Friday, February 29, 2008

Love Is

Falls Church, Virginia

From Paul's first letter to the first-century church in Corinth

Love has a second sight, an uncluttered idea of the destiny of things, so she knows how to endure through trials, mishaps, setbacks, disappointments, betrayals, and unexplained delays.

Love remembers what ought not to be forgotten; Love speaks in gentles tones, and she extends courtesy to the stranger of low rank.

Love knows deep contentment with her own situation, knowing Who has selected it especially for her, and she would scorn the suggestion that she trade it for someone else's.

Love is secure behind the rampart of the King's city. Her neck and her arms are covered with the jewels He has given her as marks of His affection, and she knows He can scarcely stand to lose sight of her face. What need could she have for puffed up speech? She feels no need to convince herself or anyone else that she is precious, not when the evidence surrounds her.

Love knows who she is. In the brittleness of clay, in the short life of a summer's growth, she sees mirrored her frailty and her mortality, but she also knows beyond doubt that the King has set His heart on her. Did He not promise her that she would always live in His halls, when He inscribed her name on His own body? So knowing that she has been plucked from obscurity to a royal destiny, she does not plug her ears against words of correction, and she comes close without qualm to the poor and rejected, the objects of others' scorn and derision.

Love would never use the power of her tongue to knock someone down; she naturally senses and protects others' vulnerabilities, never thinking to exploit them to make herself look more important.

Love's first thought on rising does not begin with "I," and she does not become bitter when her own plans are thwarted.

Love entrusts her interests to Another; she is slow to her own defense, and she is the last to read malice into the actions of others. Love exiles old offenses from mind, always eager to begin again and heal a breach.

Love can't abide cruelty. She throws her lot in with the victims of wrongdoing, and she rebukes those who abuse power. When the truth comes out, her face aches with smiling, and when justice wins the day, she throws a party for everyone she knows.

Love always find a ways to keep going - always. Her works always yield a harvest, just as the planets keep to their orbits. It is part of the laws written into the unvierse that love's sweat cannot go to waste, though victory may tarry.

Love lends her claok to whoever is shivering, and her sword is polished for the defense of the weak.

Love possesses the infectious outlook that resists despair even unto the grave.

Love knows that though many deceive, the King has never lied. She is unshakeable in that confidence, and she makes her plans accordingly.

And when love has only enough light to take the next step, she always takes it.

Many are those who claim special insight into our times, and even some with reasonable knowledge about the Divine Plan. There are people who have mapped our spiritual genome, people whose faces and names are known to millions, and whose exegesis is without fault. But they are their accomplishments alike will lose their luster in the radiant crucible of the One King's presence. They will be shown for the half-measures they are, and we will turn as from the flicker of a candle to a blazing hearth. Three things withstand the test of time; three things retain their splendor even when seen in the broad daylight of full revelation. They are faith, hope, and love. But love is queen among her sisters.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Love's Labor Won: A Story of Rose and Jayamma

You might pity them when you hear their story, and you certainly would if you measure them by the standards you have for yourself. Their bodies are small small small with decades of malnutrition, and hard labor is written into them like text, though I am pretty sure they cannot write or read in any language. Her name is Jayamma. His name is Rose. I met them in Washington, DC, this past December, and this is their story as I remember it.

On December 13, 2007, it was my father's fiftieth birthday - or it would have been - a fact I was trying to keep in the background on the evening of the Washington, DC Benefit Dinner. I had 20? 30? 40? volunteers skittering around three locations in the Omni Shoreham Hotel near Woodley Park. By any survey it is a large hotel, and it felt massive to me as I walked in irregular orbits, trying to check things off an invisible list.

I was on yet another circuit when they came through a doorway, our three South Asian guests for the evening: Jayamma, Rose, and Alice. Alice is an administration director in one of the South Asian offices. Rose wore a dark suit, and he kept looking down at his dark, gleaming shoes as if they had grown there of their own accord. The women were resplendent in jewel-toned saris that picked up the light when they moved. Alice introduced me. I shook their hands, marveling at how the hands of the poor feel everywhere the same - raspish and a little dry, like sand, horned over with calluses at the joints, small-boned and somehow powerful. All three seemed tiny. I was conscious of everyone else in the room seeming practically bovine and hormone-altered by comparison. Corn-fed came to mind. After shaking their hands, I kept up my circuit.

A few more hours passed, and the guests came - all 1,100 of them. They drank wine, talked to friends, and moved into the ballroom to begin picking at decorously arranged salads. In the room were people called Honorable and Reverend, and a few other honorifics, people with a minimum of sixteen years of education and another car parked in the garage besides the one they drove to get there that night, people whose children felt assured or receiving the same advantages. So it felt like an extraordinary moment in social history when they all fell silent in the dimmed room, and Rose and Jayamma ascended the stage to tell their story while Alice translated.

In 1974, Rose and Jayamma were newlyweds in a village in a South Asian country. They were poor. Money problems were easy to come by. A local businessman offered them a $150 advance. All they would have to do is work for him until they earned enough wages to pay him back. They took the money and began working in the businessman's rice mill, but things quickly soured. The mill owner didn't pay in cash, he paid in rice, making it impossible for them to accumulate funds. When business got slow at the rice mill, he refused to let them work elsewhere, so they would go hungry. They worked near a raging fire. They got burns. They got sick from the heat. It made no difference. In the course of time, Rose and Jayamma had children. The mill owner did not allow them to go to school. They worked beside their parents. The children grew up and had children, all working in the rice mill for 30 years and more, all to pay off the debt of $150. You could hear the shifting in the room. Who was not dressed in $150 worth of clothing? How many earned that in an hour? But thirty years and three generations had not paid the debt. What they went through is illegal. What they went through is what slavery looks like today.

People with a stake in the question estimate that there are 27 or 28 million such slaves in today's world, laboring not on plantations but in rock quarries, brick kilns, rice mills, mines, shrimp farms, and yes, brothels, claiming people of every race age and gender on every populated continent. This number is the best guess of educated minds. Today's slavemasters are hardly trotting out their human chattel for a census, but this would not always have been the case. For by far the larger part of human history, slavery was accepted as a natural outcome of war and economic hardship. We are living in an anomalous age, while even though slavery is still widely practiced, it is even more widely condemned by the laws and lipservice of nations everywhere. So the people who are enslaved, like Jayamma and Rose, suffer in secret.

In Rose and Jayamma's case, slavery lasted 31 years or so, including 29 years when forced labor laws were on the books that should have protected them. They were rescued as part of an operation involving undercover investigation and cooperation with local authorities. They were issued official documents ensuring them legal protection and a rehabilitation payment. Their son, Selvam, is training to be a tailor, and their grandchildren are in school. They make a living tending livestock. Theirs is still not a life that you might envy, but it is theirs. They dream.

A new life is beginning. By the math, they must be a little less than sixty years old, though they could pass for much older. Even in their finery on December 13, they bore the physical symptoms of ill use. But when the two former slaves stood up before the bearers of power in the center of what has been called the Free World, no heads of state could have been more dignified, no socialites more winsome, no five-star generals more commanding of respect. I wish you could have been there, to see them slay the fallacy that lives like theirs are somehow different or remote or beneath the greater concerns of a prosperous people.

We spent the week with Jayamma and Rose. They came in and out of headquarters, bundled to the eyes against what were to them conditions befitting a polar expedition. They smiled when spoken to, though not understanding without translation. They received our applause with diffidently inclined heads.

Alesha, the regional assistant for South Asia, took them on outings in the capital. I asked her what they liked. She said that they liked the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, although Alice got stuck with the task of trying to define the concept of a universe. That, and they liked French fries. French fries. I expect it must have been a comfort to discover the lesser universals, like the ubiquity of tubers cooked in fat to cuisine across the globe.

They came to a staff prayer retreat on the cold, cold Virginia day of December 14, the day after the banquet. At the end of the retreat, there was pizza, and Rose shoveled it down with evident relish. He and Jayamma sat together in three sweaters apiece, still with some of the glow from the previous night in their faces. I found myself watching them. Two people, a man and wife, coming out in the twilight of their lives from the 27 or 28 million. They might be a sign, a symbol, that we are out of our minds, battling against an ancient and entrenched human custom. We might be rowing up a waterfall. After all, if governments and organizations like ours could somehow find a way to intervene for one slave every minute of every day (And the rate is so far from that . . .), it would take 53 years to get the job done. That's providing that no on else falls prey in the meantime.

But no. I look at them and see no sign or symbol. I see Jayamma and Rose, whose hands I shook, who ate pizza with me, who take great pride in their son the tailor. I see love's labor won.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Love's Labor Won

Title suggested by Julie H. in Nashville. Many thanks.

I am fine, no --
Better than fine
Glad or pensive or passably
Brave, perhaps
I smile in the sun
And also in the dark
Forgetting to count back
Rising on some wind not looked for.

Today the fault was mine for reading
The thing that happened
And took someone away.
In the mote in God's eye
And her someone
Was my someone
Together we took the staircase towards a vanishing resolution.
And wanting to weep
I could not
Though grief came on like
A casting of pebbles
Into shadow
So instead I wrote
What I know

The truth I know is this
That the Now where I live is a borderland
A jagged almost-nothing
That the past accessible to me is
A selective harvest
Muddy and not simple
That the future is not mine
That it wastes on the vine
And in the almost-nothing left to me
I - we all- still breathing, love
And for whom we love we labor,
Our breath sleep hope strength youth
In whatever quantity we possess them
To hold them sacred in the place where no storms come
Though as I always suspect
But never
No never
Think outright- My love is
Not a stay on the debts owed to living
Nor even a mandate
That the beloved shall stay with me
Or forgive me
Or need me
Or love in return
And it all would seem a fool's surety
Though we do the best we can.

But in the moment
The beloved
Crosses over a river
That I cannot cross
And leaves me
Standing beneath the tree we planted
Who would mock me? Revile me?
Everyone knows
It is written in some star
If nowhere else, that
Love's labor is not so easily lost,
When it is in itself the victory.
And having written it again
I can rise.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Interactive Blog #2

And I . . . have no inspiration today. So! Same game, same rules. First person to post a comment gets to choose the title of the next blog, and I'll post within three days. In the interest of fairness, I don't think I can let you win two times in a row, dleventhal. ;)


Julie and Roland, you both win! (I love being the person who makes up the rules.) Keep your eyes peeled this weekend.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Public Alley 439" otherwise entitled "The Most Belated Blog in History"

Dear friends,

I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time apologizing on this blog, but so be it - I owe you another one for a blog, below, which is sure not to live up to its hype. I wish that I had some elaborate and amusing excuse for the hiatus, but the prosaic fact of the matter is that I am in a writers' workshop this semester, so I am doing more writing than ever, but none of it is for this site. I beg your indulgence. Without further delay: PUBLIC ALLEY 439

November 21, 2007

I was on the silver line bus going away from the airport in Boston. (I think it might technically be called the General Edward Lawrence Logan International Airport - I'll stick to "airport"). Bethany and Brian shared a row somewhere over my left shoulder, and I was sitting next to Eddie, a friend of Brian's that I had met five minutes prior.

Crowded public transportation is always a bit awkward. "Hi! Don't mind me, I'm just going to stab you in the spinal column with my elbow and suffocate this other chap with the scent of my papaya-cocoa butter lotion, but just go on pretending I'm not here." But generally we avert our eyes, close our mouths, and get through it. In fact, it's a little bit odd to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the bus. The same unwritten articles say that you can talk to a stranger on a plane - How odd and intricate our social regimes!

So there we sat, Eddie at the window and I on the aisle, knowing nothing of each other but our Christian names, with half an hour to spend talking or not talking. I decided the most pitiable small talk would be better than not talking. I tried a few questions, and it turned out, to my great relief, that Eddie was an eager talker if properly encouraged.

Eddie wanted to be a city planner, he said. So we talked about cities - the ones we had in common, the ones we loved, the ones we loathed. And before the topic was quite exhausted, it was time to get off the bus.

The cities I have loved -San Francisco, Washington, Florence - have similar profiles:Their streets are cantankerously difficult to navigate; water moseys through them, adding the inimitable romance of bridges; and they all have something else Italian city planners call a misura d'uomo. There is no facile English translation, but it means literally "man-sized," and is most like "habitable," but far nicer, like tailor-made clothing. It means that a city is homey, built on a human scale, not soaring to the astral heights and intrepid sprawl of a New York City or a Los Angeles. Such megatropolises are inevitable, I suppose, if only to make the other cities cozier by comparison, but give me misura d'uomo any day. Exploring Boston without Bethany and Brian, I decided to add it to my personal list.

We traded our luggage for some claim tickets in a dank, cold little office. The attendants, two teenagers, were bored nearly senseless, but they took evident joy in their boredom. Their wisecracks were endless, as were their barbed imitations of particularly memorable customers.

Setting out, we sometimes followed the Freedom Trail, a red line that jerked a circuitous route through the old part of city. Sometimes we went away from it. Everywhere, I found a brusque, bundled up city, apparently fond of its billiards and beer. Pedestrians clothes' were drab as flocked sparrows, but the trees were bright red, orange, and yellow, as if stealing their splendor from the collective wardrobe of the populace.

Every few blocks, we paused for Bethany to puzzle over a map. Bethany spent most of her childhood within an hour of the very street corner we were scratching our heads, and I hadn't quite expected us to be lost, but (How shall I put this with all the love I have for Bethany?) I was not surprised. I would stop short of calling Bethany directionally challenged, but an itinerary of which she is in charge will always be a venture for the bold. If you leave A with Bethany, you are sure to arrive at B, but you may, en route, stop at every other letter, even if the alphabet were twice its current length. Her conversation had the same charming quality, which I have marveled at countless times. She will start out explain something, follow a hundred rabbit trails, and then arrive back exactly where she wants long after I have forgotten what we were talking about. At each consultation of the map, Brian stood patiently aside.

I asked him later why he said nothing. (It bears mentioning that Brian is by profession a geographer, an "expert in the field of spatial analysis," and words fail me to capture the irony of Bethany sorting out east from west while he leaned against a brick wall.)

He shrugged and smiled, "If I were really cold or hungry, I'd step in, but otherwise I'm not too worried about it."

By the time any of use were really cold or hungry, we had found Fenuiel Hall. We ate up on the second story after climbing a winding staircase. The rotunda, directly overhead, was an oval, not a circle, and I got dizzy from looking up at it. The second level was open to the elements. A sparrow flew in and out, cleaning crumbs off the lunch table. Afterwards, we went out the back to an old constitutional hall, where a tour guide was remarking tonelessly on the Boston Tea Party. Apparently the little colonial devils had managed to hoist $1.8 million dollars worth of cargo into Boston Harbor. I can't say I blame England for being put out. Outside, an actor playing Benjamin Franklin was posing with a couple of kids. A pair of fake gold buckles were affixed to his orthopedic sneakers.

We set off again to explore Boston and its treasures. Everywhere were old building dressed up to look new, and new buildings dressed up to look old. The narrow streets meandered, ended in acute angles, perpendicular nowhere.

We went to an old cemetery called The Granary. I could have spent hours reading the stones: "Here lyes ye body of M. Samuel Dixon. July -" and here the most stoic of eulogies is interrupted by the ursurping mud.

The Irish-ness of Boston is hard to escape. We came to a memorial to the victims of the 19th century Irish potato famine. In half of the memorial, there is an emaciated family dressed in tatters. In other half, the same family is healthy, rejuvenated, and with a slight nostalgic backward glance, ready to tackle the American dream. In the height of the immigration, up to 37,000 Irish per year crossed the "bowl of tears" to settle in Boston, much to the chagrin of most Bostonians. On that day, if I did see some color sprouting from the coats of brown and black and gray, it was a slash of defiant green.

While we were walking, we passed a sign for Public Alley 439. I smiled and tried to comprehend the fastidious internal logic of a city that numbers its public alleys. Brian thought it might make a good blog title.

We walked and walked. We stopped for a little while at the Frog Pond to watch schoolchildren ice skating, and we walked to a tea place that I have forgotten the name of. Then, oh glory of glories, we walked to the Boston Public Library. It spread out in marble like the tomb of an Egyptian king to hold the riches of books inside of it. I told Bethany to leave me right there and pick me up after Thanksgiving. I meant it, too.

Twilight held the city now, and we walked back the long way we had come to pick up our luggage again. Brian had bought a Boston Red Sox hat, pre-weathered, with a big, red B in its middle. It was very cold. Every now and then, we came to a certain corner, like there seem to be in all the cities I have loved, where rounding it opens up an entire different, hidden world, like the sudden jumps in location in a dream.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Not Dying

There's something refreshing, in a Jack London, man-vs.-nature kind of way, about any commute that has "Don't die," as its primary goal.

This morning, I biked to work, as I often do, feeling quite jaunty about it, since Bailey at the Papillon Bike shop just fixed the brakes and gave it a tune-up. Plus, the heater chose today to start working again, for the first time since October! Added to these pleasures was the civic joy of voting in the Potomac Primaries and getting to wear an "I voted!" sticker on my lapel all day.

Things took a turn for the worse in the afternoon. The sky, a lugubrious gray all day, finally started spitting out ice pellets. Biking home was interesting. The first time I hit the breaks was a physics experiment, something to do with objects in motion wanting to stay in motion, especially when the object in motion is a 1982 peach Miyata road bike with no tread to speak of on an ice-slick sidewalk.

In front of the Harris Teeter, I tested the inverse theorem about objects at rest wanting to stay at rest, after the wheels squirreled out from under me, and I had an opportunity to congratulate God on the thoughtful design of the human posterior.

"Be careful. It's slippery," a passerby said kindly, if a trifle redundantly.
"Are you all right?" asked the fireman in the passing firetruck.
"I'm not hurt," was the best I could come up with.

At this juncture, I found myself in a veritable zambonied ice rink that passed for a sidewalk, so I gave up riding and stuck to walking. There were so many accidents, and the traffic was so congested, I made better time home than the traffic moving up Columbia Pike. The freezing rain glittered in my headlight like bits of ground glass. By the time I made it to my front door, my helmet, my bike, and my clothes, were crusted over with ice like some kind of chilly exoskeleton.

The IJM interns were delayed for dinner and Bible study. It took them over and hour to travel a mile and a half, and the Turkish restaurant where they had ordered dinner closed on account of the weather. My cupboards were as bare as any Mother Hubbard's, except for some arborio rice, a stick of celery, and some not-quite-expired greens, so we had risotto and salad and drank copious amounts of tea to chase away the chill. Thinking it unwise to launch into the study, we instead prayed and headed back into our separate nights, to survive the traffic and the freeze as best we might.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Company You Keep

Buying time until I kind find my notes from the Boston trip . . .

My Jr. High Spanish teacher had an accent as gringa as they come, and she made us all go by Hispanic pseudonyms (I spent two or three hours every week as Luisa). She had a penchant for yelling, which I guess was understandable, since the only native Spanish speaker in the room insisted on taking long draughts of vodka from a water bottle in the back row during class, and I think as a sort of group punishment she subjected us to rote memorization via songs that were sophomoric even by our standards. One of them went something like: "The preterite, the preterite, you know you'll never forget it! Spanish 1 is so much fun, and to think, we've only just begun." Oh course, I've never forgotten. Figures.

She also drilled us in dichos, Spanish proverbs. One of them went, "Dimme con quien andas, y te dire quien eres." Tell me who you walk with, and I'll tell you who you are. So goes the conventional wisdom, regardless of your language. We would say that a man is known by the company he keeps. You hang out with the sports team. You must be a jock. You hang out with the nerds. You must be smart. I've been thinking about the company that Jesus kept. Men who smelled like fish. Men who smelled like wine and insurrection and tainted colonial money. Women fresh from walking the streets. The sick, the alien, the unclean, and even the dead. So no wonder they called him insurrectionist, drunkard, glutton, heretic. They only did as common sense told them.

And who do the church people (more to the point, who do I?) walk with? Do we walk with the sick and the poor and the prisoner, with the slave, and the man who cleaves to a hopeless hope? Or do we walk with only one another? Don't get me wrong - we need each other, for mutual support, for the sharpening of our iron, and if you walk with the wrecks, you might find yourself depleted, and if you walk with the dirt-poor, you won't stay clean, and if you walk with the victim of violence, their enemies will become yours - but to what end that sharpness, that strength, if not for them? Those with the courage to do it will find, I suspect, that they were really keeping company with the Son.