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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hope rears its destructive head again

It has been two years and five months since I left my social work position. During that time I have learned a good deal. I have been exposed, thoroughly exposed, to perspectives of the world that I had only viewed from a distance. Economics, business, profit margins, investment, and competitive landscapes are the coin of the realm in that world.

I have spoken with countless people on the phone involved in various aspects of “industry.” A few have helped keep my faith in humanity alive. They have stretched out a hand to me. They have shared their experience. Often they cited the awareness that, “Someone else helped me. Today, I have a chance to help you.” And they do. They choose to be generous with their time which in corporate accounting may value one of their hours at more than the value of my whole day. Sometimes I hear a wise humility. Other times a calm self assuredness. Other times there is brusqueness. A few value themselves and their time as outweighing the responsibility to treat me as a human being.

In short it is a microcosm of all of the complexities of the world. It is not my contact with this “new world” that is the source of my interior turmoil. I  feel like a traitor because commuting, fatigue, child care, work and inertia have made it easy to stay away from something. Something that I never wanted to lose contact with. Something that shaped who I am and laid the foundation for my view of the world: people living at the bottom of our social order.

Some people will tell you they saw the face of Jesus in some of the people they served. I can’t say I ever saw the face of Jesus on anyone, but I did experience community. I realized the limits and possibilities of personal responsibility as well as the joys and burdens of brotherhood.

Sitting with a schizophrenic in a basement drop in center while she was dressed in a duck suit and smelling of urine is not something you easily forget, and she  is not someone who can fail to change you.  I remember her furtive glance at the others drinking their coffee. Some huddling over garbage bags holding their belongings. Many wore stained and torn clothing. She gave me a fleeting smile and a quick hug that stayed with me in many ways through the morning.   

I worked for months with another man struggling in the initial stages of HIV and some dementia. Memory, emotion, and routine swirled. How long had his life meandered? He told me that I was an angel sent by God to help him get better. Who was I to say that I wasn’t sent for that purpose? He believed it.

In the midst of these men and women, I was continually reminded of hope. Was it the life in the midst of all the supposed problems? Was it the laughter even without a car or a home? Was it the thank you for a simple cup of coffee and a short conversation? I don’t know.

Ironically, driving to work and going to the grocery store sometimes I lose that a little bit. I slip back into the self-contained circle of myself and my family. I try to remember to smile at a stranger and to reach out to my friends. Why does it always seem like there is too much to do?

Tonight I met friends at Humble wine bar in the short window of time after work and just before the kid’s bed time. The available time was short for a drink and an appetizer. When I arrived they had already been there for some time.  One was returning to medical school. Another spoke of the excitement and opportunity at a new job while a third spoke of labor abuses and fair trade. I had to ask as my heart stirred, “Do you still think you can have a meaningful job and change the world?”

They all said yes. They said it without pretense, irony, or mockery. It was a delightful moment in the short evening.
 I called my wife, and the boys weren’t in bed yet.

  I decided I did not want to miss putting them to bed. I hurried out to the car smiling. I moved quickly toward the side door of the house. I bounded up the steps and heard Charlie running to meet me at the door. I drank in his greeting and smile while tasting the exotic euphoria of that rare elixir- HOPE.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The time for mystery and adventure is over.

I have spent years of my life seeking out ways to enter into mystery and adventure. My first adventures were in religion and in reading fiction. Years later I left home to attend boarding school. Another call took me to the seminary. I traveled to Guatemala to immerse myself in Spanish. After the priesthood, social work gave me the opportunity for countless adventures. I finished writing my book. I traveled through Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, and Central America with my wife.  This was followed be a return to school and the challenge of multivariate calculus as I neared forty.  After finishing school for the third time, maybe my time for mystery and adventure was over.

Now I go to work each day from 8:30 to 5. I help change diapers and cook dinners for a two and a half year old and a one year old. Grocery store trips and potty breaks are my most common weekend activities. Travel shows help put my one year old to sleep. I am 41 and have other people and practical concerns which need to be focused on. Rent and health-care premiums preoccupy me. Any trip involving plane fare may not be in the cards for a while.

Today I realized the perspective I gave in that last paragraph is nonsense.

Watching my boy grow up for two and a half years has finally pressed through onto my consciousness that he is a mystery perhaps more intoxicating than any I have known. Even though his body is not full grown and his experience of the world is limited, he has ideas and desires of his own. God’s path for him is already twisting and turning in directions toward destinations unknown and beyond my control.

Yesterday, I said to him 3,000 times, “Be careful” as he raced about the house playing ball and climbing onto his stool to wash dishes. After one trip down the sledding hill, he was begging me, “All the way. WAY UP THERE, this time daddy.” His little boots slipped on the slippery snow. He rolled to the side a little as he lay in the snow and smiled at me.  I DID take him up higher the second time.

 I admonished him to be careful as I pulled on his pants while he did his best impersonation of a trout pulled from a raging river. This little wiggling and writhing game had already garnered him one rough fall and a head smacked on the floor when he lost his balance with two tiny feet stuck in the bottom of his pj’s.  Why did he say he didn’t need to go potty and then promptly wet his pants.

My expectation that this shouldn’t happen anymore was ruining a little sliver of my day with him. Just underneath the skin my stomach churned. A tangle of frustration and anger flooded me as I looked into my little boys blue eyes. At that moment, he saw his one year old brother climbing toward the edge of the couch and sprinted over to protect him. “Be careful, Bubba. This is too high. You can fall and bust your coconut.” He waved his little hand in front of his brother showing him he should back up. What do you do with that?

He is a mystery. A human miniature of love, desire, will and community. He is a mystery- something that had always thrilled my soul. Another piece clicked into place. Hadn’t he always thrilled my soul? From the day of his birth, riding with him in the ambulance to the downtown NICU, my heart thrilled with the reality of his fragile little life.  I am immersed with him in our little family 24 hours a day. No pilgrimage required. No determined meditation needed to open myself and prepare for the encounter. He chases after me. He wakes up when the first rays of the sun push over the horizon and start to light his room. At that moment, he comes in to wake me. “Dad, it’s morning.” No fear of missing the appointed hour of meeting the beloved in prayer. The prayer seeks me out. “Dad, come play with me.” My heart thrills.

I think it is time.
Time to stop telling him to be careful.
Time for me to stop being careful.
Time to do what I have disciplined myself for and practiced doing for decades.
 Time to stop holding back and let go.
Time to fall into the mystery.

Time to be swallowed by love and thrill in the presence of the familiar little mystery that is always seeking me.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Seeking Liminality- Another view on Travel

Seeking Liminality- Another view on Travel (sorry if you checked this when the format was not readable!)

This is from Wikipedia. ( )

“Liminality. In anthropology (from the Latin world limen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status bt have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a rituals luminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.

The concept of liminality was first developed in the early 20th century by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep and later taken up by Victor Turner. More recently usage of the term has broadened to describe political and cultural change as well as rituals. During luminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.”
For footnotes see Wikipedia page.
Sorry for the long introduction, and a quoted one at that. The topic made it necessary. I am always scanning travel blogs, and I discovered Travelerspoint had begun a section on “Travel Philosophy.”  Since travel is often on my mind (blogged about in previous post titled “HegeMoney- One thing I learned traveling around the world.” Dated August 18, 2013. ) I decided to revisit the topic. I tried to delve a little deeper into the dynamics of why I craved travel. Travel shows and books about travelers also substitute here. A significant factor in my passion for travel is my experience of liminality through travel. This experience comes to bear from many directions.

First, liminality of path. Every country, town, culture you visit has its own history. It has arrived in the present moment through a serious of conscious choices, accidental events, historical figures, religious and political sensibilities. (To a lesser degree this is true even with cities and states in my own country compared to my own. It isn’t necessary to leave the country.) Coming to a sense of their historical journey gives a “sense of the other side of the threshold.” Depending on your ability to empathize and the distance between your culture and theirs, this can be a very emotional and disorienting experience.

 Second, liminality of time. I often find a glimmer of resemblance with pieces of my past or with pieces of human history which still live in other places. This could be something as simple as places where washing is done in the river to something as deep as religious ceremonies and festivals engaged in whole-heartedly. This time liminality stretches my awareness beyond my present time and moment. It doesn’t mean that “their moment” is old fashioned or that we are “better” or “further along.” These time experiences touch me because sometimes they tap into my own deep longing. Not all of these time liminalities are good. Some of them have serious negative effects- for example, sometimes lack of access to the most current technology to fight illness and provide clean water has a serious downside. A downside which can include sickness and even death.  Whether positive or negative, this experience of liminal time reminds me of my mortality and of the mysterious flow of time.

Third, liminality of perspective. Prepare yourselves for a shocker- “Not everyone thinks like you do.” I know. Hard to believe. Especially for those of us surrounded by the Hollywood machine and the steady drumbeat of US media. There is a whole world out there- a world where using a thinly veiled “Chinese” enemy may destroy a movie’s chances to be a global hit. It is also a world where 1.5 billion people name Mohamed as their prophet and nearly a billion people identify as Hindus. Their perspective is shaped by the history of their people and their political organization. In traveling, if you let yourself you might be able to get the sense of what it is like to live in a different world not just to walk in their shoes.

Liminality is not just the romantic vision of another culture. It isn’t just voyeurism- you don’t just come to see something. It isn’t “the grass being greener on the other side of the fence” and thinking what they have is better. You can come face to face with the mystery of people, places and culture. There are possibly more things that you won’t understand than how many you will. But not understanding does not prevent you from sharing. If you are the kind of person who seeks it and who is open to it, these liminal experiences can be truly transcendent. They can pull you beyond yourself into a union with the wider world. It can be the first step not just to “loving travel” or “adventure” but experiencing love itself.

Next entry: The Role of Travel as Ritual in seeking Liminality 

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