Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why I'm Happy Right Now

Here's to baby steps:
Alison came over tonight with a tiny victory. "Laura, you'd have been so proud of me today. I went into Ardoyne, sat down at the Toasted Soda and ate my lunch. The whole time I was looking around thinking, NO ONE here can tell I'm a Protestant! And I'm ok! I thought, if Laura can come into this neighborhood and buy a newspaper, I can too. I couldn't wait to tell you!"
All this, from a 27 year old street-wise social worker educated all over the UK. I could have cried, but I settled for just hugging her.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Showing my teeth in Ardoyne

So the past week has flown; Graham came to visit in between London and Budapest, and Eli Grindstaff got here too. So Malia and I wanted to take them up Cavehill to show them the coolest view of Belfast, but of course neither of us has a very keen sense of direction. What was meant to be a fun afternoon walk turned into a survival-of-the-fittest escape drama, during which we got caught in what we affectionately referred to as a "squall" (the boys got acquainted with Northern Ireland's special sideways rain), completely lost the trail, and slid on our asses most of the way down. Oh, and Eli and I ran into some kind of vicious plant that felt strangely similar to poison ivy. They never saw the summit, unfortunately, but we're alive.
There's a group of hilarious people at Crumlin Road who are all in their 20s and 30s, and I don't know what I'd do without them, because they let me tag along to the bars and they feed me really well. Alison, who's a social worker and is about 13 at heart, made me dinner last week and we spent the whole night laughing and solving all the world's problems. She's a realist, but she's an awesome encourager as well, and as I told her how strange it was for me to come into a program that is essentially whatever I want it to be, she said, "Laura, you are absolutely the best person for the job. The kids were drawn to you from Day 1, you made friends with the teenagers really quickly, and you have enough initiative to make this job a success on both ends. Just you being excited about this place makes other people sit up and think, why is she excited? Why shouldn't I be excited too?" I felt a little better after that :)
Since we still haven't wrangled bikes, walking has been our main mode of transport (good thing, too, because somehow I've become the girl who doesn't stop eating), and Malia and I made the trek from the Drennans' to Woodvale for the kids' camp every day last week. It's about a 45 minute walk, and we didn't think anything of it until Alison mentioned that we should watch our backs walking through Ardoyne. At that point I didn't even know what Ardoyne was, but we quickly learned that to get from one Protestant area to another (Ballysillan to Woodvale), we'd had to walk through a Catholic area (Ardoyne), and one in which Alison claimed we would never see Protestants walking or doing business. I don't think I've mentioned how little business actually goes on in my little corner of northwest Belfast- whereas the Shankill is full of life and people and businesses, Crumlin and Ballysillan are dead zones- a byproduct of poor city planning as well as cultural and economic depression. Malia and I have been dreaming of finding a coffee shop with WiFi in our area and came across "The Toasted Soda" on our way to Woodvale. I asked Alison if she'd ever been in there, and she laughed and said, "No! And I never will, it's a Catholic business, just like all the others on that row." I was actually stunned into silence. "And you'll never see a Protestant so much as walk through that area either... too dangerous."
Of course, being the nerd that I am, that night I got on Wikipedia and looked up the Shankill, the Falls, Ardoyne, Ballysillan and Woodvale, just to compare. All of them were flashpoints during the Troubles, and my innocent jaunts through Ardoyne were actually, unbeknownst to me, mini historical tours of the Protestant "no-go zone." Peter even pointed out the police camera that still patrols the main roundabout in case of trouble. But the consensus is that we will be fine no matter where we go, since we're Americans. And whenever we ask how they can tell before we talk, most people say, "You have perfect teeth." I say, thanks, my parents paid a ton for them! And figure if I try to show them, no one will think twice about us wandering naively in random locales.
So just a little background to Woodvale: it's the reason Malia and I were so passionate about coming back here. At the top of the Shankill and filled with kids who are more than willing to love you and let you love them, the short time we spent there on Dep made us laugh louder and cry harder than anywhere else. We were so broken for the community during our short stay that we knew we needed more time, so that's why we were more than happy to help out with the club last week. We were so happy to be spending time with Kaitlyn, Andrew, and a few of the other kids we had bonded with, but I still hadn't seen Chris, though I didn't really expect to. Chris was a 16 year old goth kid we made friends with two years ago. His dad is in the UDA, he was always hanging out in the park when we were there, always critical of everything we did, and for some reason I just really wanted to get to know him. This was the kid who idolized Marilyn Manson but thought the church was one of the scariest things he could think of. I think half of the stuff he said was meant to get a rise out of us, but by the end of the week he was getting into the football tournament we were running at the park and even came into the church on the last night ("You guys really don't act like any of the Christians I know..."). When we look back on the people who really defined our experience, Chris is one of the names that always comes up. On Wednesday, as we walked past the teenager room, Malia grabbed my arm and whispered, "Laura, CHRIS is in there!" Needless to say I was thrilled to see him! He's lost the piercings, gained a few tattoos, and wants to be an actor. We spent most of the day on Thursday hanging out with him and talking more about his life, and it was by far the most interesting conversation I've had since I got here. Even though Chris doesn't want anything to do with the paramilitaries and is actually blacklisted from the UDA and UVF, it is so evident that he was raised with a separatist mentality that strongly borders on hate. He reaffirmed the idea that he would never be able to walk from his house to my house because the Catholics in between "would leave him for dead." When we asked if he would ever support a more integrated Northwest Belfast, he just laughed, "And let 'them' come into our neighborhoods and take our jobs? As long as people like me are around, that will never happen." I couldn't help but wonder what it was he was so protective of... to me, an outsider, not only did everyone look the same ("Oh, but you can tell a Catholic by his jersey/haircut/accent"), but the streets were just as sad in both areas. But the line has been drawn.
Which brings me to what else has taken up a lot of my thoughts this past week: The Peace Wall. It separates the Catholic Falls Road from the Protestant Shankill, and it's much easier to think about abstractly. I kind of wish I were living on the Falls side: the accent is prettier, and the street signs are in Gaelic as well as English. Yet history makes it so these are two apparently irreconcilable worlds, separated by a wall that does little more than remind people that "they" are on that side and "we" are on this side, and that it should stay that way. I asked Peter if we could pull a Reagan/Berlin Wall-style coup and just start tearing it down. He said that he thinks it mostly does more harm than good, but that when things get touchy and people start throwing petrol bombs over it, he's not so sure. So the wall remains.
Just when I think I am starting to get comfortable with living in a place that has so much turmoil ingrained in its personality, I'll think twice about something small and it will strike me as unusually bizarre. This happened in my trip through Ardoyne situation and again when we drove past the Mater Hospital. Jack jokingly mentioned that if we're going to get shot, we're in the right place, because Belfast hospitals are the best in the world at treating gunshot wounds. It's quite the paradox for me to think that we are living in what used to be one of the touchiest war zones in the world and now claims to be the safest city in Europe.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Thunderbolts and the Belfast Blitz

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” -E.B. White

That summarizes my first week in Belfast perfectly. We’ve gone out a couple times, danced a ton (to the point of sustaining my first war wound- a swollen knee- after dancing into a stage), and really enjoyed downtown nightlife, but also seen what a challenge my life will be this year. I wish there were an easy way to find that balance of improving things and enjoying them.
As far as the quick rundown goes, I started work the morning after I landed and have been surrounded by dozens of six year olds since then, doing the Crumlin Road day camp (interesting fact: Crumlin Road was bombed by Hitler in the Belfast Blitz of 1941 and the church was rebuilt after having stood there for about 100 years) and this week we're popping over to Woodvale to see our favorites from Deputation. We are living at the Drennans because the house that Peter and I are moving in to has no fridge and no standards of cleanliness…but we’ve gone in with bleach and boiling water, so don’t worry… you guys should still come visit! There’s a guest room! Malia has been having a field day taking video of the place and there will be some serious before and after shots that I’ll post when I’m all done “girlying the place up.”
Last night Malia and I made dinner for the Drennans and sat out in the twilight drinking wine and talking before they got home. I’ve spent a lot of time meeting tons of people in the past week, and each of them has a perspective on the community and the church, the demographics and the teenagers I’ll be working with. Honestly I felt like I had hit an early dead-end, because I kept getting questioned at every turn. At the bars, guys ask, “WHY would you be living in Ballysillan?” And even the Crumlin Road people are warning me, “Wait till mid-year, we’ll see how positive your outlook is by then.” I knew what I had gotten myself into before I stepped onto the plane, but it’s made me seriously question myself.
Just to give an idea of the neighborhood and community I am living in, I thought I’d include an excerpt from some of the reports Jack gave me, because they bring me to my knees in how heartbroken I am for this area and how monumental the task of bringing light to this area truly is:
“Over the years the area has become synonymous with deprivation and hopelessness… 92% of births are to unmarried mothers, 64% of people are economically inactive, only 2% have a degree.” Community complaints include the fact that the Housing Executive (basically the branch that runs placement and construction of the projects, like my neighborhood) dumps “undesirable/problem families” consistently into this area, it is ignored by politicians, drugs run rampant and are propagated by the paramilitaries even more in this economically depressed area, which also perpetuates crime. The youth have no incentive to do well in school because there are no jobs to be had, so it is much easier for the girls to get pregnant at 16 and live off of the state for the rest of their lives rather than struggle to make their own living. With nearly ¾ of the community living on the dole, boredom appears to rule and any sense of purpose or meaning is completely missing here. Even tonight, as we drove home at around ten, people were wandering the streets aimlessly, we passed a sign on fire, kids on their bikes. All looking for something to do, something to be a part of, something that is painfully lacking.
I don’t want to be trite, and I don’t want to be presumptuous. I wonder what makes me think I can prance into a community that is one of the most depressed, psychologically and economically, in Northern Ireland with the supposed purpose of bringing hope here. It is easy for me to talk about hope: when I go home, I have options. I probably have more education ahead of me, jobs that capture my interest, nice housing. A lot of these kids can’t see past their few blocks. Who am I to tell them, guys, you can do better than this! What do I know about growing up in a place where college is never mentioned, where boredom rules, where paramilitaries run the show because they are the only groups that give people a sense of worth, a sense of purpose, and activities to occupy their time? But then I thought back to high school, when I got to spend time with families in Mexico who were overflowing with love and generosity despite abject poverty, and how I was struck by the humble and heavy reliance on family connections and their faith, which allowed them to see past their current situation and focus on the long-term. I still think that economic viability is strongly connected with identity, but I am learning to separate the two, and my memories of Ensenada have really helped me with that.
Yesterday also got me thinking about my own motives. It is one thing to live in the rough area for a one year stint. Malia and I thought, if Christ were wandering around Northern Ireland today, he’d be living in Ballysillan and hanging out with the people no one else wanted to be with. But how brave would we be to humble ourselves at home, in our own element? Would Christ be living at Greenlake, or would he put himself on Aurora or the South Side? I would never dream of voluntarily moving to one of those places, but somehow when it’s not your real life, it’s easier.
I am reading Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton, and he mentions Joan of Arc, saying “She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt… She was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild spectators who do nothing… She and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.” Sometimes I think I’m further behind on that idea than anyone. I have a long way to go with learning discipline, learning about a more pure love, and uncovering a lot of my own pride.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Terrorists Owe Me a MAC Lipgloss

Chicago nabbed me. Well, last weekend did altogether. After missing two flights and barely making the third from SeaTac to Chicago, I wanted to skip the whole vacation thing altogether and instead just kick the terrorists in the balls. But all the logged airport time was forgotten when I finally made it into Brent’s couch on wheels and realized why I thought it was worth the trip in the first place. That night he toured me through his hometown, showed me where he had learned to ride a bike and drive a car, where he spent his high school Saturday nights, reminded me of his unique dancing and vocal abilities… and I remembered how hard it is for me to not pee my pants when we’re hanging out.
So if Brent ever wanted to write a book on his car knowledge, people would probably buy it. Friday we hit the Volo Museum, which was pure education for me, even if my favorite car was still the one from Wayne’s World. That night his coworkers were taking him out for a goodbye dinner at a new Mexican place, so we hit the costume shop and showed up to dinner with sombreros. Again, seeing the middle-aged top lawyer forced into Mexican headwear against his will and probably enjoying it way more than he’d let on was classic. Not sure what they’re going to do without Brent… he brings a lot to the table.
Saturday involved bikes and booze: absolutely gorgeous weather, and we hopped on bikes and rode down the Loop, onto Navy Pier, and out by the Shedd Aquarium. Finished the night with perfection: polished off two bottles of wine at Penny’s, a BYOB Thai place, and rode our bikes home. And by rode, I mean, Brent made friends with everyone we passed while I lagged behind yelling DANGER! When I thought he was frolicking too wildly.
Sunday we accidentally slept waayy in and only had time for the Field Museum. Heaven. Discovered we both have unrealized childhood dreams of being paleontologists. What are the odds? Met Kimberly, Mike and his parents for dinner and found out where he gets his personality and why he gets quieter at home: Herb was meant to be a standup comedian, and Sandy can discuss why Elvis couldn’t lead a normal life (defending his drug addiction, I suspect) until the cows come home. I simultaneously pitied him for having to keep up with them and envied him for having free entertainment whenever he wants. Candace blazed in later and we drank wine and danced in her living room until about 3.
Monday Candace and I powered through minor hangovers and I went downtown with her when she went to work. I spent the morning gazing at all the gorgeous buildings, seeking out the Monets, Renoirs, Dalís and Van Goghs at the Art Institute, and generally enjoying alone time downtown (“alone time? Like without Brent? Well that sounds weird.”- Dad).
When we met up again, he loaded my stuff into his perfectly polished Oldsmobile (his baby for sure), looked over at me and asked, “Are you scared?” And the lump in my throat got a little bigger as I answered YES! I hated to leave. I spent an hour or two walking around O’Hare with wet eyelashes until I pulled myself together again.
I loved just about everything about Chicago, from the fact that it’s a beer-drinking city, to the fact that people still stick with the Cubs when they’re losing, to the fact that I had an awesome host to enjoy it with. The whole weekend was perfect and a great last US vacation.

Bye, USA, Hello UK!