Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Counting Every Joy: My Last Week in Chicago

It’s finally summer in Chicago again. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the ice cream man is attracting droves of children with the jingling bells on his ice cream cart. As I sit here and type this, workmen are busy installing air conditioners in the monastery’s library windows. The banners in the chapel are green for “OT” (Ordinary Time) again. I’ve finally come full circle: Chicago feels exactly how it did when I arrived last August. But I feel like a completely different person.

I can’t believe I’m leaving on Sunday. It feels surreal. It’s so weird to hear everyone making plans— for summer program, a new semester of ESL classes, St. Scholastica’s big annual testimonial dinner—knowing that I won’t be a part of it. It’s humbling to realize that people’s lives go on without you.

Last Thursday I had my last day with S. Mary’s ESL class at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center. Everyone surprised me with a farewell party. Sister Mary arranged two beautiful platters of chocolate and vanilla mini-cupcakes, and Fabienne had all the children of the ESL students paint pictures for me. But it was the students themselves that completely shocked me. Each one wrote me an individual card, in Spanish and English, and bought me a gift. I found out later that they had all called Fabienne the week before, asking what she thought I would like. They gave me scarves, jewelry, chocolates.. even a clock decorated with a picture of the Chicago skyline, as a reminder of my time here.

I was reading a card from one of my students, a full letter written in near-perfect English, when I realized something— I really made a difference in this person’s life. Of course that’s what I always hoped to do, but it comes on gradually, so slow you don’t even notice it. Making a difference is not about doing something big at all. The difference is in the little things: showing up to class every day and wanting to be there. Really listening to a person while they talk. Asking a follow-up question to show that you understand what they’re saying and that you care.  It’s so small, it feels like just a drop in the bucket. But it’s something, and it matters.

The other thing I’ve figured out this year is that you don’t just swoop in and “make a difference” in someone’s life without them making a difference in yours. It has to be an equal exchange or it doesn’t count. And I can honestly say that I am a different person because of my students. They have every reason to be tired, worn-down, bitter, angry. And sometimes they are. But still they invite me into their lives and allow me to know them. I am constantly blown away by the sheer force of their generosity, as evidenced both by their material gifts and the gift of themselves. Every day they show me what it means to give, and as a result, I give more of myself than I could have imagined at the beginning.

The rest of this week brings more “lasts.” The last episode of Dancing with the Stars, which I will watch with S. Patti and S. Rita over a bag of Cheetos and a glass of wine tonight. My last art class with the infirmary sisters, where I will hopefully finish the watercolor sunflowers I have been working on for the last two weeks. My last day with the kids at the Indo American Center. They keep asking me over and over, "Why are you leaving us? Why do you have to go back to Minnesota? You'll be here next year right?" I still don't really know what to say. These are really hard questions to answer. 

 I think the hardest, though, will be to say goodbye to the sisters. I really feel like we have become part of each other’s lives this year. I can’t imagine not going to prayers with them every morning, eating dinner with them every evening. I can’t imagine not seeing Sister Agnes tending the flowers in her voluminous sun hat, or Sister Mary watching Jeopardy every afternoon from 3:30-4. I will miss Sister Johnette greeting me when I get home in the evening with a cheerful “Hello cupcake!” and then listening while I tell her about my day. I will miss each and every one of her 300 or so cat sweaters.

Sister Joan Chittister said, “Every stage of life has a joy of its own. Refusing to move on only denies us that new pleasure.” I think she is right, and that’s how I am trying to approach this transition. But I also believe that what makes it hard to move on from a place is when you’ve experienced as many joys as I have here. As I prepare to move forward, I feel so grateful for each and every one of these joys, and the people in Chicago—sisters, oblates, students, staff, children, immigrants, coworkers— that have brought joy into my life and changed me for the better.  

Sister Mary and me, at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center

Our advanced English class after the surprise party

An adorable thank you note from 4-year-old Janet (with help from Fabienne)

Enjoying the sun on the first nice day of the year

We love park day SO MUCH

Caught in the act (of reading)

Reading Rainbow Fish. She tells me every day "I am going to miss you so much."

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Biggest Walking Meditation Ever: My Journey Around Geneva Lake

I went in to teach ESL at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center today and was greeted by Fabienne (my German friend) jumping up and down yelling “It’s summer! It’s summer!”

While it’s not exactly summer yet, it’s true that all of a sudden Chicago has burst into bloom. The trees have their leaves back, the grass is green, and every yard, it seems, has its own collection of daffodils, violets and tulips. Even the dogs in my neighborhood have shed their tacky little sweaters (mostly). Every time I step outside, I can hardly stop myself from filling my phone with picture after picture of trees and flowers, which I can’t help but share here:

A tree blossoms outside an apartment building in my neighborhood

the monastery grounds, carpeted in tulips

like a lemonade stand.. but for free, and with flowers

All this life and color is very uplifting for the spirits after months of winter blues, but it also reminds me that my time here is drawing to a close. I try not to dwell on that too much, but the thought of leaving makes me very sad. And the thought of trying to figure out what I’m going to do after my year here is over consumes a lot of my thoughts and worries.

Last week I really needed a break from all these thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head. Luckily the opportunity to take my mind off of things presented itself in the most unexpected way: with a mammoth feat of physical endurance.

Way back in the fall, I met up with Hannah and Heather, two friends from my first year at St. Ben’s, and we took a trip to Heather’s hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Inspired by our 5 mile walk along the lakefront, we set a date to return: this time our goal would be to walk around the entire circumference of Geneva Lake via the lakefront trail. And that date happened to be last Saturday.

Somehow, by chance, last Saturday was the first really beautiful, warm day of the spring. We started our walk around the lake just after lunch, at 12:30, from Heather’s parents’ house. We walked and walked and walked.  Sometimes we talked, sometimes we just walked in silence. 

At mile number 15, I thought I couldn’t go on. My feet were so sore I could barely keep putting one in front of the other. Only the encouragement of Hannah and Heather combined with the numbing effect of the ice cold lake water on my feet inspired me to forge ahead.

We finally finished our journey in the same place we started—the strip of beach in front of Heather’s house—at 10 pm. We had been walking almost continuously for 9 and a half hours. The last three miles or so we walked almost completely in the dark, picking our way along the path by the light of a cellphone flashlight.

For me, walking in the dark was the most significant part of the journey. In the light of day, it had been easy to look at the trail winding endlessly ahead around the vast expanse of water, and think “How many more miles is that? It looks like at least 10 or 11. Oh gosh, I can’t even see the other side of the bay from here.. I’m never going to make it!” and so on. But I found that in the dark, the lake, its neighboring towns, and the miles of trail completely disappeared. The whole world shrunk to the exact size of the patch of light illuminating the ground right in front of my feet. For those last three miles, I was so tired I couldn’t even think. But the empty space in my mind was a relief.

When we finally made it across the threshold of Heather’s front door, Heather’s parents were waiting up for us with brownies and ice packs. I felt like the survivor of a plane wreck who had just battled miles of wilderness to finally reenter civilization. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But I did feel like a different person than the one who left that same house at 12:30. Because I did something that I genuinely did not believe I could do. So in that way it felt kind of a pilgrimage, even though the destination was the same as the starting point.

It’s been a week since our journey around the lake, but the experience left me revitalized and rejuvenated. That constructive time away has really helped me approach my service work as well as my own thoughts with a new perspective. And when I do feel stressed, I keep reminding myself that God will handle the big picture; all I have to do is follow that little patch of light and keep putting one foot in front of the other. If I can do Geneva Lake, I can do anything.


Enjoying sunset on the beach (7 more miles to go!)

Running away from the freezing cold water

In other news:

One of the alums of the sisters’ school, St. Scholastica Academy, wrote and directed a one-woman comedy called Late Night Catechism. S. Benita was kind enough to arrange free tickets for myself and Fabienne. We attended the show this weekend and had a blast!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Light in Darkness: A Vigil Against Violence

I love my life here in Chicago, but it has its downsides. Even risks, you might say.

Two weeks ago, an 18-year-old boy was chased down and shot on the street right in front of the monastery. The shooting happened at 4:30 in the afternoon, within a one block radius of an elementary school and a daycare.  The boy’s name was Antonio Johnson. Nobody knows why it happened or who is responsible.

While the issue of gun control, especially as it relates to mass shootings, has been in the news a lot lately, this was the first time that gun violence has really hit close to home for me. My neighborhood of Rogers Park is on the north side, in one of the safer parts of Chicago. Though there are some active gangs, they aren't as prevalent here and remain mostly invisible to me in my daily life. For other parts of the city, though, that is far from true. 

I think the saddest part about this shooting is that something so horrific barely makes the news anymore. This year alone there have been 815 shootings in Chicago; last year there were 2,988. On January 11th 2016, the Chicago Tribune ran a story headlined “10 Days into the New Year, More than 100 People Shot in Chicago.”

In the face of so much violence, it is easy to just shake your head and feel depressed for a second and then move on to the next thing. But the community I live with didn’t do that.

Last Wednesday, some of the sisters (spearheaded by S. Benita Coffey) organized a prayer vigil and march along Birchwood Avenue where Antonio was chased by his killer up to Ridge Avenue, where he was fatally shot. Attending this vigil was a very moving experience. Despite the wind and rain, around 40-50 people showed up to the event— not only sisters and oblates from the monastery but also members of the surrounding community. I saw all kinds of people – black, white, Hispanic, single people, families with their children. Even S. Vivian, who is 100 years old, braved the rain to be there. We sang together, S. Pat Coughlin read from Psalms, and S. Judith Murphy sprinkled holy water on the road where Antonio died.

S. Benita said the whole point of the vigil was to “reclaim the place for peace.” But for me, and for many of the other people there I suspect, the main reason for coming to the vigil was to do something. To show that, despite not knowing Antonio, I still care. To express my shock and sorrow and belief that what happened is not ok. By providing the people of Rogers Park a very active and public way to share that with the world and each other, I think the sisters gave the neighborhood a gift. And I was glad to be a part of it.

Click here to see a video of the NBC Chicago coverage of the event (You'll spot me in a few places)

the crowd retraces Antonio Johnson's steps, holding candles

S. Judith Murphy leads a prayer

S. Vivian hold the holy water while S. Benita, S. Johnette, and S. Maryann look on

Me, concentrating hard to light a candle in the rain

S. Benita takes questions from the media

In other news, this week we began our spring semester at the Indo American Center. I had the opportunity to welcome new students as well as hand out certificates to several of my old students. As these beginner students move up to level one, I’m going to miss having them in my class, but at the same time I couldn’t be more proud of their accomplishments.

This week I also celebrated an accomplishment of my own.. Myself and two of my fellow teachers at IAC received Outstanding Tutor Awards from Literacy Volunteers of Illinois. How’s that for a little pick me up!

Me with the Beginner (now Level One!) students

Monday, April 4, 2016

Easter Season, Special Visitors, and a Very Important Speech

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog, but that’s because I’ve been busy! Over Palm Sunday, I was lucky enough to receive a visit from my mother and father, my sister Muriel, and her boyfriend Sahil. We ate out for dinner every night and spent our evenings playing board games together in the guest house.

Then the week preceding Easter was just a flurry of activity. I felt like I didn’t sit down all of Holy Week except for Tenebrae and prayers. I helped Sister Mary get out the fancy dishes and scrub the dining room, where I think we removed 20 + years of dust. I also sang in the schola for the Good Friday mass, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday mass; plus I did at least one scripture reading each day and two on Saturday. At Easter Vigil I did my reading from Isaiah as a duet with Sister Johnette. Between each stanza we sang a verse from Come to the Water while Sister Judith played guitar. I was actually very nervous for this because it was the first time in my entire life that I have ever sung in public (not as part of a choir). Luckily everything went well, and I think those in attendance enjoyed our performance.

I spent the rest of last week trying to catch up on my rest before this weekend, when I had another visitor: Sherene, my good friend from high school. It just so happened that while Sherene was visiting, my high school concert band was also touring Chicago. It all worked out so that she and I were able to meet my old band director (who was also my piano teacher for 10 years) for deep dish pizza and join them in viewing the musical Matilda downtown. 

On the train with Sahil and Muriel

Sherene and me

Sherene and me at the corner of happy and healthy (aka Walgreen's)

So you can see I’ve been so caught up in living that I haven’t had time to blog about my life. Hopefully, though, this has got you all up to date.

There’s so much more I could say about the whirlwind of these last few weeks, but for the sake of time I will just share one story that touched me and made me (for the hundredth time) happy and grateful that I came to Chicago this year.

The story starts on the feast of St. Scholastica, our monastery’s namesake, when I was seated next to one of our oblates at dinner. I didn’t even remember meeting her until she contacted me a few weeks later, saying that, as a member and organizer of the West Ridge Historical Society, she was hoping to feature a neighborhood organization at their monthly meeting.   Remembering our conversation about my work at the Indo American Center, she invited me as well as any of my colleagues or students that might be interested to come speak about IAC at their next meeting.

I was thrilled. And I knew just who should be our student speaker.   

Zubeda was one of my first students when I began teaching ESL at IAC. She was always one of the most active and enthusiastic participants in class, not to mention one of the most generous people I had ever met. Over the past few months, I’d gotten used to receiving all kinds of spontaneous gifts from her— a handful of cough drops in the winter, homemade chicken biryani, a batch of fresh-baked muffins.. she even brought her leftover pizza in to share. She was such a dedicated student, she would come to the Center on Saturdays to get extra practice, though her English was already good. I was so happy when she agreed to speak at the event on behalf of the Center.

On the day of the meeting I was feeling nervous. There were way more people than I expected. And as nervous as I was, I can’t imagine how Zubeda must have felt, one tiny Pakistani woman in her headscarf staring out at what seemed like a vast sea of English-speaking Americans. But luckily we had a supportive entourage— my mother and father, who were visiting at the time, my co-teacher Nayana, and Zubeda’s daughter Sanober.

Zubeda’s voice shook as she read from her meticulously prepared notecards, but then grew stronger as she told the crowd about her experience at the Indo American Center, a place that she loves and where she finds community. At the end of her speech, Zubeda received a thunderous round of applause. Smiling from ear to ear, she told me, “In Pakistan I am giving speeches all the time.. but this is my first time ever speaking to the American people!”

For everyone in the audience, it was just a ten minute presentation at a monthly historical society meeting. But for Zubeda, the occasion was momentous. 

This was one of the proudest moments of my time here. Not only did I get to introduce my parents to one of my favorite students, but I also got to introduce some of the (mostly white, Judeo-Christian) Rogers Park residents to Zubeda, their new neighbor.

When I came to the Center on Monday, I found an extra large chocolate cake that Zubeda had brought to share with everyone in celebration of her success. She had also posted the index cards containing the text of her speech on the bulletin board along with a note which read,

“The staff members Teachers and students of I.A.C.

My name is ZUBEDA YASIN. I am the student of civic class. I gave the speech of about I.A.C. services. My speech is good and successful and everybody appreciated me. Thank God. ZUBEDA YASIN.”

Me and my fellow teacher Nayana

Giving our presentation

Zubeda speaks

Zubeda, her daughter Sanober, me, and Nayana

Zubeda's notecards, posted on the bulletin board at IAC

Monday, March 14, 2016

Where Black and White Meets Color

Sometimes grammar can just be too much.  

That’s why this week, we did something a little different for my beginner ESL class at the Indo American Center. After learning the names of various fruits—banana, cherry, pineapple, kiwi— the students and I did a fruits basket coloring page.

Adult coloring boks are kind of a fad right now, one that I so far haven’t really gotten into. But the students really seem to enjoy it, and as I sat coloring with them, I started to see why. 

In a world where problems can seem so nebulous and events so random, the structure of coloring in the lines is refreshing. The only decision you have to make is, should I do this peach first or the pear? Should my grapes be red or green? There is something very satisfying about taking a half hour out of the week and letting your world shrink to the size of a piece of paper, your only task to take something drab and colorless and make it beautiful.

This is especially important for the class I teach because most of the students are refugees.  Not only are they trying to navigate the mammoth task of living in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language or have a strong support system, but many of them are also recovering from the whatever traumatic events forced them to leave home. One student described being tortured in a Burmese prison, pulling down the collar of his shirt to reveal long scars puckering the skin of his chest. He used his hands and face to supplement the few English words he could summon up—no money, pain, hungry— describing men shooting guns, people dying in front of him. For him, coloring provided an opportunity to temporarily escape from problems bigger than I can even conceptualize. 

Of all the students though, Linda enjoyed coloring the most. Linda is from Iraq, a member of one of the Christian minority groups that have been systematically persecuted in that country. Once the avid note-taker and vocal participant, the last two weeks she could hardly make it through a class period without crying. Today, though, she stayed in her seat long after all the other students had gone, determined to finish every last apple leaf and cherry stem. I sat with her and we colored together in silence for nearly twenty minutes. This was the first time I had seen her smile in two weeks.  

That was a really significant moment for me. There’s really so little I can do for Linda.. I can’t even ask her what’s wrong in words that she can understand. But at least I could give her a little bit of space and time away from whatever terrible things make a grown woman come to her English class crying every day. 

I used to have this idea that I needed to do something big and grand to change the world. However, my experience this year is teaching me more and more every day that making the world a better place  really happens in ways so small and mundane they can seem like nothing. 

In other news, this weekend I attended the St. Patrick's Day parade (featuring troupes of bagpipers, Irish dancers, and various marching bands) and witnessed the Chicago River dyed bright green. It seemed like the entire city went nuts for St. Patrick's Day, Irish and non-Irish alike. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Personal Growth Opportunities

So far in this blog I’ve written a lot about positive things and not a lot about the things that have challenged me and helped me grow. With the kids especially, there are times when situations arise where it’s hard to know how to respond. There’s one in particular that sticks out in my mind that I wish I had handled differently.

All the kids were sitting together at a table coloring. It was Kelile’s 6th birthday. She always likes to be in the spotlight, but on this afternoon she was positively glowing, reminding us over and over “It’s my birthday!” and demanding special privileges (“I get to sit in the middle because it’s my birthday, right? I don’t have to help clean up because it’s my birthday, right?”). When her best friend Aditi walked in, Kelile burst out, “Aditi you have to come to my birthday party!” To which one of the other girls replied, “Aditi’s grandmother won’t let her come to your birthday party. We are Indians, and Indians never go to black people’s birthday parties.” [Kelile is black, Aditi is Indian].

Of course I should have said something. I remember my mouth involuntarily dropping open. I was so shocked. I already knew this sentiment (lighter is better, darker is worse) existed within the Indian community, hearkening back to the British colonial period and maybe even earlier to the Aryan empire and the advent of the caste system. But I have never heard anything so blatantly prejudiced, especially not from the mouth of a little child.

I knew right away that this was coming from her parents. I didn’t want to embarrass the girl in front of all the other kids by calling her and her family racist. I didn’t want to punish her if she didn’t even know what she was saying. And I never want to put the kids in a position where they have to decide who to believe, me or their parents. So I didn’t say anything. All I did was stand there gaping like a fish before clumsily trying to change the subject.

Kelile didn’t say anything either. She just looked a little bewildered. Normally Kelile has no problem asking a million questions when she doesn’t understand something, but this time she just went back to her coloring without saying a word.

I was reminded of the incident again this week while tutoring at another after-school program where the kids are mostly Hispanic. One of the sixth grade boys came in looking upset. “I really hate that guy,” he said. “Who do you hate?” I asked. “Donald Trump. He hates Mexicans, he wants to kick them out of the country. All my friends are Mexican.” It surprised me to hear a sixth grader talking about politics. It surprised me even more to hear the very genuine hurt in his voice. In my experience, when a sixth grade boy is feeling hurt, he rarely lets on.

But then I really thought about what it must feel like, to be hearing this kind of message demonizing you and your community from a major presidential candidate. That would be bad enough. But even worse, I think, would to hear the American people agreeing with him.

After all the kids had gone home, I found a crumpled piece of notebook paper while I was picking up the classroom. On it someone had drawn a gesticulating Trump in crayon with the caption “We’re building a wall.” It made me so profoundly sad.  I folded it and put it in my pocket. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed he had drawn around Trump a full stick-person audience, and every one of them was wearing a big, adoring smile.

This made me think again about Kelile’s birthday party incident, and how I didn’t say anything when the Indian girls were talking about refusing to associate with black people. How hurtful it must have been for Kelile to hear that, even if she didn’t fully understand what was going on. And how hurtful it must have been to see me letting it happen, like a smiling stick figure at a Donald Trump rally.

Here at the monastery, the sisters gave me a calendar for Christmas featuring quotes from famous spiritual leaders. The month of February has a quote from Gandhi which reads, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.” It’s easy to agree with that while I am sitting in my comfy chair in the library writing this blog post, but harder to live it out in the moment, when a tense situation presents itself. I’m glad, though, that I have been exposed to this kind of tense situation, even if I didn’t respond correctly at the time. I believe it is just preparation for my next opportunity to non-cooperate with evil. 

Note: I changed the kids' names in this post to be respectful of them and their privacy. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Tropical Vacation: Field Trip to the Conservatory

Last December, Sister Mary, Fabienne and I took our advanced English class to the Baha’i House of Worship for a little field trip. At that time, the concept of ESL field trips was completely new to me. At the Indo American Center, it turns out, they take their students on field trips around the city all the time—to the Shedd Aquarium, the art museum, the public library, and, last week, to the Garfield Park Conservatory.

I think these field trips are really important because they give students access to parts of the city that many of them wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see. Most don’t drive, and for the beginner level students especially, public transportation is hard to navigate with limited English. Many of the students have lived in Chicago for years but never strayed far from Devon Avenue. That’s why field trip days are a big deal. On the day of our field trip, the rented school bus was so jam-packed full of all 55 students (plus 6 kids) that me and the other teachers had to drive separate. I noticed that many of the students had dressed up in their best clothes and make-up for the occasion.. one student's outfit looked more fit for a nightclub than a botanical garden.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is basically like a huge green house with all kinds of tropical trees and ferns and flowers. It’s like a warm, steamy oasis in the middle of a freezing Chicago winter. The students got two hours to wander around with their friends and explore on their own. I was walking next to Ben (a refugee from Iraq) who pointed out many different plants that he recognized from his home country. “Banana tree,” he explained, pointing. “Not yet finish,” indicating the lack of fruit. The students always find creative ways to fill the gaps in their English vocabulary. I was admiring a mini-waterfall when one student, also a refugee from Iraq, approached me. “Teacher teacher! Where this?” she pulled down her shirt to expose a colorful butterfly tattoo on her chest. She went away disappointed after I explained that there was no butterfly exhibit at the conservatory.

I soon found out why everyone had worn their best clothes: they love taking pictures. I got pulled in to photo after photo after photo; it took 20 minutes to extricate myself from people tugging on my arms and yelling “One more, one more!” It must be a cultural thing, but South Asians rarely smile in photographs. There’s so much talking and laughing and chatting and shuffling of purses and children in the lead-up to the photo, and then as soon as the camera is in position, all the faces go as grave as if someone just died.  I’m pretty sure that in all the 10,000 or so pictures taken that day, I am the only one smiling. Believe me, everybody had a good time, though you might not think so from the pictures.

My favorite part of the whole outing might have been lunch. I wandered into the cafeteria room, and found my Iraqi students, who had packed a huge basket full of food. They pulled up a chair for me and insisted that I sit down, and then proceeded to fill my hands with cookies and candies, homemade flatbread and thick beef shawarma sandwiches. They all talk and laugh and tease each other in Arabic just as loud at lunch as they do in my class. I had no idea what was going on the whole time, but I had good food and good company. What more can you ask for?

Posing for pictures at the Conservatory (my face is tired from smiling, can you tell?)

Rohingya beginner students and the kiddos

Ben enjoying the tropical plants

one of the Afghani students posing with a statue (so suave)

Me and Zubeda, one of my advanced level students

lunch with the Iraqi students