Monday, April 30, 2012

8 Months

Who knows when exactly I stopped looking at the mountains and hills and palm trees and ocean around me and saying in wonder "I live here!" It's been a while since the wonder wore off. I've been here about a week more than 8 months now and I think officially the newness of LA has worn off completely. I know my way around. I know what people are talking about when they mention places like Santa Anita, Inglewood, Pacific Palisades. I know what someone means when they say "I'll take the 134 to the 5 to the 110 to the 10 to Santa Monica." That makes pretty good sense to me. I have seen a lot of the metro and a lot of the area around it. I feel pretty good about it all so far.

I have been stressed lately. I have been working really hard to center myself, stay present and focus on the things in my life that are going really well and not move beyond that. But its been really hard. I've been feeling obsessive about random things and not focusing well. Then my highly-aware mother pointed out that not only was I going through really difficult things last year at this time and my stress level was really high, as I was leaving the country, trying to wait to see what I was going to do this year and dealing with a lot of personal issues.

The fact that come August, I have no plans and its still a bit too early to start applying to any jobs that might be opened today. I can't start working anywhere else until after I finish this year of service and I don't really have the financial ability to wait much time between ending this position and starting a new one. The plan as it stands now is to get an apartment and find a job in LA in mid to end-August, and I'm sure that one way or another this will come together, as it always has for me. But I realized that though I may want to be more free-spirited or have no plans, I rely and thrive on knowing whats coming next. And I'm really good at setting things up and putting things together. So I'm getting nervous and stressed and I'm not sure what I do about it because I still fall into the category of "can't do much yet." I think June and July is the time to start looking for jobs and apartments as well. I have some leads on both fronts, and I have confidence that I'll figure it out and things will come together as they always do, but, well it's starting to wear of me.

Also, my great aunt, Sr. Lucille is celebrating her 50 year anniversary of taking her vows this summer. My entire family is going to be in Minnesota to celebrate with her, and obviously I'm a part of that family so I'll be showing up as well. So, for all those keeping tabs and writing it in their calendars, I'm coming home from around the 4th until the 12th of August. No tickets have been bought, but the plan is set. I'm really looking forward to filling the time with as much visiting and exploring of the North Shore and Minneapolis as possible.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What I "Give Up"

People talk about doing something like me in terms of "giving up" a year of their lives. This makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to sound like a pretentious jerk, but honestly, the idea that making less money for a year and doing social service work means that you are giving up your life is just not true. You may be giving up certain aspects of your life, yes, and you may have seen them as essential before (and possibly after) the year or time of service, but let's be honest: no matter what you do, your giving up something. If you choose to work your way up the ladder of a huge cooperation, you may be giving up experiences outside of work for a few years, or if you travel to Europe for the summer your giving up time with your friends and family. Nothing is done without using something else. And to say "I gave up years of my life in honor of something/someone else" is basically saying could have been doing something bigger or better but instead you decided to be more lowly, which sounds kind of pretentious to me.

You made a choice we all make constantly. I "gave up" my last two years at Two Harbors High School to study writing at Perpich. It was the best decision I ever made. Last night I "gave up" a few hours of watching TV and relaxing to go to yoga class and felt great about it.

So what bothers me about people saying "I gave up a year of my life to do service in Americorps" or "I gave up two years for Teach for America" is that I feel like they are taking a moral high ground because of it. There is typically a tone of, "Look at this awesome thing I did while you were off making your career or going to grad school or raising a family." Maybe I'm bringing that to the situation, but I do think my judgement comes from somewhere real. And people think better of you for having done a year of service or participated in the Peace Corps or dropped everything to help disaster victims.

The thing is, these "service" jobs are AMAZING and AWESOME things to do, but they don't make us better than anyone else who for whatever reason didn't go do them. And to say you "gave up" can make it seem like it was not an enriching experience to give this thing up. But honestly, usually it is a very enriching thing to learn that you can live happily and healthily with a much more limited amount of money or in a community with different values and economic levels than where you grew up.

I also think that the things people do when when or if they choose not to go into service or travel or volunteerism are very valuable and enriching. I have friends who got married right out of high school and have lives that are deep, enriching and have so many different aspects than mine. I don't like looking at this as something we can judge anything but our own lives off of. It doesn't make me better than anyone else to have spent a year working with the homeless. It may make me a better person than I was, but not better than anyone around me. At least it's not my place to judge or get moral high ground around anyone else or their journey. (Including of course this whole post where I shouldn't be judging people for the pride they should rightfully take in their work with at-risk or needy communities. Ah! What a catch-22!)

And of course I'm doing all of this and I'm proud of what I've chosen to do this year. I am serving no one, even if I use this language from time to time. I take what is donated and facilitate it getting to individuals who need it, as my job description says. I don't know if I've come to any answers for the "big" questions I ask myself. I have not found better ways to cope with seeing poverty and suffering around me than I had at the beginning of the year. But I am doing good things and enriching my life. By challenging myself in many different ways this year, I am becoming a better person. But who knows what kind of a person I would be if I chose some different kinds of challenges instead of these.

Did this make any sense? I'm not sure even I can follow myself here...

Monday, April 9, 2012


"Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider's genius 
to spin and weave in the same action 
from her own body, anywhere - 
even from a broken web." 
- Adrienne Rich

(I've quoted this not too many days ago, but its just so pertinent in my life right now that I have to repeat it. And hopefully this time I'll do a better job of explaining why it means so much to me)

~ ~ ~

I have begun to feel like I have “heard it all” after only being on the job for 7 months. It is making me impatient. This is not a part of myself I like to own up to - my impatience - but it has always been there. And it has not been easy lately to be present to the sadness that my client’s feel in their lives. There is always a story behind where they are today, and often I have been finding myself brushing them off, saying, “Yes, you qualify for the Pantry services. I don’t need to know what got you to this place.” Chances are I’ve already heard a similar story, if not one that is sadder.

But who in the hell am I to consider what story is “sadder”? And when I think about it, the hard truth is that when I do this, I am another link in the chain of people my clients come into contact with over the course of their day or week or month who brush them off because they don’t have time or energy to take on any more sadness. When someone is struggling, they need to let the story come forth from time to time. They are asking me for help, not just in feeding their kids, but in taking a few minutes of my day to be present to their story, their anger and their fears. The least I could do is give them that, right?

But some days their stories feel like a burden to me. I feel heavy after listening and I carry all that they have told me on my bike, into my house and wrap these things around me in my bed. I’m doing all I can. I’m doing what I’ve been assigned to do this year: give these people supplemental food so they can make it through the week, hopefully pay the rent and eat a little healthier. But there is so much more needed. By quieting my own anxious self and listening for just a couple more minutes, I could give them more than supplemental food. By giving them the time of day and looking them in the eye, I could humanize them. However, when I give myself to them and allow myself to empathize so that for just a minute, I take a bit of their sadness on. I carry part of the story, even if the weight on me doesn't help alleviate anything from their own backs, or take away another worry from their own bed.

I have been pushing away from these moments. Brushing them away and not looking anyone in the eye while I fill out their paperwork. I see this in myself and I feel so angry with myself. I don't like that I get impatient with my friends when I feel like we're leaving too slowly, or that I feel tension and anxiety when the bus driver isn't changing into the lane I think would be faster. But my distaste with my own impatience comes to a head when it comes to my client relations, as I described above. Its just too bothersome.

So in order to be more patient, I have been working on being more willing to actually look at the stories I've been carrying around, then let them go. They are not mine. There’s nothing else I can do with them. It takes a lot of work. I need to prepare myself more fully for the day on the way to work and intentionally sort through them and let them go on the bus ride home. Not tune the world out with a book for an hour, like I am used to doing. I am working on introducing more patience and being the ear someone needs when it is asked of me, so that I can help my clients perhaps in more ways than one, but not hold any more weight in my pockets than necessary. I have enough worries and stresses in my own story to take on everyone else’s.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Opposite of Rain (Death Valley 2012)

Last weekend I went with some friends to Death Valley National Park. Left work on Friday the 23rd an hour early and made the six hour trek up there to meet friends. We arrived and set up camp after 10:30 and it was dark and quiet in the campground, without a moon. All I knew was that is was warm enough not to zip up my sleeping bag and I was glad to have remembered my yoga mat to sleep on this trip since the desert floor was much rockier than the ground in Malibu a few weeks ago. When we woke up around 7:30 to beat the heat, we were greeted by this campground,

We spent the day moving around the park. Unlike lots of National Parks, you can see a lot of the park by car in just a few days. There are parts that can only be reached by 4-wheel drive cars, but for being the biggest national park, you can get a full feel of the desolate desert and see more or less all of it. I had never been to the desert before, so it was exciting to see the hottest part of the country, ie the ultimate desert. It's also the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and since the valley is between two mountains, the hot air gets caught and just sits. And sits. There is also usually less than something like 2 inches of rain per year, so its pretty unforgiving.

In the summer sometimes it doesn't get below 100 degrees at night.

Mostly for us, it was hot, sunny and windy. It was also salty. The only water sits at the bottom of a salt basin. So not only is a insanely hot, there is no good water available. It felt very "first world" to be a tourist in a place that would clearly kill you if you didn't have a car, lots of water and gas stations around.

We started the day off at the Sand Dunes, where we wandered around until about 9:30, when it began to get hot.

Then we hiked the Mosaic Canyon, as it got hotter and hotter. Turns out I'm no good at hiking in the sun, and by the end I was exhausted, though it was worth it by the end. There was scrambling on top of rocks, walking through deep marble canyon and under the hot sun, but it all happened before noon, so it wasn't as hot as it would get.

Stopped by a crater from a volcanic eruption, where it was unspeakably windy. Like, blow you over windy.

The sunset from Dante's Peak. That's the 20 mile salt flat below, not a lake, like it looks.

Hiking the next day before it got really hot and we headed home. Manly peak and Gower Gulch below.

And finally, Artists Pallet, where you can see some different colors in the rocks, but possibly not in this picture as well. Its apparently better in the morning or evening. Alas.

All in all, a great weekend. Worth visiting, but I don't know if I need to go back to Death Valley. As I said, I saw more or less all of it.