Living Inside a Shell

Posted: June 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

Out of personal experience comes a design for life that is destructive in its inauthenticity. Our lives can be designed in such a way that we create a shell for others to see and for us to be protected. This kind of design is filled with tension created by juggling the various responsibilities needed to ward off anything that would cause a crack in the shell. These fabricated designs often appear to be wholesome and even admired. They give an impression of a well-crafted life.

When we live inside a shell, life is not as blissful as it appears to the observer, who may see us from a distance or may be a very good friend, even a family member. The life they see is a composite of the accouterments of the kind of life we wish to portray. 
This desire to depict something other than our authentic self comes from a sense of deficiency or “otherness” within us about which we feel shame. The way we deal with it is to cover it up. When we are with other people, we pretend this perceived terrible weakness doesn’t exist. This cover-up is hard work. Eventually, as lies pile up we discover that our entire life has been a deception, a lie, and we begin to feel like a fraud. As hard as we examine our lives, we can’t see any way to extricate ourselves from the sham we have made of it all.

Thus we’re living inside this shell, which we keep polished and closely guard against cracks appearing. If even a hairline crack does appear, we repair it immediately to keep it from expanding and breaking the shell. Were the shell to break open our life would be exposed. That thought is unbearable. It would be better to not live than to have the deficiency, the otherness, exposed. Such shame would destroy our relationships. We would not be able to face anyone.

So we polish the shell while the authenticity of who we are remains a beating pulse inside clamoring for light and fresh air.

This is one inauthentic way we design our lives to deal with who we are in light of who we think, as false as that thinking is, that society expects, no, requires us to be.

A national conversation on LGBT issues is in progress across the country. But it’s the kind of conversation a person from Appalachia would have with a corporate lawyer in New York, or one between a student in southern California and a homeless youth in Chicago. We all speak in different languages and define the terms we use differently. Such disconnect invariably leads to misunderstanding and a true disbelief of one toward the other’s position.

This divide is most apparent in the current debate about the freedom to choose the object of one’s love. Dissonance in understanding becomes obvious when a person who is strongly opposed to the kind of love that would lead someone to desire marriage with the one they love who happens to be of the same sex, begins putting forth an argument to support their position, but has no idea what the person in favor of gay marriage feels or thinks or truly believes. Based upon his own presuppositions as well as his tenets of faith, he assumes certain things about the other person, things that may or may not be true. Often, these assumed “truths” are not verified, and even when they are, these beliefs are put down, dismissed, or otherwise discredited. This may be, and often is, true of both sides of a conversation on any LGBTQ issue.

The need is not just to have a conversation. The need is to listen actively and seek to explore with integrity the other’s position, to rid one’s self of one’s own position long enough to get inside the other paradigm. But therein lies the problem. It is extremely difficult to replace one conceptual world by another, even if it is only long enough to seek true understanding. To enter another paradigm is nothing short of a metamorphosis and will not happen unless it is driven by people who are agents of change.

The process for change has already been set in motion. The world of 2015 is not the world of 1965. A half century has brought many changes and deeper understanding about the world and life in it. The conversation about same-sex relationships, in all their forms, will not simply return to 1965, much less just go away. Change is inevitable. Engagement is required to shape understanding for today and moving forward.

This conversation cannot allow the natural human resistance to change lessen the passion for change. Awareness is the first step. When people become aware of the issues, even though there is resistance, a germ of possibility has been planted and life-giving reality will emerge. When the limitations and distortions produced by what has been inherited and what is socially and religiously conditioned are challenged, perceptions of reality have been suspended in an unstable state. This unsettledness opens the possibility for different voices to be heard.

I believe this is where we are in our conversations around LGBT issues. Nationally there are two sides facing each other. In the middle is confusion as each side is speaking a different language each of which is rooted in a different paradigm and therefore the communication is not clear. Until we can all speak both languages we will continue to face off against one another rather than link arms in mutual catre to nurture each other.

This is analogues to my language-learning experiences in Southeast Asia. I discovered that I had to use an entirely different Indonesian word for rice depending upon the state it was in: growing in the field (padi), harvested grains (bras), or cooked (nasi). One of these words cannot be substituted for another. In fact, one might be totally misunderstood if they tried such substitution, at least it would be confusing. Imagine someone saying that the farmer had completed planting his cooked rice. The meaning may eventually become clear, but it would take a little time. In the meantime muderstanding would be muddled. Is the farmer coming in from his field, or sitting down to dinner?

As we work together in our conversations about LGBT issues, we need to define our terms carefully and fully. We need to be willing to clear our minds and listen, really listen. As we listen we must not be thinking about what our next statement is going to be, or how wrong the other person’s position is, but rather we must think about what is being said and be ready to ask questions to ferrite out what the other is thinking and not questions to ask to prove them wrong. This might entail the etimology of terms and their historical useage, the motivation of the participants, the context of the conversation, etc. It will require more than a few minutes of talking. Rather it will involve a commitment to a continuing dialogue.

Only when communication is open and honest and people are transparent and vulnerable with each other will there be progress in mutual understanding. And, yes, paradigm shifts will take place and truth will be illuminated.

I have been away from this blog for a year and a half. My life’s design has changed and morphed into something new and different. Perhaps future pages on this blog will open those months so we can have a dialogue about how life’s designs evolve. In the meantime, I hope to give life to this space once again with random posts about the different shapes and hues of color presented as life around, in, and through us brings about kaleidoscopic designs, which are never the same, always changing, and always beautiful.

To begin these pages, here is a brief thought about downtown Saint Louis, my home.

After a haircut this morning, I walked over to Starbucks at 6th and Olive. It’s a corporate shop that is in the shadow of the former Macy’s/Famous-Barr department store. A department store had been in that building for over 100 years until Macy vacated it a couple of years ago. That was a sad day for downtown St. Louis. Attempts to fill the huge one-block-square space have been futile. One exciting prospect early on was for a small foot-print Target. Nothing materialized from those discussions. So, this huge building of one block square and twenty-three stories in the heart of downtown St. Louis sits empty.

While most of the empty downtown buildings have been reclaimed, several empty ones remain. Just down the street from the Macy building is the Arcade Building being redeveloped by Webster University. This is another large building, which in its heyday was one of, if not the first, indoor mall, thus the name Arcade. There was a huge two-story atrium that ran the length of the building from Olive to Pine with shops lining it on both levels. My understanding is that there will again be shops in the building but that a large portion of the space will be apartments and that the rest of the building will house a university satellite, maybe it’s MBA program.

Looking out on the cross streets I watched pedestrians walking back and forth to and from their offices as I sipped a venti decaf skinny Caramel Macchiato. There is a Jimmy John’s delivery guy on a bike and the corner hamburger stand, both busy about the delivery of food. This pleasant scene gave the appearance of already being in the lazy hazy days of summer. With the sun casting a filigreed shade through the trees lining the street, the city seemed at peace with itself, unhurried yet exhibiting purposeful movement of economic enterprises that propels it ever onward.

On my return home, I stopped at my favorite spot for a Greek salad. Being just after twelve noon, the servers were comfortably busy with patrons filling the tables, regulars picking up carry-out, and a few diners tolerating the wind and sun and cool air to sit on the patio.

I had a moment’s conversation with the server when he came to pick up my empty salad bowl. I continue to be amazed by how much people reveal of their personal lives. I simply asked him an innocent “how’s it going” or something like that and he began to tell me that he was tired and doesn’t know why because he has been off work for two days and spent much of the time sleeping. His sister is out of town on vacation with her family and he is house-sitting and taking care of their puppy. He said, “That’s a lot better than being alone.” With his warm and engaging almost shy smile he told me all of that in less than a minute. That was his answer to my simple “How’s it going”? An almost oxymoronic thought entered my head: This busy restaurant seemed at peace with itself.

Peace is not the antithesis of busy. As I thought about the peaceful hustle in the business district, so it was in this small coffee/wine bar at noon-time rush, seriously busy while concurrently at peace.

Sunday afternoon  – August 26, 2013

After Bible study and worship this morning, I scouted East Tower Grove for a place to eat Sunday dinner. Each place I checked out was either closed on Sunday, or it was not the atmosphere I was looking for. What I was looking for, I’m not sure, I just knew some of these places did not fit my mood. I wandered back to Lafayette Square and settled on Laredo, a small Mexican restaurant, which I thought was closed. It was not overly noisy and had pleasant Mexican music playing at about the right volume. The grilled salmon resting on a bed of grilled vegetables–spinach, broccoli, potatoes–and a few pieces of grilled pineapple was delicious

It’s fifty-eight degrees now where I am sitting on the sidewalk patio in front of the gelateria drinking a Pumpkin Latte. It may be even warmer with the radiant heat from the brightly shinning sun. Paco is certainly enjoying it, with hardly a shiver, he’s stretched out on the warm concrete. When he’s warm enough, he enjoys sidewalk cafes for people (and dog) watching. I say warm enough because he often shivers when the temperature is a pleasant seventy degrees.

Tonight is going to be another late night–fourth World Series game. We (Cardinals) won the game last night on a weird call. Allen Craig, recovering from a foot/ankle injury suffered on September 4, with a pinch-hit double in the ninth inning advanced Yadier Molina to third base. There was onlyone out, the score was tied. Then, one for the record-books.

Jon Jay batted next and grounded out to the Red Sox second baseman, who threw to home effectively eliminated Molina trying to score. The Red Sox catcher then threw to third trying to silence Craig who was attempting to gain a base. The catcher’s throw sailed past the third-baseman into left field. Craig, rightly so, attempted to score,but was tripped up by the third baseman who was lying on the ground after trying to catch the throw from the catcher.

Craig regained his footing and ran for home sliding into the plate, not knowing that obstruction was called on the third-baseman by the third base umpire. The call automatically gave him the next base, in this case, the winning run on the last out of the ninth inning.

The Cardinals are now ahead two games to one in the seven-game series. They need only win two of the last four games.

So, another late night tonight.

Society enters long discussions, some filled with a great deal of contention, others with unabated emotion, and still others with a cavalier nonchalance around homeless issues.

I am in the middle of these discussions. I don’t mean I am engaged in conversations about homelessness; I mean I live in the middle of homelessness. Homeless people live on my street. They walk around my neighborhood. They eat donated sandwiches while sitting on street curbs and sidewalks where my dog Paco and I walk every day. They sleep in doorways of Christ Church Cathedral. I pass homeless people on the sidewalks who are in wheelchairs, use canes or walkers, and whose chairs are motorized. They sit at sidewalk cafes until asked to move along. I live in the middle of discussions centering on homelessness.

I know or have observed homeless narratives and/or drama of people in my neighborhood. Take for instance the man who walks around the neighborhood pulling his twenty-two inch piece of luggage. He is always on the way to somewhere as though he is about to miss his connection in an airport concourse. The urgency of his walk belies his aimlessness. His smile is genuine, his life is good. Just ask him. “How are you,” I say. “By God’s grace I woke up this morning,” he says. “And he gave me these two good legs to walk on;” and he’s off on his urgent aimlessness.

Or there’s Stan, who has his regular “route.” Along about 8:30 he’ll walk up to the sidewalk chairs and tables in front of Nara Cafe Hookah Lounge and Mediterranean Cuisine. He pulls a chair out enough to sit down even though it is still cabled together with the other chairs and tables. He always has his eyes searching for his “friends.” Soon one comes by and hands him the morning’s Post-Dispatch with a cup of coffee. Approximately fifteen minutes later a couple comes out of a nearby condominium and hands him a plastic shopping bag. They speak briefly and then walk on. Stan opens the bag and takes out a lidded styrofoam take-home carton. Homeless Stan opens it and begins eating his breakfast while reading the morning paper. Breakfast at a sidewalk cafe. After a while, he walks with a sense of purpose toward his next “appointment.”

I speak to them every morning, a mother and her young son, as they wait for the school bus on the corner of Locust Street and Fourteenth. The boy, eight or nine years old, is always pleasant approaching the day with confidence as though life is good and he’s eager for what will unfold. His mother, usually pleasant and coaching the boy even though the boy seems to be calm and in better control of the situation. Neither of them have the appearance of homelessness and I wouldn’t have suspected they were except for the fact that on some mornings I see them exiting the homeless shelter, and, on a couple of late evenings, I’ve observed them entering for the night.

I watched a man dig into his twenty-two inch wheeled luggage and pull out a piece of change and hand it to another homeless man.

A homeless man, sitting on a curb with crossed arms resting on his knees and his forehead on his arms. I watched as a woman slid her hand gently onto the man’s arm while on the other side of him a man had an arm around his shoulders. All three were wearing dirty, ragged “homeless clothing.” An ambulance was just arriving.

How do you define “home.” One definition found at states, “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.” One definition often leads to another. Domestic: “of or pertaining to the home, the household, household affairs, or the family.” So Home: the place in which one’s familial affections are centered. It could be argued that among “homeless” people, “family” units co-exist within a shelterless existence.

Are these people homeless, or do they lack permanent shelter they could call their own space?

The proprietor of the gelateria washed the windows this morning. It is a lazy kind of morning and he and I were sitting inside the gelateria at my favorite table talking and suddenly he got up and said, “I should make myself useful. I think I’ll wash the windows.” They needed it, badly. I had been aware of how seriously they needed attention and assumed he had a window cleaning service that came by regularly, and that it was about time, or past time, for them to appear. I hadn’t told him of my concern about his dirty windows reflecting badly on his business. Cleaning windows is a science. I don’t know if any school has a course on window washing in its science department, but they should. I have watched the window cleaners that service our building and, from my window, the building behind mine. The science is in how the water is applied, not too much that it lays on the window ledge and forbid that it drip down the building like the water feature at the Central Library when it is being turned off and slowly stops the flow down the side but there is still some water slipping over the edge. But there needs to be enough water applied that it doesn’t completely dry, particularly in the heat of summer, before the squeegee is applied. The squeegee must be held properly and moved across the window at the correct angle. If careful attention is not given to these matters, a streak of water will be left behind requiring a second pass, which invariably will leave another streak that cannot be corrected because by this time the water has dried. Professional window washers know the correct way to hold, and move the squeegee at the right angle, but it’s not the same every time. It depends on which section of the window is being squeegeed. The edges require careful attention to keep from leaving a bead of water along the edge of the window next to the frame. For the main expanse of the window, a waving motion of the squeegee across the window beginning with the top of the window moving down with the squeegee angled just so, keeps clearing the water from the glass so it runs down the window. With the last pass across the bottom the window, without pausing the sweeping motion of his hand holding the squeeze, he completes his swipe and, continuing the motion, tucks the squeegee into a scabbard on his belt. The size and shape of the window also informs the squeegee holder the correct way to move the squeegee to remove the water without having to make a second pass or, please don’t let it happen, have to apply more water. Small square panes, long skinny panes, huge expansive panes all require a different technique. I watched as Jonathan retrieved his bucket of water from the back of the store, brought out a ladder, moved the sidewalk tables and chairs away from the windows and proceeded to tackle the grime and splatters that always appear when rain hits dirty windows. He did fast work of it. But I was sitting inside and could easily see the streaks. I thought about telling him about them, then changed my mind. Then I changed my mind again and told him, pointing out where the streaks were. He wasn’t through with his window-washing strategy he told me. His is a two-phase plan. After finishing with water and squeegee on the outside and a damp cloth on the inside to eliminate water on the inside sill, he went back to the back of the shop and came out with, you guessed it, Windex and paper towels and went to work once again. As he was working, at one point I said, “I feel guilty watching you work and not offering to help.” His reply was a quote from his dad, “Once you retire you’ve earned the right to sit and supervise.” I must say now that he’s done, not only do the windows look better but everything inside looks better as well. It’s brighter and more pleasing to be here. Before the windows were cleaned, my vision of the street outside was becoming increasingly dim. It often takes a second party to “clean the window” so one can find the beauty that’s been there all along. Clear vision of the world brings beauty to the soul.

Your Drama Adds Value

Posted: September 11, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Life’s designs take on the hues of a colorful drama at the gelateria, a warm inviting urban coffee shop with the usual variety of speciality coffees. Of course, being a gelateria it specializes in Italian ice cream as well. It has a few stuffed chairs and conversation is available around a “tavolini” (Italian – small table), of which there are five. I commandeer a tavolini most mornings. While occupied with reading or writing, I observe the drama around me. One of the definitions of “drama” is “any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.”

It was at the gelateria, that I had a late night conversation with a couple of friends recently discussing life choices, job decisions and organizational ethics, structure, and processes–one an emerging educator, the other still searching. I remember being young and filled with idealism and energy. By the time I was their age, I had a graduate degree and had already nailed down my niche in the professional world with three years into my career. However, contemporary youth culture has stretched farther into the lifecycle. Taking on the responsibility for and trappings of being adult has pushed further into life than was acceptable when I young. I married late as a twenty-seven-year-old, which today, in some circles, would be early. It seemed these young, barely thirty-somethings, were still searching for life, waiting for it to settle down and be what they envisioned, instead of living it.

Around 11:30 AM on Labor Day, a couple enter the gelateria and order drinks, she a specialty coffee and he an iced drink. They sit across a corner of a table from each other. He sits with his arms on the table, wrists crossed, and looks off to the side with a sadness dripping from his face. She is watching him closely, her eyes never wavering. He’s not looking at her and she gently places her hand on his arm. He turns his sad eyes and looks at her. She slides her hand on his arm to his hand. He wraps his fingers around her hand and looks with deep appreciation into her eyes. Gradually they engage in conversation and he begins talking. After a few minutes, a smile comes as he talks. She gives an occasional affirmative response. A piece of life’s design is taking shape in the gelateria on Washington Avenue.

Some people might call these vignettes drama, and in a very significant way, they are. Life is a colorful drama, a story enacted sometimes for private audiences and at other times for the world, events of vivid, emotional, sometimes conflicting interest. These dramas are filled with a delightfully evolving kaleidoscope of colorful lives that weave in and out of each other. Each of us contribute to and find value in these dramas making life’s designs beautiful, sometimes heroic, often unsettling, but always colorful. These are our lives.