Tuesday, June 19, 2012

You'll Shoot yer Eye Out, Kid!

Early summer has turned the pavement hot and reduced pedestrians to traveling at the speed of a sluggish shuffle. School has wrapped up for the year, sending eager students racing out in anticipation of the immense freedom of July and August. And as my students painfully endured their last music lessons of the school year, they filled me in on upcoming adventures; days of endless sports camps, nights telling ghost stories at sleep away camps, vacations to Florida, California, the Galapagos, Japan, volunteer work in Peru, grand family road trips... with the closing of school doors, the world had opened up!  

One student in particular had no such concerns for summer plans. His entire being was focused on one goal to be met before the sounding of the fall school bell ...the goal of convincing his mom to buy him an Airsoft pellet pistol.  Ryan sat at his piano explaining to his truly uncool teacher that the particular gun he wanted might possibly be the best thing ever. As his gestures became more animated, I snickered inside, hearing 'Christmas Story' references play out in my mind.  Losing patience with his teacher's inability to see the seriousness of the situation, Ryan pulled out his IPad, immediately pulling up pictures of the coveted item. As I looked at an unsettlingly convincing imitation of a gun, I said the one thing that could destroy any last illusion students might have of my own coolness... "I agree with your mom."

Six days before I found myself sitting at Ryan's piano, a thirteen year old boy was out in Uptown on a school night eating pizza at 2:30am.  After being spotted by a rival gang member, he was shot in the head and died.   He was Ryan's age.

As many of you already know, this will be my last update for a few months since tomorrow I will be traveling to France where I will begin my pilgrimage to Saint James in Santiago Spain. I will be spending the next weeks walking 500+ miles on a path walked for a thousand years before me. As I have been preparing for this trip, many people have expressed concerns for my safety. So, to put worries to rest, let me mention that Spain as a country averages between thirty and forty homicides each year. Chicago totaled 50...last month.  Thus far there have been 31 murders for June and 239 for the year. And after the murder of the 13 year old I wrote of above, our police superintendent mentioned in a statement that he plans to work closer with 'Ceasefire,' a group of ex-gang members who step in the middle to diffuse violent situations. He failed to mention that funding for Ceasefire Uptown had already been pulled..

As odd as it sounds after the above stats, I will miss Chicago and Uptown this summer. I will miss volunteering with the food magician Ed at the Cornerstone shelter, I will miss the confused look on the faces of the kids on the corner when I offer them cupcakes and I will miss watching the world change from my balcony.  (I will also miss my husband and obese cat..) 

I hope you all have a lovely and SAFE summer and if you are interested in my extremely slow journey across Spain during the Eurocup (that I just KNOW Spain is going to win...)



Thursday, May 24, 2012

Barabbas Goes to NATO

According to the Christian story there were two prisoners; Jesus and Barabbas.  They stood before a large crowd as their captor shouted "Who do you all want me to release? ..Jesus or Barabbas?"  The crowd responded in one voice over and over again, "Give us Barabbas!"  And so he did.. and Jesus remained to be crucified.  

Growing up, I had always heard Barabbas referred to as a criminal, a thief, a murderer etc.. and I thoughtlessly accepted that. Though I still wondered at the sanity of any crowd begging for such a creature to be released to them in the place of the gentle Jesus. However, recently I heard a different translation.. rather than 'Barabbas the Criminal,' I heard 'Barabbas the Revolutionary.' In the face of a crumbling Roman empire and vicious oppression of Jews (and soon Christians,) Barabbas fought. 

This past week NATO took over the city.  Heat, motorcades, protestors and police filled Chicago to the point of bursting and as resources were funneled to the city center, Uptown felt unprotected. Our leaders gathered here to plan and compromise and to tackle the impossible task of finding their way to peace.  Meanwhile, smaller wars were being fought just steps from where the likes of Merkel, Obama and Rasmussen hung their suits. While police fought to control protestors and Occupiers, multiple Uptown calls to 911 went without response. Menacing people gathered in the streets, shouting into the wee hours of the morning, smoking weed, throwing garbage, peeing on the sidewalk ..all with impunity and knowledge of the cities overstretched resources.  My husband and I spent the weekend hiding in our apartment, peering out the window while counting the hours between a police car driving past.  Eventually, my husband gave up and starting searching the internet for apartments in a safer neighborhood.  So it was with great relief that Monday brought about a close to NATO meetings, an end to motorcades, a dispersing of protesters and a return of a police presence to Uptown.

As a raging liberal, I am still not sure how I feel about the occupy movement. I agree that there is so much wrong with the world but in the practice of my small life, I am finding that its the tiny battles fought and won that can change perspective.  Martin Luther King Jr didn't spit at his enemies, he challenged them to dream. Gandhi challenged them to love, and Jesus challenged them to forgive.  They changed everything. However, with all the divisiveness, hate and anger in the world today, it's easy to see how the crowd would shout for Barabbas while Jesus stands aside with sadness in his eyes.  

And so I come back again to my own doorstep.  There is a woman in the neighborhood.  She is a short black woman with a tired hard look in her eye. She is always pushing a child in a stroller and generally has another little girl trailing after. She stares straight ahead ignoring the world around her and since last August, I have been saying hi to her.  For nearly nine months she has walked past as though I were invisible. However, a couple weeks ago she responded with her own quiet hi. Yesterday, before I opened my mouth, she lifted her hand from the stroller and waved.

Barabbas lay down your arms
For you carry Abraham in your veins,
For you are held in Allah's heart,
You're the twinkle in dear Brahma's eye,
And one already died
So you might Live. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

American Girl

Last week I gave up...

Not for very long...really just for a couple hours.  But yes, instead of walking over to the shelter for my usual Wednesday lunch shift of canned corn and conversation, I stayed in bed, pulling the covers up over my head while I quietly hid. 

Perhaps exhaustion had led me to that point as I had spent the previous week immersed in hours of Easter liturgical music and rather than relaxing that Monday, I cantored a funeral, taught lessons and went to a choir rehearsal and Tuesday was more of the same. I was tired.  However, my angst went beyond that. I felt as though the weight of the world was in my backyard, piling up into one big stinky pile of.. well..  poo.  I was still walking past garbage all over the street, I was still aware of the people sleeping under the bridge, I was still watching drug deals out my bedroom window,  I was seeing the same gang kids gather on my corner, I was witnessing cops cussing people out rather than setting an example of integrity, I was still reading hateful jaded comments on different Uptown blogs. And I was overwhelmed by the world of woes, hunger, war, anger, bigotry, fear, stupidity...so much hurting and such hard callouses..

I was contemplating things in my own life as well, fading friendships, and lost connections, blurring memories becoming less dependable and changing with the passing time. I was worrying over my own future, confused as to why I felt dissatisfied with the pace of my accomplishments and clueless as to how to change.  Despite the fact that my issues were self imposed, I felt so much pressure.

Last Wednesday I couldn't solve a single problem.. not my own nor anyone else's.  I simply gave up.  However, after hiding under the blankets for two hours, I felt worse. So I got up and gave up on giving up.

This morning I felt some of the same woes, only there was one small detail forcing my lazy ass out of bed and off to the shelter.  Earlier in the week, a family of one of my students had packed up all of their beautiful American Girl dolls and filled the trunk of my car. Today, little Ashley was getting an American Girl and I would get to witness.  I worked in the kitchen, spending the lunch shift cutting pork and chatting with our newest volunteer who was at the start of his 200 hours of court ordered community service in response to his DUI.  We had middle school volunteers from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who cut bread as though they were channeling all of the anger they had acquired in their young lives, and I chatted with one of their moms about the joys of motherhood and teenagers.

I waited for the cafeteria to clear,  before setting down my knife and wiping my hands. I left the kitchen and sat in the chair next to Ashley, pulling a bag from behind my back.  I watched her eyes widen as she pulled her new doll in for a gleeful excited hug.  I selfishly soaked up all of her happy energy, storing it in my tired heart. In giving to her (thanks to my student!!!) I found renewal. 

“Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me... Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”

Martine..  Ashley thanks you!!!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Someone Else's Story

I have a younger sister who lives just a short walk from my house.  She is a beautiful girl with long brown hair, a bright smile and a trendy sense of style that has never crossed the threshold into my comfort-only, hippy tinged closet.  She works for the Chicago branch of my father's company and volunteers at PAWS animal shelter in her spare time.  She doesn't know I exist.

I have an aunt with lovely hard earned lines on her face.  She has lived a life spanning the world with 20 years service to the US justice department, experience as the executive director for the USO's Okinawa base, time spent as a Peace Corps volunteer to Cameroon, and recently, she traveled to build houses and focus on the betterment of life for women in southern India.  She fascinates me, though we have never met.

My father is a good man with my eyes. (or rather, I have his..) He is incredibly intelligent, hard working, overly pragmatic and loyal to a fault.  However, he is not a brave man.  Everything I know of the relationship between him and my mother is from the varying stories of those who were there at the time and old enough to recall; stories of perceived unequaled class, questioned loyalties, spectacularly dramatic arguments, heavy drinking, unbridled jealousy, manipulation and complete utter chaos. All of these factors eventually led to my father happily accepting a job transfer and moving out of state to avoid constant confrontations.  He married, had two daughters and built a respectable, slightly more peaceful life.

My life after his departure followed a wildly different and more painful course.  My mother, who used her own physical beauty to systematically destroy herself and those around her, continued to drink bars dry. We moved more than 10 times before I had acquired ten years, crossing multiple school districts in pursuit of her most recent lovers. A prolonged disappearance on her part, resulted in a much too short stay in foster care.  (with the most wonderful foster parents EVER!) I spent my childhood in fear, and went to sleep each night with a bag packed (as only a child can pack) under my bed, praying for the courage to simply leave in the night, to find a place where I finally felt safe. I spent my school days pretending the final bell would never ring, trying desperately to be just like everyone else. One day in particular found me in front of a mirror in the school bathroom, pathetically trying to comb my hair down over a bare spot where my mother, in her anger the previous night, had pulled to hard. At the time, I didn't want to be rescued.. I just wanted to fit in.

As I got older and less meek, my mother quit drinking and 'found God,' thus discovering yet another way to belittle and tear down those around her.  Only this time she had the irrefutable bible to back her up.  There were many mornings I would enter the kitchen to find a detailed note with scripture verses telling me all the ways I had recently sinned and how according to God's word, I would burn in hell. To this day I will not set foot in an evangelical church and happily rebelled by becoming catholic.  As a child, our house was always immaculate. There was no eating in the kitchen, no messing up made beds by actually sitting on them, certain rooms were completely off limits as walking through them would cause the grain of the carpet to go in different directions.  There were never to be empty hangers in the closets and no one EVER took clothing from the ironing pile or got clothes being worn dirty. (I currently have a closet that has daily clothing avalanches.) All of my mothers compulsive obsessions led to my childhood being spent sitting on the floor, losing myself in books while I willed my life to pass into adulthood quicker.


My most recent visit to the shelter in Uptown was a difficult one.  As it is currently spring break around the country, the kitchen had fresh faced volunteers from an Oklahoma youth group lending a hand.  I worked the first part of the line filling lunch trays with sausages or hamburgers while two other girls ladled on canned veggies and oranges.  People were increasingly short tempered with us, wanting an extra hamburger or oranges despite knowing that we couldn't comply until everyone had been through the line at least once.  I got shouted at by a deaf woman who has likely spent her life being misunderstood.  And as yet another person complained that their food was burnt, undercooked, overly salty etc.. I felt the overwhelming urge to slam down my tongs while telling everyone to piss off before dramatically stomping out of the kitchen to resume my own peaceful life.  I was jerked out of my impending hissy fit by the voice of a crabby older woman shouting at a young volunteer who had apparently failed to place  oranges on the woman's tray gently enough.  I watched as a red flush crept up the girl's neck and her eyes began to fill.  In her innocent young mind, she was only trying to help and people should be thankful, not angry and mean.   

As the line of hungry people slowed to a trickle, we talked about the importance of trying to empathize with where people are coming from.  We don't know everyone's stories and the difficult roads that have led them each to our particular lunch line.  We can't fathom the tears and disappointments of those we serve and we don't feel how difficult it is for them and their pride to accept a tray, to accept that they can't provide it for themselves.  But in order to serve them, we have to try to understand.  

A few minutes later, little Ashley came through the line. She is a tiny 5 year old with light brown skin, gorgeous curly hair and an impish smile.  Last week before she left the lunchroom, we had woven a flower into her hair.  This week she extended her small hand across the lunch line, gifting me with its contents; a ragged, well loved, hand picked dandelion. I smiled and she skipped happily away.

I do not lament my childhood. My mother has since done her best to make a peace that she can live with and I have grown to be a wife, a friend, a musician and a teacher. I don't blame my father for the past.  In fact, I think he would be horrified to know what my reality had been.  I suspect he thought he was a cause of my mother's issues and that if he left she would finally be happy.  Of course, he was wrong. My father is an occasional presence, though due to fear of a return to former chaos, he and his wife have long declined to tell their two daughters of my existence. They worry that I am as my mother. Their combined decision has caused me to scrutinize everyone I meet. Afterall, everyone has a story, be it dramatic or glamorous, or blissfully mundane. One never knows who one passes by in everyday life. One could be passing the next president, the next great humanitarian, or someone much less grandiose, like one's next door neighbor, or even one's own sister. 

I do not wish to have led a different life. My life, my story, has led me to where I am now and has given me the hunger to fight for myself and for those around me. My history has given me a fantastic perspective and I try to use that to see the hurt and insecurity of a broken home in the eyes of the gang kids on the corner. I do my best to understand the sadness in the faces of those on the other side of the lunch line.  And I draw on my past to see the beauty in the simple gift of a tattered weed.   

Friday, March 16, 2012

I Try to Speak your Language..

"I see you periodically
I try to speak your
-Sentiments of a shelter patron-

Each week at the shelter, I see two kids in their early 20s. The girl is a tiny, delicate, pale thing, with long dark hair, a pretty face, and strong dislike for meat. (which, coupled with her strong dislike for canned vegetables, leaves her with little sustenance on her lunch tray.) Her friend is a young black man with large expressive eyes,  an open trusting face and a gentle demeanor. Each week, they go through the line, smiling and chatting, inadvertently bringing a lightness to those around them.  Despite their struggles and surroundings, they maintain wide innocent smiles and are completely lacking hardness and cynicism.  Since I started my weekly foray to the shelter, this particular young man has chatted with me, asking my opinions and telling me about his interest in poetry slams, spoken work and improv.  This past week as I handed a tray across the line to him, he handed back a folded sheet of notebook paper.   I slipped it into my pocket, wanting to wait till I was home to see what this young person had working through his mind..

"..Being shy?
That's what makes us hide
Being blind
Looking for love far and wide

But it's right here.."

At the bottom of his page of beautifully written thoughts (figuratively and literally speaking!) he wrote the word 'corny' followed by two exclamation points.  I disagree.

Spring is in the air in Uptown. Forgotten daffodils and tulips are forcing their way through the earth, bringing a contrast to the stark concrete and prolific litter of the neighborhood.  Dogs are being walked with considerably more enthusiasm and the sounds of happy children laughing and shrieking are floating in the unusually warm air.  However, excited as we are to be waking from the long winter's slumber, we forget that the cold forced people indoors who are now again standing dangerously on the corner.  This past Monday as I drove home from teaching, my husband called my cell, giving me an aggravated earful about the ten or so kids standing on the corner. After hanging up, I contemplated my strategy, fulling knowing that I didn't want to spend the remainder of my evening with a husband whose nose was pressed against the window.  I decided that upon parking, I would happily fall into the role of the neighborhood crazy chick.  After reaching home, I approached the corner kids quickly, frantically asking if they were all ok and who it was who was shot.  They looked at me with surprise and I said, without sarcasm, that that must be why they were all standing there at 11 o'clock at night.  One boy, surely not older than 15, responded that they all were just simply waiting for a ride.  'So, everyone is Ok then?"  I asked.  'Yeah,' the kid responded.  "My name is Jen," I said while holding out my hand. Two boys looked at me hesitantly, before one thought up a suitable fake name and insecurely shook my hand.  I then mentioned that I worked at the local shelter and we could always use more help.   Before we parted ways, I said what was utmost on my mind.. I mentioned that by standing on the corner, they were making themselves huge targets and we didn't need anymore blood on the sidewalk.  The boys nodded, eyes down and before I had gotten up the stairs to my home (and to one very pissed off husband,) they had all disappeared.     

The following night (Tuesday) as I drove back into the neighborhood from teaching, I saw a group of guys walking towards the lake and away from the unmistakable blue flashing police lights.  The boy who shook my hand the night before, looked at me and immediately fixed his eyes at the ground.  Sure enough, five shots had been fired, thankfully missing everyone...no explanations, no one in custody, nothing changed.  Spring is in the air in Uptown.

The words of my shelter friend bear repeating..

"I see you periodically
I try to speak your 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Las Palomas

Standing on the shore of the Mediterranean, a weary traveller can look out over the water to the east towards the lovely island of Majorca. To the North about a three hours drive is the French border and upon looking away from the sparkling dark blue waters, one turns to face all of Barcelona in her stunning beauty, draped like a pagan goddess on her alter.  To the south sits the Olympic Mountain, centerpiece of the 1992 Summer Olympics.(Montjuic..which in Catalan means Jewish Mountain, was once home to Barcelona’s Jewish population.) Montjuic is now home to the Joan Miro foundation and the Magic Fountain (Font Magica)which times a water show playfully to classical music. 

A short walk from the shores of the Mediterranean to the North is the Gothic district, full to bursting with beautiful ornate buildings and churches hundreds of years old. And directly in front of the water, lies the entrance to La Rambla, a walkway that bisects Barcelona. While walking La Rambla Northwest, deeper into the heart of Barcelona, a traveller passes the Teatro Principal de Barcelona, (where I saw a fantastic version of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in which the heroine sang what seemed an earsplitting hour long aria before finally dying.) On La Rambla, one passes stalls filled with fresh fruit and flowers along with the entrance to the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria which is a brightly colored market dating back to the early 1200s. One also passes convincing, outrageously costumed and magnificently creative human statues...statues who will loudly chase after hapless tourists who snap pictures without dropping coins in return.     
Upon reaching the very heart of Barcelona, a traveller finds the perfect place to rest weary feet in the Placa de Catalunya. Years ago, I sat quietly on the edge of a gray fountain with stone fish spitting water and I quietly observed the large square (approx 50,000 square meters) as vendors sold tiny baggies of birdseed to families out with their young children. As each baggie was torn open, the pigeons(las palomas,)would hungrily descend, causing each child to excitedly emit piercing shrieks of joy.  One little boy patiently waited as a crowd of pigeons surrounded the ground near his feet.  He purposefully and fearlessly leaned down, placing his tiny hand, full with birdseed, under the pecking beaks of the ravenous pigeons. He watched with a bright happy light in his eyes as the pigeons made short work of his offering. 
There is a man in the Chicago neighborhood of Uptown who occasionally feeds the pigeons. The hard life he has led is made apparent in the shabby lines of his clothing and the gray tangled mess of his hair, His face is deeply creased and his hands look rough. But, despite whatever difficult path has led him to the corner of Wilson and Broadway, his eyes fill with an impish childlike light as his arm sweeps to feed the birds; his movements imitating those of a happy little boy nearly four thousand miles away.  


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Uptown Pilgrimage

The Universe knows me so well. It understood that the only way in which I would heed a call would be if I were to find myself surrounded by at least a hundred pianos, varying in age and uniqueness, pianos which had felt the hands of thousands of musicians before myself, pianos through which music had been born.

My boyfriend at the time and I had begun our warm summer day wandering through a dusty piano store in the heart of Toulouse France. I had run my hands over at least twenty pianos before settling in at a pretty Zimmerman to play an entire song. As I finished, a lovely, middle aged, fair skinned yet youthfully freckled woman started chatting at me in rapid excited french. Ten minutes later, she cheerily waved us on as we drove off out of Toulouse and pointed our car towards her home where we would meet her husband Michel.

Michel, with his endearing smile and eccentric Beethoven-esque grey hair, met us at his beautiful Chateau de Pompignan,a stunning home built in the mid 1700s surrounded by acres of lush historical gardens. (Gardens which Michel is currently fighting bitterly to keep as high speed rail has chosen to build a track directly through the heart of his property..but that is another story..)

As beautiful as the ch√Ęteau de Pompignan was, it was merely a backdrop for Michel's passion and life's work of collecting and repairing pianos. We walked through room after room crammed with stunning pianos at all levels of disrepair, age, and beauty. Pianos with peeling paint lined with gold leaf, pianos whose tops opened like butterfly wings, pianos with incredibly detailed carvings, pianos in their own suitcases etc.. I played a piano from 1794! Michel, in his excitement, had taken on enough work to keep him busy into the next thousand years.

Towards the end of our visit, Michel led us into a dark quiet chapel with light filtering in though colorful stained glass windows. At the front of the chapel, next to a large double keyboard Bechstein, was a door to a tiny circular room. Within the smaller room, the bare stone walls were carved with multiple symbols of the stonemasons and the signs of Saint James. As my hand reached up to touch the tiny scallop shell carving, I realized that my feet were already standing on the pilgrims path.

According to legend, the body of St James, a disciple of Jesus, had washed up, covered in scallop shells, on a beach in northwestern Spain in the 9th century. For nearly 1100 years, pilgrims have walked hundreds of miles across Europe from their own doorstep the the feet of Saint James, crossing front lines, enduring hunger and physical aches, danger and fear, simply out of faith and hope. Pilgrims have synched their footsteps to the countless who had walked before and the countless who would follow in order to become closer attuned to the beauty of the surrounding universe.

Since fitting my hand over the cool stone carving a few years back outside of Toulouse, I now see scallop shells everywhere. As a result I have recently made the decision to heed the call and walk the way of Saint James this summer. However, my pilgrimage does not merely start in Southern France, but rather here in America, in Chicago, in Uptown, in me. So, in order to help prepare for thirty plus consecutive days of walking through southern France and Northern Spain, I will begin my pilgrimage at home, walking Uptown..seeing beauty not just in the exotic and far away, but here at home.


Mexico City

West Coast

Southern France

Madeline Island WI


Mexico City
Lourdes FR
Toulouse FR


Mexico City 


Toulouse FR