Friday, June 20, 2014

The Seder Dinner

My friend Charles is one of those rare people who is down for anything.  It is one of the many rare and excellent things about him.  I am one of those people who constantly seek out new and different experiences in life and so our friendship consists of conversations like this: "Hey, there's a group of vaguely spiritual people getting together tonight for fellowship and maybe dinner.  I don't know anyone there, I can't remember how I found out about it, and i dont know how to get there, but we should go."
"Yeah man, definitely!"
 Charles and I are both spiritual people, and grew up in the Episcopal church.  Charles has a crush on Judaism, and though he'll never cheat on Christianity, he is Judeo-curious.  At least he used to be.  For that matter so am I.  I really didn't encounter many Jewish folks growing up, so my first real introduction to the Jewish culture came when I moved to New Orleans, which has a strong and influential Jewish network and culture.
Back in 2010 Charles and I worked out--religiously--at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), and about once a month there are funky hours due to Jewish holidays and so I've been gradually introduced to some Jewish things.  Occasionally the JCC would host Jewish events, and we'd sneak in and just walk around among the Jews (it's a really cool feeling).  During Hanukah we got to eat some latke's and apple sauce, and that was my first experience eating "Jewish food."  
Charles' fascination with the Jewish faith and culture opened my eyes, and we talked a lot about it to each other and with our Jewish friends--most of my first friends in New Orleans were Jewish and we were adopted into their group of friends.  Like Christian parents, Jewish parents often name their children by naming them after important figures in the bible.  Sarah and Rachel, for example, are very important female figures in Judaism, so those names are common in Jewish circles.  It can get confusing, however.  Charles and i were at the gym stretching and chatting and a friend of mine, Allison, walks in.  She is Jewish.  I introduce Allison to Charles, and 3 minutes later he just starts calling her Rachel.  I become confused because she works with another Jewish girl who is named Rachel.  And I don't hear well.  And I was only about 90% sure that Allison was really Allison, and not Rachel.  So then I took a chance and called her Rachel too, but soft and mumbly, so she hopefully couldn't figure out I wasn't sure of her name (even though I introduced her to Charles as Allison).
It turns out she was Allison.  
It came to pass that we invited ourselves to a Seder Passover meal.  Adam, a really wonderful friend, who was on my JCC basketball team twice before we hung out and I found out he was Jewish, said we could join his family.  Charles and I are so excited we're talking abut the Seder like Jesus is going to be there.  The day before the Seder, Adam tells Charles and me to bring 2 bottles of wine and two boxes of mahtza.  I'm really excited about bringing some of the Kosher food and a little nervous about what's going to happen.  The next day I'm in the grocery store buying wine and mahtza, and get a text from Charles.  "At Borders.". It is 5:30pm, the Seder dinner is at 6, and he texts me, "at Borders."  What am I supposed to do with that?  What the hell is he doing at Borders?  Has he forgotten about the Seder?  
Maybe I'm a little flustered and I don't know where the Kosher section is.  Maybe I'm stressing because I don't want to be late, Charles doesn't seem to care if we're late, I don't know what kind of wine to buy, and I don't want to screw up my first official Jewish Seder.  And now Charles is in a sea of yoga pants sipping a goddamned mocha frap at Borders, and I'm hunting and gathering this stuff solo.  I don't know, but whatever the reason, I was rushed and anxious.  I picked up not two but four boxes with the word mahtza on them, wanting my friends to know how excited and honored I was.
Charles accuratley describes our methodology as such: I am a tidal wave, and he is a squirt gun.  Tidal wave: buying double the amount of what's asked for.  Squirt gun:  arriving at Borders 30 minutes before you need to be somewhere else.
So it's 6:01pm I'm tidal waving it up the steps and into the Streiffer home.  Got my four boxes and two bottles of wine.  Feeling good.  Have absolutely NO idea what's about to happen in the next three hours.  So I give the boxes to Adam's aunt, and say, "I brought four boxes instead of two.  You know, just in case."  She looks inside, shrieks this giddy, horrified noise and says "Pete, why on earth did you bring Matzo ball mix?"  "Adam told me to bring two boxes."  It's about this time that I realize that maybe he said Mahtza, and not matzo ball mix.  In fact, I don't ever recall him saying anything about balls.  Reflecting even further, I wonder why I would bring boxes of something unprepared while everyone else is carting in plates of delicious-looking prepared food.  Maybe I thought we were all going to cook stuff together.  I don't know.  Adam's aunt was also loudly thinking the same things, and pointed them out repeatedly, and couldn't stop laughing.  It was pretty embarrassing, and I don't embarrass easily..  I figured I'd make a Gentile mistake or two throughout the night, but I didn't think it would be the first thing I did.  "Hey Rachel, look what Pete brought!!"  "Hey Sarah, look what Pete brought!!"  Every single person who arrived got the same story.  Thank God the other Rachels and Sarahs were nice about it.

"So I brought the wrong thing, crucify me."

Introductions are made and we all hang out awkwardly for a while.  Charles and I loudly announce our Gentilehood (gentility?) whenever possible.  When it's time to sit, there is much discussion about who sits where.  For me, this is a big deal and determines how the rest of the night is going to go, because I'm deaf in my right ear.  Can't hear a damned thing out of it, so I need to be positioned on the right end of the table, with my good ear facing the rest of the table.  The problem is most people are already sitting in what I call "my good spots," and there is a cute girl so Charles and I are both jockeying to sit next to her.  In the end I get to sit next to Charles' cute girl, but on the wrong side of her so I can't hear anything. I can see all those people to my right--they look like they're having so much fun.  But I can't hear them at all.  Poor Marissa (the cute girl) is talking to me and I'm just responding to what I imagine she's saying.  I'm literally guessing what she's saying and making up an answer.  "Yeah, well you know, New Orleans."  I'm trying not to do my patented owl-spin, where I turn my head around so far that I'm looking at the person beside me directly in the ear so that my left ear can pick up a signal.  I used to do it all the time till I saw a pic of me doing it on Facebook and realized how awkward it must be for someone facing the same direction as you to turn and look you in the ear.
The great thing about Seder is that there's the Haggadah, which is like a playbook, and everyone gets to read from it, so Charles and I got to participate in the Seder.  I found myself getting into it, and really enjoyed the rituals.  Christian orthodoxy has its roots in Jewish culture, so to read about the Jewish exodus and escape from Pharaoh had special meaning to me.  In fact I felt like I was taking it more seriously than anyone else. Celebrating a religious service in the home is a wonderful gift and something I wish Christianity could build into its structure.  There is a different element to it, and it proves that the religious experience is portable.  God is not locked up in your church.  In fact, God probably only hangs out in there on Sundays, and probably isn't impressed with your stained glass windows..  
The food comes out, it's delicious, we drink wine, and we all have a good time, laughing, telling jokes, etc.  And then it happened.  One of the cool things about Seder is that there's a lot of music.  And the songs we sang at the end of the Seder were hilarious.  They were all about leaving Egypt and slavery, but to the tune of Gilligan's Island, These Are A Few of My Favorite Things, and Just a Spoonful of Sugar.  Well I love A Spoonful of Sugar, it reminds me of my childhood, and its a nice happy song, and I'm trying to impress Marissa, so I'm belting this thing out (different words of course), and really hamming it up.  I have a decent voice and have been drinking wine, so in my mind people need to know I think I'm talented and Marissa really needs to know.  Everyone's laughing, and I'm feeling sufficiently awesome about the whole thing, but something's not right, and everyone is laughing and looking directly at me. "Are you laughing at me?"  "Yes."  Marissa points to the lyrics, which describe  how the sweetness covers the bitter herbs in the mahtza sandwich.  "In the most disguising way."  Oh.  Well that's something.   I had been waving my hand over my nose, making a poop face and singing "in the most disgusting way."  So first I brought the wrong food, and then I pretended to smell a fart and said the real food was disgusting.

Charles and I are were painfully single, so at every event we were hoping to find our future hot rich wives, and Marissa seemed to fit the part.  She talks to me first (kind of talks at me).  When I drop the ball she moves her attention to Charles, then of course she moves on to the witty Jewish tennis player.  He was losing his hair but something was working for him because Charles and I ceased to exist in Marissa's world.  This didn't mean we stopped talking to her and trying to be funny, but eventually she actually got up and physically walked out of earshot to sit across from him after the meal.  

The night ended well.  Adam's parents are the cutest couple in the world.  Adam's Dad was the master of ceremonies, and in the end we all sang secular tunes, and his parents sang "I'm in love with a big blue frog," which had special meaning because their chocolate shop is called Blue Frog Chocolates.  It was adorable.

On the way out, Sarah's husband Ernie, says "Hey you guys aren't Jewish are you?"  Ernie had been in the bedroom all evening calming down their son Ari, who apparently was still fleeing Pharaoh.  So many things had gone on that night I couldn't put an ethnicity to it, but Ernie had an accent and I assumed he was Israeli.  "No, man we're Episcopalian, although with my hair I can pass."
"Haha.  Oh cool.  I'm Catholic.  Yeah, this was a pretty loose Seder.  Sometimes they get real weird with it."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Isn't it weird to ask poor people to provide lunch for you?

While I'm here in Virginia I'll be reflecting back on New Orleans, and sharing stories of my time there.  This is one of those stories, from the spring of 2008.

I began working for The Office of Disaster Response, the post-Katrina recovery arm of The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, in 2008.  After volunteering with ODR several times through my church in Virginia, and guerrilla weekends on my own, and after a thrilling summer in 2007 which forged a life-long friendship with Charles Cowherd and a passionate love affair with the city herself, I moved to New Orleans on February 5th, 2008, the day before Mardi Gras, which is called Lundi Gras.  Two days later I met with Katie Mears, the coordinator of the Rebuild Program, ODR's gritty little powerhouse that gutted over 1,000 houses and rebuilt over 100 in the years following The Storm.  "Glad you're here to play with us.  You'll be a crew chief in charge of sheetrocking.  Work starts at 7, be at the warehouse at 6:30 to load the truck."  "Sounds great."  I was twitching with excitement, having quit my teaching job, sold my house, and moved to a city where I only knew one other person, just so I could do exactly this.  Never before have I felt such a pure calling, and I was thrilled to be a part of this team, a band of whip-smart, dedicated 20-somethings who had all either quit school or jobs and left their homes and friends to give their life to this city and these residents by leading volunteers gutting and rebuilding houses by hand.  They were rock stars, and I just got called up on stage with them.  We were a force, a tiny group of around 10, bound together by the fight against the massive and overpowering fatigue of helplessness and despair in a city suffering from our nation's largest disaster in history.  Katie Mears was our leader, and she set the tone and tempo for the rest of us, whose marvelous leadership skills belied her age.  She understood the importance of being the first to arrive and the last to leave the warehouse, but importantly, never talking about it.  She held weekly trainings over red beans and rice on Mondays where we debriefed what worked and didn't during the last week, and role-played scenarios so we'd be prepared for anything the work or the homeowners or the volunteers might throw at us.  It was a highly efficient, extremely well-run program.  Katie created a culture that emphasized good leadership on site and valued the time and effort of the volunteers.  We worked hard to make sure that no one was left standing around or holding a ladder for someone else.  Our volunteers came from across the country (and the world) and spent their own money and time (usually a week) to come here, and we wanted to give them the best work experience possible.  We began to get groups who had experience working with other programs, often nationally known and significantly better funded.  Those volunteer groups told us they appreciated the time we took to explain the story of the storm, and particularly of the homeowner, and that they did much more work on site with us than the other programs.  That was a particular point of pride among us, as was the attention to the emotional and sensitive nature of our work.  Perhaps the most important value we cherished was honoring the dignity and humanity of the homeowners for whom we worked. We knew volunteers would want to have that homeowner contact, and that they likely wouldn't receive it.  We saw this as a teaching opportunity for volunteers.  From a staff meeting: "The homeowner may not come by.  That is ok, and if they do come by, great.  If not, explain to the volunteers that they are not owed a visit by the homeowners."  This was a key lesson I held onto, and would be faced with weekly.  

Typical volunteer conversation: "So is the homeowner coming today?"

"We dont know, probably not this week." 

"You mean we are doing all this work for someone and they aren't even here to help or thank us?"

"That's correct.  The homeowners are in their 60's and on a fixed income.  They're living in Houston with a family member.  It's very difficult for them to travel.  It's great when homeowners can stop by, but it doesn't always happen."

"When we worked for Habitat for Humanity the owners had to work alongside us.  I really like the idea of sweat equity because then the homeowners have some skin in the game, and they have more ownership of the project.  Sometimes they would make us lunch and bring it to us."  

"That seems like a good idea on its surface, doesn't it?  Sometimes when we're finished with a house a homeowner will demand to make us lunch as a thank you, and it's really special when that happens.  One of the things we've found though, is that it's kind of tough to ask someone who lost their house, maybe family or friends, all their possessions, and is suffering from untreated PTSD or depression, and living in another city, or in their old neighborhood with their community torn apart by the Katrina diaspora, to come out and work with us.  Especially our older homeowners.  That's what we're here for, don't you think?"  

"Yes, but the homeowners for Habitat came out with us, or at least made us lunch.  It made us feel appreciated."

"That is true, and that's because some organizations only work with people who can put in sweat equity as a requirement.  So if you're too old, or far away, or don't have time because you're working two jobs to cover the bills, or you're just too damned depressed to get off the couch, you can't get help from them.  Also, I gotta ask, don't you think it's weird to ask poor people to provide lunch to your group, which spent thousands of dollars to travel here, and can obviously pay for your own lunch?"

"Well we are providing a valuable service, and rebuilding their house for free.  They should be thankful.  So you guys will work with people who might be sitting inside watching tv in their living room while you're outside in the August heat sweating through your clothes and rebuilding their house?" 

"Yes.  There are all kinds of reasons why people can't help.  Some physical, some emotional, some financial.  Frankly, who cares why a homeowner doesn't come out and swing a hammer?  What we don't want to do is put ourselves in a position where we are deciding who we work for based on what we the privileged think their appropriate response to suffering should be, you know what I mean?  What we want is to help those who need it most.  Period.  And don't you think the homeowners are thankful, even if they are too poor to buy you lunch?"

"But then don't you feel angry or frustrated that there could be someone helping and they're not?  And yes, I mean I know they're thankful..."

"It's natural in the beginning to feel that way.  But here's the deal.  When you think about a service trip theologically, it clears a lot of that up.  Initially sweat equity seems just and fair.  It aligns with our American sense of things.  But imagine service from a love perspective. Requiring participation is putting conditions on your service.  On your love.  True service is selfless.  It does not ask for recognition or appreciation.  Those are earthly and very human vices.  As Christians we should endeavor always to love unconditionally, through our thoughts and our actions.  We don't put conditions on who we serve because Christ does not require it.  Christ requires only genuine, agape love that says 'I will visit you in prison regardless of what you did.  I will feed you because you are hungry, regardless of how and why you're hungry.  I don't care why, I will clothe you because you need clothes.  I will stop for you on the side of the road when no one else will, and I will bring you to an inn, and I will pay for your recovery, because you are a Child of God."

"Yeah, but that's really hard to do consistently, over and over."

"I know it is."

As a volunteer you are not owed anything from those you serve, period.  It's not about you.  At all.  A lot has been written recently about the ill effects of church-based mission and outreach work, and for good reason.  However, Katie never let us forget that dignity and respect and unconditional love was at the heart of our mission, and this was a central message to volunteers.  The only way a mission is healthy and not harmful is when missioners wait to be invited into a relationship by those they serve, and they must not expect it.  If a homeowner did come by, we stopped working and talked with them if they wanted to talk.  We specifically asked our volunteers NOT to ask the homeowners to tell their "Katrina story."  It's a natural instinct for many volunteers, but what they don't realize is that they're infringing on a vulnerable person's grieving process, and while you think you're forging a relationship, you're really just getting high off the disaster adrenalin often found in recovery work.  Many wonderful and lasting relationships were indeed formed between volunteers and homeowners, which is ideal, but the crux of successful relationships in mission is HOW they form, not whether they form or not.  

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Tales from our first days

It's been nearly two weeks since I moved from the Euro-caribbean charm of New Orleans, with its cobblestone courtyards, lush, tropical flora, and mystical tradition. It's dramatic, moving from a city that hums and struts to a quiet country house in a place where going "into town" means a 25-minute drive through mountain gaps and lazy pastures, just to pick through the meager selections at Food Lion.  It is a welcome change for the moment. As I tell my story to those I am reconnecting with, many folks often blanche and ask, "are you ok?"  I am wonderful. Going from 100 miles an hour to walking speed is fantastic, if that's what you need.  It is what I needed.  Each day opens up and yawns out over the Valley with the grace of opportunity and beginnings.  And it is good.
Dad and I are settling into a rhythm, and after several indulgent days of lazing and slothing, we are becoming more active, exploring our surroundings and adhering, somewhat, to a rhythm of life.  A personal rhythm of life--the term adopted from St Benedict's Rule of Life--is designed to help us listen for, and be faithful to, the best in ourselves, and walk with the Holy every day.  My personal rhythm of life includes physical exercise, spending time outdoors, writing, reading, creating, intentional prayer time, and joyful care for others. These are things I know uplift and sustain my growth as a Person, and thus, my relationship with God. Or, perhaps, the truth comes in reverse order.  Which makes me happy and fulfilled, the thing that we cannot be without God (to our knowing or not).  It is a marvelous gift of The Church, rooted in faith and discipline and The Spirit, but like so many of its best gifts, The Church keeps it hidden in dusty drawers and shadowy closets, only to be used when the most devout seek it out on their own.  Imagine if The Church introduced itself to people by saying "we understand what you're feeling and thirsting for, and establishing a rhythm/rule of life is one of the best ways to help you achieve peace, love, and grace, because God WANTS those things for you" instead of "now we turn to page three hundred and whatever for the confession of sin.  Make sure to feel extra guilty.  You should kneel for this one (because of the extra guilt), but later on you can either stand OR kneel, so long as you first hesitate and then just do whatever the person next to you does."
So in our daily rhythm we rise and read the Washington Post over coffee (oh blessed Washington Post how I've missed you-the New Orleans papers are cute but provincial and laced with AP briefs), often on our front porch in rocking chairs, nodding to the few cars that pass by.  We discuss the day, whatever is in the paper, and either retire inside for more reading (and Internet time) or get to the plans of the day.  Afternoons almost always afford a nap, which really is a beautiful thing.  We even act like we earn it. On the way back from a two mile walk a couple days ago, "we are really earning our nap today."  "Yes, I totally agree.  We are seriously earning that nap with this walk."
I have missed dearly being among the mountains, and daily life here provides many opportunities to gaze into the middle distance and dream, imagine, and wonder. These are crucial elements to a life well-lived, and came with the natural rhythm of my life in Virginia, and even in New Orleans until my last couple years there. But living here even the day to day encounters with the woods, old broken-down farmhouses, and ghosts of glory are a doorway to dream.
A few days ago we found ourselves at a town-wide lawn party in Timberville to benefit the fire department and celebrate the end of school in the county. A friend's son, just out of college, played in the bluegrass band, and during a set break he came over and sat beside us.  "Y'all sound great."  "Thanks."  "You done any fishing lately?"  "Yeah, I was out on the river last week.  Lost count of how many I caught over 16 inches.  I take the kayak and float down mostly these days.  Y'all want me to take you out next week?"  "That would be awesome, yes, lets do it."  "Alright, I'll call my buddy to get an extra kayak and we'll go.  Lets do it Monday."  "Thanks so much, looking forward to it."  "Glad to do it."
The lawn party was actually a small carnival, with little mechanical rides and games like the dart toss, fishbowl ring toss (win a fish!) and cheap food ($1.25 for a burger), all stations manned by members of the fire department, most of them young guys.  The later we stayed the more the younger folks streamed in, pastelled and camouflaged, to troll the grounds in packs and celebrate the freedom and wildness of a teenage summer.  Valley life is beautiful that way, generations mixing together; the old blue hairs passing time in the bingo tent; parents lining up their kids for the tilt-a-whirl; and the adolescents roving in bands of sexually frustrated energy, pointing and darting behind corners.
On our way out we stopped by for some frozen yogurt at a shack off main street and picked up a few groceries for the next couple days. We took route 42 home, past those farmhouses and along a ridge that gave us a view of the little valleys on either side as the sun slanted its smile just over the mountains and cast down a pale shadow over the pastures. "Nothing more beautiful than this."  "Nope.  This is glorious."

Many Miles Ahead, at the Timberville Lawn Party

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My first week back in Virginia

This is the first entry in a blog series I am writing this summer to explore both my time here in Virginia this summer, as well as my last six years in New Orleans.  I've put this off a few days, I think mainly because I'm afraid of what I'll find when I begin.  So we're going to discover some things together.  This is both for my benefit and yours, so please do reach out and let me know what you think.  I hope this is interesting and thought-provoking. At times, it will be hilarious. There are a couple posts already here from a year ago, and I invite you to read them, particularly The Last Gentleman.

Best to start where I am, which is on the porch of my family's white clapboard country house, circa 1880, in the hushed hamlet of Orkney Springs, VA. The year-round population is about 20, and our mailing address is PO Box 12.  We have neighbors, but it is fairly quiet.  The Great North Mountain hides the evening sun early as he looks over us, and his scout, Yellow Spring Mountain, keeps even closer watch.  Shrine Mont, the Diocese of Virginia's Camps and Conferences Center, and the seat of the Bishop of Virginia, the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration, is located just a few hundred yards from our front step.  Shrine Mont is a spiritual home and birthplace for me and hundreds of others in Virginia.  All my closest friends worked there as counselors, and as any good counselor will tell you, relationships forged while praying, playing, and working with children are as strong and true and weatherproof as nature herself. 
My relationship to this place is different than the others, though, because while my friends come just for the summer (and now only for the July 4th reunion/Bishop's bluegrass festival), I have been coming to this little house nestled in the Shenandoah Valley since the late 80's, in the fall, winter, and spring as well, and even lived here for a few months while I completed my student-teaching at Broadway High School, on my way to a degree in Physical Education at Bridgewater College.  Particularly since my parents' divorce and the sale of my childhood home some years ago, this house and the surrounding small towns represent home.  
The Shenandoah Valley stretches from The Potomac River to the James, bounded by the West Virginia line to the west and Blue Ridge mountains to the east.  It is dappled with working farms and farmettes, grazing cattle, faded red barns and old gray outbuildings, heaving and sagging from the weight of the past. The area is most well-known, historically, as the setting for Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign, and the battle of New Market, where young cadets from nearby Virginia Military Institute were called into battle against the Union.  That history echoes in the names of things, like Stonewall Jackson High School, in the town of Mt Jackson; the New Market Rebels and Waynesboro Generals, college summer league teams; and Washington and Lee University.
It is a beautiful, serene place to be, particularly in the early inklings of summer, when the days begin and end like a glass of chilled water, and the waking hours stretch out warmly under a blue sky spangled with white tufts of cottony clouds. 
I am certain that I am here for cosmic and spiritual reasons, and the path which delivered me here is a story I'll tell throughout these blogs.  I do not have a job, although I have a couple leads through relationships with really wonderful people.  I have very little money, most of it spent trying to get my failed financial planning career off the ground in New Orleans.  What little I do have needs to be saved for first and last month's rent wherever I go next.  I am living here in Orkney Springs with my father, who moved a year ago to New Orleans, and then decided to come back to Virginia.  His decision and mine were not linked (to my knowledge) but a result of good timing.  So I am living with my father, my great hero, in the Shenandoah Valley, a place of spacious country beauty far away from the crowds and din of city life, criss-crossed with gravel roads and fragranced by fresh cut grass, working farms, and the breath of the mountains. I am the happiest I've been in at least two years.  
My friend Charles told me recently in an observation about my winding path and leaving New Orleans, the city I love and that has been my home for the last six years, "you really love beginnings.  I mean you REALLY love the beginning of things, man."  It's true, I really do.  So here we sit, at the beginning of things--we are always really at the beginning of things--and I am excited.  Thanks for coming on the journey with me. We are going to have a lot of fun.