loose end learning

Posted: May 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

The book was not that remarkable, aside from the compelling title. It was about a little Inuit girl going clam fishing somewhere in the north. The title, however, was very catching: The Very Last First Time.

Things are only truly novel one time. They may be enjoyable, fun or even exciting, after they become routine, but they can never become new again. You only have one first time.

My first year at college is completed, accomplished, lived and I can never relive even a second of it. I have experienced my full and complete, very last, first year at college. What a year it was.

I uprooted from quiet Monterey and transplanted myself into Chicago’s south-side. I had glimpses and ideas of what to expect and that was foolish. The best moments, without a doubt, were the times when I forgot to worry about my expectations and chose to embrace the moment.

I like to think that I became a seasoned CTAer, at least in some regards. I logged a lot of miles, a lot of time, a lot of memories on the buses and trains. Starting with those first few times, when I skulked around in a whelming flood of oversensitivity and fear. And culminating with yesterday, when the sky was dark with thunderstorms and my fellow passengers & I commiserated about the lightning and rain. We were all going, not to mention coming, from different places, yet, we were able to connect, laugh, talk, for a short time, as the droplets streaked across the windows and the water splashed loudly underneath the wheels. Every stop we welcomed new, wet friends, and said goodbye to those that were departing.
The thing about the CTA is that it will be a part of my life for as long as I am a student. More faces and stories are yet to be seen and heard on the redline tracks (at least, I sincerely hope so.)

The office. Much has already been said about this place that defined my life for the past five months (not in this post but past ones). At some point I realized that I was here, and decided to make the most of it. More could be said, but even as I prepare to leave, I hardly feel as though it is concluded.

Needless to say, school is not over, it is just on a break. Yes, it is (shockingly, amazingly, unbelievably) 25% complete. But it is not completely finished, just for now; sometimes, however, done for now can feel a lot like done for good. In a way, school as I experienced it this year, is gone forever. I will be in the dorms and involved on campus life much more in the fall: no more long commutes to evening classes, no more eight week terms, and no more classes with people from the community. It will be a different place that welcomes me come august, but not a completely foreign place. Autumn will feel a lot more like building a second story than laying a new foundation.

As this final week dawned on me, I decided I needed to conclude correctly; to make it to the end of the week and be able to hand myself a perfectly wrapped gift entitled: your first year at college.

Only, I’ve been tired when I was spending time with friends. And I overslept one morning. And I missed a bus and had to stand out in the rain. And my rope is not completely congealed at the end; in fact it is a little frayed.

But, that is life.

I have come to the end of year one. Moments and milestones have been stored away as memories, and I will begin building again in the fall. No, not everything started, happened, or ended the way I might have planned it. In the end, however, I have learned more lessons than I can count. But it has been loose end learning. Not wrapped up nicely for me, nor meted out so I could always stand up during the process. No, it’s been loose and inconclusive and unfinished and fully beautiful.

I have a hunch that the Chicago grindstone has not finished wearing me down. There will be more pain, more tears, more strife & struggling and in the midst of that the joys will get higher and higher and I will barely be able to breathe from the altitude.

Bring it on.

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journey

Posted: May 11, 2011 in UChicago Jorgen

I have often thought of participating in an official public race. After moving to the city I was delighted that there were so many options to choose from, I have yet to choose any of these options.

This past weekend I finally found the perfect race for me.

It was, however, most definitely, unofficial.

Say hello to the Journey to the End of the Night: a 750-person, paranoia-filled, foot-race, through Chicago’s north-side.

***

The race started at a small park at seven p.m. First, each participant had to wait in a long registration line to get supplies and sign their life away, or something close to that. There was an one-sentence liability release asking me to acknowledge that my participation was voluntary and I had only myself to hold responsible. Without blinking I put down my John Hancock. I was then handed two ribbons (one red, one blue) and a map. I was instructed to pocket the red ribbon and tie the blue one around my arm, I did so. The map was of the surrounding area, and contained six “checkpoints” each with an accompanying “safe-zone.” Briefly the rules are as follows:
– Run to each checkpoint (in order) and get your map stamped.

– Avoid getting caught by the chasers while doing the above.

Ready.
Set.
Go.

At the outset, our trusty band of UChicagoans (and myself) consisted of five people. We quickly selected a route and started on our way. After running for two blocks, we realized that running the whole time was going to be unsustainable, we slowed our pace. The race is equal parts strategy and speed, i.e., the course you take is extremely important.

Getting from the start to checkpoint one was mostly uneventful, a few moments of fear, but nothing really dangerous. The same can be said about checkpoint 2, except by now the sun had set, and darkness was closing in. Checkpoint two itself was horrifying, horrible, and in absolutely all respects horrific. Enough said.

The drama started heating up as we made our way to 3. As we stood on a corner, waiting for the light to change, we noticed that a chaser (as evidenced by a red-ribbon on his arm, rather than the blue) was directly across from us. We made a huge ruckus and started running north, the chaser gave a half-hearted, across-the-street pursuit but gave up before long. We then jumped on a bus which dropped us off within a few blocks of safety. As we walked those few blocks, another chaser came into view which prompted us to run wild once again. After reaching the checkpoint one girl in our group realized that she dropped her map, which is your life in the race, my brother and her went back to find it. Luckily, they found it and we took a short mid-way break.

That short break turned out to be the end of our little group. When we were a few blocks out of the safe-zone I noticed a chaser on a bike (yes, they let some chasers have bikes), he started pursuing our group and we scattered. I was in the front of our pack, and ducked into an alley that, thankfully, connected again to the main road. I never saw that chaser or my comrades again.

As I ran away I knew only this: I was still alive and I was now alone.

I stumbled into the dimly lit residential streets of a north-side neighborhood that I had never set foot in, lost except for a map that I could barely make out. Early on a chaser on foot started running after me, I shot ahead with my best burst of speed, and looked over my shoulder in time to see him skid in the street and let out a high-pitched yelp. I did not stick around to see if he was okay, I guess that is what this race can do to you. A few moments later I found myself plastered against a dumpster to avoid yet another chaser. While I had no more close-calls between three and four, my mind was now fully on the alert.

As I departed from checkpoint four, I ran into a girl from our original group, we shared a large hug and felt like two soldiers who had been separated in the heat of battle. She and I made it safely to 5. Alas, though, things got hairy again after that.

As we we’re walking together, with another runner that we had just met, our trio got ambushed by two chasers. I was on the street-side and thus was able to escape into the street. Without looking I bolted into the oncoming traffic and narrowly missed getting hit by a car, unfazed I ran straight ahead for the next few blocks. Once again I was alone, this time, however, the surrounding area was less inviting.

After outrunning another pair of chasers, I started walking down Howard St. which, unbeknownst to me at the time, is a bit of a seedy part of the city. As I walked along, passing boarded up buildings and neon-lighted liquor stores, a much more authentic fear started to sink in. I walked as briskly as I could while still trying to avoid drawing attention to myself. Then, a nondescript maroon car started pulling slowly towards me. My spine began to tingle as I tried to quell the intense fear rising up. Then, all of a sudden, the car stopped across the street. The two back doors flung open. Two police officers jumped out, grabbed the two guys standing nearby and pushed them against the hood of the car. I let out a breath, and kept on walking. I overheard one cop say something about drugs, I had no motivation to stick around any longer.

Eventually I began making my way south again. And soon found myself across the street from the final safe zone, my life (both in the game and otherwise) was still intact, I did not even think to check for oncoming traffic as I jubilantly ran. A moment later I walked up to checkpoint 6, waiting there to greet me were my four fallen comrades. I got the final stamp for my map, took my badge-of-merit, and walked away feeling accomplished in so many ways.

It had taken me three hours and 40 minutes to complete the race. The next day I mapped out my exact course and discovered that I had run 12.86 miles.

All in a night’s work.

(This concludes a four-part series)

I exited the locker room and walked with a sense of purpose towards the pool. I hadn’t swam intentionally for almost three years, and I felt excited and accomplished just to have made it this far: at the gym, changed, and almost at the pool deck – I had intended to go swimming many times over the previous 8 months, it had never come to fruition, until now(!). As I “neared” the “pool entrance” it struck me that I had no idea how to get to the pool. Though I had been a gym employee, and pointed numerous inquisitive patrons in the right direction, I myself was wandering around on the 2nd floor with absolutely no clue. I walked back into the locker room, and, in elegant nonchalance, waited until I saw someone who looked like they were headed to the pool. Not much time passed before a guy, in swimming attire, walked out of the back of the locker room. Casually, I walked over to the door and read the sign on it: To Pool.

***

We were instructed to keep our eyes closed as they paced behind us, wielding the pole of fate. The tension rose with each passing moment, and the occasional splash of a comrade falling into the water. And then it was my turn, I felt the pressure of the pole push between my shoulder blades, I fought and floundered but fell anyway, fell into the deep.

***

I was pretty out of shape by swimming standards, and was, therefore, rather out of breath after swimming only a handful of lengths. But, I could still swim. The water was not overwhelming, it did not consume me.

After so many years of not swimming purposefully, I was decently pleased with my ability to get back into it. This was, however, only possible because I did learn to swim at one point, I was not jumping completely blindly into the water. In fact, I had even learned water survival tips and safety. Most notably was that story from scout camp mentioned above, where they came around and pushed us into the deepest part of the pool (granted, it still wasn’t that deep). At that point it was sink or swim, we had to get ourselves safely to the side of the pool. This seems like a piece of cake to those of us who have the slightest swimming ability, but what about those who do not?

It is possible to drown in an inch of water.

***

Sometimes we are thrust into situations that are much deeper than that.

Sometimes we are faced with tragedy.

Sometimes we are overcome by fear.

Sometimes life is needlessly frustrating.

(Please note that in these anecdotes I am not claiming that “I have truly suffered, look at me,” no, I already established that we cannot compare ourselves in this past post.)

Tell me how, if you have not learned to swim, you are supposed to handle situations like these that come your way?

It seems much more likely to me that you will“…be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;…” (Ephesians 4:14)

Unless we have a deep sense of what it is real and what is good, we will be sunk when depth charges are cast upon us. Unless we understand how tragedy, fear, frustration and the like, fit into a master plan, we will be destroyed when we come into contact with these things. (We have a guarantee that these things will come: John 16:33.)

The beauty is this: once we learn to manage the deep, it makes our enjoyment of the shallow (used here only as “less-deep”, not as a judgment on its worth) that much better. Once we have conquered the deep, outlasted the depth charges, we can rise to the surface victorious again, ready to embrace a multi-faceted, amazing peace.

Those who are the best at swimming will make the best waders.

(This is the third in a four-part series)

I got to the bus stop just as a bus was passing, this time I was lucky enough to flag it down. As I walked over to the opening doors, I pulled my wallet out to grab my u-pass. It wasn’t there.

My u-pass is always there. Every time I use it, I put it right back in the same spot. Every time. Somehow, it was not there.

On any normal day in the past, and possibly in the future, I would have lost my composure. I would have gotten angry, upset and stressed. Something immediately overcame me though; I looked up at the bus driver and, smilingly, waved him on.

I then began the two-block walk home.

On the way, I tried to figure out where my u-pass might be, but I could not begin to guess.

I entered the apartment expecting a long and frustrating search, but there it was, on the ground behind the head of my bed. How in the world it got there I cannot begin to guess. Why my eyes looked there first I cannot begin to guess. I picked it up, turned around, and walked back to the bus stop.

The bus came. I got on, and (somehow) still got to work with time to spare.

The whole time I felt peaceful and calm, how? There is something deeper than me and my guesses.

(This is the second in a four-part series)

As the train neared the Garfield redline stop I pulled my black hoodie out of my bag, and slipped it on over my light-colored shirt that I had worn to class. I was scared. This was my first time ever being here alone; I wanted to get it over with as soon as possible and to avoid interacting with anyone standing nearby.

As soon as the train stopped and the doors opened I alighted and made a bolt for the escalator. Upon reaching the top, I made my way to the exit doors, flung them open and ran across the street, glancing nervously in every direction.

That was last summer. The other night, this happened:

As I stepped out into the same busy street, I heard the door behind me swing open with a rush. Then, like a gust of wind, a young man bolted by me, nearly knocking me down as he ran full-speed across the street. Even though it was 60˚ outside, he wore a large, army green jacket. He shot a nervous glance in both directions as he hurried to cross. His nervousness seemed, at least to me, unfounded, as it played itself out in this foolish mad-dash; because, I knew full well that he and I were both headed towards the same bus stop, to wait for the same approaching bus.

I walked across the street; calmly, gently, contentedly, walked across the street.

The irony was not lost on those who were already at the stop. And, since I arrived in plenty of time, they shot knowing glances and smirks in my direction. The young man wore a mixed expression of nervousness, relief, and sheepishness, as he attempted to regain his breath.

***

I had no intention of embarrassing this guy.  I also had no intention or reason to rush.

I have been at that same redline stop at least a hundred times. No hyperbole whatsoever, it is at least one hundred times. Keep in mind that I have logged enough miles on the CTA to get me from Chicago to Prunedale, CA, as the crow flies. I doubt that they keep track of things like this at Moody, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was close to the record for the most miles by one student in one academic year, ever.

In his actions I saw a reflection of my own from last summer. At first I dreaded that place; I wanted to get it over with without being seen. Then I began to tolerate it. Now I cherish that bus stop, the varying crowd of now vaguely familiar folks. They are nothing to fear, they, like myself, are just trying to get by.

This place where I once ran scared has become a restful solace. It doesn’t matter how fast you get across the street, you still have to wait for the bus. This lesson may seem obvious, yet it took me months to learn. I cannot blame this young man because I too once felt that fear.

depth charge one: casualty

Posted: April 29, 2011 in Office Jorgen

(This is the first in a four-part series.)

As the cheerless news made its way around the office an appropriate sense of somberness sunk in. smiles turned to solemnity, delight was shaken by the tremors of despair, happiness morphed instantly into heaviness. A 12-year-old boy had been shot in the back at a South-Side middle school. A gang member had shot him just days after violent threats had been posted on his Facebook wall. This “gang member” was his 14-year-old classmate.

Chew on that.

Explain that to me, please.

What kind of sense is there in a kid that young being shot down, in public, at school, by a classmate.

***

The reason this hit our office so hard was because it happened at one of our schools. We concluded our after school program there just last month, our after school program which began each day at almost the exact time that the shooting occurred.

Yes, we are an educational company, but we are also a safe haven for these kids who are surrounded by violence.

I may have started here on the sole impetus that I needed money; however, that reasoning alone cannot sustain anyone for as long as I have been here. I have to jump in. I have to acknowledge the awful facts around me, the reality of the lives of the students that we serve.

***

The dark cloud hung over the office for most of the morning. The eventual response was to push this tragedy out of our minds, forget and move on. No one mentioned it the next day. No one wanted to.

As I worked my way through the south side streets I could hear the sound of sirens seemingly surrounding me. I biked on, through the dimly lit streets, back towards campus, back towards the light.

Not a long while before I had been sitting at a dining room table, enjoying a conversation when a gunshot had shattered the night air outside.  The homeowner was barely shaken by this common occurrence; it was something that he had, out of sheer necessity, grown accustomed to. I was on the far other side of the spectrum: unable to grasp the magnitude simply because I was so unfamiliar with it. Sooner or later I knew that I would have to go outside, get on my bike, and return home. Although I attempted to cover it up, a childish fear overcame me. The thought of biking 10 blocks, at 10 pm at night, through this part of town, was scary. I know that this is such a part of life on the south-side, and yet I didn’t know. I didn’t know how my life fit in here. I was scared.

Needless to say, I made it home safely, if not a bit shaken.

***

As I sat there in the circle of mostly familiar faces I fought a mental battle between two opposing points of view. On one hand there was the sheer joy of hearing the stories, strengths and struggles of these authentic brothers and sisters. A deep joy, as I was reminded that I am not an island, I am not alone. I was strengthened anew by this re-realization that we are all experiencing some aspect of this complexity called life. Not all were going through hard things, but all were going through something. It was a chance to realign my thoughts with the reality that this movie is not about me. I am not the main plot, a subplot, or even a bit-part; no, I am only a blurry extra, standing far off in the crowd, with my back turned towards the camera no less.

On the other hand, though, there was that crushing thought of utter insignificance. I let that wimpy whisper rear up its ugly head, and treated its words like a presidential decree: your petty life and petty pain pale in comparison to these around you.

There is a world of difference between acknowledging your rightful place and believing that your part does not matter or worse, does not exist. Thus I struggled. I wanted to engage with those in the room, but something deeper was trying to convince me that my engagement was unwanted, unnecessary, and that I had nothing to offer of value. I felt insignificant.

***

A guy walked into class with an extremely heavy burden. See, one unique thing about the program that I am in is that I get to interact with a wide variety of non-traditional students. My classes never consist of only “college-students” but also community members, real Chicagoans with stories all their own and all different. There was that one lady who was rescued from domestic abuse, and that lady who came from a family of 17, and there was that struggling musician who was sold-out for the Gospel, and there was that lady who was going back to school after 20 years because she was called to be a missionary, and there was that south side hair-dresser who worked so hard to make ends meet,  and that Chicago city cop who told us of that one drug bust and the foot race that ensued, and there was that former drug dealer who got completely turned around by Christ’s love, and, and, and, etc.

So, this guy walked into class with a heavy burden. He works as a violence interrupter in a brutality wrought Chicago neighborhood. By his own admission he does not like his work to be talked about, he doesn’t want it to get idealized or idolized. I will honor that. But I will say that his words were overwhelming as he revealed bits and pieces of his week of horror. Stories of the pain and suffering that consume so many families.

It was hard to know what to say or how to respond. I was overwhelmed.

***

I cannot give an answer for why some people experience pains that I do not/will never have to. But this I am sure of: whether I am facing the realities of the south-side, or fellowshipping with faithful brothers and sisters, or hearing the stories of authentic Chicagoans as I sit in class, my story is my story. Feeling scared, insignificant, or overwhelmed is not altogether bad, getting depressed because of those feelings is.

See, we are given the exact amount of suffering and pain that we are supposed to go through. We do not need to feel compelled to compare ourselves and our struggles to those of the people around us. Yes, bear one another’s burdens in love, but do not be disheartened when you feel as though your life does not match up. Your success, your suffering, and your story have immense value and importance. Do not be deceived, rather, let any sense of powerlessness and shame drive you to your knees, over and over again.

Floccinaucinihilipilification of yourself is wrong, viewing your life as part of something bigger is not.