Just before Valentine’s Day, a scrap of pink and red flutters in the bare tree in front of Main Building, against a melting gray sky. “How to Give Gifts from the Heart,” it reads. “Write stories about your relationship and hang them from the ceiling. That way it will look like the whole room is raining love.”
This on-campus tip (“with love from your Financial Literacy Peer Counselors”) arrived on a day full of gifts, near the end of a winter of challenge and change. For so many reasons, I am lucky to be right here, right now. Like this brilliant soul, I’m casting back over bad decisions, near-misses, and clutching fear — re: money and otherwise — to consider how humility, courage, and a constant eye on my own fallibility can keep me moving, and how I can walk with others as they find their own bright paths.
As the river ice breaks and drifts downstream and the icicles on my roof drip — slow, then faster — students arrive in my office with some very big questions, plans, and struggles for clarity. “I always thought I wanted to be a choir director,” says Jenny, “but I was talking to this friend of mine who was saying she was going to declare so-and-so major because that’s where jobs were, and I was like, ‘Lewis Carroll wants his logic back, because that is just messed up. You can’t know what jobs will be out there when you graduate, you have to go with what you love.’ And I realized – I love writing. That is what I want to do. I want to be a writer.” And I believe she can. She described playing “the describing game” as a little girl, making up stories about strangers she spotted in the grocery store, narrating family trips to herself as she watched the landscape roll by. “I do love teaching,” she said, “but when I think about what I want my classroom to look like, I imagine” – she looked around my office, with its books and posters and its drawing, by a student, of my one-eyed cat – “well, something like this.”
I smiled, remembering a glimpse of Jenny on the library lawn last spring: her notebook open beside her, her guitar in her lap. “Why don’t you come sit in on my creative writing class this afternoon?” I asked. “We’ll have a guest who might help you figure some of this out.”
“I thought I’d live a louder life / I’d learn a lot and get it right / I’d rent a loft, I’d drink all night / I’d be a living archetype / And in a blinding flash of light / I’d see that one great insight / But silence called me deeper still / Like nothing else I know ever will.” — Carrie Newcomer, “I Meant To Do My Work Today”
Carrie Newcomer is a singer and songwriter whose work grows out of a poet’s eye for detail and a willingness to let herself be a prism for what can only be called spirit, gathering and directing it to anyone lucky enough to be spending time with her. A Quaker, Carrie gently disclaims any Special Access to Wisdom. But in her bright thoughtful gaze, and in the precision and beauty of her music, you feel the power that comes from a continual presence to the world, a willingness to be mindful and to pay attention and to value what comes to you – even the smallest things.
Sitting in a circle of rapt students in my Advanced Creative Writing class, Carrie played a song she’s working on about driving through the dark, guided by one spot of light in the darkness: a light in a stranger’s window. Tears came to my eyes. Time was, I would have fought this as a sign of weakness, particularly in front of students. But I’ve learned some things since then. Sometimes, tears are a sign of spirit knocking at the door of your heart, asking you to be vulnerable to something you have been too rigid, too preoccupied, or too afraid to see.
“I was an art and education major, not a music major, in college,” Carrie said. “I wasn’t ready to risk what I loved the most. But there are times when you realize… you have to risk doing what you love.”
Sitting on Carrie’s other side, Jenny paused, her face completely still. Sometimes, through accident and grace, we receive the nudge that our whole life needs.
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely AWAKE, is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” – Buddhist nun Pema Chodron
Last night I drove to the high-school auditorium in Postville, Iowa, 25 minutes from my house. A student, John, who volunteers in Postville had invited me to a showing of Luis Argueta’s documentary “abUSed: The Postville Raid.” In May 2008, the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) descended on Agriprocessers kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, with helicopters, flak jackets, and guns. Three hundred and ninety-eight workers were rounded up, chained, and bussed to a cattle stockyard down the road. In an echoing hall at the “Cattle Congress” (its actual name), they were shuttled through a makeshift legal assembly line, convicted, and jailed or deported. The town – a dying farming community which had rebuilt itself on the backs of the Guatemalans, Mexicans, Russians, Palauans, and Somalians who labored in the plant, doing the jobs few “native” Iowans wanted – was devastated. It still hasn’t recovered; many doubt it ever will. The plant’s reopened under new management and is running well below capacity. “The cell phone is a powerful migration tool,” Argueta observed. “People are calling their relatives and saying, ‘there’s no work here anymore.’ And migration works not only by a push, when conditions in a native country are bad and there is no opportunity, but by a pull, where there are jobs.”
In the auditorium, a capacity crowd watched shots of their own empty downtown storefronts on screen, scanned footage of a protest march in July of 2008 for their own faces (I was in that crowd, but not on screen), nodded as women testified to rape and harassment by supervisors. Young men displayed the stumps of arms or the blank places where fingers used to be. Children described their panic at getting the news – in the middle of a school day – that their mother, father, or both had been arrested. When the guilty face of Agriprocessors owner Sholom Rubashkin filled the screen, the audience gasped. Having evaded most of the charges brought against him – and been caught on the verge of flight, local rumor says, with a passport and $200,000 in a satchel – he was convicted on child labor law violations. Many of those wounded young men had been hired at age 14, 15, 16. “In the Torah it doesn’t say, in large print, here’s how you prepare your food, and then over here, in small print, here’s how you treat your workers,” one rabbi said. “It’s all in the same. You treat your workers well. That’s part of our law, too.” Postville, said one union organizer at the time of the raids, is “the poster child for how a rogue company can exploit a broken immigration system.” And for what happens when you decide, very consciously, to put profits before people.
During the question-and-answer session after the film, a little boy in a black parka, seven or eight years old, raised his hand. “What I want to know,” he asked, steadying the microphone in both hands, a quiver of fear in his voice, “is, did they send any of the children away? Back to their countries?”
No one in the auditorium breathed. “No,” Argueta finally said. “They didn’t deport the children.”
Next to me, my student John wiped his eyes, surreptitiously. So did I.
Technically, they did deport the children born in America whose parents took them back to Mexico or Guatemala, still reeling from the aftereffects of civil war. “She has stopped growing,” said one mother of her little girl. “Back in Postville I had milk for her, juice. But now we eat beans, rice. There is coffee in her bottle.” And the audience watched this tiny American citizen toddling along the dirt path of her village, a chicken pecking around her feet. Some mothers, when asked if they had children, lied and said no, so that their sons and daughters could stay in school in the country of their birth, get educations and jobs. One chubby, studious eighth-grader – Pablo, still in Postville – wrote to President Obama to ask for a visa for his mother, who was sent back to Mexico. He never received a response.
“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every spiritual tradition makes room for grace and challenges: jolts and slaps and upsets, big and small. The hard part is accepting both of them for what they have to teach. The rich young nobleman – timid, half-complacent, half-longing – expected Jesus to tell him he was doing everything just fine. Instead Jesus gave him a jolt: sell everything, give everything away and follow me, because, son, you don’t understand anything at all, not yet. God woke Mohammed up by yelling at him, recite. Siddhartha Gautama – another rich young nobleman – got shocked onto the path to Buddha-hood by the sight of beggars, whom, shielded by his wealth, he’d literally never seen.
If we are Americans – even in the midst of the joblessness, uncertainty, and clenching fear that is reality for so many of us now – we are luckier than so many others in this world. Guatemalans were pressured north to Postville from a country wrecked by a civil war in which the US was complicit. Following advertisements posted by Agriprocessors on their tiny island, Palauans arrived in northeast Iowa in the middle of winter with flip-flops on their feet. I remember my father’s words in the aftermath of the raid. “I’m as much in favor of the law as anybody,” he said, “and yes, I know those people are breaking the law. But I also like to think I’m a Christian, and a human being with a heart. And I look at those people and I know all they want is to work and support their families. Because there’s just – nothing where they come from. Nothing. They work so hard. If I were in their shoes, I’d do the same thing.”
So I’m trying to braid together all the signs that keep arriving, and to ask the right questions. How can we recognize the love and the possibility presented to us by this world, and then share that love with other people, resisting the political lie that “we” have nothing in common with “them?” How can we be God’s hands and feet? And how, then, can we build what Shannon Hayes calls a “life-serving economy” – one built on “respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, [and] democracy, nonviolence, and peace” – not on the enrichment of corporations, or the Rubashkinesque ethos of profits over people?
My student Annie sat in my office late last Friday afternoon, twisting her hands thoughtfully together. “I’m a sociology major but I really love writing too,” she said. “And what I am realizing is that I want to help people tell their stories. But sometimes it feels like that isn’t really doing anything. When people don’t have enough to eat, how can I help just by listening?”
“They go together,” I said. “Being seen and being understood is a need too.” I told her about another student of mine, Lynn, who volunteers at the local Lutheran food pantry. Over and over, as Lynn puts food into clients’ hands, they look into her eyes and offer pieces of their stories. A lost job. A sick husband. I’m just coming here till I can get back on my feet, they say. I never thought I’d be in this place. Lynn’s told me how clients hug her, say Thank you for listening to me, say Thank you for your smile. There’s an old saying: every human being wears a sign pleading Notice me. Speak to me. Make me feel important. When Lynn puts a bag of groceries into someone’s hands, then looks them in the eye and smiles, she is giving them food, and dignity.
The question for us 21st century Americans, trying to unhook our lives from a getting-and-spending cycle of nonmeaning, is how we can stay open to the steady flow of gifts and challenges that the world sets loose before our eyes, and take what action we can to spread those gifts around. It’s hard. We get hemmed in by fear or uncertainty or change, then cast around for familiar ways to spend or drink or numb ourselves away from them. We get overwhelmed by the suffering of others. Even the great moral philosopher Hannah Arendt admitted that giving everything and everyone an equal “claim on our thinking attention” is impossible: “if we were responsive to all of them,” she wrote, “we would soon be exhausted.” But let’s keep practicing, learning how to look for and fix on and follow those small wavering lights right on out of the dark. A sign can be as simple as a scrap of red, fluttering in a winter-bare tree. Do what we can. Remember that the world is raining love.