Friday, December 17, 2010

we all hover between apathy and compassion

It's been frickin' cold out. Okay, so it's not as cold as New England (I had one housemate call it "snot-freezing weather," where the snot freezes in your nose), but the wind in Center City's so strong that I almost got blown off the sidewalk yesterday.
I like winter, but I worry more, about people who can't just go home, turn on the heat, and wrap themselves in blankets. There's a guy I pass on the corner of 19th and JFK. Usually he sits and asks for money. If I have change in my pockets, I'll give it to him.* And when it's this cold out, I feel like I should be offering something else: shelter, food, something.

My introduction to Philadelphia was through homeless people. More specifically, it was through a group at my college called Youth Against Complacency and Homelessness Today (yup, the acronym was YACHT; we liked irony). Our main thing was Saturday morning trips to the city. We'd bring bagged lunches and give them to people on the streets.** The point was not just to give out lunches; the point was to sit down and get to know people--if they wanted to talk to us, that is. Often they didn't, so we'd just give them the lunch and wish them a good day. Sometimes, they just wanted someone to ramble at, and that was fine.

Anyway, you do that every week for four years, and you do get to know people--their quirks, where they hang out, what topics to talk about and which ones to avoid. In Suburban Station, there was one hallway filled with people during the winter. They'd wait for us on Saturdays, and we often hung out there and talked to people for a while. Then, one day, we went down there to find the hallway locked down and the people turned out. This city does not have the best reputation when it comes to homelessness.

My standard thing, the last two years, was to visit a guy named Pop who stood on the spiral staircase across from City Hall (under the clothespin statue, if you know it). I got to know him pretty well. He liked Mountain Dew when it was warm, tea when it was cold, and sold t-shirts and umbrellas to tourists. He still hangs out there, as far as I know, and I've seen him a few times since I graduated. After college, I worked at a day center for homeless women in DC for a year...that deserves a post in and of itself.
All that to say--well, I'm not quite sure. Something about feeling guilty about not being able to do more. Actually, I wrote about this six years ago for my college paper, quoting T.S. Eliot: "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business." I think, sometimes, I need that tattooed somewhere, because, yeah, I have a bit of a save-the-world complex. And it can be paralyzing, because I think of the world's problems and it's overwhelming.

The guy on the street corner--I'll give him change, yeah. And maybe, if I'm not in a rush, I'll get him a sandwich and coffee. It's not going to solve the world's problems, it's not even going to solve his problems, and I'll probably keep worrying.

Still: "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."
Or, if you like Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

*There are lots of differing opinions on giving money to people who are homeless. I know that. But I often think of this story about C.S. Lewis: Lewis and a friend were walking down the street when a homeless man came up and asked for change. Lewis emptied his entire wallet into the man's hands. As the man was walking away, Lewis's friend said to him, "You know he'll spend it all on drink"--to which Lewis said, "Well, I would have spent it all on drink, too."

** One of the interesting things about going to a Christian college is the way certain ways of doing things permeates everything. For example, we'd always have at least one or two people a semester who wanted to "witness to the homeless." We banned the giving out of tracts during our Saturday morning trips--"this is not about converting people," we'd say. "If someone wants to talk to you about faith, feel free. But we're not giving out food with strings attached." And really, giving someone what he or she needs as a conversion attempt? Really, really shitty, in my book.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

and we shall call it..."this land"

Because I need a laugh today.

Also: I got on the trolley yesterday and it was completely decorated for Christmas. Apparently they do it every year to one trolley, and they call it "The Christmas Trolley." And there was Christmas music playing. It kinda made my morning, even though I was sorta wondering about the people who don't celebrate Christmas and what they think about it.

Another also: We had some friends over the other night, and we made a potato menorah. Yeah. Like a potato with birthday candles stuck in it. And they sang the menorah-lighting song and everything. It was awesome. I hadn't been to a menorah lighting in a long time. I wish I had a picture of it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

they shall beat their swords into plowshares

Or, happy Advent, everyone.

I wrote this in December '07, while I was living in Camden, trying blindly to figure out what I was doing and who I was. It was kind of a hard year. Camden's isolating, even if you have a community around you. I was working as a grant writer at the time, which didn't pay much, and I was freaking out about applying to (and paying for) grad school. And it was a couple months after my friend Ben died, which...well, it threw a lot of us off, to say the least.

Advent is about anticipation, about waiting. It's what I like about the liturgical year: it gives us time to celebrate, wait, mourn, repent. Sometimes it demands things of us (mourn now, think about your failings now) but--in contrast to how I felt growing up evangelical--it doesn't manipulate emotion. Rather, it provides space for it. And I like that.

In any case, I was looking this over and I thought, well, I don't live in Camden anymore, but it still makes a good Advent reflection.

I never believed in Santa Claus as a kid. My parents didn't tell me he wasn't real; they just never mentioned him, always emphasizing the birth of Christ rather than the appearance of presents under the tree. Besides, we didn't have a fireplace in Long Island, and who ever heard of a Santa who came in through the door? One year, when I was in first grade, I told my mom that I was going to believe in Santa. She said okay, sure. It lasted about a week.

I was, however, a firm believer in Narnia. When we would go to friends' houses, I would look in every closet and touch the back wall, just to make sure. When I got back from Oxford [after my junior year of college], my dad looked at me and said, "Did you go looking in closets for Narnia?" I kind of rolled my eyes and then said yes...I did. I still believe in Narnia.

When I think of Narnia during Christmas time, I think mainly of a long-term Advent. A hundred years, in their case, waiting for Aslan. For us, here and now, this season reminds me of the fact that we are in a perpetual Advent, waiting for Christ. Waiting for justice, and peace, and love...It is especially apparent here in Camden, where the devastation of poverty and violence has taken over. Camden's new heaven and new earth will be a long time coming. In my community, Andrea calls what we try to do "practicing resurrection,"* taking things that are dead and raising them to life. A greenhouse in the middle of one of the most polluted areas in the city, where 60% of children have asthma from the poor air quality. Gardens and composting where trash litters the streets. Arts and theatre where beauty seems to have been drained out of life. My boss has a little card on her desk that says, "We will plant olive trees where before there were thorns." In Camden, the waiting for Christ's birth is more than opening the slots on the Advent calendar (though we do that, too). It is waiting for newness. The upside down kingdom, if you will--I always think of Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation."

Narnia had its hundred-year winter melt away with the coming of Aslan (and Father Christmas as well; can't forget him. Always winter and never Christmas, gone forever). And we wait, as they say at Mass, "in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ."


*stolen from the initimable Wendell Berry's Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

(Also, apologies to my non-Christian friends reading this. I realize the furor around Christmas can be a bit much.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

we give thanks.

I'll probably write more later in the week. But, in honor of the (American) Thanksgiving (which is not without its problems, but hey, I'm good with a day dedicated to eating a lot), here's a poem:

Perhaps The World Ends Here
Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"we cannot remain silent in the face of these acts of violence."

As a sort of addendum to my last post: Proper 29 project

Close to my heart: A Franciscan's perspective on torture.

And this day needs some Patty Griffin (because what day doesn't need Patty Griffin?):

Sometimes I feel like
I've never been nothing but tired
And I'll be walking
Till the day I expire
Sometimes I lay down
No more can I do
But then I go on again
Because you ask me to

Thursday, November 11, 2010

moments of silence

Today's a lot of things: Armistice Day. Veterans Day. Remembrance Day. St. Martin's Day.

It's interesting that St. Martin's Day happens to fall on Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans Day. St. Martin was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity. In response, he decided that his faith prohibited him from taking another life, and told his superiors so--but he offered to go into battle without a weapon. It's reported that he said, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight." (I find this interesting especially to contrast with Constantine, who used Christianity as a weapon, whereas Martin laid his weapons down after converting. Another post for that, maybe.)

My friend and former housemate Logan Mehl-Laituri is an Iraq vet. He was in Iraq for 14 months and, after a lot of thought, found that he couldn't reconcile his faith to his profession as a soldier. So he, like Martin, told his superiors that he'd go back to Iraq, but they'd have to send him back unarmed. (Logan, if you happen to read this, correct me if I'm wrong on this account.) They discharged him instead. You can watch his testimony here, at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War.

To be honest? I'm a pacifist. Or almost a pacifist. I think that there are certain things worth dying for, but I don't think that there are things worth killing for. You come up against strawmen a lot as a pacifist--the whole "what if someone were holding your grandma hostage and you had a gun" scenario (there's a lot of wiggle room in that scenario; for example, what if I misaimed and shot my grandma? I have shaky hands).

Call me naive, but I cannot, cannot, cannot believe in something like "collateral damage," because that "collateral damage" has names and faces and families.

It's hard for me, then, to take part in the ra-ra-ra-ness that comes with Veterans Day, or Memorial Day. I do think it's appropriate to take a moment of silence, or many moments of silence, to mourn for those who've died in war, and for those who have come back wounded physically and mentally. But also, I think we should remember to ask ourselves why we've sent people over to fight and kill and die, because the "why" might change the way we look at war.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

this is just to say

Hey, massive post ahead!

I took a class in grad school called 20th-Century African-American Literary Criticism--hereafter Af-Am Lit Crit, because try saying the full title twenty times fast. This post will not be about the actual class (maybe sometime I'll write about it, though, because it was fascinating), but partially about something my professor said. We were reading poetry at the time, and he said, "You can throw anything at English students and they'll take it, but if you give them poetry, they'll run away screaming."

Yeah, that's totally me. Maybe it's because poetry is sometimes so damn difficult. You got rhyme, you got meter, you got form, and those things matter when you're looking at a poem (yes, they do, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society). 

And maybe it's because poetry's hard to define. Samuel Johnson, in answer to Boswell's question, "What is poetry?" said, "Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is."

I'm also of the opinion--and perhaps this is an unjustified opinion--that very, very few people are good poets. I am not one of them. The best poem I ever wrote was a parody of part of "East Coker" ("Oh dark dark dark, they all go into the dark" got turned into "Oh slush slush slush, they all go into the slush." I was rather sick of winter at the time). For the most part, though, let me stick to prose. I can do prose (I think. I hope). 
Good poetry? It takes my breath away, leaves me speechless, renders me almost unable to think.

All right, that's established. Bring out yer poetry! Or, rather, poems you like (though, if you're a poet, feel free to share).

Friday, October 29, 2010

Don't you wanna see what you're missing?

I was working slowly on this nice post about poetry, but in the meantime, here are some links and things.

1. NASA's evidence for global climate change.

2. Paul Krugman on the upcoming elections. He quotes the Senate minority leader: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." To which I say, Really? Because if that's true, I also say, Screw you all, Republicans. Thanks for not trying to make our country better.

3. Speaking of elections, the Philly CityPaper on Pat Toomey. Here's a snippet: "Toomey opposed a bill that would ban housing insurance companies from 'redlining,' or denying policies in certain (usually minority) neighborhoods." (Americans for Democratic Action 1999 Scorecard.) Redlining is what happened in my Camden neighborhood. It prevents good revitalization in city neighborhoods.

4. Next weekend is the International Writing Centers Association's conference in Baltimore. I can't go, but one of Moore's faculty is. We're both hoping to go to the MAWCA conference in the spring.

5. My undergrad institution, Eastern University, has a rep for being the "liberal" college among the Christian colleges. However, while I was there, a good chunk of the students were pretty conservative. Anyway, I was glad to see this and this in the student newspaper (which I was on during my four years there).

6. Some good music to go along with your day:

"Avila," The Wailin' Jennys

"The Seahorse," Over the Rhine

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cuteness, it abounds

My cousin's kids might just be the cutest things in the entire world.

(Of course, they have that "when they're good, they're really really good, but when they're bad, they're horrid" thing going on, but the latter doesn't happen too often.)

As a surrogate aunt (first cousin once removed), I get to ooh and ahh over them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

this is the story of how we begin to remember

I really should be doing actual work instead of posting my second entry in two days. (Whoa...)

I'm not a music connoisseur by any means. Nor am I a music snob. If I like something, I listen to it. I listen to a lot of folk, and I've really come to appreciate my parents' music (I grew up on Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, and James Taylor).

In any case, I have this playlist on my iTunes called the "Stranded on a Desert Island" mix. It's basically a set of songs I'd want to listen to if I had to listen to them for the rest of my life. And I thought, since I'm waiting for my next student to come in, that I'd share it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Boston in the fall

Well, hey, blog. I've ignored you for a while.

I promise to write something more substantial later this week, but for now, here's some pictures and stuff.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The proper study of mankind is books.

Sometimes I think grad school broke my brain, because I'm not reading as much as I used to. In any case...
Now reading:

Friday, September 17, 2010

laughin', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun

1. WHYY/NPR did a piece on my old neighborhood in Camden. I miss that place. It could be isolating and frustrating, but oh-so-full of hope and goodness. Every time I go back, I'm reminded of why I should have faith in humanity.
Thanks to Andrea for the link.

2. Because this crap about the "Ground Zero Mosque" (which is not on Ground Zero, nor is it a mosque) is driving me crazy, here are some voices of reason: Fred Clark, the Slacktivist, and Gus Bridi.

3. The poverty level in the US is the highest it's been in 15 years. The poverty line for a single adult is $10,830 and $22,050 for a family of four. This past year was the first year that I was over the poverty line, though I'm not sure how they count grad students (in 08-09, when I was in school, I was making $400/month. Student loans saved my life).

4. The Cupcake Lady! She is parked a block away from my office right now. And the cupcakes are good, man.

5. My parents are coming down this weekend, and they've promised to take over our kitchen and make dinner for me and my housemates. Yay.

And that's all for now.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

a people without history is not redeemed from time

Well, hey, September 12th.

I think I meant to write something yesterday, something about mourning and loss and how remembering shouldn't equal revenge, so on and so forth, but I didn't.

Anyway. Here's what I always think about on September 11.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I have squandered my resistance for a pocket full of mumbles

I saw this story on The New York Times today.

To make it brief, a Republican in Arizona (oh, Arizona, again) has been recruiting homeless people to run on the Green Party ticket in order to split the Democratic vote. A lot of Democrats have been denouncing this as "deceitful" and "not right" and as a corruption of the democratic (small d) process. They're right, of course.

But what makes me really angry is this: that people in power are using the least powerful to do their dirty work.

I think I need to go back a few steps and explain why I'm so angry about this.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

On cabins and campfires

This short piece on Feministe inspired me to write a bit about camp.

When I was about 7 or 8, a woman came to my Pioneer Girls (think Girl Scouts in church) meeting to give a presentation about camp. By the time the promotional video got to the part where girls were swinging from belay ropes and shooting rifles, I was transfixed. I wanted to go, really, really badly wanted to go.

My parents said no. I was too young to go by myself. I also suspect at this point that we didn't have the money. I was persistent, though, for three summers, and finally (FINALLY!), when I was in fifth grade, my parents said yes. My mom came with me, mainly because we got half off the price, and I got a small scholarship as well.

My parents had no idea what kind of monster they were unleashing.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I'm far too excited about this.

But here's my room, almost finished except that I haven't hung the curtains yet.

And, of course, the most important thing:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Interlude, with Pictures

Because I feel as if I've gotten mad too much over the last few weeks, here's some happiness in the form of pictures and things.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

and there ain't no place in this world for our children to go

Camden's libraries are closing. This may seem like just a drop in the bucket, just another indignity in an ongoing list. After all, when you're the poorest, most dangerous city in the country, why should the libraries closing matter? I think they do. You see, when you're a kid, and you're a kid who likes to read but can't afford books, where are you going to go? The library, of course. And where do you go when your city decides that literacy isn't important, where do you go? The bookstore? Got none of those in Camden, at least as far as I know.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22."

A couple of years ago, Reba Place Fellowship, which is a longstanding Mennonite community out in Chicago, held a conference called "Cynicism and Hope." I wasn't able to go (I was taking the Lit GRE during that weekend, yuck), though some of my community-mates did. The interesting thing about this conference was that it wasn't focused on overcoming cynicism, but rather balancing the two, and realizing that you can't have one without the other. Unmitigated cynicism leads to destruction; unmitigated hope leads to a dangerous idealism. So on, so forth.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This is what I do when I'm bored.

My cousin's wife, Donna, is an instructor in the CompSci department at Penn. I was in her office one day and got bored while she was grading exams, so I decided to re-make her board into an English lecture. Because, you know, I'm a nerd. Really. If it's not quite clear, it's got the Elizabethans, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and the Victorians on there, along with a lovely stick figure and the note, "This work of splendor is how I ended up working at an art school."
(You can click on it to enlarge it.)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reading List!

This is the list that I posted on Facebook in March. I've been a bit delinquent about keeping up with it. I'm going to blame that on moving and having most of my books packed up in boxes and milk crates.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

this land is your land

Happy 4th of July.
I have this tendency to get grumpy about national holidays. Not that I think that we shouldn't have them (it's natural, after all, to have communal celebrations), but because they often come with a heavy load of blind patriotism and waxing on American exceptionalism and waving flags and such. So let me say this first: I don't like any of those things. I think any citizens of any country should view their country with a critical eye, and we Americans tend to gloss over our bad parts. I think that does have to do with our sense of exceptionalism, which (wake up and smell the coffee, fellow countrypeople) is a load of crap: we have done great things, and we have done awful things. Yes, we have freedom, and so do a lot of other countries.

Anyway, with that out of the way, in lieu of my normal complete-grumpiness, and in the spirit of peace and grace and love, I'm going to tell you what I do love about this big damn country.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I am not a kitten, stuck up a tree somewhere

All right. Let me set the scene for a moment.
Baseball practice on Sunday. It's so hot that my best adjectives can't describe it. A lot of the team can't make it, so there are only five of us (and it's only my second practice). So, you know, we do our thing. We jog around the field and warm up with throwing.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Words words words: my life through books

I learned to read fairly young--from what my parents tell me, I was just about three years old when I started to put together letters and create words. I used to follow my mom around and ask her how to spell different words. In fact, let's give much of the credit to my parents: my dad started reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to me when I was two. To this day, I have the urge to look in closets for my own Narnia (and yes, I realize that Lewis had problems, and he could be an asshole, but let me have my Narnia, okay?).

Monday, June 21, 2010

The obligatory "This is me!" post (in words and pictures)

Hi, my name is Sarah. "Raven" comes from my bird name from when I was a camp counselor, and I'm a girl--ergo, "A Girl Called Raven." I decided to create a blog because I end up processing way too much in my head and then forgetting most of it because I'm more of a writer than a speaker. Anyway, here's an introduction to my world.

Well, hello, world.

I'm just trying this out.