Friday, June 26

At a picnic

Most of my picture posts are extended routes to explaining why I like the accompanying photography. I am not going to do that today. Suffice to say, I like this picture. I especially like the contrast between the girl's excitement and the boy's disinterest. I have had a few opportunities to shoot a pair sharing ear buds but never before managed to pull it off. For that, I feel fortunate that this one turned out as well as it did.

Thursday, June 25


I think it would be worthwhile for everyone to occasionally pack up all of their belongings. Everything goes into a box, and the boxes are all stacked together. If it can move, it is packed. Everything in the dresser and closet, everything in the medicine cabinet, everything in the kitchen, everything in the living room, everything in the garage. For many, this is unpractical due to the sheer amount of stuff in their home. Push comes to shove, and packaging a single room will suffice. Once this is done, clean. With everything out of the way, you can finally, fully wash the walls and vacuum the carpet. Then check out the pile of stuff. It is everything you have accumulated over the years. It ties you down. When you are not around, it must be secured from thieves. If you move, it will have to be dealt with through sale or transportation.

I had the opportunity earlier this year when I moved out of my college dorm for the last time. I spent the morning with my dad going through my room and dividing my stuff into three piles: that which I would keep during the summer before leaving for Kenya, that which my parents would take back to my hometown to store and that which would be donated to local organizations. It was a lot. It was humbling. With an eye toward frugality, I had always fancied that I bought only what I needed. Even less than that actually since the apartment was furnished and I bummed my roommates' silverware, dishes and cookware. Still, the storage third of my stuff rather comfortably filled the back of the Honda CR-V my parents were driving. Another trip was necessary to drop off the clothing donations and another one after that was needed to move into my house for the summer.

I had always thought I was the kind of person who neither needed nor had a lot of things. I have described myself as an anti-consumerist on more than one occasion. I was wrong. My things are just too well spread out to realize how much there is. Seeing it all together is a rather forceful reminder of how much I have. It's kind of a punch to the stomach, too, in light of my time at House of Charity. One of our most popular services is a gear storage closet where our clients can leave their stuff and not need to keep it with them while going to appointments or searching for jobs or whatever. Due to limited space, the rules of use are strictly enforced. No more than two bags, and neither can weigh more then 35 pounds. It can be incredibly frustrating trying to find space to fit gear. I mutter curses while trying to wedge someone's full-size, black garbage bag into a space far too small because it's the only spot available. When I see someone in line with a metal-frame hiking backpack, I just want to tell them "No. Put it all in something smaller first." Then I realize that my stuff alone could easily fill a wall of shelves in the closet and probably more. Perspective can suck.

Possessions overwhelm me. Yes, we need things. We need shelter and a place to sleep, means of preparing and serving food, ways to keep clean. We need clothes and entertainment. But do we really need this much? What is the proper relationship between us and the things we have collected?

In less than two weeks now I am going to Kenya and will only be bringing what fits into my backpack, a sport duffel and an old army duffel. I can only hope that at least of year of being reminded what things are really necessary will provide me with some answers.

If you prefer a comedian's take on the whole issue of stuff, check out this classic George Carlin bit.

Considering Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" and Fr. Gary Smith's "Radical Compassion"

I like to think that in my one-and-a-half-years at House of Charity I have learned a little something about homelessness and the people that live it and the varied solutions to the whole sordid affair. As much as anything, I think this is due to my ignorance upon entering the job. I had no personal experience with it seeing as how my northern Minnesotan hometown of 1,000 wasn't able to attract a homeless population of any regard. That might have had something to do with the sustained periods of sub-zero daytime temperatures in the winter. Neither had I any particular interest in the topic when I was flipping through the folder of local organizations which offered State Work Study positions. House of Charity just seemed like the most exciting of the placements and the one that that offered the greatest opportunity to do good. So I came in with only the most general stereotypes and prejudices, all drawn from popular media.

But that's better now. Seeing people struggle to get off the streets and out of the House of Charity and into a place of their own, seeing some succeed and others fail, seeing some not try at all, and, perhaps most importantly, seeing the professionals and organizations and systems that have helped and hindered them has given me some insight and understanding into this mess.

This was hardly enough, however. My experiences working the front desk were only the slightest part of the greater issue. I still needed to get out from behind my limited perspective and find the words of those who have approached it from a different angle. This mission led me to read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Fr. Gary Smith's Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor. While a direct comparison between the two would be unfair as Nickel and Dimed focuses upon the working poor and Radical Compassion is more concerned with the chronically homeless and jobless, the difference in their approaches and ultimate conclusions is worth noting.

Responding to welfare reform in the late 90's, Ehrenreich took a series of low-wage jobs across America in the summer of 2000 in an attempt to discover whether it was possible to make a living on jobs which paid only $6 or $7 per hour. A month at a time she worked as a waitress in Key West, an employee of Merry Maids in Portland, Maine, and a Wal-Mart clerk in Minneapolis. Her modus operandi was to come into town with only $1000 and minimal belongings, search for low-income housing and generally try her hardest to live like her co-workers. Nickel and Dimed is the product of this investigation and features a long series of condemnations. A pox on the cleaning franchise for not using proper disinfecting methods and its suspicious clients. Fie on the low-quality living conditions of the poor. A giant middle finger to a certain world's largest retailer for not allowing its employees to unionize. Understandably, Nickel and Dimed is a highly personal account. Ehrenreich's personality and politics are infused with the reporting, and the two are near impossible to separate. Which is a pity. When Ehrenreich's press cap is on, Nickel and Dimed is at its strongest. She easily explains how a job and a salary are not enough and the compromises the working poor must make to survive. She writes facts of poverty that many of the middle and upper classes never before paused to consider. The poor only get poorer as they are unable to pay the deposit on an apartment and end up paying more to pay the weekly and monthly rates of hotels. Without health insurance, the poor push through pain and illness until the condition compounds and becomes debilitating. This is important and necessary reporting. It reveals how poverty persists even when jobs are available. When Ehrenreich turns her attention toward herself, however, she struggles. She fetishizes her jobs. She notes with interest when she begins to take pride in her work. She complains that no one ever tells her good job. She attempts to live the shift in a state of Zen calm where the work has meaning in and of itself. When that fails, she turns to bitterness against the bourgeoisie, one of her favorite topics. At this point Nickel and Dimed is no longer about the working poor. It's about Barbara Ehrenreich doing menial labor jobs, something of much less interest.

Radical Compassion is incredibly personal, too. More than anything else, it reads like Fr. Smith's diary of his time working in Portland, Oregon's Old Town, the neighborhood that is home to the homeless, but the two could not be more radically different. While Ehrenreich focused upon the business and economics of poverty, Fr. Smith turns his attention toward the people. Stories of people who touched his life and memorable incidents are loosely grouped together by themes like mental illness, love, prison, addiction and death. He writes about the chronic alcholic who gave Fr. Smith five dollars at a baseball game to buy himself a hot dog and beer. He remembers the long death of a man with HIV. Spontaneous prayers are interspersed. There are no numbers or calls to action in Radical Compassion. All Fr. Smith offers are his humble memories and how the heart of God, the poor, committed companions and friends have allowed him to keep going in this work.

I wrote earlier that it is unfair to directly compare these two books. Afterall, their purposes are entirely different. Ehrenreich wants to change the world or, at least, the economic systems which undergird it. Fr. Smith wants to be a better person. Both messages have their value, but I prefer Fr. Smith. Not all of us are going to be in a position to improve the lot of the working poor or homeless. If they come up on the ballot, we might vote for change, but we won't be running for office or managing campaigns ourselves. We can always use Fr. Smith's compassion and humility, however.

Friday, June 19

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Feelings at the onset

In just under a month I will be leaving the United States. I have no intention of coming back for at least a year. Maybe two. I'll probably make that decision about this time next year. I'll be working at an orphanage just outside of Nakuru, Kenya, with the International Humanity Foundation, the same organization I went with to Jakarta last summer.

By now, this is fairly common knowledge among my family and friends and acquaintances and those with whom I interact semi-regularly. It tends to come up when people ask me about my plans after graduation, and now, as the date for departure comes ever nearer, they're beginning to ask how I feel about the whole thing. Excited? Nervous? The simple answer? Yeah, I am.

Of course, I'm excited. The world is a big place. Enormous, really. So far I've managed to spend copious amounts of time only in northern Minnesota, eastern Washington and southern Germany. There is an awful lot more to this world than that and visiting ethnic restaurants can take me only so far in knowing the rest. This next year is going to be something completely different. Africa, much less Kenya, is an entirely new continent to me. New people, new languages, new cultures, new foods, new sights, new everything. Is it even possible to not be excited for coming to a land wholly outside the experiences of my life so far? When every day promises to teach me something I did not before know?

Of course, I'm nervous. This is not going to be a vacation. I am going to work. I am going to teach English. I am going to be at least partially responsible for the well-being, safety, health, happiness and education of over a hundred children whose mother tongue is a language I do not understand at all. On a daily basis I will be interacting with people who speak a different language, live a different culture and relate to people differently. There is no doubt that I will make mistakes along the way and shame myself or those I am with. All I can really do is hope none of these gaffes will be too heinous.

I hope this is a healthy attitude to approach the coming year with: an excitement for the new and unusual tempered by an awareness of the challenges. Otherwise I might be in for a rough go of it at the beginning.

In any case, I hope you all, my faithful readers, are excited. If nothing else, this year (or two) abroad will provide some fresh grist for the mill that Spice of Life is. That ought to be fun.