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