i am the beggar of the world

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I was at a writing conference over the weekend, the first one I have ever been to. The highlight was meeting up with my friends, my lifeline, my cheering squad, my angel editors–calling them a writing group does not even begin to cut it. I also had the strange sensation of trying to match people up to their online profiles, with varying degrees of success. I knew, even before the conference began, that everyone would be so much more interesting than I could possibly believe. I wandered from session to session, from poet to writer to thinker to theologian. Sometimes I skipped and sat in the grass with good people. By the end, I was overwhelmed in every way.

During the sessions, my mind would sometimes wander. The conference itself was such a small microcosm: dismayingly white, educated, Christian, social media savvy types. I would think about my other life, the one back home. I kept thinking about my students, about the beautiful chaos of my classroom, my friends. As I listened to smart people talk about smart things, hovering between being accessible and literary, I was thinking about cell phones. I was thinking about how every morning I teach, the cell phones always ring, over and over again. I had given up on outlawing them; dozens of times a day I politely yet firmly tell my students to get up and go to the corner of the room to talk, so we can get on with class.

At the conference, I sat and listened to people talking about Novel of Ultimate Concern. My hand wanted to shoot up, to ask the same question in every session I went to: What about the poor? I should get the question tattooed on my forehead. I should make it backwards, just so I have to ask myself it first thing in the mornings when I look into the mirror.What does any of this mean if it is only available for a few?

I am thinking about how my ESL students are at the very bottom of our Empire, but whose lives are very much of ultimate concern. I am thinking about the cell phones, going off every few minutes, similar to the poor around the world, adapting to our shifting, stateless world. I am thinking about how they always answer the phones–not because they do not respect me or because they do not want to learn. They answer every phone call that they receive, because each one is of equal importance to them. They never know who is calling–a family member in Africa, a case-worked in America. They have to answer every single one, because it might be life or death, like so many things are.

They answer every call that comes in because they cannot read, not even the numbers.

 

 

I went to a session with Eliza Griswold, author of the Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, a women who has been on the frontline of war and poverty and religion, all over Asia and Africa. She talked about her new book of poems by Afghan women which she collected, and what they mean for those who create and recite them. Why does she share them? Because they are valuable. Why does she share them with us, with the world? Because she sees the limitations of how we portray people in the media, and she wants to subvert that. “I am not interested in the headlines,” she told us. “But I am very interested in the places where the headlines are happening”.

I’m taking that one for a new life motto. I am uninterested in the stories of poverty that you and I already know. I am very invested in the ones that surprise us, thrill us, knock us on our asses. The humor, the pathos, the sin, the ingenuity. Griswold shared with us one of the poems in her book, from which the title comes:

 

In my dream, I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

 

As you would expect, the rest of the poems are stunningly varied; tragic, violent, romantic, naughty, hilarious, contemporary, ancient. Reminiscent of my students, my friends, my neighborhood. Today, in class, another crisis was revealed, and I at a loss for how I can help, limited by my language and knowledge and the overwhelming magnitude of the problems that the poor and the non-literate face in my corner of the world. The beggars of the world is how some would view it, and I confess at times I am tempted to do the same. But we are not headlines. We are real people, real women, real stories. We are living in the places where the headlines take place, and I on a quest for the work of the kingdom of God in the midst of the violence and greed of our world.

I am thinking of the phones, ringing constantly in my ear, of what it means to never know who is on the other line. I am thinking about the frustration of never knowing how to translate well. I am thinking about how much I enjoy erudite, complex, academic conferences, and how ashamed and small it makes me feel. I am thinking about all the wonderful people I met this weekend, the gifts they are to me. I am thinking about all the people who weren’t there, who felt excluded in some way–due to race or education or religion or money. I am thinking about how rich we are in some currencies, and utterly poor we are in others. I am thinking of how in order to tell stories well we must first be obsessed with them, how love covers a multitude of transcribing sins.

 

I am thinking about cell phones. I am thinking about how little I know, what a beggar of the world I am.

 

 

 

 

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17 thoughts on “i am the beggar of the world

  1. Becca says:

    Thanks for this beautifully written reminder, dl.

  2. Your thoughts always challenge me. I loved this: “I am thinking of how in order to tell stories well we must first be obsessed with them, how love covers a multitude of transcribing sins.”

  3. Liza Purdy says:

    Have I mentioned that you write beautifully?

  4. Cindy Brandt says:

    I’m not interested in the headlines, but the people in the headlines. I love that, thank you for sharing.

  5. Y. A. Warren says:

    You have so-well portrayed the feelings of hypocrisy I feel in attending gatherings of wealthy white women while attempting to tell the stories of the oppressed.

    I do have to question the disruption of your classes with cell phones. We cannot learn unless we are completely in the moment of learning while it is taking place. The regular ringing of phones is disrespectful to all whom are talking their time to attend class. Messages can be returned either during specified class breaks after class. The addiction to drama is one of the things that keeps the poor from succeeding.

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      I just want to jump in here. D.L. and I both work with very similar people groups and I actually find myself a bit taken aback at your response. I have never known anyone in a lower socioeconomic bracket whose “addiction to drama” kept them from being able to succeed. I’m quite uncomfortable with such a strong statement being made about an entire socioeconomic bracket, made up of thousands of people who (it seems to me) are very difficult to stereotype.

      As to the cell phone issue, I teach both at the college level and at the basic ESL level. My college kids are expected to keep their cell phones off in class. When working with pre-literate or functionally illiterate students, however, answering their cell phones is an important aspect of their lives–they literally are not always able to read whether the person calling is a long-lost relative in Africa or the day care worker telling them their daughter is sick. There are some cultural aspects that D.L. is constantly navigating well–it’s not culturally acceptable to answer the cell phone in class here, but it might be in their home culture–but these are issues that are important for them to learn together.

    • I am concerned about the “addiction to drama.” I taught in a high needs high school for four years and what I at first thought was that, was actually that these kids lived a life where very dramatic thing happened. They would have been very grateful to not have to worry about those things in their life, but there they were.

  6. So good to see you there. I think a lot about this also, usually in a very specific way when it comes to education. (Mostly, when people pass “mandates” that are impossible to do at my old schools.) I keep thinking about the interaction we had where I told you how to do your job (ha! Sorry about that, you clearly know what you are doing and I have no idea. I was just thinking out loud.) It is always, ALWAYS simultaneously harder and so much simpler to be. Which is why we just choose not to think about it at all. Now that I teach in the suburbs, it freaks me out that I forget sometime. I don’t want to.

  7. pastordt says:

    Man, this is gorgeous writing, Danielle. Thank your for writing all this out, for sharing your heart and your conflicted ideas and experiences of these last few days. I think it must be hard for you to move between worlds, and to discover that you love all of them. But I don’t think that’s something to feel guilty about, actually. Not all wealthy white women (or men) are terrible people, not all poor people are heroes. What’s too often missing is the recognition between the worlds that we’re far more alike than we are different, we’re far more complicated than too much of the world around us is willing to admit. You were in a very unique place this last week — your experiences in one place can speak into the other, don’t you think? That’s exactly what you did with this beautiful piece – you wove them together and you did it gloriously. Thank you.

  8. Bob Braxton says:

    pondering – getting ready (Tucson) to board SW flight to Midway (Chicago). I like the book “The Fear of Beggars”

  9. Idelette says:

    O, friend. This is beautiful and messy and so well written. Thank you for giving expression to the question in your heart.

    The question that makes me want to jump up out of my set is usually this: WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE WORLD? I get very itchy at conferences when big statements are made as if they apply to all people everywhere in the world. I appreciate how you are wrestling and holding space for cell phones and us beggars.

  10. Powerful, laced with tender pain of living aware. TY.

    I don’t think we met at ffw.

  11. Caris Adel says:

    Welp this is gorgeous and I have got to get my hands on that book. I really struggled with this specific issue for months. FFW was an hour from where I lived, so OF COURSE I’d be going!!! And then we moved and I was SO SURE I’d be able to come back for it, but ended up not able to b/c of money. And it hurt….still does actually. I cried.

    But what dawned on me was that this is what it feels like to be poor. And hello, I moved to a poorer neighborhood, and now I am being forced to live somewhat like them. And it was a shocking realization to experience what it’s like to not have any financial privilege at all. When I can afford stuff, it’s always within the context of ‘oh this is a gift from God, yadayada’….but that’s not what I *really* think. Somehow having disposable income is a given, and when it’s gone, it’s just…….shocking, in a way, to realize what it’s like to miss out on stuff.

    This was really, really hard for me, and I still feel an ache because I went 2 years ago. I know exactly what amazingness I missed out on. But damn…….in the long run I think this was really good for me. It’s one thing to live like you don’t have privilege. It’s another thing to experience it.

    • oh man, Caris. I am so sorry. The only way I could go was because of generous people who paid for my flights/lodging/meals. I am so grateful, yet so aware of what it means to not have discretionary income. We certainly missed you there.

  12. every time you write or ask others into your space to write, I am challenged and changed. Thank you for those questions…for those thoughts. Thank you.

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