Sunday, December 12, 2010

Where's the American dream in D.C.?

  • Feast countdown = 22
  • Craving = 25-cent buffalo wings from Georgetown's Rhino Bar
  • Craving distraction = Thinking up everyone's Christmas gifts

In 2008, the Brookings Institution ran a report that found DC to be the largest "state" recipient of federal aid per capita.  In 2009, more than 1 in 5 people in the district relied on food stamps.  It makes sense, because DC is in the top 10 for cities with the highest rates of homelessness (National Alliance to End Homelessness).

This may be the biggest shock to my system after moving here.  I've seen urban poverty in Atlanta, not to mention my time spent in Mexico, but I didn't expect the capital of the world's most powerful country to showcase such a stark wealth gap.  The center of influence happens to be the picture of a broken system.

I saw a homeless man sleeping on one of the metro trains today.  He had sprawled out over two seats on the front row by the doors, making it impossible to miss him, and he snored slightly when the train rocked.  His things were stuffed into a couple of grocery bags at his feet.  What caught my attention more than his sad state, however, was everyone's reaction around me.  Maybe a slight glance when they entered the train, followed by sidestepping and complete removal from the situation.  I can't say that mine was much different from the start.

I say this not to point fingers or inspire everyone to start staring at the homeless; I merely draw attention to how casually we can deal with inequity.  It's jarring to see a man who has slept on the street wrapped in newspaper last night sitting a seat away from a teenage girl listening to her iPod inside her Coach purse.  Their day-to-day experiences are so different, and their paths in life likely lead to completely different ends, that their proximity makes me unsettled for some reason.  With these two classes rubbing shoulders every day, I can only imagine how painful a reminder it is to the have-nots that they can't have more.

If the goal is to give every person a fighting chance, we've got a lot of work to do in this city.  I want DC to set the standard of not only supporting people where they are, but also lifting them up to a better life.  That's the real challenge.  Kids need to see that the people in their community who do well are those who work hard and take education seriously.  We need more evidence of the American dream in the poorest neighborhoods. We can't afford to treat that casually.

Soap box over.  It's time I find a way to give back to my new home.  I'm open to any suggestions...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

This one's for you, John

  • Feast countdown = 28
  • Cravings = Halloween candy
  • Cravings distractions = Taking some "me" time

There's nothing quite like connecting with a stranger.  It energizes you.  It creates an almost euphoric state, where you feel a sudden bond with all those you don't know, and it propels you to reach out again.

While canvassing neighborhoods today to get out the vote for Tuesday, I came upon an elderly gentleman's home in Sikeston, Missouri.  Before knocking on his door, I glanced down at my clipboard to get some quick context -- name, gender, and age, 88 years old.  That'll do.  I then rapped on the door a couple of times with no response, left a door hanger on the front door, and walked down the driveway to visit the next house.  But a faint creak of the front door made me turn back around.

John Wilcox (not his real name) was standing in the doorway, peering out at me.  The next thing I knew, I was chatting with him in his den about the election and the importance of his vote.  If nothing else, the candidate's military background reached him on a personal level, and he jumped at the chance to share his stories with someone.  John had invited me inside to see his "medals from the war"... as he rummaged in the back room, I took a quick look around his modest den and caught glimpses of old family photos (many with a much younger version of John), a painting of his children, a WWII-era helmet and arm band, and military paraphernalia displayed among many dusty trinkets.  It was a tribute to a full, rich life.

John emerged from the back room, limping as he went, and holding a navy blazer studded with at least a dozen honorary medals.  A purple heart caught my eye.  I found myself surprised at the impressive display... I had little idea I was in the presence of a hero when I first looked upon this frail old man.

For an inscrutable amount of time, I listened intently to his snippets of stories as a first aid worker in WWII, hauling young wounded soldiers from the front lines, including the beaches of Normandy on D-Day; the memories that haunted him of having to leave men to die, or holding men while they died in his arms, never to see their mothers again; one of his dearest military buddies to this day who tried to teach him to box but called him "ol' mule legs" for his slow reflexes; and cherishing his friends in Luxembourg at the time who loaded him down with good coffee when he needed it.  The stories wound together in a blur as he wandered from memory to memory, and I couldn't get enough of it.

More than anything that struck me about John, though, was his visible need for company and a kind ear.  He lived alone now, after his wife passed away several years ago, and he mentioned the many friends he grew up with around here who now resided in the nearby cemetery.  One of his sons lived just down the street, so he was in much better care than most, but John still craved a friendly face and said so before I left.  "I wasn't going to vote before... but because you came here to personally talk to me, I'll be there on Tuesday."

Knowing I had many more doors to knock, I reluctantly stuck out my hand to say goodbye, and he asked for a hug.  I felt his tears on my cheek as I gave him a squeeze.  He needed to feel a live connection with someone -- "please keep me in your thoughts and prayers", he implored.  

I left the house in a daze, trying to sort out the encounter in my head and let its significance soak in at the same time.  It's in these fleeting moments that my heart swells for other people -- those I know and those I've never met -- who could use a helping hand.  I like to think that every person I interact with on this level, whether a stranger or a close friend, leaves a mark on me and changes me just a little.  I know John did.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Just like a blade of grass

  • Feast countdown = 19
  • Cravings = Pulled pork barbecue sandwich
  • Cravings distraction = Writing

I find that the littlest things in nature can give me peace of mind.  Just the other day, I was walking along a familiar path in the local park just as the sun hovered eye-level on the horizon and lit up the tall grass around me.  I stood still and alone to take in the sight.  Each head of grass, waving independently but not distinctly in the wind, created a golden sea of swells and whispers.  It was a beautiful mass of movement.

As I stretched out my hand to touch the individual stalks of grass, though, I was overcome with how fragile and yielding they felt.  They're at the utter mercy of the world around them, their life cycle fleeting and indeterminate.  Yet they stand tall now.  I don't know why, but I looked over them and thought of all the people to walk this earth, past and present, and the snatches of time that they were each allotted here.  So many different life experiences -- the vastly varying levels of suffering and joy, for no apparent reason at all -- blended together into a raw, shared beauty.  

Life is brief, the passing of time and aging always difficult to handle, and we each want to mean something for the little time we have here.  Counter to my typical feelings of fear and helplessness when faced with these truths, the notion of a common human struggle surrounded me and filled me with gratitude and peace.  I have a precious gift, inherently more valuable because of its eventual end, and even more reassuring given that countless others before me have walked where I've walked and felt what I've felt.

Coming to grips with my fragile sliver of time here hasn't happened overnight.  It's a slow, difficult process.  And even though I can't even put it into words well enough here, I'm starting to make peace with it.  

"For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon the inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude; 
And then my heart with pleasure fills, 
And dances with the daffodils."

William Wordsworth

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lessons from Sen. Jim DeMint

  • Feast countdown = 20
  • Cravings = Waffle House pecan waffles, slightly crunchy
  • Craving distractions = Buckling down for the 2 final weeks of the campaign
I'm back, and I'm here to disrupt the temporary radio silence that occurs in most amateur blogs.  Who knew that campaigns didn't pause for breath on Sunday nights? :)  It's been a sprint since my last post in July, but rest assured that I still observed my fast every Sunday, even though I nearly caved to my roommate's mac & cheese dinners several times.

Now on to the subject at hand... I've been reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven lately, and in a nutshell, it uses the story about a brutal murder committed by Morman fundamentalists to shed light on the Mormon faith/history and the inherent dangers of extremist religion (of any kind).  This latter part is what fascinates me most.  When people throughout history have placed religion above the law, or made them one in the same, the outcome was ultimately violence and persecution.

Think of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, the Spanish Inquisition, the Taliban and modern-day jihadists.  These kinds of theocracies place power in the hands of a few who interpret the faith for everyone else and paint a stark picture of "the enemy".

Even as a person who loves and respects the teachings of the Bible, I am relieved that our nation had enough sense along the way to separate religion from law, subjective from objective.  I realize, though, that this belief is seen as blasphemy among many conservative Christians today.  Enter Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

I can't be sure of the audience, but I believe it was a CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference, where Senator DeMint lamented our country's current course.  I found this TV segment while flipping through the channels one night, and one particular part of his speech grabbed me.  In so many words, he said, "Wouldn't the world be so much better if we all held the same Judeo-Christian values?  Then, we wouldn't have hardly any need for government interference in our lives!"  Krakauer's warnings went off in my head.

I don't consider Senator DeMint to be an extremist, but I do believe that statements like these are inflammatory and narrow-minded.  Not only is it offensive to non-believers and people of other faiths, whose values are by default relegated beneath Judeo-Christian values, but it supposes that there is some kind of consensus among Christians and Jews on governance.  Quite the contrary.  Women's rights?  Homosexual rights?  Death penalty and criminal rehabilitation?  Provisions for the poor?  Substance use and entertainment?

So Senator DeMint implies that just one set of values would be adopted, likely of his own interpretation, and then the world would be off and running without a hitch, with government as a meek overseer.    

It's the same flawed reasoning that puts theocracies in power, and it's why our nation's early leaders decided that separating church and state was in our best long-term interest.  We don't all hold the same values, thanks to our freedoms in this country, and the government protects this by making the law impartial to religious argument.  It's what allows Senator DeMint to say what he wants at the pulpit.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pausing at another milestone

  • Feast countdown = 31
  • Cravings = Whatever my roommates are cooking on Sunday
  • Craving distractions = Cheesy bridal magazines (special thanks to Amira)

When people have to name the major decisions or defining moments in their lives, the big ones that typically surface are college, first job, marriage, kids, buying a house, etc.  I've made my way up to that third milestone, marriage, and the weight of this next decision has forced me to pause lately.  Not due to doubts, in all honesty, but from the realization that I've already laid out a large portion of my life's course, and I have to stop now to take it all in.

From that bird's eye view, the finiteness of my existence is often startling.  I suddenly want to accomplish more and experience more, but then it always begs the question, what's really worth accomplishing in the blink of an eye?  How do I allocate that limited time to the people in my life?  What do I want out of the time that I've been given?

It's not possible (or healthy) to dwell in this end-state mindset all the time, but once in a while, it's good.   I get rooted again in the simple things that matter:  like loving on my family and friends, showing random kindness to strangers, being a person that people respect, seeking out adventure whenever possible, regularly giving up material things to prove that they have no hold on me.  The day-to-day, specific goals serve an important purpose, but they don't mean much if they don't fit into the bigger narrative.

This is how I take comfort in a dizzying and cruel world, that snatches up our time without warning and forces us to ask why.  So, with little certainty of what's next, I can still lay out the things that are important to me and work to live up to that standard.  On a smaller scale, I hope my marriage is much the same way.