Monday, February 19, 2007

Ricki Lake Boot Camp

In an alternate universe not so long ago, my Sunday nights consisted of rounding up a dozen willing and able Mug Club members and blissfully paying half price for Big Horn Hef at the Ram.

Fast forward to Sunday nights in current universe: cleaning pee off bathroom walls, covering tracks of broken stained glass, diffusing heated arguments between pastor and elders concerning the kids at YF, getting locked into the church when said kids break handle of front (and, contrary to fire regulations, sole functioning) door.


And then begins the long trudge home, during which the three of us try desperately to come up with a socially acceptable plan to handle our youth group that doesn't involve medieval torture chambers, singing KumBayAh, or locking the doors altogether. Various forms of these tactics have been suggested by the youth workers in my course (who come from all over Belfast EXCEPT the north and the west). Generally, I just laugh at them.

Then it hit me. The proverbial light bulb switched on, choirs of angels belted out Handel's Messiah, and small, lovable forest animals came flocking to me as if on cue (I'm not really sure why that last part happened, actually). I had it: RICKI LAKE BOOT CAMP.

I know I'm not the only one who remembers how that hardcore sargeant used to come in and beat the sassy ghetto kids into submission, and the louder they screeched "YOU DON'T KNOW ME!" at the beginning, the harder they sobbed after Boot Camp Bill got ahold of them?! And he made them respect their parents, go back to school, give all their allowance to starving African children, etc.? Yeah, I want that guy. The only thing a lot of these kids will respond to is an ass-kicking, and they'll find it, but they'll find it from someone who couldn't care less about what happens to them afterwards, ie. the paramilitaries.

Boot Camp Bill always gave kids a hug after he kicked their ass.

Get him out here.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ennui Wonder Why?

“I really loved the place, of course, but somehow knew it was not my city, not where I’d end up living for the rest of my life. There was something about Rome that didn’t belong to me, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was…
-‘Don’t you know the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn—what is the word of the street?’
Then he went on to explain… that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be—that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.
‘What’s Rome’s word?’ I asked.
‘SEX,’ he announced… ‘What’s the word in New York City?’
I thought about this for a moment, then decided. ‘It’s a verb, of course. I think it’s ACHIEVE.’
(Which is subtly but significantly different from the word in Los Angeles, I believe, which is also a verb: SUCCEED. Later, I will share this whole theory with my Swedish friend Sofie, and she will offer her opinion that the word on the streets of Stockholm is CONFORM, which depresses both of us.)”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, eat, pray, love

Ever since LJ sent me that book for Christmas, I have been trying to figure out the WORD of every city I have spent significant time in, and Belfast's continues to elude me. But for the people in the north and west ends of the city, especially the teenagers, I’d say the word is something like BOREDOM. This manifests itself in a lot of ways.

Unemployment rates along the Crumlin Ward are ridiculously high. I think it’s something like 67% of people that are “economically inactive.” When I mentioned to Jack the fact that I didn’t think many of my neighbors really worked, once again I heard the phrase “dependency culture,” which even residents here will freely admit is status quo: if you can get it, take it.

This culture has developed from a number of factors, narrowed down to two main reasons that I can see. Firstly, both sides of the conflict feel they are owed something. Both feel like victims who deserve something to make up for the years of violence, discrimination, hatred, you name it, they feel like they received the brunt of it. Rare is the working class Catholic or Protestant who is willing to admit that just maybe, “our side” did as much damage as “their side.”

The second factor is the overwhelming willingness of the British government to support its Northern Irish citizens financially. This is visible in the long lines at the post office every Tuesday; comprised of people waiting to receive their weekly allowance from the government. The first week we moved into our house, I went across the street to meet my neighbors. The friendly young woman who I’d said hello to in passing was Claire, her boyfriend was Mark. Together they have four kids, ranging in age from 10 to a little over a year. “You don’t seem old enough to have a kid who’s almost ten,” I said, half-joking. “Ach, the babies started appearing out of nowhere!” Claire laughed, “Aye, I had Jordan when I was sixteen.” My automatic mental response was, “actually, it’s been scientifically proven that babies do not, in fact, appear from nowhere,” but I figured that wasn’t something good neighbors say they first time they meet someone. It wasn’t until later that night that I began to really think about the fact that not only is Claire not much older than me, but her story was not unusual. I have heard more than once from 15 year old girls, “I’m tired of living with my parents. I’m going to drop out of school and get pregnant. I want my own place.” The government is willing to support teenage mothers, single mothers, and a wide cross-section of people of the unemployed variety. No, they won’t be rich. But they won’t necessarily have to work, either, a huge draw.

In September, confronted with a society that approaches welfare from a completely different mindset than the one I have grown up with, I pondered the implications of the term “dependency culture.” It has now bewildered me for six months. I grew up middle class, and often I have felt the need to apologize for that and for the things that I was given because of that. As a result, though, I have also grown up hearing negative opinions toward welfare; discussion of system abuse and the interesting moral position that puts taxpayers into. As a resident of a country seeped in individualism, a country that is either too proud, too self-sufficient, or simply too opposed to the idea of being dependent on anyone but ourselves, the image of a culture where dependency is the norm; an accepted part of the mindset, is far from easy to understand. The Declaration of Independence takes on new meaning in light of what I see here: the American mindset has largely become a declaration of independence not only from Britain, but from asking for help, from admitting need, from accepting ‘handouts’ that you have not earned. It reveals itself in the Protestant work ethic that permeates our mentality, shows its face in the way we treat immigrants, becomes glaringly obvious in our health system (universal health care is one of the best things about the UK, and its absence in the States is extremely unfortunate).

Granted, all of this is blatant generalization. Much like many here incorrectly imagine every American to have a pool, a three-car garage, and a boat, there is no way to categorize an entire culture based on simplistic phrases, and those who milk the system are most likely matched by those who refuse to collect the money they are due. And in a lot of ways, I think the social services system here is much closer to the ideal than the US model, particularly in the area of health care (as I gratefully discovered during my hospital encounter). However, the disabling aspect of the welfare system is that it seems to create an unappealing (and, in the case of paramilitaries and idle teenagers, dangerous) mix of free time and lack of economic contribution, which has led to the general loss of identity and sense of purpose that communities really need to stay cohesive. It’s worrisome, and it’s hard to reverse.

Status quo is fine for a lot of people here. The dependency culture, at least in my area, tends to create a cycle of apathy. But for many, like my friend Deborah, it isn’t satisfying, but the way out of it seems insurmountable.
(I’d like to add here that writing about the social situation in North Belfast gets increasingly difficult as I envelope myself into the community here. It’s a catch 22—you have to be with the people to know what they think, and once you know are a part of their lives you feel guilty writing about them as if they’re hypothetical situations or case studies. In The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly rails against the shades of paternalism and condescension that color the Western world’s dealings with the Third World, but they are possible whenever an outsider enters a foreign situation and decides to analyze it. Forgive me if I ever come across as paternalistic or condescending, because I honestly do not feel that way and struggle to remove any feelings of superiority that creep their way in without my permission. Even using the word “their” bothers me, but I haven’t discovered another way of referring to my neighbors and friends here.)

Deborah is an overweight single mom who has attended Crumlin Road for about as long as she’s been a Christian, three years. She had Carson when she was 22. He’s now seven. She is outspoken, loud, painfully insecure, and extremely intelligent. I like Deborah a lot, because you always know where you stand with her, and she likes to debate. Deborah is another story of support from Housing Executive, and lives paycheck to paycheck (if government support can be classified as a paycheck). I once asked Deborah what she wanted to be doing in five years, ten years. She got kind of quiet, thought about it for a bit.

“I don’t want this, Laura. This is not what I wanted for myself, not how I pictured things going. I don’t want to spend my life just waiting around for the next few pence to come through. I want to be contributing something. I would like to work, but I don’t know what I could do.” In all fairness, the fact is that few opportunities exist to break the trap of a poor educational system and lack of employment prospects, but laziness plays a part as well.

The pervasive atmosphere of helpless boredom, dangerous lack of what I would consider normal social services and the fact that economic opportunities are found largely on the dole or through paramilitaries are a pretty brutal combination. But, much like the "word" for this place, ways to change the post-war pattern seem to be hovering just out of reach.

"The only horrible thing in the world is ennui."
-Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

How to Beat a Quick Retreat

My most recent home visit encounter:
Mark, Stuart and I were visiting a couple girls and one of their boyfriends after YF last week because they left early (dramatically, of course) and we wanted to check up on them. We were all standing in the entryway having a friendly wee chat when this guy, who none of us had ever seen before, barges into the house past us, completely bypassing the whole "eye contact" and "saying hello" business. After a minute or two in the kitchen, he yelled to Jacqueline, "JAC! YOU HAVE SCHOOL IN THE MORNING! TELL YOUR FRIENDS TO GET THE F*CK OUT OF THE HOUSE!" (Strangely, at this point the only thing that struck me as odd about the situation was that Jacqueline doesn't really have to go to school unless she wants to. And she definitely would be more likely to be up drinking than going to bed early.)
Jac ran into the kitchen and hissed, "Those are my church friends!" (As if that would be a normal thing to say to her other friends?!) His response was true to form: "I DON'T GIVE A F*CK WHO THEY ARE! TELL THEM TO GET THE F*CK OUT!"
Well we know when we're not wanted; subtle hints aren't lost on us! After a creative apology or two ("Oh, sorry, umm, guess you better be heading to bed or something...") we scooted out.
I am telling you this story because I want you to be forewarned that if upon return to real life my normal interactions with human beings are a bit... shall we say, "stunted," it's not really my fault.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Thoughts from the Disconnect

So Peter Rumbles graced us with his presence in early December, and out of all the questions he asked, the one that got to me most was: You could do this at home, couldn't you?

I thought; yes, but would I?

Would I voluntarily move to one of the worst parts of the city, isolating myself from my best friends and a fun life in favor of buckling down and focusing on Seattle's problems? Probably not. More than likely, I would (and will) move to a comfortable area that makes me feel safe. I'll find a spot that doesn't have any glaringly obvious social problems. I'll avoid the spots that I wish weren't as bad, ignoring the reasons they are bad in favor of surface judgements. But I really really wish that that weren't the case. I wish I would always be forced to examine life, the world, and what I want my role in it to be as closely as I do now. Forced to look at my own shortcomings head-on, and have the time and space to work on them.

I am so lucky. No, actually blessed.
I'm blessed because I have a family that misses me and wishes I were at home with them, which means a lot when you're wandering around without a clue, 6000 miles away. Just knowing they're there.
I'm blessed because I have an education! When many of my kids don't even know how to spell their street name, I realize even more that that's not something to take for granted.
I'm blessed because I have a lot of friends who I really really think are the best people on the face of the earth, and they're willing to make great efforts to stay friends even when we don't live just down the hall.
I'm blessed because I have 22 years of amazing memories and experiences, and I get to wake up every day and add more.
I'm blessed because God really is showing me every day what my gifts are and how I am supposed to be using them.

I'm blessed because I get to live in a world that is absolutely fascinating. It's depressing sometimes, frustrating, and makes me want to rage at the injustice crawling all over it... but it's hopeful, it's funny, and it's full of people and places and stories that make me want to jump up and down I'm so excited they exist. And it's seriously awesome to be able to live in it.
I'm a blessed girl and I'm still learning just HOW blessed I really am. What a world.
And to travel. I am really lucky I get to travel.


Michael is quiet around the other boys, mostly because he's younger and doesn't fit in as well. I left Dee, Tommy and Ryan in the living room to wash a few dishes in the kitchen, and Michael followed me in with his headphones firmly planted in his ears. He pulled one earbud out and sat at the table, silently staring at his mp3 player as I hummed at the sink.

Michael is the kind of kid who won't say anything for an hour and then come out with a sharp comment that just throws me into fits of laughter, especially when no one else hears it. I asked him a few questions, got shrugs or monosyllabic answers. Without really noticing, I launched into a detailed monologue on everything I like about Michael. After my fifth or sixth point, I glanced over and realized he wasn't even listening to me! I grinned over my shoulder at him and squealed, "HEY! You aren't even hearing a word I'm saying!"

He smiled his smirky little grin that I love so much and said quietly, "Yes I am!"

I don't think these kids hear often enough how much they're worth. I know that sounds obvious and cliche, but people (myself included) tend to forget that words are really powerful; that they sink into places we don't expect them to, and that they have a strong tendency to fulfill themselves. I am truly learning to believe that light and dark can be spoken into being, that the line between "good" and "bad" is sometimes as thin as a well-timed sentence.