Friday, December 24, 2010

How many hats!

To the other one, to Borges, is to whom things happen. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and I delay myself, perhaps almost mechanically, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; from Borges I find out through the mail and I see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belong to no-one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, although I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being: the stone eternally wants to be stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books that in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belong to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.

Jorge Luis Borges, El hacedor, Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1960

A few weeks ago I attended a charter school board meeting to support teachers who had voted to be represented by the AFT teachers' union. A number of people spoke, including several clergy, union leaders, and the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, where I currently work. The last person who spoke was a young organizer with the Arise Chicago workers' center who started her bit by saying "I come wearing many hats", which may be possible because people in Chicago just literally wear a lot of hats. However, her choice to identify with the female gender, the families of schoolteachers, and the worker justice movement provoked some thought on my part as well.

I, too, often come wearing many hats. I am a recent Bucknell University graduate with a degree in psychology and Spanish. I am young adult missionary and an organizer intern for a national worker justice group. I am something of an urban hipster and Central Pennsylvania redneck. I am United Methodist by membership (and by health insurance) and I attend a Lutheran church. I work on the North Side and I live on the South Side.

That is a lot of metaphorical hats to balance on my unsteady head. And then just today I read this article by Jim Wallis about how on one Christmas Eve during World War I soldiers from Germany, England, and France left their respective trenches to share the magic of the night. The showed each other pictures of their families, shared music, and played soccer with each other in the middle of the No Man's Land in between the trenches. What kind of hats were these men wearing that night? Their nationalities? Their platoon? Their ethnic blood? Their religious affiliation?

There is indeed something comforting to divide up people into clear, distinct categories. Every teen movie, especially High School Musical, plays with that theme. The Olympics and the World Cup heighten nationalistic pride as athletes drape themselves with their homeland's flag. War demands that we caricature the Other and take aim. And at the end of the day, we can sleep at night.

Tonight is Christmas Eve, however. We remember how a displaced couple brought a new life into the world in the most primitive of conditions because of the far away order of the empire. We remember how shepherds witnessed prophecy fulfilled. We remember how foreign dignitaries honored a peasant infant. And like the Virgin Mother, we treasure all these things in our hearts in a unity that defies an age of structural reductionism.

We do live in a terrifying complex world in which we all wear many hats, and sometimes like Borges we can't even tell which hat we are wearing. And that is the surpassing beauty of the Christ child, Emmanuel, the Holy of Holies incarnate in human flesh--we can always remember who we are when we step into the Divine Presence. The world does not become any less complex necessarily, but when we follow the Way of Christ life does become simpler. Our hat becomes a crown of thorns, in relationship and partnership with Christ and the rest of God's children. We share it with the Other and we become friends, outside of the trenches in the scorched earth between us. This is the Gospel.

Merry Christmas, dear friends.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas in Chicago

I was going to write about how I've interacted and worked with labor unions. Or how Paolo Freire's Pedogogy of the Oppressed is manifested in an OSHA training that I recently attended. Or how I cope with living half my life on the South Side and half my life on the North Side. Or how hilarious and guilt-inducing the concept of trampolining bears is.

However, I can't help but write about Christmas now. I admit--I watched the Christmas episode of Glee on Hulu, and now I find myself in an indelible funk of sentimental memories and "skin hunger". Such is Christmas in the 21st century American city. With this all in mind, I will make no philosophical claim or political defense in this post.

This is how I've seen Christmas in Chicago.

In illuminated residential houses throughout Bridgeport that somehow warm the heart while multi-directional winds numb my fingers.

In snow-covered industrial spaces, like railroads, coal piles, and vast parking lots, that exchanged their mechanized non-soul to the purity of nature born no doubt born very high in the gray sky that hides the top of the Sears Tower.

In carols and songs backed by a pipe organ, bells, and an excellent choir in the chapel of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

In slowly decorating the Christmas tree in the sanctuary of First Trinity Lutheran Church every Sunday after we celebrate communion.

In the view from the top of the el tracks over Roosevelt with winds whipping from the lake, past the Field Museum, over the river, and out to the western reaches of the city.

In the Holiday Train that moves from rail to rail of the CTA, which just happened to be on the Orange Line stopping at Roosevelt at about 6 pm this past Friday. It even smelled like a gingerbread house.

In decorating a scrounged Christmas tree in Trinity House with scrounged lights and candy canes that my grandmother from Iowa gave me when I left after Thanksgiving.

In the green garlands that coil around the street lights of Bryn Mawr Ave. and the wreaths above the turnstiles of the transfer at the subway.

In giving away live Christmas trees in the snow at Benton House, which involved manually sawing off the bottoms the trees so that they seep in water better and perhaps forever making my overcoat smell like the boreal forests of Manitoba.

In the many wonderful people that have helped make my transition to Chicago so fulfilling and joyful. I thank all of you and pray that you have a very hopeful, peaceful, loving, and Christ-filled Christmas.