Thursday, July 4, 2013

I Am Not Needed: A Witness

My gracious, little blog, it's been quite some time since you and I talked.  I have plenty of excuses lined up if you'd like them, but honestly, I'm ready to just move forward.

Are you ready?

During Closing Retreat for Amate House, each of the three houses spent a week on the shore of Lake Michigan.  That week, that creepy little house in the woods, that rocky shore, that living room carpet, that king-size bed, that silverware drawer, that lake water...I will be carrying all of these things and so much more into my next adventure.

I'm still at a loss for words on how to communicate this past year to those who weren't actively a part of it.  I have tried.  Time and again, I've tried.  But I've almost resigned myself to believing that the art of story and language simply won't cut it this time.  Perhaps this past year and everything it was and was not...perhaps it was all for me.  Then again, it's only "all for me" until that "me" goes elsewhere in the world and changes it because of the changes she experienced there.  So it really wasn't all for me after all.

I'm making my own head spin.  In any case, that's not the point of this post.  The point of this post is to share a little bit of this past year with you.  During Closing Retreat, we were tasked with writing a five-minute Witness Talk to sum up our year with Amate, which we shared with our community.  It was an exhausting undertaking to say the least, but what I eventually eeked out is transcribed below.  I hope it will tide you over (and me, too!) until I know what else to say.

I Am Not Needed:  A Witness
     I have seen the face of God.  I have seen the face of God in a gap-toothed fifty-year-old man who thinks he's a Vietnam War veteran, has unrivaled affection for the color yellow, knows all of the dance steps to Thriller, can throw his voice to sound like Darth Vader's when you least expect it, and calls me his angel.
     My relationship with Kevin is my milemarker for this year.  When I first met him, on my first day of work at West Suburban, he didn't really stand out to me.  As weeks passed and I fought to fit somewhere--anywhere--in the agency, I began to notice him.  He often sat at the table with the other clients, but he couldn't have conversations with them.  He would talk himself in nonsensical circles around being fifteen, jobs in Chicago, taking care of people, being underwater, money, and a handful of other things.  But you couldn't be sure that even a single sentence of what came out of his mouth was going to make a lick of sense.  He would do it even if no one was listening. 
     He was over six feet tall, and as one of the only clients who could and would ambulate of his own volition, I avoided him.  In a very vague way, I was afraid of him because I couldn't understand him.  But then one day I found myself sitting at a table with him and one of the Certified Nursing Assistants in a room separate from all of the other clients.  He began talking, and he didn't stop.  It was probably the most lucid I had seen him to that point, or perhaps it was just the first time I actually listened.  He talked about being fifteen and watching his father get shot.  He talked about how he had to go to Chicago to get a job so he could take care of his family.  He went on and on and on.  At first, I hung on everything he said.  But then I realized that I couldn't be sure he was telling the truth. 
     I looked at him as he babbled and tried to make words connect to thoughts in his addled brain.  And I made a decision.  I decided that I would take him on faith.  In our sharing covenant back home, I had written that we should not deny each others' realities.  Why should I treat Kevin any differently?
     I began to respond to his tone and would pick up on what felt like key words in his unbroken monologue to ask questions. I searched his eyes as he spoke and he stared right back and let me feel his meaning on some inherent level.  I didn't understand him at all, but suddenly, I knew him.  I saw him as completely as he could share himself with me.  And I knew him.
     From that day on, Kevin and I were as thick as thieves.  I could count on getting smiles out of him.  He would tell me I was beautiful entirely unprompted.  Some days he would say things to me that frightened me.  He would tell me I was "the only one."  I didn't know what it meant, and I couldn't even make any conjectures about it.  After a while, when I was given the responsibility of some desk work, I would look up from the grant I was writing and find him watching me from the other side of the room.  I would smile at him when our eyes met, and then he would mouth, "Are you okay?"  And I would nod, "Yes," and mouth back "Thank you."  He would mouth back "I love you."  And I would just smile at him as the tears welled up in my eyes.  I cried because I believed him.  Almost more than anyone who has said those words to me in my life, I believed Kevin when he told me he loved me.
     Kevin's care for me became something I could rely on.  He became my role model for sincere authentic empathy.  The mouthed conversation would happen regularly.  Sometimes I would initiate it by asking him if he was okay first.  He always was.  "Oh yeah!" he would say as if he had never been anything other than okay.
     My relationship with Kevin drew open my relationship with all of the other clients, too.  I learned from him that I could communicate with each of them if I was patient and observant and found a way to reach them.
     But there were days I couldn't reach Kevin.  Some days his meaning was too far away from his words and he could feel it.  He wouldn't make eye contact.  He would stand up and sit down in several chairs around the room and just prattle to himself.  I could feel his agitation from wherever I was in the room.  I began to really comprehend just how much of a gift it is to be able to think about what you want to say, say it, and feel as if your meaning and your words connected.  Not only that, but that your meaning was understood.  He made me thankful for God, for the fact that I could trust He knew exactly what I meant, knew the very straining of my heart no matter how poorly or clumsily I spoke.
     Trying to understanding Kevin started to feel like trying to understand God.  I knew on some inherent level I could know him.  I knew there were certain rhythms we could both find that would align us like prayer.  Dancing with Kevin was one of those rhythms.  If I extended my hand to him, I could trust he would take it.  I would raise his arm just a little and he would understand I wanted him to twirl me.  I don't know how to put words around what it felt like to let his body revel in rhythms tucked deep inside of him.  The best I can do is to say that it made me think of each of us and our prisons and how we have those moments of grace where we release each other and set each other free, if only for a moment.  For a man whose memory forsakes him all day long, I could only wonder what it meant for him or felt like to remember exactly how to move and lead a dance partner.  I can't wait to ask him someday when he and I are both no longer on this side of paradise.
     That day will likely come much sooner for Kevin than it will for me.  I found out a few months ago that Kevin has prostate cancer.  As if his body hadn't already betrayed him enough, it was now mutating and making him suffer from pain he has no way of expressing.  I found out the day he began radiation therapy.  He wasn't on the bus, and when he was dropped off later in the day, he looked like he hadn't slept for weeks.  As he stood looking out the window at the red sports car across the street that he liked to tell me belonged to his brother, my co-worker and I watched him.  She said, with a hint of anger in her voice, "I don't understand how he could be double-whammied like that."  I said nothing because I had just been thinking that my God was no different now that I knew Kevin had cancer than He was when I had laid down to sleep the night before.
     Kevin became harder and harder to reach in my last days of work.  He became more and more paranoid.  He wouldn't sit on the bus to go home.  He would tell me, "I'm upset with myself."  Every day at the end of the day before Kevin's beautiful young wife would pick him up, I'd lay my hands on his shoulders and look into his eyes as I prayed silently, "I know my God can heal you."  On days when he wouldn't look me in the eye, I'd just rub his back and pray the same.  After praying, I would tell him how much I loved him, how good of a man he was, and how much wisdom I had gleaned from him.  Somewhere beneath all of his suffering, I knew he heard and felt my prayers and love.
     When I first started working at West Suburban, I struggled because I needed to be needed and I wasn't even wanted.  But Kevin taught me, and community repeated over and over, that what I actually needed was not to be needed, but that I need to be known.  And now, I know I can be known.  To the depths of my soul, I can be known.  And I am known.  I will never have to ask for anything more.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Advent Reflection: Action in Waiting

Each year, the Little Village community of Amate House hosts an evening of Advent reflections.  We adapt and abbreviate the Hispanic tradition of Las Posadas--a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem--knocking on doors and being turned away until finally being received at the inn's stable.  Traditionally, Las Posadas is a nine day novena, representing the nine months of Mary's pregnancy.  For our purposes, we condensed the event into one evening full of praying, singing, and reflecting.  At each of our nine stops around our neighborhood, one of my housemates read their reflection on their Amate experience thus far and how it relates to the four (unofficial) themes of Advent:  Waiting, Preparing, Receiving, and Rebirth.  Below you'll find my reflection on the first theme.  Sorry you can't experience it with Mexican sweet bread, ginger snaps, and hot chocolate the way everyone else did! :)


"Here Jesus is speaking of his disciples and their preparation for his coming.  Take note that God's kingdom is not formed by any human discovery or intention, however daring and noble, but by the coming of Christ.  ... It is remarkable that not only God, creator of heaven and earth, but also God's people must be a part of this plan. ... There must be people who stand by the door and listen for him and who open it quickly when he knocks.  Workers, not slackers, are dressed for service.  ... God has work that has to be done in work clothes, not in one's Sunday best.  As long as God's kingdom has to be fought for, it is more important to be dressed for work--ready for action..."  -- Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

In many ways, my college experience was a realization of just how much this world expects us to have everything figured out, or at least pretend we do.  You no sooner pick a major than people begin to bombard you with that dreaded question, “What are you going to do with that?”  Four years were plenty enough time to realize that the world’s perspective aims at knowing who you’re going to be, more than it aims at truly knowing who you are.  For me, this is the difference between those from Blumhardt’s quote who go around wearing their Sunday best, cover model souls with painted faces, and those who are dressed for work, flecked with the smatterings of nitty gritty daily life. 

I think I came into this year of Amate dressed in my Sunday best, with my eye on the person I could be rather than courageously vulnerable, willing to be seen for exactly who I am, faults and all.  As a result, I became something of a self-development junkie, never satisfied with who I am at present, never willing to fully recognize my gifts and talents because all I can see is just how full of holes and cracks I am, how much this part of me needs mending, how much that part of me needs tweaking, and how little that part of me holds up to its potential.

I realized early on—during Orientation, in fact—as my new community began to trade out their best Sunday dresses and suits for muddy shoes and well-worn t-shirts, just what my greatest challenge would be this year.  I would have to slow down and re-orient my perspective so that I no longer had my eyes set on the woman I could be, and God’s will as it would manifest itself in the future, but rather seeing myself clearly and honestly, and living that authentically:  seeing God’s will not in who I would be, but in who I have already become over my twenty-two years of life.  I would have to recognize myself as God’s beloved and be patient and loving towards myself as I had rarely been before, acknowledging, in the words of Carl Rogers:  “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

I had to let go.  I knew I had to be active in my waiting, so I chose to live that paradox, to lose myself in service of others to find myself.  Nowadays, because of Amate, my active waiting looks like dancing like children with a grown man in the middle of the Brookfield Zoo because I took the time to learn what it takes to make his day.  My active waiting looks like deconstructing and broadening my understanding of service to include the slow, laborious cultivation of trust and relationships with elderly who don’t always remember me from one day to the next.  My active waiting looks like pushing myself to the limits of my concept of love to admit that I don’t have all of the answers and inviting my community to share their truth and reality with me.  My active waiting looks like acknowledging the ugly habits I thought I’d left behind as they buck and kick their way into my new life, and allowing my community to hold me accountable for their effects on our shared life.  My active waiting looks like realizing my own dignity and worth as I yield to my community’s boundless love and affection. 

My active waiting is not picture perfect.  It’s messy and wild, and sometimes a little crude.  But it’s more me than I have been for quite some time.  All it took was the letting go and giving in to the kind of faith that believes God’s will is here and now, not just tomorrow; the kind of faith that believes that you shouldn’t search for the meaning of life, but for the meaning you can give life.  You.  Exactly as you are.  Dirty work clothes and all.

During Fall Retreat, I picked up a book by Henri Nouwen from the Amate library.  My forward-looking self urged me to try to read the entire book in one afternoon.  But the preface to the book stopped me in my tracks.  It cautioned the reader to read in small doses, to read the book the way it was written:  one day at a time, one page at a time.  I chastised myself for wanting to speed ahead and lose the weight of the words about to grace my lips.  I’m glad I slowed down, because if I hadn’t, the following quote might not have stayed with me the way it does now.  I might not have given it the chance to permeate to the far reaches of my heart, those little spaces I rarely even let God touch.  It said:  “God is faithful to God’s promises.  Before you die, you will find the acceptance and the love you crave.  It will not come in the way you expect.  It will not follow your needs and your wishes.  But it will fill your heart and satisfy your deepest desire.  There is nothing to hold on to but this promise.  Everything else has been taken away from you.  Cling to that naked promise in faith.  Your faith will heal you.”

Anytime my expectations of myself and future-focused perspective start to cloud my vision and bring me to my knees, I turn to that quote and let it bring back a small taste of the peace it brought me that day.  I pray that this year will fortify in me the kind of faith that believes in the promise of today, and encourages me to find the meaning I can bring to the hand I am dealt each day of my life—whether it be at work, at home, or in the quiet of my own heart.

I expect my self-knowledge to be a lifelong journey, a waiting game of its own, but not a passive one.  It will be spent as intentionally as possible, like the disciples awaiting Christ’s coming.  For me, Christ’s coming will be like God tracing out a constellation from the brightest stars of my life, and delighting in watching my face as suddenly it all comes clear, as suddenly, all of my “I don’t know’s” and “perhaps’s” and “we’ll see’s” spell out a full portrait of who God created me to be.  Until then, sure, I’m waiting.  But I’m not waiting in passivity.  Rather, I’m pouring my heart into the people around me each day, deconstructing the world’s claims on my understanding of myself, and being courageous enough in my vulnerability and faith to trust that my dreams will find me and my stars will align as best serves His kingdom—one day at a time.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Community Night Gone Right AKA Kara's Owner's Manual

I may have explained this before, but each Wednesday evening in our program is designated as a  Community Night.  This is a night set apart each week for us to gather as a community for engagement, discussion, education, or just plain fellowship and fun.  We all leave work about an hour earlier than usual to get the ball rolling by 5pm blunt (we could be a little more punctual, eh, LV?).  Each community night includes a business meeting (scheduling for the next week or weeks to come, updates on house budget and transportation, reflection on the status of community life, etc.)  Following the business meeting, we have dinner as usual (though perhaps more rushed and chaotic). 

After dinner, the night’s theme begins.  Some weeks we travel into the city to hear a speaker.  Some weeks we do service together as an Amate community within the larger Chicago community.  Some weeks we gather with the other two houses to learn more and delve deeper into the five tenets of our program.  Some weeks we, as a house, design our own community night.  And some weeks our community nights are more community-specific and are held in the quirkiness of our own home.

Last week’s was one of those.

I have to admit that when we first cozied up in our second floor community room after dinner, I could sense that very few of us were excited to reorient our brains to focus on whatever we were going to be presented with.  I definitely was not. 

Just the same, our house coordinator, Ali, began explaining our task for the night.  She held up a mostly-blank white sheet of 8½x11 printer paper with the typed heading “_____’s Owner’s Manual.”  I think I actually felt the group’s internal groan, but I might be projecting.  I tend to do that. ;)

“What you’re going to do,” Ali said, “is create an owner’s manual for yourself.  You’ll write it in the third person, outlining the highlights of your personality, warning signs for moods, bad habits, joys, reactions to conflict, pet peeves, areas of improvement, and so on.  You’re going to take half an hour to write up your manual, and then return to the group and share it.  I’ll collect them and make copies to redistribute to all of you.” (She probably said this in a much peppier, cuter, and Ali-esque way, but 1) it’s been a week, so sue me if I don’t remember verbatim 2) I’m paraphrasing and 3) this is my blog so I can misquote and misappropriate as I please. Kidding.  I think.)

We each solemnly collected our blank owner’s manual from her with all of the enthusiasm of someone reporting to jury duty.  Per Ali’s suggestion, we each retreated to different corners of the house where we felt most comfortable writing.  I returned to my Blog Headquarters aka my bed, and started writing.

I shouldn’t, but will, speak for my housemates when I say that we were entirely wrong to not want to put in the effort for that night’s assignment.  Forty-five minutes later, Ali tapped on my bedroom door and informed me that she was giving us another half hour to work on our manuals because most of us had become so involved in the project that we hadn’t finished even the first of the three prompts.  Even after all of that time, when we reconvened on the second floor, some of us, myself included, were still scrambling to squeeze in a few more bullet points.  (I may have also been totally disrespectful to some of my roommates and added a few when they were sharing their manual aloud and I thought nobody would notice.  I willfully cede a heaping handful of community life points for that one.)

It was humbling, exciting, nerve-wracking, and entertaining to share all of our manuals with one another.  I am always exceedingly impressed with and awed by my roommates’ sense of self-awareness.  It may be true of the other two houses, too, but I feel as if my community is made up of a group of really extraordinary 20-somethings.  My roommates were all so honest and forthcoming with their misgivings and so hopeful and willingly vulnerable about their dreams and areas of self-improvement.  I was the last to share that night, and I remember feeling as if I had no right to speak after hearing such accurate portraits of each of my roommates from their very own mouths. 
I ended the evening with a sense of being honored to share a year of each of these peoples’ lives.  I may not always understand them or agree with them or want to be around them (the same could be said of me, I’m absolutely sure), but I feel privileged to be learning what it truly means to love alongside and from them.

Below, for your reading pleasure, is my very own Owner’s Manual. I hope those of you who know me well find it to be an accurate snapshot of me.  Feel free to propose bullet points that I missed if you have any, especially as regards my uglier qualities—I’m human so I might’ve sugarcoated mine a little.  I also hope that those of you who don’t know me as well—or at all!—may find this manual enlightening as you continue to read my blog this year (if you so choose!).

Kara’s Owner’s Manual
Becoming Familiar With Me  This section describes the highlights of your personality.  Think about what drives you, both at work and at home.  If you wish, borrow words or phrases from your Strengths report.  Include your greatest talents, as well as your blind spots and failures.
+  WARNING:  Kara is a sensitive introvert and is likely to react to her own and others’ emotions/feelings with extremes (read:  tears). 
+  Kara finds comfort in silence and does not need to talk to enjoy your company.
+  Kara loves to feel busy and must accomplish something measurable each day to feel at peace.  That said, Kara is also always in a constant state of self-evaluation and is never fully satisfied with her personal development; this is true of all aspects of her life:  self-perception, physical, emotional, vocational, spiritual, relational, etc. 
+  Kara loves to learn new things and will often start up new and involved projects; however, Kara is also a perfectionist, and will quickly lose interest in a project when she realizes she’s not naturally gifted at it. 
+  Kara works best under pressure, though she constantly seeks quiet and stability. 
+  Kara tends to be very concerned with meeting expectations—her own and those of others.
+  Kara is perpetually concerned with inclusivity and will go out of her way to achieve it for anyone but herself.
+  Kara is terrified of her ability to hurt other people, but is comfortable standing up for her values and beliefs, even if it makes her feel isolated.
+  Kara thinks very hard about just about anything she wants to say before she says it, which is one reason for why she often prefers writing to talking.

Cautions  This section shares insights on your reaction to stressful situations and confrontations, as well as pet peeves and red flags that would be helpful for your housemates to know.
+  Kara tends to feel other people’s stress acutely, but often fails to recognize her own until she’s overwhelmed.  When this threshold is reached, she will likely have a short meltdown.  Give her some space to commiserate and think for a moment, and soon she’ll be back on her feet, tackling the problem one step at a time.
+  Kara finds group interactions emotionally taxing but rewarding.  She will likely insert one or two comments when she feels comfortable, but otherwise will be quiet and observant, feeling out the room.  If Kara chooses to share a story or thought that requires a whole group’s attention on her, you can be certain she feels she’s sharing something important to her.
+  Kara tends to work through most of her problems on her own, but may come to you if she’s seeking a new way to be challenged or to be held accountable for a decision.  If she asks for your opinion on a situation in her life, it means she’s looking for someone she respects to help her pin down a new goal, especially as regards her relationships with others.
+  While Kara loves to write and appreciates all things of the written word, Kara detests holding conversations via text message or instant messengers like facebook chat.  She feels as though these media, while useful, do not do the least bit of justice to a conversation that can be held in person or to the experience of sharing time and space with another person face-to-face.  She prefers to use these methods of communication only for quick hello’s, silly updates, or to let you know she’s thinking of you.  She will, however, use both text and facebook chat if no other option is readily available. (Be warned that this is one of Kara’s soapbox issues.)
+  Caution:  do not interrupt Kara when you see her reading or writing.  If you need her help or need to speak with her at these moments, it’s best not to just start talking to her.  It takes her a moment to switch gears (especially emotionally).  Simply ask if you can have her attention for a moment.  Once she has closed her book or put down her pen or looked away from her computer, feel free to share what you need to share or ask what you need to ask.

Final Note  This section declares the areas that you are actively working to improve.  Think about your personal goals for the year, and also look at the “Ideas for Action” in your Strengths report for helpful suggestions.
+  Kara is working on her ability to combat her restlessness and constant need for forward motion in her personal and spiritual development.
+  Kara views everything as a work in progress—even you!—and is learning how to appreciate things and people for what and who they are at the present moment while still finding opportunities to (hopefully) graciously share ways she thinks you could grow.
+  In her pursuit of perfection, Kara tends to be very hard on herself.  She is working on being less self-deprecating.  However, Kara also really struggles with pridefulness, and can also have ugly moments of self-righteousness.  She actually would appreciate someone having the guts to call her out—gently but firmly—on these moments because it will lend to her conviction surrounding personal development.  As a result of the aforementioned, Kara struggles with compliments and is learning to accept them graciously.
+  Kara can be impatient with people who don’t know how to or refuse to express their thoughts and feelings.  She is learning how not to put words in others’ mouths and/or force them to share before they would have done on their own.
+  Kara values honesty above all else and will answer any question you ask in sincerity.  She’s not a private person just because she’s quieter than most.  She just refuses to demand attention in the event that you might need that time more than she.  She is learning how to advocate for herself.
+  Kara is always worried about imposing on other peoples’ time and emotions and is slowly coming to believe that her thoughts, feelings, and ideas are deserving of time, respect, and acknowledgement, too.

Hope you survived all of that!  Thanks for reading. :)  Your support and the time you take to read my musings mean more than you could possibly imagine.  Until next time!