Category Archives: Culture

My time is more valuable than this…

“Life’s too short to clean your own home.”

The words on the brochure accompanied a sweet, domestic shot of a mother and daughter cuddled on the couch in front of a laptop and a father and son playing together. Inside the shiny brochure were package and pricing options for hiring a national company to come and do your dirty work.

It was ironic that I found this while doing a major sort/clean of stacks of papers that had accumulated in and around our kitchen and eating area. We spent our holiday weekend in deep cleaning mode: we are preparing to welcome a new addition to our family and needed to reconfigure our downstairs rooms. If anyone could read this brochure as gospel, good news, it would be us.

Life is too short…that declaration screams a set of assumptions about what is “worth” our time, nowadays.

I was reminded of two things I read recently that I think address some of these assumptions about our time. The first was from a minister discussing how well members of the clergy take care of themselves, and she wrote quite pointedly about how the basic acts of preparing and eating food have become expendable in our daily schedule: “And you know what you’re supposed to do for self-care, but you just don’t have time to do it because your schedule is so stupid that it’s a big special deal to do something like cook a meal…”

The second was from a college professor who has small children who wrote a great reflection on how what is right before us, our real life, can be the last thing we want to embrace, choosing instead whatever set of ideals and distractions seem so much more appealing:

The breakfast dishes (the ones that have to be done by hand) gave me opportunity to practice awareness – when you’re doing the dishes, just do the dishes. But, many of us say, it’s impossible with young children (“it” being growth, progress, enlightenment, meditation, awareness, focus, and so on)! I spent nine minutes washing the dishes and was interrupted at least six times to settle a conflict, wipe a bum, admire what someone did in the potty, find a battery, comfort an owie, and help get a shirt on. I saw anger arise – “Hey kids – get the hell out of my way so I can practice serenity!!”

But it wasn’t the kids that were interrupting – it was my mental formations. On top of all I already have to do, how do I manage to add worries (I’m mismanaging my career), ruminations (I should have picked a different major years ago), plans (need to buy steel cut oats and milk), regrets (I’ve doomed the children by not signing them up for swimming lessons this summer), and judgments (what kind of human being wants applause for going in the potty?).

I was trying to do the ideal dishes – the ones that need to be done in a sunny kitchen in a quiet house.  It’s true, I can’t do those dishes, but I can do the dishes I have – the ones in this messy, loud house where there’s always a child’s needs squeezed between the bowl I’m washing now and the knife I reach for next.

Both of these women speak of a gospel that differs from the good news announced by the national housecleaning company. As I gently unpacked the remaining pieces of my Grandma’s everyday dishes this past weekend and set them out on the dining room table, I thought: is life not sometimes found exactly in the act of sifting flour, spooning ingredients together, setting a pretty table, and scrubbing the dishes after it’s all over? What does it say about us when those acts become obsolete or a luxury or something to be “free of” in our daily lives?

Last night I clicked on a friend’s blog and read a gripping entry where she described how a beautiful, laid-back day with friends turned into her worst-case scenario with her special-needs son involving extensive poop clean-up and later a bed full of vomit. I was struck by a realization: when we believe that life is too short for time-consuming tasks, mundane chores, and messes, this has consequences that reach for beyond our housekeeping. The “life is too short for this task” list can become a “life is too short for this person and the work it requires to love and welcome and care for them” list, and woe to us when that becomes our ideal. Because there will always be someone to hire to spare us from doing it ourselves.

Dispensers of grace

I remember moving toward the counter in a daze. Surrounded by the noise and elbows and roller bags of the Southwest ticket counter at Midway, I felt out of body, suspended above the chaos. I think it was a Sunday.

A warm smile greeted me as I slid my paper confirmation printout toward the woman at the counter. Her smile turned a bit as she looked over my reservation: “Your flight was on Wednesday,” she said, looking confused but not unkind.

“I know,” I said as the tears started falling. I don’t remember what I said or how I explained my circumstances, but I remember offering no excuse for the fact that I never called to change the reservation. I stood there in front of her, uncertain and uncaring, even, of whether or how I could find a plane to take me home.

She started piling Kleenex on the counter in front of me. Suddenly she was a woman filled with compassion, no longer a chaos-managing airline employee. I don’t think I even got through much of my story, but she did not need much after “shot and killed” and “funeral” for her heart to swell with kindness and care.

Kleenex, a new flight reservation and a pile of candy were all she could offer and she offered them freely. As I gathered these lifelines, she touched my hand and told me that she was sorry.

She was my angel that afternoon. I never knew her name and I don’t know her story but she touched me in my grief and acted with mercy. Reading this article this morning reminded me of her. Thanks, Tim.

Ears to hear

We are on vacation enjoying a week of lake-life with my folks, and a neighbor’s high-speed internet lured me online briefly last night. I came across a very short video featuring a few thoughts shared by our friend, John Goldingay, on what concerns him about the church today. Listening to John in this video reminded me of another esteemed Fuller prof, Miroslav Volf, speaking to our class one Monday afternoon, growing animated as he described what went on in the pulpits of most churches he encountered in the area. I remember perfectly clearly the way his blue eyes blazed when he said that we would be better off if the sermon were scrapped altogether and the Scriptures simply read aloud, big chunks of them at a time.

HELL IN A HAND BASKET from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Haubs and Kinnons and Staubs, oh my!

ferry2

Imbi, Erika, Bill and Doug

2 Haubs, 2 Staubs, 2 Kinnons part 2

Erika and Bill - the blog buddies

We made it up to Orcas Island for the last full day of KindlingsFest 2009 and had a delightful day with new friends and old. The Staub girls courageously wrangled our children for much of the day, and Kathy was the consummate hostess as always. A chance to spend time with Imbi and Bill Kinnon was a total treat! The day ended with dessert and wine at the Staub house with an amazing view of the thunderstorm. It was well worth the 4:30am wake-up and late night post-ferry drive home.

(Photos courtesy of Bill and Imbi Kinnon.)

$900,000 goes to Pasadena agency?

I remember driving a friend down to Skid Row one night, not long before we left Los Angeles to move to Seattle. My friend was involved in a rehabilitation program on Skid Row, as was her husband of many years. They lived separately while they pursued healing from addiction, received job training, and moved toward permanent housing and employment. Driving through Skid Row at night is an experience I will never forget. The images from that evening are fresh and real in my mind even today.

I remember hearing about the L.A. times reporting on the practice of hospitals dumping patients along Skid Row, some still in their gowns; others still hooked to IV’s. I remember also hearing often enough about police dumping homeless or mentally ill individuals in locations far outside the boundaries of the communities they would patrol, or often at or near Skid Row as well.

I read this story today about the financial settlements that came out of investigations into these dumping cases with one particular L.A. area hospital. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out. (HT James Love)

Henry Louis Gates and my night as a prostitute

I have been following with interest the media coverage of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an esteemed African-American scholar on the faculty at Harvard University. Incidents like this are dipstick moments of sorts for how different opinions and perceptions really are about some facet of our society. They are O.J. moments, really, and this one has likewise opened the door for much discussion and shouting and debate.

Having lived as an adult in urban communities in both Los Angeles and Chicago, I have shuddered over the years at the stories of people, young and old, who have been arrested unjustly, verbally abused, and assaulted by police officers who were just “doing their job”. I grew up in a community where the policeman was a hero; an upstanding member of the community; a friend. I knew such men, and there was a reason kids wanted to grow up and become like them.

When I moved to Chicago, those impressions began to shift. Now, Chicago is a bit notorious for police misconduct and corruption, and the city is full of stereotypes and war stories about Chicago cops. And when I first heard that stuff, I mostly treated it the way one would experience an episode of a TV show because that is how stereotypes feel. But then, a year or so into living in that community, those stereotypes lost their movie star faces and took on those of my neighbors and friends.

I remember the day that one of the young men I was especially close with started telling his cop stories. Growing up as a Puerto Rican youth who was “neutron” as he called it (unaffiliated with any gang) in our community , he had not been spared from chasings and beatings and humiliations. I remember feeling so horrified at what he described, and I burned with anger toward those who had so consistently harmed this child. I recall one story in particular where he talked about seeing the cops coming and choosing to run through the alleys to escape. I remember thinking that was a foolish choice: of course if you run, they are going to chase you down, right? If you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t run!

Well, that was a bit naive. Oprah will tell you that, if you are a woman who is being assaulted, not to EVER let your assailant take you to a “second location”. Fight with all that you have in you to prevent that move. While I am not willing to suggest that the police station can be compared to a rapist’s house, there is an instinctual reaction to someone who may harm you: fight or flee, just don’t let them “take you”. And if you grow up hearing stories of beatings and seeing your brothers come home bloodied and bruised because they dared to play basketball at the park or walk in an alley, and even if it is only one relative who mysteriously “dies” during his incarceration, that is enough to rewire your response to an unmarked Impala.

I ran a drop-in center on the campus of North Park University for a number of years, and in its early stages, I was the adult responsible for the kids who came to read or talk or play pool with me on Friday afternoons in the campus game room. When six o’clock would roll around, I would walk out with the kids who were left, and I would walk them home. I remember being stopped on occasion by officers who were quick to tell me that I was walking where I did not belong. They were not polite or kind, and while I was “one of them” in terms of the color of my skin, their disdain and annoyance and offense even came through loud and clear.

I am a warm and gentle and kind human being, and tend toward a higher level of politeness, even at times using “sir” when I speak to my elders. But I remember clearly the snappy tone that came over me when these guys would stop me and speak rudely to me. I felt defensive and while their behavior was in no way abusive or threatening, my face would get red and my tone would change. I don’t know if it was a mama-bear-like response as I would take a step forward to put my body between my kids and their cruiser, but I know with certainty that I did not call any of them “sir”.

I thought about that when I read all of the coverage that continues to unfold around the Henry Gates case. One news story in particular had a full string of comments from readers saying in one way or another: “Oh, look, the race card won again!” in response to the charges ultimately being dropped. And while I am of the mind that, as many have said, cooler heads could have prevailed in this situation, I also know that I relate to the story and to Gates’ reaction with an understanding borne from my experiences in both Chicago and L.A. that are not normative for everyone, especially the lighter-hued among us.

On the night when I was picked up and placed in the back of a police cruiser for the crime of flagging down two officers to protect me from a man who was propositioning me as I walked down the street, my own behavior surprised me. You don’t ever know how you will react in situations you don’t expect, and when I was apprehended, when those officers began to accuse me of prostitution, I could taste the indignity and I wanted to spit it back in the officers’ faces. I was horrified by how they were speaking to me. I was humiliated by their assumptions about my body and sexuality. I was irate that that they had so clearly seen a man following me, had watched as I crossed the street and waved my arms begging them to stop and help me, and yet watched as the only person on the street doing anything remotely criminal walked hurriedly away.

As they placed me in the back seat of the cruiser, I found myself repeating an absurd phrase: “But I’m Senior Par Excellance! I’m Senior Par Excellance.” This was the name of an annual award given to the graduating senior who most expressed the University’s values and ideals through a life of service on campus and beyond. It was my own much lesser version of Gates’: “You don’t know who you are messing with.”

And so instead of catching a cab to make it downtown to the graduation party for our University’s president’s daughter, I rode in dismay back to my apartment where thankfully my Mom happened to be getting ready for bed having taken a red-eye with my Aunt the night before from Seattle. After supplying the officers with campus identification, a recent issue of the College News which had three articles on the front page that mentioned me, as well as my weekly column inside, and of course the testimony of my mother about when I left the house and what I was doing, I was finally released with this admonition: “Well, we’ll let you go this time. But we’ll be watching for you. If we don’t pick you up again after a month, the charges will be dropped.”

As I stood in the doorway of my apartment, I did not say “sir”. I don’t think I even extended a “good-bye”. I was livid, and as much as my mom tried to persuade me to stay in that night and forgo the party, I was not going to let their intimidation win. I grabbed my things and walked right out that door, though I did not go back to Lawrence Ave. but opted for Foster instead. A cab came, I made it to the party, and word spread quickly about the incident. And I went down in campus history as the Par Excellance Prostitute!

I share my story for the sake of relating to the Gates’ arrest, and relating to the fact that for me there was a whole mess of circumstances that informed how I responded that night on Kedzie Avenue. And also to relate to the fact that, one who is described as polite, well-mannered, distinguished (well, no one has ever described me as distinguished, but they have used that word for Gates), can suddenly face an indignity or humiliation that brings out every defense.

I appreciated the following comments about the Gates’ incident:

Did Professor Gates exhausted after his long flight from China and perhaps irritable after being unable to gain entry to his own home, become outraged when he was questioned by Officer Crowley and ordered to step outside? Maybe. Did the police officer overreact to the professor’s outburst? Certainly. Did race shape their responses? Most likely.

The officer, rather than treat Professor Gates as a respected member of the Harvard faculty, probably expected more deference from him because he was black. Professor Gates, in turn, probably offered more defiance because the officer was white. Just as the officer may have presumed that Professor Gates did not belong in the upscale neighborhood, Professor Gates may have presumed that Crowley was a racist, intent on harassing him.

This stuff is loaded and complicated and messy and we are bound to judge and assume and pretend to know more than we do. I hope there can be some fruitful dialogue around issues of race and power and our criminal justice system, and I hope we can sincerely move past the perspective that this is all a game of cards.

Post-racial?

My friend, Jelani, pointed me toward this article which asks some really good questions. Here’s an excerpt:

The desire for personal post-race status is an impulse  I encounter frequently. Without fail, it comes from well-intentioned white people looking to be absolved of whiteness – not through their politics, but their biographies. They listen studiously to my take on race privilege, then raise their hands to identify themselves as white but gay, or white but Irish and thus part of an ethnicity that was once considered nonwhite, or white but from an all-Dominican neighborhood.

My response to such statements is always the same. I have no desire to belittle any aspect of your identity, I say, but either you walk through this world with white skin privilege or you don’t. There’s no such thing as being pulled over for Driving While Wanting To Be Black. Sometimes how you ‘self-identify’ is irrelevant. You could be a gay Irish dude from the heart of Washington Heights, with a Senegalese lover and a degree from Morehouse to boot. The cop and the judge and the loan officer and the potential employer are only going to check one mental box. And when they do, you’re going to benefit from the way they see you, like it or not.

…The problem is that post-race inevitably implies post-racism. To conflate the two ignores the very nature of oppression.

UPDATE: Apparently the article is no longer accessible. I am looking for a repaired link and will correct it when I can. It is an excerpt from the book: The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union’ by Adam Mansbach, originally posted at The Root.

Grief on Facebook

Grief is an interesting thing. Sometimes there can be the strangest triggers for mourning.

Yesterday, I received a friend invite on Facebook from a young woman I knew back in Chicago. I have to say that Facebook and Myspace have both been really great for getting back in touch with youth I have known over the years. Sometimes I have been really surprised by who has looked me up and how they have found me. I accepted her friend request and sent her a little note yesterday afternoon, and after helping get kiddos tucked into their beds last night, I settled into my bed with some Isaiah commentaries and my laptop. At one point, I got distracted by Facebook and ended up going to the profile page for this young woman. I wanted to see if there were any other kids from the old neighborhood in her friends list, so I opened it and scanned through.

The friends list was ordered alphabetically by first name, and as I was scanning the names I suddenly felt this intense catch in my throat. I realized that I had come to the letter “J”, and that subconsciously I had looked for or hoped to see Jamar’s name. And when it wasn’t there, I was reminded that he  won’t ever have the chance to have a Facebook page or reconnect with old friends or exchange notes with me as an adult. He is dead, and last night there was a huge gaping hole, a bullet wound of sorts, in a list of Facebook friends.

His name should have been there. It won’t ever be. I still have tears for this.

Still Alive

Since moving back to Seattle, I am pretty sure that I have heard a Pearl Jam song every single day. I love Pearl Jam, so this is fine with me, but it still feels kind of amazing that at some point in almost every day I will hear one of their songs. Restaurants, malls, the radio…someone, somewhere, will play some Pearl Jam. Today it was a restaurant in Ballard, and once on The Mountain.