Fascination of the mundane

Guest blogger: Elizabeth Diedrich

“Hola. Hello. How are you?” For the past two years every conversation I have had with Carlos has been the exactly the same. “I am well. How are you?” Or every once in a while I will respond in Spanish. “Buena. Como estas?” Then, Carlos in his heavy accent laughs at me and says, “Good. Thank you.” You have candy for throat?” I hand him his chough drops and he leaves the office.

Around André House everyone knows Carlos. He has a very distinct voice and he has some version of the same conversation with everyone. Actually, he has the same conversation with a person each time he sees that person. This means I may say “Hello. How are you?” with Carlos five times a day. Two years of the same conversation. I never really thought about this.

Then one day we had a different conversation.

Pencil, notebook and eraser

It was just Carlos and me in the office and he asked for a pencil, eraser and pencil sharpener. He told me he likes to draw. He picked up a small piece of paper, a piece no larger than a playing card, and sat in front of me at the desk and drew me a picture. He drew a simple picture of reeds, a fish, birds, a scene from a pond. I was mesmerized as he drew. It was not his drawing that was mesmerizing; it was that after two years of exactly the same conversation Carlos was now a different person to me. He had learned my name two years ago and had practiced many times saying it correctly. Today, as his drawing was finished he took a second piece of paper and practiced writing my name. Eight times he practiced writing my name.

It is easy for life to become mundane. It is easy to become caught up the daily grind. It is easy to follow the in and out of a daily schedule. How often do you sit down at the end of the day and you cannot even remember everything that you did throughout the day? I think this is especially true in relationships. It is easy to become static in relationships. I can often see this very clearly in community. After 10 months together we can exchange thoughts without words, we can predict when a person will not be able to follow through, we know each others’ likes and dislikes and can read each other with fairly good accuracy. This brings comfort and fluidity to our daily work.

Yet, it also inhibits us from challenging each other and being open to listening.

Similarly with family or friends, often conversations operate on a superficial level and lack the depth that brings about new ideas and the possibility of transformation. I think what we need more of is a healthy, childlike fascination with our daily events and the people in our lives. Fascination is a strong word, but I think it is the best one to describe what is needed to make a relationship flourish.

In the preface of The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell writes: “Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one we want. We filter and rank and judge.” Gladwell suggests that we must move beyond our human instinct and develop a constant consciousness to our lack of knowledge of each other in order to gives us the freedom to continue to learn and transform relationships.

Furthermore, a constant fascination of apparently mundane events grants us the ability to see the miracles of our daily lives. It may seem awkward to try and hold a conscious fascination with the world, but if you take a moment, take a breath, and stop to wonder and awe miracles will appear everywhere.

Photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/34348

An act of strange love: How I learned to stop worrying and defy the bomb (part 2)

Guest Blogger, Amy Nee (part 2 of 2 ) (Read part 1)

Monday morning I moved from contemplation to action.  As I stood among those trespassing on the construction site, an officer approached, barely in my periphery. “You’re under arrest,” he said, sliding two thin, interlocked, plastic strips over my wrists.  One slipped loose and he tightened both, severely inhibiting circulation in my left arm.  “I want to thank you for wasting our time!” he said, oozing tension and frustration.  The sentiment he voiced was not unusual, nor unreasonable.

Click to read NCR's story about the arrests.

Whether such actions are a waste of time is something I ask myself continually, but he didn’t see our commonality.  His distance from me and our intentions weighed heavy on my heart.   

Other officers were more open, if not to our cause, to our humanity.  The two I approached about my cuffs apologized.  The bus driver told jokes and tolerated our impromptu, uproarious, renditions of freedom songs. Passed from one officer to another, further and further from natural light and air—from an outdoor corral, to a bus, to a garage, to a “lobby” behind bars, to a holding cell—my compassion for these men and women, invested by the state with power to enforce constructed law, steadily grew.  They spent as much, if not more time behind bars than many inmates, pushing paper and people across dingy cement surfaces beneath the flickering glow of fluorescent lights.  A middle-aged woman writing my ticket expressed her regret at not having retired sooner.  A young woman who had been firing off routine inquiries slowed with dubious appreciation when I asked about her day.  A weary male guard entered the women’s cell announcing blankly, “Male-entering,” moving in and out with evident detachment.  

I caught myself falling into the automaton mentality the environment induced.  Bologna sandwiches had just been distributed.  I picked at mine, deep in discernment about whether I should deviate from my meatless ways to consume this finely processed food-stuff.  Suddenly, my name was called by an officer outside the cell.  My immediate reaction was to hurriedly obey, handing off my sandwiches and heading out of the cell without so much as saying goodbye or sharing an embrace with the sisters I was leaving.  I was directed in reverse through halls, picking up the belongings I’d relinquished on the way in, and brought without explanation back to the garage.  The door was opened and the light poured in.  “I can just walk out?” I asked the woman standing stiffly in the shadows.  She nodded.  I walked like one waking from a dream, dazzled by the brightness that engulfed me.

This small incident of obedience to conscience that required civil rebellion, offered a unique taste of liberty and shifted my relationship to societal ideas of what is normal and acceptable; what is right and wrong.  I cannot say for certain what is absolutely good or just.  I don’t know the perfect way to respond in love to the brokenness of our earth that I, sadly, continue to contribute to.  But I glimpse a good way in the image of life immersed in community, continually stirred to action, prodded to wakefulness.  I feel buoyed by the perpetual promise of resurrection that assures me I can continue to pour myself out, to do what scares me to death, trusting in the assurance that I will be born again to life abundant.



An act of strange love: how I learned to stop worrying and defy the bomb

Guest Blogger, Amy Nee (part 1 of 2)

Monday morning, May 2, 2011, on a construction site outsideKansas City, fifty-three men and women stood in a makeshift circle–hands clasped, voices raised.  We were surrounding a truck with two wary workers inside. These men were momentarily delayed from their task of building a factory that will be used to create “non-nuclear” parts for nuclear weapons.  This factory is intended to replace and improve on the Honeywell plant already responsible for 85% of non-nuclear parts in theU.S.nuclear arsenal.  We intended to stop them.  

We were trespassing, and this is against the law.  Until a few years ago, I didn’t see much point in getting arrested or in “activism” in general. My association with Catholic Workers and others of that ilk however, has served to soften my criticism of civil disobedience and symbolic action. It has broadened my perspective and my appreciation for ways of being a pacifist without being passive.

“Every choice,” Thomas Aquinas writes, “is a renunciation.”  Active pursuit of just alternatives may mean active resistance to what has already, unjustly, been established.  Active obedience to the law of love may mean active disobedience to laws that protect destruction, segregation, violence, oppression. Reframing the concept of resistance to injustice from civil disobedience, to “gospel obedience” and asking questions like, “who/what am I being obedient to?” and “by what standard is this deemed correct?” is tremendously helpful in discerning whether or not an action is appropriate.  I believe in making a gift of my life, tuning my thoughts, words and actions toward harmony with God and neighbor and with this generous, forgiving earth; I believe in filling in the gaps created through accident or ignorance or active hate. Protesting, and demonstrating and risking arrest does not fill in the gaps, but I do hope it draws attention to them.  It is a way of saying, “I see this and I will not close my eyes to it, I will not accept it.”  I continue to remember and be influenced by words I heard spoken in prayer at the 2010 Midwest Catholic Worker Resistance Retreat, “We do not act this way because we are sure we are right.  We act this way because we are compelled by love.”  Ultimately, love is the fulfillment of the law and the light of living.

Still, I continue to feel an internal dissonance at the idea of acting in a way that to all appearances is soliciting arrest.  I am wary of allowing the prospect of making a statement by going to jail to become a flimsy focus that becomes the priority of an action.  These questions confront me: Am I entering the space of conflict, or creating a new one?  Is this act a relevant means to a relevant end or a means to relieve my conscience and to stroke my ego? Am I presenting an alternative or only defying what is present?  Thomas Merton writes, “nonviolent action must establish itself in the minds and memories of humankind# not only as conceivable and possible, but a desirable alternative [to force]…the temptation to get publicity and quick results by spectacular tricks or by forms of protest that are merely odd and provocative but whose human meaning is not clear may defeat this purpose.”

I find energy and truth in the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, and the salt marches of India’s liberation movement.  These actions seem so practical and relevant; almost obvious in their direct confrontation of laws so evidently unlawful and their intimate tie to the uplift of individuals and society.  It makes sense to me to do what I believe is right even if there is a law against it, but does it make sense to purposefully defy civil law?  The answer is not readily evident to me.  I find though that a direct response to a real need is not always accessible.  I cannot physically stand in the way of a bomb, nor can I put my body between the earth and the seeping chemicals contaminating it, or between a worker’s body and those same destructive elements.  I can bring my body to a site dedicated to manufacturing nuclear weapons.  I can get in the way of business as usual and let my little body—multiplied in size and force through union with those around it—speak a “no” to foolhardy, fear-based destruction.

The Catholic Workers and other peacemaker groups inKansas City follow a way reminiscent of Gandhi’s three-tiered approach of Constructive Programme, Noncooperation, and Spiritual Renewal.  Geographically and relationally rooted with neighbors their actions are not based on a theoretical idea of what is needed or what is right but a practical understanding and shared experience of the joys, sorrows, abundance and lack of those living in the city.  The stands they take are carefully consistent and relevant to the concerns of those they live amidst.  

They not only defy loveless laws but live by, and illuminate alternatives walking gently on the earth by living simply and sustainably, practicing the works of mercy, acknowledging our interconnectedness with God and others.  In the context of this community, I felt an unprecedented confidence as I acknowledged the responsibility of my own complicity and moved forward with the plan to confront our culture’s worship of “the bomb,” of strength through destruction, by interrupting work at the construction site. This was not an isolated action. It was the extension of a lifestyle, of an understanding that noncooperation extends beyond a day of protest and is integrated into daily life—by sharing resources, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, resisting war taxes—by integrating beliefs with being.

 I’ll leave you with these thoughts and continue to explain how I learned to stop worrying (and moved from contemplation to action that Monday morning) in  tomorrow’s blog entry.

Joy of fasting: recipes for Easter-living

Guest blogger Amy Nee

Easter came in singing, and the blossoming trees around town seem to confirm its promise of new life. Lent has come and gone and, along with it, our fasting obligations. As I face Ordinary Time and ordinary ways of living (if such a phrase can ever be applied to a Catholic Worker lifestyle), I am left wondering: what did we learn?

Going for forty-plus days abiding (admittedly imperfectly) by the commitments to go without cane sugar and sugar substitutes, to not bring new plastic into the house and to refrain from using electricity and other sources of energy on Sunday was not easy. But was it worthwhile? These three fasts may seem different to outsiders, but I found a unifying result binding together my experience of each.

Our fasts disabled “auto-pilot” – the everyday in-and-out I seem to be subject to, blindly doing things without thinking – and forced me into paying attention, preparing and being patient. As the practice of mindfulness developed and the excesses of convenience were diminished, my senses were refined so that I could hear the quietly-deep desires that are normally drowned out by the white noise of daily living.

I began to discover how foods full of sugar and corn syrup are disguised as a healthy choice (sometimes quite literally bearing that phrase on the label) through clever marketing and veiled language. While my cravings for easy options and sugary satisfaction wearied of the constant “no’s,” my body began to express its gratitude. With each little “no” I was making way for a larger “yes,” an affirmation of healthier, more just and often more creative choices that helped me make the connection between the food I eat, and where that food comes from, who works for it, and how it affects the quality of life for us all.

That creativity and conscientiousness came into play when shopping as well. Not only did I prepare physically, making sure to have a cloth bag on hand, I also prepared mentally, often not being able to buy what I wanted because chances were good that a shiny plastic film was between me and that item.

While browsing the cheese section of Whole Foods (after rummaging through its dumpster, of course), I found to my dismay that there was not one scrap of that dairy delight free of plastic wrapping. An employee, noting my long-lingering lack of selection approached. “Can I help you?” “I’m afraid not. Unless you have some cheese that isn’t in plastic?” “Oh. Hm, I don’t think we do.” “I didn’t think so. I am trying to reduce the use of plastic by not buying anything packaged with it. I really want to make a pizza, but if I bring plastic-wrapped cheese in the house I’ll be ostracized by my community.” “Mhm. Well, we can’t have that.” Being the savvy salesperson that he was, this young man did not submit to defeat. He came up with an alternative, “We have bulk cheese that doesn’t get put out. I could cut some off for you and wrap it in wax paper.” Beautiful! I would be hard pressed to think of a more satisfying purchase than that soggy slab of fresh, wax-wrapped, mozzarella.

Blocks of cheese

Going without plastic wasn’t easy, but the challenge was energizing and helped direct me toward a way of living more mindfully and responsibly on this beautiful, abused planet. Perhaps the most challenging and enriching aspect of the fast was our energy-free Sundays. The first Sunday morning was an education in unconscious habits—flicking on a light as soon as I walk in a room, checking my phone for the time, checking the computer for weather/correspondence/news—and a hitherto unnoticed dependence on the stove. What about coffee? What about oatmeal? I responded by forming a new habit of making preparations on Saturday.

One Saturday afternoon, in the process of boiling eggs and frying pancakes that would be eaten cold the next morning, it occurred to me that I was keeping the Sabbath in a more genuine way than I ever had before. So much of the work we do, and so many of the distractions I have, are based in technology. By removing that, not only did I have the opportunity to rest from work, but I was able to engage in activities that I often long for but relegate to the bottom of my list of priorities. I found myself reading more, practicing guitar, writing letters, spending time talking and – best of all singing with community members and friends.

I am tempted to cling to Lent, relying on the season and the Church and community to enforce discipline upon me. I am honestly more afraid of the riotous new life of Easter than I am of Good Friday’s tomb. The grave offers a quiet end, linen-wrapped like a newborn baby. The perpetual promise of resurrection presents an eternity of new days. And with each of those days, the choice; who will I be? How will I live? Do I go out for dinner or eat the mysterious leftovers in the fridge? It’s no wonder that the way Christ taught us to pray is for the things that give life one day at a time: God’s will, daily bread, forgiveness (for us and from us), relief from temptation, now and forever. And what is forever but an eternity of todays? Let’s start with the one we have, and live it well.

Amy’s post serves as a nice follow-up to guest blogger Jerica Arents introduction to this Lenten fasting.

Photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/554400