Helping Hands

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always taken pride in the idea of being able to do everything by myself. When I was a child, I used to throw tremendous fits when my mother tried to teach me how to practically anything. Later when I began learning music, I refused to play if anyone imposed practice schedules on me. These days I dream of being able to perform maintenance and repairs alone on my Chevy S-10, and I also operate a sewing machine so that I can design and repair my own clothes. I cling fiercely – perhaps irrationally – to the idea of being ‘self-made.” I can be a bit of a libertarian, and this image of a self-made, autonomous individual may never lose its appeal to me.

Here’s the thing, though: I also realize what an illusion complete autonomy is.  All the examples I just listed of my supposed self-sufficiency are all really just fractions of the whole truth. I may have had the drive to advance musically, but I never could have started had my parents not funded my lessons and instruments. Any repair I make on my Chevy is in part thanks to my boyfriend, who already knows so much about cars and engines. I didn’t even buy that sewing machine — my grandmother gifted it to me. Really, when I think of all the ways I’ve been supported and encouraged, my mind starts to spin. I mean the list goes on and on.

So, when no one showed up to my first community dance workshop — the creation of which is a center piece of my summer internship — I realized very quickly that I had to ask for help. This project is not something I can go at alone. Ultimately, I learned that the process of communicating my workshops to others is not a simple instance of me offering a product or service; when trying to spark someone’s interest in my workshop, I had to also ask for their help. I began to tell friends, coworkers, and acquaintances that I needed their help with a project that I am trying to carry out, and that their presence would make all the difference. Basically, I had to communicate on a more intimate level which demonstrated that I recognized them as a person who could make a difference in my life, rather than some passive, replaceable participant.

Five of my friends showed up to my second workshop, and though I was nervous to lead, I considered the evening a great success. Most of all, I felt immense gratitude for my friends who, after only knowing me for less than a year, decided to come out and support me. On the third workshop, nine people showed up, and some of these people I had never met before! New friendships were made, people danced, laughed, and all the while I was overflowing with thanks for everyone who has encouraged, directed, and supported me so far. In the end, this project is not of my own making and doing, it is the product of an entire community’s effort to connect and serve amongst one another.

Service and Humility

There is no better way to say it — I have loved my time serving in the kitchens at The Haven. The work is hard and physically demanding, and at times my patience has definitely been tested.  The joy of preparing, serving, and sharing food with others, however, has made me happier than I’ve felt in a good while. I think this joy stems in large part from the opportunity to work and serve with so many different kinds of people, all in one place. I have worked with doctors, lawyers, med students, nurses, mennonite women, bakers, former chefs, contractors, artists, housewives, educators, reverends, recent college graduates, and recently married couples. Where else in Charlottesville can you find such a cornucopia of community representation? It’s just amazing to me the variety of staff, guests, and volunteers who come together over a plate of food, and the opportunity to get to know such a diversity of individuals from across Charlottesville has been an amazing gift.

Part of what I find so fascinating about this phenomenon is that each individual forfeits a part of their identity before serving in the kitchen. Of course, these people don’t completely abandon their roles and identities as doctors, Mennonites, bakers, etc, – they just don’t let their outside roles and identities bar them from fully communing. I think our personal identities necessarily take on a sort of limbo-state whilst serving, and I think it has something to do with humility.

I thought it was rad, for example, when a buff, male surgeon asked me how to cut a tomato. I knew someone else in his position would never ask for help with something so simple, being so accomplished and highly educated. This man, however, was able to pocket his pride and reach out for my assistance. He left his pride at the door in order to enter into community for the benefit of others, and I respected his humility.

I’ve started to read the New Testament as part of my internship, and, as a newcomer, I was struck by the following verses: “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:10-12). This humility is present in everyone who comes to serve at The Haven, and it’s this humility which I think helps us all to work with one another. No one is too educated, too good, or too accomplished for service, and it’s a pity for those out there who believe themselves to be above service, because they’re really missing out on a joy and a gift.

Collisions

Lately, I feel like I’ve been living a double life. Mornings you’ll find me working, serving, and being a busybody. Afternoons, you’ll probably find me in a dress on a garden bench or in a rocking chair alone on the lawn. In the mornings I’m very chatty; I’ll ask you about your vacation, your weekend, your grandchildren, your shoes… and I’ll listen to whatever you want to tell me! In the afternoon, however, I like to quietly focus on reading theological texts, passages from the bible, or existential ruminations on dance. Sometimes, I’ll even paint my nails in the evening, even though I know the polish won’t last through the next morning’s dishwashing.

By 12:00, I begin my bike ride up the hill, away from my kitchen duties, and toward a slower afternoon of reading, writing, and planning. After working 4-6 hours in the kitchen, that midday heat is just enough to make a girl feel like a slime monster. Luckily I’m able to hop into a cool shower every afternoon, in which I can wash off the slime and become a girl once more. By the time I’ve dressed for the afternoon, the whole morning suddenly feels very far away.

On one of these afternoons as I was walking down along The Corner, I saw a woman desperately asking for help. She needed allergy medicine, and she was obviously frustrated that no one seemed to hear her. As I drew near, I recognized this woman as one of the guests who frequent The Haven. She often asks for benadryl and anti-itch cream at the help-desk, to no avail. That morning, she was particularly grieved at not having been able to have taken a shower. She relies on these showers to wash away the pollen and pollutants causing her eyes and sinuses to itch, swell, and ooze. She was only in her 20’s, but she looked much older.

Immediately, I approached this woman and brought her into the CVS to buy her some benadryl and nose-spray. As we walked through the aisles, she thanked me profusely. When I approached the self-checkout station, she pressed me for something to eat or a little cash. A small voice inside my head reproached me for my generosity. It said, “You serve this woman food every morning, you just dropped 30 bucks on her allergy medicine, and now she’s asking for more?!” I told her I didn’t have the money for her food, bought her the medicine, and politely wished her a good day before leaving.

For days, I was troubled by my sensitivity to her request for food. Why did her request make me feel used, like some blundering, naive, soft thing who would throw down thirty dollars without hesitation? But also, should I have bought her that food? What kind of responsibility do I have for guests outside The Haven. How do I dictate the boundaries of my compassion?  My generosity troubled me, but my being troubled by my own generosity troubled me too.

That encounter made me realize just how narrowly I had heretofore perceived the sphere of service in my daily life, and how unprepared I still am, despite my daily service, to reckon with the amount of need that pervades our daily lives. The moment my two, tidy worlds collided, I fretted for days about the virtue of my decision. I am privileged enough to have the ability to organize my schedule into times to serve and times to study, but the reality is that need, and therefore service, is unending and pervasive – it doesn’t only exist before noon, and its call beckons even as I sit in the garden to study. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for rest, and a time for work. However, the Old Testament begins by placing Adam in The Garden to till the soil, or to serve the soil, as the original Hebrew indicates. Therefore, even in rest, we should remember that work and service are, as Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler note, “a part of the divine plan”.

Dancing in the Kitchen

Besides serving in the kitchens at the Haven, I am also leading a series of improvisational, community dance workshops in The Haven’s Sanctuary space in order to investigate how dance and ritual theory can be used as a tool in the process of maintaining and constructing communities. When I speak of dance, I am speaking of community dance. Unlike ballet, community dance is supposed to be highly accessible, fun, and easy. Finding a definition for community dance, however, is not so easy. Whatever the reason for this difficulty, I’ve spent some time seeking out a good one.

This past week, I reached out to Emily Wright, a local dance-scholar studying the links between dance, community, and religion (how lucky am I that this person lives in Charlottesville!). Emily encouraged me to start by defining dance itself, before I try to define its deeper linkages with religion and community. She asked me, “What do you think dance is?” I nervously mumble-jumbled something incoherent, and then evaded the subject entirely by turning the question back on her.

Emily mentioned that her definition of dance is primarily situated upon conscious, aware movement. I understand her definition to mean that anytime we slow down enough to be aware of our movements as they relate to ourselves (dance is fascinatingly reflexive), to others, or to our spaces, we are dancing. Initially, I had thought that awareness is the very element dance would lack in its purest form; I thought that the process of maintaining awareness would cause the dancer to become estranged from the dance. I associated awareness with the brain, and therefore I was afraid that such a definition would place a disproportionate emphasis on cerebral knowledge, forcing the dancer to become disembodied.

But then I realized, as Sondra Horton Fraliegh notes in Dance and the Lived Body, that while dancing, the body can be at different times either the subject or the object of our awareness, and that both of these experiences qualify as ‘dance’. Fraleigh defines these two modes of awareness in terms of the body-subject and the body-object, and she adds that these modes of dance describes the way in which the dancer physically engages with their surroundings.

Emily says that dance can be as simple as reaching up for a glass from your cupboard, so long as you are consciously focusing on and being aware of this action and how they you are performing it in space. This example, of course, made me think of my work in the kitchen: reaching up (and down and sideways) for pots, glasses, mugs, knives, cutting boards, spatulas, trays, food, brooms, cloths— you name it! So, can dance be as simple as reaching up for a pot, cutting with a knife, or cracking an egg? I think so. But whether this dancing falls under body-object or body-subject depends, of course, on how you reach, cut, or crack,

Say we’re cracking eggs over the grill for hungry guests. The ease and efficiency with which a volunteer cracks eggs into the grill can be seen in their movement. If someone has never cracked eggs before, it will take them more time to fry a dozen eggs than it would an experienced volunteer, because the amateur volunteer is assessing for the first time how their body turns to retrieve the eggs, how their hands pick up and crack the eggs, how far to throw the egg shells. The amateur volunteer is slow because they are in the process of listening to their body, taking mental notes, and storing these notes away into their muscle memory. In this case, the amateur volunteer is in a sort of liminal state in which they are aware of developing a relationship to space. In this state they develop a “reflective position” and “become aware of [their] body as something to be reckoned with”.1 The new volunteer is in the process of deconstructing typical movements and becoming aware of new movements. Thus, he or she is in the body-object mode.

The experienced volunteer, on the other hand, operates smoothly and efficiently in the body-subject mode, because their knowledge of the space has already become ingrained in their muscle memory. They have developed that relationship to space, and are therefore aware and knowledgeable about its various, moving components. Their bodies understand the demands and the limitations placed on them in that space, and have already adjusted to move with considerable ease and efficiency within, and perhaps despite, these constraints. This level of understanding allows the volunteer to work much like Fraliegh’s dancer: “spontaneously and in the present moment… not anticipating or imagining it.”2 .The experienced has become aware of the movements necessary to the present situation, and therefore can move forward through the day in a relatively care-free way.

Okay, so dance is about deconstructing day-to-day movements to build up new movements, and the dancer is either becoming aware or has become aware of these new movements. These two insights, I think, serve as the scaffolding for my definition of community dance. My hope is that through community dance, community members can deconstruct negative modes of interaction in order to construct more positive modes of interaction amongst each other. I hope that when we are dancing in community, we are becoming aware of better, alternative ways of relating, so that eventually, we will have become aware of these behaviors well enough to utilize them in our day-to-day lives.

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1. Sondra Horton Fraleigh. “Dance and the Lived Body: A Descriptive Aesthetics”, p. 13.

2. Ibid. p. 14.

It’s not a Science – It’s an Art!

As an intern with the Project on Lived Theology, I am serving five days a week in the kitchen at the Haven, a non-profit day shelter located in downtown Charlottesville, VA. The other morning, David Selzak, our Kitchen Manager, demonstrated to us newcomers how to cook a large pot of grits. We weren’t given any exact measurements – we just watched David empty the contents from the box of grits into a hot, white cloud emerging from a large pot. As he stirred, David reminded us, “It’s not a science – it’s an ART!” Apparently, we would be able to “feel” with a spoon whether we had achieved the correct proportions of butter, water, salt, and grits.

Now, there certainly are a few tasks for which exact measurements are given, such as what temperature food must reach upon being reheated, or how many iodine tablets to use for dishwashing, for example. Most of the time, however, what should be done is not as explicitly stated. In any given minute I’m making dozens of snap judgements and bending backwards to meet the situation at hand. Most of the time, I’m “feeling” right from wrong, good from bad.

If there were a volunteer handbook, I think it might describe a world in which our doors open punctually at 7:30 and close promptly at 9, in which no more than one scoop of sugar may be allotted to every guest, and in which no special requests may be serviced (such as the request to make scrambled eggs when the grill is churning out fried eggs). None of these rules, however, are so severe, nor should they be in my opinion.

Such strict enforcement is not proportionate to the demands of our little operation. We serve breakfast to 55 to 90 guests every morning, and therefore we do not have to manage the kitchen like a military. Were we to serve hundreds of guests every morning, I imagine we would have to tighten the ropes in order to maintain order as well as prolong resources, but this is not the case. While 55 to 90 guests certainly makes for fast-paced work, this number still leaves us some breathing room.  I’m able to learn the guests’ names, for example, and sometimes I get to know their stories. I’m able to perceive guests as individuals rather than units on an excel sheet, and because of this, I am often compelled to make extra eggs after we’ve turned the grill off, or go to the back and chop of fruit for someone who’s arrived too late for breakfast. This spontaneity might push back against formal rules, but I believe they make way for the trust and compassion we want to cultivate in our communities.

As I consider more the art of dialogue in service and community engagement, I turn to Martin Buber. Paul Mendes-Florh explains that Buber’s “ethical principles…function heuristically: they illuminate the path whose exact contours and direction we must survey through ‘dialogue’ that is, in a spontaneous, undogmatic response to the calling of every situation.”1 As I understand it, life, work, and service – like that pot of grits – is undogmatic: a bit improvised, but with an idea (a feeling!) of what’s good.

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1. Paul Mendes-Flohr. “Introduction”. In A Land of Two Peoples; Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, p. 20.