The Zen of Five Puppies (And Two Dogs)

There are currently seven dogs living in our 180 square foot space—our little house. Our dog, Beer, who is ten-years-old, a Chow and Red Heeler mix, who had all of Marcus’s attention until I came along four years ago, is not happy about this. Marcus swiftly turns him upside down and puts puppies along his underbelly until he goes limp and stops growling. The puppies search for teats, tug on his tail, hesitantly pull on his ears, as if hoping for some thrill of a reaction. 

    One of these puppies has had a hard time walking; during the first few weeks of his little life, I had to feed him with a bottle. Frantically, as I watched him attempt—but fail—to latch onto his mom, as the other four puppies seemed so easily able to do, I’d heat up some kind of milk replacement, poke the nipple tip of the bottle into his tiny mouth and squeeze a couple of drops onto his pink tongue. Eventually, he began latching on—soon, all he needed was a taste of the replacement milk to suddenly awaken and leap out of my arms, and, with eyes still closed at that point, viciously throw himself onto his mother. Still, I panic that perhaps I didn’t feed him correctly those first few days. I’d never taken care of a puppy before, however, and I look at him, flopping this way and that, fall forwards and, a moment later, backwards, and sigh. Wonder how I became a mother of so many so quickly.                                  

On a cold, Tuesday night in November, Marcus received a phone call from Marie, our very generous, animal-minded friend whose farm we live on in Elbert County, Colorado. Marie had become involved in the work of Denver Homeless Out Loud, a group which presses policy-makers to listen to people affected by homeless services and the lack of affordable housing. During DHOL meetings, Marie formed relationships quickly—she is the sort of person who wakes up and says to all who might be able to hear: “I am the Pit Bull of the world! I am the heart of God! I am making a difference in the world today!”—and had received a phone call from a couple, both with mental and physical disabilities, who are currently homeless. Their dog had—a surprise to them—recently given birth, and the “Sweeps”—during which officers urge people who are homeless and are “camped out,” or, perhaps, simply sleeping or sitting in public—had simultaneously become more aggressive. There is no shelter for couples in Denver, and many couples choose to stay outside and stay together. But they knew they could not take care of the puppies as fall turned to winter, as snow became more frequent, as they were more often told to “move along,” or “choose to be arrested,” (a phrase members of law enforcement like to use, which I think helps these potentially well-meaning folks to feel okay about taking a homeless person’s blanket from them).

    Alas, Marie—who has been taking in abused and disregarded animals for nearly forty years—responded to their request for help. Already in Denver, Marcus met them that night, picked up the puppies—five days old at the time—in their carrier, as well as the momma dog, and the next morning I was told (at six-thirty in the morning pre-coffee), “One of the puppies is not eating! You have to do something!” This said by a woman to whom Marie has offered housing for a few months now. I squinted—waved her away. With Marie gone on a trip and Marcus busy with school, DHOL and church meetings—with my consuming self-imposed task of applying to graduate school almost complete—I had no good reason to say, ‘No, I cannot help you stay alive, puppies.’

    Eventually, about a month later—as I became more and more of a controlling and worrisome puppy-mother—Marcus and I moved the puppies into the tiny house. It would be easier to take care of them this way, I told myself. I continue to walk into Marie’s house bleary-eyed at six in the morning—woken by the tiny, piercing calls of those same puppies just below our loft bed, in the kitchen, blockaded by a wooden fence Marcus built around them—looking for more paper towels with which to clean up the endless waste, and she says, “Good morning, America!” She says, despite my scowl, despite the deepening line between my eyes, “You should write a book on the zen of five puppies.” 

    So, what is it—I ask myself—that I’ve learned while sharing such a small space with not only Marcus but five puppies and two dogs. Well, that I am not the most graceful when my focus is on the shit—the shit that hides, and hardens, behind our one chair. That when I stumble upon this shit I make strange sounds that Marcus cannot interpret. That I have the ability to roughly handle a puppy if he or she does not listen to me as he falls or steps willingly, joyfully even, into a puddle of his or her own urine. That they happily play in it and then jump on my beloved pillows, tear their buttons off. That even when tiptoeing around our little home my socks do not stay dry. As I reflect on the past couple of months, I think of the morning I woke up with the mom dog clawing at my face at five a.m, needing to go outside. Ah, the joy. 

    I have tried my best to share this joy with others. I’ve invited Rhiannon and Gabriel—Gabriel was born at the Catholic Worker house two and a half years ago—out to the farm to play with the puppies. Anton and his mother Lucie visited, too. Anton, who is blind, was tickled, again and again, by the puppies biting at his shoes. We listened to an old, fuzzy record, and Anton--thirteen-years-old and with an affinity for jazz--said to his mom and I: "Tap your feet." A puppy wriggled in his lap; he felt the soft edges of its ears. A couple days later I brought a new friend out, an elderly woman, who is currently homeless. This woman loves dogs, and said she “fit right in,” with the puppies crawling up her legs, with our dog, Beer, who is not small, trying to casually sit on her lap, and with the mom-dog leaning onto her side. 

    Unsurprisingly, I have become attached to the dog with the limp. I sweep the others aside when they try to wrestle him. His head bobbles at me, and I say, “Why are you shaking, Floppy?” Marcus calls him, “Butter,” a name he has been saving up for years. “Are you Butter?” we say to him, his head bobbling. Beer growls as one of the puppies goes for his food. 

    When I try to consider what has been a struggle—aside from the material constantly pouring from these tiny creatures—it is clear that the not-knowing where they will end up has been most difficult. The mom-dog will soon go back to her parents—who are in and out of a motel room they share with others. Maybe one of the puppies will too, who I’ve named Skunky, with thick, wiry, black hair, interspersed white bristles, who sat on my lap, curled like a pill bug, as I wrote much of this. Housing and caring for these puppies has presented a familiar question to me: How do I sit with pain without trying to fix it? 

    The homeless woman who I brought to the farm one white day does not want the housing that I tried to find her. She wants to live in a town where her dog is buried. She cries for this dog, her dog. She sleeps in a shelter run by nuns—shares a room with seven other women. Her knuckles are knotted and bulbous; her hands are crunched together. After the farm field trip I buy her snow boots and a jacket. I do research; seven out of the ten senior-housing programs I call say to me, “We have a waitlist. Six months to a year.” A couple say, “Two year waitlist.” When I take her to the one available apartment she shakes her head at the small kitchen. I want to shake her, but she is so small and brittle I’m afraid of what might happen.“I’m sorry to disappoint you, honey,” she says, as we walk out of the building. 

    And I realize that it is that—right there, which is the hardest for me. To allow discomfort into my space, to be present to it. To just sit in the car with someone who is crying for her dead-dog, whose hands are mangled. To care for homeless-puppies who I will ultimately not keep (well, maybe Floppy—maybe Butter.) To be in the presence of sadness, of longing, and to not either throw myself in front of it or avoid looking at it at all. Sure, there needs to be more affordable housing. Sure, if someone does not have a coat, you buy them one, or you give them yours. But you cannot—I cannot—heal anyone. As I’ve watched the mom-dog love up on her puppies—so instinctively, without question, as I’ve watched her clean their bottoms, as she lay nearly upside down so that they all might be able to nurse, as their small, slippery, seal-bodies either became stocky, or ballooned—she has taught me something about love. About loving. Without guarantee of anything. Any kind of reward. It is so simple for her. And I hope when the puppies are adopted, when the mom-dog goes back to the streets, when I say goodbye to Stumpy who bounces, light as a grasshopper, I hope—I hope I have the strength in me to spend more time with a woman who is sad, who is lonely, who I cannot help, to whom I cannot give purpose—I hope I will be okay.

Storytelling: An Act of Resistance

Storytelling: An Act of Resistance

by Kristen Brunelli

 

    As I have said to others within the Denver Catholic Worker community—although there is no longer a Denver Catholic Worker House, due to last year’s fire—the Spirit of the Worker has felt especially strong in my life these past several months. I’ve begun applying to graduate school for fiction writing, which has been—even when I moved into the Catholic Worker—my love of loves (fiction writing, not applying to graduate school). In 2012, I’d moved into the Catholic Worker with a romantic sense of wanting to explore, to experience, as a writer—to be able to use these “experiences” in my writing, later on. Ultimately, I was jolted by what I saw at the Worker. I became confused. I could not sentimentalize the stories of trauma I heard. I was used to looking for meaning in every sad story, but after a while I had no energy, no drive with which I could do this searching. I was exhausted. My faith had been tried. After three years I’d seen too much violence—too much pain. Nothing made sense.

    It was only after the fire that I realized it was not my role to make sense out of people’s struggles. It was certainly not my role to manipulate or try to fix these struggles, which I often tried to do in writing, I found, as the truth—that often things are not simply fixable—seemed unapproachable. And it was only after the fire that I felt I could write about what I’d witnessed there, through the liberating form of fiction. I have since written several short stories inspired by men, women, and children with whom I’ve lived. Having recently thought so deliberately about why I write fiction, it is impossible for me to imagine my life, my work, without the Worker’s influence. I have returned, alas, to that great love of writing, after a period of incredible doubt. Did writing have any real value? What did it do—and for whom? These questions kept me from writing—even kept me from reading. After nearly a year of writing consistently, focusing on short stories—encouraged by the community I have found at Lighthouse Writers in Denver—I am more and more confident that there is, indeed, value in literature. In fact, I am hoping to write short stories which are, in themselves, acts of solidarity—acts of resistance.    

    While I write with more urgency than I did several years ago—before I became involved with the Catholic Worker—and with more purpose than ever before, I still do not begin writing a story with a great, clear motivation. Every story I write begins with a simple curiosity, a desire to know why a person acts a certain way. I am only interested in the complicatedness, the multi-faceted or surprising aspects of a person’s personality; I look for the ways in which a person is unique, which seems to be in opposition to what we seem to be encouraged to do, to stereotype people. While developing a character, not only do I consider a character’s personal history but the context within which they live. Often I think of Peter Maurin’s saying that we need to create a world in which it is easier to be good. The Catholic Worker belief in the inherent goodness of an individual—an individual set in a harsh reality, a system which too often opposes the success of certain individuals—guides my writing. In writing, in looking closely at that context, at the options or opportunities that my character might have available to him or her, I am better able to empathize with someone who I, as easily as another, might otherwise limit or assume the worst about.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

    Through fiction writing I am able to wrestle with the presence of domestic violence in so many people’s lives—I am able to wrestle with the fact that so many people stay in abusive relationships. In one of my stories, which I’ve titled “The Boy With the Blue Eyes,” I explore a relationship—both characters, both the man and woman have been abusive towards each other—in which both individuals have experienced trauma, from which they each carry an enormous amount of shame. It is as if both the man and woman in this story are living in different times and places than when and where the story occurs; both are stuck in the past. In another story, titled “Little Goose” a young woman finally finds her own housing—after having been homeless for three years—and goes on to look for her mother, who’d abandoned her as a child. In these little sad but hopeful stories, I do not hope to justify the actions of my characters; merely I hope to understand them a little bit better and reveal to readers—ah, if only one day I am published!—that people are not only more complex than we might assume, but beautifully complex, wonderfully mysterious, undeniably sacred. 

    Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin accepted people into their lives with an openness that is rare, an openness I try to embody, which I fail to embody often in my “real” life. Through storytelling, with the illuminating power of language and poetry, I am better able to live through a spirit of openness. It is a gift to be able to redo how I’ve approached people in the past; this time, in this story, I will not close myself off, will not fear this person, will not judge them too harshly, will not limit their value, their intellect, their faith. In fact, I will look for their goodness, their beauty. Through this practice I am not only reminded of the deep, deep faith of others, through my characters—even and especially those who have struggled, who have been tried, again and again and again—but I am reminded of my own. It is in this desire, this longing to be faithful, to be trusting, that we become faithful, that we become trusting. It is only in the seeking to know that we might know—the want to love that we might love. 

    

Solstice

   It’s the Holiday Season

 

Still, the snow falls. It’s been coming down, on and off and on again, for a couple weeks now. Usually, I welcome this fluffy white matter which makes everything quiet, which forces us to be still, to curl into each other. Exposing all secrets. But it’s been harder to simply enjoy the snow, knowing many fall asleep under bridges, in alleys, and don’t wake up. I remember a man named Hubert who knocked on our door last winter; he watched our eleven year year old Audrey sing “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and clapped. He grinned. He was old and mentally challenged and ate some pasta and noodles fell out of his mouth as he told me that the night before he slept behind a dumpster, but that tonight he was worried he wouldn’t make it to morning. 

    But on Christmas evening I asked Marcus to make snow angels out front with me. Lying in the snow, staring up, everything is lost. Suddenly the sound of my own breath lulls me; the warmth of my body melts the ice, creating a pocket in which, when I close my eyes, I can disappear. I sigh, sinking and thank the moon, up there, unmoving, soft and wise.

    Ah, but one cannot remain in that pocket forever, where all is steady. Safe. There is the light rail, just ahead, coming this way, blinking its lights; there is Beer, Marcus's dog, barking, running across the street—he was hit by a car once before I knew him, runs with a leg of metal. There are people inside the house who are seeking me out, who stare at me until our eyes meet, long enough to know, not just by sight, but by a blue warmth somewhere between the ribs, that, yes, there is someone looking back at them. “Hi, Michelle,” I finally say.

    Being cooped up in this house for the holidays--we’ve had many ‘in’ days, since Christmas Eve, when guests have not been asked to leave from nine to four as usual because of the wet cold--has been a hard gift to receive. Hibernation for most of us in today’s funny world is as scary a prospect as blatant failure, when we are unable to achieve much, confined to the alarmingly stale air of our little rooms, confined to who we are at present, confined to what is. Joy to the world, the Lord has come--but joy was a butterfly I could only catch glimpses of, let alone hold in my hand. There was no escaping the sounds of a toddler crying next door with a respiratory infection; there was no cooing him. There was no telling the parents to do it better, to be fine, healed, to be in love and better--to tell myself what I wanted to want to--that all is well. All is perfect.--because I didn’t believe it. “Merry Christmas, Michelle,” someone might say, to which she might reply, “There’s nothing merry about it.” Even walled off from others, in my room again, there was no denying the strange, subtle--sometimes blistering sounds of fear and frustration felt in the other rooms--the sounds of gratitude, the vast silence of a house when all fifteen living in it are suddenly hushed, either in a state of solitude or in isolation. I would go downstairs for water and someone sitting in the dining room would stare at me, waiting for me to look back. Once upstairs, my door closed--slammed?--I’d curse myself for being unable to look back. Was it still snowing? A perpetual nighttime. Could I sleep through it all? This muck of winter. Who’s screaming? In my floating room, sitting on my bed, I’d look up, off, away.  The piercing, snaking moan of an old light fixture trying to stay awake became the lingering, sharp pain in my ear, where a nurse at Walgreens once poked with something cold and metal and said, “This is going to hurt.”

    I should be better than this; it’s Christmas. Suspicious and slothful and self-pitying--but where there is darkness there soon will be light or someone has said. Trust Me.

It was the longest day of the year, and I read this poem aloud to our community during our solstice gathering, thinking about grace.

 

They’re brown, like twigs.

They seem still. And stuck.

Broken. But my knuckles are raisons; they carry

The blood of Christ.

Worms, with mouths open.

If you don’t look closely, you’d never see them move.

There—then.

If you don’t look closely.

But they do live—they cry, they drink. They round, they cup.

And with them I explore the back of your neck—

the shell of you that wants to crack.

My fingers, never ending, the lines in a leaf, the breath.

And I will hold you.  

 

 

Below is an essay I wrote on Hubert one year ago.

 

Hubert

 

It was almost time to lock up, near ten p.m, when there was a knock on the door of the Catholic Worker. Trent had set up a fire--it had just begun to bloom--and we were settled, both reading, in the living room.

    It is rare that someone comes to the door at night. It is rare that unexpected guests come to the door at all. Thirty-five years old, the Denver Catholic Worker has earned its respect, and most know that usually we are a full house and that we like to keep the atmosphere calm and familiar for the residing guests.

    I was reminded by a glance outside that the snow had formed a soft white pillow atop Denver’s concrete. But for others this sudden drop in temperature—not much higher than zero—has made life much more difficult, if survivable, for those without shelter.

‘We have no room in the house right now,’ Trent was telling the presence outside.  I got up and walked to the kitchen, afraid of the reality that this was someone kind, someone sober, someone incapable of working, someone I couldn’t blame for his or her own fate (it is an ever present challenge not to do so). From down the hall, I saw the back of only my friend, Trent’s head bow forward—I couldn’t see who stood before him. ‘I’m sorry,’ Trent said, and asked the person if he or she’d like some food. As I turned toward the kitchen to warm up some leftovers, I heard a voice; it was a mangled, woeful slur, neither intimidating nor intoxicated, but a voice of confusion, of fear. He’d just come from the hospital, and he was dizzy and weak.

    He came inside and sat near the fire. He put his hands out toward it, and I watched his long dry fingers outstretch. ‘It’s nice,’ he said. His hair was gray, and I realized the main reason for his speech impediment. He didn’t have teeth. ‘Do you guys drink coffee here?’ he asked. ‘Not at night,’ I said, ‘but I can make you some tea.’ ‘With sugar?’ he said and smiled.

Hubert was from New Jersey, like me, and came to Denver to be near his cousin, who’d promised he could share his housing with Hubert. But this cousin, who wound up unable to fulfill that promise, also tried to steal Hubert’s Disability Income. Hubert seemed unsure as to where the money was exactly—at one point he seemed to say it was with his father, down south. But based on his appearance—perhaps he was in his seventies—I’d assume that Hubert’s father might not still be around.  He seemed to me not much different from a lost child, someone who’s been lost, looking for a safe place, for a lifetime. Still, instead of acquiring a cold shell, there was a softness about him, something naïve and gentle.  His vulnerability alarmed me.

    ‘Where did you sleep last night?’ I asked, as I flipped through our winter shelter resource book. Trent was in the office calling shelter after shelter, which only offered him the same we’d offered Hubert: ‘Sorry, we’re full.’ Hubert answered my question, eyes big, gratefully holding the hot cup of tea close as he took a sip. But his answer was unintelligible. Hesitantly, I asked him again. ‘I slept in an alley. Behind a dumpster. It was real cold.’ He frowned and with his thin fingers carefully took the tea bag from the mug and placed it into his bag to reuse at another time. ‘Do you want some more tea bags?’ I said, and he said, ‘Yes, yes, please!’

    I nodded and excused myself. I called a few more places, most of them were closed. I refused to believe that the only option for Hubert, a mentally challenged man in his seventies, with tuberculosis, was to sleep atop ice with only one blanket.

I invited Hubert into the dining room and gave him some steaming pasta. One of our other guests—an eleven year old who has brought so much joy into our house with her talents in song, dance and comedy—came in and asked me if I would be attending her school play. (Earlier, when Hubert first arrived, she’d grabbed me by the elbow and asked, ‘Who is he? Is he homeless?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, and instead of shrinking away, she gave me a hug.) ‘Want to hear what I’ll be singing?’ she said, and Hubert looked up at her and smiled. She began, ‘I don’t want a lot for Christmas…’ While Hubert ate, she continued to sing, dance, twirl. There was no apparent hesitancy in her to be loving towards this stranger. It was common sense. She gave me another squeeze, and went upstairs.

    ‘Have you stayed at any shelters recently?’ I asked Hubert. ‘The Mission. But I don’t like it there. It’s dangerous! People are real mean. They pick on me.’

    ‘What about trying to retrieve your Disability? What about St. Francis Center. Have you been there?’ He shook his head, remembering. ‘I can’t go there for two more days,’ he said, ‘but that’s only two days.’ He looked hopeful and tried to eat another spoonful of food. ‘I had to use the bathroom real bad, see? And the line was so long, like an hour, and I didn’t want to have an accident in my pants, and so I left and went outside and found a private spot behind a house. Apparently, a lady at St. Francis saw me.’

I pressed on: ‘Is there any way you could see a social worker to regain access to your Disability?’ He shook his head and repeated the telling of the St. Francis incident. He was confused and tired and stuck in a time and place that no longer was. I wanted to shake him, tell him, ‘Even if we find you a place tonight, you probably won’t have anywhere to go tomorrow!’ 

    After exploring all shelter options, Trent called the non-emergency number for the Denver Police Station, explained our new friend’s situation and about thirty minutes later a policeman arrived to take Hubert to a motel. We gave Hubert an extra coat, scarf and gloves, some sandwiches and plenty of teabags and greeted the officer at the door. ‘Okay, show me some I.D,’ he said to Hubert, without taking a moment to look at the old man’s scared face. Hubert put his bags on the ground and began to ruffle through them. His hat fell off, the plastic forks and bananas we’d piled into it fell out of one of the bags. I ran to get some more things and when I returned the officer was walking back from his car. ‘Well, the system says you don’t exist,’ he barked up at Hubert. I supposed Hubert, unable to locate his ID promptly, gave the officer his name. ‘So, unless you can find your I.D you’re out of luck.’

    Finally, bent over searching frantically, Hubert stood up with his I.D. ‘Okay,’ the policeman said, ‘Let’s get you to a warm bed.’

 

 

The Fire

And The Cold

 

Tonight there is finally a fire murmuring in the wood burning stove downstairs. Even as its flames lengthen and stretch upward the fire is silent, of course, but from upstairs I can feel it growing and shrinking, and I can hear laugher come from that room; it is now where we will gather more often. It has been difficult today to appreciate the warmth of this house, however--knowing so many outside, even our guests who we ask be out of the house from 9 to 4 on weekdays, are without the same comfort. It doesn't feel right--and isn't. During a storm such as this most recent one in Denver, where the temperature has dropped to, currently, 4 degrees, all rules should be tossed aside--all 'reason' should be discarded. The desire to provide 'structure' or 'encourage' seems simply selfish. All should be inside--my comfort is not more important than the comfort of another.

    It seems as though all in the house look at each other as if they've survived, surprisingly, and are confused as to whether or not sadness--for others, without shelter--or joy is the appropriate emotion. I am trying to settle into a place of gratitude, remaining aware, in love, of those without warmth, without community, whose suffering must affect my own sense of comfort. 

    After spending a long weekend with my parents--who visited from New Jersey--I feel as if I’ve taken a long, deep breath. I feel full in body--I was treated to many meals, bought warm sweaters, a thick winter coat--and in spirit, affirmed in what my daily life currently looks like, which is not what many might deem ‘cozy.’ I live with about ten other people, including infants who cry in the morning, couples who argue through the evening, men struggling through depression and physical ailments downstairs--who ask me, ‘Why does God wake me up in the morning?’--new, single moms who turn to me with a crying baby when she needs just a moment to herself--in a house built in 1890 that creeks, begs to be tended to, incessantly maintained, that gets cold and wet in winter. Discomfort crawls through the walls, seeps in each time a new guest is invited in. In comes different experiences of abuse, anxiety, abandonment. 

    I am renewed after my parents' visit not because my parents wholeheartedly agree with what I am doing. My lifestyle has increased the lines on my mother’s beautiful face. I am living “on the edge,” so to speak--investing into a tiny home that Marcus and I are building, unsure of where it will end up. I am making art, which is not the path to “security.” The word “career” feels strange on my tongue, like the taste of mothballs or the sensation I get when my blood is drawn. Being career oriented is not bad--no, not at all--but I have not identified with one particular career path. I feel as though I could die any day, and so while I am here why not just try to do the many wonderful tasks before me, calling like flowers to be picked.

    Most nerve-wracking, as my mom might say, would be my dedication toward taking care of people who are struggling through homelessness as a full-time, non-paid volunteer at this Catholic Worker. It doesn't bother her because she is not a loving, sympathetic person--but, as any other parent, she worries that I am not caring for myself enough. Not planning for my future enough. And perhaps she can sense, seeing Marcus and I together and working together, that this is not a fleeting moment--that future-planning is not our focus--that we will be extending ourselves in this way for a long time (whether or not it is at this Catholic Worker, offering this kind of particular hospitality). Perhaps as she served dinner alongside our assistance on Sunday, she saw that we are ‘good’ at this kind of thing--that as she is filled each time she feeds her growing family--that we are filled by this work. Our shared joy brought he and I together--and that sought shared joy brings with it risk and sacrifice. That discomfort which many would turn from feels true to he and I.

    My father--a wonderful teacher and successful real estate broker who is invested in his own kind of community--and my mother--a warm, generous, caregiver to many--had many questions for myself and especially Marcus, who was about to join Anna to lead a class on Non-violence at Regis University--who communicated the many faults within our ‘system,’ a society which does not make it ‘easier for people to be good,’ as Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, might say. Walls between us all came down instead of growing thicker, after many conversations during which space was made for differing opinions to be heard. It was fruitful--doors opened, insight was shared--but I felt exhausted with so much talk about ‘homelessness’. Often, the ‘issue’ seems to turn a person into a subject. The ‘issue’ seems to be all we talk about.

    After my parents left, I felt as if a hole had been filled--that uncomfortable space I had refused to enter into for years, where I had to endure questions about our work, our lives. I was good at running from that kind of discomfort. The place where disagreements meet. But as Marcus and I said goodbye to my parents I felt as if they finally ‘saw’ us, and we ‘saw’ them. It was better than affirmation. It was not false, dishonest acceptance. Condescension had gone--something had matured, and now there was something like respect, like understanding. There was growth--there is growth only when there is tension, when we Catholic Workers are not simply flattering each other. Growth doesn't come when we are comfortable. 

And, at last, intellectualization about what I am doing and why must be put to rest--I am not seeking a rational life, a life I can explain, a ‘respectable’ life. I only want to live--to be human, to be human with others. 

    After our house meeting--during which the disagreements within our own community became loud and clear--I headed out that evening in what the news was calling the ‘Arctic’ to care for a beautiful child with whom I have been spending time for the past month. He is blind and autistic, and pays special attention to sounds, even the smallest ones. He squints, a smile growing as he listens to water from his water-bottle trickle down the drain in the kitchen sink. I listen, too. Later I listen to him play the trumpet, as I watch the snow fall outside. My senses come alive, beside his, and my thoughts--thinking--quiet, and there is a kind of harmony in my experience. 

    On my drive home, as I approached Welton St. and 20th, not far from the Catholic Worker, I see a man, maybe about seventy, lean heavily into a pole. He is covered in snow--it is still coming down, and the temperature is below ten degrees--and icicles had formed on his beard. He seemed too weak to bring his hand to his face, to wipe the water from his face and eyes. I saw him stumble away from the pole and I nearly called to him--would I invite him to the Worker? How would the other guests react? How would my community react? My breath got stuck, something logged, broken--and soon he was down the street. When I got home, I found an empty room and couldn’t stop the swell of a cry. I was angry, sad, terrified for the man--and also grateful for these sensations, the emotions, my human reaction--because it is so simple--relieved, overjoyed that I have not been completely desensitized knowing well the societal, systemic weaknesses of this country, the complexity of homelessness--that people are weak, that people make choices--that one can’t explain or excuse an elderly man, not an 'issue,' outside, alone in a storm--that I can’t solve it, but I can sit in the living room with the others and stoke the fire--that I had been reminded so clearly, painfully that we are made to love and care for one another, and that my life is just as it should be.

 

 

To Wish

More Like Humility

 

After living outside of the Catholic Worker for several months, I moved back in around August 1st. I don’t know how long this re-immersion into the Catholic Worker life will last--not that it really ceased, as my presence at the Worker, even while I lived a bike ride away, was nearly as strong as my first year living here--and in this sense I have regained the kind of healthy detachment to the Denver Catholic Worker that I felt when I first arrived--a being able to watch the creative expression of Divinity that this house is--moving, growing, loving--without trying to catch it, dissect it, explain and name it. 

    And at twenty-eight, I approach the work with a kind of calm that I didn’t have two years ago. It’s not the romanticized version of the Catholic Worker life that I once clung to. I am not in love with the Catholic Worker. And I do not think I am entirely amazing either for doing this work (as I secretly felt I was for a while). More or less, it’s a growing comfortability with what is. It’s not cynicism; it’s becoming grounded in, but not depressed by, reality. It’s more like humility. It’s a more honest experience. And yet often--more often than when I first arrived--I am able to see the magical in the mundane. 

    The new-found calm isn’t always consistent however, but I know more certainly that when I have a moment of crisis--or the feeling of impending crisis, whether or not it’s simply imagined crisis--I should turn toward prayer. (This means pausing before running to Marcus, calling my mom, or having that tall glass of wine.) And by prayer I don’t mean just trying to suddenly become happy, by wrapping the ugliness of life up in a bow. By blocking the surge of sadness or fear. I must turn to the prayer that carried me through my early development as a Christian: the childlike kind of prayer. “Dear God,” I used to begin my journal entries as a teenager, “Thank you for the good health of my parents. I pray that it continues.” But somewhere along the journey I began to think that it was inappropriate--rather, silly--to ask God for anything. Instead, it was important, it was more mature, I thought, to simply be aware of God. To just live a holy life. To be good. To dig deeper into the trenches of pain--that of others--and come out with a kind of lesson learned. But to imagine that one can live a true, holy life without turning toward the Spirit for guidance was a foolish hope, and my well--where I stocked my own pictures of how life should be--quickly ran dry. 

    One reminder that asking, pleading, or yearning--as long as what we’re pining for is not separate from God’s desire for us--is just fine, even evidence of a true life, was the arrival in the mail of Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal that my sister sent me for my birthday. Her entries also began, “Dear God,” in which she pleaded for purity of thought and even expressed her artistic aspirations, asking God that she might be read, and that His goodness would be shown through her writing. Seeing her vulnerability displayed in graceful, sweeping cursive writing encouraged me to become more honest about my relationship with God, and my need for guidance. 

    I realize that the questions--and the question asking--are an integral part of listening. It’s not bad to have questions--it’s so good!--I have decided, and when I shush this voice of yearning within me I become crippled. In fact, the questions are the answers themselves. Questions open us up to something divine outside of ourselves. Questions invite the Spirit to reveal itself in our lives. By forcing my doubting, pleading self to be quiet I become stuck, trying to will myself here and there--and ultimately trying to escape when reality is less than inviting. 

    Before I left for Denver over two years ago I wrote in my journal that I was seeking God out--and that was my only question (or hope). I am surrendering, attempting to, though with the corners of my eyes more definitely creased, returning to wishfulness about life. No matter how hard it is to be naive once you’ve seen so much, it’s worse to fall into the trap of believing you know all there is, now, to know--that is a lonely corner. Instead I will continue to blow on dandelions, and hope they will lead me somewhere. 

Everything And Nothing

September 4, 2014

It’s two years, today, since I moved into the Denver Catholic Worker. What comes to mind as I reflect on my time here--what I’ve learned--is the terse answer I receive often from one of our guests when I ask her what she is up to. “Everything and nothing,” she says.  She is an artist, and when I ask her what she is working on I receive the same: “Everything and nothing.”                                                                                                                                        

I try to understand what brought me here. Maybe it was my desire for relationships with others with whom I could share work, with whom I could squint, seeking the “truth.” Maybe it was the writer in me, who wanted to experience, to understand. A dull aching. A vague curiosity.  Maybe it was more simple than that, more about pleasure, about letting go. I don’t consider myself a risk taker—I’m careful, analytical, hesitant, often indecisive—as much as I enjoy the feeling of falling, finally making a decision and giving in to it completely. I went sky-diving when I turned twenty-one. I let go—but it was a short thrill.  Attachment is the weight we carry—when we are able to separate our true selves from our attachment-heavy selves, we are light. We are awake. Present. We are no longer stuck, longing, clinging, worrying. Catholic Workers, ideologically, work to be non-attached. Typically—historically—Catholic Workers are single. They choose to live “simply.” They leave it at the door, put it all in a box, send it down the river.

The first six months of my being here, I felt distinctly this sense of free-falling. I could look around me, observe the people I lived with (both workers and guests) and this house, suspicious yet sturdy, with only love. I was like a tiny fly, silent; I moved with the wind. I was enchanted.

Some time later, it’s clear to me that to choose to live at a Catholic Worker—or be a part of one’s community—is not to choose a life of simplicity. That feeling—of being refreshed, renewed, awakened—does not last (without hard work, hard prayer). You can only jump out of a plane once. Momentum slows after what we call the “honeymoon phase” of living at a Worker. It’s choosing complexity. It’s in growing comfortable with the complex, knowing complexity deeply, that we are able to suddenly see something as simple. It’s seeking the “Middle Way.” In a Kundalini yoga class recently, our teacher guided us in a meditation. During this practice, I felt an intense sense of calm, a feeling that I was riding a wave, while also feeling completely centered and still—moving, changing, transforming, and yet unchanging and steady. I asked him what the chant meant. He said that the meditation is meant to direct our awareness to “one reality.” This specific teacher has said he is not into “feel good” yoga. He is not into yoga that encourages students to pretend life is not complicated--lovely and painful. That we have selfish motives, at times--that we are human. Spiritual progress only happens when we are able to accept ourselves--and others--as infinitely complex. Everything and nothing. One reality. Maybe it’s in growing comfortable with being uncomfortable that we more easily, more abundantly experience true comfort. Joy. Perhaps the more comfortable we grow with change the more everything becomes for us still, constant. The more we trust. Certainly, the desire of Dorothy Day was not to rid the world of suffering—but to welcome it in. She didn’t think she could fix the pain of others, the many problems of the world—at least not on her good days—but she wanted to acknowledge pain, carefully, patiently, lovingly. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says he cannot imagine a world—a heaven—without suffering. Yet that does not mean one cannot feel peace within such a place. It is a truer peace when suffering is not denied or looked over as unimportant. Tonight I was able to listen to a new guest tell me of her past without latching myself onto it, the pain of it, allowing it to pull me away from her. Perhaps it was because of the peace that she somehow radiates. A pale glow. Forgiveness. Acceptance.

I’ve learned there is no swimming to the top, pushing the water down—there is no quick way to becoming more aware. You must learn to breathe slowly; you will find truer clarity. Silence where there is noise. If we were able to take each layer, fill in the patches, weave in again the falling away strands, hand wash, douse in lavender and eucalyptus—there would be another layer to purify. Two years later I’ve become more gently aware of imperfectness, the beautiful, intricate complicatedness of myself and others. During a moment of wonder—that comes like a sudden whisper—I know that nothing is simple, and I am free.

To Sit.

August 20.

The air was light in Denver this evening, thin like silk, smoothe enough to slip off of one’s shoulders, the sky a pale purple, the finest raindrops falling here and there, tickling. I sat outside with one of the women—let’s call her Julie—that currently lives here. She needed an ear. While I tried my best to listen, I watched people pass. At once they were like the distracting thoughts I have during meditation. At once they were the light, the ‘third eye,’ during meditation where my focus gently lies, the focal point from where I draw peace, flickering here, then there. The air was so light, the late sun steady, it was as if nothing around us truly existed. We were perhaps floating, our words were perhaps simply sounds we made, strange expressions of the Divine. 

When she came home at four, I was by the oven, which I’d packed with potatoes seasoned with thyme, sliced squash doused in olive oil and butter, and honey glazed chicken. I was chopping a fruit salad of apples and peaches—one bowl of this with nuts and dried cranberries, and another with only apples and peaches. Some of our guests have a hard time with nuts, with one or several teeth missing. One of these guests always expresses gratitude when I remember to leave the difficult to chew bits out of salads—though she tells me she could get dentures—because she is missing almost the whole row of bottom teeth—if she wanted to. I just prefer it the way it is, she would say, smiling. She was homeless for ten years before moving into the Catholic Worker (or this is, at least, what we confidently assume). My fiancé—another Catholic Worker worker—and our friend introduced themselves to her just before Christmas of 2012 when they saw her in downtown Denver on a park bench, trying to rest inconspicuously so that she wouldn’t get harassed, potentially ticked by a cop for sleeping outside. I remember the night they invited her to stay in the one of the single woman’s rooms which had been vacant for a few days. The degree had been in the teens, and I was wearing three kinds of thermals, a scarf and a hat, beneath three blankets, when I heard Marcus show her to the room. “Let us know if you need anything,” he said. I felt immediately that her presence, even from my top bunk, the door closed, lights off, was meant to be in our house that night, just across the hall.  

Julie nearly ran over to me, my hands covered in peach slime. The oven, at 425 degrees, had given me a headache—and all I had to get done for dinner to be a complete one, as my mother had always made, was worrying me. ‘I missed you!’ she said. I’d only been gone for ten days. Without using my hands, I hugged her back, leaning in with my shoulders. She began crying. ‘I can’t find anywhere, Kristen! I’ve called everywhere! I don’t know what to do!’ Julie has been living at the Denver Catholic Worker for just over a year now, which is an unusually long stay. When she first arrived here—after calling, calling, calling, finally calling on a day when we had an available single woman’s room—she said it was a blessing to have found us. That it was the first time she was homeless, at fifty-years-old. At first, even though she was gracious and upbeat, I had little patience for her, who could be charming, helpful, who has a lovely, buoyant singing voice, but who was also indulgent with flattery, and mothering. The day I met her her expression of gratitude for having been invited to stay was bothersome to me. Maybe it was her joy that bothered me. I was in mourning, still. The way in which the woman who’d stayed in that room before her—let’s call this woman Rachel—had left us was viciously sad. Rachel was a thirty-year old with a heartbreaking mental disability, who was almost always terrified that others were talking about her, who’d shouted when she felt bullied by one or two of our community members, ‘I have a problem inside of me!’ Who loved leopard print fabric. Who collected books. She packed her bags and I helped pile them into a taxi, which would bring her to a cheap motel, where she could live for a few weeks on her disability check, before becoming penniless again. I was feeling low and cynical about what we offer to those who stay here.

Julie has been a wonderful person to have around. She’s caring and affectionate and warm. She has wiry red hair, too dry, it seems from hard years, and soft blue eyes. But beneath a colorful exterior, a bright southern accent and bold, ‘No one will tell me what to do!’ attitude, is a woman in pain. Since moving into the Catholic Worker she’s had several surgeries, two of which fortunately found only cancer-less cells. She’s been fired twice from jobs working as a home aide, due to an inability to physically handle the tasks at hand, and now hobbles around with a cane, due to severe arthritis. Her ankles are swollen and misshapen; her knees, as her doctor has said, are entirely macerated. 'Just mush,’ she says. And she has engaged in abusive relationships, held on for dear life to people who’ve taken advantage of her. The joy that bothered me when my heart still cried for a woman I thought we’d failed is now hard to find on Julie’s familiar, beautiful but tired face. 

‘I’ve been tryin’!’ she said, in response to our encouraging her, firmly now, to seek out another place to reside. Her eyes bubbled and water ran down a chapped, pink cheek. I heard secrets. There was anger in my hands when she told me of abuse she’s experienced, of death she’s witnessed; frantically I braided my hair, looking down. A person passed. A neighbor says, ‘Hello,’ unaware. I wanted to fold down into myself until I was no longer there. I couldn’t help Julie; I felt silly and foolish. But instead of dwelling there, burdened by my limitations, I tried to really sit beside her. Simply sit. Sit. I uncurled my spine, opening my heart, my chest, to the woman, to the people passing, to the women who call every hour, looking for somewhere to stay. (“I’m fifty-four,” one woman calling said today, “I have asthma, and cancer.”) I tried to be aware of my own breath, erratic, in and in and in and out—I could still feel myself welling up inside, ballooning, hardening—and I tried to slow down its pace. in… out… in… out.

Catholic Worker Farm, Malboro NY. June 2012.

 

The Hudson rolls by to my right, dragging slowly like a needle round a record. That morning, Tom Cornell had written me to sit on the left side, where you could most closely watch the river race past for the two hour ride. “The Hudson River Valley beats the Rhine by a mile!” he wrote. 

At one in the afternoon the water is a matte shade of light gray, without a sun above to grant it gleaming facets. I squint, trying to see some sparkle, something I can remember, but the river is expressionless, a closed mouth.

Eventually sudden wisps of land appear--handfuls of green wishfully placed here and there flash by—trees wrapped in furry vines, arms of leaves twisted and twirled heavenward, all the way up, out and around branches until the entire tree is cozy inside of a warm web of green. These thick, stubby stalks, fat with rolls of foliage, remind me of the layered steeples of childhood sandcastles. “Just take a bit of wet sand like this,” my dad would say, as the pale mud would drip onto one of the castle’s outer walls, as if straight from his fingertips, until tiny towers found their finest point. “And let it run through your fingers… Just. Like. This.” It always took some time before a shape emerged. Many times even after a beautiful steeple seemed also strong and certain, it would fall and disappear into the ground. Those lopsided, swollen ones were those that remained, that guarded the heart of the castle. “It doesn’t have to look perfect,” he would say, as he pulled his hand away, slowly as if a butterfly had landed upon it. 

In between these moments of forest, a blanket of water remains still, silences the underground. A couple of days before, a psychic had told my sister that her sister would be doing some traveling: she would visit farms and shelters. “She has a lot of empathy,” my sister repeated, mimicking the woman pressing her hand hard to her heart, “and it will be a challenge for her. It will be harder than she thinks.” 

At the Peckskill stop, the sun blooms, flowers in fast motion, and drops petals of light below revealing the water, choppy and sharp edged as diamonds. Behind it, the mountains overlap, as one falls down into the next and up, up again; the rich, dark green fur of them is thick as sheep’s wool. The train is then, at once, so close to the water I feel it is just below my seat, that if I could open a window and reach down just a bit, my fingers would run through its flowing mane. 

Again a cloud awaits us just after we pull away from Beacon, a cloud that has turned the water a periwinkle, a pale purple smooth as milk. A bright ribbon of blue sky outlines the hills, and just above this glowing line a long dark cloud spills wide. I see, forehead pressed against the window, that rays of white are raining down from this cloud’s underbelly, illuminating the endless, elusive river below. Poughkeepsie will be the next stop, I hear, before a downfall silently booms.

Falling Into Love. May 2012.

In late May of 2012, I hopped into a small, sweaty car with three New York Catholic Workers, Bud, Loren, and Megan, to head upstate for the Atlantic Life Community Retreat. I’d been “let go” a week earlier—in a most unfriendly way—from my administrative assistant job at a non-profit charity, just after I overheard my boss telling a neighbor outside that he’d wished I was more militaristic—for I’d spent too much time trying listening to the fears of a woman, with little knowledge of English, who would soon lose her home. What I became most certain of during my four months there was that I am not made to hush a cry; I am made to illuminate it; I am made to cherish it, hold it in my hand, and offer it up.  

My relationship with the Catholic Worker Movement, and its two New York City (elderly) children, St. Joe’s and Maryhouse, began in August of 2011—or, rather, in May when I began reading A Long Loneliness. But I spent the summer passing, only for a moment considering the soft red wood doors of the women’s hospitality house. Sometimes stopping, staring up at the tin sign above, “The Catholic Worker.” Waiting for someone to coincidentally come outside, invite me in. Waiting. Hurrying away before anyone could come out and invite me in.

I carried the book in my bag for three months. Before and after work—then as a retail salesperson at a high end Soho boutique—I highlighted sentences. Some became prayers I’d repeat to friends, to myself in silence. I started speaking of Dorothy to anyone who’d listen, learning who she was as I fumbled through her life. I spoke about voluntary poverty, a strangely glamorous creed I didn’t understand, a language much too foreign. Reading it was a stripping of my own Self, the seemingly natural progression of thoughts we have—I began to itch within the luxurious layers of privilege that I wear as a twenty-five year old white woman. I moped, dragging that robe of privilege, until I learned that humility is a practice, that it would take time. I read until I was malleable, bent, shaking when, in August, I knocked on those doors. 

After one year of volunteering, the moments of gnawing desire to move into a Worker House have congealed and acquired a steady pulse, as a consistent hunger. I’ve also acquired family, at both the men’s house and the women’s house. To many after mass one Thursday, I’d mentioned I was considering moving into a Worker House—that I, however, was looking to experience the inner workings of another House. I received different responses. “Why wouldn’t you just stay here?”; “You must go to the Hamburg house!”; “How exciting! I’ve always wanted to do that!”

Following an afternoon at St. Joe’s and Mary House, Loren stopped me on the street as I walked home. He held a cardboard pole. “I pick one up whenever I see one. For signs.”  And a few hours later, we were climbing into the car, soon settling into the hum of the engine. Speeding around the East Village in such a confined space with three Catholic Workers was both comforting and maddening. Even in silence I felt I could hear their thoughts. Personalism, as I’ve come to unintelligibly understand it, is the practice of excoriating that rough film atop each of our senses (and then acting on what we believe is just, taking injustices into our own feeble hands). I believe that most Catholic Workers came-a-knocking as I did because they see and feel in a way that can become overwhelming, isolating, if not supported by others with similar empathies. As we slipped through the village I’d lived in for three years, thrice I noticed that person strewn across a sidewalk, heavier with new heat, sun brimming along his body limp as a wet rag, the summer coming from the ground up, that pedal beneath Bud’s foot cold, sharp, hot as coal from fire. 

Quickly, most of the ALC attendees became aware that I was “between work,” though, more and more, this phrase felt untrue, for work, to me, had come to mean silent prayer or prayer in action, and it felt as if I were just beginning. I spoke openly of my longing to visit other Worker houses. I was honest about my hesitations in leaving. Was I abandoning NYC CW? I shared hesitations in staying. In response to what became my Catholic Worker “story”—where I came from and where I might be going—many offered thanks for my presence and prayers for my “discernment.” In their eyes and in their hand on my hand, was encouragement, excitement for they called my “pilgrimage.” 

From the convention I took with me a bewildered understanding of ploughshares, a deeper fear of bed bugs (certainly, I thought, they were in my hair, in between toes and sifting through eyebrows. Must. Not. Sleep!), an almost painful respect for my new and old friends—and that word: Pilgrimage. 

Crammed into that car, pulling away from the beige building the Dominican Sisters had so generously lent us, I was closer to those three. I’d sung Guthrie’s “I Aint Got No Home” with the driver, who’d sung protest songs months earlier that year in Iraq, where innocents had fallen, where a mother pressed Rose petals into the ground as if attempting to give life to the dead. I knew his slight limp better than before, his long hair and face, his nature, more mercifully swayed than I could’ve dreamt. Recently, in an email, he wrote to me, “Come back to us.” I’d confessed to Megan my fears, the twenty-nine year-old so sure of her duty, she forces you to recognize yours. “I am so curious about the lives of every Catholic Worker—where do they come from? Why are they here?” I’d said, once, while chopping vegetables. “God,” she replied, and laughed—this buoyant, fearless certainty of hers has made her an invaluable member of the community, and also at odds with a society, a traditional family within that society, which might gawk at the young woman’s wishes to wash the feet of the poor. “If only an orthopedic doctor would teach me for free.” She’d showed me, motioning, the positions this procedure would require, drawing a beautiful picture, a Renaissance painting. And she confessed, too: “I would have never imagined myself here. New York. At St. Joe’s. But I know it is where I am supposed to be.” Loren, who came to NYC when Occupy Wall Street began bubbling from a small Catholic Worker House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, sighed, smiling, after we were outstretched in our borrowed sleeping bags, sighed at the failings, the gossip which happens inside St. Joe’s, in a city where the sharpness of concrete, glass, and hard, narrow looks reverberate around him. “The crosses we bear,” he smiled, gently.

I want to write this book for selfish purposes—this I know. I discover many things in reflecting, in writing. I find beauty in imperfect conversations, imperfect embraces, cracked walls and smiles. In houses of hospitality, where we are trying to love another person, sometimes many people at once, sometimes, we fail. But the trying to love—how beautiful that is. 

I think often of what a friend wrote me in a letter after I’d invited him and his novice brother, on pilgrimage from Kentucky, to stay at my apartment for the weekend. I met the two at St. Joe’s; they were thankful to have been invited to sleep on the St. Joe’s floor on the early March evening. 

“I can’t thank you enough for all of your hospitality and generosity. Most of all thank you for having the courage to be vulnerable, to share your heart with us. This is what I think of when I think of Christ: He was vulnerable, and he knew that was the only way to be fully human. He identified with that, which is, perhaps, the most essential part of being a creature. I think of words like ambiguity, paradox. Jesus is comfortable with these realities and so must we be.” 

In the past month I’ve contacted several Catholic Worker houses around the world; I’ve received several responses, welcoming my presence. While it is still, today on June 11th, uncertain where I will go, it’s been more than encouraging to hear from so many, doing the works of mercy everyday. One email from the Germany Catholic Worker assured my hope to visit many houses, as many as I can, and reflect on them, offer these moments up (to these houses themselves, to houses across seas, to Dorothy, to God). 

“I have to smile when I read that you have heard only wonderful things about our house,” she wrote. “From inside, as you may know, life shows itself with the full range of happenings and emotions and failures and successes. Therefore, we are always interested in the outside point of view.”

This, then, is my attempt to show that outside--temporarily inside--point of view, of the many atmospheres of hospitality, the ways in which we are practicing humility—for, after all, it is but a practice.