Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Chills

Have you ever gotten the chills?

You know, when goosebumps run up your back.

When do you get them?

I got them on Sunday, in a pretty intense way. I was invited to accompany one of my friends to her roommate's gospel choir performance. Having been in a gospel choir, and loving gospel music, I jumped at the opportunity. The performance included two different choirs, one from Lasalle Street Church, which was composed predominantly of white people, and the other from South Street Church, which was composed predominantly of black people. I must admit, though the Lasalle Street choir was great and sounded beautiful, the South Street choir carried an energy and skill that was something to be striven for. However, that wasn't the climax of the performance. The part of the performance that gave me intense chills was when the two choirs joined together, blending their voices and combining their parts. The voice I heard from these two choirs together spoke truth. But I'll get back to that. Let me go back to the chills for a little bit.

I get the chills on a pretty regular occasion, but I experience a very wide range of types of chills. There's a whole spectrum that I experience, from the very minute tingle in the back of my neck, all the way up to a shiver that shakes my whole body, in what can be a pretty violent shimmy. Some of you may have witnessed one of those shuddering shimmies of mine; they jump out of nowhere sometimes.

In addition to the wide range of physical expressions of the chills, I've also noticed that my chills can be inspired by very different stimuli. I sometimes get the chills in response to a cool breeze or draft of air running down my back or hitting me in the face. But I can also get the chills, sometimes to a very intense degree, when someone speaks words that strike my heart chord, when I gaze my eyes upon a beautiful landscape, when I witness an act of pure-hearted love, compassion, trust, or joy, or, when a spirit moving sound of music or voice hits my ear drums.

I just looked up the definition of the chills, and it looks like the medical phenomenon to which the slang refers to, cutis anserina, is a little different than what I'm talking about. Cutis anserina refers to the little bumps that form when a tiny little muscle at the base of our hair follicles contracts causing our hair to stand up. Apparently, this response is sparked by a nerve discharge from our sympathetic nervous system, a part of our autonomic nervous system, the system that regulates organ function and our fight or flight response. I could get into a discussion of all that stuff, but I do have a point to this post that I'd like to get to eventually, (and, if you're still reading this, you'd probably like me to get there eventually too) so I'm just going to leave that stuff there and try to get where I'm going. If you're interested, though, I love talking about all that physiological stuff, so shoot me a line.

What I was trying to get to with that last paragraph is that what I call the chills is not only that physical response of our hair standing up and our skin getting little bumps. It is true that that happens to me sometimes when I get the chills, but it doesn't always--maybe only half of the time. Usually, though, what I call the chills is a tingle or warmth that seems to, depending on the situation, shoot up, roll up, or even just glow up my back, seemingly running along my spine. However, it doesn't always have an external manifestation. Often, it is something that I seem to feel on the inside. It is as if there is a string tied from my head to the core of my body, and certain things have the ability to play that string, sending vibrations of energy through my inner being. Sometimes, when that string is hit, the note that is played sends a rush through my body. It can even move me to tears.

The experience of that note being played is one of the most beautiful experiences of being alive for me. When that string is pulled, something moves inside of me that lets me know that I am alive, that I'm human. And while this movement sometimes expresses itself on a physical level, I also feel it is something deeply spiritual. It is as if that string is tied between my soul and my body, the connection between my spiritual side and my physical side. The experience of this movement is one of the reasons I believe in a God.

It has often been when seeing, hearing, or feeling things having to do with God that I've most intensely experienced this inner vibration. Something inside of me resonates with the idea of God, a creating source, an original home, the essence of love, the uniting element between all things. When confronted with things of beauty, things of love, things of joy, and things of compassion, something tells me they are true and real, that they exist, surround us, and compose us. These things are not physical, and we cannot see them or touch them, but in my life they have been so real--so real that I cannot deny their existence. And spirit is the best word I've found to describe what they are. This is what God is to me--that spirit that is beauty, love, joy, compassion, and more. It is something that I can see in other people, and something that I believe is in all people. It is the spirit that leads to creating art, paintings, music, sculptures, and even chairs, desks, houses, cars, and food. It is the spirit that leads to creating friendships, marriages, families, and babies (that fourth of the four F's). It is what moves us humans to offer ourselves, to give of ourselves, and even to sacrifice of ourselves for others. I believe it is this spirit that motivates life and inspires the potential within us.

I've also seen it in other things--in trees, mountains, rivers, rain, sunshine, snow, flowers, stars, the wind, and so much more. That spirit is God to me, and when I sense it around me, the spirit within me resonates. The chills are a physical expression of that resonance for me, and the way I've experienced them tells me God is real. I don't think any religion has done an excellent job of painting a picture of God, but I think all religions hold some pixel of truth. I think religion helps point us in a direction toward God, but the world around us, the life we live, does such a better job of showing us what God is.

The voices I heard last Sunday, the sound it made, and the sight of those people was a glimpse of God for me. It sent chills through me, body and soul.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Yard work

I think I found another reason why things didn't work for me in Malawi: yard work.

I really like yard work. And though there was definitely work around our volunteer house that had to be done, and though, as the other volunteers in my community could attest to, I didn't always jump at the opportunity to do that work, it is true that I didn't often have the opportunity to do routine yard work like cutting the grass or trimming the hedges. In fact, our volunteer community would intentionally choose not to do some of the yard work around our house. I think we choose not to do it for good reasons. It just that I didn't like the fact that I didn't get to do it on a regular occasion. Or perhaps, more accurately, what I didn't like is that I didn't have to do it on a regular occasion. And here I'm going to shift off my yard work topic for a bit, but I'll get back to it.

You see, many of the students at Chaminade or at MIRACLE, as well as some of our neighbors or other people from the community, would often come to our house to ask for 'piece work.' Piece work in Malawi is work that a person can do for a particular amount of time but is not a long-term or permanent source of income. It's something someone will do for a day or a couple of days in order to earn a small sum of cash. Many of our students really needed this work. They used the money to help pay their school fees, or to buy their school uniforms, or even to pay for transportation to and from school. And really, they often had no other way to earn it. Typically, a person would get paid about 300 Malawian Kwacha for one full day's work, roughly from 7AM until 4PM, including a cooked lunch. This is what we would pay our pieceworkers. 300 Malawian Kwacha is equal to about $2.14. Sound ridiculous, right? Well, that is what is a typical earning for a full day of work in Malawi, so we stuck with it. Though $2.14 seems absolutely trivial to us in the States, that $2.14 was more than many Malawians make. $2.14/day is what Malawians with a job would make, and most Malawians don't have paying jobs. Most Malawians live off of subsistence farming. So, I'm glad we didn't do our yard work. We had enough money in our budget to provide opportunities for our students and neighbors to do work, and I'm glad we were able to help them earn some money. I do think, however, that doing yard work is important for a healthy mind, a healthy spirit, and a healthy body. At least, it is for me. And this is where I'll get back to the topic of yard work.

Yesterday, I trimmed the hedges around our front yard. And I liked it! It took me close to two hours, and, though I was using an electric hedge trimmer, it was hard work. My hands got tired from holding the hedge trimmer, my back, arms, and shoulders felt the strain of the repetitive motions. And my muscles were tired by the time I had to bend over to lift the piles of branches and leaves into the garbage can. Despite the tedious work of it and despite any discomfort from it, I really enjoyed doing it, and it brought back to me a feeling I remember from all the days I spent doing yard work throughout my childhood and young adult life.

I never really wanted to do yard work. It was more often something I had to do when my mom told me to so. And you can ask her, I didn't always want to do it. But, whenever I did finally put on my shoes, muster myself out to the back porch to get the needed rake, shovel, or mower, and lowered my shoulder into that not-so-glamorous work, I usually ended the day with a sense of pride and a feeling of joy.

I think there is something inherently joyful about doing yard work. First of all, it gives us an opportunity, an excuse, or sometimes forces us, to get outside! Whenever we do yard work, we're brought up close and personal with the beauty of nature: the smell of freshly cut grass and spring flowers in the trees, the sight of a chipper squirrel seeking out a nut to steal back to her nest, the sound of a nearby songbird singing his song, the weighty feel of a log or branch needing to be moved, and the bittersweet taste of a raspberry plucked two-weeks before you should have. These things are so life-giving, and I don't think I'd want to live somewhere I couldn't enjoy them. Yard work reminds us to stop our busy schedules and get out and enjoy the beauty of nature. Second of all, yard work is physical work, and we all know how important physical activity is for our hearts, minds, and souls. Last night, when I finally got back inside, sat down, and pulled off my shoes, I had the feeling of having done good work. My body was happy having worked hard and having used the muscles I was given. Yard work gets us active in the middle of a lifestyle that has become predominantly sedentary. And finally, yard work helps us respect and appreciate the environment we inhabit. I know whenever I cut the grass, or when I look at the hedges I just trimmed, or after I clear out overgrown bushes, I stop and look at the job before heading in, or I take notice of it the next time I get home from being out, and I take a bit of pride in this land that I've cared for. Granted, I don't live on a farm or anything, but I take joy in the little work I do to keep up, maintain, and beautify my home.

And that's why I like yard work. But don't get me wrong, especially if you're my mom reading this. This doesn't mean I want to be outside every day or even every other day doing yard work. Yard work shouldn't be something that takes over your life. There's so much more to enjoy in life! Yard work is just one of them.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's been a few weeks

I realized the other day that it had been a few weeks since the last time I posted on here, so I thought I'd hop on here and put up a post.

The week and a half from April 17th until April 27th was probably one of the most fun week and a halfs (can I say "week and a halfs"?) I've ever had. During those 10 days, I had the opportunity and ability to travel to a few different cities and focus pretty much all of my time and energy on spending time with friends. I want to write down all of the awesome things I got to do and all of the wonderful people I got to spend time with, but it would probably take me too long. If you're reading this and I spent time with you in Dayton, Indy, Cincy, or anywhere in between, know that I consider the time I shared with you to be an incredible gift. I'd also like to thank all the people who stretched out some form of generosity or hospitality, without which my little trip wouldn't have been possible; THANK YOU.

Now that I've returned back home and have returned to the commonality of daily life, I'm left with a couple of questions: why was this trip so life-giving and joyful, and why can't everyday be like those ten days were?

Well, I think part of the reason everyday can't be like those ten days is because it cost money to do a lot of the things I did, and during those ten days, I didn't do anything to earn that money. It was all money I had saved up. Furthermore, ten days of traveling around and hanging out with friends is pretty wonderful, but any more than that would probably get old. We all need a sense of purpose and a point to our lives. We need a sense of accomplishment, that we are doing something of value and something worthwhile. I imagine this is the hardest part of being unemployed or of being a parent whose children have grown out of their need for them. And I think this was part of my struggle for my first couple months in Malawi. It's also what I'm beginning to face here without yet having found something towards which I can focus my gifts, talents, energies, and passions. But what do we do when it seems like there just aren't any opportunities for us to use those gifts, talents, energies, and passions? Hmm...I don't think I have answer to that just yet.

So what, then, made my ten day friend adventure so nourishing and fulfilling? Well, I think it had something to do with the fact that I was able to be 100% present wherever I was. I had nothing else on my mind except the people right next to me. I didn't have to worry about an assignment or some project, some lesson plan or some schedule. The entire focus of my mind and spirit was on enjoying and appreciating the good and the beauty in the people I was with and in the places I was at.

I think this is something we often forget to do when we have important jobs and tasks to accomplish. We become so fixated on the things we accomplish, the rewards we earn, and the ways we succeed, that we run out of time or energy to simply appreciate the good and the beauty around us. I think our consumerist and materialist culture helps us in this process too. We're always looking for what's new or what's nicer, that it's sometimes hard for us to be content with what we have, to be at peace with what we have, or even better, to be genuinely happy with what we have. How much does that stink? And I'm just as much of a victim as the next person. I have to admit, I LOVE Express clothing. I think Express designs and sells incredibly attractive clothing that is comfortable to wear and compliments the way a person looks. For the past three weeks, Express has been sending me emails informing me of all kinds of deals on their clothes. There are currently about 5 different pieces on sale at that I want to purchase, and if I had it my way, I'd probably purchase multiple colors of each item. I don't really need them, but I want them, and because I want them, I'm finding it more difficult to be content with the clothes I have, even though I don't really need 3 more Fitted Stretch 1MX dress shirts of various colors. But our culture rewards and respects people who wear nice clothes. And I like that boost of confidence I get when I put on that nice-fitting shirt, a perfect color for the occasion, with my stylish jeans. So what's a guy to do? Where does that bring us?

Well, I think it brings us somewhere in the middle. Work is a good thing. We all yearn for a sense of purpose, and we all need the nourishment of accomplishment. But we shouldn't let our focus on purpose and accomplishment drown out our ability to be present with the people around us, to appreciate who they are, the gifts they have, the humor they carry, and the stories they share. And nice clothes are a nice thing. Wearing them encourages us, helps us feel confident about who we are, and, often, celebrates the beautiful form of our bodies. But we should be careful not to let ourselves get too focused on building up an expansive collection of nice clothes. Not only will we end up spending lots of money that could be used for other, more life-giving things, but we could fall into the trap of failing to be happy with what we have and neglecting to appreciate all the wonderful things around us that we don't have to buy.

Life is so good, and so is most of what is in it. I think we people are just a little bit addictive with things, so we have to remember to appreciate the good things for what they are without going so far as to neglecting all the other great things around us.