Is it enough?

Is it enough?

I am sure folks have seen the Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation floating around  on Facebook:

I muse on that today as I get ready to go back to work. I am the director of a small community center in the heart of the most diverse square mile in the US. We are a gathering place for art, education, recreation and community building serving newly arrived refugees and long time residents. One in three residents is foreign-born and the local high school boasts over 57 languages! Over 40,000 individuals come through each year looking for all kinds of things: for help, for education, for fun; to serve, to grow, to celebrate. We have gardens, art, classes, social services, events, and a variety of programs. Wrapping around it all is a peace-making initiative of community engagement. We believe that if you have a chance to hang out with your neighbors, get to know them a bit, share food, art or sports then there is a good chance you will discover that people are not as “different” as you think they are; that having an opportunity to play or work with someone builds bridges. We find that sometimes simply coming in contact with people who are different from yourself opens up your heart and mind.

So as I get ready to return to work following the winter holidays, I am musing on the work of trying to do good in the world, to find satisfaction in the small scale, huge work of community building in this little town. I often wonder if it is making a difference. If I am making a difference. I have been there nearly five years now and I have seen a lot of things change. I have seen things get better despite some efforts to rip down and hinder any hint of progress. I see how the recession brought people together to bridge silos and to be more open about sharing resources. I see amazing creativity in working with little resources and getting amazing things done. Some days I see this.

Some days it just feels as though nothing is changing, nothing is getting better, People are stuck in their ways. There is ineptitude, rigidity and judgement.  Often I feel like Sisyphus – pushing the rock up the hill only to have it crash back down upon me. If there is a lesson I have learned it is that true change is sloooowwww… Glacially slow… Mind numbingly, frustratingly slow. As an impatient person, I some days have trouble with this! I don’t want to have this conversation again, address this issue again, beat my head against this particular wall again…

Some days it feels not quite as satisfying as  I imagine building a well in a rural village or opening a school where there is none, would be. Things that seem more romantic and more immediate.  But I know deep in my heart that that conception is idealized.  All of my Peace Corps friends talk about wondering  if they are making any difference at all too. In international development work, people discover first hand how truly heavy and hard that rock is to push up the hill.

Some days, however, I see the pay off. I can certainly see the growth in the agency itself – all the incredible growth that has happened over five years. But I can see it in the community as well. Teens getting Gates scholarship, residents stepping up and putting on festivals, community working together, shy children able to speak confidently before their peers. Seeing people feel empowered and gaining confidence in their lives. But change is slow. Long standing social issues don’t change quickly. Generational poverty doesn’t go away overnight. Apartment complexes don’t get better in a month. Schools don’t turn around in a year. The problems are so multi-faceted and often interconnected.

The world is so large and I am so small. Is it enough, this small work that I do? Can I do more? Can I do more and stay sane? Not burn out? I need to pace myself for the long haul. Which sometimes means making personal choice for time out, for self care, for the kind of  indulgence that is a privilege afforded me by virtue of being a middle class American. It might just be operating in mainstream American society for a couple days and not thinking about hungry people or access to health care or medicaid paper work. I have that luxury. I carry the fights within me; the injustices, the world devastation, the discrimination and intolerance but I can also choose to put them on a back burner for a moment and find renewal of spirit by checking out.

People in non-profit service industries tend to burn out and move around a lot. It is hard work being in the trenches. Some feel called by God to serve, others by a sense of moral injustice, others by a desire to give back. I have always been in non-profits – I saw the inequalities and injustices and knew that I couldn’t turn my back. That if I didn’t do it, it might not get done. I also know that I can’t do everything despite my care and awareness about all the issues. So I do what I can do and I seek satisfaction in so doing.

I work to live my life authentically. To model what I teach. To seek satisfaction in the small moments and to build community in all of my life. As I complete my 50th year I know that I have lived well and I believe I am making a difference. It may be small differences but what is life made of if not a collection of small moments and small circles of people reaching towards each other and the sky?

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50 Days of B.I.R.T.H.D.A.Y.

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Fifty days of B.I.R.T.H.D.A.Y. begin tomorrow! Fifty days of Beauty. Intent. Respect. Thoughtfulness. Happiness. Delight. Attentiveness and (saying) Yes! On February 20, I complete my 50th year. Finish another trip around the sun. Turn 50! It’s a mile stone no matter how much I pretend it’s not. Over this past year I have found myself musing on all sorts of body-, career- and age-related thoughts such as: “I’m almost 50. Can I still wear my hair in pony tails?” or “I figure I have about 20 years for another career – I better get started figuring it out!” and “I feel like I’m invisible right now. Is that for real?” I have also had multiple instances of being the the oldest person in the room. It’s an odd sensation as I am more used to often being one of the youngest in the room…

And then there’s pop media – always problematic in itself. Never a big reader of women’s magazines anyway, they repel me even more with their constant harping on how the best years of life are behind me, even if they’re trying to pretend it’s not: “Living it up after 40!” “How to turn back time in 55 easy steps!” And then there’s casual “age privilege” in the form of phrases in books which  reference such gems as “She was a  woman in her late 40’s, vestiges of her former beauty still evident,”  or the ever popular comment on “fading beauty.”  Unfortunately, some of these words have sent me running to the mirror to peer at my own face. Is the vestige of my beauty still evident? Have I faded!?

The endless array of beauty products pushed on older women is depressing in and of itself. “Fight time!” “Look years younger!” “Miracle worker.” “Choose your favorite for the ultimate antiaging arsenal.” Ugh. (Feminist side thought: Of course, the endless array of beauty products pushed at all women is pretty gross too – that endless message that your natural self is somehow gross and unacceptable and it’s only through the array of products that cover, push up, flatten, enhance etc. make you a “real” woman, i.e. sexy to a man,  is a whole ‘nuther topic of discussion! End feminist side thought!)

The great thing about being 50 is that I really don’t give a shit any more. My fore mothers, those brave feminists, did a lot of trail blazing which provided me permission to have my own relationship to being a woman and how I present  to the world. I’ve always had my own style, my own approach to loving my beautiful, round, hirsute self and I do not intend to diminish that in my elder years. In fact, I intend to expand it! Rumor has it that 50 is the new 30 or something like that. All I know is that it is another day to celebrate, spread love, receive love and enjoy being alive!

Which brings me to B.I.R.T.H.D.A.Y. and how I will honor the run up to my birthday. For the next 50 days, I will apply the principles of Beauty. Intent. Respect. Thoughtfulness. Happiness. Delight. Attentiveness and (saying) Yes. Through poetry, art, friendship, blogging and whatever other tools present, I am indulging in a celebration of Me, of life, and of honoring this particular mile stone, this particular turning of the year of the wheel.

Won’t you join me?

Free form Friday – not imagining the worst

I track your progress through the action in the bank account. Logging on to take care of daily business on the home front, I see the payments and withdrawals made by you on your travels:  A stop in Metter for gas where I know you get out and stretch your legs, possibly buy a diet Coke for the last hours on the road, a visit to CVS suggests some mundane need like batteries or gum. Dinner at a steakhouse in Savannah where you enjoy fried oysters and read your book while eating, enjoying your solitary time.  With perfect trust I observe your progression through the hinterlands of Georgia as reflected in the bank account.

But what if it wasn’t?

In an alternate world of secrets and lies a la Walter White, this bank account map could tell a very different story. What if the stop in Metter was really to meet a contact for a drug exchange? In the innocent parking lot of the QT, you  pull up to pump number three. You start the gas flowing and open your back door, seemingly to rummage around for a jacket or new CD. The car on the other side of the island is a nondescript white car, dented right fender. The driver starts his gas flowing, opens his back door. In your rummaging, you drop a packet on the ground, a brown lunch bag. The guy very graciously picks it up and hands it back to you. You nod your thanks, finish pumping. You get back in your car and drive away, heart pumping like the gas through the hose. On your back seat is now a different brown bag then the one you dropped. This bag now contains meth, oxycontin, heroin, or crack.

The stop at CVS is not for batteries or gum but for condoms.

The dinner at a steakhouse is not a solitary affair at all.

The Air B&B rental  is not owned by a nice elderly lady at all.

The 10 days that I think you are doing shows could be very different. The bank account only shows the form, not the substance. Those deposits coming in could be for anything;  sale of drugs, or your body, or someone else’s body. Or even if you are doing shows, maybe you’re not doing them alone. Twenty days a year in Savannah is enough to build on. The BFF librarian in Midway really could be a BFF. A BFF with benefits. The possibilities for daily betrayals are endless.

Secrets and lies. According to the tabloids they happen all the time. Infidelities, secret lives,double families, hidden addictions. How do we ever really know? 

But with perfect trust I observe your progression through the hinterlands of Georgia as reflected in the bank account. Smiling as I count down the tanks of gas and the diet Cokes in the small towns you pass through until  you come back to me.

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A Quiet Ecstasy – Day 5

Ah ecstasy. How I love it! Ecstasy in the studio – what a concept! It presupposes a studio which is nowhere near my reality. My studio is the living room floor, the office floor, a computer on my lap, a chair at a desk, the couch – a moveable feast of packing and unpacking whatever tools I need. Sometimes it is easy – a computer and a cup of tea. Other times it is grazing through the shelves to pull down what I will use, spreading out then cleaning up a shared space. Not for me is the gift of leaving work out to contemplate, gaze upon, muse over. My creations have to be done in an hour, maybe two. If not, it may never be returned to. Knitting, OK, easy to pick up and return to but it is also not my art. Jewelry, same thing though I usually finish a project in an evening. Writing is delicious because I can start, return, muse and post when I feel like it.

So ecstasy in the studio? Not sure I can relate. But ecstasy in art or inspiration? Ahh, not that I can relate to! The sheer thrill of stringing words together, aligning thoughts, intent, concept and vision. Poetry streaming out of my fingers as they fly across the keyboard, contrails of typos in the slip stream of my passion made visible. Words are my ecstasy. A well-crafted sentence makes me rejoice – whether my own or others. Practically writhing in appreciation of the perfect description. The old days saw me with pen and paper, crossing out, inserting with circles and arrows. These days how easy to cut and paste, delete and edit. Taking pleasure in the tippy tap of the key board. Delicious. Usually crafting in the in-between times – early morning, late night when the world is asleep. I sit propped on pillows with computer perched on knees. The only sound the light breathing of the dog and the rhythm of the house – hum of the refrigerator, whir of a fan. The red eye passes over, carrying its cargo of weary souls to their new destination. A train howls in the mournful distance. I tap out the rhythm of my life, my thoughts.

Ecstasy is a quiet thing in my writing and artistic life, perhaps slightly louder thing when I sing with the chorus, walk in nature, appreciate my community. But this quiet ecstasy is important. Sustainable. Highs are great but as the wise best book I never read said “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” I seek balance, not skewing between incredible highs and crashing lows. Rejoicing in the everyday flow of my life. Rejoicing in the fact that I am writing, that I am creating, that I am intentionally creating time for my artistic self. Not that I have to make a living at it, not that it has to produce money but because I am not whole without art and creativity and because I am constantly exploring new media – jewelry, collage, knitting, writing, a rich toy box of the content dabbler.

So for me, the wish list is for more time to create, to explore. Perhaps a space dedicated to art, but at the very least, a continually expanding toy box of fun things to play with, people to be inspired by, words to thrill me and the quiet ecstasy of art for art’s sake.

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Lists

unnamed Day 4: List of goals.

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is called The List. Toad wakes up and a makes a wonderful list that includes Wake up, Get dressed, Eat breakfast, Take walk with Frog. As he goes through his day, he crosses off each item. Frog and Toad are on a walk when a gust of wind blows the list out of Toad’s hand. Toad is bereft and frustrated – he doesn’t know what to do! Frog says “Run after it!”  “That wasn’t on my list!” Toad replies. They sit in silence for a long time, Frog occasionally interjecting advice or suggestions to which Toad always replies “That wasn’t on my list!” I think Frog ultimately gets up to go home and Toad remains sitting, just sitting. Finally, Toad figures out a solution: he takes a stick and writes “Go home and go to sleep” in the dirt. He draws a line through it and goes home and goes to sleep.

The end.

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Faves

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My current favorite work – mixed media paper and tulle.

I was hoping to capture the perspective of someone watching someone leave and it worked.

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My last favorite work done last year when I first started playing more seriously with collage. Mixed media paper and yarn.

It’s faded now; the colors not as vibrant because it’s been in my window but I still like it.

I managed to capture the texture of the skirt in the application of the tissue paper and the serenity of the moment in her body and face.

 

 

Five Years

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We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got

David Bowie

I’ve always hated the question “What will you be doing in 5 years?”  I know that theoretically it’s a good idea to set intention and plan etc etc but I hate being asked to “envision myself 5 years from now.” It’s not that I don’t plan, I do! I really do! But I always come back to the idea that “Humans plan and G*d laughs!”

Perhaps because I work with refugees. They had plans too and I don’t think their plans involved being uprooted and cast adrift into the universe due to war, brutality, oppression and general stupidity of other humans.

Perhaps because I have a dear friend whose husband died too young. She said to me “I can’t make plans anymore. Mark and I had plans and they didn’t involve him dying and now I can’t make plans.”

Perhaps because I have ultimately always believed in the general unfolding of time and the way that one thing leads to another fairly effortlessly and organically. Which I think also explains my checkered career path.

I have always taken the risk to accept the next adventure presented. I drove through Wyoming on my way out West after college and met a volunteer wilderness ranger. “Sounds cool, ” I says to myself. “Maybe I can do that.” The next summer found me there and there I stayed until the next adventure happened.

I met a traditional birth attendant in Kenya who taught very wise women who could neither read or write how to deliver babies safely. Through her I learned what a midwife was. “Sounds cool,” I says to myself. “Maybe I can do that.” I found my way to Texas after Wyoming and became a lay midwife. And there I stayed until twists of fate brought me the next adventure.

But these musings are looking backward. Let me look forward a moment. What is the next adventure in store for me?

We are undergoing a strategic planning process at work and the friend guiding us through it asked me to present “Statements of Observed Reality” as a starting point. So here, in my own 5 year strategic plan are the statements of observed reality:

The concrete reality:

  • I have a tween and a teenager who have deep roots and deep relationships and for whom I have a deep need of providing life’s basic necessities as determined by living in modern-day America.
  • I am pushing 50 and my beloved is in his  mid-50’s.
  • I have a house which needs work.
  • My beloved is self-employed in a physically-demanding, creative profession.
  • My mother is getting older ( a fact for which I am grateful as it sure beats the alternative!)

The abstract yearnings:

  • I am beginning to feel the call of moving on from my current work.
  • I would like to travel overseas more.
  • I am curious about the process of “change management” and the work of community building.
  • I would like to explore to see if there is a viable way to make a living in working with refugee (and American-born and immigrant etc) artists in a cooperative and fair trade model in the US (or elsewhere) and connecting people to arts opportunities.
  • I would love to re-create a John C Campbell-type of school in Clarkston drawing on the skills and talents of the local creative folk.
  • I am fascinated by place-based development but am not sure I want to stay in one place long enough to invest the necessary time!
  • I love to write.
  • I love to teach.
  • I love to tell stories.

And here I stop. Vague stirrings of change on the horizon but also deep contentment for the shape and structure of my life. I know how good I’ve got it. I am present in my life. Do I want more time in nature? Sure. Do I want more travel? Sure. Do I want to completely disrupt my life and pick up and go off on some new adventure… Not sure! Am I focusing on creative expression? Most definitely!

Peace…

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