Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Creative multiplication

Jesus, I love that you never get overwhelmed. Not by circumstances or by personalities, not by sin or by need, not by nature or by disease, and not by biological reasons, like hormones or lack of sleep. Time and time again when I come back to the story of you feeding the thousands of people, I’m first of all captivated by the fact that you didn’t run. If I had a horde of thousands of hungry, tired people flocking to me, I think I might run. I might hide. I might roll my eyes, let out an exasperated sigh, and mutter about why they couldn’t just leave me alone for a day. And that’s precisely one of a bazillion reasons why I’m not you. I get overwhelmed.

I love that you are incredibly resourceful in your creativity. Sometimes you create something out of nothing, but equally amazing are the times when you use what’s right in front of you to bring provision. You work with what you’ve got, even though you could pull a rabbit out of a non-existent hat if you wanted. And you did that in this story, when you fed the thousands.

I can really resonate with the disciples’ question when they took inventory of what resources they had to work with and brought the report back to you.

It wasn’t impressive by our standards. “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?” (John 6:9)

Man, does that hit home with me, Father. You ask what I have. I scramble around checking my pockets and wallet and refrigerator, my bedroom drawers and all my purses, my emotional reservoire and my dayplanner. And then I come back to you, saying, I’ve got sixty-five cents, a passport, a jar of peanut butter, a couple hours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and an emotional capacity of supporting one hurting person, but what good is that with so much need? Or, I’ve got a Master’s degree I’m not using; a decade of occasional spurts of focused pursuit in a direction, sprawling between long bouts of foggy wandering; I’ve got old dreams that are growing dusty and current dreams without an action plan; but what are they among so many?

Oh, me of little faith. I’m every bit as guilty as these dense disciples who, in chapter fourteen of Matthew witnessed your miraculous multiplication of resources and freaked out in chapter fifteen when the same scenario mysteriously happened again.

How many times have you taken my table scraps and made a feast for someone else to dine on? I don’t even know, but I do know it’s happened. I remember some of those humbling moments when, after feeling like I have nothing but cheese and crackers to offer someone, I stand back and watch you go to town like Julia Childs. And they leave not only satisfied; they leave blessed, encouraged, strengthened. You let me be the one to pass out the food, but it’s you who does the multiplication.

I never need to wonder if there will be enough with you. I never need to wonder if what I have to offer is enough for you to work with. If all it takes is faith the size of a teeny tiny mustard seed for you to move a mountain, then any little bit I have to bring to the table is enough for you to do something incredible, among one person or among so many. I'll just bring you what I have.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pinto Bean runs out of gas

I was supposed to be attending my first writer's meeting with a group of writers in Bothell. I had a small window of time before catching my bus, so I optimistically opted for a run along the waterfront with Pinto. It would be our farewell run, the last one before I said goodbye to him tomorrow and gave him over to a new family. Conditions were perfect: sunny, late summer afternoon, clipping along at a good pace (well, for someone who hasn't run much in the last 9 months). Until we turned around at our mile and a half marker and started heading back. He decided he'd had enough of running and flopped down in the grass. Wouldn't budge. I coaxed, cajoled, and yes, begged and pleaded. Nada. Finally I thought, if I can't convince him I might as well join him, so I flopped down beside him with his head in my lap and petted him.

About ten minutes later, I thought that was a generous break and attempted to start running again. He wouldn't have a thing to do with it. Couples strolled by chuckling. An eccentric woman on a bicycle rode by leisurely and laughed loudly at my predicament. My dog was having a two-year old tantrum, puppy style.

Finally I got him to start running with me, as long as he was off his leash. We were cruising, he was loping along freely beside me. All was well. Until we passed a guy resting off to the side with his bike near the gymnastic bars. Pinto run right up to him and plopped down. When the guy tried to do his sit-ups, Pinto was right there, nose in his face.

I ran over, embarrassed and apologetic. "So sorry. C'mon, Pinto. Time to go." I started running, looking back, calling for him to come, but to no avail. The guy watched my pitiful attempt and shook his head, chuckling. After watching this act for a few minutes, he introduced himself and we chatted for a bit.

"I hate to say this," he said matter-of-factly, "But you have absolutely no control over your dog." He sounded now like he was trying to suppress some laughter, mixed with some pity, that such an ignorant girl ended up with such a smart puppy.

I laughed it off. "Oh, you think?"

I attached the leash to Pinto again, who stuck his paws out in front of him and flattened himself like a pancake. Stepping back, leash taut, I resumed the "Come, Pinto" routine. Tim the Biker stood by discreetly and finally asked if he could take a picture with his iPhone and email it to me. "You've gotta see this picture. You guys look so funny."

Tim took the picture and said goodbye, wishing me luck. I figured I would make the most of our pit stop and do some crunches and arm dips on the bars. A young couple wandered over and began using the bars beside us. I tried again to move Pinto along down the path. In a flash of brilliance (took long enough), I found a stick nearby and dangled it in front of Pinto's face, running off before he could snatch it. It worked! For about 25 yards. But Pinto did a U-turn near a bench where two guys were stopped on their workout routine. They weren't as chatty as Tim, so I managed to coax Pinto away from them, wave the stick, and get him to follow me further down the path.

After flopping down a few more times, the next stop was to chase another dog who was carrying a ball in his mouth. Pinto tailed him, round and round a field, down the forbidden beach and through the water, tongue waving in the breeze, while the dog occasionally turned his head to look back at Pinto, growling in displeasure at this intrusion.

I once again clipped Pinto's leash back on and we ran about a quarter mile this time. My hopes were beginning to rise, thinking maybe, just maybe, we were on the home stretch. But no, Pinto was done. Office hours were over. He was staging his coup, exercising his right to protest going home. I knew by now what this was all about. Pinto was not tired or sick. Pinto just hated being in that apartment, so much so that he refused to walk home.

The last person he passed out in front of was a girl studying at Mars Hill Graduate school downtown. I saw her psychology books and struck up a conversation with her, since I saw we'd be here for awhile. We shared some feelings about our grad school experiences and thoughts of what we wanted to do (or in my case, not do) with our degrees. A homeless man stopped and plopped down beside us, petting Pinto and commenting on all the people in the park in not so gracious language, asking the girl if she was old enough to smoke pot, to which she smiled politely and changed the topic. After a few minutes, he said goodbye and moved along, and we she wondered if she could help me get Pinto jumpstarted again. It was a nice thought.

This is it, I decided, gritting my teeth. Pinto's not budging, and I'm not going to be seen dragging a dog by his neck down the street, looking like a dog beater to all the Seattle-ites and tourists and families out for nice evening walks with their little ones and puppy dogs. Crouching down beside Pinto, I said goodbye to the girl and thanked her for her patience (we did interrupt her moment of privacy and study, after all). Then I slid my arms underneath Pinto's head and back legs and scooped him up in my arms. All 65 pounds of him, hanging limply. I almost dropped him as I tried to suppress my laughter at how ridiculous we must look. And then I started walking.

Down the waterfront path, past a woman with kids and an empty stroller who asked if I needed her stroller. Past the buses and taxis, the walkers and joggers, the park security guy and the people I'd passed several times during our stilted run. My arms ached, so I put him down, hoping he'd be ready to stop this childish act and walk like a decent dog. But he just gazed up at me with those sad, sad eyes and hunkered down in one spot like he was waiting for the end of the world. I sighed and whined and shook my head in disbelief. "So we're really doing this, huh? Really?? I can't believe you, Pintito." I scooped him up once more and carried him a little farther. We did this little routine all the way home, as I huffed and puffed for breath, tried to ignore the stares and grins of people driving or walking by (just so I didn't lose it and start laughing), feeling the sweat coming on, my heart rate accelerating, my arms entering into a state of exhaustion.

All the romanticism of a walk with the dog in the park drained away with my energy.

I didn't make it to my writer's meeting. But Pinto gave me plenty to write about.

Ai, Pintito. He ran out of gas.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Out of the cocoon

I've been drawn toward the forgotten ones, the "undesirables," toward suffering, since I was a little girl. I grew up around it, to some degree, being the daughter of a pastor with a very big heart. I tagged along with my Papa to visit elderly people in nursing homes, to befriend families in low income housing and bring them gifts, and I watched my parents care for strangers going through hard times whom we'd offer a place to rest for a night or a month. I watched them counsel and mentor people so naturally, with compassion, and I wanted to be like them.

Going through school, though, I didn't have a clear idea what I wanted to do for work someday. I dabbled in it all. Paramedic, firefighter, physical therapist, nurse, vet, animal trainer at Sea World, writer, actress, chaplain, social worker, counselor. I just couldn't find the fit I wanted. So finally, in my college years, I decided on counselor. I loved my psychology classes and felt I was groomed to be a counselor from my childhood. Throughout college, though, I never felt a passion for counseling. It simply felt inevitable.

I began to question this inevitability toward the end of college when I was introduced to the world of refugees through an internship at World Relief. What good were my Western counseling techniques among people from such different cultures, I wondered? After a year of social work experience, however, I knew that was not the best fit for me, either. It took me three years after graduating from college to convince myself I wanted to go to grad school and get my MA in counseling to work with refugees. My goal: to be in Africa, preferably in a refugee camp, offering mental health services to people who'd experienced extreme trauma.

I began grad school fueled with a passion and energy I never felt in college. It only took one quarter of grad school to know deep down in my knower that I wasn't destined to be a clinical counselor. I just didn't see it; didn't even want it. But strangely, I had no doubts I was to continue with the program, with the exception of a brief period when I wondered if I should have been in law school instead. I'll use my degree creatively, I thought. I'll still go overseas, this will be my ticket there. So I worked hard, with great passion, and finished my program at the top of my class, destined for greatness.

And then everything toppled. My dad's death came at a time when I was on the precipice of embarking on a new journey, but nothing was settled at the time; therefore, everything crumbled. I don't view this as a bad thing. I think these changes needed to happen. Yet it's been a continual challenge rebuilding from the ground up when I'm quickly approaching my thirties. This wasn't in my plans, for sure, as things like these never are.

As I've gained more distance from my dad's death and the great toppling that occurred, and as I've grown and experienced healing and learned more about myself, I've often been perplexed by my lack of desire to be a counselor. It's like my dad's death broke a box around me that needed to be broken. And while I don't have the desire to crawl back into that box and reconstruct it, it can be a little uncomfortable not having those walls around you at times. Having a structure you can point to when people ask what you're doing with your life. I have to have the faith now to believe that the structure being built out of my life is not necessarily one that is visible, as much as below the surface.

When I'm not feeling anxious about all these changes, I feel almost like a butterfly that's fighting her way out of a cocoon. Beating my wings, struggling to get out completely and finally be free to fly.

What I'm learning about myself is that, while I'm drawn to the forgotten, the marginalized, the suffering, I don't necessarily want to be immersed in it day in and day out. Counseling has never been life-giving to me, it's just something I can do well because I care about people. Relating to people and their suffering through writing and photography and the arts is life-giving to me. It allows me to experience people's stories, up close and from a distance. And it allows me to discover the beauty and hope in the process of suffering and the challenges of life, more so than counseling ever did. I feel free to be expressive and creative in these contexts when I'm not in the role of counselor. I guess it's a box I was never meant to be in.

That still doesn't leave me with the answers I so often desire. But I came across these verses the other day while I was reading a letter the apostle Peter wrote to the early churches:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:6-7).

I'm finding it requires humility and the casting off of my anxiety, to let go of my need to measure success or my worth by the world's standards. To let go of that pride, once more. To trust that God is building a foundation and a structure on that foundation that is not for my glory, but for his. And he never abandons his work. He builds things that are beautiful. And I may not see that very clearly, but I can simply believe him, that he continues to do beautiful work in my life because that's the kind of God he is. Sometimes I just need to be reminded, it's not about me. But I'm thankful for the ways he is showing me, as I'm fighting my way out of this cocoon, who he's created me to be. And it's different than I thought.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Deep thoughts on the bus

I'm not used to riding the bus anymore. I've gotten so spoiled having a car, so while my car is in the shop getting a face lift, I'm hunkering down and learning a few things about transportation, stories, and the value of time.

For one, though riding the bus requires more time than driving a car, and therefore, more preparation, the flip side is that you can enjoy more time in your day. Some of that time can even be spent reading (or sleeping). Whereas a car affords you the luxury (and often insanity) of dashing to and fro on a whim, it's not so on the bus. You can crowd more into your day with a car; with a bus, you accept your limitations. You can't be anywhere you want whenever you want, and sometimes, that means you go less places in the day. When I need to be somewhere, that can be frustrating, but mostly, I'm finding some relief in the limitations.

Riding the bus also offers you several opportunities to encounter interesting strangers throughout the day and brush shoulders with the lives of others with whom you share one tiny thing in common: a leg of the same journey. When you're standing in a crowded bus at the end of a long day and you're tired and wish for a seat, it's a sort of bonding experience to quietly share that with the other passengers who are crowded like sardines beside you. You realize you're not the only one feeling this way. It gets my attention in such a way, like a little nudge, as if to say, "Hey, look beyond your seat. Look at these other (sometimes weary) travelers. They have their own stories, too." It makes me sit up. It makes me wonder what their lives are like and if, as my Dad would occasionally wish to ask strangers, they're living good stories.

Yes, I would say that riding the bus forces me to slow down, to be aware of other lives around me, to appreciate those unique moments when strangers sharing a space connect. I'll be glad to have my car back, I'm not gonna lie. But I think I might continue taking the bus. Not only is it better for the environment, but it's a nice way to put limitations on my day and appreciate the time I have.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Learning curves

It's been a whirlwind of a month since my boyfriend and I adopted a 9 month German shorthair pointer from the shelter, Pinto. It was love at first sight for all of us, and we have truly loved and enjoyed him. He's an amazing puppy dog - we couldn't ask for better. But it's taken all of our time, energy and resources to work together to care for him - to a degree of sacrifice we weren't expecting - and after many hard talks, we've come to the decision that it would be best for all of us to find him a home that fits his needs better.

Since owning a dog, we've almost completely stopped salsa dancing. Everything is rushed. I hardly write and I pick up a book maybe a few minutes at at time. Ricardo buses back and forth between his office in Redmond and his downtown apartment, several times a day. I head straight from work to walk Pinto or pick him up and take him to a dogpark across town. Our conversations daily consist of puppy poo and his eating habits, what he's chewed that day, etc. My free time is spent researching foods that help dogs with diarrhea.

Let's just say, life has changed drastically. If we lived in the same place and were close to a dog park or had a fenced yard, things would be completely different. But Ricardo's apartment is downtown, and that is where Pinto has had to live. I've cried many tears this week over our puppy dog, feeling like a horrible "parent" for coming to this decision. Yet when Ricardo and I are gut-level honest with each other and ourselves, we both admit we weren't as ready as we thought to take on this level of responsibility at this particular place in our relationship. I guess sometimes the most responsible thing to do when you think you may have made a mistake is not to keep gritting your teeth and pushing forward, but turn around and take a different path. I don't like that, not one bit, but neither do I want to plan my life around a dog and that's precisely what we'd be doing if we chose to keep him.

In a city where people's dogs are their children - where there are a plethora of doggie daycares, dogwalkers, pet psychologists, doggie bakeries, natural pet care stores, dog parks and grooming facilities galore - it's pretty hard to admit that, while we love our dog and it's not his fault that we weren't prepared to take him on, we're not willing to stretch ourselves so thin to make it work right now. I just wish we didn't learn this after the fact, because I don't like going back on our commitment to him. I hope the most loving thing we could do for him is to let him go. And also, the most life-giving for us.

Augh, the learning curve can be painful. But we've grown a lot through this and will continue to grow, and we believe God's got a good home for our Pinto.