Friday, June 22, 2007

Heathrow Mall of the UK

I have an 8-hour layover here at Heathrow's International Terminal 4. Since my favorite thing to do in the world is sit and watch people, it's not actually so bad. I have my quote scrolls kit with me, so I can just sit with my hands busy, speculating about people's stories to my heart's content.

Most of you know that I'm a little nervous plunging into new cultures. If this were a Joseph Campbell-style hero's journey, this giant, expensive mall would be the threshhold, like the Cantina on Mose Eisley. I'm feeling OK, though. I'm writing a lot of observations, which is always a good sign. I'll share as many of them with you as I can before my time runs out.

I started by making a slow trudge around the circuit of the stores to get a sense for the landscape. I stopped in the first bookstore I came across because my friend Doug (the only person I know anywhere near London) said that although I'm one of the few people that he'd be willing to make the hour and a half drive in to the airport to have lunch with me, friends of his were getting married out in the sticks today. He said that I should look for his book, Owen Noone and the Marauder in the bookstores, though and if it wasn't there, make a big stink with the kid behind the counter, asking why not. I don't think I'm quite willing to make a stink, but I did look for his book. His last name is Cowie and I thought for a moment we had hit jackpot as my eyes found the C-Os, but alas, it was Douglas Copeland. However, there was a book-sized space exactly where his book would be if they were carrying it, so there is still a glimmer of hope.

Speaking of making a big stink, by this time I was letting loose a couple of really big, clapping farts, so I went to find a bathroom. Also, the music store across the hall from the bookstore played Creedence Clearwater Revival, followed by Procol Harum and the American classic rock was feeling just a little surreal. As I entered the gleaming white stall, I saw that the dispenser for the toilet paper had fallen open on the hinge located at the bottom, pushing me to the left as I sat. In the dispenser I saw pre-cut slices of toilet paper of the perfect size for one good swipe. Nothing stingy about it. The stall door was so big that there was no frame to indicate any sort of room-like atmosphere. Instead, it felt like entering a short hallway with an odd toilet at the end of it.

Leaving the bathrooms, a restaurant was piping Peter Gabriel's Strawberry Hill, a song that a boyfriend of mine called "ubiquitous" and so I've never been able to hear it (and you hear it a lot) without calling it The Ubiquitous Strawberry Hill in my head.

Interestingly, the duty free shops employ lovely young women to wear costume to sell perfume. In one shop, two light-skinned Indian women wore white beach clothes with white flowers over one ear and in another stores, two Pacific Asian women wore elaborate Hawiian costumes with grass skirts and ornamental belts. It reminds me of Jackie in That 70s Show, who wears the sexy Bavarian costume with a straight face while working for the Cheese Hut. To me, costumed sales girls reflects a time in American history in which kitsch and camp were not considered kitsch and camp but rather creative and clever. Or should I say, creative and klever?

There is a preponderance of novels in the bookstores that are unashamedly sordid tales of incest. They have titles like When Daddy Comes Home, Abandoned, and Don't Tell Mummy. I have seen at least 8 different books and they all have the same cover design: mostly white background with a large picture of a blond child's head and shoulders above the fold. The title is written out, as if in the child's own hand. I'm not sure what to think about this or what it's disturbing correlation is in American culture (I'm sure there is one). It's got me wigged out, though.

I sampled Pimm's, which I've heard about before on NPR but haven't gotten a chance to try since it's only available in the UK. One could get very drunk on samples of Pimm's in this mall since there are at least three stores offering very nearly full shots of it.

The cigarette packages don't pull any punches around here. They have warning that say in very big letters, "SMOKING KILLS" and "SMOKING IS ADDICITIVE AND VERY DIFFICULT TO QUIT." Amazing - the human desire to destroy itself.

I like watching strangers ask each other questions and get kind responses. My experience is usually with informational self-sufficiency: both my own and the people around me. We can look everything up on the internet ahead of time. It's interesting to see people creating even small community because they have needs.

Finally, I like my traveling companions so far. Three of them were on the flight with me from Chicago and none of the suggested that we hang out during the layover, nor did they linger upon being ejected from security. They went their own direction without a backwards look. They know we'll be spending plenty of time together over the next two weeks, so they're taking their last moments of privacy now.

My kind of people.

This might not be so bad after all. :-)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Simple Way

I just found out through Arloa's blog that Shane Claiborne's home and the homes of eight families in his neighborhood burned down last night. Their website has a summary of this disaster and some pretty disturbing and beautiful photographs of the conflagration.

Most of you know that I consider Shane my nemesis ever since I read his book, Irresistible Revolution. With his life, he has been able to do what I know would be best for me, but have not yet had the courage to do. Because of my jealousy for that, he is my nemesis. I credit him with being the catalyst in the chemical equation of events that is now sending me to Africa tomorrow (no new blog posts until after July 5, sorry). Shane has been great about his nemesis status, laughing about it when my dad sends him links to my blog about it and sending home a great note with him from a board meeting they both attended.

He is also a great public speaker, displaying humor, charm and love. The seminar of his that I attended at last year's CCDA conference was so full of the Holy Spirit that I sang with other Christians and loved it. Rare, I know. He actually served communion after his presentation, providing bread and juice. You could choose from bread from the store and "redeemed bread" that came from a dumpster. He started singing songs I knew like, "I love you Lord and I lift my voice to worship you, oh my soul, rejoice. Take joy, my king, in what you hear. May it be a sweet sweet sound in your ear." I haven't sung that since high school. When it died out, random people started other songs spontaneously to fill the quiet that could be sung without a worship band while each of us went to take communion when we were ready.

He turned a conference seminar in the middle of a boring hotel room with those moveable panels for walls into worship.

A worthy adversary.

So, there is an empty pit in my stomach that he has lost everything he owned, even if he believes it was important not to own much. I also feel an emptiness for his neighbors, under-resourced people who didn't have much more than a social network to begin with. I am assuming there is very little fire insurance involved for these eight families that might now have to move away from their greatest resource: their community. Thankfully, no one was hurt, even of the 170 fire fighters who fought the blaze.

Please pray for The Simple Way, Shane and his neighbors. If (like me) you are moved to make a donation, that information is available on The Simple Way's website.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

I'm in Hell!

Some of you may know that I'm a compulsive reader. If it has words and is anywhere within my field of vision, I'm reading it. I recently clapped out loud when I came across the phrase, "even the wafer of text on the cereal box."

So, I'm in Hilton Head with my family and I have my own room, queen sized bed and bathroom. However, I could give it all up soon just to give my eyes a rest. The family that owns this condo has seen fit to paper my bathroom with novelty wallpaper. Not the good kind of novelty wallpaper, with odd yellow cartoon ducks and people in yellow towels that seem to be on the verge of slipping off. No, this novelty wallpaper is a simply ivory background with a variety of aphorisms written in various fonts in black.

I love quotes. Good quotes.

However, because of this passion, bad quotes cause me physical pain.

This wallpaper is covered in bad quotes.

And I can't not read them.

Brushing my teeth, I read them.

Your ulcers aren't caused by what you're eatin' but by what's eatin' you.

Sitting on the toilet, I read them.

I'm not opinionated. I just tell it like it is.

Taking a shower, I read them.

Life is hard by the yard; but by the inch, life's a cinch!

Hanging my towel, I read them.

Old age isn't so bad . . . when you consider the alternative.

Retrieving my aloe vera, I read them.

Just about the time you think you can make ends meet, somebody moves the ends.

I am in hell.

Pray for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I like singing in harmony. It makes me feel better about being different. When you sing the alto line in a group of people who are singing the melody, nobody gets annoyed because they have to shift their routines or their thinking to accomodate you. They just cock their heads a little when their ears realize that something is different and then they sink into a certain peace at the loveliness of the sound. Their faces relax and they keep singing, sometimes putting even a little more into it, to highten the experience. It's a visceral metaphor for the rest of my life and so I relish the chances that I get to do it.

Once a month at my new church, they have Taize vespers. Sunday evening's was the first that I had attended. It was glorious. Before the service started, Nanette said that we were going to learn the alto part to one of the choruses. The words were simply, "O God, you love us, source of compassion." These words and their simple melody line are repeated over and over to allow for prayer amidst the repetition. The group learned the alto line with Rob, the keyboardist's, help.

Then, we began the service. I learned from the old ladies on the island that people like it when those who can sing well sing out in small groups at church. They said that they enjoyed listening and I hope it gave them room to sing louder and feel their wn power. Feeling like the group tutorial gave me the last permission I needed, I sang harmony on any chorus that included it. We sang "In our God we'll be ever thankful, in our God we will rejoice! Look to God, do not be afraid; lift up your voices, for God is near; lift up your voices, for God is near," and "Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Let not my doubts nor my darkness speak to me. Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Let my heart always welcome your love." All humilty, simple joy and plaintive prayer for improvement. None of that Lord-you-are-worthy-to-be-praised shit that is more about how cool the singer is for being smart enough to choose Jesus than about how cool God is. The only thing that is worshipped in most Contemporary Christian praise songs is the human who is singing.

I have never sung Taize although I have heard about it before. I found it effective for giving me a chance to be contemplative. Singing alto also requires me to sit up straight, open up my torso to work out the kinks and to breathe because my range doesn't easily go below middle C. Interestingly, this is the same position that I settle myself into for meditation in yoga. It is powerful to be able to breathe deeply and without obstacle. I have received several wonderful notes from people to encourage me during my trip to Africa. A friend from the island, Bridget, wrote me a note that reminded me to keep breathing and I was so grateful to have west coast friends who realize that breathing is something more than an automatic response to lack of oxygen. So, having to sing lower than I normally do put my body in a position to pray, which means I was in a position to open myself up and let God into all of the places in my life that I have pushed him out of. Like Leonard Cohen says, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." There are cracks in everything and we squish ourselves up to keep from leaking. Singing low notes makes me stretch out so that God can repair the damage. Remember that the ancient words for breath, life and spirit were all the same.

When we got to the song we had learned before the service started, it sounded like I was the only one singing the harmony, which was fine with me. It was particularly deep and slow and after singing it 10 or 12 times, we drifted into silence and I had read in the bulletin earlier that this silence would last 10 minutes to really give us a chance to listen for God. It said, "When we try to express communion with God in words, we rapidly reach the end of or capabilities." I love that. I hadn't thought about the fact that our conversations with God are fairly one-sided, with us doing all of the talking, even though he has so much more to offer. So, as these 10 minutes started, I was lucky enough to already be stretched out, sitting centered on my spine, with my chest open. It was like I was halfway there already to being filled with God's light again.

I like this church.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Fifth Guy

Congratulations to my Aunt Cynthia, who is a public health nurse in Florida. This is a state that takes public health so seriously that it created this cool-ass video to get people to wash their hands more.

My grandmother has always been a radical hand-washer and has insisted that her grandchildren be so, as well. "Did you wash your hands?" was a frequent question of my childhood in her presence.

Good job Aunt Cynthia following in your mother's footsteps, even if only by association.

It's good enough.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Medill Reports Chicago

Last week, I told you about a service I attended at Wicker Park Grace. I mentioned a reporter that was there but I didn't tell you that she interviewed me for a while and thanked me for being so "articulate." Whatever.

So, it turns out that she wrote an article about churches that use multi-media as part of their life and I'm the hook and eye of the story! Take a look here.

Yup, those are my pearly white legs there in the picture. Pretty cool, huh?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tableau from my back porch

I was sitting on my back porch on a recent weekend morning, relaxing and looking out over the empty lots under the El tracks behind my building. At the far side of the lot, a large cargo van had been parked and a variety of vegetables had been laid out on the ground in milk crates, along with a food-vending cart with large vessels of juice and horchata and prepared fruits and cucumbers, sliced lengthwise like pickles. Folding chairs and brightly-colored umbrellas dotted the entire scene. Several Hispanic adults tended this stand.

Closer to me, in the shade of the El tracks, the grandfather and a little boy, not yet two years old, practiced pitching pebbles. The grandfather looked like so many Hispanic old men in my neighborhood look: short, paunchy but not fat, wearing brown polyester slacks and a tan button-down shirt, possibly with western styling and mother-of-pearl snaps. He wore a white cowboy hat. He was patiently training the boy to stand with his left side pointed at the target: a vertical I-beam. His joy at the process and the boy’s mixed attentiveness and baby-wandering were beautiful to watch. Also, the boy had already started to master the over-hand throw with his pudgy little arms: leading with the elbow and following through with the wrist and torso.

They were distracted from their slow-paced lesson when an older boy dropped his T-shirt off the El platform and problem-solving ensued to get it back to him. I went into the house then.

A neat little urban vignette.