Thursday, September 25, 2008

It's the terror of knowing what this world is about ~ Queen

It's a feature of my melancholic temperament that I tend to over-analyze things and get angsty about the big-picture moral ideals of my life. Offering service to others is no exception. The magnitude of human suffering leaves me feeling completely helpless. It's like I am standing with Mary, watching the people I love get nailed to a cross and knowing there is nothing I can really do to stop it.

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
give love
give love
give love

give love
give love

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Books = Love, Part II

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

Religious heritage can be habit forming

When I was in Catholic high school, all those masses and rosaries during the week left me on spiritual overload. Now, the 9-5 workweek has me eager for some church time on the weekends. I don't even mind extra church services, like confession at the cathedral.

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.)
Sr. Rosalind and company's open house was preceded by a holy hour. Back in the high school days, I did one of those silent Eucharistic prayer times once a month. It's been a while, but all those lovely rituals are deep in my soul. I could say the Benediction hymns and prayers half-asleep. In fact, O Salutaris is one of the few songs where my voice sounds really good. I was pleased that I could help walk Texas Volunteer through it, showing her where to find lyrics in the hymnal. And then I realized: I want my future children to be able to sing these songs. I want to drag them to Eucharistic adoration, even if they get as bored as I used to. I want them to attend so many church services that sacred words are automatic reflexes for them.

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

What if Jesus needed a hot meal?

Last weekend I helped on the St. Vincent de Paul society mobile kitchen aka "The Breakfast Bus." It's an awesome idea - an old school bus with the seats removed, re purposed as a little diner on wheels. Five of us helped the bus' founder, Gerry, serve breakfast near a downtown parish.

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

Books = Love, Part 1

Thomas Jefferson famously said, "I cannot live without books." I'm beginning to realize how much that is true for my life, as well. Books have a way of finding me and working their way into my life, even in unexpected ways. For instance, I found a fellow bibliophile at the recent Art Festival.

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..........

Through the eye of the needle

Sometimes I get disgusted at the wastefulness of American consumerism. Like on move-out day after graduation. The dumpster on Landrum Drive served four buildings, and was an avalanche of discarded purchases that had once seemed vital to students' existences. "Perfectly good" futons, lamps, mattress pads, and other furniture items spilled out onto the road and were slowly ruined by the rain. (It was a generally dreary and depressing day. The overcast sky did not make packing up and leaving college behind any easier.) I'll admit, I added a printer to the pile. It still functioned, but badly.

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.