Friday, August 19, 2011

bringing heaven to earth; or, reflections on ordinariness

A few years ago, I got about 3 minutes of fame in a documentary called The Ordinary Radicals. 
 First off, here's the trailer so you can get an idea:

Side note: It was weird, let me tell you, to see myself on the big screen (I hid my face and covered my ears when I came on). But that's not the point here.

I know a lot of the people in the film--some are friends; some I lived with; some are just acquaintances--and I know the filmmaker, Jamie Moffett. A lot of them are really the best people I know. And they live in, well, radical ways: in communities, or off the grid, or as nomads.

When I was filmed, I was living in a community house in Camden, NJ. Camden is one of the US's poorest, most dangerous cities. I write about Camden a lot because the year I lived there gave me invaluable experiences and some insight into race, poverty, and injustice. I worked as a grant writer for a small non-profit, as a teacher's aide for second graders, and as an academic aide/Americorps summer service member at a great organization called The Work Group.

I don't know how radical it was. Or rather, how radical I was. Most days I felt pretty ordinary (wake up to the cat licking your face, go to work, come home and cook dinner, hang out with your housemates). Some days were harder than others. But it was worth it, I think--and I probably would have stayed if I hadn't had the urge to go to grad school.

So why am I thinking about this now, three years later? Partially it has to do with PAPA Fest: it's a place for those sorts of radicals, people who don't really make a big fuss about how they live--they just do it. They live their lives mostly quietly, on the fringe, whether it's in rural Kentucky or urban Philadelphia. So PAPA Fest made me think about my life.

These days, I have a 9-5 job at a college, where I tutor in writing and provide academic support to struggling students. In the fall, my job will change slightly--I'll be helping to direct our writing center and training new peer tutors. On one hand, it's sort of a dream job. I get to help students learn to write. I don't grade. I'm, for the most part, on my own, since my supervisor gives me a ton of leeway to try different things.

On another hand (we have more than two hands here), students who go to art school are in some way--economically, educationally--privileged. To study art--to study the humanities in general, I think--is a privilege. That's not a bad thing; I certainly don't want to disrespect my students, or myself, since my background is in literature. But here's me, after years of hanging out with homeless folks, working in shelters, living in places like Camden, and now I'm working at a college?

And yet, on another hand, a lot of my students come from the Philly school district. And the Philadelphia school district is...let's just say it's not doing too well. And the students who come from the Philly schools tend to be the weakest. We catch the Philly school district's aftermath, students who come from, perhaps, the top of their classes in their schools and then can't make it in college. It's depressing.

When I was in college, I struggled to juggle my two sides: my very academic side that just wanted to read and write and the caring-about-social-justice side that made me want to do things. I don't know which one to pick, I remember saying to one of my professors, and, wise woman that she is, she looked back at me and said, Do you have to pick?

I am still struggling to answer that question. What's my life like now? I have that 9 to 5 job. I live in West Philly. My housemates and I are white girls in a mostly African-American neighborhood. I don't own a car (though my housemates do), and I take public transportation (mainly because I'm kind of afraid of biking in the city). We have a little garden, and we compost. We eat on our front porch when it's nice. When there are block parties and we're around, we do some grilling. I go to Mass with one of my neighbors, who's in her 70s or 80s and has been going to this particular church since the 1950s. I volunteer twice a month at one of Project HOME's "safe havens" for chronically homeless men with mental illnesses.

My life is not very radical. On a daily basis, it's downright ordinary. And I worry sometimes about that ordinariness, like I've perhaps given up on my values or my ideals.

But. But. I want to say this, that the basis of my faith--the basis of my life--is "love one another." Love your neighbor and your enemy. Love the person who blasts music at one in the morning. Love your students who show up at your door when their papers are due in two hours. Love your family when they drive you crazy and your roommates even when you want to hole up and not talk to anyone. But then--how do you love the drug dealers down the street? Or the cops who are prone to violence? Or the men who cat-call you when you're walking to the trolley?

 I don't really have the answers to those questions (hell, when do I ever have answers?). I think, sometimes, that most of my life is kind of fumbling around in the dark or trying to figure out where I fit in. Because I'm not a nomad or a farmer--if I tried to fit myself into one of those lives, it would be liking sticking a square peg in a round hole. And I'm trying to make myself okay with that.


  1. Sarah
    What makes you so spiritual is that you ask the questions.
    I remember a story where a couple who had their first apartment were saving up to buy a couch. And when they had the money to do so - they were faced with a quandary. You see, they just heard about some people in Africa who had no clean drinking water. So - what to do?
    They could:
    1) Buy the really nice couch that they had saved up for that would last a long time.
    2) Buy a less costly couch that would serve their purposes and send the rest to Africa
    3) sit on the floor and send all of the money to Africa
    So, they went to their pastor and asked him what they should do. Their pastor then informed them that there was no CORRECT answer, but the wrestling with the options was what was holy.

    If more of us would question our daily lives like you do, we all would be in a better place.
    Your asking questions and looking for answers will help bring heaven to earth ...

    I love that I get to watch the journey!!

  2. Great post. Excellent. Amen.

    ...was the professor who gave you that wise advice Betsy Morgan, by any chance?...

  3. Thank you so much for saying this. I honestly really want the kind of life that you have - one that tries to help students (or maybe others, but I've always come back to thinking that teaching might be a great option) but in ways beyond just scholarships (which are essential, as I'm sure you know, but not the only part of dismantling privilege in schools).

    It's sometimes hard, coming from a place of privilege where the ordinary radicals around me at least most commonly talk about becoming organic farmers or doing something abroad or other options that I don't think I can fit into. The absence of representation of people like you has made it unexpectedly difficult to picture how I reach a life like yours. I mean, that's nothing on the scale of most peoples' problems, but it's still an issue, that I'm not really sure that my goals for how to help people are real.

    So, to repeat myself, thank you for writing this, and submitting it to slacktivist, because even though you seem worried about how well you're fixing things, the fact that you're trying and (at least most days) succeeding is really inspiring. Thanks.

  4. @Sue: Thanks! I'm glad you get to watch the journey as well.

    @EOS: Yes, it was Betsy. Though I think Mark Hallen said about the same thing to me at one point.

    @aravind: Thanks. I think what I've figured out over the past couple of years is that you have to find a balance where you're doing things for you and for others. Like--I have a 9-5 job in part because I have student loans and need health insurance. (Sometimes I'd love to be the struggling artist, but I can't be.) But it's a job where I'm helping students. And teaching is a great option, like you said. I've thought more than once about teaching high school English.
    I don't think we all need to be organic farmers or go abroad or whatever. I think we need to find out what ordinary radicalness--or whatever we want to call it--looks like in our own lives. Not that that's easy, but I'm trying.