Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Rusty Survivalist

Wednesday, day 10, no power, with the website saying it will be restored by 11:45 tonight. Let me keep my perspective by reminding myself that 2 weeks ago, my spouse and I took a walk and talked about the very real possibility of a category 4 hurricane coming over our house in a more direct hit and what that would mean for our house and posessions left behind (a total loss, we assumed, 2 weeks ago).  Today, 2 weeks later, we don't have power, but we have a house.

Let me remember the very surreal feeling of walking through the house and thinking about evacuation by car or by plane--what would we grab?  Our various documents, our laptops, and some clothes, if by plane.  If by car, a few extras here and there.

As we packed the car on Friday, Sept. 8, I thought about the space that was left, and whether or not to leave things behind to face what we thought would be certain storm surge losses.  Should I do a quick sort of CDs to ascertain what I'd truly miss?  Perhaps pack a few books?

In the end, I left it all, for the most part.  I meant to bring my box of chapbooks, but I didn't.  We almost forgot the fireproof safe that has all of our important documents.  It's become very clear to me that my survivalist skills have gotten rusty.  In this week with no power, I've discovered that I didn't have the stash of batteries I thought I did, and we don't have an alarm clock that works with no electricity.  Until 5 days ago, we had forgotten that one of our radios will work with AA batteries.

Let me not focus on the fact that my house is the only one on the block with no power still.  Let me focus on the survivalist skill that I've kept sharp:  a variety of communities.  Let me sing the praises of people who have invited us over for a meal and who have shared their batteries.  Lots of people have offered their generators or their guest rooms, but we don't need them, because of our very kind neighbor who hauled his revamped 1968 camper with AC down to our driveway--we've had a cool place to sleep.

We are rich in friends.  We are lucky to have a safe neighborhood, where I can sit on the porch at all hours of the day or night to read.  I am happy that I still have my supply books to read--I've been revisiting them.  A collection of books:  I may not have as many batteries as I need, but a supply of books is as important to me.

And we will have power soon.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Literary Allusions After the Storm

I have heard the chainsaws singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

It is interesting, the literary allusions that go through one's head, when one waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair, for the power to be restored.  Of course, Eliot used different images in his "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."  Mermaids, chainsaws, the sentiment is similar.  Or perhaps I've been sitting in the heat too long.

I spent one afternoon sifting through people's offers in my head.  A guest room, a place to put our air mattress, a 1968 camper that's not only been restored but had AC added--I recognized my grandmother's voice in my head, the woman who always said she didn't want to be a burden.  My brain has become a mix of my grandmother, the Thoreau who wrote "Self-Reliance," and the voice I call my inner Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My inner Laura Ingalls Wilder tells me to quit whining and to get on with it.  Build a house out of sod, or do something constructive.  Did Laura's sister Mary ever whine?  No, and she was blind.  What do I have to complain about?

Most of the time, we keep our sense of perspective by reminding each other of how it could have been much worse.  We have our house, even though it's got no power right now.  The issues keeping us from having power are fixable.  We should be back to "normal" soon.  Many will not be so lucky.

Today, I broke down and went out for coffee.  It's not as good as the coffee I will make when I have power.  But this morning, with my spouse having an 8:00 class, we couldn't make coffee on the grill.

The power company says that our power will be restored today.  We continue to live in hope--tinged with the fear that we will always be a third world spot with no power in our first world neighborhood.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Books and Time Travelling

When I think about the first two weeks of September 2017, I'm sure that it is Hurricane Irma that will loom large for me.  But I also want to remember my father-in-law's 80th birthday, which I've already covered in earlier blog posts just after Labor Day.  I also want to remember the reading I've done--an unintended treat that comes with air travel (Labor Day week-end) and loss of power (Hurricane Irma).

Before leaving on our Labor Day Surprise Birthday Party adventure, I didn't have time to get to the library.  Happily, I have a huge library of my own, with plenty of books that I've meant to read.  I first read The Hours when I was commuting back and forth to the University of Miami on public transit.  I read it weeks after reading Mrs. Dalloway for my Brit Lit survey class, and my English major reading self loved that experience.  I've wanted to do it again--what better opportunity than on a plane?

Two weeks ago I read most of Mrs. Dalloway on the plane to Memphis.  I made an audible gasp when I got to the part of the novel that tells us that Mrs. Dalloway is 52 years old.  In my head, I thought of her as 32 or so--probably because when I first read the novel, I was in my early 20's, and she didn't seem like a woman at midlife.  Of course, when I first read it, how would I know?

Now, viewing the novel through that very different lens--characters at midlife wrestling with decisions they've made--it was very different for me.  When I last read it, I was planning to teach it as a hallmark of literary British modernism, and when I read it in grad school, I was viewing it through that lens, along with my eagerness to see Virginia Woolf as my creative grandmother.

Once I finished Mrs. Dalloway, it was on to The Hours.  It was phenomenal--amazingly phenomenal--to read the two back to back.  I am in awe of the skill of both writers, but especially with Michael Cunningham's ability to take many of Woolf's elements and make them his own.  As a woman at midlife, considering all the roads I've taken and not taken, both books spoke to me.

Of course, both books are dealing with great loves of one's youth, but loves that didn't result in lifelong partnering in a sexual/marriage way.  Would the insights be different if these characters had fully committed to the great love only to find themselves at midlife with that person?  Some of that longing and wistfulness comes from that memory of the highpoint of youth--when one thinks one is at the threshold of a great future, only to realize looking back that the moment of the kiss was in fact the primary moment, not the opening.

It was fascinating to read these novels about time and the strange way that time passes in its folding, wrinkling way as I travelled with my spouse--the love of my younger life, when I was as young as the two characters named Clarissa.  But reader, I married him.  And I read those books as I travelled to Memphis for a family reunion of sorts--and it was interesting to read those novels surrounded by these people whom I've been seeing periodically through all of my adult life.

At one point, on our way back, reading my way through a delay at the Memphis airport, I looked up and caught sight of myself in a window.  In that wavering reflection, I thought that I looked very similar to that young girl who first arrived at the Memphis airport to see her college boyfriend, much to her parents' dismay.  And here I am, journeying with him still.

Those two books are the highlight of my month of great books--and perhaps will be the highlight of the whole year.  I am in awe of the writing of both Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham--it makes me want to return to my own writing desk again.  Hopefully my power will be restored soon, and I will pick up my pen/pixels.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Haves and Have Nots

Today is the day that my good spirits start to flag.  It was fun, the first day or two without power.  We had had a few sunless days, after all, and then it was breezy, as one might expect in a hurricane.  Most people lost power, so we were all camping in our houses.  We went ahead and ate all the food that had been in the freezer.  We chatted with neighbors with whom we rarely speak.  We had leisurely evenings with nothing to distract us.

The sound of generators wasn't as maddening as in past storms--likewise for generators.

Now that some people have power, and we don't, I confess to feeling a bit more dejected.  We are lucky--we should have power by Sunday, FPL tells us.  We have activities planned at our friends' houses.  I am so grateful to have friends who say, "Come over for dinner" and/or  "Stay in our guest room."

Still, it's wearing.

And it's a valuable insight into the way that parts of the world live all the time.  I know that plenty of people in the U.S. can't afford to run the AC, even if they have power and AC.  I know that those same people often live in neighborhoods where it's not safe to open the windows.  I know that although the developing world may have access to electricity more than they did in the past, that the electrical supply isn't reliable.

I know that plenty of people would love to live in my little cottage in the back of the property, even though we haven't cleaned it up from the flooding.  I know that plenty of people would envy me my ability to cook on propane.  I have water that's clean enough to bathe in and drink--much of the world does not.

This week, I have had a glimmer of how it feels to be a Have Not in a world of Haves.  But it's only a glimmer.  I'm only a tourist in this land.  I'll be returning to my home country of the Haves very soon--but I hope to help more people migrate to this land, having been reminded of how tough it is to live on the Have Not side.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricane Aftermaths

Two weeks ago, when I bought the autumn trees that run on battery power, I wasn't thinking I was buying hurricane supplies.  But it has been lovely, sitting on our front porch, during these days without power, lit by only these trees.  One morning, I got up early to read, and I was surprised that I could read by their light. 

I don't know why I'm surprised.  They have warm LED lights, and they require 3 AA batteries.  This picture from the website doesn't do them justice:

We still don't have power yet.  I am posting from my office, which does have power and the boil water order for Hollywood was lifted this morning. My AC at the office is a bit underpowered, but better than the temp at my house, which still has no power. Our neighbors' tree ripped out our power line when it toppled. I am hoping to have power restored soon, but it may be as late as Sunday.

We sheltered 17 miles inland, and by Monday, we were eager to get home to see what our status would be.  I was not anticipating that the roads around our house would still be flooded--and how disorienting that would be.  I got out of the car into calf-deep water in our front yard and counted the trees--our 3 gumbo limbo trees still stood.  We passed several houses with palm trees through the roof, so I knew that even native trees might not be standing.

I expected flooding, so I was grateful that the water didn't get inside our main house.  We have a small cottage in the back corner of the property, and it has flooded in a heavy rain, so we weren't surprised to find water intrusion.  We think we had 6 inches of water in there.  Happily, we don't have anyone living there or anyone with plans to stay there, so it's not the immediate crisis that it might be.  We will throw out the drenched area rugs, and the floor underneath is concrete--most of the furniture appears to be salvageable.

We've spent the time since Monday clearing water out of the cottage, hauling brush, collapsing into exhausted sleep, hauling more brush, and taking trips in the car to enjoy AC, cellphone charging, and the possibility of batteries and ice.  We've cooked up all the perishable food and shared it with neighbors.  Here's a hurricane cooking tip:  when cooking all your frozen veggies in one big pot on the grill, chuck in a stick of butter too--peas and beans and corn never tasted so good.

At some point, maybe I'll write a post about how my survivalist skills have gotten a bit rusty.  I was surprised to see how our supply of batteries had dwindled, for example.  I should remember that people get panicky about gas way before they need to.  And I'll hang on to all these empty bottles--no need to buy water when I can fill bottles with tap water before the storm.

I'm still not sure what notes to make for next time when it looks like a huge (category 3+) storm is bearing down on us.  It's too far to drive and not enough planes to fly us all out.

We are grateful that the damage to the main house was minimal.  We know that so many across a broad swath of this Caribbean basin are not so fortunate.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Irma Update

It is 7:35 EDT on the southeast coast of Florida--Hurricane Irma's eye is at Key West right now.  It's still a category 4 storm, and sadly, it has slowed down. 

Here, 17 miles inland, in the northern part of Broward county, we still have power, so I thought I'd write a brief post. 

We had a lovely day yesterday, helping our friends with the last of their storm prep--I was grateful to have a place to stay, so I was glad to be able to help.  Actually, my spouse did all of the heavy-duty help.

In the evening, we kept hearing about tornado warnings.  These are not the scary midwestern kind of tornadoes. Plus, many of us have impact resistant glass and/or shutters. These baby tornadoes really aren't much of a worry for me.

I'm more worried about flooding, but I'm seeing local news crews standing on wet but not flooded streets near the coast. I'm continuing to hope for the best for the east coast of Florida and to hope for unexpected good news from the Keys and the west coast.

The storm surge warning was lifted for our coastline, so if we get flooding, at least it won't be that kind of flooding. 

We've had a few storm bands, but we still have power. So far, so good. It will be a long day, but others will have a much worse day.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Day Before the Day before the Hurricane

Our days of watching and waiting and hoping and cursing and praying are coming to a close.  Hurricane Irma arrives at some point in the next 24 hours.  When I look at the radar, it seems we'll feel some bands later today or tonight.  I think (and desperately hope) that we'll have a storm that arrives in daylight.

My spouse did much of the hurricane prep on Thursday, but some of it must be done at the last minute.  Yesterday, I made some raspberry streusel bars, in part to use up the frozen raspberries, in part because they make good breakfast food.  My spouse and I plotted out the day.

I made a quick run to the bank to deposit my spouse's paycheck while he started working on installing the last hurricane panels.  I got back and helped, but I'm really not much help.  For every wingnut I installed, he installed 4.

We had made several lists of what we'd take with us, but it was surprisingly hard to finish the work.  When we were preparing, the projected track was right up the middle of the state.  Should we protect our possessions that we left behind against the wind or against the floods?  Probably both. 

I knew that I'd be leaving some stuff in the dryer--it's off the ground and well protected.  We put some framed family pictures in the dryer, but decided to leave the photo albums on the shelf.  Once I have to go back to work, I want to have those clothes, so I added them to the collection, along with my work sandals that are in better shape.

I still had room.  I put all of my poetry rough draft legal pads in there, my sketchbooks and expensive markers, and then I called it done.

I put the handwritten journals that are most important to me into the dishwasher.  It's never been connected, so I didn't worry about water backing up into it.  I was surprised by how much writing is left.  I hope I don't lose it all, but if I do, I've protected the important stuff that's not already digitalized.

Then it was on to the food decisions.  Since we would be evacuating to our friends' house, I didn't want to arrive with no food, but I wanted to be mindful that they wouldn't have room for all of our perishables.  I had some salmon in the freezer; it stayed because my friends don't eat fish much, and I didn't want to cook fish there and put up with the stinky fish wrappers through the storm. All of our non-perishables with any nutritive value fit into several bags, so they came with us, along with a cooler of food for the freezer and the fridge.

We loaded the cars, which was a sobering moment.  I looked at everything that was left behind?  Should I try to cram all the CDs into every nook and cranny of the car?  I was tempted, but I didn't.  I moved some of our items up off the floor, and we unplugged everything.  Then we put shutters over the last door and drove away.

We were worried about the traffic on major highways, so we took Highway 1 north.  I was flooded by memories:  there's the furniture store where we bought our sleigh bed which may or may not be there when we return.  There's the Riverfront Hotel, where we stayed the very first time we visited Ft. Lauderdale.  There's the Hustler Store that used to be the last Peaches Records in the U.S.  I remembered meeting friends at various restaurants along the way.  I felt somewhat desolate, but I didn't cry.

We are lucky to have friends who were sincere when they offered us shelter.  We unloaded the cars, relaxed, and played cards all afternoon, just waiting for the 5 p.m. advisory.

The 5 p.m. advisory was good for us, but terrifying for the Keys.  The track has shifted west again.  We will stay put, because we're still on the outer edge of the cone, and it's a huge storm.  We're still looking at hurricane force winds, but they'll be a category 1 or 2, not the category 4 that the Keys will feel.

By the end of the day, with all the physical labor and the worry, I was exhausted, but I found it hard to fall asleep.  I was worried about the people who are under much more severe threat than they were this morning.  I worried about the homeless people that we had seen along the way.  I worried about the ability of all of us to weather two major hurricanes in a month.  Eventually, I drifted off.

We are as prepared as we can be.  When we emerge on the other side, we'll see where everyone stands, and we'll recover.  I'm ready for this storm to be over.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Hurricane Irma Approaches

It feels like a very long time ago that I first started to monitor the progress of Hurricane Irma.  I have considered at every possibility, and now it looks like we will get the worst one for the state of Florida, a track right up the middle of the state for a major hurricane.  The only saving grace is that we might only be looking at a category 3 through most of the state, instead of a 4 or 5.

My mood has swung back and forth.  At some times, I am so terrified that I feel the blood race through my body.  I go to an alert like this one, and I wonder why we're even bothering to secure our properties when all of the buildings will collapse and we will all die.

But then I saw some information that made me hopeful--and I saw it on the local news, of all places. One of our weather experts showed a graphic of maximum expected winds in our county--105 mph, which we've survived before. It's much better than the 150 or 180 that I was terrified we might see. I also saw a graphic that I saw divides the storm risk surge into 4 categories, and we're at the lowest risk. Southern Miami Dade county and points south are at the highest risk.  In my home county, Broward, we have deep ocean out there, unlike a lot of other coastal areas, so the water will have some place to drain to. 

My mom and dad listened to our state governor's press conference on Wed--I'm not sure what that man said exactly, but boy, did it make them feel panicked. Yesterday, my mom said that if we'd get to Orlando today, she'd pay any price for our plane ticket to get us out of here.  We both searched for tickets, but there's not an empty plane seat today in any airport in Florida. 

Yesterday was a typical pre-hurricane day:  I woke up at 2, and decided to check the 11 p.m. advisory.  I wrote this Facebook post:  "I am sure that when people talk about the dark night of the soul, they are not talking about the sinking feeling that comes from waking up at 2 a.m. and reading the 11 p.m. National Hurricane Center advisory. Doing some laundry, pondering how far west is far enough to get away, hoping that the hurricane ultimately goes east of the Bahamas, far, far east."

I stayed awake for awhile, and around 3:38 a.m., I decided to go on a quest for gas.  We likely had enough to get through the storm and its aftermath, but we have had such a run on gas stations that it made me anxious.  At a convenience store nearby, I found pumps--no premium gas left, but I don't need that.  So, I filled up one car and then the other.

My car tells me how many miles are left on a tank, so when I saw I could go 430 miles, I had a brief span of time when I thought about loading up the car and driving north.  Later, my spouse and I looked at track maps and decided that everywhere we'd want to go would be in the path of the storm.  And we know that the roads get increasingly crowded as everyone feels jittery and decides to make a run for it.  Tough as it might be to ride out a storm here, it would be even worse--and likely deadly--to be stuck in the car on the Interstate.

I spent the rest of the morning before I went to work doing a bit of storm prep.  It is strange to wander around the house thinking about losing it all--and even stranger to think about how little I would miss most of it.  I don't really like most of our furniture, for example. 

I felt the most despair when I looked at the refrigerator and freezer.  I try not to stock up on perishables during hurricane season, but we still have a lot of food.  I felt this despair well up, and I thought, what is this about?  I'm feeling more despair about replaceable food than I am about other possessions?  But I realized that the largest part of my despair comes from what the food represents:  normal life, when one can buy and cook food.

As we finish our preparations today, I'll try to think about flooding.  I'll move things that are valuable to me, like a box of journals, to a higher spot.  I'll put some things like photo albums in the washer, dryer, or dishwasher.  I'll wrap some things in plastic.  One friend suggested I wrap all my books in plastic, but I don't have that kind of time--or plastic.  And frankly, if all my books were ruined, I'd only feel sad about some of them.

So, Home Depot will open momentarily.  Let me go see if I can buy some wing nuts that we need to attach the shutters to the doors (the windows have the very convenient accordion shutters) and some algaecide for the pool.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Hurricane Prep

I've had my eye on Hurricane Irma for over a week now.  Last Friday, I saw that the fall decorating items I've kept my eyes on had been reduced to 60% off, plus I had a coupon for 20% off.  As I put double A batteries in the lighted autumnal trees that I bought, I said, "Next week, if we're facing a hurricane, and we need these batteries, I can take them back out of these trees."

I was sort of joking and sort of not.  And here we are, almost a week later, and it's still not clear how this storm will affect the continental U.S.  Based on what I saw when I was out and about yesterday, the panic has set in.  Every gas station that still had gas had a line yesterday afternoon and evening.  If we feel storm effects, we won't feel them until Saturday morning.  I was surprised to see lines at the gas stations.

I went to Trader Joe's before meeting a friend for dinner.  I had a nice chat with a heavily tattooed staff person who said she admired my attitude.  I said, "Because I came straight to the wine section?"  Later I realized that many people were there hoping to get some water.

I don't understand this quest for bottled water.  At some point in the next few days, I'll fill up every container that I have with water from the tap--water that I've already paid for.  If it looks really bad, we'll fill up the bathtub, and we also have a swimming pool, which we can use for flushing, if the water supply is disrupted.

As I moved through Trader Joe's, my inner Sociologist was intrigued to see what people had been buying.  I was somewhat surprised to see that there was still so much beer and wine--but every bag of chips was gone.  The bread was gone, and a stocker was refilling the apples and pears which had been wiped out.  Most of the prepared trail mix was gone, but individual components like nuts and seeds and dried fruit were still plentiful.  I bought two dozen eggs; if it looks like we'll get hit, I'll hard boil them, and in the days leading up to impact, if there's an impact, I may do some baking.

Last night, I felt uneasiness as I realized that we didn't have enough propane as I would like.  I called a few stores, but everyone was out.  Then it occurred to us that we often get a head start thawing meat (hamburger and fish) by putting it outside, where if we're not careful, it starts to cook. Worst case cooking scenario: we'll become pros at solar cooking! I seem to remember a Girl Scout solar oven project that involved a box and some tin foil.

Right now, we're still planning to shelter in place.  After I got an e-mail from my sister telling me that we should stay safe and if that meant evacuation, we could stay with her, I went to the Southwest Air site in the late afternoon. On Wednesday and Thursday, every flight out of Ft. Lauderdale is sold out; on Friday, all but 2 are sold out.

Of course, I'm not usually looking at flights that are leaving in the next day or two--maybe they routinely sell out. Our Labor Day flights would have been sold out if I had been looking to book the day before.

For a hurricane moving south to north, it's hard to escape, unless we left today.  And I'm worried about running out of gas or getting stuck in traffic of others who are fleeing.  One of my colleagues, a native Floridian, is staying put; I asked if he had gone through Andrew, and he said that they wanted him to evacuate and would have sent him to Homestead, right in the path of the storm. With his years of experience and his advanced degrees in environmental science, I found his calm approach refreshing.  He, too, will fill containers and the bathtub.  He has half a tank of gas and isn't worried about it.

On my way to spin class this morning, I'll put gas in the car, if any of the stations along the way have some gas.  And then we're about as ready as we can be.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Surprise Party Success

I have been away--on Saturday, we made a quick trip to Memphis, and we returned last night.  I kept it all quiet, in part because I try not to advertise when we're going to be away and in part, because the reason for our trip was a surprise.

Months ago, we started planning a surprise party for my father-in-law, who turns 80 years old today.  We knew that what he'd really like would be to have as much of the family together as possible.  So, those of us who live out of town committed to a Saturday surprise party.  I wasn't convinced we could keep the surprise, but we did.

On Saturday, we hopped on a plane and had 2 smooth flights to Memphis:  our first plane only had 72 people on it, which was great, and we snagged the exit row seats, with their luxurious leg room, for our second leg of the trip.  We got to the Memphis airport, and my brother-in-law was there to pick us up; his family had spent the previous day and night driving from Homestead, and we had just flown in from Ft. Lauderdale.  He has more vacation time accrued than we do; we had to be back in time for work today.

Can I just mention how sad the Memphis airport seemed?  Maybe we were in a less-busy wing, but it was quite deserted, with none of the hustle and bustle of past years. I later learned that many airlines have pulled out of that airport completely, for the usual variety of reasons, mainly high cost to maintain a hub there.

The family planned to have the party in the church fellowship hall, which meant that more people could come.  So, the first surprise for my father-in-law was the assembly of church people for a surprise party--and then about 7 minutes later, the extended family entered singing "Happy Birthday to You."  It was wonderful how it all came together.

We spent several hours eating wonderful barbecue and catching up--and that sums up the rest of the week-end too. It was great to catch up with so many family members whom we don't see very often.  I had time to get some sewing done, as I sat and socialized--my autumnal placemats are ready for quilting!  I had time for reading--more about that in a post all of its own.  It was a treat to have time in the countryside that surrounds Memphis, where my in-laws live.
I'm glad we were all able to get away to make this happen--we were only missing one family member from the immediate family (by which I mean my father-in-law's children and their children and his wife, of course).  I know that we won't be able to do this too often--and how wonderful to gather for a happy occasion.  In the years to come, I suspect we'll do more gathering for funerals than for birthdays.

But let me not think about the coming sadness.  Let me take another day to savor the successes of the past week.  Let this day be a day of continuing gratitude.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Theology of Work

The issue of work is never far from my mind, and Labor Day is a great time to think about it in depth.  Not a week goes by when I'm not wondering if I'm doing the work I was put on earth to do.  Of course, that presupposes a purpose of sorts.

 It's interesting to me that I feel that I only feel I'm doing meaningful work if I'm making an important difference each and every day.  And if I'm being honest, I want it to be an important difference like the kind that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks made, the kind of difference where future generations will be better off because I walked the planet (and yes, I realize this could sound like monstrous ego, but it's also fueled by a fierce yearning for social justice).  Did Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King feel that they made a difference each and every day?  Probably not.  It's only in retrospect that it's clear.

Maybe it would be better to ponder the ways I could make life better for the workers around me. I'd like to move towards the Buddhist teahouse approach of meaningful work.  In an interview with Bill Moyers, Jane Hirshfield explains, "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen.  It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road.  Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea.  She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say, "This is the Zen teahouse."  All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it.  No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea, and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (Fooling with Words:  A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, page 112).

I wonder why we don't hear much about a Christian theology of work--it could be that the workplace is changing so quickly that theologians haven't had a chance to catch up.  We've gone from being a nation where the majority makes a living from agrarian pursuits, to a largely industrialized work force--and that's the 20th century.  And now, all those industrial jobs that so many of us suddenly miss--even though when I was in college, we rallied against those evil factories that gave people repetitive use injuries and lung disease from the fibers released in factories (both cloth fibers and metal/asbestos fibers)--those are gone away, as are many office jobs, as is any hope of job stability.

Or maybe it's because that theology isn't taught in our seminaries and grad schools.  This article says, "Courses on marriage and sexuality are staples of university and seminary curricula, but courses on work are rare. This mutually acceptable silence is a great pastoral failure, a squandered opportunity to understand the universal call to holiness in everyday economic life."

The article reminds us that we do have a theology of work, if we dig back far enough, to the Benedictines:  "The Rule has a larger lesson, though. Its guidelines for living in the monastery teach that work can be a component of spiritual practice and is essential to fulfilling a community’s needs, but it must never become an end in itself and in fact should be limited in order to prevent it from inculcating vicious habits. The discipline that Benedict enjoins upon his monks, and that workers today could emulate, is selective disengagement from labor."

Life in a monastery is compartmentalized in a way that I envy:  there are times for work, times for prayer, times for meals, times for study--there's some overlap, but not the expectation of multitasking that so many of us face. 

Can we create something similar in our modern workplaces?

It's interesting to think about the way that a Benedictine approach would reshape the questions that we ask about work:  "Taking Benedict’s approach would force us to reconsider how we think about our work. Instead of, 'What work am I called to?' we might ask, 'How does the task before me contribute to or hinder my progress toward holiness?; Not 'How does this work cooperate with material creation?' but 'How does this work contribute to the life of the community and to others’ material and spiritual well-being?' Not 'Am I doing what I love?' but 'What activity is so important that I should, without exception, drop my work in order to do it?'”

These are good questions for Labor Day--or any day.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Towards a Photo Theology of Work

We labor in our various workplaces.  Gone are the mines and the mills, for the most part.  But our offices can be just as demanding:

Work even invades our bedrooms and other spaces that should be sacred.

In our quest for a theology of work, perhaps it is time to go much, much further back:

I envy the monastic schedule, with its balance of work, prayer, study, meals, and rest:

As we labor, let us remember that it's not only the worth of the work that gives our lives meaning.  Let us honor the ones that walk beside us:

Let us resolve to do the work that nurtures what is holy.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Limping Towards Labor Day

What a week it has been--but I knew it was going to be a humdinger of a week.  Let me capture some thoughts before September steals them away:

--It was a week of many meetings, some huge and important, some hardly noticeable.  Because we had lots of meetings, we had logistics to consider, like moving classes into and out of classrooms and buying food.

--In short, I spent a lot of the week out and about making all sorts of school-related purchases.  That kind of week is always fun on the first day, but exhausting by the end.

--The smartest thing I did, in terms of food purchases, was to pay a $3 delivery charge.  We had two big meetings on Thursday, and we planned to have trays of Italian food from a local restaurant (hot pastas, meatballs, and salad) that the two groups would share.  While the restaurant is not very far away, I was able to look ahead and realize that I wouldn't want to be racing there just before the meeting started--best $3 I spent all week!

--One of the cool things about being on a small campus with a small staff is that we get to do all sorts of things.  A group of us met with a branch of the Boys and Girls Club that happened to be on the reservation of the Seminole tribe.  My school has scholarships that they didn't know about.  It was wonderful to bring groups of people together to strategize ways to help underserved populations.

--One of the tiring things about being on a small campus with a small staff is how much of the physical work I do on days like this:  moving supplies and food from place to place. Thursday one of my colleagues said, "I don't think I've seen you sit down all day.  You'll wear out your sandals."

--Indeed, by Friday morning I was limping.  I was also exhausted, having gotten to bed after midnight the night before.  I told one of my colleagues that my head felt like a Picasso painting, with parts that didn't line up at all.

--On Thursday, I worked almost 15 hours.  In our efforts towards accreditation, we needed to have one last meeting, and then we needed to generate some documents, like minutes and e-mails with minutes sent to members.  For a variety of reasons, those documents needed to be sent out from our main office on Sept. 1.  So we stayed until it was done, which meant that three of us left at 11:15 p.m.

--But we got it done.  Are there any sweeter words than "Your materials are good to go"?  On Friday morning, I was wearily ecstatic.

--Of course, the night before, when we only had 2 members of the 10 members that we needed for a quorum for our essential meeting for accreditation, I was feeling a very different set of emotions, the "these might be my final hours of employment here" feelings.  Was I being melodramatic?  I don't really know.  Other people in similar positions to mine have lost employment for similar circumstances.

--Happily, I don't have to find out.  Let me take one more moment to breathe prayers of gratitude for committee members who are willing to come to a meeting, for flooding rains that came on Monday instead of Thursday, for the webinar that worked so that people could be counted as attending even if they couldn't physically come to the campus.  Let me say a prayer of thanks and gratitude for my colleagues who worked hard on the meeting and for the ones who gave us gestures of kindness as the week went along--one colleague brought a bouquet off her night blooming jasmine tree (apparently known for its calming qualities) for the department head in charge of the meeting and one colleague brought me a beautiful pastry, a miniature apple tart that looked as good as it tasted. 

--I feel lucky to be in a place where we all work well together, and we're all rowing in the same direction.  It makes me less bothered by the occasional week that leaves me limping.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Poem for the Clean Up: "Strange Communions"

Here's a Facebook post I wrote yesterday, which I post here to preserve it:

"I understand why people are upset with Joel Osteen--although, if you read his books or watch his show, he is walking his particular Prosperity Gospel walk, which does not include caring for the poor. But lately I've seen a bit of grumbling about other Houston churches and their perceived hypocrisy--tax exempt status, so whey aren't they doing more? Having helped restore a church after a less damaging hurricane, it's not hypocrisy when you decide not to open your church as a shelter. It's not good hospitality to say, "Go sleep on that sodden, ruined carpet, and in the morning, we'll all eat spoiled food together." That's not walking the walk, talking the talk either."

That post, along with pictures posted by Bishop Mike Rinehart of the ELCA churches in his Synod beginning the hurricane clean up, took me back to the time after Hurricane Wilma.  The church to which we belonged sustained massive damage. I spent much of the next 6 weeks cleaning up that church. It was a church of older people, and there weren't many hands to do that work.

One day, about a week into the recovery time, I had spent the day hauling wet carpet to the curb after ripping it out of the floor, and I was wet, dirty, and bloody. The Bishop of our Synod appeared, dressed in casual clothes, an assistant by his side. I said, "Are you the carpet guys?" Oops.  The men bristled a bit.

Like I said, I'm fairly sure they were dressed in casual clothes. If the bishop had come wearing his purple shirt and his impressive cross, I'd have known he wasn't the carpet guy.

Later it occurred to me to wonder why I should be expected to know what the Bishop looked like, to recognize him by sight. He had never graced the church with his presence before. And unlike the South Carolina synod conventions, which don't cost much to attend, our Florida synod conventions are astonishingly expensive. Even though I was church council president of that church, I never went because I knew the state of the church's books. We could barely afford to send the pastor.

The Bishop looked at our damage, took notes, and left us with a case of bottled water and some tarps.

At the time, I remember wishing for a bit more help with the physical labor, as I went back to ripping up carpet and hauling it to the curb.

But later, I got a great poem out of it. That poem was published by North American Review.

It's part of a series of poems that imagines what would happen if Jesus came back in our current world and moved amongst us today. Long ago, a Sunday School teacher asked us what we thought would happen if Jesus came back today (today being 1975). Little did she know that I'd still be playing with that question decades later:

Strange Communions

Jesus showed up at our church to help
with hurricane clean up.
“The Bishop was so busy,” he explained.
“But I had some time on my hands,
so I loaded the truck with tarps and water,
and came on down. What can I do?”

“Our roof needs a miracle,” I said.
“Do you know a good roofer?”

“I used to be a carpenter.
Of course, that’s getting to be a long time ago.
Let me see what I can do.”

I set to work ripping up the soaked
carpet in the sanctuary.
As I added a piece of dripping padding
to the pile, I noticed Christ across the street,
at the house with the fallen
tree that took out both cars and the porch.
He walked right up to the door to see
how the household was doing. I dragged
sopping carpet, trip after trip, while Jesus sat
on the porch and listened to the old woman’s sad
saga. The rough edges made my hands bleed.

Good smells made me wander down the dark
church hall to our scarcely used
kitchen, where I found Christ cooking.
“I found these odds and ends and decided
to make some lunch. Luckily, you’ve got a gas stove.”
I shrugged. “Why not? Otherwise, it’s just going to rot.”
How he made the delicious fish stew and homemade
bread out of the scraps he found
in our kitchen, I couldn’t explain.
We went out together to invite
the neighborhood in for a hot
meal, even though they weren’t church members.
We all spoke different languages,
but a hot lunch served by candlelight translates
across cultures.

I dragged drywall, black with mold, to our dumpster,
and noticed Christ walking by the cars in line
for the gas station on the corner.
When I got closer, I noticed he handed
out fresh-baked cookies and bottled water.
“Have some sweetness.
Life is hard when you can’t get necessities.”
Some drivers stared at him, like he was one of those predatory
scammers they’d been warned against.
“What’s the catch?” they growled.
“No catch,” he said with that convincing smile.
“Just a gift of grace, freely given. You’re free
to accept or refuse.” A strange communion.

Jesus left while there was still
much work to do: new carpet to be installed,
drywall to be hung, fencing to be constructed
around church grounds. I watch him drive
his empty truck, followed
by some of the neighbors, away from the church.

The next time it rained, I noticed
that the long, leaking roof had healed.