Possibly Too Personal

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I live next to a park. I can see trees and sky from my windows. As winter gave way to spring, I watched new life emerge from the earth and heard it transform the air. Where before the ground was rocky, barren and still, now there are plants pushing their way to the surface, trees returning to life and animals scampering across the rock face. Where there was relative silence, punctuated by traffic noises, now there are birds ever-chirping. I love my bedroom. I love this park. On weekends, when I can waken slowly and luxuriate in its sights and sounds, I am filled with a sense of wonder and peace, and the possibility of the new day shines brighter, seems greater.

I will be leaving this park soon. Much sooner than I would like or am prepared for. This is a city of transience, where people rarely come to put down roots. I heard this sentiment just Sunday, in church. I don’t exactly want to put down roots here either, but I do want to stay a while longer than I’ve been here so far.

I’ve struggled a lot in the past year with frustration at this world I’ve been born into, with its political systems and antiquated ways of conceiving of and policing the individual based on more or less arbitrary boundaries and bastions of power. It’s hard to focus my frustration on such abstract notions, as real and oppressive as they may be, so I’ve also struggled with resenting people around me who have greater freedoms than I, and thereby greater access than I. It’s a feeling I try not to dwell on, and move to snuff out when it arises – especially because I know have benefited so much from any number of privileges – but it’s a struggle all the same.

Another reality I’ve had to come to grips with is my dispensability. Many times in the past year people have been unwilling to fight for me because they know I’m replaceable. I say “know” because it’s a fact. I am. Sure I have a unique blend of skills, personality traits and experience, but at the end of the day another person could do my job or provide romantic or platonic relational fulfillment. The same is true of all of us; it’s how the world keeps turning. Again, I know that on some level we each touch lives and contribute to the world in individual ways. But sometimes, when business sense or the law or emotions dictate otherwise, we are passed over or cast aside in favour of another person or non-human solution.

So here I am, preparing to move away from my park, to a destination yet unknown. Working to find my footing and direction in spite of realities that oppose my freedom and confidence. Moving ever-forward, pushing past frustration and setbacks.

Bodily Fluids and Vaccinations

Everyone in NY should be vaccinated against Hepatitis B.

That’s one of the first things I thought when I realised that I had somehow gotten a stranger’s vomit on my jacket and backpack while standing on a subway platform. Thank goodness it’s early spring and I needed layers! Imagine if I had bare sleeves and was wearing shorts?! Oh man I was disgusted. And then I had to get onto a train, sit in the smeared off vomit and wait the 20-odd minutes it took to get to my stop, dreaming of the cleaning products I was going to use to disinfect my belongings. Once I made it into my apartment I discovered that the vomit was wider spread than the glimpses of sleeve and strap I saw on the platform. The horror! I didn’t want to take off either bag or jacket, for fear of where else I’d spread the offending substance, and once I had I didn’t know where to put them. I didn’t even want to drop them on the floor.

“I can truly say I’ve lived in New York now” – another thought I had after seeing the vomit. Of course I’ve heard and read stories about how gross the subway is, but until this past weekend, the worst I’d encountered were splatters of saliva – which don’t get me wrong, are seriously gross enough.

It’s unlike me though, to jump to “Hepatitis B [or any] vaccine” as a necessary and fail proof precaution against the perils of the city. I’d never given the virus any thought at all until two days prior to the vomit incident. I had to go to a clinic to follow up on my physical exam. The physician’s assistant strongly urged me to get the vaccine, and not knowing anything about the disease, I asked her why it was necessary. She said health professionals recommend everyone working with children be vaccinated. That was enough of a reason for me so I agreed. After I got the first shot (it’s given in a series), I received informational material, and learned that among at-risk populations for Hep B are “people with jobs that expose them to human blood or other bodily fluids”.

Well, as a preschool teacher that describes me to a T, and I was happy I had agreed to get the shot. But then Saturday rolled around with its unwelcome gift and I realised how all of us here are at-risk for exposure to human blood or other bodily fluids. I mean, I have noticed a lot of saliva splatters recently, and people hawk and spit around me all the time. Then there was the Friday before my vomit incident, when I had to walk around a huge pile of human faeces. I actually felt a weird sort of satisfaction for that, as another “I’ve lived in NY” token I could point to, like the vomit. This city is gross! And filled with all sorts of people. Maybe if everyone had the Hep B vaccine we could relax a little about all the foreign, intimate bodily substances we regularly run into.

Tortuga

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Last weekend I went exploring parts of Chelsea, and spent a good bit of time walking and then sitting on the High Line. It was a beautiful day – warm, sunny, clear blue skies – so unsurprisingly there were quite a number of people out doing the same. I carried a packed lunch with me and at one point I sat down on a bench to enjoy my picnic, sunbathe and people-watch. It felt glorious. It was entertaining too, because everyone it seemed stop to marvel at a tortoise on the narrow lawn in front of me. He was a small thing, for a tortoise, about the size of my hand, and he was the only creature on the grass. He brought so much joy to surprised passersby, children and adults, when they noticed him wandering around there. “A turtle!” They would invariably exclaim, pointing him out to their companions and stopping to stare in wonderment. “How did he get there?” many would ask aloud, and then pull out their phones to take a picture. It was a great mystery, how this ‘turtle’ had made its way onto that particular patch of grass. This mystery was the cherry on top of the lovely treat the tortoise presented – us city folk rarely see animals other than dogs and pigeons when we’re out and about.

Although I didn’t notice the tortoise on my own, I became aware of him not long after I sat down, and was quickly more intrigued by the reactions of the pedestrians than the animal itself. It made me wonder about how we take pleasure in the magic of things that seem to just happen in our lives, though if we could see or understand the strings which brought them all together they would seem so much more mundane and even expected.

Lounging next to me on the bench was a quiet, unassuming man, who brought his wife’s tortoise to the park to sunbathe. Every now and again he would get up and bring Tortuga back into the area directly in front of him, but not so frequently that his presence was always obvious to those around us. Because he did not make a big show of his ownership of the tortoise, either by correcting people’s misperception that it was a turtle, or with body language that pointed to him as pet-owner, for all but those who came around to our side of the lawn to take a closer look, the mystery of Tortuga’s presence was preserved.

The gentleman’s actions led me to thinking about life in general, and all that must happen behind-the-scenes of events and circumstances that seem unexplainable to us. The fact is, whether we realise it or not, God is there. In the cosmic scheme of things, we are the turtles he has brought to the lawn.

Tortuga’s playground, which separated me and his owner from everyone else, recalled for me how our human nature and earthly home act as a barrier between us and God. While we may be looking at the same thing, we have totally different perspectives. Because of my position on the bench, I was privy to Tortuga’s name, his history and how he came to be at the High Line. I experienced his exploratory movements in a totally different way than everyone that whipped out their cameras – in fact I tried to take a picture of the people taking pictures. Our different knowledges put us in separate categories. They enjoyed looking at him while I marvelled at the great happiness he brought them.

This is analogous to my relationship with God. He is in control of my life, and knows things about it that I can’t, and never will. Furthermore, like Tortuga’s owner, he is always watching me and has control over what I encounter and when. From my perspective on the other side of the grass, I can’t see all that He is doing and will never be able to know the explanations for everything that happens, but I need to trust in him and his sovereignty all the same.

You look beautiful even when you clean your nose!

…a man shouted at me from his vehicle, as I approached the end of the sidewalk and prepared to cross the road in front of him. He must have seen me blowing my nose seconds before. I’ve written about catcalling elsewhere, but this is the kind of street attention that I find sweet and uplifting. The guy was nice, he had no ulterior motives, he just wanted to let me know he thought I was beautiful. Considering the fact that I was sick, and certainly not feeling like I looked my best, that was a really welcome compliment. Thank you sir.

New Perspectives on Faith

Working with two year olds is consuming, tiring, challenging. I enter a toddler vacuum at the beginning of the day and am cut off from the outside world and ordinary adult life until I return home in the evening. I’m very new to this job – it’s only been a few weeks – and there have been many times when I’ve  felt overwhelmed by all it requires of me. It’s easy to feel, too, that all this position does is take from me, while I receive nothing in return. In peaceful moments, however, I marvel at all that my students are teaching me about love, forgiveness and living with gusto.

First, on love. It’s easy to understand that my tiny charges are in love with their parents. For several of them separating at the beginning of the day involves some combination of tears, protests and a refusal to take off jackets and outside shoes. What I’m always delighted to witness, however, is how much they love one another. Or maybe it’s how they’re unafraid to demonstrate their love for each other. When a friend arrives in the morning they happily shout his/her name, and drop whatever they’re doing to come to the door and greet them with hugs, smiles and kisses. If a friend is crying because they are hurt or don’t want to leave their parents, I can count on at least one student to try and comfort them with pats on the back and hugs. And, when one of my students wrongs another, after an apology all is forgiven and it’s as though the transgression never happened.

1 Corinthians 13:4-5 says “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (NIV) My students struggle like all the rest of us with all but the last characteristic on this list, and I can see how much of an impact this has on our classroom environment and my relationship with each of them. They forgive totally and completely, in a way it’s rare to see with older people – even if the ‘older’ person is 6. It is tempting to dismiss their actions based on the wrongdoing – often the issue is that someone pushed them or grabbed the book they were reading – but in their two year old minds, developing in stable families and neighbourhoods, these are truly aggravating problems.

Another thing that surprised me is how readily my students forgive me. I discipline them so regularly, I was nervous in my first week that they wouldn’t like me. I know this is different than the peer-to-peer interactions I described, but how easy is it for us to resent people who correct us, even if they are right?

In addition to this easy forgiveness being good for the community atmosphere in our classroom, I’ve noticed how good it is for the individual student. After receiving their apology, they turn their minds completely to whatever they were doing and are able to focus on and enjoy it totally, without any lingering feelings of indignation. How different from my own experience, when I say that I’ve forgiven someone yet still feel bitterness and discontent creeping into all aspects of my day. I can see in my charges why forgiveness is so important for the wronged individual: it frees your mind and energy to focus on everything else you have to deal with, and whatever life throws at you next. Hanging on to the past and nursing self-righteousness does more than alter our moods, it actively works against our ability to give all of our effort and attention to present tasks and responsibilities. I understand this even more clearly now that I can witness the exuberance with which my students carry on with their days. I want to be just like them!

This brings me to my students’ exuberance in general. They are so enthusiastic about the little rituals in our day, regardless of having done them many times over. When it comes to new activities or people, they are immediately curious and excited to learn more. Their growing minds explore and absorb everything around them, so that when people ask me what it is that I can teach two year olds, my answer is honestly everything. Their zeal for life is heartwarming and inspiring – I want to have the joy they do! Although it’s not possible for me to return to the care and responsibility-free mindset of a toddler, I know that each day offers reasons for me to be joyful and astounded. No matter how old I am, like my Grammy says, “You learn something new every day.” I had a hard time believing her when I was younger – there had to be some threshold of adulthood at which I would cease to be amazed or confounded by life right? Wrong. And what a gift that is! An even greater gift is the unshakeable security I have in Christ, who loves me and called me to him by name, who has saved me from myself and offers me a soul-satisfying relationship with him.

Despite the difficulties with this job, when I reflect on these things I feel blessed that God is using my students to teach me so plainly about the life he has asked us to lead, and to give me a glimpse into why his commandments are good for us. Watching my students interact with one another, and having to deal with them myself, is giving me a new perspective on our sinfulness and its consequences for us as individuals and in our relationships. I also feel acutely the ways I come up short on the fruit of the Spirit, especially because it feels like I need to use all of them to get through each day. As I am stretched by my teaching responsibilities, and observe the workings of two year old hearts and minds, I’m learning about my faith in a completely new, refreshing way, uniquely tied to this (unexpected) classroom experience. It’s so stimulating to ponder these things, and I’m excited about the changes this role is bringing to my spirit. Praise Him!

 

*The fruit of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

On Riding the Subway

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Riding the subway is like playing a game of chance, I never know what I’m going to get. Some trips are totally calm, uninterrupted; others are so bad I have to switch cars. People watching is often entertaining, and I have been hugely surprised, in the short time that I’ve lived here, to recognise three different people  on their commutes. What are the odds? I’m not someone that has a particular spot on the platform, nor do I get on the trains at the same time each day. Somehow though, the fates have lined up and faces that were  foreign on a previous day become familiar on the next.

One thing that is a huge peeve of mine is when people don’t adjust their legs to accommodate newcomers to their bench. It’s happened to me with both men and women, but is a more regular occurrence with men. People have discussed this elsewhere on the internet, but I have also found it to be true: they sit with their legs spread, and cannot for the life of them close them when they have a seat mate. It is so disgustingly rude and entitled, and obviously not necessary. If some men can sit with their legs closed then it must be possible for other men to do the same.

Another thing I’ve noticed with male subway riders is their tendency to make noise. The subway is supposed to be a place where you keep your personal activity just that – personal. If you’re having a conversation, watching a movie, listening to music, that’s all fine, just don’t oblige your neighbours to be involved. Well, I have been the audience for many a rap freestyle, opera singing practice and general sing-along for my fellow male riders. I’ve also had the opportunity to go to a number of free (!) mini-concerts, as men have shared their music with all of us by playing it through the speakers of their phone or stereo. There are signs all over the cars informing passengers to wear headphones and speak quietly, but these are flagrantly ignored.

Why is it that these men think it’s ok to infringe on other passengers’ personal space and activity, to disregard the rules and pretend as though their actions are not in fact disrespectful? Power. Here comes that word again. The subway presents an opportunity for them to dominate a space and make their strength and presence known. Particularly for men who are part of minority groups, who have limited abilities to demonstrate their masculinity in the expected ways of the world: wealth, career, social prestige. The subway car or platform is a place where they can assert themselves and people are forced to pay attention because of the ways they are made to feel uncomfortable. This brings me to something else I’ve noticed – no one ever confronts them.

Perhaps with seating one individual might ask the man next to them to close his legs. For myself, I do the passive aggressive thing and wiggle around until I have room, take advantage of the shifting that happens during stops and starts. However, when it comes to men performing or enjoying a performance, they’re left alone. In weighing the possible outcomes of confronting them against the benefit of keeping the peace, it seems like the odds are ever in the men’s favour. I mean, as much as they invade our spaces and intrude in our lives, they clearly feel they have a right to what they’re doing, and/or they don’t think that it’s a big deal. How then, in the space of a subway ride, could you convince them otherwise? Could you peacefully convince them otherwise? I don’t know, but it certainly makes me angry – and feel impotent – about the fact that the best answer seems to be to try and ignore them, which is what everyone does. The status quo is maintained, but we all more or less peacefully ride the subway one more day.