Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Stranger's Prophecy

(note: info on my two weeks in Olympia to come later; thought this story would be fun to share)

One of the great lessons I learned at the LACW was how to interact with crazy people. Even more than crazy people, I learned to interact with men and women whose social skills drive others away instead of inviting them into conversation. And while I still can be cold toward strangers who are looking for a dialogue (or an ear for a monologue), I try my best to be open to the interactions I could have with the random person I meet.

I found myself in such a situation last night while waiting for a Portland city bus to whisk me away to the Keippela's home one last time. As is the norm, I silently waited with a handful of other strangers, staring up the street in anticipation of the desired bus. A woman came up to the bus stop, grinning at me as if I was an old friend. With her thin lips and curly short hair, she reminded me of an aged Meg Ryan (pre-botox). She was wrapped tightly in a black overcoat that couldn't hide her slight frame and her knitted scarf ruffled up to her gaunt face. Breaking the code of bus stop silence, she asked, "What bus are you waiting for?"

"The 35. And you?" I stretched out from my introverted state.

"The same. I just don't know when our bus is coming." She leaned against the railing next to me, making herself comfortable for the wait. "You know, at work--I work at this building where they have cubicles..."

I've got a rambler here, I restrained a roll of the eyes. I ran into a similar type in Longview, Washington, when bussing my way up to Olympia. He ended the conversation by telling me how his mom was killed when hit by a train. However, according to him, it was "not that bad. She wasn't nice. She wasn't a good mom. My dad didn't even like her." I wondered if this interaction would be just as fascinating.

Noticing that I was sniffling and coping with a cold, she spoke about a soup she learned about. "It's called 'sick people soup.'" She listed off the vegetables needed. "It calls for miso, too. You know, bean curd. But I didn't have any, so I put refried beans on it. 'Cuz that stuff is spicy! It elevates the, uh... oh, what do you call 'em? Those things." She waved her hands around her chest and stomach, hoping I could finish her sentence. "Well, the spicy stuff is good for you."

Portland State students passed by. Crowds entered and exited the restaurant on the corner. People gathered to wait for the bus, and I continued suppressing sneezes. All the while, my new acquaintance continued to talk, routinely adjusting her glasses with her leather-gloved hands.

She directed the conversation toward me. "Do you work or go to school?"

"Neither. I travel." This was the first time I'd ever defined travel as what I "do," and my heart jumped with a bit of joy.

"Where are you traveling?" Her eye narrowed in interest. She leaned toward me, her weight still resting on the railing separating our personal bubbles.

I explained my recent travels and upcoming plans. Usually, with strangers, I am reluctant to use the term "Catholic Worker." Mainly because I don't like answering the same questions over and over again, especially being asked if I'm a nun. Yet despite my limited energy due to my cold, I thought I'd return the favor of monologue and briefly explain the Catholic Worker movement to my bus stop buddy. Serving the poor, community, hospitality, nonviolence, the whole shebang.

She was immediately amazed. "That's wonderful. That's God's work." Her face lit up with a smile, and she fixed her glasses more rapidly. My few sentences were enough to spark her lengthy stories about giving her jackets away and revelations of Jesus calling her to Him. "Revelations are just dreams that God wants us to have," she clarified. Our bus arrived mid-story, and she followed me on, weaving her tale as we took our seats on opposite sides of the aisle.

The rumbling of the bus and constant influx of passengers made conversation impossible for us and I was preoccupied with making sure my luggage wouldn't hinder the path of fellow riders. When I was finally situated, the woman wrapped in black had found a new seat.

That was nice, I happily reflected. People just want to connect with other people.

Some minutes later, I saw movement to my right, and the Meg Ryan lookalike was seated next to me. She wore an expression of giddy anxiety. I smiled to her.

"The Lord wanted me to tell you something," she spoke confidently. "Actually, He didn't have to tell me, I just knew to tell you: You are doing His work. By helping the poor, you are doing His work. And it looks like you're not feeling well right now, but you'll get better. I'll pray for you."

There was a point when I could have entertained her fantasies about God and grinned and nodded and told myself, "She's crazy." Instead, I felt her loving concern and faith. I smiled as she professed. I was smiling so deeply my cheeks were going to cramp.

"The Lord is going to test you," she warned, "because He tests everyone. But keep doing what you are doing, and you will be fine. Don't stray from the Lord."

She looked down to her lap. "I wanted to give you these." In her small hand were a plastic wrapped collection of prayer cards with Bible verses printed on them. "They help me a lot when I'm having a hard time. This is my last one, and I want you to have it."

She reached to me, I reached to her, and in between us was prayer. "Thank you," I whispered.

She released the cards into my hand. "You know, I think I was supposed to meet you."

For the remainder of the bus ride, she spoke more about pastors she knew, asked if I worked to "save" the poor (my response: "St. Francis said, 'Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.'"), and told stories of friends who had been healed. We introduced ourselves by name. Sherry smiled and said goodbye as I exited the bus.

Oftentimes, "normal" people grow wary of those who hear God. We deem them crazy, and their message is lost. Sherry has probably been ignored, shut down, or unprofessionally diagnosed by people she has met. Do I believe that she actually heard God's voice? No, I don't. But her kindness, outgoingness and obvious faith are gifts that were offered within our hour of knowing each other. And no matter her place in life, who am I to deny such gifts? And who am I to say they are not of God?

So I think Sherry was right. I think we were supposed to meet.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Keippelas

When I moved from Los Angeles to Oregon, I knew my ideal situation would be living with the Keippela family. Four years ago, I met Kacy as my supervisor at the University of Portland Office of Volunteer Services. The two of us hit it off and maintained what we jokingly refer to as a "secret relationship" throughout the year. I lived just two blocks away from Kacy and her husband Andrew, and spent a good amount of my junior year at their house. They took me out to dinner for my 21st birthday, tried to set me up with one of their friends, let me store all of my stuff in their garage one summer, and even let me crash at their house for a few nights when I was transitioning from one living situation to another.

Throughout my junior and senior year of college, Kacy and Andrew grew to be two of my closest friends. I learned about young marriage from them, and witnessed their dedication to each other during the beginning months of their lifelong commitment. Despite my differing political beliefs and world view, we respected each other and felt comfortable speaking openly; and when I told them about the Catholic Worker, they were very supportive. Kacy and Andrew saw me through travels to Nicaragua and Los Angeles, graduation, immense transition and inevitable heartache and my move to LA. I was present for Kacy and Andrew's adoption of their dog and first love, Oscar, the purchasing of their first home, and most recently the gift of their first child, Maxwell Alexander.

I had the gall to ask Kacy and Andrew if I could stay with them for a few months after leaving Los Angeles. Their response was immediate and welcoming, even after hosting another house guest for the three months prior. Once I arrived with my uncertain future ahead of me, they gave me a home. When I sank into the ruts of depression and loneliness, they offered me counsel. And without hesitation, they welcomed me into their family and asked me to be godmother to their son.

The expectations I had of these past months, as I have often written, were nothing of what actually happened. I thought Los Angeles was going to be the only place to which I would have an emotional connection, but the Tacoma CW dug into my heart. And now, I'm not leaving some place I've visited, or people with whom I can easily break ties. I'm leaving family... again. I'm packing my bags to venture out into a life yet to be determined, and I am saying goodbye to the Keippelas.

They are not affluent. They do not have a large home or income. They are not Catholic Workers. Kacy and Andrew are a middle class white couple who saw my need and offered food, shelter and love. They opened their house for hospitality. Once for a near-stranger, and again for me.

I share this story to lift up the Keippelas for their generosity and spirit of kindness. And I also share this story as an example of the great work an "average" person can do. Andrew told me a few weeks after I arrived, "We have that extra room and you need a place to stay." The logic was simple.

Without a doubt, Kacy and Andrew sustained me through what were months of confusion. They could have easily asked me to leave, or demanded a deadline for my stay. And while they may not define their generosity in this way, I received the grace of the Works of Mercy, and felt love that God asks of us all.

Thank you, Kacy, Andrew and Max, for everything you have given me.

Friday, October 2, 2009

More Confrontation With Money

These past few weeks have been a blur for me. I left the Tacoma Catholic Worker with much more sadness than I could have anticipated. The community members and Jesuit Volunteers pulled me back to purpose. I spent hours in fascinating conversation about life, love, family, service, music, and community. I ended my days covered in dirt from the garden, and plans each night were anyone's guess. My three weeks in Tacoma excited me for my future route through the west coast.

My excitement did break, however, as my grandma was recently hospitalized. Days after, on September 24, she passed away in hospice care in Pasco, Washington. Grieving a family member is new to me as an adult, and the process weighs on me. Yet the blessing amidst the sadness is family. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren: we are bonded together in our love for Grandma. And while that love was comforting, I couldn't shake the expectation for Grandma to walk through the door of her Lutheran church and join us in singing her favorite hymns.

I won't pretend to have the slightest idea of the workings of life and death (I think my entries are proof of such ignorance); but in effort to further my understanding of life, I am confronting the issue of need. As a first step, this morning I worked on my budget for the year. When I decided to embark on this year of travel, simplicity was not a goal but a requirement. I hadn't hoped for extreme poverty, yet I find myself with $327.13 to my name (not including some leftover money on a Target gift card and Fred Meyer coupon).

Side note:

I have been given money by some family and friends. Some people have bought me dinner, drinks, paid for gas. And for all of these acts of generosity, I am grateful. But I do not want to skim through this year on the dollars of my friends and family. Will I turn down your gift? No. Might I send it to a Catholic Worker or local organization? Yes, and I would encourage you to do the same.

I already knew I wouldn't be able to pay for flights across the country, which is why I quickly abandoned any hopes to go to the School of the Americas Watch, and the east coast Catholic Workers. When I was telling some high school friends about my financial situation, one exclaimed, "That's less than one dollar a day!" For some reason, I had never thought of it like that, probably because I didn't ever take a good look at how far I could get with my money.

I was resistant to make a budget because of my idea of simplicity: money is not the priority. And I still agree with that statement! Money is not the priority. When it is, we get wars and corporations. But I can't argue that money doesn't exist. I have money, and I am going about a system that requires money as an exchange for goods and services. It would be hard to convince Amtrak or Greyhound that a jar or two of homemade blackberry jam would suffice for a ticket to San Francisco (even though I think that's a fair deal). Plus, you can't make that trade online, which is a hindrance.

In more detail, my outline of finances shows that I have approximately $36.34 per month through June. (My plans after June? We'll talk about that in June.) Within mainstream society, I can't really make that pittance support anything. People who are receiving multiples of that are still fighting to keep above ground. Lucky for me there is more than mainstream society. There are Rideshares through Craigslist, the Lower Columbia Community Action Council, dumpster diving, Goodwill, and most importantly hospitality.

My biggest hope right now is not that I'll make it until June. I know I will. That's not in question. My biggest hope is that I can make it to June without expecting rescue. Less than $40 a month will be difficult, especially for the girl who used to regularly overcharge her debit card at the mall. I'm not looking forward to the inevitable "I don't have enough money" breakdown. As long as I stay true to my goals for the year (see below), I have to remember I will be fine.

Goals and Purposes
* to explore the Catholic Worker lifestyle in new environments
* to better understand the needs of, use for, and actions of community
* to challenge myself as an individual to take risks, face discomfort, handle uncertainty and eventually find inner strength and peace
* to learn more about simplicity, nonviolence, hospitality and service and how to incorporate these values into my life
* to interact with people I might never have spoken to
* to find beauty and grace, even in the midst of suffering
* to bring the Catholic Worker to my family and friends as something tangible, relatable, real, possible
* to learn to love more deeply and more often
* to find Jesus and my faith