Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Blogs I'm reading...

So I should preface this by saying that my very favorite blog ever, "Nobody's Doll," went to that big server in the sky some months ago, and I still haven't fully recovered. It was Kirstie Baker, if that was really her name, who first got me interested in the idea of blogging. Her incisive posts after 9/11 were a big part of what got me though that very black, black time. Come back, Kirstie!

The weblog I read the most on a regular basis is RealLivePreacher. I found RLP linked from somebody's website (I have no idea whose) who wrote, "I'm not a Christian, but this guy almost makes me want to become one." Painfully honest and beautifully written. I recommend starting with the early essays from the archive. All of you should immediately stop reading this and go check out Gordon's blog (I'm just a "Back" keystroke away).

My most recent blog discovery is The Light Fraction, a blog focusing on "organic farming, social justice, and Orthodox Christianity," written by a soil scientist. I really enjoyed reading through this; it is just the right mix of warm and lighthearted and funny and serious and well-reasoned. The February archive has a really fascinating discussion of evolution and "intelligent design," a subject that has recently become big news again. I like it because its Orthodox and openminded, and that, unfortunately, is hard to find.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Vietnam Revisited

The following is a guest editorial written by my friend Mark, who is homeless and lives on the streets with his wife Sheri. Anyone who would like a more detailed introduction to Mark and Sheri can click here and here.

I think Mark's essay is important not merely because he opposes the war in Iraq, a subject upon which he and I happen to agree. Mark's writing reflects a view of the Vietnam and Iraq wars--and indeed, of the world in general--from the perspective of those who have been left behind in the global quest for wealth and dominance. He offers a "view from the side of the road," a perspective that is always welcome on this weblog.



Thirty years ago, the US got involved in a war in Vietnam, a small country in Southeast Asia. It was destined to be the first war the US would lose. Vietnam claimed roughly 68,000 American lives and would continue for 10 years. How many of us remember or even know why we fought that war? Our President was all over the news at the time, telling the people of America about a Communist threat in Vietnam; after all, didn’t they have the Soviet Union backing them? We were told over and over that if we didn’t stop the Communists in Vietnam, we would end up fighting them right here in America.

We lost the war in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union would eventually collapse of its own accord. Today, we even have a dialogue with Vietnam. I believe we should ask ourselves, “How real was the threat the Communists represented? Did our government, along with defense contractors and other private businesses, create a scare and waste 68,000 American lives for their own personal agenda?” The reason I bring all this up is that we now seem to be in a similar situation in Iraq. Are the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam real or imagined?

In 1991, George Bush Sr. launched “Operation Desert Storm,” which was supposed to be the liberation of Kuwait, the pretense being that if we let Saddam Hussein take over Kuwait, who would be next? After all, Iraq was accused of committing atrocities against its own people, and was said to be in possession of weapons of mass destruction. But how did the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 really benefit the US? The answer is found in companies such as Bechtel and other US corporations that received large contracts to rebuild what we destroyed while helping to “liberate” the Kuwaiti people. Is it coincidence that oil is Kuwait’s main export, and George Bush Sr. is an oilman?

Fast-forward 12 years. It’s now 2003, and we have George Bush Jr. as President, who (coincidentally) is also an oilman. Are we starting to see a connection here? Bush Jr. is now telling us that Saddam Hussein is a terrorist, that he has weapons of mass destruction and is a worldwide threat, and that it is the duty of the US to stop him now in Iraq so we don’t end up having to fight him on US soil. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

Why haven’t we found any weapons of mass destruction yet? Also, like Vietnam, why are most of the attacks on American soldiers coming from the people we are supposedly fighting for? Obviously, there is something very wrong here that we have missed. We have for all intents and purposes destroyed the Iraqi infrastructure, and companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton, the company formerly headed by Dick Cheney, have $20 billion worth of contracts to rebuild what we destroyed. Already, Halliburton Co. has been found cheating the US—our own people! How will Iraq be able to repay $20 billion to the US? Iraq’s only resource is oil; a coincidence?

Our government would lead us to believe that the US wins all the way around. But what of all the American lives we are losing? Who is really going to benefit in the long run? Why do we let our government, at the cost of American lives and in the name of freedom, use us as pawns in their own personal board game, one that seems to be a combination of Risk and Monopoly?

On the whole, we Americans have become far too complacent in managing our country’s affairs. But the government is only part of the problem; we are the other side of the equation. We are so wrapped up in our lifestyles—our cars, clothes, toys—that we are reluctant to rock the boat, for fear of losing what we have. If we continue on this road, we will eventually lose everything, one civil right at a time. As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as intelligent and progressive. But are we? Intelligence requires logic and the ability to reason, yet most Americans accept the information they receive through the media as Gospel. It is said that magic is based upon illusion, that people generally believe what they see and hear. Knowing this, why wouldn’t the America people question what we are told by the media and the government, especially if it seems to defy logic?

We as a people need to wake up and see things for what they really are, and then we need to change them the only real way we are able: at the polls. We have the power to vote these criminals out of office. That’s what makes America great. So remember, “knowledge is power.” Do your homework and help America get back on track and back into the hands of the people, where it belongs.

Monday, November 22, 2004

La Pregunta

My mother told me:
if you stone the white fledglings,
God will punish you;
if you hit your friend,
the boy with the donkey face,
God will punish you.

It was God's sign
of the two sticks;
And the commandments of God
fitted into my hands
like ten more fingers.

Today they tell me:
if you do not love war,
if you do not kill a dove a day,
God will punish you;
if you do not strike the black,
if you do not hate the Amerindian,
God will punish you;
if you give the poor ideas
instead of a kiss,
if you talk to them of justice
instead of charity,
God will punish you,
God will punish you.

Mamma, is that really our God?

Jose Gonzalo Rose

On hat sizes and being satisfied

A few days ago, I got on the trolley on my way to work, and sat down next to Susan. Susan is an Asian American woman of about forty years old, who also happens to be mentally disabled. I've gotten to know Susan riding the train; I enjoy talking to her. She catches the trolley to work every day, where she puts labels on envelopes and does other light clerical tasks.

Susan has an intense gaze. In our culture, we don't really allow people's eyes to remain on someone's face for more than a few seconds at a time; it's considered rude, impertinent, forward. But Susan looks at each person long and hard, sometimes for a full two minutes, as if trying to read something written there, trying to decipher every detail of their face.

It can be a little unnerving.

After I sat down, Susan studied me for a while in her usual intense way, and then said, "You have a big head!"

Some people on the tram snickered. One person blurted out, "Big HAIR, she meant you have big hair" (I don't really, though it is a little long right now). But Susan insisted, "No, a big head. You have a big head."

I told Susan she was right, I do have a big head. And its true (in more ways than one). Whenever I buy a hat, I always have to find the biggest head size, at least a 7 1/2. More on that in a minute.

Susan then said, "Me, I have a small head. I'd like to have a big head like you." A short, awkward silence ensued. One nearby passenger, in a lame attempt at a joke, blurted out, "Maybe she wants to trade heads with you right here on the train." But Susan shook her head vehemently. "No. No. You can't be somebody else. You have to be yourself."

I said to Susan, "But wouldn't it be nice, every now and then, to be somebody else just for a little while?" Maybe I was thinking about how children love make believe, dress up, pretending to be someone else. Maybe I was thinking about how I sometimes wish I could be someone else: more heroic, more intriguing, more sagacious. The plus self. The venti personality.

But Susan looked at me and said, "No. You have to be satisfied with who you are."

I thought about Susan's words all the way to work, and throughout the rest of the day. When I was born, my head was so large the doctors feared I might be hydrocephalic. They told my parents I might grow up to be mentally disabled. What separates me from Susan is, well, not very much at all. A segment of DNA coding less than a billionth of an inch long. The will of God. You figure it out.

You were absolutely right, Susan. Absolutely right.

We have to satified with who we are.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Nobody wants Sandy

I wrote this earlier this year, on Valentine's Day...

Yesterday, when I got home, Sandy was waiting for me. Sandy has long brown hair, a wonderful smile, a chirrupy voice, and almost no actual contact with reality. Through whatever vicissitudes of life, Sandy lives in her own world, an imaginary world, a world that touches the one we experience at only tangential points. I'm told she has been like this since she was a child. She is utterly childlike; no, she simply is a child, a child in a forty-five year old woman's body. Like a child she is innocent and devious, casually unmindful of how she inconveniences you, still believing, like a child, that she is the center of the universe.

What is really amazing about her, though, is how persuasive she is. She believes in her own little reality, and has the power to make you believe in it too. Her world is utterly coherent, her stories hold together amazingly well. Her manner of speaking does not immediately tip you off that something is not quite right. If you didn't know her, you might actually believe her when she tells you that she is a medical specialist or a children's worker or a librarian. She once convinced a passel of contractors to show up for a meeting in order to submit bids to build a children's center on property she didn't own. They really believed her, and were exquisitely angry (as only contractors can be) when they realized it was all, well, it wasn't exactly untrue, it was just Sandy's truth, not the truth that the rest of us have to live by.

Sandy has four children, all of whom have been taken by the state. She could not but be an unfit mother. She is a child herself, and does not have the capacity to be a parent. God only knows what men have taken advantage of her along the way to allow her to have these children, these gifts from God whom she loved but could not keep.

What make Sandy unique is that she is so cheerful, so unlike most people who live through the grueling day to day struggle of trying to find enough food and a place to live. She has a glowing face. She has purpose, drive, ambition, even if it is towards entirely fictive endeavors.

Sandy was waiting for me because her brother has threatened to have her arrested again if she goes back to her home. You see, for years and years Sandy lived with her mother in a little trailer on some property belonging to Sandy's brother. When her mother died, she left Sandy the trailer in her will, but the property still belongs to the brother. Now that her mother is dead, her brother refuses to allow her to stay there anymore, so Sandy is homeless, wandering the hills. When she came to us, she hadn't had a shower or a warm place to stay for a week, and she hadn't eaten in awhile either.

I went down to see the local sheriff today to see if there was anything to be done about the situation with her and her brother, if her brother could really keep her out of her own trailer, remove the circuit box so she would have no power if she tried to spend the night there, and steal whatever food or clothes she leaves there. He told me that the brother could do so; it is, after all, his property. Moreover, he informed me that there was a warrant out for Sandy's arrest, possibly for trespassing on her brother's property to stay in her old home, possibly an old warrant relating to her neglect of her children. He told me that they would be happy to "take her off my hands" if I knew where she was; they could lock her up where she would at least have a cot and three meals a day. I told him that she had come by, but didn't tell him that my wife and I had given her a place to stay for a couple of nights. He sort of looked at me sideways and told me that putting her up would not exactly constitute harboring a fugitive, but that I could get in trouble if I tried to hide her.

All the way home, I thought of a line from Dickens' Christmas Carol: "Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?"

Last night, she called her daughter, who lives in a town about a hundred miles away. In Sandy's perfect and fictive world, her daughter was planning to come up and spend Valentine's Day with her. Of course, her daughter wasn't coming, had never intended to come. But Sandy didn't get upset; she is, after all, far too busy with her projects: building the new children's center, helping others with their medical problems, reorganizing the library. She has too much to do to let a little thing like being alone on Valentine's Day upset her.

Nobody wants Sandy. Not her own children, not her brother. Nobody. The world is waiting for Sandy to die and get out of the way. There is nothing for her here but a cell, a cot, and three meals a day.

Tonight when I got home, there was a scavenged business card in the door that said, "We appreciate your business; thank you for giving us the opportunity to serve you." Sandy had signed it. I think she's probably gone again, wandering the hills. Maybe she'll break into her trailer tonight, and try to spend another night there with no heat, or light, or water, shivering with the cold, thinking about her mother, who used to share the trailer with her.

Remembering someone who wanted her.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The widow's mite

Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’ (Luke 21:1-4)

I wonder, how did the priests spend those two copper coins?

Did they recognize the gift for what it was?

Or did they spend it, lumped carelessly together with all the other gifts, on rich food and fine clothing, on all the things that this woman could never afford, all the luxuries she would never have allowed herself?

Every Sunday, people like this woman come to our churches, seniors who put into the plate that which they have managed to carve out of tiny Social Security checks and inadequate pensions. How would the Lord react if He knew we were spending their money on luxury cars and beautifully decorated houses? On gem-studded crosses and Rolex watches? On vast "Byzantine-style" churches that perpetuate our imperialistic aspirations?

Heaven in all its fury would break loose in the temple, as it once did long ago.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A letter from the mayor

So a few weeks ago, the mayor of our illustrious metropolis went out for a homeless photo-op. He found a homeless lady on the sidewalk, a woman addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine, put his arm around her, and offered to take her down the street where a roomful of nice people were waiting to get people checked in to shelters and detox programs.

And I thought to mysef, "Great. When the Mayor takes a walk on the wild side, he gets his picture in the paper and the lucky recipient of his attentions wins the social service lottery, but when someone like Sheri tries to get herself into detox, it takes her three weeks even to get her foot in the door."

So I wrote the mayor a letter. A nice letter. I told him the story of how Sheri tried for weeks to get into a detox program. I told how her admission was almost derailed at the last minute by having to travel across town and wait hours for a chest x-ray. I suggested that if we are serious about dealing with the root causes of homessness, we should make sure that enough beds are available in the detox facilities so that anyone who wants to kick drugs or alcohol and is there at the clinic by 8:00 AM can be receiving care that evening.

Bottom line: nobody who struggles within themselves to find the courage to walk through the doors of a clinic seeking help for their addictions should be sent out of those doors without receiving it. Nobody.

So I got back a letter from the mayor. "Dear _____, I am sorry your friend had difficulty finding a shelter bed..."

a shelter bed?

It wasn't a shelter bed, it was a bed in a detox facility. Big difference. Anybody can get a shelter bed in this city, primarily because the shelters here are so dangerous that nobody wants to stay in them. People would rather push shopping carts around all night, mile after footsore mile, than stay in one of the shelters where they could easily get robbed or raped or killed.

Dammit, Mr. Mayor, read your mail.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The least of these

Yesterday, I stopped in to visit Therese. Therese lives in a trailer park in a rural area, a place of bizarre contradictions where the very rich and the very poor live in a kind of accidental community. In one space will be a beautiful RV, costing easily more than a hundred thousand dollars, with a brand new SUV parked next to it: well-heeled tourists visiting the nearby National Park. In the next space over will be a dilapidated little trailer that was probably acquired for less than $200, siding missing, cardboard in the windows, and a tarp over the roof to keep the rain out, with several broken down vehicles in various states of disassembly scattered around the yard. The trailer park is the epicenter of poverty in this area, the next to the last stop before having noplace to go.

Therese's trailer is a disaster from the outside, even worse on the inside. It is the house of a person who has been defeated by life, the living environment of someone who sees little use trying anymore. She smiles a lot, but its a rueful kind of smile, the uncertain grin of someone laughing at a joke that might turn out at her own expense. She worries a lot about her children. There is Carol, who is in high school, and who hangs around with Jason and Sarah, teenagers in the trailer park who are having sex and using crystal meth. She gets mad at Carol and yells at her too much; one can only wonder if her meaning bleeds through all those angry words: Please don't screw up. You have a life and a future ahead of you. Please don't get stoned and pregnant and stay stranded on this mountain forever.

Please don't repeat my mistakes.

Then there are Sheri and Paul, who are four and six. Therese's fears about Sheri and Paul are much more uncomplicated: she worries about feeding them. Underneath her smile lurks the shadow of quiet desperation, the look of someone who has been cornered many times, and has made decisions of which she is not proud.

Therese has her own business trimming trees and cutting firewood. She works hard. Unlike some in her position, she really tries. But every time she tries to take a step up the ladder, the rungs crack and splinter underneath her feet. Just when she seems finally about to get a break, something always happens: her truck breaks down or gets impounded for not having tags, or her equipment fails, and the job goes away. She lacks self-confidence, and so underbids the jobs she does get, selling herself short and barely covering her expenses.

November begins the most difficult time in the mountains, the time when all the odd jobs and temporary work dry up. November is also the time of year when the aid offices run out of money for assistance with propane and electric bills until around February, when the new grants come through. Our food distribution in this area used to nearly double in volume in the period from November through March. Therese confided to me that the firewood business, her only real prospect during the winter, didn't look so good this year.

I brought over some food, some rice and canned goods and a pan of frozen Greek chicken I swiped from the church freezer. I suggested that she put the chicken in the freezer, but she said they'd probably thaw it out and eat it right away.

So things are pretty bad for them right now.

I dropped by while attending a conference on the subject of trauma, particularly the trauma resulting from terrorist attacks or natural disasters. One of the presenters, though, took some time to talk about the unrelenting trauma of poverty. As a family systems therapist, he pointed out that it is usually the weakest and most vulnerable members of a family who become "symptom bearers," the persons in whom the stress or pathology of the entire family surfaces. But he also pointed out that this happens at a national and international level: the most vulnerable populations bear the symptoms of our collective pathologies. Trauma shatters our illusion of security, but within a year or two, people of means have mostly picked up and moved on, while those who lack access to resources are still traumatized. The rich take their expensive RV's and "get away from it all," but the trailers of the poor never go anywhere; they cannot get away from anything. For most of us, a major traumatic event is almost a kind of luxury, since it implies that there are long spaces on either side of the event in which we are not being traumatized and have an opportunity to recover. But for the weakest members of society, trauma is a continuous event, a daily shattering of whatever illusion of security still remains intact, a constant living on the crumbling edge of despair, a shadow of quiet desperation behind a smile.

When Christ said that He is present in "the least of these," perhaps there is more to this than we can ever know. Perhaps it is true that, like Him, they are suffering for all of us. For all our sins.

It's a beautiful world we live in

A sweet romantic place
Beautiful people everywhere
The way they show they care
makes me want to say

It's a beautiful world.

For you...
... not me.