systems that create and then perpetuate the brokenness I walk through everyday is gone, if I ever had any to begin with.  I watch my daughter get showered with gifts for her 3rd birthday, am happy she is loved and adored by so many.  And I watch her pile of stuff grow, things she doesn’t need and would not miss if they were not there.  An abundance of toys and clothes for one small child.  My toys look a little different, but I have an abundance of them all the same.  Clothes, too.
            I get up every morning, to give what I can to the task of moving this little corner of the world to a different place, most of the time hopeful that it’s possible.  And, most days, making more mistakes than not.  I’ve got a lot to learn about integrating my own life in a way that moves me closer to the folks I see everyday, and not farther away.  It’s all messier than I could have imagined as I drove across the country to land in Asheville in the summer of 2008.  Nothing in my life looks like I expected it to.  Brokenness and healing.  Despair and beauty.  All in one moment. 
            Above and through it all, so much gratitude for the life I get to experience everyday.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Death and Resurrection

I'm often far enough removed from the chaos of operations in the day shelter where I spend lots of hours each week that I am largely protected from the brokenness that walks through the door each day.  I face it at a distance most of the time, with only a couple of days  a week consumed with the daily details.  The incredible staff I work with, however, stand face to face with that brokenness for 40 hours, each one of them, every week.  Some days are better than others. 
Today, on my way to yet another meeting, I called my assistant director to check-in, to see how the morning was going.  I could tell she was stressed, and had had better days.  And part of the reason, I discovered, was grief.  Raw and painful sorrow, laced with frustration.  Word had come that a woman we'd all known well, for quite some time, had died the day before.  She'd been in and out of the shelter system, lived outside, camped in places not meant for human habitation, struggled with physical and mental disabilities, addictions.  It seemed to many of us that her most destructive addiction was to her husband, in a vicious and demeaning cycle of long-term domestic violence.  With all of that, we'd also managed to help her (with her husband) finally get off the street and into an apartment.  And then, today, word comes that just a year later - only a year after decades of no permanent housing - she's gone.  Rumors abound, of course, about how she died.  Reality is, it doesn't matter.  Death is death.

This afternoon, wading through emails and phone messages, trying to catch up or at least hold my head above water in the midst of pages of to-do lists, I hear a car pull up in the driveway that's just below my window.  I pause to take a look, more out of wanting to stall or procrastinate that to-do list than out of any real curiosity.  But the tall, white man with a little bit of extra weight on him looks familiar.  I look again.  No, he's too heavy to be J.  J. is tall and white, but thin due to too many years of drug abuse.  And he doesn't have a car.  A few minutes later, there's a knock on the staff entrance door.  I look up from my computer screen.  It is J.  And he's grinning from ear to ear.  He looks healthy and well.  He looks happy.  He looks free.  I tell him how great he looks, he gives me a big hug. I ask him what he's up to.  He's come to volunteer his time, to help our director of community engagement with a big mailing she's doing.  "Time for me to give to you," J. says.

One day.  A few short hours. From death to resurrection. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday

It is this day that is the hardest
    in a week called Holy.
Not the intimacy of baring feet
    or breaking bread
    Nor even the stunning violence of the
    hill of skulls, the bloody ground beneath too many crosses.

This is the hardest, this in-between day.
    Feet are clean
    Bread has been shared and eaten
    The cries of battered, broken bodies are

This Vigil.  This Holy Waiting --
    this is hardest, if we remember.
If we remember that we do not know what
    resurrection will bring.
The One we wait for will not be what we expect.
Not then.
Not now.

Waiting for resurrection is harder
    than remembering death.