Archive | July, 2010


27 Jul

After moving out of my parent’s house twelve years ago, my mom finally made me go through my desk, window seat and closet to clean my mementos out.  She laughed as I walked by her in the kitchen on my eighth trip to the recycling bin in the garage with piles of old papers, tests and drawings.  I seemingly saved everything from about fifth grade on—every note passed, every ribbon awarded, every paper graded.  I saved key cards from hotels, movie stubs, brochures from plays, sugar packets from restaurants.  It was phenomenal.  Why did this start?  How did I think this was a good idea?  What kind of time did I waste collecting such odd keepsakes?  When did I stop keeping track?  As I sifted through decades of report cards, birthday cards and awkward pictures, I was struck by how obsessively I hoarded.  It was like I was sitting in a pile of points earned, but years later the competition seemed utterly pointless.  I found a cast from a broken arm, a shoe box full of unmarked medals, a ponytail cut off, every flower given to me at a dance- dry and brittle.  Turns out I was infatuated with documentation.  It seemed I wanted to walk away from each moment with a trophy, something to show from my effort, something that proved my worth as a person.  And for what?  To remind myself at some point that I truly had accomplished something with my life?  To prove to my children that when I was their age I was productive?

Plaques, plaques, plaques–there were oh so many plaques.  I actually started to laugh out loud as I pulled plaque after plaque out of the window seat.  I was awarded plaques for really miniscule things.  At the time, it seems odd to toss them, but a decade later, it was comical how little worth lie in those plaques.  Who was the first to think that a block of wood is the perfect way to commemorate big turning points and goals achieved?  Why do we try to make big moments tangible with plaques?  Can recycled plaques be used for anything interesting?

I had to ask really big, yet somehow bizarre questions.  Do I keep the piece of paper that proves I have my Master’s Degree?  Do I keep sweet notes from guys I dated even though I found a companion that overshadows even the most tender moments with the others?  If we have to be reminded of the big moments, are they really the big moments?  How much does the past hinder us from being fully present?

Do you want to know what I kept?  I brought back to my apartment one card from each dead grandparent, one paper from my favorite high school teacher who died this past fall that had his scribbles all over it, and a note from my college roommate who died of cancer at age twenty-five.  After dumping the last bag of paper reminding me I was an A student when I was twelve (as if that matters now), I walked away with a new resolve to celebrate the people in my life who are still with me and to keep honoring those who are not with how I live my life.  That is all that seems to really matter.

I felt like a liberated woman as I left, sweaty, at the end of the day.  If my worth is not inherent, if I really need a piece of paper or a piece of wood to prove my worth, well, I am in deep trouble.  Cause I got rid of it all.  It felt good to leave the desk, the window seat and the closet empty, knowing I held every memory and every relationship I need to move forward in my being, in my body, mind and soul.  It is much less cluttered that way.

When you get rid of the clutter, the important things get bigger.


And the right thing is what, exactly?

19 Jul

For as long as I can remember, I have believed in the processes of disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed.  I personally was born into an extremely comfortable life, so I find myself intentionally seeking out disturbing situations.  The seeking is usually on my time and my terms, which itself is privileged.  I never quite imagined that taking a vacation to San Francisco would be disturbing.

But there, on vacation, I found myself face to face with the most abrasive homeless men I have ever met.  Now, in St. Paul, people experiencing homelessness stay fairly pocketed.  It is easy to go about my day and not have to think about people in my community who are struggling financially.  Yet the man on the street corner with a sign has always haunted me.  There he is, looking me in the eye, a fellow human, and I am forced to face my wealth on his terms and his timing.  And what is the answer?  Give him an apple, or a twenty or a business card?  Sit with him and ask to hear his story?  Volunteer at a shelter and hope to build relationship with him?   Go home and give half my clothes to Goodwill?  Work for policy change while his is sitting there?

The difference is, the homeless man in St. Paul sits at the intersection calmly.  The homeless man is San Francisco is not quite that passive.  Dan and I found ourselves being followed by a man for blocks, screaming at us on a busy street.  He was older, carrying a bottle of vodka, and he was relentless.  Instead of these haunting questions bubbling up as I drive through an intersection, they were forced into our ears as a tactic of public humiliation.  When it became clear that we were not going to give this man cash, he followed us for a few blocks screaming, “Do the right thing!  I am a veteran!  This is so fucked up!  Come on!   I am a marine!  Do the right thing!  That is so fucked up!”

He disturbed me.  I have thought about that man ever since.  The battle wages in my head.  I do not live or pay taxes in San Francisco.  I am not relevant there.  It is better to do work at home.  What do I owe him?  He’s drunk.  Giving him money will lead to more dependency and learned helplessness.  He needs professional help that I cannot give him.  Yet his words won’t leave me.  I don’t want to be a teacher who thinks that teaching about justice is enough, a teacher who expects her students to do all the hard work.  And he is right, the fact that a marine who is drunk at noon on the street has to beg for money in an undignified way is fucked up.

Do the right thing.  He made sure that I know that he exists.  What, then, must we do?

The Power of Stuff

3 Jul

There is a scene in one of my favorite moves, The Mission, where Robert DiNero’s character is scaling a waterfall dragging his old armor, seemingly as penance as he transitions from violent solider to peaceful Jesuit.  The scaling itself looks difficult, and his added arsenal of “stuff” makes it nearly impossible.  He slips, and his mentor needs to cut him free of his attached armor to save his life.  As we hear his former belongings clang down the gorgeous waterfall, we are sure the rest of the journey will be trying, but one can sense his instant liberation from his shell.  He continues lighter, dragging less on the journey.

That scene came to mind as comfort when, a week into a joyful vacation, my spouse realized that our camera had been stolen.  Our first reaction was sadness, having lost documented memories and well constructed frames of one of the most beautiful places in the US.  But with time, I also found liberation in our lighter load.  I could not help but notice that our stuff had been weighing me down, and I did not even notice until it had been cut free.  It was an instant refocusing.  It’s just a camera.

Dan and I have studied the art of photography.  Our camera had become a hobby and a ministry.  We became the people at weddings and baptisms and birthdays to snap the precious candid to send it on as gift.  And in that regard, the lost item was one to mourn.  But having it snatched also made me reflect on the hold the camera had on me.  Our remaining days on the trip were not spent looking for the perfect picture, but simply living.  I have a tendency to stop in the middle of a perfect moment to take a picture of it instead of just living it and keeping it for myself.  Our Facebook culture has become a bit obsessed with pictures, almost in a way to prove that we are living, to prove that we are happy, to show others our adventures instead of just having them for the sake of having them.  Now, I think sharing pictures of important people and events, and the community that can be built with that is wonderful.  Don’t misunderstand.  I am just saying that I noticed in myself that I had given an awful lot of power to an object that can be taken away.  And I was slipping into being more preoccupied with taking pictures of my life for the pictures sake, instead of living my life for life’s sake.  As a woman, it was supporting the tendency to worry more about how others are perceiving me from the outside than working on myself from the inside.  It made me wonder how much life I lost in the process.

Dan and I are contemplating whether to buy another camera or not.  I think we will, for the art and hobby of it.  But I am grateful for the perspective it gave me to be cut free from it.  I think it helped me be a more balanced camera owner.  It makes me wonder what other stuff in my life is weighing me down.

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