From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Farewell on a Fiery Day

In an attempt to close this chapter better than my last one, process current events, and beef up for an active, engaged life, I wrote and now share this letter.

Dear Portland,
On the day I say goodbye to you, the world is on fire. Houston rises from rubble and another storm taunts the beleaguered Gulf. Korea, where my parents' love conceived me, reels from the shock of the North's hydrogen bomb test. Millions of cars and their idling exhaust spin upwards over the Coast Range, back to your sprawl from a Labor Day weekend on the beach. I tried to jog the dogs this morning, but ash from the sky joined my dandruff, and an iron claw grabbed my lungs. Wildfire has turned the air gray and the light yellow across the state as it consumes the growth of the most severe winter since 1950. And my friends are downtown, making the will of the people known about the Commander-in-Chief's DACA decision. They will be awake tonight, organizing around the clock to protect their families and homes from the aftermath, while I will be awake in an attic with a broken air conditioning after a burning 100 degree day. The filter is clogged with ash.
It can be said that the world is not well; it is on fire. Perhaps it never wasn't.
I thank you today for the power you have given me that is stronger still.
I name that you're highly imperfect and worse. Some have said you are a breeding ground for false comfort, complacency, technobots, hatred. I have seen the truth in these, though I am also blind to them.
But I also name my gratitude to you. When you welcomed me home for the first time in two years, I had just left the grey sprawl of Managua in an anxious knot of unprocessed goodbyes that I don't intend to recreate. I had refused to buy lunch or dinner in the airport because I felt in my body for the first time (though I had always known) that the price was enough to feed a family for a week. I was purple from guilt and shock, and weak from hunger and insomnia.
In the backseat of my parents' car, as we crossed Fremont Bridge toward their house in the Willamette Valley, I saw the green darkness of Forest Park at nighttime, dotted by the wet steel of winter skyscrapers and Christmas lights. It was all reflected, magnified, in the Willamette below. Like a city living in a raindrop. "Is it real?" I said aloud.
"Did you hear her?" Dad said to Mom. He could barely understand me through the sobs. "I think she asked if it's real."
Thank you for being real. For feeding me food I grew from leftover glass factory lots. For late-night rides from solidarity committee meetings to salsa dancing after a 50-hour work week. For bikes and beards and beer and beets and Bigfoot. For Hood (Wy-East) and Adams (Pahtoe/Klickitat) and St. Helens (Loowit) winking white in daylight in the nearby far-away.
But thank you mostly for a sort of person I have found here. They are my rain in drought. They are gigglers and dancers and nerds and wanderers. They are prophets and diplomats and anarchists and immigrants. They are survivors of divorce, and loneliness, and cancer, and rape, and racism, and homelessness, and wars, who somehow smile at me at every encounter like I am emmanuel. I cling to them when I see the world burn. They will not stop extinguishing hate and growing life. I will not stop following them.
Amid, perhaps because of, your imperfection, you are the first place I ever called home. From your southern reaches, I saw the totality of the 2017 total solar eclipse. Behind the black moon, there was the purest white diamond. Its pulsing reminded me the universe is a body. It was the sun refusing to die, life laughing boldly on. In its darkness, we gawked and and laughed and cried and danced. Me and my friends, my leaders, the survivors.
As I make home elsewhere, for now or forever?, I touch the tapestry you have woven into my daily being. I carry with me idealism, energy, honesty, sacrifice, humility, brokenness, devotion. I believe these innocences are part of the life-in-common that will save us.
I'm now on my way toward cost curves and quantitative methods and legislative history. I've noticed that my mouth is already dry as I chew these pages. I used to call these things pointless and cowardly; the real lucha is on the streets, not in the books. I am different now, maybe for the better. With a rise-and-grind in my step, I thank you for giving me the focus to delve into the next two years. On my altar I have placed the prayer of better speaking the language of power, and better returning power to those who would save us from it.

If I don't have the privilege of calling you home again, I'll be OK.
But yours forever anyhow,
Heather Mae

P.S. For those who missed the Facebook post, here's where I'm headed next. The letter is less sexy if I admit outside this postscript I'm going two hours south.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

An Honest Chronicle of An Almost Adult Christmas

It's Christmas Eve morning and insomnia--Star Wars dreams, stomachaches, bloodstream residues of unnamed, bottled anxiety--means that on one of the only mornings during the year my adult life I allow my body to sleep in, I am awake at 5am and chopping at my life with an ice pick, and Christmas past and present and future are the ice block, wincing and giving, figuring out what's different.
Last night, for starters. I have been gifted with a singing voice, as were Hannah and Kristi, and the three of us went to Rose City Nursing Home and Lawrence Convalescent Center to sing carols. Don't they, context excluded, sound like places you want to be? Can't words turn coal into cake?
I suppose, the adult in me says, as we roam the halls in our Santa hats between stay-out-of-my rooms and ebullient thankyous, I prefer to be sick, old and alone in this country, in this city than in Managua, where I lived for two years, where on the average sick and old means you die, or you are given a bed in the middle of your son and daughter-in-law's house and your colon sits in dusty plastic bag because completing the colon cancer surgery is too expensive, as is a colostomy bag. But at least there are people, all day, around you, talking. Do I really prefer this country?
The child in me says, I am not sick and old. That's not my question to answer. I am a healthy songbird for the moment, who has found compassionate songbird friends. I can't help but notice all of a sudden that we are young and beautiful and different from the dining room people whose space we enter that smells like piss. A woman named Katherine asks us three times what day it is then naps as we sing. June tells us she went to kindergarten, did you really?, and a Sicilian 40-year-old with pretzel legs won't let go of my hand and sings so loud our crafted harmonies melt into cacophony. And still, we are all smiling.
Except for Calvin. Calvin walks like a tin man without oil. He is large, African American, with an innocent face, a smile more luminous than a pearl bracelet from Shane Company, and the nurses say, "You think you can sing? You should hear Calvin!" But something happened to Calvin and now he can only mutter a couple words at a time. Instead, as we sing, he closes his eyes and nods and conducts, and when we finish and move to leave, I take my Santa hat from his head and beg his pardon cuz it's my Aunt's, and he kisses Hannah's hand farewell, and then I see him crying. The adult in me says, what's he thinking? Where's he been? Did our singing light up the sky between the nighttime clouds in his body and soul, even for a moment? Does the moment count? The child in me says, I bet tears are snowflakes in disguise.
The adult is taking over. My glowing laptop screen screams LONELY. I'm 27 and have never not been single and have no siblings and for a few seconds I give into Scrooge thoughts that live like lumps in my throat and I see my future--I am in my forties-fifties-sixties but it doesn't matter, all that matters is that life is narrowing out, and now I live in an apartment that's too clean, somewhere in a high-rise building in London, alone looking out the window at nothing but white snow and black life. What have I done wrong? Where did it all go?
Quite a contrast from the colors I see through the bus window on the way home from work on December 23, 2015. I'd spent six hours staring at a computer screen, and although I love the people who pay me and how good I am at what they pay me for, I also begrudge them for being part of the system I buy into, like capitalism before Christmas morning, eating my time like a mixer eats flour, and spitting out less-than-satisfying cookies.
I made cookies this year, as I listened to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole and Reeba and then realized they're about as satisfying to me as expired post-dinner mints. At least, I tried to make edible molasses ginger cookies. They were sweet, and bricks. Impossible to eat, really. But I did try, which I've never done before.
I also bought Christmas gifts for my family. By gifts I mean discounted chocolate bars and things they need. Solid wool socks for mother, a hat to cover my Dad's gargantuan head. It took me 20 minutes to find a parking spot at Fred Meyer, but I admit as I felt the hats and socks I felt a joy pinch. It is satisfying to give people what they want.
There's Nina, at work. She's in charge of a food justice program doing culturally appropriate outreach to diverse communities in a food desert. She works 65 hours a week and gets paid 40 for them, and supervises adults and interns who don't know what they're doing, in a neighborhood where little-to-no resources mean the best-laid plans of mice and women most often crumble into a poor attempt at molasses ginger cookies (but she tried, and they are at least a little sweet). And she had a fever during the pre-holiday rush, which meant that waking up every day squeezed her eyes and resolve into slits. But I also knew that Nina wanted a set of Christmas cards that she had seen opened at a white elephant exchange, a set called "spirit of Mississippi," showing black Mississippians made of paper mache playing bass, dancing in a circle of gifts, leaving Church on Sunday morning. It so happened I had a second set of those cards, and so I entered her cubicle as she slouched over a grant and said, "I came to cheer you up."
"HA, how'd you know I needed cheering?"
"Well, you often do." And then I watched her tear open the blue wrapping, (and you even wrapped it legit, she said) and listened as she said this is great, this is great, these are beautiful, thank you, this makes me really happy, this is so perfect, thank you, until I told her okay I got it can I leave now, and we laughed again, and went back to our computer screens.
It was fleeting, but I felt like Mrs. Claus.
Hey you grown up! says the child in me. Admit something to yourself! You want to be Mrs. Claus! I'm terrified of large groups of people, and small beings (like children, or elves), and hard work, and old age, and finding/committing to a Santa, and baking, but still the image of a bright-eyed old woman barking cheery orders in a snow-surrounded kitchen swallows the Scrooge. And I am reminded again of what growing up is--accepting the ice pick as it claws away on your limited time, of the sake of being who you know you are.
Hannah had warned us about Rose City and Lawrence. "It'll probably be depressing." What she meant was, like everything in life, if you nitpick, and think too much, and give in quite naturally to Scrooge, you'll struggle to see the designs of snowflakes (or are they tears?) and see only the lonely London night and the piss dining room.
Now that I've gotten the insomnia out, and the bloodstream anxiety is minimized, I think I'll end this with a cliche, the point of this whole season. The point is joy.
Don't sneer at my cliche. Give yourself a Christmas present and find your point. The point is that it's 7am now, and someone is making coffee in the kitchen, and I am no longer alone (if you'd stop thinking so much, says the child in me, you'd realize you never were). The point is Calvin's tears. And biking under a full solstice moon, wearing a Santa hat under a bike helmet. And caroling, and Nigerian songs with the Church choir, regardless of the adult questions marks between religion and I. And knowing that I am Mrs. Claus, not Scrooge, and joy comes, but making it last is hard work.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. 
And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

-Mary Oliver

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Last Words of Spider-Man

"No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature, and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died."

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Two images; two feelings.
1. It is late. There is a man with an arm that is made of fingers. Rather, there is no arm; his wilted-leaf hand protrudes directly from his shoulder. And his right leg is bent permanently like a spider leg, perpendicularly to the rest of his body. It drags the rest of him along the potholed Avenida Miguel Obando y Bravo, just South of the biggest and shiniest university in the country, which renders him as valued as roadkill, as does our truck, and my pocket full of spending money. Yes, his smallness in this world, his partially paralyzed movement, his legs and hair and absence of body fat--he is quite a Spider-Man, though unlike a spider, bites my conscious suddenly, he is self-aware, and not only in need of food, but love, and he wears some semblance of clothing, even pads on his feet that may have been shoes once. "You remember that there is no social security system to care for people with birth defects and physical impairments," Father Joe says, pretending I could have forgotten for the sake of saying something to fill the space, as the man uses his good arm to wipe the truck's windshield. Usually, in Nicaragua, such windshield-wiping-for-a-living is preceded by the sprinkling of homemade wiper fluid, a combination of soap, spit and oil, but this man has only one usable hand, and to clean his windshield wiper he merely spits first, then wipes, then asks for money. Father Joe gives him some. The spider-man moves toward me. Lurches toward my window, drooling. Stops, says nothing, stares, head fallen to one side. "Close your window," says Father Joe. I do so. I numb out. I am tired. It is late. I stop feeling.
2. It is early. I am energized. The airport lights don't blink. They are the perfect color not to be noticed and fill everyone with fear, impatience, or eager anticipation. Ten scattered, repetitive, bored Atlanta voices guide us through customs toward officers who will let us back in or not. Mine is a gap-toothed, tall 30-something with large round blue eyes. They are particularly powerfully scrutinizing as part of his dark black face.
"What were you doing in Nicaragua?" He asks pleasantly, hurriedly.
"Visiting. Two weeks. I don't like the picture the kiosk took of me," I say, filling the space as Father Joe did, left by my reluctance to share the whole story, or perhaps, our system's inflexibility to hear it.
"Trust me; this is better than most of them I see. Nice earrings. You bringing anything back with you?"
"Well, these earrings. Some napkins. A couple cookies." Also, a re-broken heart barely held together by gratitude glue and an existential crisis, I send him telepathically. Do they teach border control officers to read minds?
"Welcome back," he says, and kind of throws my passport through the glass slit, and I catch it and notice how springy my legs feel as I re-enter the States. I remember the Spider-Man. I wonder if his legs ever feel springy.

Donne said no man is an island. I am not sure whether I am one or not, but I do, most of the time, live on and in one. It is called the privilege of being born and having my basic needs, including love, met to the point that I am aware I am alive, can climb almost any kind of mountain, and search for purpose. I seem to have found one. I remember it when I step into gaps, cross borders (see one of my very first blog posts in 2009, when I visited the State Park between Tijuana and San Diego), break bubbles. The purpose is to feel fully the weight of the islands on either side of the gap, to move reverently through the numbness required by suffering to an awakening on springy legs, and to fortify a bridge between places like Spider-Man and Nice Earrings Island.

Some people have found their purpose is parenthood. Helping people. Bringing others to Jesus. Living in the moment. Chewing philosophies I can barely sift through and washing them down with marijuana or yoga or video games or sports. Perhaps I am being an exceptionalist, inflated romantic when I say such purposes seem more pleasant than mine. Certainly, for a moment, it is pleasant to feel welcomed home to a safe place, to drink water that tastes like life, not chlorine or algae, and afford a hummus wrap at an airport food court. These are moments I can cherish, because "if life were only moments, then you'd never know you had one," as the Baker's Wife Sings in Into the Woods.

But then I leave the airport. I physically return to my comfortable island--a house my parents own in a wine town in a cold green place in Oregon. Tired and numb are back. I form the words to tell my mother about the highlights of the trip--conversations, cold water on my hands from rain during a drought when the government has turned off all municipal water, laughing deeper than culture-crossing can comprehend, dancing, views of volcanoes melting into the Sea. I don't know how to voice the rest of what I feel, a feeling of having everything I need when others don't. A feeling that I know nothing and everything, and that if there is a God, She-He-It surrounds me in a healing hug and then kicks my butt as I catch my passport and go to see Spider-Man.

Funny, really, how much this Nicaraguan version of Peter Parker has to do with the real one, how much he and I and you and everything are part of the same interrelated Something. He says, windshield wiper in his only good hand, staring at me, the drool now gone, "Oíste, chavala, un gran poder conlleva con una gran responsibilidad." (With great power comes great responsibility.)

Monday, January 5, 2015

On Epiphany: Feckin' Fecundity

Today, in the Christian tradition, we celebrate the last day of Christmas, called Epiphany.
Epiphany (ih-pif-uh-nee)
1. a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi.
2. an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity.
3. a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.
And now, on to more important things. In Ireland, they say "feckin'." (Example here) I like it very much.
It's me conforming to the stereotype that when people meet someone whose first language is not (North American) English, they feel compelled to share all the swear words they know in that second language. (Example here)
Its North American alternative is a strong word I often hear screamed or punched like a quiet bullet, in anger or jest. I work part-time at a dining hall for people without homes, and that word often precedes the fights I attempt to de-escalate. I say it too, in moments of unforeseen pain and confusion. 
It's a word I let fly when I read articles like this one, predicting the depletion of water to South America's biggest city in Brazil (which will host the Olympic summer Games in 2016) of 20 million people, within two months.
Bad news. Really, bad news.
Some say the news is too dominated by bad news. I say, perhaps, but I also believe that those who experience life as comfortable, from behind bubbles, are more averse to bad news than those who experience it every day and know it is an unavoidable reality.
More than two years ago, when visiting the world's most dangerous city, I wrote a blog entry, viewed by more people than any other blog I've ever written, called "Death and Vacation: My Journey to the Murder Capital of the World." My central focus was the normalcy of death in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where a violent killing takes place every 74 minutes, owing to gang activity (if you had the chance to immigrate, wouldn't you?). Admitting this may sound like I am romanticizing poverty and suffering, and acknowledging the psychological effect of terror upon the citizens of San Pedro Sula, I would like to propose that experiencing suffering regularly can profoundly liberate a part of long as they have the space, support, and strength to chug through it. Hence the Buddha leaving his princely castle for the poor streets. Hence Oprah's happiness study in early 2009, in which a funeral director was named the happiest test subject: 
"Your job just helps you to have a great perspective on life, which is, 'We're just here for a short spell, and it's really important to make the most of it,'" Dr. Holden says.
Jesus, who I think is pretty cool, knew it too:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
Of course I can't deny that people who don't often deal with pain and death can be very, very happy. But I'd like to propose that those who contemplate and confront such realities more often, are more inclined toward happiness, and more importantly, better able to lead their sisters and brothers through similar times.
I'd like to paraphrase John 12:24 in a different way, by saying that chaos leads to creativity, death and pain lead to life and growth, but not without acknowledgement, acceptance, support (don't remain alone!). Here's the equation:
Chaos/Death/Pain + Acceptance/Support/Reflection = Life/Growth/Creation
How convenient that my favorite words for pain and growth are almost the same:
Fecund (fee-kuhnd); adjective
1. producing or capable of producing offspring, fruit, vegetation, etc., in abundance; prolific; fruitful:
fecund parents; fecund farmland.
2. very productive or creative intellectually:
the fecund years of the Italian Renaissance.
That's right folks; you can say with feeling, "Feckin' Fecundity!" (Ten times fast, preferably, and you'll feel like you're an Irish percussion instrument)
I experienced this percussive punch recently with an inbound Jesuit Volunteer named Yolanda Jones, who is headed for Managua, Nicaragua, the city where I spent two years in the same program. She loves gardening, and her favorite professor in El Salvador, who had a semi-Irish accent, would spew the beauty of being fecund like it were itself a swear word.
As I wished Yolanda well over the phone, I also think I said something like, "Oh girl, these two years are gonna hurt. I'm so excited for you." What I meant, of course, is that it's possible to spell out in words that poverty and oppression exist, and to recognize, as US-born middle-class white citizens, that we both have privileges, but to live alongside Nicaraguans for two years, surrounded by a community of challenge and love, leads to some real tears, realizations, and finally, creation.
It leads me to the light inside, a fire tingling in every pore, that I feel when I write this blog.
I admit this chaos-creation miracle has been understood for centuries, in the universe's birth in a black hole, in the circle of life on our tiny planet, in sex, in childbirth, in Christianity and more ancient religions centered on divine death and resurrection. But I don't think we often notice, or revere, its truth within our personal stories, nor do we see it as especially applicable to our current times on this swiftly changing planet.
You can read my last blog, The Lord's Prayer, for the Planet, if you'd like to know more about how I feel regarding our changing planet, but for the sake of proving my equation, and chanting my double-F mantra more happily, I'll explain a bit here, via a story.
This weekend I took a train north to Centralia, WA. Outside that town, a university friend and her husband, with her mother, have purchased 180 acres of wild Washington woodland, which they plan to turn into a sustainable eco-village, a safe haven from capitalism and climate change, where goods are grown and made and shared, rather than bought. They believe--rather, they can cite the science that maintains--that Sao Paolo is not alone in impending climate crisis. The southern half of our country will run out of water in five-or-so-years, and in our lifetime the United States will understand war, drought, famine, and a fight for resources, something much of the rest of the world has been dealing with for centuries.
Not sure how accurate or immediate that science is. But I can guess how you may be feeling, because I can feel it, too. 
I do not wish suffering upon anyone. I acknowledge my own idealism, bias, privilege, and perhaps self-righteousness. I am open to loving challenges to see things differently. But I do not aim to feel differently.
And I'd like whoever is reading this to entertain the following today. We may be approaching a time when we will be forced to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life," when our bond with every other living being on this planet is not only named, but felt as our own. When we without-pause question where our goods come from, who made them, and under what conditions. We may be the generations that are privileged to undergo a radical change in consciousness, from individualist to interconnection, from doldrums and death to life and love.
That feels good.
When I came back from Nicaragua, the biggest reason I cried was that I knew I couldn't reach some people's souls here, the way my soul had been reached there, a creative moment spurred by chaos. I couldn't explain my, our, interconnection to Nicaraguans, and to everyone else, because like love, it is something felt, realized, not stated in words.
I look forward to the moment when that epiphany, like a supernova, an explosion giving rise to the birth of many stars, embraces everyone. We're not alone. We're in for good things. But first, we'll have to dig deep into the dark dirt, smelly and fecund.
"Justice will finally come when those of us who are not injured are as indignant as those who are." -a mantra from the beginnings of democracy in ancient Greece

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Lord's Prayer, for the Planet

Many people I admire--Barbara Kingsolver, Charles Eisenstein, most of the world's farmers and the rural poor, the Carteret Islanders--believe humanity will be extinct within 50 years. We can no longer dispute the reality of climate change, though the question of when its severity will topple, or perhaps merely transform, the society inhabited by the world's most well-off people, remains unanswered.

On September 23, 2014 in New York City, UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon has called an emergency climate summit, a declaratory, final effort to gather the world's leaders around the crisis of climate change before science officially declares we began too late. According to the summit's organizers, we have a year and a half left to reverse current disastrous trends. After that, Barbara Kingsolver might be right.

In solidarity with this summit, the people of NYC and have called a People's Climate March. Parallel marches are happening all over the country (find yours here).

I am attending this event not only to re-examine the baggage I carry that I am, we are, powerless and despairing, but also to feel the sheer unitive power emerging from a gathering of people who are as terrified, electrified, and numb as I am.

I realize more heavily--and hopefully, for a more beautiful, unified world--every day that our children's generation will not inhabit the post-Industrial Revolution world that I have learned to populate. Perhaps the climax will occur sooner than that.

Even spirituality will change.

Prompted by the march, by the countless times I have uttered these words without any sort of reverence, skeptical about its application to our time, I offer a re-imagined version of the sacred mantra of the Catholic faith tradition, the Our Father, proclaimed by Jesus to be the perfect prayer, perfect beyond time and crisis.

Our Father, and Mother, and great Creator, the plural-feminine Elohim, who birthed the blackholes and blackberries alike, who art in heaven but viscerally, illimitably present, sovereign, within and throughout Earth, hallowed, like a Druid oak grove, the Ganges, the Blue Ridge Mountains, be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, by your sand-speck sons and daughters, through whom your reign may burst or shrivel, on Earth, the only Real we know, as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread, tilled, sown, tended, kneaded, baked, by many hands, whose sweat, without speaking, enters our souls,

And forgive us our trespasses, our luxuries and apathies and ignorance, once invisible, now menacing

As we forgive those who trespass against us, for only through our unshakeable bonds, named and cherished and healed, can we re-learn the sacred, can we learn to breathe again.

And lead us not into temptation, but from evil, from the crumbling continuance of what science prophesies, deliver us, your People, into a cool fertile glow of resurrection.