Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Prayer

To enter The Open Door, an overnight shelter for women, you stand in a covered entry way and press a button. A man across the street is yelling curses, but you know he'll stay a silhouette in his usual doorway, too drunk and old to act on his threats. Through the intercom you're asked your name, and when you open your mouth to answer, a strong wave of urine stings your throat and nostrils. You look down and see splashes on the wall near your feet.

You say your name, and with the buzzer you open the heavy door. After passing through you press it closed behind you. The scent of urine lingers as you walk up the first of two flights of steps, but soon you're on the third floor where everything is well-kept and clean. There's flowery lotion, the soapy smell of recent showers, the warmth of running dryers.

In this place, this past Monday, I led theatre games. Three days before Thanksgiving. I had no doubt that the women there are deeply grateful for many things, most especially the services of this shelter; they've often said as much. Last week, Kay told me she is extra thankful this year because after 37 years of clinging to painkillers and drink, she's recovered, has reconciled with her son and will spend the holiday with "real people" ("you know, real people like you," she said to me).

I happened to see Kay later that week in Panera with her family. She hugged me and looked so happy and nicely dressed. And then I saw her leaving the restaurant with them, and took note that on this 45 degree day, she was the only one without a coat.

Thanksgiving, I decided, would best be approached through a back door.

In Just Like Heaven, an illustrated book by "Mutts" comic creator Patrick McDonnell, Mooch the cat takes a snooze under his favorite tree. A fog settles in, and Mooch awakens wondering where he is. Heaven? Could it be? He walks around town seeing it with fresh eyes. Even the dog who always gives him trouble surely should be handled differently in heaven, thinks Mooch; in response to the dog's bark, the cat offers a hug. Mooch ends his exploration of heaven back at his favorite tree, and settles in to nap again. Upon awakening in the same spot, he marvels at the memory of the wonderful place where he had traveled.

I read Just Like Heaven to the women and invited them to think about this idea of perspective. How, sometimes, perspective is the only aspect of our circumstances that we can change. Curses can be seen as blessings with the right eyes, or at least as having a couple of blessings built in. I then read a quote I had found while researching my next story assignment on students with disabilities. A young woman with cerebral palsy had said, "God has given me this opportunity to be different in this way, and I accept it with honor and grace."

Jessie said that being homeless has been a very low point for her, but she knows that when she gets back on her feet, she'll be different.

"I'll be grateful for what I have. I won't take things for granted," she said.

"Jessie, what do you think about words like that young woman used?," I asked, not quite sure about them myself. "Do you ever think, 'God has given me this opportunity to be homeless'?"

"No," she said, firmly. "It's almost like she's blaming God when she says that--well, not blaming, but saying that he could have stopped it if he wanted to. But God didn't make me homeless; I did."

Does God cause or allow our difficulties? That's a big theological question. Only one thing was sure for these women: homelessness is just around the corner, no matter who you are. "If you told me three months ago that I'd be here right now," said one woman, whose children are staying with their grandmother, "I'd never have believed you."

I asked them to make a human sculpture representing Jessie's mixed blessing of homelessness. Carrie was on the floor, hands reaching out for help; Donna stood nearby hugging herself in gratitude; Jessie, at her back, folded her hands in thankful prayer.

A new woman, quite young, seemed to be very taken with this image. "What were you doing there?" she asked. "I mean, I know it was about gratitude, but...but..."

"But 'why' were we doing it?" I asked. "Why didn't we just talk about it?"


I told her how I believe our bodies inform our thinking just as words do, and by doing this for Jessie, we understand her in a new way. Jessie chimed in her agreement, and then in a few simple words said it best.

She summed up why I'm there every week doing the only thing I can think to do about the urine, the coat, the curses.

"This," Jessie said, gesturing to our makeshift stage, where sleeping mats were now unfolding, "is how we pray."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Writer's Almanac for November 21, 2009

Just helping Garrison Keillor out today.

It's the birthday of writer, weightlifter, and theatre instructor Amy Scheer (1970). Scheer was raised in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where, as a young girl, she won an Andy Gibb puzzle for her drawing of Miss Piggy at a local park. Her first attempt at writing was halted after the first page, as so much effort was given to producing the book's title--The Missing Canoe--she felt satisfied enough to abandon the rest of the project entirely.

In 1993 she married the composer Greg Scheer, who later wrote the book The Art of Worship (2006). They have two boys--Simon and Theo--whom they did not name after The Chipmunks though they were aware it was happening. Theo calls his mother a "wri-tist" who "plays with people who don't have houses."

Shortly before her 38th birthday, Scheer began strength training in earnest, and entered her first bench press competition on April 25 of this year. She benched 110 pounds and won her first trophy. At the next competition in February of 2010, Scheer will go for 120.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bulk, Baby, Bulk

Theo with The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Seems I've been "cutting" when I should have been "bulking."

You, too? Happens to the best of us. Bring on the chips, I say. Let the bulking begin.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Magnum Opus

While attempting to channel The New Yorker, I wrote the cover story on adoption for the latest issue of The Classic, the magazine of Northwestern College. This is my largest feature yet, and I'm very proud of it. The layout and the photos in the print version are quite gorgeous.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ain't Writin' Funny

Did you read that last post? Notice how it moves from comic to serious?

I had fully intended to write a fully funny piece on the broad range of groups I find myself in. Starting with the personality test and moving into the murder story (both found in yesterday's post), I'd then address my regular presence on a bodybuilding forum, where members have handles like "GetnHuge" and include the diameter of their biceps in their signature.

Woulda been funny, I tell ya, minus the murder part. And then I started writing it.

Simply showing up and sitting down to write helps me figure out what it is I'm thinking about. I had avoided blogging for years thinking I'd not be able to finely polish my thoughts enough to share them publicly. But I'm being rewarded personally by doing so, and I find myself awed anew at the creative process. I sit down to write one thing, and out comes another, usually better idea.

That's art. I recommend it highly.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Company You Keep

Back when we lived in Tallahassee, I attended one of those Ladies' Day Out events that churches like to hold. From among scenes that surely involved scones and scrapbooking, I remember just one activity: we ladies were administered a personality test, after which we gathered in four groups according to our test results and now clearly-defined dispositions.

Roughly 80% of the women filled one of the four circles--the one for extroverted, nurturing types. Most of the others sat in two of the remaining groups.

In the final circle sat a friend and I--the only opinionated introverts, apparently. We joked about how special we were, ha ha, until she took a second look at her test results.

"Oh," she said, glancing toward another group. "I'm actually supposed to be over there." She walked off to join the others, leaving a circle of Amy. Alone.

Yep. I don't always fit in.

Not often. With women, especially.

So it was with great surprise I noticed, three months into leading theatre sessions at a women's shelter, that I had chosen to spend time with women. And that we get along. And that no one's inviting me to candle parties.

Our lives and circumstances differ greatly, of course. Last week I arrived on the scene of Nat lying spread-eagle on the floor demonstrating how, the day before, a woman they all knew had been found, murdered. This week, a woman was suspended mid-conversation with me for not taking a shower, among other violations. Taking a shower is rule #1 at the shelter because, as the director puts it, many of the women have been hopping in and out of cars all night, and the shelter will stink if they don't clean themselves.

Yes, very different circumstances. Yet these homeless women are on my mind as often as the other important people in my life. I spend hours each week preparing for or debriefing from my time with them. But when I leave them I go home, where no one kicks me out for neglecting to take a shower.

Can sincere relationships exist across lines of privilege and power? Can friends live on such unequal terms?

When we first moved to Grand Rapids, we lived in a rental community for three years, as our house in Iowa took a long time to sell and we couldn't afford a new one. For a time while living there, I found myself arguing against owning property (okay, doing theatre under a framed Manifesto in the East Village had something to do with it, too). There I saw that only by living up close and personal, in the same circumstances, was I able to relate to, be trusted by, and help my neighbors.

All of us together faced discrimination by school zoning, because, as one official told me, renters are typically unreliable. Few of us could afford to purchase a house, and could commiserate over hearing each others' business through the walls. We shared joys, as well--a swimming pool, someone to shovel the walkway, free emergency repairs in the wee hours of the night.

But the living became difficult. This transient population lived by a different set of rules than we do, and we found ourselves among the only responsible adults on the block for a multitude of children. I gave out the band-aids. Greg saved the toddler playing in the drainhole in the middle of the parking lot. I cleaned blood off a girl who had been punched while waiting for the bus to school. We were glad to do it, but we burned out. The basketballs bouncing off the side of our building and therefore living room, the constant doorbell ringing, our three-year-old son getting punched on the patio when stepping out for fresh air--we couldn't continue like that.

And so we moved to the suburbs. Bought us some property. Life is more peaceful here, and we can find the rest we need in order to go out and serve others. Having scaled the walls of the private property issue and come down the other side, I'm confident that this choice is best for us, as long as I make an effort to be with those who can't have the life I do.

The poor we will always have with us, yes, but as Shane Claiborne says in The Irresistible Revolution, that's not Jesus telling us to take class structure for granted. It's him saying we are to have the poor with us. Be among them. He was in the home of an outcast leper when he said this.

But among and amidst never feels like enough to me. I hate knowing that I have more power and privilege than people I'd like to call friends. I like the women at the shelter. We enjoy our time together, and in many ways I fit in there better than I ever did with the Floridians.

More to the point, this isn't mere acceptance but a give and take kind of good.

When I was leaving the shelter on Monday night, I heard singing.

Earlier, as part of a fun exercise, I had asked the women to sing their lines as an opera star would. Now, as they gathered the common laundry and headed toward their sleeping bags, they called to each other with high operatic drama, happy laughs punctuating every couple notes. They made me smile, even as I crossed the urine-stained, bolt-locked threshold of The Open Door, and left for home.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mr. Rogers Was Right

Since 1985, English musician and musicologist Clive Wearing has had what neurologist Oliver Sacks calls "the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded": a memory span of mere seconds. Along with the present his past has slipped away as well, including the memory of meeting his wife, Deborah, and falling in love with her.

Yet emotional memory provides Clive with a basis to remember Deborah at a fundamental level, as Sacks writes in "The Abyss" (The New Yorker, September 24, 2007):
For many years he failed to recognize Deborah if she chanced to walk past, and even now he cannot say what she looks like unless he is actually looking at her. Her appearance, her voice, her scent, the way they behave with each other, and the intensity of their emotions and interactions--all this confirms her identity, and his own.
To Clive, his wife was more than the sum of her parts, and was, in fact, unrecognizable in parts; but taken wholly, she was Deborah. The essence of the woman he loved was something Clive could never forget.

It's a moving story, and it's helpful in getting amateur actors to understand that a simple posture change does not a character make. Yes, you may need to lower your voice, thrust out your jaw, and slouch a little, but if these traits fail to converge into the core of a character, your portrayal will not ring true.

Off the stage, I find the story reassuring.

As a mother about to begin her fortieth year, I think a lot about identity. As a woman down to size 4 from an 18 (Greg says I'm "every woman in the world" to him), I often wonder about what's left when you strip the non-essentials away.

Attending my twentieth high school reunion last year was interesting in this regard, as was my short sojourn on facebook. After 15, 20 years, you are distilled down in the minds of people from your past, and it's surprising what they'll think, say, and expect. That's a book right there, but I'll just say that the Distillation of Amy was mostly positive, leaving me pleased, if somewhat bitter ("If you all liked me so much, why didn't I have more dates?").

On Monday night at the homeless shelter, I noticed three things:
1. nobody laughed at my jokes,
2. my deep thoughts were quickly bypassed,
3. everybody was glad to have me there.

Reconciling these observations took some time, I tell you. I like to think that at some level I'm funny and interesting, and if pressed I'd say these qualities make people want to be around me, if they do at all. Take away a small-busted gal's sense of humor, and what's she got?

But here was a roomful of people who liked me for me.

Much as I like to define myself by my wit, intellect, or deltoids, these women respond to something deeper at the core of who I am. It's humbling both to have your best traits ignored and to be appreciated anyway. Humbling, healthy, and right on.

(here's someone who says it best)