Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Glowing Fire

I hesitate to call experiences ‘humbling,’ because it’s always seemed to me that the act of declaring humility defies the essence of it. That said...

The day after my last post I went in to meet with the faculty advisor overseeing my internship to discuss objectives. I expressed my passion for literacy, and the next thing I know, she’d set me up to meet with a group in the area that coaches adults who struggle to read and write at a fifth grade level.

 The building was of simple brick, located in a quiet industrial corridor offset from the main commercial artery that cuts through the Salt Lake valley. A receptionist let me in to a locked door at the top of a stairway which led to a basement illuminated by artificial halogen light refracted back from clean linoleum floors. It had a sterile feel and smelled of warm air from printers and copiers, gone stale and still in the dead space of the hallways and their dark rooms. There was a second where it all made me wonder why I’d come.

I picked up the muffled sounds of human voices, following them until a room opened to view. A room full of people and light and laughter. The only common denominator of any of our physical features was that we were all human, but everything from style to iris color to age was represented across the board. They drew me in quickly, introductions were sincere and immediate and within minutes of entering this foreign place, I found myself a world that immediately became part of me.

There was one man whose image I couldn’t help but seek to capture any time it would escape his notice, something familiar about his movements struck me. Tell tale lines of a lifetime’s expressions carved a decorative surround to his warm, honey brown eyes. His color palette was of burnt copper and earth. These beautiful, stunning elements stuck out to me before I noticed the ragged challenges of a difficult life his image otherwise bore testament to. His writing was some of the most genuine and heartfelt I’ve read or heard and came from the purest place in the human soul. It wasn’t until he spoke to read it, in a gravelly voice of dried tobacco, that I understood my draw to him. He was the living shadow of a friend I have known and loved for years, a resemblance all but buried in the effects of radically different lifestyle. It caught my heart to see familiar fragments of a dear friend reflected back in the eyes of a stranger.

In my pursuit of personal achievement, I forget that every race requires winners and losers. I forget that the values I grew up learning to embrace, the American Dream, are founded in competition. The AmeriCorps Vista with whom I share desk space said it well today -

 "The 'pull yourself up by the boot strap' mentality suggests that through hard work and perseverance one can succeed. I do agree with this statement to a degree; the problem is that it is only half of the equation. Opportunity, or more specifically, the lack of opportunity, is the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss."

In our little microcosms, we don’t see the full scale of the lives of those who surround us. Rather, we exist in a place where it’s easier to judge people according to our starting point and standards we’ve held ourselves to, rather than to make an inquiry into what are uniquely theirs and why. I at least am guilty of that. I have never intended to be a harping, insensitive critic – but those are steps I’ve unfortunately tread in my evaluation of the world around me. There are things I’ve taken for granted about my circumstances and the wealth of resources available to me. Even the resource of love I have come to ponder as a strange and perplexing commodity that we are not blessed equally with, either in our reception of or capacity to give, let alone understand.

It just harrows me to know and to see firsthand that despite so much abundance in some of the world, there are still people who fall through the cracks. Human lives that get overlooked, people we don't realize can't read nutrition labels, release forms or even junk mail. Whoever said ignorance was bliss was not only mistaken, but knew not the painful and limiting confines of illiteracy.

There’s a hymn in the canon, I don’t know its origins and can’t find them now, but it says that because I have been given much, I too must give. And so I am, or hope to. And having something to give as well as the ability to do so, I am realizing, is an incredible blessing in and of itself.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Literal Progress

I have about a hundred other things I could and should be doing looking me in the face from the calendar on my wall, the list on the desk, the missed call registry on my phone screen... shut up. Give me a minute.

We talk of progress - in my country we love it, obsess over it, worship it at times. Progress is a word that by definition  becomes enshrouded in shades of grey and ambiguity. People throw the endorsement at all sorts of undeserving things. An unsustainable leap forward in industry riddled with opportunity costs to environmental, social and cultural entities is still called progress, at least until the shine wears off and the endeavor falls on its face and the critics flock like vultures to the remains. A circle progresses in an endless cycle, but does it really get anywhere? Momentum cannot always be considered progress, not all steps forward are headed in a worthwhile direction.

 I once heard that "if it isn't sustainable, it isn't real." Take that qualifier to progress and it truly shifts the wheat from the chaff. So, I've sought a more solid, consistent word for the principle of true progress and chosen literacy.

 Literacy is an applied, sustainable, real progression - an individual forming a closer relationship with the world around them through words, understanding, enlightenment. It often doesn't come easily - the costs are harrowing, sacrifices poignant, experience real and deeply human.

I believe in literacy. By that I mean I give my life, my energy, my passion and my blood for it. It's the principle behind the metaphors in my life - why I climb, why I seek education, why I love people, why I invest in relationships and experiences and life itself.  And while illiteracy may not be the most inimical barrier to true progress, it's one I'll happily kick in the teeth all the days of my life.

So here I am. Back in class for the semester and blessed with an internship with an organization that supports literacy as clearly as any, learning the skills I need to contribute to its crusade.

Still tired, still overbooked. But I'm where I need to be. In the moments that I realize this is tangible progress, these things I am building and will be able to share - conviction burns like fire clear and bright in me, and I forget the costs. I am content, alive and here.