Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lessons from Odd Jobs

L. L. Barkat, whose book Stone Crossings I'm about halfway through, and marveling at the soul of it, memed me with the following instructions.

1. Write about the Strangest Job I Ever Had and tell what I learned from it.

2. Link to other "Lessons from Odd Jobs" posts.

3. Tag my post "Lessons from Odd Jobs".

4. Tag other bloggers, in or out of the HC network.

5. Link back to the Lessons from Odd Jobs page and and email this month’s host at “Marcus AT highcallingblogs DOT com”.

This is one tough meme! I'm not sure which was harder, coming up with the job to write about or syncing up with the other stuff. But here goes.

My dream odd job would be the odd job prophesied by Cameron for Ferris Bueller: "Fry cook on Venus." That's a dream for two reasons: (1) I only want to do it so I can live out my fantasy of being Ferris Bueller and (b) there are no fry cooks on Venus--that we know of . . .

But my oddest job ever, in a long list of unremarkable jobs, I suppose is the summer I spent reviewing legal documents out of the archive files of a garbage dump. I was a contract employee for a special project involving a waste management's firm compliance with federal law or something like that. Every day there'd be a new roomful of dusty, smelly, bankers boxes full of backdated contracts and other legal documents. We would sift through each file looking for noteworthy documents.

Now, that's not a terribly odd job. The odd thing about it was the vibe established among the workers. We had a quirky assortment of folks there--the severely withdrawn buttoned-up mouse-eared lady; the middle-aged gay lapsed Catholic who followed me home and wanted to show me his translations of medieval masses; the shift supervisor who really wanted to be a montage artist and who had eloped to Peru a year earlier; the Jesus-freak (not me) who tried to get me to join his cult; the fish-out-of-water quiet religious nut (that's me) who wanted to talk to people about God but only occasionally managed to even talk; the lunchtime fishermen who were smarter than any of us but also fundamentally the most unlikely to succeed. We were managed not by The Office's Michael Scott but by Michael Scott's superior/dominatrix, Jan, a young MBA with ambition but perhaps poor judgment, who had somehow wound up in an isolated office building making sure a bunch of weirdos made their numbers for grimy documents reviewed. She was attentive the way a manager should be attentive, but I remember her rubbing her temples quite a lot.

I learned from that odd job that people--from the most to the least socially adept--are odd, and that while people's oddnesses often subvert their attempts at meaningful work and relationships, there's a sense in which people's oddnesses are what makes them interesting and even endearing. I also learned that oddness and competence are unrelated. I learned by observation that people management is a tough job and doesn't afford the people manager much downtime. I learned that some people are way too into their own belief system, and that some people are way too wary of belief in anything beyond themselves. I learned that even dirty work has dignity, and that even work that is ultimately futile should be given dignity. I learned more than I would ever expect to learn about waste management, and I learned that, all things considered, I'd rather be a writer.

OK. I'll tag Elaine and Allen, Rebecca and Al.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

On Death and New Life

Right around this time sixty-five years ago, Thomas Merton’s brother John Paul died at sea after his warplane crashed. I read of his death in Seven-Storey Mountain, the memoir of Merton’s early life. Thomas read about it in a telegram after his Lenten cloister ended at the abbey.

I knew someone died in Seven-Storey Mountain because I had flipped to the end and seen evidence of “his death”; I didn’t, however, discover the antecedent for “his” until much later. I was sad to read of it, because John Paul was, in the writing of his brother at least, innocent.

I have never lost a loved one to war, and I’ve never witnessed war close up. That’s not the case for many in my country, those who came here to escape war, those whose loved ones engage in military service, those who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose that technically I have grieved for them on days in which we commemorate our war dead or on days when I’ve heard a compelling report of the suffering of the innocents. But I have never grieved the loss of a loved one to violence over which someone somewhere had some degree of control. I’ve never felt the direct sting of the struggle of nations. I am, I suppose you could say, a different kind of innocent—the kind that’s more naive than guiltless.

Before Merton recounted the death of his brother, he recounted his brother’s baptism, hinting that he had an inkling that the occasion of John Paul’s impromptu baptism might be their last moments together. I’m told that soldiers sometimes make serious, life-altering commitments just before shipping out, and John Paul made two: he married a girl, and he converted to Christ. Thomas wrote of the baptism with the kind of nervous excitement you imagine an older brother bringing to such an occasion for his younger brother. He crammed a years-long catechism into a couple of days. He advocated for his brother’s baptism to his superiors. He geeked out over the things that were particularly important to him though not particularly relevant to baptism. You can picture the barely-contained zeal to convert, set against the shucksy simplicity of a wet-behind-the-ears younger sibling. These two were no strangers to the vicissitudes of life, and in a real sense—judging at least from Thomas’s memoir—they didn’t have much of a life together, but in the end they acted to type as adult brothers often act: enthused, endeared, mildly paternalistic, oddly clingy.

And then John Paul was gone, only the latest loved one whom Thomas lost. I often wonder as I read this book why it created such a stir in its day—it’s so Catholic, so East Coast, so personalized, so, so, so. But even as I wonder such things I find myself envisioning the Kentucky winter that melts into spring, speaking my peace in conversations about faith, grieving the loss of a mother, a father, a brother.

Over the course of writing Deliver Us from Me-Ville I’ve taken to thinking of Thomas Merton as one of two patron saints of the Greatest Generation, the generation that persevered through World War II. Merton is the one who survived; Bonhoeffer is the one who did not. In reading Merton’s memoir I think I better understand—despite all the uniquenesses that distinguish his story from any other—my grandparents and the world they bequeathed to us.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jesus Christ Is Risen Today--Allelujah!

From "Ah, Holy Jesus":

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

My Song Is Love Unknown

O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh, and die? . . .

O, my Friend, my Friend indeed,
Who at my need his life did spend.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

From The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton:

Do you know what Love is? Here is Love, here on this Cross, here is Love, suffering these nails, these thorns, that scourge loaded with lead, smashed to pieces, bleeding to death because of your sins and bleeding to death because of people that will never know Him, and never think of Him and will never remember His Sacrifice. Learn from Him how to love God and how to love men! Learn of this Cross, this Love, how to give your life away to Him. . . .

See, see Who God is, see the glory of God, going up to Him out of this incomprehensible and infinite Sacrifice in which all history begins and ends, all individual lives begin and end, in which every story is told, and finished, and settled for joy or for sorrow: the one point of reference for all the truths that are outside of God, their center, their focus: Love! . . .

Do you know what Love is? You have never known the meaning of Love, never, you who have always drawn all things to the center of your own nothingness. Here is Love in this chalice full of Blood, Sacrifice, mactation. Do you not know that to love means to be killed for glory of the Beloved? And where is your love? Where is now your Cross, if you say you want to follow Me, if you pretend you love Me?"

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Is the "Friend" of My Internet Social Utility My "Friend"?

Everyone who populates Facebook eventually faces the same dilemma: whether to accept or ignore a friend request. I very regularly have conversations with my Facebook friends who are also my "Loud Time" friends or my "publishing industry" friends or my "family" friends about this dilemma. Because we all eventually face it, we all have what you might call "provisional policies" regarding Facebook friendship.

The thing is, we don't necessarily have fully formed or fully articulated provisional policies, and so our inevitable forced decision creates an inevitable anxiety--every time. I've recently watched two friends cringe as they've hovered their cursor nervously over the "Ignore" button, wanting to dispense with a potential "friend" they've never even met but feeling queasy about it. Agnieszka Tennant wrote a very insightful piece about the experience for Christianity Today last fall.

But Agnieszka's article didn't solve the problem for everybody, at least in part because everybody processes the word friend differently. The word carries a peculiar weight for each of us, and so when someone out of the blue wants to drop that weight on us--whether or not that's what they're really asking or offering--we each face the uncomfortable dilemma of deciding whether to invite that extra burden on ourselves.

I don't generally cringe the way many of my friends cringe when they entertain an unwanted Facebook advance, and I suppose it's time I explored why. The main reason, I think, is that when I entered into Facebook I perceived that I was entering into a new social realm, and as such I'd be meeting people there that I haven't met and might never meet elsewhere. Facebook is a place I reside, so to speak, and so I might as well get to know my neighbors.

When I first started blogging, one of my earliest posts had to do with "accidental friendships"--the relationships we find ourselves thrust into. That post more than many has reasserted itself in my memory over the years as I've entered into new social realms--a new neighborhood, a new church, new voluntary organizations and, yes, even Facebook. It strikes me again and again that, for example, when I applied for, interviewed for, begged for and eventually accepted the invitation to join the company I work for, I was consequently signing away my right to determine which of my coworkers I would talk to. I couldn't determine that I would open my door to folks in the editorial department but leave it closed to folks in the business department. I couldn't greet people my age and snub people the age of my parents. I couldn't even avoid interactions with people I suspected were just trying to use me or people I found personally unpleasant. Part of signing on to my job meant signing on to the people who I would be working with. Eleven years later I'm closer to some than others, but I'd happily count them all among my "friends."

I'm reminded of the story of Adam and Eve, who set the bar for how human beings meaningfully relate to each other since they were the only human beings they knew. We most often read the introduction of Adam to Eve romantically:

Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,
"This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called 'woman, '
for she was taken out of man."

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

I think it's fair to read that passage through the filter of romance. This is, after all, the first marriage, and Jesus himself uses it in his teaching to sanctify marriage as a uniquely special relationship. But I often wonder how much of Adam's effusion can be attributed not to his visceral reaction to the perfectly naked woman in front of him but to the realization that his loneliness has come to an end. It's the notion that "it is not good for the man to be alone," after all, that led to his introduction to Eve. Eve was, in a sense, the Edenic equivalent of a Facebook "friend request": and Adam could hardly ignore her.

So I tend to think of friend requests through Facebook not as requests per se, more as invitations. Friendship is the coin of the realm of a social utility, after all, and there's a sense in which I need all the friends I can get.

I recognize, of course, that there are likely fundamental flaws and enormous gaps in how I've approached this question, and I'm not trying to convince anyone that (a) their approach to Facebook friend requests is wrong or (b) my approach to Facebook friend requests is better. I'm really just trying to more fully articulate my own provisional policy, and in a larger sense, I suppose, to explore the dynamics of virtual friendship. So I invite your comments, critical or otherwise.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Think Monastic, Act Apostolic

Thomas Merton, it's safe to say, was obsessed with the monastic life, particularly prior to his entrance into a monastic order. I'm learning this as I read ever so slowly through The Seven Storey Mountain, a memoir of his early life. But as obsessed as he was with monasticism, he was moved more by activism--and by activism I mean people living out the integrity of the calling and convictions placed on them by God.

A prime example is Catherine de Hueck, who fled Russia during the Communist revolution that gave witness to the violent death of several of her family members. She wound up working in a laundry in Depression-era Harlem, where Communism was overtaking the church in the hearts and imaginations of the residents. Merton ceded the rights to his early journals to de Hueck in support of her mission, but here he simply stands back and offers his admiration; in so doing he paints a picture of responsible lay living for people of faith:

Catherine de Hueck is a person in every way big: and the bigness is not merely physical: it comes from the Holy Ghost dwelling constantly within her, and moving her in all that she does.

When she was working in that laundry, down somewhere near Fourteenth Street, and sitting on the kerbstone eating her lunch with the other girls who worked there, the sense of her own particular vocation dawned upon her. It was the call to an apostolate, not new, but so old that it is as traditional as that of the first Christians: an apostolate of a laywoman in the world, among workers, herself a worker, and poor: an apostolate of personal contacts, of word and above all of example. There was to be nothing that savored of a religious Order, no special rule, no distinctive habit. She, and those who joined her, would simply be poor--there was no choice on that score, for they were that already--but they would embrace their poverty, and the life of the proletariat in all its misery and insecurity and dead, drab monotony. They would live and work in the slums, lose themselves in the huge anonymous mass of the forgotten and the derelict, for the only purpose of living the complete integral Christian life in that environment--loving those around them, sacrificing themselves for those around them, and spreading the Gospel and the truth of Christ most of all by being saints, by living in union with Him, by being full of His Holy Ghost, His charity.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Good Nests Make Good Neighbors

I have a bird. It lives above the lamp under the eaves that extend over my back door. Last night it came into my house, which I did not appreciate.

My cat Lucy did not know what to do with our uninvited houseguest. Most of our guests sit on the sofa or in one of several chairs, but our bird sat on the shelf above our breakfast bar, on the vent in our utility room, on the valance in our family room. I propped the door open as a standing invitation for our guest to leave, but the exit proved more attractive to the cat than to the bird. In fact, I'd guess that the only thing keeping Lucy in the house was the bird taunting her from the valance.

Lacey, our other cat, was blissfully unaware of the whole crisis. Such is the advantage of living in perpetual fear of strangers, as Lacey does: you avoid a fair bit of unpleasantness. And ultimately the whole event was unpleasant. I got more and more stressed as the bird continued to evade me; I swung the broom more and more wildly and expressed my displeasure more and more loudly.

Finally, after countless seconds, the bird got the hint and flew back to her nest. I shut the door and composed myself. Life settled back down to normal.

This bird is not a pet. It's more like a neighbor, and it strikes me that I was not very neighborly to it. Neighbors who barge in uninvited aren't terribly neighborly either. So I am unapologetic regarding my behavior toward my bird. I am, however, open to suggestions of a more productive, less traumatizing way of relating to my neighbor.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

My Confession

While I was in Seattle, I watched as a man was punched in the face. He fell to the ground as three or four other men closed in on him. I kept driving.

I didn't stop the car because I was on a really busy street in a town with very confusing road design. I didn't call 911 because my phone wasn't within easy reach and I didn't have a good sense of how to describe where I was anyway. I didn't call 911 once I got back to the hotel room because I figured it was too late to do anything about it. I didn't check the news to see if the attack was reported because because because because . . .

These are not reasons for my failure to act. These are excuses. I acknowledge that and accept it.

In the film Changing Lanes Ben Affleck finds solace, in the midst of a traffic dispute that has escalated into something purely terrifying and terrible, in a confessional. He's met there by a priest who expects to hear Affleck give confession, but instead Affleck goes on a rant. "The world's a sewer!" He concludes, basing his assessment on his own behavior and the behavior of the person whose car he accidentally hit. This is one of two confessional scenes featuring Ben Affleck that I'm aware of, the other being from the film Daredevil, where Affleck uses the confessional not to atone or give penance but to debate the nature of evil and the ethics of justice. I find that I'm tempted toward the same misuse of a spiritual discipline that Affleck is in these movies; I'm tempted to justify or mitigate my behavior or to allow my sin to get lost in the great river of sin that runs through the world I inhabit.

Often I'm successful in my effort to coopt confession and paper over my conscience. But in the case of my failure to act in Seattle I stand condemned of a horrible neglect, a dehumanizing self-interest, a convenient fear. I acknowledge that and accept it.

I've asked God that the man who was hit would be OK. I've asked God that justice and reconciliation would overcome that dispute. I've asked God that some other driver or observer that night would have the moral courage that I couldn't find in myself. And now I ask all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.