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.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Squirrel Man: An Awkward Love Story

This is a completely true story, which happened at approx. 1pm on Thurs, Sep 24, 2009.
An innocent Thursday, heading across campus to work as a tutor at the Learning Resource Center. Doing something I wish I did a little less: minding my own business. Pretending not to notice everyone who passes me, for fear of the awkward do-we-acknowledge-each-other-or-not sideways glance. But that choice was taken from me by Squirrel Man.
A brown squirrel scurried across the sidewalk, and I jump as I hear a joyful, "A squirrel!" from a male voice to my left. He is walking in stride with me, wearing a nondescript red tee, with shabby bright blonde hair, a dopey nose, and intelligent blue eyes. I chuckle, as do the girls passing me with whom he exchanges flirtatious glances, at the ecstatic Squirrel Man who gets joy out of such ordinary things. Then I return to minding my own business.
Or I try to.
Next thing I know Squirrel Man has taken a few purposeful leaps and is once again walking in time with my steps, but in front of me, so his red shirt is all I can see and process. I try to let him go wherever he is going without taking it any further, but suddenly his left shoulder tilts downward and his neck spins with the agility of an owl and he is facing me, asking, suspiciously and slowly, "Are you foooooooollowing me?"
Okay, Squirrel Man, let's play. "Yeeeeees," I reply deeply. "At least for a while."
"Excellent; I like that deep 'yes,'" he cooes, and takes another few leaps so that he is walking behind me. I am getting confused at this point.
"Well guess what! Now I am following you!" He says it as though his armada has destroyed mine forever.
"I guess so." I have no idea how to reply, so I tell him the truth. "You are an interesting person, aren't you?"
"Thank you! I like to think that. It's because I'm bored; I'm at work right now."
"Right now? Where do you work?"
"I work for a hair salon. Are you interested in coming?"
At this point I give him the benefit of the doubt, assuming he really does work for a hair salon, and isn't a pervert looking for a meek victim. "You know, I actually don't do that sort of thing," I say honestly.
As he says this next line he tantalizingly shows off his bicep, rolling up his red sleeve. "Ah, well I guess I'm not the right man for you."
"I guess not," I say, almost laughing hysterically.
"I'm Alex."
"Heather, it was fantastic to meet you. I think I will break off here and follow that brunette."
"Suit yourself."
"I love you!"
"I love you too!"
With that, he leaned back slightly to watch me as long as possible as he made his way to Possible Client #H+1. I caught myself smiling incessantly and decided to process the whole thing.
It was a hellofalot of fun. Those moments that catch you and re-tweak your view of a moment, or of the world, are few and far between, and a specific person initiating those moments are even more rare.
I thank you, Squirrel Man, for being a source of enjoyment in my day, and nothing more. Moral of the story? Go out and take someone by surprise. Smiles are soul food.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Border

The bulbous heads of seaweed pop under my concrete feet like bubblewrap. Without warning, the question came to me: How pleasant would they feel popping under the sprint of someone fleeing torture, gang life, a destroyed field in the campo, for the undocumented unknown?
Ten miles behind our group of 14 loom the smog and high-rise of San Diego, a boring backdrop for us, an unattainable temptation for those we cautiously approach. There is nothing for miles on the US side at Border Field State Park in Tijuana. On the Mexican side, you hear mariachi bands, smell taco stands, and gawk at the hundreds of beach-goers dancing and smiling across the double fence at their United States counterparts. Couples and small children even step through the jagged wooden posts, stationed haphazardly in the sand like obelisks, marking the border. It's as if none of them know that US Border Patrol agents are analyzing their every move. Waiting just out of sight, I can see two bullet-proof jeeps equipped with sirens, a light house, the top of which I fantasize holds a sniper, and a concrete guard shack. It's as if none of them know, but we know they do. No one who crosses the obelisk line dares continue down the beach toward San Diego. Those who risk it seldom have fairy stories to tell.
It is a perfect Sunday in September on an LMU-sponsored "De Colores" trip. We have just entered the US after two days of walking alongside communities in TJ, a walk which covered us in sweat and concrete and salsa, and are ending our weekend at the State Park. On their side, I feel welcome, and confused. On my own, I feel misplaced. As we walk up the beach slope toward the light house, where our group leaders will talk about the changes in the border over the last two decades, my new friend Terese tells me she feels like the kid next door who can't play with the fun neighbors. We can't make out our neighbors' faces through the barbed wire fence and holed wall, but there are so many of them, wading in the ocean, sitting at the line in front of the fence drinking beer, frolicking in the carnival atmosphere, but mostly, I can sense, wonder what we're thinking, the tiny group of 14 estadounidenses surveying them like modern art from fifty feet and an entire world away.
The separation is amusing. Two twenty-foot fences, one steel and strong and the other haggard and piercing, come from the eastern hills and taper off into the wooden posts when they reach the sand, which is too unstable to support a fence. Nothing, I realize, conquers mother nature. Time and the forever ocean have presented engineers problems with enforcing the border, but efforts have increased exponentially since March 2009. The US Border Patrol hired a core of surveyors to create an artificial hill between TJ and SoCal, upsetting the river ecosystem of the area in the name of security. Whereas in 2008, since the days of Friendship Park, separated families and curious citizens from both countries could mingle at the posts, there is now a fifteen-foot "no-man's-land" between the old fence and the new steel fence. Any trespasser within this space, our leader informed us, is legally referred to as "clutter," and may be thrown away. A border patrol officer, we are informed, can get to any of the clutter, or any of us, within 15 seconds.
We do get a taste of the "action." I am headed back from the out-of-order bathrooms to our discussion when a patrol jeep tears around our group down the slope toward the wooden posts. I break into a jog to see the fuss as I see necks on both sides crane to witness the confrontation. A US photographer has wandered cluelessly toward the posts, snapping shots of the waving Mexicans on the other side. The jeep has reached him, and a beefy patrol officer issues a "warning," informing him of the new rule regarding the fifteen-foot gap. I imagine his confusion, as there is no official sign posted regarding no-man's-land. I imagine he knows that a few months ago families could embrace without the intervention of AK-47s.
Our group begins to hike back up the beach toward San Diego. I walk backwards, facing the fence, when I can, and I quickly fall behind. I cannot seem to take my eyes from them: not the wires or growing emptiness, but the figures beyond, slowly becoming black dots, falling behind, just like me.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How Dare You. Thank You, Toni Morrison

If you've never read Toni Morrison, you may not appreciate this post.
I was a disillusioned member of the Sailor Squad. As a kid I soaked up every young adult sci-fi or fantasy novel available without realizing how much I read. I remember A Wrinkle in Time and Methusela's Gift affecting me the most profoundly. Propelled by all this lush fantasy and low self-esteem, in middle school I turned to cheap anime, most notably Sailor Moon, with her perfect pigtails and sparkling explosions, to dominate my world. I missed out on hand-holding, preliminary cussing, make-up and fashion, exchanging them for season marathons, intellectualism and misinformed superiority. My three anime friends and I were so detached and nerdy that our more popular peers gave us the nickname "the Sailor Squad." We wore it proudly. Those books, that escape, became what I lived for. More importantly, they became my future. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when my interest in them rapidly dwindled, and by freshman year of college I read (tops) one novel-for-fun a year.
Many factors contributed. Cathedral High School surrounded me in spirit, stress, and opportunity. I became a star member of the theatre and choir programs, which housed the performing that probably removed the need for literary fantasy in my life. In addition, I looked down upon those unpleasant middle-schoolisms in arrogance, not wanting to subject myself to anything remotely "Sailor." I read so much for AP English that the last thing I wanted to do in my free time was read. I regret it now. Reading recommendations which like-minded undergrads breezed through during their high-school years fill my to-read list, which has been on an unpleasant hold.
There have been exceptions, especially recently. I tried Tolkein over the summer and was smiley, though somewhat disappointed by the sheer detail. That man named every speck of sand in Middle Earth. I read the fast-paced, youthful The Night Climbers for a book club last year and relished it. But it wasn't until this semester that an unknown genius sucked me (is sucking me) back into the power of the novel, no magic necessary.
Her name is Toni Morrison; her book is The Bluest Eye.
Outrage. Chronic discomfort. Anger. The screaming passion of someone mixing my organs together, causing goosebumps and paralysis. Speechlessness.
I am nearing the end as I come up to breath and post this catharsis. Despite the rate at which I hungrily turn the pages, taking breaths is both jarring and necessary. I despise, and crave, the hellish world she creates. I despise it for its brutality, its distance from my perfect world, and its utter invasion. I crave its honesty--no, Truth--its delicious words, its sexual tension and command for an outcry. It is more real than the reality to which we submit.
This novel was a reading assignment for my Reading Cultural Studies class, and I thank the fantastic Dr. Juan Mah y Busch for assigning it. To think I wouldn't feel this elation and revulsion, all in one unbearable moment, if it weren't for homework.
There is one world of a difference between my reactions to this novel and to those of middle school and before. Other than the change in classification from "juvenile" to "adult," (X-rated might be more appropriate), this book deals completely in the "real" world. No magic powers, ends-of-the-rainbow, space suits. Just Lorain, Ohio, black people, white people, and the hell ensuing. Here's the best passage I could find within a few minutes.
With only occasional, and increasingly rare, encounters with the little girls he could persuade to be entertained by him, he lived rather peaceably among his things, admitting to no regrets. He was aware, of course, that something was awry in his life, and all lives, but put the problem where it belonged, at the foot of the Originator of Life. He believed that since decay, vice, filth, and disorder were pervasive, they must be in the Nature of Things. Evil existed because God had created it. He, God, had made a sloven and unforgivable error in judgment: designing an imperfect universe. The most exquisite-looking ladies sat on toilets, and the most dreadful-looking had pure and holy yearnings. God had done a poor job, and Soaphead suspected that he himself could have done better. It was in fact a pity that the Maker had not sought his counsel.

I hereby finally affirm that Heather Moline is once more a novel gobbler, but has moved on from the Sailor Squad to rolling joyfully in the grime of racism, sexism, poverty, and reality, all thanks to Toni Morrison.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

An Unsolicited Revelation

Monumental first week of school. Being back at LMU is intoxicating; how could it not be monumental? I remind those of you who are physically most distant of me that we are atop a hill ("the bluff") overlooking all of Los Angeles: the Hollywood sign, the ocean, Century City, and the Los Angeles National Forest. As for the forest, we visited it this weekend on a CLC Coordinator Retreat. Honesty (my forte): I didn't expect much. I'd been to Camp Mariastella in Wrightwood, CA on the last two coordinator retreats, and after being away from the CLC community for so long, I wasn't looking forward to renewed responsibility and reverence (yes, I was extremely secular in Western Europe; who wouldn't be?). During the first half day of retreat, while we all sang along to praise&worship songs and talked about the graces of our CLC lives so far, I was thinking about anything but God. What had been most perturbing me of late was post-grad plans. Now is the time for ambitious college seniors like me to apply for things like scholarships, grad schools, and competitive jobs. On the back of my mind was post-grad service abroad--that is, giving up everything I know for two years of my life and moving to a third-world country to be a volunteer. Interlude: I don't "want" to do this. I like (love) SoCal. I like making money. I like being around people who have made my life what it is for the past twenty years. I don't like the prospect of taking cold showers, not having a grocery store down the street, and getting stomach parasites again--all honest-to-God possibilities as a Jesuit Volunteer, or member of the PeaceCorps, etc. Though I don't "want" to join these organizations, they have always nagged at me, like a pressing deadline, or, more realistically, like a legitimate call to the priesthood. This weekend at retreat, without warning, they became suddenly so much more.
To calm myself after we reached Mariastella, I took a quiet walk between retreat sessions and began scribbling my manic thoughts into my journal. I will give you a snippet of what emerged, in the format of a post-grad service application essay:

I describe myself now with total honesty, and apprehension at what that could mean.
I take this risky measure because I need for such a vital decision in my and my future community's life to be made without reservations or sugar-coating.
We have all made decisions without truly listening to ourselves, for whatever reason, be it greed, fear, or stress. When I have made decisions in this way, they have not led me to harm, but they have not led me to the fullness of myself that I seek. That is why I am now endeavoring to be completely honest when I say that I am afraid.
On a superficial level, I am afraid of dirt and grime, sickness, stomach aches, and discomfort, all things I know I will face as a volunteer.
On a deeper level, I fear insecurity, suffering, and death, all, once more, realities, especially in the third world.
I am aware that I jeopardize my application by admitting full-well that I fear much of what I would face. I am also aware, however, that I would not be human if I did not fear these things. It is with some measure of hope, for myself and for the world that I have the opportunity to change, that I accept these fears and open my arms to them. Why? Because I believe that the deepest joy originates from the deepest pain.

I wrote six journal pages of soul-searching like this without lifting my pen. I had never had such ease in expressing myself. The rest of the entry I abbreviate: I have always wondered whether taking the Bible literally and immersing myself with justice where it is most needed would relieve the strange dissatisfaction under which I currently live. During the sudden burst of words, I realized I believed it would. I repeat; I don't "want" the experience; I need it. However difficult I find the prospect of service abroad, I think it is meant for me, and I am meant for it, especially because I fear it. Fear is the ultimate roadblock; if I can get around it, the horizon awaits me.
I would be honored to go into more detail about why I will probably (it is still only a possibility) choose this post-grad path. Send me an email or a comment for more info!