Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Donations make me happy. It's so satisfying to organize piles of baby wipes or Gerber jars knowing that one day soon all these things will help make some mom's expenses a little easier that month. Today's highlight was the high school home-ec class that came en masse to deliver "the blankets we made, um, for the babies who don't, um, have any." It wasn't just blankets either - there were also cheery tote bags that held fuzzy sleepers complete with zippers, hoods, and little mitten cuffs.
Monetary donations, like the pile of checks I processed later in the day, are good too, especially anything that can help meet an emergency need. If I ever have a memorial fund in my name, I'd like it to go for NFNF discretionary funds. (Not to be morbid. Just putting the idea out there so no one attaches my name to something goofy like transcendental meditation or saving obscure birds in the Azores.) Today I answered a call from a woman whose father had just died and needed Greyhound tickets to get to his funeral. Normally we don't just give out money for stuff, but this time I think there is a real need we can meet. St. Vincent de Paul would probably agree with me that it was a privilege to be able to listen to that woman's story and offer my condolences.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Really, I should just admit that I love sneaking around behind the scenes of anything. Like so many habits of mine, it started with my parents. Since my toddler days Dad and Mom were part of the "Baptism Team" at our parish, gaining access to sacristy cabinets so we could help set out chrism, white bibs, and candles for the priests. Baptism days meant extra time being well-behaved in our Sunday best, but I enjoyed being in the know about the church's storage system and which homily points each priest favored. (Fr. Pollard always reflected on our adoption as God's children, while Fr. Haley cautioned new parents not to slip on the sanctuary steps.)
I still love being part of the liturgical stage crew, whether as a lector or extraordinary minister of the eucharist (person with the chalice.) You could even say that my job choice reflects my desire for restricted area access. At WM, I got paid to open the student centers and then grab what was needed from the restricted AV equipment room. Hey, I even got class credit by defying barriers, making a year-long internship out of going past the velvet ropes in Colonial Williamsburg.
So, is it any surprise that I get a kick out of being behind the scenes at what is arguably this city's most splendid church? It's always a little thrilling to lift up the velvet ropes blocking off the sanctuary area and inform the ushers that it's ok, I'm with the choir.
The cathedral Christmas concert was the perfect adrenaline rush to cap off my return to the world of gloves, mallets, and table damps. Hours of rehearsal in the church with choirs and orchestra might seem like good preparation, but nothing could really get me fully ready to walk out before a capacity crowd and start chiming with all my might.
By the time we finished Of the Father's Love Begotten, nervousness had turned to pure energy. With the exception of an interminable, multi-movement Gloria, the concert's two hours flew by. Making music to praise God in such a wonder-inspiring place never gets old for me. Surely even the stern seraphim on the dome were smiling behind their six wings. I definitely spied some grins on the faces front-row senior citizens when we launched into Joy to the World. (Now with added soprano "hieroglyphics!" as the choir director calls them.)
Thursday, December 11, 2008
(On a side note, do you ever feel you get numb to a show's charms after watching 4 episodes in a row? Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott are at their funniest when I see them only once a week. It's like those 6-hour Pride and Prejudice binges that always make me fall asleep the minute Lady Catherine appears for her angry speech.)
Anyway, it hasn't been all fun and games here in the land of feverishness and recurring circulatory symptoms. Until Wednesday I was sweating out my application to the University of Chicago, editing my personal statement and re-formatting the zillions of pictures in my church architecture project. Plus making a feverish late-night run to Fed-Ex.
Then I retook the GRE today, having re-registered for it on a whim. Just what I needed, to cram for a four hour test while I can't sit up straight. Somehow the illness was a lucky charm though, because I IMPROVED MY SCORE FROM 1290 TO 1440!!!!
It's such a relief to have a good score under my belt, and to have once app sent in. Tomorrow will probably be my last day of medical leave, and my plan is to spend it on Christmas Cards, applications and Flight of the Conchords episodes. Saturday is our first house party, a Ghetto/Yuletide affair we call "Christmas in Da Crib." And then the real vacation is only a week away!
Saturday, December 6, 2008
“One can accept the view that the historical record is fragmentary and incomplete, that recovery of the past is partial and difficult, and that historians will never finally agree in their interpretations, and yet can still believe intelligibly and not naively in an objective truth about the past that can be observed and empirically verified. Historians may never see and represent that truth wholly and finally, but some of them will come closer than others, be more complete, more objective, more honest, in their written history, and we will know it, and have known it, when we see it.” Gordon Wood in The New York Review of Books, 1991.
"The intellectual life is indeed an intense and ongoing conversation (occasionally a brawl) into which young academics seek entry and from which scholars draw vitality throughout their careers."(xiii)
"Popular culture is of great interest to me because I am fond of thinking of homes, churches, local libraries, and municipal buildings as the prosaic side of collective memory. In these often unassuming buildings are found things that tell us who we are by shaping out memories of the people, places, institutions, and events that have formed our lives-often in forgettable yet utterly tenacious ways. Religious stuff is a particular category of the things that mark the halls and walls and countertops of everyday life. Why bother to study it? In a nutshell, because there is something irresistable about the fact that human consciousness owes so much to cardboard icons and plastic buttons." (xi)
"And what will enrich our understanding of the worlds in which we live more than an historically informed analysis of the artifacts that articulate the worlds of others?" (pxv)
Monday, December 1, 2008
Ok, I take it back. My friends in contracts have the all-day Christmas radio on, and I'm not sure I can last through a month of this.
But IT"S SNOWING! I can see flurries through the blinds, and we had to clean off the car windows this morning. Now that's my kind of holiday spirit.
So is tracking down a cheap-as-free sleeper couch for a Healthy Start client. The people at the Salvation Army are usually really helpful when I call on missions like this. If you know me well, you know I am not a phone person at all - just the thought of dialing a friend's number is distasteful to me. So, appropriately, working here often requires me to call all kinds of places and people. This introvert is going to be a skilled networker if it kills her.
Ironically, I don't mind answering the phone so much. In fact, I love the frantic energy of being the operator at NFNF. It takes me back to my customer service days as a University Center supervisor.
Last week I met all kinds of interesting clients and donors while I directed calls. My favorite was the 90 year old woman who wanted a personal message printed in her holiday card order. She was very glad we were pro-life and not one of those secret terrorist fronts they warned her about at church. I heard all about her upcoming birthday party at the Ritz and how she's slowing down and reflecting on her life now that she's hitting the big nine-oh. She was a hoot - I hope we convince her to come visit the office.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Normally I pull an Ebeneezer this time of year and detest premature Christmas music. For some reason this year, I am absolutely thrilled about the icicle lights and stockings that greeted me when I got back to the VSC house. Maybe it was the cookie-making and house decorating I took part in at Aunt Judy's. Maybe it's my mini vacation and the promise of Christmas break in three weeks. Whatever the reason, I say bring on the holly and light-up snowmen and umpteen different celebrity arrangements of "O Holy Night."
I can't wait to drive through the light display at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. I better go hit up the Dollar Store for gifts for my Secret Santa roomate. Best of all, I play handbells in the Cathedral Christmas concert in a week. We're mostly a supplement to the choral arrangements and opera solos, but I do get to scurry up to the balcony for an echo part. It's very lucky that I am part of the show, because it's been sold out since September and I couldn't afford a ticket anyway. Dr. Romeri has some really stupendous choral arrangements set up, with swirling harmonies and crescendos that send goosebumps not just up your spine, but also down your arms and legs and through your spleen. I can't wait to hear our chiming and ringing blend with the organ blasts and saoring voices of "I Saw Three Ships."
Thursday, November 27, 2008
My recent entries have featured too much of me and not enough of the people I want to help. I've been lucky enough to spend three straight days out with clients and not with a computer screen. My arms and brow were exhausted, but my soul was refreshed.
Two outings were to assist with Stay at Home Parent, a new program that features group meetings and activities for moms. Ostensibly, I was there to help with set-up and child care. Really, that just means I GOT TO PLAY WITH BABIES!! In the words of Michael Scott, "I try to hold a baby every day." Babbling crawlers are fun, but I think mewling, curled-up newborns are my favorite. Something about their trusting, untouched innocence makes me proud to be human.
So yeah, I "selflessly" held some little ones so their moms could listen to speakers on parenting or network with other moms. Sitting around the house changing diapers all day can be pretty isolating, and its our hope that SAHP can be an encouraging resource for these clients.
Tuesday I went on a different sort of errand, helping deliver Thanksgiving food collected by NFNF supporters. The office was a flutter of activity boxing up canned goods, toiletries, and toys. As I walked in the door I was enlisted to ride in nurse Treina's pickup truck and help her carry Honeybaked Hams up doorsteps.
Treina lives in the same neighborhood I do, and many the clients on her list were in our area. Our rounds opened my eyes to how hidden poverty can be. One family literally lived down the street from me. I've passed by their apartment complex dozens of times on my way to Schnuck's for groceries. That was chilling, and it made me all the more grateful for my free rent and the beans and rice in our cupboard.
At the same time, it was joyful to be able to ring doorbells and announce the good news that we had a ham and stuffing to drop off. Proud parents of cute kids, however poor, always make me smile. Like the seriously learning-disabled mom whose toddler daughter is smart as a whip. Or the father who actually lives with his baby-momma and jokes around with Treina. Or the grandmother who takes in at-risk young adults and sent us out the door laden with a bassinet and baby swing. That afternoon, the face of Christ wasn't so hard to see.
I'm a little sad to miss Sr. Ros' first visit to our home, but I happily trade it for quality time with my many relatives in Chicago. The Windy City has always held a sort of Motherland mystique for me, since my parents grew up here and most of their families remain in the area. How appropriate, since Thanksgiving is a holiday to celebrate heritage, no matter how selective or mythical that shared national memory may be. (The first Thanksgiving was technically in Virginia, but whatever. Construction paper Pilgrim hats are still fun.)
Being in Chicago reminds me that I'm part of a larger family tradition. Aunts marvel over how I resemble my father. My cousins observe that I twirl my hair just like them. My Grandmum chats for hours over the kitchen table, and suddenly I realize where my mom got that habit. Tomorrow we're going to make Grandma Cookies, the secret, labor intensive biscotti recipe from a distant Italian matriarch in my dad's family. I was glad that my own Grandma waxed nostalgic about our immigrant forbears over dinner. Little cousin Greg got squirmy, but maybe one day he'll appreciate the rare chance to hear how we got to sit here in a comfy suburb pigging out on sweet potatoes and turkey gravy. Those milk-delivering Italians and garment sewing Russian Jews would be pleased to see that their descendants have college educations and pumpkin pie readily available.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The focus of the weekend was the results from our Myers-Briggs tests (I'm an INTJ, apparently.) Seeing our similarities and differences mapped out really helped foster some discussion and understanding. Just because people don't do what you would do doesn't mean they are crazy, they just process things differently.
For instance, no one else seemed to be thinking the same retreat-center monologue I was. As we drove through the trees past a run-down barn, everyone else's minds turned to .... horror movies! "Just wait, tonight we'll all get the urge to scatter in separate directions and then get picked off one by one." So, we spend a good part of our first night at Il Retiro hiding in dark corners trying to scare each other. It's not what I would have thought up, but hey, it was pretty fun. Different can be good.
I'm glad we didn't think to bring any DVD's, because it forced us to get creative. Besides the usual marathon Trivial Pursuit sessions, we played Sardines in the nooks and stairways of Sr. T's bunkhouse. (She was busy writing thank you notes on her Daughters of Charity notecards.) Nothing forces you together like being trapped in a closet in a spooky house.
Random songs lyrics have become another hallmark of VSC bonding. Jessica and I are the main offenders usually. She'll launch into something, and then I'll finish when she forgets the words. There is one song, though, that has lodged itself in everyone's brain. At least once a day, one VSC girl must turn to another and inform her:
"Girl, you can have whatever you like...YEAH" or
"I want your body(body), need your body(body)...to gather for group prayer."
It got so bad that Jess and I had to stop ourselves from singing the song on the way to visit the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Israel's Hope. Yeah, T.I. would not go over well in a real convent.
Our visit was great, and the real convent had the feeling of a calm spiritual oasis. I was touched when Sr. Rosalind ecstatically showed us their little chapel which had contained the Blessed Sacrament for three whole days. "Jesus is in there!" she giddily whispered before we peeked in. Over lunch, she revealed that she's also celiac, but has miraculously been able to receive a communion host ever since she visited Lourdes. Sr. Ros' unabashed love for the Eucharist reminded me not to take our own chapel for granted.
Shouldn't we all look toward our tabernacle and hunger for the Bread of Life? Shouldn't we say
"I want Your Body
Need Your Body
As long I got You I don't need nobody."
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Now is the Victor's triumph won.
Oh let the song of praise be sung.
After the Breakfast Bus this Sunday, Caryne and I headed to noon mass at the Old Cathedral, a modest centuries old building that sits practically beneath the Arch. It was the Feast of All Souls. As the cantor and organ intoned the above hymn, my gaze fell on a statue of St. Louis the King, and it all made such perfect sense.
Oh Louis - such a good man, plunging into battle for holy causes that never really succeeded. He led his Crusading armies so nobly, famously preferring leprosy or death to mortal sin. But all his efforts to win back the Holy Land were undone by military disadvantages and the odd bout of dysentery. Strife and battle were frequent characteristics of his life.
I pictured the pious Frenchman running into battle, wielding his white plaster sword at God's enemies. Was all that in vain? If his dedication glorified the ultimate victor, maybe not. Since he won the battle for his salvation, Louis now enjoys the ultimate triumph.
I knew I could count on Louis, to whom I have felt particularly close ever since I read medieval accounts of his intestinal distress during a sea voyage. We volunteers are fighting battles of our own, although less dramatically. Even if we lose more clients than we save, or we only stay at our agencies for a year, the fight is still worth fighting. We've got the Victor backing us up.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Recent inventions include:
- Gluten-free peach pancakes (needed more peach) and a dill omlette stuffed with tomatoes (Why is there an enormous bottle of organic dill weed in our pantry?)
- Black beans (a VSC house staple), carmelized onions, and shaved zucchini sauteed in garlic powder and olive oil
It helps that I have read yet another memoir by Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl. Her breezy, sunsual, hyperbolic style makes any meal seem like a sublime privilege. Just one chapter is enough to make you want to run and fire up the stove.
I've read her books in reverse order, just now getting to the initial volume about her hippie college days. Commune life and picking up random men in Morocco would likely have turned me off when I first discovered her, but now it seems very appropriate for my current life in a new city. Does she ever feel guilty about going establishment and working for mega-publications like the New York Times and Gourmet? If you have never heard of her, I recommend starting with Garlic and Sapphires, which chronicles her incognito restaurant reviews for the NYT.
Friday, October 3, 2008
This Friday, however, the boss was away at a meeting, and so I got promoted to head of fish fry, initiating Intern Jenny and Intern Jennifer into the group ordering ritual. Thank goodness I come from a big family, where you learn quickly to organize everyone's order or else end up battling fast-food cashiers for your chicken nuggets.
I was afraid the VFW folks wouldn't recognize me without my boss, but I needed have worried. My entrance with two other cute young girls in tow got a cheering welcome. Without "The Doc" around (as they assume my boss is), America's veterans felt much more at liberty to flirt with us "nurses." They wished we offered "Nurses for Old Guys" and regretted that Enfamil was not on their beverage menu. They also got a kick out of offering us vodka for our ice tea. As usual, one side of hush puppies was missing and had to be fought for. All in all, another entertaining Fish Friday.
Side note: in addition to the usual hush puppies, fries, and cole slaw, spaghetti is another side order option at the VFW. Huh? There are other places in St. Louis that also offer entrees like "catfish and spaghetti." The Nicest Man in the World (TM) claims it adds some sort of tangy flavor, but I consider it an affront to my (25%) Italian heritage.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
And I feel like I could break
Lord I know it's getting late
Let my heart be broken by Your heart ache
I had my own taste of heartache this week as I dealt with a new level of involvement at NFNF. One of our client babies died - something I had heard about, but never been connected to before. I had only met this mother twice, but already her outgoing personality and her troop of children had won a piece of my heart. There are really no answers here. Babies do die, and often for accidental reasons we can't explain. I'm sad for the client's loss, but I am mostly worried about the fate of the remaining family.
My boss invited me to sit on a debriefing session for the staff that knew the client. I went in seeking a little more information. What I got was a two hour emotional roller coaster. In a situation like this, the nurses need to mourn, but also to seek lessons from experience. Did we do everything we could? Did we do too much and enable co-dependence? There was sadness, anger, and frustration.
The more I was reminded about the family's situation, the more I saw connections to my own family. There are four kids, half boys and half girls. I look at the 9 year old son drawing pictures and see my little brothers. I hear about the hardworking father and see my own. I see the oldest daughter parenting her siblings and see myself.
And then it hit me - that could have been us. If my parents had been born in the 'hood instead of suburbia, if they hadn't had a stable upbringing, if if if....I could be homeless too, living in hotel rooms and hoping my parents patch up their differences enough to make a home. I wish I were God and could swoop in on that family, lifting the kids up to a cozy house and good schools.
Don't go thinking I'm crazy
But I'm feeling Your heart ache
Your creation through Your eyes
There is pain
It's no mistake
The closer I get to You I see
Soul's full of hurt
Full of need
The closer I get I see
Less of me
Thursday, September 25, 2008
I left home knowing that no matter how many dishes I washed or grocery runs I made or walls I painted, I could never solve my mom's medical problems or bring an end to our endless renovation/mold remediation. Then I came to STL and was confronted by a whole new host of problems. Sure, I can help raise money to fund our nurse home visits, but that is just a tiny drop in the ocean of urban poverty. We can teach women how to mix formula and prevent SIDS death, but we can't eliminate every unfair landlord, absentee father, sexual predator, or lazy mother with a sense of entitlement. So many of our clients' children are the result of a culture where promiscuity from a young age is the rule and marriage is not the norm. There are hundreds of non-profits in the city, but for every person we help there are several more we don't have the funds to reach.
Then I read a biography of Mother Teresa, and was amazed at her approach to the squalor of India. Sure, "Do small things with great love," is a Catholic cliche by now, not unlike that gosh danged "Be the Change" Ghandi quote. (I swear, if I see one more tshirt or fundraiser bearing that slogan...) The sentence doesn't really do the concept justice, though. Mother Teresa' letters radiate her love for Jesus and "love for souls." Through intense prayer and communion with the source of all love, she found the courage to share that love by whatever means needed.
The people at NFNF have also shown me what that concept means. Our nurses and staff do the best they can about the matter at hand, and don't worry about what will happen 5 or 10 years from now. If we can ensure that one baby has a safe place to sleep or secure a relationship with one more donor, that's something. Our founder, Sharon, started small and God blessed her work. Here's what I wrote for her retirement party.
Sharon has impressed me from the minute I walked in the office door, if nothing else for the fact that she has been on Oprah! Seriously, though, her dedication, great love, deep faith were apparent right away. When she told me that she and the staff pray over every grant they send out, I knew I had picked the right place for my volunteer year.
Before I started at NFNF, I was rather intimidated by the idea of making a difference. When you graduate from college, everyone tells you to go out and change the world. That’s a little ridiculous – have they seen all the problems in the world? Since then, in just one month at NFNF, I’ve already learned that even a tiny offer of help isn’t worthless. Sharon and her foundation have shown me how one little idea can grow over time into something truly amazing.
I’m going to end with one kind-of funny story that illustrates what I mean. During my first week at NFNF I walked around on eggshells, making sure I was extra polite to everyone. One day at lunchtime everyone was gathered in the kitchen, cooing over Laurie’s baby granddaughter. I needed to get my lunch out of the fridge, but Sharon stood in my way holding the baby. I thought “Oh no, the CEO is standing there, I better not get in her way. I’ll go around the hallway to the other side.” When somebody asked “Hey, did you need something?” I meekly muttered about my lunch and how I didn’t want to get in the way. Sharon responded “Oh please, we’re all like family here. Just tell me ‘Hey! Get out of my way!’” And she did.
That little episode helped me loosen up a little, and gave me a some insight into what makes Sharon such an amazing person. Because she is so down to earth and friendly, she can meet people where they are and give them the respect and care they deserve. Thank you Sharon, for being so awesome, and for following God’s call to help his children.
Like Queen and David Bowie once sang:
Can't we give ourselves one more chance
Why can't we give love that one more chance
Why can't we give love
Sunday, September 21, 2008
I've discovered that all I need to feel at home in a new place is a library card on my keychain. Before I left Williamsburg, I was sad to break my ties with Swem and the Williamsburg Regional. Both have given me so many quality books, DVDs, and CDs. Whether I got around to examining everything I checked out is another story. Lucky for me, U City has a public library a short drive from my house.
It's a fairly decent local joint -their movies and music rival the WRL. I had to laugh when I saw the limits on CD checkouts - 6 for pop, rock, and comedy, but there's no limit on the opera and classical. They should just waive the opera late fines while they are at it. U City's history and biography sections are pretty good, and the periodical shelves hold titles I have never heard of. Overall, it has a very calming, orderly atmosphere with its hushed movements, skylit staircase, and overall booksy smell.
I've been to the UCity library twice, both times coming away with a tote bag bursting with 20lbs of books. (I weighed.) They're all stowed away on a shelf in my closet, reminding me to expand my mind during my Metrolink commute. Some, like bios of Mother Teresa and Chris Farley, have been worthwhile. Others have been something of a disappointment, like the misleadingly titled Notre Dame vs. the Klan. It's not a thorough study of racism and anti-Catholicism in Indiana. Instead, its a love-fest of ND mythology and only 2 chapters about the actual event inspiring the title. Apparently in the early 1900's the Klan staged a raid on the campus, and fisticuffs ensued.
I'm also slightly ashamed to admit that I have succumbed to a pop-culture phenomenon. Last night Kelly loaned me her copy of the first Twilight book, and I was up until 2am. Stories of romance with emo vampires are apparently literary crack cocaine. She needs to get home from her friend's house so I can get volume 2.
Some of my favorite snarky blogs (The Onion, etc) have mocked the teen lit series, and I used to mock it myself. I'll admit Bella's character is awfully whiny. But overall, Edward's caring protection and quest for noble self-control over his vampire nature have won my heart.
*Geek alert* If you want to get historical, teenage girls squealing over tales of death and the supernatural are nothing new. See: gothic novels by Mrs. Radcliffe See also: Jane Austen's brilliant satire of them in Northanger Abbey. Edgar Allen Poe would have been all over this vampire love stuff.
Monday, September 15, 2008
This week's Catholic field trip was to St. George's parish convent, the home of the new Daughters of Mary, Israel's hope. Our presence there was an exercise in Degrees of Separation.
- The VSC used to use the convent as their residence until 2 years ago. When they left, there were only 3 people living in an enormous building that can house 22. Good thing we left - that would have been creepy. Also, St. George is even farther from the city than we are now.
- Jessica found out about the convent open house via Catholic Radio, which is run by Catholic Answers. I used to be a total Catholic Answers junkie, reading their magazine This Rock *ahem* religiously.
- Daughters of Mary are the project of Catholic Answers celebrity Rosalind Moss. Her claim to fame is that she was born a Jew, spent several years as an Evangelical Christian, and now is Catholic. Jessica is a revert to the Church, and I am ethnically what I like to call 1/4 Jew, 3/4 shiksa. (Harrison Ford's a quarter Jewish, not too shabby.)
Did my parents think the same thing before they had me? There are many aspects of their Catholic upbringing that I missed, like schoolteaching nuns in habits. Seriously, the first real nun I met in person was at Fr. Paul's first mass my freshman year of high school. Here in St. Louis I have increased my Sister acquaintance about 2000%. And I am not completely sold on the full habit thing - it seems a little anachronistic. Long skirts and wimples are no longer solidarity with the simple folk, they're an old fashioned costume. Modified habits - the blue suits with optional veil, etc. seem more practical and less sappily nostalgic. Mother Teresa was on the cutting edge when she went with white saris for her Indian sisters.
Ironically, here I was at a party for a fledgling order that prides itself on the full-on habits they will wear in the future. Their mission is evangelization, which apparently will take the form of walking the streets in full habit, distributing religious articles. Simple? Old fashioned? Maybe, but people seem to love it. There are hundreds of inquiries already from women interested in joining. The two sisters already enrolled had dozens of stories about people thanking them for their courage to display their religious identity in public. One old man kissed their hands in the grocery store, asking "Where have you been?!"
Saturday, September 13, 2008
I was cool with my orders to wear gloves and dish up sausage gravy over biscuits, but I was a little nervous about our homeless clientele. Gerry, of course, had no qualms. He saw a nomadic-looking guy out the window, and with a holler of "Hey, you want breakfast?" we were off and running.
The little benches on the bus tables filled and re-filled quickly as homeless men ate and left. They were all polite and grateful. One guy even passed up on seconds because "Jesus said don't be greedy." Jesus also said "whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me." Treating those men like Jesus meant offering them love and respect, but also treating them like regular people. That really came home for me when our bus full of poverty-stricken men started discussing the Cardinals and Rams' seasons. They were just regular guys who happened to be in a tough spot that day. I don't know their life stories, how they got the way they are, or if they will ever be better off. All I know is that I served them sausage links, and they said thank you.
The most dumbfounding part of the day were Gerry's stories about the health department. Recently a grouchy inspector wanted to shut him down. The man wouldn't listen to reason or Gerry's detailed explanations of how his sink and stove were up to code. It took some serious name dropping to get the inspector to lay off.
What was that guy's problem? It's not like Gerry was making people sick or ripping them off. He keeps the food hot and the dishes clean. He's helping people, for crying out loud. I am discovering that effective charity demands not only the courage to care, but also the patience to wade through red tape. Like the 80+ page HHS grant we have a month to prepare. Or the tax forms I keep Xeroxing for our proposals. We've gotta "render to Caesar," but was Caesar ever grateful for just a plate of scrambled eggs?
Sunday, September 7, 2008
By the way, St. Louis loves its festivals. Why not? All the ones I have attended so far feature free admission, the great outdoors, and moderately-priced food and beverages. (Thank you, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church for that weird yet tasty blue Ouzo slushie.) There is also the opportunity to see things a little out of the ordinary, whether that be international folk dancing, wild mandolin solos, or jewelry fashioned from hardware store merchandise.
Nearby Clayton's Art Festival was no exception, spanning several blocks and dozens of vendor tents. I was glad almost all the prices were in the triple digits, so I could ooh and ahh without any impulse to buy. The photographers had some lovely stuff and gave me cool ideas. The swirly necklaces made out of screws and nails were fascinating. There were even digeridoos.
But the best booth by far displayed the used-book/oil painting stylings of a young man whose name I sadly cannot remember. He takes old novels, textbooks, and hymnbooks, which are lovely in their own right, and then adds images from his road trips around the country. I had never thought of cutting a hole in a book for a frame, but now I want to try it. Jessica and I especially loved the tiny, delicate paintings superimposed over pages. For example, a snowy truck stop was layered atop the sheet music for a winter madrigal.
We were the only people in the booth, and spent so long admiring things that we just had to compliment the artist, who shyly lurked in the corner. When we told him how much we loved his work, he was truly touched. I asked about his book collecting habit, and his eyes lit up like someone who knows what their passion is. Joe (I can remember his first name at least), turned out to be quite a kindred spirit. Words, pages, and the American landscape inspire him. An amateur historian, he loves learning about how the places his visits developed.
His favorite piece, and ours, was a large collage that layered aspects of American history. Hymnal pages/History for Catholic schools/highway maps/factories/industrial development/gasoline can? Glorious. It warmed my heart and stirred my brain. It was so good to meet someone else who mulls over the swirling complexity of memory, sightseeing, and past glories. It also gave me hope to see I am not the only one who likes to blend verbal and visual inspiration. History doesn't fit in a box or on a page, and it overlaps art, architecture, medicine, science..........
That consumerism orgy made me glad I was going to be "living simply" with the VSC. Of course, that has been easier said than done. My stipend is very small, but I always have my savings to fall back upon if I can't afford that birthday party at Dave and Buster's or that dinner out. Today I faced another source of temptation: the siren song of Whole Foods.
My love affair with that hub of "whole paycheck" gourmet food has been gradual. If you had told me four years ago that I would stand before a Whole Foods butcher demanding grass-fed organic bison for my mother, I would not have believed you. I used to think of the place as some sort of left-wing cult. But now, I fully embrace its appeal as a place where BMW-driving yuppies and hemp sandal-wearing hippies can shop side-by-side, united by the self-satisfied idea that their grocery purchases are somehow helping the earth. The stores and food are attractively packaged. Whenever I walk inside, I can't help earnestly believing that buying stuff there will make me healthier, skinner, happier. My hair won't be frizzy and my body will be purged of free radicals, or whatever else magazine editors tell me is bad this month.
As if. Instead, the tasty snacks are quickly eaten and my wallet remains emptier. Arrg, I can't believe I blew $30 today at Whole Foods and its quirkier cousin, Trader Joe's. And that was after I put back the gluten-free bread mix and the second carton of delicious, delicious gourmet dairy-free ice cream. My wacky food intolerances do put a cramp in my dining style. I can't just reach for convenient pizza, mac'n'cheese and sandwiches. But does that really entitle me to those expensive GF cookies? Am I ever going to find a diary free, GF bread that doesn't have the consistency of Styrofoam? Nope-ity, nope-ity, no. Instead, I need to learn to make do with brown rice, cans of corn, and hash browns.
Plus, the New York times editors tell me beets are the new superfood. I did cave and buy an organic bundle today. But hey, they were only $2.50. And they say the greens make a tasty, nutritious salad after you have roasted the root.
Monday, August 25, 2008
So, I obediently emptied the contents of my little desk, even though I still don't know what half this stuff is for. A butterfly net? Really?
Under the Healthy Start pamphlets and random files, however, I found a primary document gem. How to Take Care of the Baby, published by Sears, Roebuck and Co in 1914, and now stored by Ziploc in 2008. The mother on the cover wears her hair in a large twist/bun thing, and appears to be very young and sweet. The advice inside is surprisingly similar to what our nurses tell clients today. Of course, some parts are funny and quaint, like the obsession with the proper ratio of swaddling and exposure to fresh air. And then there was this section:
"If kept within reasonable limits the child will direct its own exercise. Before the child is able to go out of doors he will creep about the house, play with the chairs, sewing machine, table legs, spools, hassocks, and anything it can reach, and will roll about on the floor. Even before this it will lie on its back and kick and wave its arms in a perfectly and entirely healthy manner.
No mother need fear that her little girl will be a "tomboy" in its earliest youth. The more tomboyish the girl is the better, until she reaches the age of fourteen or fifteen years. Of course, every woman will know how to direct her daughter in lines of womanly modesty."
The booklet apparently aided the upbringing of one Monro Kathleen Wylie, born in Sumner, IL at 6am July 19, 1915, weighing 7lbs. Her parents were Samuel and Cynthia. Cynthia was likely the one who noted that her daughter had 2 teeth at 10 months and 4 at 13 months. These back cover inscriptions make me wonder about Monro Kathleen and her family. Were there other babies after her? Were the Edna and Max Wylie who printed their names on the inside cover her children? If she lived past infancy, she would be 93 today.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
When we explain our living situation to people, we get a variety of reactions.
"A convent??! Do they let you go out at night?"
"Well, good thing they make food stamps."
"You know you are all going to be on the same cycle in a few months, right?"
Haha. Yes, no, and yes. Joking aside, it has been interesting how different we all are and how each oeac of us handles having 8 roomates. Apparently my habit of always applying the parking break is not universal practice. Some people line their baking pans with parchment paper. Some people need more alone time than others. Sometimes personalities clash and there is confluct over things that are really not a huge deal. As usual, I haven't gone looking for conflict, but it has managed to find me and gotten me stuck in the middle. Not as usual, though, everyone here doesn't want factions to develop, and so is willing to make an effort to resolve issues.
Not unlike with my large family back home, I enjoy being part of a crowd. We have been exploring the city en masse, never hanging out in the same place twice. Last weekend we invaded the Arch and Anheuser-Busch Brewery (free samples!) This week's itinerary was even longer: Galleria Mall, patio dining and margaritas at a little mexican restaurant, Festival of Nations, Union Station shopping, and then Dave and Buster's for Jessica's birthday.
Oh yeah, and the church tour continues. We also never attend mass in the same place twice. This weekend alone, we have visited the SLU church, Wash U's campus ministry chapel, All Saints the neo-colonial wonder, and the St Louis cathedral. That last place absolutely knocked my socks off. If you have ever admired the moasics at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, you haven't seen anything yet. This place is a renaissance/byzantine marvel that positively drips with gold tiles and biblical imagery. Its truly a monument to the Catholic church in this city - which makes me realize why some Chicagoans refer to their stripped-down Holy Name cathedral as "Holy Shame." Jessica and I agreed - We need to go back for a formal tour.
I'm going close with two humorous pieces that pertain to my low-budget community lifestyle.
First, XKCD remarks on the difficulties of internet reception. He's right, we really should have a holiday for those kind souls with unsecured networks entitled "Linksys." (Ours can't reach past the plaster upstairs walls, so I am updating from the dining room table.)
Second, the Onion offers tips for cutting your grocery costs. (We may have splurged a little and gotten the $6 strawberry-flavored vodka.)
Friday, August 15, 2008
One of the most unexpected parts of my move to St Louis is how homesick I have been for Williamsburg. Maybe not the sleepy retiree/tourist aspect of the town, but the colonial fantasyland aspect. It doesnt help that I spent the weeks before my departure at history camp, where life revolves around plantation homes and historic churches. Now I am going through Georgian architecture withdrawal. Don't get me wrong, St. Louis abounds with interesting buildings. This city has a remarkable affintity for Romanesque arches, stone accents, and Gothic Revival churches. My own neighborhood is full of adorable brick cottages. Still, it feels foreign.
Today, perhaps through the grace of God, I got a taste of what I had been missing so much. First there was a detour past the Missouri History Museum on my way to the Metrolink station. Built in 1913 with World's Fair proceeds, it's a dramatic neo-classical difice located in Forest Park. Between the pedimented facade and Lee/Grant exhibition poster, I was getting weak in the knees. I wanted to hug their stately columns and place my fingers in their Corinthian grooves.
My second taste of the Burg came at the end of the day. Today was the feast of the Assumption, and we VSC girls were happy to find a 7pm mass at nearby All Saints parish. We were glad we didn't have to drag ourselves to the 6:30am at the parish next door. As we drove up to All Saints, we noted the charming cupola and very confusing parking space alignment.
Inside, All Saints was like a time capsule, a cornucopia of 1930's Colonial Revival styling nearly untouched by 1970's "renovations." The octagonal nave's decor surely had been influenced by the 'Burg, as it overflowed with walnut paneling and neo-classical elements. On the side altars and main reredos, the columns, scroll work, and broken pediments could have been ripped from any of WM's Sunken Garden buildings. The elaborate wallpaper (yes, wallpaper in a church) would easily be at home in the George Wythe house. Clearly, someone was trying to bring the style of Colonial Williamsburg to University City.
While the woodwork was a taste of Tidewater Virginia, the stained glass was a creative take on the usual iconography. Round windows depicted scenes from the life of Mary (Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Assumption). The taller ones each displayed one of the Beatitudes, and appropriate theme for a church dedicated to the communion of saints.
Overall, I liked the church, although I got distracted by the feeling that I was worshipping in a museum. As we drove away, I resolved to return and photograph the building. Maybe I could even start a study of St Louis church architecture.
Too bad a fellow blogger beat me to the punch. The guy who writes "Rome of the West" has already documented All Saints for his own extensive church collection. Oh well, I didn't have my tripod here anyway. Dang, he must have a lot of free time and new-convert fervor.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
In the office I have:
- followed my boss, the Nicest Man in the World (tm), around like a lost puppy as he dashed across the office
- attended a mind-numbing meeting led by a man I named public health Wesley Snipes
- been assigned my own cubicle and a Mac G4 laptop, Lucy 9she's linked to my boss' desktop, Samantha)
- shaken hands with and then memorized the jobs of the entire office staff (not unlike APO brother interviews)
- discussed the Titanic with the IT guy's 8 year old son
- read grant proposals and public health stats for nearly 8 hours straight
- been thankful that my gluten intolerance has prevented me from pigging out on the cake, donuts, and ravioli thrust at me in the first four hours
- become familiar with the three metro stops near my house
- heard a man's life story while he waited for the bus - he just got out of jail for fighting with his woman
Getting to see moms and babies was cool, but otherwise it has been hard to see the face of Christ while staring at my cubicle walls. Most of my other housemates come home with stories about organizing food pantries, helping poor kids write their resumes, or leading activities for disabled people. I looked up statistics on the internet. Maybe its good to utilize my research skills for funding worthwhile efforts, but I kindof feel like I am copping out. Vincent De Paul and Louise de Marillac's words about loving the poor seem pointless to me when I am parked at a desk.
I have to keep telling myself that the two past VSC volunteers at NFNF have enjoyed their time there. My boss, the Nicest Man in the World (tm), is heavily involved with the St Vincent de Paul Society, so he understands the special "charism" of direct service. But in the meantime, I can't help wondering what on earth I have signed up for.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
In college you know who you are.
You sit in the quad, and think, "Oh my God!
I am totally gonna go far!".
That kind of undergrad nostalgia hasn't happened to me yet, even though I live near two large universities. We've driven past them on our endless site visits, but I want to take time and explore SLU and Wash U on foot. Wash U's striking brick-and-stone edifices beckon me from the Forest Park parkway. What kind of architectural delights wait inside?
An article in the Post-Dispatch today hinted at what I could see - a brand spanking new student center. The Danforth University Center (DUC) follows many trends I observed as a University Centers employee at WM. Video games, centralized space for student activities, and study areas combine with newer ideas like LEED certification and actual street addresses.
Still, Wash U exhibits the qualtiy of life differences between public and private institutions. Osso buco in a bistro? Herb gardens around campus? A possible tandoor oven? Those of us with state funding could on ly dream.
My housemates and I have toyed with the idea of venturing onto the campus incognito, pretending we belong in this mysterious oasis of gourmet food and boys our age. I, of course, over-analyzed and wondered what we would do if asked about our course schedules. (We could create some elaborate alibi, but that sounds like the plot of a Fresh Prince episode.)
Avenue Q provides a more realistic picture of what would happen.
But if I were to go back to college,
Think what a loser I'd be-
I'd walk through the quad,
And think "Oh my God..."
"These kids are so much younger than me."
Monday, August 4, 2008
Part of me is still at WM living history camp 24/7. Dr. Mrs. W's voice still rings in my ear, telling me to drive the kids on some field trip. Suddenly I feel homesick for the land of flemish bond bricks and dead white colonists. It's ironic that the minute I leave academia, I find myself interested in things I would dismiss as boring before - like reading that copy of Paradise Lost out in the hall.
Getting integrated into the VSC also feels like history camp, but reversed so I am not in control. There are rooms to assign and set up, paperwork and rules to manage, and a new geography to learm. It's not unlike freshman year of college, learning to live in a new place. My 8 housemates and I are getting to know each other quickly, but to a large part we are still a housefull of strangers. The fact that this is an arrangement for an entire year, not just a weekend retreat or three week camp, makes the transition a little more nerveracking.
Luckily, this is not entirely like college. We've all been away from home before, and we all genuinely want to be here. It seems like everyone is coming in with the same emotions and anticipation, which is encouraging. Sr. T and the rest of the staff have been very welcoming. They cultivate a strong sense of connection to past volunteer teams. The ghosts of the 2007-2008 team are all around the house, especially in the notes they left us.
The girls and I are bonding as we explore the area and our new house. We make a speedy team in the kitchen, and feel a little less like we are raiding someone else's cupboards. Throughout the week we are visiting every service site, so we get a feel for what the others will be doing.
Today we started with a bang at Covenant House, a shelter and educational center for homeless or troubled teens. We were all really impressed with the colorful, upbeat facility. Just this year they moved into an old school that they gutted and redesigned. Now, there are classrooms, offices, and housing for both short and long term stays. Once you get past the gates and metal detectors, you are greeted by bold floor tiles and accent walls in orange, buttercream, and lime green. My favorite part was the artsy black-and-white photos of local kids all over the walls. A local photographer donated her time to do shoots of the kids in locations they chose. The images speak volumes about the agency and their kids, profound without being cheesy.
Jessica's boss matched the bright decor. From the minute Eileen greeted us we fell in love with her energetic personality. Her boisterious New Yawk accent, knobby pigtail hairstyle, and flowing kimono top all made her the kind of unique character a chick flick writer would envy. This self-described "devout Christian" overflowed with enthusiam for Covenant House's work and for her new VSC volunteer. We got to see the entire facilty, including the "real live cook." We also learned about Eileen's obsession with inspirational quotes and her son, who is joining the peace corps with his new Jamaican wife. Jessica is never going to have a dull moment there.
Eileen assured the rest of us our time wouldn't be dull. She peppered her conversation with affirmations, saying "I'm so proud of you all! This is such a great thing you are doing. It'll change the direction of your life. There are no coincidences - God has put you here for a reason!"
I'm excited for us all to learn what those reasons will be.