One of the fundamental things that I've learned over the last eleven years of living in community with the beauty and dysfunction of life is that heartbreak and hope always go together. They cannot live without each other; they cannot be separated. As horrendously irreconciliable and opposed as they often seem, they are ultimately as symbiotic as soil and water. I had a couple of different experiences today that made me have to account once again for this tumultuous marriage of heartbreak and hope. In relating them I want to invert the order of their occurence. That is one thing that we can control, and is often times the only way to make sense of the sequence of at once difficult and divine events.
So, I decided this morning to visit an old neighbor who recently called me and told me he was working at a local machine shop. He sounded content and it seemed like he'd really found a good job situation. I got to know him pretty well while we were neighbors and we spent quite a bit of time together. Through various circumstances (many within his control) he became homeless and lived for quite some time at the Hope Center. He was a regular at Phoenix Park and I occassionally spent time with him whenever passing through on my way to the bank. He did some work for me and through it all we managed to remain connected and encourage each other, largely due to his initiative. So, I stopped by his shop this morning and learned that he was no longer employed there. "He's one of the folks that got caught up in the lay-offs," said an office employee politely. I walked away feeling shaken and disturbed. The reality of the current economic crisis just became a lot more personal for me. I will not say more here........
Earlier in the morning, as I was leaving home, I saw one of my neighbors, garbage bag and tongs in hand, picking up small pieces of trash along our street and the Meadowthorpe Mall that fronts our neighborhood. She and her husband do this and many other things for the neighborhood routinely. They are an amazing example of servanthood and civic commitment. As I watched her picking up the trash my mind immediately went in several different directions. I thought about writing a note to thank her and her husband for their sterling example. At the same time I thought about all of the time that I've spent in poor urban environments where trash is regularly thrown on to the streets and vacant lots quickly become de facto junkyards. I found my thoughts ensnared quickly in a quandary. Can I honestly expect people in poor, essentially forgotten about neighborhoods, to pick up trash like my middle-class neighbors? Can I honestly expect them to display an attitude of "civic duty" when they're struggling to survive the next mortgage/rent payment, find the next job, overcome the next illness, recover from the last deadbeat boyfriend,..........? Can I honestly expect them to care about the appearance of a corner on which someone they knew personally got shot, or about a city and a society that does not pay them a livable wage, discriminates against them, and only seems to think about their neighborhood when it is time to talk about redevelopment? The only reason that my neighbors pick up trash is because they have the time, they have the luxury, they have the means......right? My neighbor's sense of duty and commitment flows from a life of relative privilege, a life of security, opportunity, a life without discrimination or excessive reasons to renounce hope....right? When you strip everything else away the "cleanliness" and "beauty" of wealthier neighborhoods only masks the dirt and filth of unjust and discriminatory societal structures that are used (at the expense of others) to make sullied lives look clean.......right? These questions are overwhelming at times for me. I'm sorry if this relatively raw discourse upsets any apple carts.......but it is upsetting mine......mostly in the right ways....I think?
Anyhow, I took hope in watching my neighbor pick up trash this morning and do things for our neighborhood that I'm always too "busy" to do because I'm trying to "do good" somewhere else. And at the same time I'm heartbroken about my friend who fought his way up from homelessness only (or is it only?) to "get caught up" in the Tsunami of lay-offs (confirmed victims in the millions).....and I'm heartbroken about all the neighborhoods where trash lies strewn in the streets and the people have no time, resources or reason to pick it up...because they're just struggling to survive...and where boarded up homes are abandoned while people sleep on the garbage strewn sidewalks.....it is definitely far easier for me and my neighbors to pick up the trash-so is there any real value in our efforts? I believe that there is and always can be....no matter where you are...but that is easy for me to say......right?