Monday, November 29, 2010

November 2010: of Soap and Stany

It is early morning in the basement of Ascencion Catholic Church. Having arisen from my sleeping bag, I am thinking of Hanilyn (here pictured taking some first steps at her 1st birthday party just a week ago). Hanilyn is our daughter Maggie`s first child. Too cute, yes? Time now to take my first steps of the day also!

Cool and crisp, it is time to turn on the furnace so as to greet homeless guests here with some of the warmth we all need. Once every ten weeks the church hosts up to 15 people: families who have fallen onto hard times due to things like health care costs, unemployment, or other circumstances. To satisfy city codes, someone from the church must stay overnight to handle any emergency that may arise. Last night that was me. Two snoring men, crying children, and the chirping of a smoke alarm (that needs a battery changed) contributed to an unsilent night.

With the new day, all are awaking with surprisingly good spirits. Folks are pleased that soap is available to use in the showers here and are grateful to be able to take a bar with them to the next shelter. They see me typing this and I tell them how, on this day last year, my wife and I were arriving in India. Larry, whose time in prison over 16 years ago continues to handicap his ability to find steady work, tells me that I was really lucky to go to India. Another man interrupts to say how much he liked going to Reno once. A woman observes how nice the bar of soap is compared to the sample sizes they usually make do with. Somehow that soap seems more important now than the glorious experiences of the past year.

The homeless families staying at the church enjoyed a Turkey dinner 2 nights ago, a tradition for the holiday of Thanksgiving. Kristine stayed over that night, after having worked all day preparing a similar meal for 14 who came to our home. In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a time to share a feast with friends and family while being mindful of all we have to be grateful for. Our children Sonrisa, Shaman, and Mira were all there, together our foster daughter Maggie`s family, our friends Gil & Adriana with their boys, and one of my students from Portland Community College who has no family nearby. The three pre-teen boys loudly played Fooseball in our basement and were crazy happy when Shaman distributed his old Pokeman cards among them as a gift.

It is good to take time to be thankful, whether it is for a dream trip to India or a bar of soap today. Sonrisa now has advanced Junior standing at Portland State University and has declared a Sociology major with an Environmental Studies Minor. Shaman is working part time and is hatching a plan that will include future studies at Portland Community College. Mira has full time employment and still loves making music as a skilled base guitar player. Gil is successfully recovering from gall bladder surgery and yes, his kids love their Pokeman cards almost as much as Maggie loves her new life as a mother!

What a remarkable year it has been! Exactly one year ago Kristine and I arrived in India to begin the Fulbright adventure. First a night in Mumbai, then the arrival in Kochi to be greeted by our future lifelong friend Stany. By the end of that second day, we would be in Pala and preparing to furnish our apartment and to meet my colleagues at St. Thomas College. It now seems both so recent, and yet like a former life away....

Over the next nine months, regular end-of-month entries will serve to both reflect upon the activities of a year ago as well as update people we met abroad with more current news. What follows is a sampling of news highlights from November:

This month has been full of activity, not the least of which involved many communications with Stany by email and by phone. He has been selected by USIEF (United States India Education Foundation) as a nominee for a Fulbright-Nehru award that will take him from India to teach courses at Portland Community College (PCC) for 4 months beginning in September of 2011. Originally we had hoped that he might come as early as a month from now, but the wheels of bureaucracy move almost as slowly for him as they did for me. Final notification should be communicated from Washington D.C. in early March. Perhaps it is for the best, he will be an honored guest as PCC begins its 50th Anniversary celebrations next Fall.

Much of my activities beyond the classroom in November have been devoted either to meetings or to speakings! Meetings relating to the Portland Metro Green Party, Peace and Justice Works, Just Skills Seminars at Ascension Church, PCC Peace and Conflict Studies, and the Internationalization Steering Committee at PCC, have been productive but somewhat exhausting. Speaking engagements have included four solo presentations (one on Palestine, two on India, and one relating to China & India) and chairing three panel discussions (on Teaching Peace in the 21st Century`): a total of 7 events in 10 days!

It is a challenge to balance what it asked of us and the energy we may have to fulfill basic obligations. Jesus tells us that we should give our widow`s mite (if even a small donation of time or money, but enough so as to be felt as a sacrifice). But when is enough enough? In this world, in our country, in our community -- the needs are so great and our enough is usually not so.

One step at a time, yes Hanilyn?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

October 2010: Trick or Treat?

One of the favorite holidays in the U.S. is Halloween, known as All Saints Day (in the Catholic Church) but secularized to be suitable for all to celebrate on October 31st. Pictured here (right to left) is our foster daughter Margarita, with baby Hanilyn, stepson Reynaldo, and husband Reynaldo Sr.. They are having fun dressed up as a leprechaun, a butterfly, a policeman, and a vampire: For people beyond the U.S., it must surely seem odd that even adults may like to dress up in an odd way and go out to ``trick or treat`` with their costumed children. The kids really like this custom as asking for a ``treat`` at the door of many homes eventually fills their bags full of candy! Older children especially may deliver a ``trick`` to those who are not generous, usually involving some kind of harmless prank.

Because I am a little late in writing this, the November 2nd elections have also just transpired. To use the trick or treat metaphor, some are still trying to figure out whether the results were more of a trick or treat – though few who feel it to be a trick consider it to be harmless. The Republican Party has emerged victorious in capturing majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as in Governorships and State Legislatures. In Oregon, a Democrat was narrowly elected Governor (chief executive of the state) but is faced with a legislature that is evenly divided in one chamber and has a narrow 16-14 Democrat advantage in the other. So it is that both at the national level and in our state of Oregon, much partisan conflict can be expected as President Obama and our Governor Kitzhaber struggle to address the economic and other issues requiring action.

If this sounds more trick than treat, one should consider how few people either participate in Halloween or Elections! Over half of the homes in our neighborhood did not welcome the children in their quest for candy! Well over half of voters also did not vote! Nationally, only 38.2% of the Voting Age Population (VAP) voted, with Oregon being the third highest in turnout at 52.6%. While there are many complex reasons for this correlation between Halloween and Elections, I would say a key element is the decline of a cultural sense of community – with the most important factor contributing to that decline being summed up in one word: FEAR.

A cancer of fear has long been growing globally, only to be further nurtured by 9/11 and the War on Terror. Most people lock their doors and do not socialize much with their neighbors. Nations restrict their immigration, and seem most interested in other countries when there is a strategic advantage to be had or an economic market to be exploited. In these financial hard times, charitable giving is in decline even as the needs of poor people at home and abroad are increasing. Is this the sort of world that will warm our hearts and bring us more fulfillment?

During this past month, we have had bicycles stolen from our home on two occasions, with the first theft prompting us to lock the garage – and yet the second theft happened anyway! Is locking our doors (and often our hearts) even effective in providing the security we may need? Gandhi would suggest otherwise – and would not Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammad agree with him? Fear (the destroyer of community) is ultimately rooted in our attachment to material things (including our own bodies). It is an indication of our lack of faith in that which can neither be stolen nor harmed in any way: our soul. Death comes to us all in due time, and our bicycles will be lost to old age and rust in their due time also. Such security as we may have in this life will not come to us from better locks and more powerful militaries. It can come from the willingness to sacrifice (tapas) for the sake of loving others (ahimsa), which will help us build community (by manner of degree, the Kingdom of God), as we seek the truth (Sat) which may set us free of all fear.

Dear reader, please forgive my verbal venting. Stating what is in my heart sure feels good. I do not want to live a life that reinforces fear in this world. Why cannot the citizens of India and Pakistan see one another as members of the same human family and embrace? Why must a million poor people in Haiti still be living in tents ten months after their horrible earthquake, while the U.S. remains preoccupied with maintaining a middle class lifestyle? Fear of losing what we have (Kashmir?), fear of not enjoying our Kashmir sweaters? fear, fear, and more fear?
This month of October had good signs that fear can be overcome and community can be strengthened. A friend of our family, Mary Margaret, married for the first time (beyond her 50th birthday) and the celebration of her love for Patrick (also older) brought many people to our city of Portland who had not seen one another for a great many years. One such friend stayed at our home, six joined us for a wonderful dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant, and many more danced into the night at the wedding reception. A fine time was had by all, including such social introverts as myself! Definitely treats trumped tricks on that weekend!

Other good signs could be seen in my Portland Community College classrooms where students in two of my four classes received a ``D`` average evaluation on their first exams (with the other two classes not much better with ``C`` average grades). Though some may still feel tricked by my demanding expectations (though my standards are advertised in advance), students in every class have clearly grown closer in community as they are studying together and helping one another learn. When their second mid-term exams begin next week, I fully expect they (and I) will be treated to much improved performances! As we overcome our fears (regarding learning and expressing ourselves) sad experiences (tricks) can be transformed to feelings as sweet as candy (treats)!

Other highlights of October would certainly include our celebration of my wife`s birthday (including Kris and I driving the two hours to the Pacific Ocean for lunch), our daughter Sonrisa progressing well in her studies, daughter Mira earning money so as to enjoy her own apartment by December, and our son Shaman providing a positive attitude and much assistance in helping around the house. There was also an uplifting march to end the wars in Iraq and Afganistan (as well as the occupation of Palestine) which, though pelted by rain, still built community among those who were cold and wet. Little actions, small steps forward, communicating how we care about one another: no act of love is without good consequences.

To all who read this months` entry, Peace Be With You. Let us continue to hold one another in our hearts no matter how great the physical distance may be between us. Let us not fear for the future, but rather build community in the present which may provide us all a better future! When we are asked ``Trick or Treat``? let us have fun regardless of the response!