Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Urban Studies Journey: Part IV

Reading is always an essential part of my summer. It’s almost like the summer means reading to me. During the school year I rarely have a chance to read for leisure – even the books that could only aid my education like Dickens, Kerouac, or Kuhn. The first week of summer isn’t complete until I’ve visited the library and left with my arms loaded with a pile of read and re-read library books, anxious to read them all so I can check out the next stack on my ambitious summer list. Although I didn’t expect it, the summer before WIC I was already beginning to think about the not-so-usual themes of social justice present in my otherwise usual summer reading. First I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck:

It really is a book about social justice, about the blight of the poor and the poor versus the rich…I don’t know how someone could read this book and not feel sorry for the [Joad] family. How he could continue to support big business practices. But I am sure I do it every day in just how I live my life – and I probably don’t even realize it.

I also read On the Road by Jack Kerouac while I was on vacation at the beach. It’s definitely not obviously related to issues of social justice like The Grapes of Wrath but I nevertheless took certain aspects of the – what I considered to be – “lessons” to be taken from the book and applied them to my own life. In retrospection I can see how much those lessons did affect how I approached my semester in the city. In July I wrote:

What I will take from this book is the desire it places in me to really live life – to do everything with a zeal for life, but in my own context. I will be who I am and not let society (or even those whom I love dearly) tell me I should be somebody that I am not…I WILL live life to the fullest, but I will do it my way, on my own terms. I’m not going to worry about what I’m supposed to be doing, and just do it!

I would like to think that I took this lesson to heart as I prepared for and entered my semester in the city. I know I didn’t succeed every day, but as I read back over my journal I realized God was planting in me the seeds of the dispositions that I would develop over the course of my semester. In this case, it was to take advantage of all the opportunities that presented themselves to me in the city – whether or not it had been what I expected, or even wanted at the time.

Orientations are always tiring. But this orientation was especially tiring because I wasn’t used to the hustle and bustle of the city. Nor was I used to walking everywhere – especially not to the grocery store rolling a week’s worth of groceries behind me in a dolly that was in desperate need of some WD-40. WIC orientation did have its merits, however. One of the most valuable experiences of that week, besides the CTA orientation, was the solo period. It was the first time that week I was able to be truly alone; alone, I suppose, from the other program participants – for most of my solo time I was constantly surrounded by strangers. I spent about half an hour just sitting in the Bezazian library. At the time I still didn’t know what exactly I was supposed to be learning from my observations, or even what I should have been observing. Nevertheless it was an important first interaction with the city – it helped to shape the way I approached my relationship with the city for the rest of the semester. I was a student, an observer, a foreigner in many ways, and not so much a participant.
The most significant thing I remember about that solo experience was how different I felt. Different in skin color, in socioeconomic class, in clothing choice – I was even different from the people who appeared to be like me on the outside simply because of my outsider status. I noticed that the presence of other white people in the library made me feel much more comfortable. But I wasn’t sure what to do with such observations other than I had a nagging feeling that was exactly how I was expected to feel. As I was sitting there at a table writing in my Moleskine next to a grown black man reading children’s books I wrote:

I want to be involved in the community, and feel comfortable here. I want to stop feeling like I don’t belong and that I am invading a place where I am never going to fit in. I don’t want people to think I am judging them, or observing them, as part of the scenery. That is terrible to me, but I also know that I do it all the time without realizing it. I am afraid of talking to people I don’t know, and people who are different from me. I’m not sure if that is a result of my own prejudices or my own insecurities. Probably both... If I am to consider everyone my neighbor then I would have to get more involved with others’ lives – and take the risk of having to care about them and invest in them and having to hurt for them, to cry with them. And to ultimately realize I have no real practical way to solve their problems…I don’t want to protect my heart so much I forget how to let it break like Christ’s breaks in the face of injustice. I want to see my neighbors through the lens of Christ, and have his courage.

Through the very act of observing my neighbors I became an outsider, and even that first week I was wary of letting that be the attitude with which I approached the city for the rest of the semester.

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