- Habitat volunteers build alongside future homeowners and neighbors. The most surprising moment on the work site came today when one of the locals with better English proclaimed, mid-dig, “Yesterday Edward Snowden revealed another secret!”
- Western volunteers typically come away from these international trips saying two things:
- "I thought I was coming here to contribute, but I took away much more than I gave," and
- "Their community is so tight; it is nothing like at home."
In last night’s team meeting I invited volunteers to tell about a community that sustains them. I talked about the book club that started meeting two years ago, which as we read together provided stability and knowing-and-being-knownness while I was in transition.
I asked the group to imagine what forges community in the village where we’re building. One person said that the villagers all face the same problems—they’re poor, water is scarce, jobs are low-paying, etc.—but I don’t think that’s it, and I said so. There are lots of people in Atlanta who share the conditions of poverty but do not forge community together.
Here is where I locate the difference: in order to move into a Habitat house, a family must help build their neighbors’ houses. After they move in, families usually continue helping each other build—fences, gardens, maybe extra rooms. Their conditions are shared, yes, but that’s passive; these people are actively building—they are improving their shelter and their village together—and the communal spirit that emerges from it is strong. You don’t see orphanages here because someone in the village takes in the orphaned kid.
Anyway, as we were talking about community, I looked around and saw therapists and web developers and stay-at-home moms and construction workers and big retail vice presidents, and everyone looked so lonely. Not at the moment—our team has bonded and is finding strength from each other—but back at home. I hope that they internalized the observation: community requires doing things with people.
- Bill Callahan is my constant companion. I would not have been able to pickax dirt or carry heavy trees unless I was singing in my head—sometimes out loud if no one was around, which is a luxury of being in the middle of nowhere—
Then the wind finds something to ping
Then the pinging things finds the wind;
We’re all looking for a body
or a means to make one sing
Building in Debre Berhan, Ethiopia with a team of Habitat volunteers.
- I am a great team leader. I believe that each volunteer has cried at least once, and we are only on Day Four.
- Each day we have a coffee ceremony in which a woman roasts, grinds, brews, and serves coffee. They invite volunteers to roast and grind, but as on a cooking TV show, they stealthily replace our demonstration beans with a hot pot of coffee pulled from behind a tablecloth. The coffee is brewed with coriander and cloves, which makes it taste like tea.
- The same woman makes us lunch. It is delicious.
- Here is something I believe deeply and that I understand as a major purpose of international volunteer trips: “What the rich need is an honorable way of divesting themselves of their overabundance.” (Clarence Jordan) It is exciting to see that happen. I will add, though, that our team is working hard and making ourselves surprisingly useful. The richest person is the hardest worker, which I will not tell my dad when I return home, because he will nod too hard.
- Would you have believed that I am handy with a pickax? I have broken up, shoveled, and tamped much ground. My back aches. Perhaps I will buy a tank-top to show it off.
Tonight I’m going to a concert in a city where I don’t know anyone, and I intend to whisper my Gmail password into the ear of a stranger as a continuation of my work on privacy and intimacy.
Put a handful of Reese’s Puffs cereal into your mouth
Think deeply into the taste. Separate the layers of the taste. Strip away that chocolatey flavor. Strip away the store-brand peanut butter tang. Strip away that marshmallow glaze. Do you taste it? It tastes like wheat. It is whole grain. It tastes like a wheat stalk freshly plucked from the field, bitten into like an apple.
I knew a guy who started a nouveau urban church, and I asked him what he was going to do to foster community—form neighborhood groups or affinity groups or classes or whatever—and he thundered, because he was a real drama queen and contrarian, “COMMUNITY is formed by SERVING TOGETHER.” Forgiving the dramaqueenness of his answer, I’ve spent about six years considering it and agree.
Breanne, pictured above giving me my first manicure (matte top coat with one beautiful, perfect blue nail), has been working on an art project in which she drives around the U.S. giving manicures. She understands the manicure not as a service but as an event that facilitates personal exchange. You can’t just show up in a town and talk to strangers, not if you’re going to get anything interesting out of them, so you have to do something together, and what she’s doing is inviting them into her RV and painting their nails. This loopy, wiry energy runs through the project. She’s so smart; I have already used Nails Across America twice as a flexible metaphor.
I spend my days coming up with activities for people to do—volunteer, go on a trip, use up a Saturday. "You’ve got to bust up a sidewalk sometimes to get people to gather round." Volunteers’ ostensible motivation is always to “give back,” but after performing the activity their stories tend to be about making friends or finding direction. The benefit that comes from these interactions grows, multiplies, bounces back. People show up to repair a dumpy house and leave with different ideas about status or race or local politics. I find myself bored lately with discourse. Maybe it’s just because I’m not reading. I see progress other places.
Implications for: activism, political persuasion, making friends in a new city, dating, babysitting, being a happy person.
Lemon, Cucumber, Feta, and Orzo Salad and Letting Go
I was in the grocery store the other night and picked up some red onions. There was an older man in a suit by the onions, picking up and inspecting each red onion in order to find the most perfect red onion. I swept in on the side and grabbed two and threw them into my cart. And the guy turns to me and asks how I’m able to pick out onions so quickly. And I look at him and say, “you let go” and walked away.
You don’t need to find the most perfect red onion because you’ll peel off the outer layers and if whatever bruise or ding has made it past the outer layers, you just cut it off and it doesn’t matter at all. All the red onions are fine. It doesn’t matter. Just grab one.
A recipe to go with this onion parable
The country experiment has come to a close: they moved me back to the city. My cubicle here is larger and gets good sunlight.
In this tower you wave your badge at the elevator then again at the door. The badge is essential. Go nowhere without your badge. It’s just as well, because this week it has been fun to walk to lunch or coffee swinging my badge with the little logo on it. “Oh, passerby, did you happen to see what a humanitarian I am?”
Most of the men clip their badges to their pants. The badges are on retractable cords, so the men angle their weird middle-aged torsos at the badge scanners and pull out the cords. I thought I would be a cute rebel and carry the badge everywhere in my hand, but already today I clipped it to my jeans pocket during lunch. I did not last even five days. I am a fortified poker player but would fold fast under torture.
"It’s untitled, of course."
Here’s my mom looking at a Cy Twombly at the National Gallery in DC, confused, possibly thinking it sucks.
Post-Flannery Southern thinking
"Now, let me just say that I like people. But I’ve found that few people have developed a capacity for empathy and/or imagination, which makes them terrible listeners. They just can’t understand what you’re saying about biscuits."
Bill Callahan - Old Blue (George Jones cover), Nashville, May 1, 2013
Just before this video picks up, Bill said, I think this is one of the best concerts that’s ever happened here. Not in this room—in this city.
The first time I saw Bill was June 2001, a month after my high school graduation. I saw him two nights in a row. The first night he changed the chorus to “Strayed”: “Won’t you please, won’t you please turn that camera off?” The taper turned it off. The next night I grabbed the setlist and asked him to sign it. He looked down and said, “I’m going to need that back.” Bucking his reputation ca. 2001, he was very nice and chatted with this 18-year-old for twenty minutes. The option was open to go somewhere for drinks, but I didn’t have a fake and wasn’t a bad ass.
Concert bootlegs used to be exciting to me, but these YouTube videos are torturous. They trade my imagination of the event for evidence of the very worst, most flattened parts of it. They don’t allow room for singing along. They don’t allow the moment to feel bigger than it was.
I Instagrammed a photo of Bill during this song and captioned it, “Bill dedicated this George Jones song to me because he said he’s glad I’m in such a good place, thanks, Bill.” I felt guilty Instagramming during the show, as if Bill wouldn’t appreciate it. In 2001 I asked Bill what he’d like the audience to do while he played—because often he locks people in a death stare, you know?—and he said, “Dance.”
He seemed tired this week. The setlist was a bummer.
Bill is a character in my life. He has been around for 15 years. He is a steady and wise companion. He has facilitated many breakthroughs and some regrettable episodes. My humor and shirt choices have been influenced by him. I’ve also figured out that if you make that Bell’s palsy face, you can sing more like him. I’m thinking about writing him a letter to apologize for something on my last blog, perhaps as a way of saying some things that might be interesting to him about being a fan vs. being a person, but it’d be less awkward to let sleeping dogs lie.
I’m sorry that you can’t see the back of my head in this video. I was just left of the frame. The back of my head looks beautiful lately.