Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On Language, Dust, and Being Faithful

“That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:/ A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,/ Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle/ With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter (Eliot, “East Coker: II”).”

I still wrestle with words and meanings.

This morning I awoke to pray and was distracted by the dust on my ceiling fan. When I think of Man formed from dust, I prefer to think of loam, rich and life-giving, not this dry, forgotten pile of who-knows-what—dead skin? It was thick like snow cover; I had not noticed its slow accumulation through the cold months. I turned the ceiling fan on and as the dust fell, it was suspended for a moment in air and light, a moment of transformation or transcendence.

If I cannot find words to describe the dust forgotten in the corners of my room, how could I think my words in any shape would travel across, not just space, but my reality? He is categorically unlike me, this God I serve, though I am made in his image (male and female he created them). His words, then, must be utterly beyond mine. I wonder if my language can capture him. I wonder if I should try.

“And prayer is more/ Than an order of words, the conscious occupation/ Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying… (T. S. Eliot).”  Yet so many of my prayers are words, spoken in faith that they are comprehensible – a private language between myself and God. Imperfect approximations.

I am a woman of letters, a woman of faith. I describe my faith in words. I send out my words in faith. I write in pursuit, to arrive at something beautiful, true, and faithful.  And what comes at the end? Affirmation? Peace? Or a single word, the exact one, the one I have been searching for all morning to describe the way the dust settles?

I want to be a faithful writer. Isaiah was anointed “to proclaim good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn (Isaiah 61:1-2).” What proclamations am I anointed to deliver?

I love to write, and if this love is rightly ordered, my writing will be worship, or a kind of prayer. I write as others heal, bake bread, or make tents. I write both to mend and to create. I write because it is how I can be faithful, but I also write because it is my participation in the naming of the world.

The task that Adam started continues to this day. We have named the animals, let us now move on to naming injustices happening under the cover of darkness, to name dreams that illustrate a better path, to name the way the dust falls from my ceiling fan and stops for a moment in the light, a thousand spinning specks of dirt and hair, all that we are, on a slow descent. Because to name a thing is to affirm it, to bring it out into the light from which the darkness shrinks.

God chose to speak our language, that is, any language at all. He spoke, and it was good. As imitators, it is good for us to speak as well, and write, and read. It is good to be people of faith articulating the new, uncovering the old, illuminating the dark, proclaiming release and freedom and the year of the Lord. We use words as a tool to enjoy God, and as a tool to understand him.

We say now that we follow a faith, as if it walks before us. We say that we are of a faith, as we are of our hometown, or of color—as a thing that forms and shapes us so deeply that we cannot be rid of it. If so, then I am faithful (that word my best guess).

The word was made flesh; we heard it not. In the unconscious occupation of our praying minds sometimes we get a sense of it, like awakening from a sweet dream.  

“And prayer is more/ Than an order of words;” it is a posture of relationship, a relishing of God that transcends categories and language. My prayers are through the words I use if not in them, words suspended in supplication like so much dust.

I speak the words I know. I hope that they approach God. I hope that they are faithful.

Wine approximates blood like a poem recalls Christ, the word wrapped up in flesh. Drunk on language, I disagree with T.S. Eliot. The poetry does matter.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Barista with an English Major

I was steaming milk for a latte when my course advisor walked in, the professor who helped me choose English and writing classes against the faint objections of the outside world (You’ll never get a job with that!).

I wanted to hide. I wanted to assure him that this – me in my flour-dusted apron, sweeping floors, taking orders – was just temporary. I wanted to explain about the job that I would start in a few weeks, the one that would take me overseas to study and write just like I had dreamed. This isn’t what it looks like. This isn’t what you think.

It was the same defensiveness I felt that summer I was a hotel maid in a national park. With my housekeeping cart and uniform pants, I felt invisible. When people spoke to me at all, they spoke maddeningly slowly, enunciating their demands and not waiting to hear my reply. I felt demeaned and belittled. My instinctive response was to want to clarify. I am in college! As if there was something to be embarrassed about, working a minimum wage job. As if being in school should exempt me from that embarrassment.

Both behind the bakery counter and behind my housekeeping cart, my indignant reactions to the rudest patrons was an unconscious telegraphing, vague and ugly, of Don’t you see, I’m one of you. I am not one of them.

And there it is: “them,” the most dangerous word in the English language. “Them,” that ill-defined, amorphous signifier used in justifications and explanations, in political rhetoric and guarded social commentary.

But who exactly are those people I wanted to distance myself from, those people I couldn’t bear to be confused with? There is a dangerous belief that people who are smart or hard-working or good shouldn’t have to work in coffee shops, shouldn’t have to kneel in hotel bathrooms, scrubbing toilet basins. Though I’ve worked minimum wage jobs my whole life, some part of me still believed this.

But this assumption did not take into account all my networks of support and encouragement, the whirring cogs of privilege that enable me to travel to another country to work for no pay at a job I’ve always dreamed of, to allow this job be only temporary for me.

Wherever I go in life, I want to remember that I am no different, no better, no more deserving regardless of what side of the cash register I find myself.

This season of my life is not wasted and I am not wasted on it. I’ll leave with skills I never picked up in college: one coworker’s easy banter with customers, another’s calm in the face of chaos. But even more, I’ll leave with better understanding of the sting of condescension, the weariness of long shifts on my feet that so many people have no choice to leave.

Let me be a punchline, a barista with an English major, if it means that I am ever after kinder, more understanding, and more aware that with human beings there is no “us” and “them.” 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Telling Other People's Stories

Burmese refugees in a camp in Thailand. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
*During my senior year of college, I interned at a refugee resettlement agency, helping refugees to find employment in the United States.*

We were looking for a story and could do no better than his – he who fled over an ocean looking for peace, arriving in this country with nothing but the clothes on his back and a fierce work ethic. He was perfect for our purposes – a model refugee. He works now at the sort of job where one might wear a tie.

I wrote the story based on glowing second-hand accounts and sent it by email asking his permission to share it with our partners and sponsors – they would like his story, we knew it. We hoped he would be proud.

Several hours later, his wife replied. Please change the names, she said. Change the identifying information. Do not say how poor we were. Do not say I am still earning my GED.

I was shocked. The story of triumph I thought I wrote was to her a story of shame. She read the story that I wrote, and did not claim it. That was not the story of her family that she wanted to tell.

I don’t know why I was shocked, as surprised as I had been when the woman in a rural village wouldn’t pose for a picture until she had changed her shirt and put on lipstick – as surprised as I had been to see that someone without running water would not only own lipstick but would care how she looked in it.

As if those of us with social media accounts, with our carefully curated humanity, somehow hold a monopoly on embarrassment and pride, caring what strangers think about us, wanting to be seen in the best light.

I started to wonder how many of the crying children with swollen bellies had been asked before their picture had been snapped – whether mothers knew what words and causes their children’s faces were selling.

“Power,” says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her excellent TED talk, “Is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

I had told a story – graciously, clumsily – of a family who had been helped, and in the process had defined them as a family who needed help. The before and after pictures I painted were compelling in a narrative sense but lacked complexity and an awareness of who this family really was.

“The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story,” Adichie continues.

Organizations, churches, and individuals are becoming increasingly aware of the need for advocacy – yet in our eagerness to be “a voice for the voiceless” it is all too easy to be the very ones drowning out perfectly sound voices. In control of another’s narrative, we shape it to our own purposes. We claim a power we have no right to claim, making our stories the definitive stories of the people we think we are helping.

I think that to see our neighbors fully means more than telling stories of what they lack. This is not to say that all stories must have happy endings, or reflect lives that don’t exist – but truth and love demand a more complete picture. A story, perhaps, that people are proud to claim. A picture of a child its mother would treasure.

“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors,” writes Frederick Buechner. “…like artists we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”

This was my mistake. I tried to tell a story without knowing the lives behind it, without caring. I did not publish that story, however remarkable I still find it. It was not mine to share.

I’ll keep writing other people’s stories, but I appreciate now how great the responsibility is. To be trusted with another person’s story is to be trusted with their life – to define how others see them and respond to them.

I’ll keep telling other people’s stories, but only when I know them, and only when the stories remain their own.  

Thursday, July 23, 2015

My Culture for Better and Worse

When I tutored immigrants in English, my students would not look at me. Their eyes would slip to their books, to the table, to the floor –I would get frustrated and speak louder to try to attract their attention. 

I diagnosed the error as the fault of the student – disinterest or distraction – and did not realize that the eye contact I expected was as foreign to the students as the English sentences I was speaking. I read downcast eyes as signs of shame, guilt, or dishonesty. For my students, they meant the opposite – refusing to meet my eyes was a sign of respect as much so as my handshakes, “sir”s and “ma’am”s. 

As a white, middle class American, I am part of a prestige culture, and as such am rarely penalized for not understanding another person’s cultural norms. In school, work, and social life, I am rewarded for acting in ways that have been instilled in me since birth while others who have not learned these arbitrary cues are perceived as less motivated, less intelligent, or less trustworthy.

Part of my privilege comes from not needing to explain why I think the way I think or act the way I act, but to better understand myself in relation to others, I need to be aware not just of their culture, but of my own.

A few months ago, I began to keep a list – a sort of shorthand guidebook to the culture I was raised in (again, white, middle class), both the pieces that I value and pieces that I hesitate to claim. The list feels narrow and incomplete, as of course it is, but it also feels familiar: my way of looking myself in the eyes.

  • My culture is overtly, even overbearingly friendly. We plaster smiles on our faces and greet even strangers with a nod and a smile. We were taught from infancy to say “please” and “thank you” and we thank everyone from bus drivers to cashiers to people holding open the door. These smiles are neither flirtatious nor a sign of illness – in my culture, they are basic politeness.

  • Despite this front of friendliness, my culture values privacy, a separation between home and public life. “Small talk” stays small. “How are you,” is only a formality, rattled off in passing. In the call and response of our greetings, “Doing well, thanks, and you,” is the only acceptable response. We do not inquire after the health of our coworker’s relatives. We do not ask someone else’s age, ancestry, or whether they are eating well. These questions, however well-intentioned, are intrusive.

  • In my culture, we are fiercely independent. Children move out of their parent’s houses early and are encouraged to follow their careers across state lines and time zones. Parents, when they are old, are sent to live in care facilities. These actions seem to be cold and unfeeling, but they are usually rooted in love. Parents believe that the best way to love their children is to encourage their independent journeys. So far separated from their parents’ lives, children in turn may think it more loving (or convenient) to pay others to care for their parents when their time comes.

  • My culture is territorial. Children want their own rooms, and everyone craves personal space (so as to be able, at any moment to stretch out your arm to your fingertips and not graze the face of another). Physical touch is rare except between intimates or in the firm, brief handshake that men and women alike exchange upon meeting.

  • My culture is loud. We get excited about small things – rainbows and discounted groceries. We say “Wow!” more often than you would think necessary.

  • In my culture, we walk with the confidence of not being stopped and speak with the confidence of not being questioned. The best students are the ones who talk back to the professor, and the best employees are those who challenge their bosses. We can be demanding. We do not like to hear the word “no.”

  • We say, in my culture, that people are defined not by who they are but by what they do. Nepotism is a dirty word. We admire the self-made man.

  • In part because of our confidence and independence, we mistrust authority and hierarchies. We call our bosses by their first names. This does not mean that authority and hierarchies do not exist, only that we prefer them to be hidden by public friendliness. We want our leaders to be accessible. We love to decide things by committee.

  • My culture lives on a schedule and we are always hurrying to keep it. We put time limits on everything from birthday parties to church services. Time is rigid and inflexible, and to be “on time” is already to be late. Punctuality is a virtue, so connected with reliability that its absence is a vice. “time is money/ efficiency”

  • In my culture, what matters is the future. In the “melting pot” we claim, ancestry and history are easily forgotten. Too often, we find the past irrelevant. Even the present serves only as a springboard for the next day.  We mistrust people short on hope, which is why some shrink from scientists with grave prognoses or accusations of blindness against other social problems. We are big dreamers, big hopers, and big optimists.

  • My culture is not normal, there is no such thing as normal. We are one culture among many, we have much to offer and even more to learn.