Friday, July 31, 2009

The City and the Single Girl

This weekend is Seeds Retreat - that is, all the communities connected with Urban Seed getting together to hang out. I'm running a session on 'Single people, coupled people and community'. I put a few thoughts on paper to do with my own stories of singleness in intentional Christian community. This won't be the crux of my session but it helps me to understand my experiences when I write them down!


Single and living in community

I’ve never really identified as a Single Person before. I’ve had long periods of singleness, yes – but a primary identity as a Single (that dreaded noun!)? No. I’ve been Woman, Christian, Activist, Writer – but never Single Person.

We identify with what we perceive to be special, significant attributes; things that make us different from other people. I never identified as single because for most of my life, singleness has been the norm. Growing up, my parents had lots of single friends. My own friends had always mainly been single. Throughout life, singleness held a status no more unique than that of being coupled.

Things changed when I became a resident at Urban Seed. I stopped seeing my friends from uni so much, and spent more time with the Urban Seed community. My experience of Urban Seed has been that singleness is not the norm. I am the only single person in the residential community. The majority of staff members are part of established couples. While there are quite a few single women who work at Urban Seed or who are part of the City mob, and while most Credo punters are single, it often seems that the dominant culture is situated in the realm of coupledom.

I first thought I might be a Single Person when I went to the Anabaptist conference at the start of this year. Before I went, a small hope flickered at the back of my mind that I might meet somebody interesting. When I got there, all I could see were wedding bands. I was put in a cabin with the other Single Women – a mixture of the transient Singles, like myself, and more permanent Celibates. There were a few Single Men – about three, I think. One of them slipped me his number. I suppose we all had the same thing in mind. I’d never felt so Single in my life.

A few months prior, Dave announced at ressie dinner that him and Gemma had become an item. I burst into tears. Great lumps of grief emerged from some place inside of me. I hadn’t even realised they were even there. Part of it was sheer loneliness – the announcement of a new Couple held the mirror to my own state of being Alone. I was caught in that ravine that many a new ressie has found themselves in – the gap between a partial departure from old friends and support networks, and the arrival in a new community which absorbs most of your time but with which deep intimacy has not yet had time to develop. I was at a point where a boyfriend might have gone some way to fulfil my need for intimacy.

Part of my grief was also tied to the fear of becoming more lonely as a result of this new coupling. Prior to Dave and Gemma getting together, half of the residential community was single. Our team was well-balanced and I just fitted in with the mix.

Now, five-sixths of the residential community was in a romantic relationship with somebody else. Where did that leave me? When everybody around you is sharing most intimately with one other significant person, how is it possible to have any deep relationships within a new community? I began to feel a bit silly – like a lonely old aunt who bakes and is generally very sweet, but is relegated to the position of amusing minor character. I presented my various romantic exploits as entertaining titbits – stories of adventure and desperation told with smiles and laughs and received as such…but failed to get across the very deep needs and desires at their heart.

I am thankful to say that my fears were not realised as drastically as I thought they might. I think that others in my residential community have understood my situation, and have been intentional about including me in their lives in a deep, meaningful way. Gemma and Dave conduct their relationship in a holistic way that refuses to shut out others in their community. I’ve never felt like a third wheel around them. The others seem sensitive to my stark singleness in a coupled community – on ressie retreat, for example, my consent was sought before partners external to the residential community were invited along. My answer was fully respected.

I have faired well, but have also come to understand the potential vulnerability of the single person living in Christian community whose makeup and culture is dominated by couples – or perhaps even more potent, families. When churches and communities are segregated along relational lines, it’s often single people who get left out. Couples inviting other couples round for dinner; parents with young children going on family holidays with other parents with young children…we always need to ask the question: who is being excluded here?

It’s not so bad if there’s a group of single people who can all hang out together. It’s harder when you’re the only one. But there’s more at stake here than feelings of exclusion. Actually, married people need single people. Single people need married people. Unmarried couples need married couples. We all need each other, because we all have unique things to offer.

“[R]elationships require more than having honest heart-to-hearts with one another,” writes Lauren Winner in her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. “Relationships require that married people must invite single people into their lives, and vice versa. This means not just inviting your friends over for dinner; it means going grocery shopping together and taking vacations together. It might even mean […] married couples or families with kids living with unmarried folks.” Supporting single people is more than making sure their social needs are met (which is more than a little patronising) – it’s about recognising that, like couples, they are integral parts of the community. It’s about singles and couples and families doing life together.

I refuse to take on the identity of Single Person. I’m just Me. I’m excited that I’m able to do life with people of all relationship statuses. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to offer my gifts and energy to enrich my community, and that people care about my romantic plight but don’t seem to take pity on me. I appreciate what the couples in my community offer. As I say, I have faired well. I wonder how many others can say the same thing?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Paul's gift

It’s a Friday night, just past knock-off, and the streets pulse with optimism. An eclectic crowd swarms the pavement, all chatter and clatter – Asian students with vertical hair, couples gliding hand in hand on their way to restaurants, young women in pointy heels and fitted grey suits burning the sidewalk with hurried strides. I enter the torrent and float along, flute over shoulder, mesmerised by this world outside of my living room.

The card table is filled with intricate objects made of what looks like woven grass – dragons, frogs, a cross, even an engagement ring. In place of the Chinese man who usually sits there, crafting his delicate trinkets, is Paul.
“Change of profession, I see?”
Paul glances up, surprised. His beard is snowy white and his eyes are pale blue. When I asked him where he was from last Christmas, he told me he came from the North Pole. “No, no, I looking after for other man,” he answers, smiling.
Right on cue, the Chinese artisan comes up to the stand. We greet each other with smiles and little humble bows.
“Look, I show you what this man do,” says Paul, guiding me round to the other side of the table. Apart from the woven articles, there are engravings of famous people (Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Madonna), and framed cut-outs of women’s profiles.
“I buy you one of these,” says Paul, pointing at one of the frames. “He will cut out picture of your face – take three minutes!”
My impulse is to refuse – the night is getting on and I really need to do some busking. But Paul is standing firm, eyes wide.
“Do you have the money?” I ask, immediately regretting what I’ve just said, and all that it implies.
He looks at me intently. I notice that one of his eyes is watering, sending a tear trickling down his right cheek. “I may be homeless, but I’m not poor,” says Paul. “I don’t pay rent, you see.”

“Stand right there,” says the Chinese man, and I obey. I face a glut of commuters outside a tram stop, while crowds stream behind me.
“Be very still.” I can sense people momentarily congregating at my rear, looking to see what’s going on. I move my eyes from side to side, attempting to see who is watching me. The artist stands a metre away on my right, nimbly clipping away at a piece of paper with a small pair of scissors. I am grateful for Paul standing in front of me, describing all the things he intends to do this week. Art gallery, gym, something else I can’t hear properly. As well as being from the North Pole, Paul is about 90 percent deaf. My ears strain, as his muffled words navigate the Friday night din.

“Done!” says the artist, and shows me the paper cut-out. I recognise that nose, that brow – normally I hate seeing my profile, but this time I’m impressed. Paul has been distracted by a couple of older women he knows. I recognise them from Sunday night dinners in Credo. They look refined and English. “Oh yes,” they say, admiring the image. “We can tell it’s you!”
Paul is pleased with the product. I thank him profusely. “It’s okay,” he says. “I want to give you something – you give me food at Credo, and I give you something as well.”

Clutching my frame, I exchange more humble, thankful bows with the artist. Paul and I part ways, a little more equal than we were before.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Saving the Giving Tree

There was once a Giving Tree who loved a little boy very, very much. When he was young the pair would play together – he would swing in her branches and she would protect him from the sun as he napped.

As the boy grew older he visited the tree less often. The tree just wanted the boy to be happy. She gave him her apples to sell so that he might have money to go out and have a good time. She gave him her branches so that he might build a house. In the end she gave him her trunk, so that he might build a boat and sail away. The story tells us that the tree was happy, because she loved to give.

The tree was happy – “but not really”, the story tells us. For the tree had become just a stump. Eventually the boy became an old man, and came back to sit on what was left of the Giving Tree.

A guest speaker read this story to us last Sunday in church, showing us the pictures like a kindergarten teacher would. It was a metaphor for the way we treat the Earth, he said.

The speaker asked what we thought of the story. The conversation began with a cough and a splutter. (Once very vocal, our congregation is now unaccustomed to being asked its opinion.) Somebody offered a comment about ethical investment. Somebody else mentioned plastic bags. I nodded in agreement. A little part of me dies every time I forget to take my greenbags to the supermarket.

Then Bogusha – God bless Bogusha – raised her arm straight and high.
“I think,” she began, “that we should be caring for the sick and the needy before we think about saving the environment. How can you think about plastic bags and superannuation when your mind is consumed with how you are going to survive the next day?”

I have a lot of sympathy for Bogusha’s point of view. The power to make ethical and environmentally friendly consumer choices often corresponds with the power of your dollar; environmentalism is a middle-class concern that requires a middle-class income. Organic food, solar powered hot water, energy efficient appliances – these choices involve both money and head-space. Bogusha is a long-term sufferer of chronic fatigue syndrome. I imagined there would be times when finding the energy to make breakfast would take precedence in her mind, over and above how she might reduce her personal carbon footprint.

I put up my hand. The speaker acknowledged it with his eyes, but by this stage the congregation was revving with ideas and opinions. I waited patiently as people talked over one another. Finally I told everybody my point of view: which was that the planet cannot be saved through consumer choice.

For me, conserving plastic bags and turning appliances off at the switch are matters of integrity; simple living is part of the life that I expect my God would like me to lead. But the hard reality is that these small, precious acts are dwarfed by the problems at hand. Reversing climate change requires drastic action at a national and international level. With polluting companies in the pockets of governments, preventing the development of new, clean technologies, we are kidding ourselves if we think that turning the hot water system down a couple of degrees will make any difference at all.

My comment was framed negatively and, as expected, was shot down by a dozen voices. But consumers can impact on companies! Shell changed its practices in Nigeria because of public outcry!

These things might be true, but I don’t think they’re enough. To suggest that we can turn climate change around through our consumer choices to me is both a gross understatement of the problems we face, plus an overconfidence in the potential of consumers. Plus, it puts too much responsibility on the shoulders of individuals rather than government and business, who have the power to effect real change. I find the whole idea kind of disempowering.

Actually I think effective action is possible for the everyday person, but it must occur at a structural, systemic level. The solution lies not in people changing their daily habits – many are too lazy and many others are simply unable. For real change, the whole system must change. For me, staging a protest at Hazelwood – telling the government to shut down decrepit brown coal power stations and invest in clean energy instead – goes further in the direction of a genuine solution than installing energy-saving lightglobes or improving my personal recycling system. Of course, these actions are important, but I don’t think they get to the heart of the problem.

I don’t want to abuse my Giving Tree. The difficultly is that we are collectively the boy in the story. I can’t prevent the cutting down of the Tree by reducing my personal environmental footprint. The best hope I have is using my individual power to change the system.

So what am I doing to change the system? Nothing. For now, I will continue to take out the recycling and turn down the heater. I smile sadly at the Giving Tree, while my people reduce her to a stump.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Can I help?

Tom* has one of those awful coughs that gurgles in his lungs, pushing through a swampy mess until it breaks free with a fresh production of phlegm. My friend and I look up, concern creased across our foreheads. Tom has a hospital-issued plastic bag, held firm at its rim by a plastic ring. Official mucus-collector, it seems.

It is a Sunday night. Outside the sunny winter day has evaporated into a chilly, cloudless night. I’m hanging out at Credo Café - the church runs a dinner on Sunday nights, and it’s always well-attended by lots of cold and hungry people. Often, on a Sunday night, the warm air of Credo is laced with an uneasy energy that I don’t feel during our weekday lunches. Credo is small and easily crowded. There’s a lot of people getting by on little sleep, and the tension is catalysed by drugs and alcohol, occasionally erupting into conflict. I run an open prayer time before dinner starts, where we light candles and occasionally sing a song. I always light a candle and say a prayer for Peace.

Tonight, my Peace candle has been noticed. Some people sit quietly, tucking into bowls of meat and roast vegetables. Others sit around the big table talking loudly and laughing. I eat my meal on the little stage with my Sunday Night Dinner friends, including John and Djar, who don’t usually come in during the week. I talk about bikes with John and art with Djar. It’s hard to engage them both in a conversation at once.

The little red Peace candle has melted almost entirely into the sand, which is clumped with hardened wax and various other foreign objects. My friend James has dropped by and we sit at the back of the stage area, chatting. A small possie of grey-headed men congregate nearby cradling milky coffee with too much sugar. They talk quietly and laugh in the hushed, cynical tones of the experienced. My conversation with James (war, politics, relationships) is interrupted by Tom’s cough.
“Are you ok?”
“Upper respiratory infection,” he croaks.
“Oh.” I pause, wondering what helpful thing I should say. The gap in the conversation is filled with another batch of coughing. “Did they put you on a course of antibiotics?”
“Do you have somewhere warm to stay?”
Tom sighs and looks up at one of the other men, who has a lined forehead and laughing eyes. “The hospital kicked him out,” says the man, raising his eyebrows high. “But he’s got a place til Wednesday.”
“Yeah, I collapsed on the way out,” Tom elaborates. “The doctors helped me up and sent me on my merry way. Staying in an old folks’ home now.”
“But only til Wednesday,” I murmur. “What then?”
Tom just shrugs. “Hopefully find somewhere warm.”
“Do you have a health worker?”
I receive a blank look.
“You know, like a nurse or a case worker or something?”
The man with the laughing eyes smiles at me and winks. “He’s had a few of those.”
The rest of the men roll their heads back and laugh. Wet, guttural coughs ring through the near-empty café.

That night, I discussed with Gemma and Dave what I might do to help Tom. They suggested calling one of the outreach nurses, who work with homeless people. The reality is, though, that the nurses are most likely well aware of Tom’s situation. The entire Melbourne welfare sector probably knows all about Tom. I imagine Tom has been homeless for some time. He’s probably very well linked in.

One of the things I’ve learnt since becoming a resident at Urban Seed is that usually, people don’t need my help. If someone is homeless, they’ve often been homeless for a long time, and know what phonecalls to make for crisis accommodation. Having experienced crisis accommodation, they also know that it’s sometimes safer to stay on the streets. They know more about the system than me – a community worker who has only ever experienced the welfare sector from the end of an office telephone.

People have a myriad of support services at their disposal, and many spend more time trying to avoid them than using them. Shirley* is a fiercely independent 75-year-old in a pink beanie and spectacles, who thinks the main problems with society are too much swearing and immigrants talking loudly on trams. Shirley yells at streeties for using the ‘s’ word. She speaks with annoyance about the nurses who come to her house to treat the cancerous growth on her hand. “Why can’t they just leave me alone!” she wants to know. I bet she gives them a tough time when they arrive at her home.

There is a housing crisis, and for many, secure housing is an impossibility. It’s no surprise that people don’t want my help, because the situation is hopeless – there’s nothing I can do.

However, even if housing is available, not everybody wants it. When you’re on the street, you have a whole lot of social networks available – drop-in centres, street culture friends etc. In the city, it’s easy to get a free feed, and if you want medical help, that’s usually available too. I have a friend who, after years spent waiting for a housing commission unit, finally got a place…in Broadmeadows. He knew nobody there, and spent the first few years wondering whether he would be better off moving straight back onto the streets, where at least he had support.

And so, I realise, there are often more important or more useful things you can do than providing material help. We sometimes refer people to services in Credo, but our main work is to provide something that the services don’t offer. Tom probably has a nurse looking out for him – several, perhaps. What the nurses can’t do is provide a warm space with prayer candles and good friends.

I also have the feeling that I am ‘helped’ more in Credo than the people I could potentially assist. My job is to build connections with people ‘on the margins’ – but in doing that, I think I am the one who comes out a healthier, more whole person.

* names changed