Saturday, September 20, 2008

And now for something completely different...

I'm posting too much... apologies. I belong to an elite group known as the Sisterhood of the Traveling Capris. I recently brought the capris with me to Colorado Springs, CO, and I tell the tale (with pictures) here.

Very short poem on a Saturday morning

White American Guilt

Two women were buried
in North Pakistan
for choosing their own husbands.

My friend told me this
as we walked
in Arlington, VA
heading back from a late summer outdoor concert.

Two women, we walked.
We passed a McDonald's
and a couple embracing

and I felt the splintering
wood underneath my fingernails
as I clawed at the box
six feet underground.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Communion of saints

I got home verrrry late on Sunday night... was out seeing The Beanstalk Library, my friend Ryan's band, and then found out that someone had broken into my friend Amanda's car and taken her laptop and her GPS, so we had to call the police at 1am in downtown DC and sit and wait and.... got home around 2am or something like that. (It was actually a very interesting evening... you can read Amanda's hilarious account of it here.)

I was due to catch the Greyhound at 10am the next morning to Roanoke, VA for my Dad's ordination. I hadn't packed, and had errands to do, so got up at 7am and ran around like a madwoman. Carried about 35 pounds of my stuff for the 15 minute walk to the Clarendon metro, waited 10 minutes for a train and then couldn't get on because it was so packed... even in the last car. So. Ran (as much as I could under my burden) up out of the station, called a cab, then had a butt-puckering 20 minute ride to the Greyhound station through the parking lot of 395 during morning rush hour, running into the station at 10 am (when the bus was supposed to be leaving), yanking on the locked door at the gate for the Charlottesville bus, which was opened by a Greyhound employee who said "Relaaaaxxx". I told him he didn't know what kind of morning I had, and he said "as long as your boyfriend didn't smack you, you good."

And thus I entered the Realm of Greyhound, laughing.

The ride down from DC was pretty uneventful. I slept on the bus to Charlottesville, enjoying the sunny morning when I woke up from time to time. Had an hour delay in Charlottesville and then seated behind a Very Smelly Man who had disturbingly short shorts on, an excessive amount of body hair, and an Aura of Very Weird hanging off of him. Other than that, not much to note.

The ride back was another matter. I guess I should have been warned when I asked at the desk at the Roanoke Greyhound station whether the bus was on time and the guy looked at me like I was bothering him. He said, "it's supposed to leave at 1:05". I am not an idiot. I know this, but it is 12:55 and the bus is not at the gate, which means it won't be leaving at 1:05. I say, "so you haven't heard anything from the driver about his arrival time?" He looked at me like I was trying his patience and said "The bus should be here any minute." Which was as much of a non-answer as he could possibly give me.

As it turned out, the bus wasn't there for another hour and a half, and didn't leave for another 2 hours, but we didn't find out anything until 1:30, when another Greyhound employee came in and announced that the bus was late (yes, we've noticed that) because it was waiting for another bus that was supposed to connect at Wytheville, VA. The bus would be another hour, she said. There was a ripple of annoyance through the waiting area. Mom and I went and got a cup of coffee, and I bought a very cool shirt at Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea. I talked a parking lot attendant out of giving us a ticket, and we went back to the station.

As we walked back in, I noticed that one of the passengers had a Spanish language version of the Book of Mormon sitting on his baggage. I looked up and saw that it was a guy who had been wandering around cursing under his breath earlier. Note to self: avoid this man. Mom and I sat back down on the bench and I noted another lady who had been wandering around narrating everything she did, clearly stressed out. She appeared to have made friends with a couple there by walking up and staring at them til they talked to her. Note to self: avoid this woman.

The bus comes, and a mildly cute guy starts a conversation with me. He has just been kicked out of VT. They done him wrong. We talk about George Mason. The parents of an African-American teenager who has been alternately yelling into his cell phone and playing Ms. Pac Man and Monster Pinball (Mom and I gave him a bunch of quarters when he ran out) show up and cart out all of his stuff, loudly informing everyone that he has just wasted his money on a ticket to NY and that they were showing Tough Love to this 16 year old. I feel sorry for the kid.

Ok, finally getting on the bus. I ask the driver if he'll be helping us make connections in Richmond (I have missed my connection at Charlottesville). He snaps at me and refuses to give me my ticket stub back. Also not a good sign. I find a seat, then realize I'm sitting behind Mr. Book of Mormon, who 15 minutes ago had begun loudly proclaiming in the lobby about how Greyhound had screwed him over. Grrreat. Ok, just lay low. The mildly cute guy, who's name is Tommy, comes and sits behind me. He wants to talk more about Mason. Ok, fine. So we talk about Mason, about admissions requirements, what-not. Once that peters out, I turn around and try to nap. I've had a headache for the last three days. I hear him start a conversation with the lady seated next to him, directly behind me. She has been on the bus since TEXAS, for 2 whole days. I feel really sorry for her, but don't think much of it. We stop at Lynchburg, Tommy gets off, and I note a woman with completely preposterous hair waiting at the station.

Then things changed. The woman who'd been so loud at the Roanoke station is two seats up and keeps staring and trying to talk loudly to the small children of the young African-American lady to my left (I'll call her A.M. for Amani's Mom... her daughter's name was Amani). The strange lady goes back to the restroom and A.M. tells me that she's been watching her drinking since Roanoke and she is apparently drunk now. Thus her behavior. We have a long way to go yet. This could be bad. The woman comes back to her seat, and offers some "cider" to Mr. Book of Mormon. He says "that smells like booze" and turns and makes a face at me and A.M. Then she drops the bottle, which spills everywhere, and it becomes clear that she is very drunk, indeed.

Mr. Book of Mormon's name is Manny. The drunk woman's name is Leslie. Manny decides it's his role to make sure that Leslie keeps as quiet as possible and does not get kicked off the bus. He gets off the bus with her at Charlottesville to smoke a cigarette with her and prevent her from doing anything that will make it obvious she's drunk. I'm touched by this, that one of the two people I'd made a decision to avoid is helping the other one out. I offer to get A.M. a Coke from the vending machine inside Charlottesville station (one of the ones without an "out of order" sign on it). She smiles, says she's fine. Manny, A.M. and I talk about Leslie for a little bit. I turn around and talk to the woman who'd gotten on in Texas. Her name is Ramona, and she looks dead-tired, but smiles and is friendly. The four of us --Ramona, Manny, A.M. and me-- have somehow bonded over our common concern/interest in Leslie and her drunkenness. We talk on and off til Richmond, which is A.M.'s destination.

In Richmond, the driver is rude to me when I ask him again about the connecting bus. He is carrying luggage for the older people, lining them up at Gate 10. I had called for the bus schedule already and had assumed the 6:15 pm bus would wait til 7pm to take us to DC. It hasn't. I know the next bus is at 10:20pm, and my guess is that the driver knows it, too, but he's not telling anyone. He's lining up people who are in their 70s, 80s, propping them up at Gate 10 without a word to them that they will be waiting there for 3 hours. I am livid. We had to wait on a bus that waited on a bus... why didn't the bus wait for us??? So I call the complaint number. I wait on hold for 20 minutes, and then am informed by a lady with a very soothing voice that I cannot complain until the end of my trip. I want to tell her that it looks like my trip is not going to end and that this is a very stupid system, but I don't. I say thank you. I hang up. I tell the story to Ramona, who has sat down beside me.

and we both laugh, long and loud and hard, because there's nothing else either one of us can do.

Ramona is on her way to Concord, NH. She's going to live with her parents. If she'd flown it would have taken her hours, but as it is it's going to take her upwards of 4 days. She says she couldn't afford a plane ticket... her Mom paid for the Greyhound ticket. Ramona looks like she's had a rough life. I start calling airlines, to see if I can find her a plane ticket from Richmond. They don't go to Concord, and even the flights that go to New Hampshire are leaving in the next 15 minutes. I tell Ramona, "I tried." She laughs, "You didn't have to do that!" But yeah, I did. She's got a better attitude than I do about this whole thing. She deserves to get home.

I have family friends in Richmond, folks I haven't seen in years who have known me since I was a baby. Brian picks me up from the station even though he has a ton of homework to do, and Karen comes and talks to me even though she's sick. They heat up delicious vegetable beef soup for me which I eat with oyster crackers and a mellow-tasting green apple. I sit and talk with them and feel guilty about my peeps back at the station. Manny started stomping around and cursing again when he found out about the 3 hour wait. He went and got Leslie and they went outside to smoke. Other folks on the bus --the elderly African-Americans dressed in their suits and hats and the occasional cane, the girl who picked up Amani wandering in the aisle and laid her back down in the seat behind a sleeping A.M. without a word, the middle-aged woman with her grey hair pulled back in a ponytail who watched all the goings-on with Leslie with a placid expression and said nothing, the young woman long dark hair and a large present for some kid (her kid? who knows)-- are all stuck there.

On the way out of my friends' house, I grab two chocolate cookies and an apple for Ramona. She laughs when I hand them to her. "You didn't have to do that!" Manny and Ramona are waiting in line, and they point out Leslie, in another line for a bus to New York. She has been drinking more, something called Red Rose, and asked Ramona if she wanted to go outside and smoke crack with her. Ramona could have taken the New York bus but decided not to, since Leslie had proclaimed that she would be sitting next to her. Manny is still worried about her, but she's clearly beyond anyone's control.

I get in the back of the line around 10... and stand there for the next hour and a half. No one offers us any explanation for why the 10:20 bus isn't leaving at 10:20. None of the employees claim to know anything. An attractive African-American guy gets one of the female employees to tell him that the bus we can see just beyond the door broke down, and that they are "cleaning" another bus for us. We wait, and wait, and wait. A man with fried chicken in a white styrofoam container talks to me a little bit, trying to impress upon me the arduousness of his trip to Pittsburgh. I am not impressed, thinking of Ramona way up ahead of me in line. I talk to a placid-looking African American girl, asking her if this is typical, and she says it is out of Richmond and DC, but she's never had any problems out of Norfolk. A gay African-American guy sighs "this is so STRESSFUL" behind me, so I talk to him. He's on his way to St. Louis.

I am getting ready to lose it. I'm texting my Mom, she's telling me to be calm. I'm not calm. I'm outraged that all these people in line, who are all willing to talk to each other, to me, to whomever, are treated like cattle. I'm outraged that the Greyhound employees don't care. That they don't see any of us, because they know we're travelling this way because we don't have another choice. I'm thinking of all the elderly people who've been sitting here for 3 hours and who aren't complaining at all.

The line finally starts to move. The gay guy and I go to the shorter line after I see Manny get on through that line. Once on the bus, it's clear that there aren't quite as many seats as there are people. I see the elderly people, who seem to have stuck together, getting on. I look up and smile at an elderly African-American man, "Hello", I say, feeling guilty that I got on before him. He says "Thank you" and sits down.

His name is Rudy, and he instantly calms me down. He was down in Bristol, TN, getting chemotherapy. He's been travelling since 9am. He hasn't eaten anything because he has a bad stomach and is out of his medication. He thought he'd be home by 8pm, like I did, and could take his medication and eat then. As people get on the bus --as a young woman in front of us refuses to take her bag off of the seat next to her and a man sits on it as hard as he can, as a Greyhound employee threatens to cut one of the drivers-- Rudy talks softly, telling me stories of his time in the military, of his work at the Pentagon, of his college reunions, of his children, of his grandchildren, of his time as a pastor. For a whole hour, as the bus driver barrels up 95 towards DC, I ask questions and Rudy tells me about his life. He's done the funeral services for his parents, his younger brother, and his youngest daughter, who was 34 when she died of a heart attack. I say "you've suffered a lot" and he says, "I don't think of it as SUFFERING, really". He calms me down, slows me down... he's telling me through his stories about how to appreciate what's good, how to handle what's bad. He's partially blind, but not terribly bothered by that. He's wearing a back brace because of a problem with his leg, but with the brace on he doesn't feel the pain, so he's grateful for that. I listen to him, and I look out the window at the 3/4 full moon flooding the sky with light. The bus is otherwise quiet. I'm profoundly grateful that he's sitting beside me.

Eventually, he falls asleep. We pass a sign that says 37 miles to Washington. Almost home. Manny and Ramona are talking quietly in the seats across from us. They're talking about Ramona's life, about the mistakes she's made, about how she's hoping to start over in NH. Manny says, "you know, the most important thing is faith. I believe that. It doesn't matter how much money you have, how much stuff. What's important is your faith in God." Ramona says "yeah, I've learned that. No matter what happens, you've got to put your faith in God, that He's gonna work things out."

A phrase flashes through my mind: communion of saints. That's what this is. In the span of less than 12 hours, I've made friends with at least three people --Manny, Ramona, and Rudy-- who have faith, and who have endured a day of complete powerlessness with varying degrees of fortitude. I'm in a Greyhound bus cruising up 95 with the Least of These. and I'm one of them.

We get close to the station and I call a cab. Rudy says "you stay in that building, now, until the cab comes." I say, yessir. The bus pulls in and he says "go ahead now... I'm gonna wait til the crowd gets out. You go ahead and beat the crowd". I say "you sure, what about your bag?" He says "go on. It's been a real pleasure talking to you." In the station, Manny gives me his phone number "Call me and let me know how you're doin, ok? Been a real pleasure talking to you on the bus!" and Ramona says "thanks for everything" with her tired, kind smile. Manny walks me out to find my cab and says "hope to hear from you!" On the way home, the Ethiopian cab driver and I laugh and tell Greyhound stories.

And people ask why I don't drive.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

We want the funk

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Phillipians 4:8 (NIV)

"Ow, we want the funk; Give up the funk; Ow, we need the funk; We gotta have that funk" George Clinton

Sometimes I feel like my emotional life is an oscillation between two types of funk --the George Clinton variety, and the emo/Goth variety. As I've mentioned earlier on this blog, I've hit a rough spot, so I've been pretty navel-gazing and dull lately. Kinda like I was going going going on my bike as fast as I could for a long time and got out of control so I slammed on the brakes and got thrown off the bike and had the wind knocked out of me and so I'm laying here looking at the sky and not breathing a lot.

Or something.

The upside of all of this is that I've gotten a lot of reading done... nearing the end of my Great-Wendell-Berry-Read-Off. I finished Life is a Miracle before I left for Colorado, and it is a fantastic, fantastic book, one I'm actually going to buy for myself. When I was in Colorado, droolingly examining my brother's beautifully arranged bookshelves, I yanked Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius off the shelf and read it all the way through in 2-3 days.

Life is a Miracle has an essay where Berry responds to a panel discussion of artists discussing the tendency in post-modern literature to focus on the self, and to reveal all kinds of intimate details about oneself and one's family and friends. The majority of the panel overwhelmingly considered this to be necessary to artistic honesty, regardless of how one's friends may feel about having the intimate details of their life thrown out for all to read... and without an opportunity to present their side of the story. There was one lone voice on the panel arguing that there is betrayal in this trend in literature, and that it is unnecessary and harmful to trot out the stories of others, or even certain details of one's own story... that there are some things that are meant to be private. This, of course, is the crux of Berry's argument as well.

Anyone who has read Heartbreaking knows that this is probably the Ultimate Work of Postmodern Navel-Gazing Self-Disclosure, not to mention selective and seemingly careless disclosure of the intimate details of other people's lives, particularly those in Eggers' family. The book made me sick... physically sick. I finished it because I felt like the fact that it was making me sick probably meant there was something to be learned from it... that maybe it was speaking to something I needed to hear and understand. I also felt like it HAD to get better, right? I mean there HAD to be a point where he realizes he just isn't all that and although he has suffered he has a responsibility to bear it slightly better than he has, right? In case you haven't read the book, no, he doesn't ever seem to understand that. He stays pretty consistently narcissistic through the whole thing. Everyone else's tragedy seems to be creative fodder for him.

I know I'm about 8 years behind in reading this book, but I don't think the problem posed by this book --and discussed in Berry's essay-- has gone away. In fact, it's probably gotten worse. In fact, the fact that I and tons of other people have blogs where we talk all about our OWN emotional and personal life is a SURE sign that it's gotten worse.

Ah the irony. A blog post about self-obsession in writing.

Ok so in defense of blogging, I've talked to a few people about this now, and a couple of points came up.

1) Dave Eggers has written some really decent stuff since Heartbreaking... stuff that shows an interest in and concern with the outside world... I'm thinking particularly of What is the What but also of his other books, articles, etc. Heartbreaking pandered to our national obsession with people emotionally disrobing and made him famous, and then he turned around and used that fame to write about stuff that was important. You know, like Angelina Jolie. Lol. Ok, sorry that was mean.

2) I LOVE my friends' blogs... my FRIENDS' blogs. and they like/love mine. When random strangers read and comment on my blog, they do it from the standpoint of knowing absolutely nothing about me beyond what they read here, and that's a pretty skewed perspective. Their comments are sometimes really kind, but also occasionally callous and ridiculing and reveal the lack of context... I've started moderating the comments for that reason. But blogging within a community of people whom already know and love each other offers an opportunity to know a side of that person you just wouldn't get in casual conversation. It gives depth to my understanding and admiration of the really gifted writers and thinkers that are in my little world... and THAT has worth to me, because it leads me to honor and respect them as people capable of creating, and in that way living out God's creative image in them.

So... back to my funk. I have found that the best way out of a funk is connecting with and serving other people. If I can be up here on this blog talkin' bout my funk, then that's one step towards connection that I can take without having to muster the energy to get dressed or brush my teeth, and as those of you who have been funkified know, sometimes you don't even have that when you are wrestlin with da funk.

Funk. funk. funk funk funk funk funk. Ok I think I'm done now.

BUT I think another important distinction between Eggers' book and posting your own private thoughts to the internet is an acknowledgement of your responsibility to others. I don't put a lot of details about other folks up here, and neither do my blogging buddies. I also feel responsible to try to uplift whenever I can, per Phillipians 4:8 up there. I'm no Pollyanna and I have no trouble whatsoever with people being negative, but there's a distinct difference between wrestling with one's darkness and being overcome by it. My friends who lost their infant son a couple of years ago still openly struggle with what this has done in their lives, and I find them utterly inspirational in this, because they are fighting with it... like Jacob with the angel, demanding the blessing from the struggle... shouting at it "tell me your name!!"... in other words, what ARE you, and WHY did this happen to me?

So, I'm going to keep blogging, and reading blogs, but Dave Eggers' book still sucks, and Wendell Berry is right... some things ARE sacred. However, he and I might disagree on what those things are.

Peace out.