Saturday, November 14, 2009

Luke House

Sandbar at the junction of the Magdelina & Bogota Rivers, Colombia (2005)
The drink offered is Chicha, in this case yucca, chewed by the local women, fermented, & brewed.
(Note: I did not partake. Today, I would and probably laugh.
I sense a post about Colombia in the near future.)

Menzan's Kinhin

What are words, but a broken structure
that we try to build into something
that remotely resembles
what we feel?
The words are not enough,
there is so much more to sound.
So take the words apart,
their syllables in pieces then,
laid out on the floor
to be mixed
and matched
by some sixth sense towards
a meaning.

And still the meanings escape us.
So we go and break it down
some more,
into the individual
vowels and consonants.
The 'O' of glory, or the smaller 'o',
a sound of pain.
The 'i' of infinity
breaking into the 'I' of individuals.
Each separate sound
distinctly held
against the harsh sounds of consonants
that snap,
like the trunk of a tree.

These sounds we can comprehend
and in slow motion,
though it may take days or years
to sink in.
To re-assemble
the sounds, syllables and words,
so that sentences
once again flow smoothly
from our mouths.

Last Tuesday I took the opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Madison, where I live. The Madison Zen Center, along with 30-40 other local organizations contribute food and their services, one day a month each, to provide meals for the homeless in our area. We all encounter homeless people on a daily basis as we go about our lives. My reactions differ depending on the person and circumstance, but I am usually confused as to what to do. Should I look them in the eye and smile? Should I give them money? Do they want the money for food, transportation, or drink? Should I just walk by pretending I don't see them when I really do?, etc. One thing that is pretty consistent though, is that I get a "There but by the grace of God go I" feeling (~ John Bradford quote). While I was living in New Haven in the 90's, there were a lot of homeless around. In the downtown area, they acted as guardians for those of us at the University who walked by them on a regular basis. They were guardians, or maybe just witnesses, against a more dangerous criminal element. Some of them became friends of a sort, to exchange a smile or a few words with now and then.

"You must look into people as well as at them," -Philip Chesterfield

"But I know that I love thee, whatever thou art." -Thomas Moore

Luke House: 3 'rules' of operation:
#1) The harder everyone works, the poorer people become.
#2) Service reinforces privilege,
#3) Never do a job alone.
There was a fourth in retrospect, #4) only do the job you are given.

When I arrived at the Luke House, full of enthusiasm, a member of my Sangha gave me bags of salad fixings to mix together. That job quickly finished, I was at a loss. I was searching for things to do and getting frustrated, until I was introduced to the Director who explained the rules of operation. The 'don't work too hard', suggested by #1 is contrary to everything I have been taught. It doesn't make sense to me even now, except in the context of #2 and a Buddhist concept 'doing less, is sometimes more' or 'let the doing do itself.' To keep myself from helping out with other things (#4) while I was standing around was also tough having done my share of waitressing in my teen years. The third rule, 'Never do a job alone", may have its exceptions, but the joy of sharing work with others is something I learned early in my childhood and resonates strongly for me.

The most humbling experience of the evening entailed sitting down to eat. Volunteers take turns sitting down to eat as people get served, one or two volunteers per table. Before folks sit down, a concierge asks them about portion sizes for the main dish, signals the servers and food is brought out. Then everyone is seated. Two designated servers walk around serving milk, bread, and later, desert. I got to serve the desert, which was fun, and gave me a chance to interact a bit with those willing. Then all of a sudden it was my turn to sit down and eat. I was asked my perferred portion size and directed to a table just like everyone else. At the table, I didn't know what to say or ask. The fellow sitting on my right offered me milk, bread, salad dressing, etc. and I accepted and thanked him. But immediately after, he got up out of his seat and asked to be moved to another table -- the only instance of this I saw all night. I have no idea what I did wrong. After this, I did not try to speak anymore -- decided to think of this more like a meal during sesshin or other type of meditation retreat.

As simple as the evening was all-in-all, I was contented when I left Luke House that evening. I think it had to do with the minimal, but pleasant exchanges between people while eating and the occasional smiles on many of faces at various points through the night. There were families there, parents, babies and toddlers, and I have never seen them so well behaved. I include the parents in that statement. And yes, the homeless include babies and toddlers, especially in this economy. I don't know where these families keep themselves, I normally don't encounter them here in Madison, so I have to admit this was a big wake-up call for me.

*Luke House 310 S Ingersoll St Madison, WI 53703-3739 is run on donations and is a real community builder. After reading this review, I cried:

"No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks." -Saint Ambrose


Jordan said...

Hi Gisela, Thanks for your efforts.

Happi said...

Jordan -

Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your interest.