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.