October 14, 2011

Poverty: A Few Questions

I don't really understand why there is a political divide about poverty.  Are we really saying different things beyond the rhetoric?  I fear we are, but why?  More specifically, I don't understand why certain of my friends understand poverty to be a theological divide.  I don't mean my misunderstanding to be an accusation.  Honestly, I don't understand.  If anyone wants to engage in a dialogue (not a lecture) about how it's a permissible theological premise to not give alms to the poor, then I'm really willing to listen.  Don't get me wrong, I understand the debilitating nature of entitlement.  I also understand, probably more than most, that wealthy and poor are often relative terms.  If your dialogue begins with an engagement at these points, please find another entry point for engagement.  That's not to say that these issues aren't important, it's to say that the issue of poverty is far more complex and nuanced than to hang on these two nails alone.  For example -- I often hear the statement, "Don't be lazy.  Get a job."  Do the people making these statements realize that a minimum wage job pays only $15,080.00 per year, before taxes and other deductions, with no time off for illness nor vacation?  After taxes, with no other deductions, this amount falls below the poverty line for a single person, let alone for a family.  I really don't think the people making these statements realize what they're saying.  I know some of these people.  They're good and kind people with generous hearts.  They believe that what they're saying is loving and right.  They would never look at a hard working man or woman who is working 40 hours a week and call them lazy.  They would probably call them oppressed.

To my American compatriots, I wonder what it means to you about our country that real poverty can be found here.  I also wonder what it means to you that all men and women are created equal but aren't born equal.  What if America really is like every other country?  What if we really aren't special?  What if you're wrong about poverty? 

What if we actually talked about it?

March 8, 2011

Cupcakes for Lent

Recently I was pondering the rate of obesity in America, and at the same time, this thing called "food insecurity" which basically means an expressed anxiety about when and where the next meal is coming from.  It's not the same, mind you, as say, a famine in the Developing World, but still it's something with which people in America are contending.  In a country that has food stamps for the poor its presence is not something I completely understand, but I'm trying.  Nonetheless, I was thinking about the typical American response to the presence of obesity.  In the school where I taught in Memphis the response was to eliminate all sweets and snacks from schools.  Is it your child's birthday?  Great!  Celebrate with a tray of carrot sticks. Nothing says, "I'm glad you're alive, let's celebrate your life!" like celery and a glass of water.  Prisoners are jealous, I'm sure. 

Seriously, America?  This is the best you can do? 

Well, to be frank, yes.  It's in our DNA (so is greed, for that matter, but that's another post).  We are Puritans.  As part of the direct lineage (well, me, and thousands of others, but that's neither here nor there) of William Brewster I don't have a lot of room to begrudge the Puritans, but alas, their paradigm of starkness and gnosticism leaves a wide legacy in today's world (this is when I cling to other parts of my ancestry -- like the Cherokees and, God help me, the French). 

I wonder, what would it be like to teach children that there is a time and place for feasting... and fasting?  Would they be less insecure about the next cupcake coming their way if they could look on a calendar and see its approach like Christmas?  I don't mind eating carrots today because we're celebrating my best friend's birthday with pizza tomorrow?  I wonder this, because I think that when someone fears not having "the good things in life" again in the foreseeable future, they tend to horde with greed and fear rather than give thanks with gratitude and trust. 

The reason I think about all of this now is because it's Lent  -- more specifically, it's Clean Monday.  So, I therefore, have food on the brain.  If I were more godly, I'd have God on the brain, but I'm thinking about food instead.  Here is what I'm thinking about -- many Orthodox cultures have ways of entering into Clean Week that look nothing like the monastic tradition I was handed upon becoming Orthodox.  Most of those cultures include a small amount of food (usually raw foods like nuts and fruits in the evening) and, at least, something to drink.  What was I handed?  I was told to drink nothing.  And to eat nothing.  From sundown on Sunday until after pre-Sanctified Liturgy on Wednesday.  Why?  Probably because those who handed it to me are Puritans who do not understand that there's a difference between being a monastic and not being a monastic.  So... for years now, after getting raging headaches at work and being too lacking in energy to function, I finally ate something, how did I do it?  Gluttonously.  And with massive amounts of guilt and self-loathing for not being hard-core enough (kudos to you if you smile for three days while submitting to The Three Day Fast -- you get a cookie.  Later.)   After all, that's the American way.  Go hard or go home!

Don't get me wrong.  There are many good things America brings to the Orthodox plate, but Puritanism isn't one of them.  "Economia" is probably one of the most difficult words for American converts to grasp.  We are monastics or we're Hell-bound. 

Lent has begun.  But take heart, cupcakes are coming.

February 22, 2011

The Problem With...

The problem with going through life making sure you don't need anyone is that no one needs you either. 

January 5, 2011


Oh the lies our culture tells....

January 3, 2011

It's going to be a Butter Rum Cake kind of year...

I am known for my lack of cooking skills.  This year I intend to change that.

While living in Africa I had five different roommates I took in at various time.  None of them were chefs, especially given that cookbooks are useless there, being that "gourmet" ingredients are impossible to come by and even "normal" ingredients can be next to impossible to find.  (I was once trying to bake a pumpkin pie for Metropolitan Jeronymos and I kept asking, "Where can I buy brown sugar?"  The problem is that every-day-sugar-in-your-tea sugar is a light brown color.  I finally found a recipe online for how to turn regular sugar into brown sugar.  It was the best pumpkin pie ever.)  I was raised in Kansas.  Kansas is a "meat and potatoes" kind of place, so adventure in the kitchen is atypical, especially in my home.  My mother is the pickiest person on the planet and has a cooking repertoire of about 15 items.  My brother and I laughed one day about coming into adulthood and discovering a whole world of tastes previously unknown.  Before moving to Africa I was the kind of cook who measured off a measuring cup like I was in a science lab.  Everything was exact and precise... and stressful.  I hated cooking.  So, what happens when you don't have cookbooks and cooking utensils are rare?  You learn from your more adventurous roommates how to improvise and how to love spices.  I came home from Africa with a curiosity for cooking.  For the first time in my life I feel drawn to the kitchen, and when I find myself there I love it.  Something in my soul feels whole, and nothing smells more like home than a house filled with the smells of a well-used kitchen.  So, this year, I'm going to learn to cook.

I don't typically make New Year's Resolutions, but this year I am setting about to learn one new recipe per week.  To start the year in a festive mood, I started with a Butter Rum Cake.  I cannot believe it, but it turned out perfect.  I don't think it could have been more perfectly golden or  with the right ratio of crunchy edge and moist inside.  It's going to be a good year.

December 3, 2010

In Praise of Housework

I've been home from Africa for 5 months.  Periodically people ask me what I miss most. My answer is always, "My housekeeper."  It's even somewhat true.  After a long day at work it's nice to come home to a clean house.  However, it's somewhat untrue, too.  Mostly, it's just the answer that gets the quickest laugh and lends the quickest hand to changing the subject, something people are surprisingly wont to do after they've asked a question with no real intent to hear its proper answer.

So why don't I miss my housekeeper?  Well, first of all, having a housekeeper is not necessarily easier than keeping house myself.  It simply requires a different skill set. 

 Secondly, as I give my nod to Wendell Berry, there as much to be said for keeping one's own house as there is to be said for working one's own land.  In the house I lived in in Uganda I never felt properly at home. After journeying around the continent I never felt that sense of "Awwww... home" when I entered my own doors again.  Don't me wrong, it's always nice to be amongst your own things again, but there was a sense of permanence missing.  I emphatically believe that it's because I never cleaned my own home.  I didn't know its inner workings, if you will.  Even now, in this home I've lived in for a few short months, I feel more at home because I clean the floor, wipe the counters, and make the bed.  This is my home because I take care of it. 

Fr. Shmemman said that all of life is sacramental.  In this same vein, there is a blessing in housework.  I don't carry the same loathing with me anymore when I clean my home.  There is a joy that was unbeknownst to me in my life before Africa. 

April 23, 2010

No God

I have a colleague who has recently gone from being a very liberal Christian to being a militant Atheist.  I asked him what made him change his mind.  He said, "I cannot think of a single instance of when the belief in God resulted in good and not violence."  I mused to myself, "Johnny, you grossly overestimate who I would be without belief."  Time and time again, when life beats me down, it is only my belief in God that calls me toward love. 

How is your heart?

Matters of the heart seem to be central to my life of late.

In the literal sense, my father just had open-heart surgery.  After a very scary couple of weeks wherein he verily bounced back from the brink of death, he's now at home recovering.  Glory to God!

In the spiritual sense, I just had a conversation with a friend of mine from home who is also a therapist and is getting ready to do a seminar for engaged couples about the first year of marriage.  She got married a year ago and is having the time of her life.  She and her husband are one of those obnoxiously perfect couples.  One of her offered up pieces of advice is, "Do a heart check.  Andy and I do a heart check every day.  How is your heart?"  She offered up other advice, too, like, LAUGH!  A lot!  I like Paige. 

I began to ponder this heart check  idea.  I wonder how it would be if we asked the significant people in our lives this very question every day, or even once a week.  Then I wondered how it would be if I checked mine with God.  At first glimpse it all sounds overly emotional for me, but when I stop and seriously ask myself, "Stacy, how is your heart?" I feel a vulnerability that I don't often want to feel.  That's not to say, mind you, that I'm in a bad place right now, it's just to say that matters of the heart are vulnerable by nature and can bring you to the brink of death.  What would it be like to live in the vulnerability every day?

April 17, 2010

The Unwanted

Last night I was enjoying a Girl's Night Out with Betty, Sunshine, and Katie.  As is typical with a Girl's Night Out, there was the usual raucous laughter, high fives, compliments on accessories, and, of course, conversations of men.  Betty is a particularly pensive woman, Sunshine is true to her hippie-name and casts an aura of bohemian artfulness over everything she meanders by, and Katie is the girl with the perpetual smile who has a sort of stereotypical doe-eyed innocence.  Last night, Betty's somber mood began to cloud over the G&T's and the Ugandan R &B-esque music thumping overhead.  Betty was celebrating her 43rd birthday. 

I'm not sure if Betty's final conversation starter ended the evening or if it was already walking toward the door and putting its coat on, but we all fumbled awkwardly to find a serious tone, a vast departure from our obnoxious giggles only a moment before, as she began to tell us that it was just before her 42nd birthday that she lost her virginity.  She told the tale of deciding once and for all that she wouldn't die unwanted.  She went to a local bar she frequented often, met up with a man she occasionally enjoyed a conversation with, and proceeded to his home to "end all of the unwantedness."  The "lucky" patron of that night's lottery was ignorant of his role in her life.  When she bled he expressed shock.  She blamed it on Aunt Flo.  She spoke of going home and spending a week in a deep depression, grieving the end of hope... there is no such thing as Prince Charming; there is no God who has "someone special waiting just for her." There is, for her, only the truth that she is unwanted and sex is meaningless.

I can hear the pious running to add their two-cents worth; to defend their God.  Even among the Orthodox there is a certain attitude of "bear your cross."  As I sat listening to Betty, wishing I had a much larger glass of gin and tonic, I bemused the fact that so many want to believe that Betty's cross to bear is somehow fated to her since her birth... her "unwantedness" is designed by God for her salvation.  I can't help but notice, however, that God's salvation design belongs to a statistically significant number with a direct positive correlation to culture's damnation of the caste of undesirables.  In that regard it seems that our culture is particularly godly, I suppose, so in-line as it is with God's will.  That's a very sanctifying way of alleviating our guilt for Betty's unwantedness.  The wanted can wear their martyr's crowns and claim they, too, are bearing their cross, and the unwanted can disappear into the nothingness that is the lack of community; the lack of personhood. 

I am angry at Betty's story.  To be honest, I am angry at you, the wanted.  I am angry at the lies you tell Betty, and more importantly, I am enraged at the lies you tell yourself. 

I don't have a good conclusion to this post.  I don't even have a humbled perspective reflecting the profound lesson to be learned.  I have only Betty's story and my anger.  May God have mercy.

April 8, 2010

On Paul

I teach a class at Makerere University on the foundations and history of psychology and therapy.  Inevitably, I teach a section about Carl Jung.  Jung was a bit of a hippie before hippies were cool, and long before they were bourgeois.  He taught about personas and archetypes and the authentic self.  He said things like, "Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens" and "We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses."  I don't follow Jung's methods, but I do, indeed, like Carl Jung.  

Last night I was sitting with my friend Paul.  Paul has a way of pulling away in the moment, casting an air of arrogance over things.  It irritates me.  I began to muse about Carl Jung and his teachings on archetypes.  Paul sat and listened.  He asked me which personas I see in him.  I told him about the way he becomes seemingly  aloof.  He listened.  Then, he asked, "Do you know that you do that, too?"  I should have known.  Carl Jung also said, "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves."  

Paul asked if anyone could ever meet my expectations in life.  I said, "Of course not, but I have no intentions of lowering them for anyone, not even myself.  I think it is far more liberating to learn to say, 'Forgive me' than it is to water down life to expect only the mundane so that one doesn't experience grief or disappointment."  Paul thinks I'm weird.