She’s Gone

November 23rd, 2019

“Once Khidr went to a king’s palace and made his way right up to the throne. Such was the strangeness of his appearance that none dared to stop him. The king, who was Ibrahim ben Adam, asked him what he was looking for.”

The visitor said, ‘I am looking for a sleeping place in this caravanserai (caravan stop).’

Ibrahim answered, ‘This is no caravanserai — this is my palace.’

The stranger said, ‘Whose was it before you?’

‘My father’s,’ said Ibrahim.

‘And before that?’

‘My grandfather’s.’

‘And this place where people come and go, staying and moving on, you call other than a caravanserai?’ ”

from “The Way of the Sufi” by Indries Shah


Karin is gone. She is down in Texas with Hans, Gabby, and little Weston. She’s been there for almost a week. Karin went to Bryan because Gabby needed to have some major surgery. Gabby had a cancerous tumor on her knee. They spent a long time cutting and splicing to remove the tumor, and then to replace the knee. The surgery went well, but now Gabby needs to heal up, and that is going to take a while. I don’t expect to see Karin back home until after Christmas. I am flying solo.

For me this is a big deal. Karin and I have our own interests, but we also do things as a team. I am going to miss going to daily Mass together with her, and then stopping for coffee at Mocha Lisa in Racine. We have our best conversations there. She drinks her hazelnut cappuccino and I drink my black coffee. We discuss anything and everything for an hour or two. Now we can’t do that, and it stings a bit.

Should it?

Does it matter when people leave us?

We live in a transient world. People come and go, like at a caravan stop. Some leave us for a short time, and others leave us forever. Relationships are often difficult to establish, and they are even more difficult to maintain. We live in a time when the word “friend” means less than it did before. The word has been cheapened. A friend used to be somebody that you could trust with anything. Now a friend is somebody who likes you on Facebook.

Karin once made the comment to me, “Maybe we are still together after all these years, because we have been apart so much.”

That seems paradoxical, but it is probably true. It has been in the times when we were separated that we realized how much we depended on each other. Now, after thirty-five years of marriage, it is more obvious than it ever was before. We depend on each other for stability and support. As the years have slipped away, so have our feelings of independence. We are an “alte Ehepaar”, an old married couple.

I mentioned to Stefan that I was missing his mom. He suggested that I get a recording of her swearing loudly in German, and then play it whenever I feel lonely. That’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure it would work.

I hang on to friends tenaciously. Perhaps I shouldn’t do that. It seems to be recipe for disappointment. Other people are better at moving on than I am. They are more casual in their relationships. They have many friends, or at least acquaintances. I prefer to have a few friends who are there for me, and for whom I am also there. I try to be loyal to people, and I expect them to be loyal in return. That may be foolish on my part. That’s how I play it.

I know from Zen practice that we eventually lose everybody, including ourselves. Attachments cause suffering, even attachments to people. What about love? If I love somebody, and they leave, do I suffer because I am attached to that person? Should I not love them? Does love also mean that I can let them go? Should I not grieve when a friend dies?

I am at an age when I say “goodbye” more often than I say “hello”. People are leaving me, and I will eventually leave them. Whether I like it or not, I am slowly cutting ties.

Time is short. I need to love people when they are still here.

I wait for Karin to come home.













But I’m not the only One

November 22nd, 2019

A’isha texted me saying that the kids needed help with their homework.

I texted her back to say that I would come over to their house.

It was dark and cold and windy when I parked in front of their home. I rang the door bell. I heard a loud noise from inside the house. Ibrahim answered the door.

“Hi Frank!”

I came in, and I took off my shoes. Yusif came to the door and looked at me mischievously. The other kids did not get up to meet me. Some of them absently said “hi” as they looked at their screens. They were all engrossed in their tablets. Every child was gazing into his or her magic mirror. There are eleven kids in the house. I guess that a screen for every child keeps each of them busy, but it also keeps them distant and remote.

It’s a brave new world.

Despite the joys of the Internet, there was still the yelling and confusion that come from a big family. I am familiar with that. I had six younger brothers. We were always just one step from utter chaos. I could feel that in this house too. It’s not a bad thing. It just is.

Muhammad had homework. He is young and intelligent and cocky. These are all good things. He always comes to me with his math homework. He really doesn’t need my help. He understands the math. I just play along. Sometimes he gets a bit too self-sure. He decided to solve a word problem by multiplying everything.

I told him quietly, “You need to divide.”

The little boy looked intensely at his work, and said, “Yeah, right.”

As Muhammad was working on his math, A’isha, the mother, brought he me hot, sweet tea, as she always does. It’s a Syrian thing. I said to her, “Shukran”, in thanks. A’isha asked me to look at some mail that she had received. It was an advertisement for a credit card. I explained to her that they just wanted to sell her something. I advised her to throw it away. She did.

It took only ten minutes to help Muhammad with his homework. Then Yusif came up to me with two little books to read.

He smiled, “I have these books.”

“Good. Read them to me.”

He did. He stumbled over a couple words.

He said, “Then Jack came.”

I told him, “No. That says, ‘Jake’, not ‘Jack’ “.

Yusif looked at me in an unsure way.

I nodded. “It’s ‘Jake’ “.

Then he kept reading.

The books were short. Nobody else seemed to need help, so I slowly pulled on my jean jacket, and made ready to leave.

Nizar looked at me and asked, “Are you going now?”

I replied, “Well, yeah, I think I’m done here.”

Nizar shouted, “No, Hussein needs help too. I go get him!”

Nizar shouted up the stairs to Hussein. Why do all kids shout? It was like that when I was young. Nobody walks up the stairs to talk to somebody. People just yell at the top of their lungs. This seems to be a universal characteristic of families.

Hussein came down. Hussein is the oldest son. Hussein is a high school senior, and he is taking some college courses in order to get ahead of the game. He had some American government/politics class from Parkside that he was taking, and it was a bit confusing to him.

He needed a computer to do his work, so he tried to commandeer a Gold Chrome from one of his siblings. They balked at this request. He quickly pulled rank as a surrogate parent (which he is), and grabbed Nizar’s tablet. Hussein gave orders to his younger family members, and they followed those instructions grudgingly and with resentment. I was in his position forty or fifty years ago, and I understand the family dynamics involved. Hussein is trying to do a job for which he is not equipped. It just sucks.

Hussein and I finally found a tablet that allowed him to access his homework. He was supposed to analyze three political cartoons. Hussein was totally unprepared to do this. Political cartoons make sense to people from a particular culture, and a particular time in history. To anyone else, these drawings mean less than nothing.

Hussein noticed that I was edgy.

“You keep looking at your phone. Do you have to go? I can do this.”

I told him, “I got time. I need to visit a girl that I love in prison, but not right now.”

He said, “Okay, if you are sure.”

We looked at the cartoons. They were not current. Some were very old, which meant that they would mean less and less to people of Hussein’s age. One cartoon was a parody of a song from John Lennon, “Imagine”.

I asked Hussein, “Do you know what this song is about?”

He shrugged and said, “No”.

“Look it up online. Now. There’s a video.”

Hussein did that. He looked and listened.

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

Hussein understands English well. He listened to the lyrics of the song. He did not understand the importance of it, if there is any.

I told him, “For some people, this song was very important. It meant a lot. Lennon was murdered by a crazy fan in front of his house in New York City back in 1980.”

Hussein asked me, “How old was he?’


He shook his head and said, “That’s too young.”

I said despondently, “Yeah.”

He shrugged. The song went on.

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one”

I said to him, my voice shaking, “I remember exactly where I was when Lennon died.”

Hussein looked at me, “So, where were you?”

“I was in Arizona, in the Army. I was with some friends. We heard on the news that Lennon was dead.”

I put on my coat, and headed toward the door. Hussein followed me.

He said, “Thank you for coming. When do you come again?”

“I don’t know. I text your mom before I come here.”

Hussein asked, “And do you go to the prison now?”


“Is the girl, is she better?”

I paused. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

He shook my hand.

I left.















Riding along with Sister

November 16th, 2019

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
― Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road and The Dharma Bums

“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


“So, you made a road trip with a nun?”

This has been an often asked question since I came back from El Paso.

The answer is: “Yes, I made a road trip with a nun. It was quite enjoyable, thank you.”

I drove to El Paso and back with Sister Ann Catherine. Sister A.C. is, technically speaking, not a nun. My understanding is that nuns are cloistered religious sisters, women who keep themselves separate from the world’s chaos and mayhem. Sister Ann Catherine is certainly a member of a Catholic religious order, but she is definitely not cloistered. Sister A.C. is very active in the world, probably more so than most lay people, including myself. She is seventy-five years old, and she hasn’t wasted a minute of her life. She’s done things.

I first met the Sister at the VA hospital in Milwaukee several years ago. We often go there to visit with the vets in the psych ward. The psych ward has a transient population. People very seldom stay there for more than a week. Even so, Sister is good at establishing a relationship with the patients. She always tells them, “Thank you for your service”, and she says that in a heartfelt, authentic sort of way. They know that she is being sincere. Sister worked for years as a nurse, and she sees things through the lens of her experience. Her history allows her to connect easily with the folks in the psych ward.

Sister Ann Catherine served as a nurse in Cambodia back in 1980. I’m not sure if Pol Pot was still running the show in that country at that time, but the effects of his genocidal reign were still evident. Sister’s experience in the refugee camps affected her deeply. It changed her life.

I picked up Sister Ann Catherine at 4:00 AM on October 16th. She didn’t have much for luggage. We both like to travel light. Except for the fact that we nearly got hit by a garbage truck before we even left the Milwaukee (that was my fault), our departure went well. We drove on I-43 southwest to Beloit, and from there on I-39 toward Rockford, Illinois. We drove through northern Illinois in utter darkness. It’s best that way.

I think that sunrise found us driving through Bloomington, which is kind of like being in the Twilight Zone. We were a long way from St. Louis, and it hurt. For those who don’t know, there is literally nothing to see on the stretch between Bloomington to St. Louis. I-55 is a highway that begs a driver to speed. A view of endless, flat cornfields makes a person edgy and impatient. The typical driver may think, “Well, maybe if I just go eighty, then this hideous landscape will all go away.” It doesn’t, not for hours and hours. The rolling prairie in the Land of Lincoln just keeps giving and giving all the way to the Mississippi River. Pure torture.

On the plus side, Sister and I kept up a spirited conversation throughout this seemingly endless journey. We both wake up well before dawn each day, so the morning hours are when we are the most lucid. Sister is clear and incisive when she speaks. She doesn’t parrot other people’s opinions. She thinks for herself, and I admire that. She also listens quite well. I appreciate that too.

We got a little bit lost going through St. Louis. The GPS only works if you pay attention to it. We didn’t. Sister and I were in the middle of an interesting discussion, and then I noticed that we had missed our exit. It did not take us long to get on to the right interstate. Then we took I-44 forever.

I-44 goes through hills and forests and farmland all the way through the state of Missouri. It’s a beautiful ride, and a long one. Sister and I eventually ran out of topics to discuss. Then we resorted to listening to music. Fortunately, I was prepared for that. My tastes are eclectic. So are Sister’s. We played songs from The Klezmatics (the album “Rhythm and Jews”), Indigo Girls, Santana, and Dylan. The music got weirder as time went on.

After twelve hours of driving (I drove and Sister kept me alert), we arrived at our first destination, the Monastery of St. Scholastica. St. Scholastica is a home for Benedictine sisters in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The sisters there welcomed us with open arms, and unlimited goodwill. My wife, Karin, and I are in the habit of staying at monasteries and Catholic retreat houses. However, I had never been to this place before in my life. Sister Ann Catherine simply trusted me to find us a good place to stay for the night. That was a gutsy move on her part. I guess her faith paid off.

The sisters at St. Scholastica have a guest house, which is wonderful. They gave us the keys to the place, without hesitation. They also refused our offer of money for our stay with them. The sisters were emphatic that they wanted to provide for our ministry with the migrants at the southern border. Our money was no good to them.

The second day…

Sister and I drove through eastern Oklahoma and Texas for about eight hours.

We were on our way to Bryan/College Station, Texas. Let it be said at this point, that I have made the trip from Milwaukee to College Station numerous times over the course of the last thirty years. I know every single path between those two points. The scenery was new to Sister Ann Catherine, but not to me.

Upon arrival in Bryan, we first stopped to visit with my eldest son, Hans, and his family. Hans is married to Gabby, a local girl, and they are the loving parents of Weston, a one-year-old redneck. Sister immediately spent time with Gabby and her little boy. I talked with Hans. Hans is a Iraqi War veteran, and he was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Heavy Metal: Army Style”, showing a picture of an Abrams tank. That’s my boy. I told Hans about our trip to El Paso/Mexico. He shook his head and told me, “Well, y’all don’t call me if you get in trouble down there.”

Thanks Hans. Screw you too. Actually, he was just messing with me. I do the same with him. It’s a family thing.

Sister and I spent the night with a friend of my sister-in-law, Shawn. We stayed at the house of Anne and Kim. Sister and I did not know anything about these people. Nothing. They were total strangers.

I am used to this sort of thing. I have participated in a number of peace walks and other weird trips that required me to stay with complete strangers. I have grown accustomed to sleeping in places with people I don’t know, and who I may never meet again.  Over the years, Karin and I have invited other travelers to stay at our house. We offered hospitality to people who we did not know and that we never met again. It’s cool. It just works like that.

The next morning (pre-dawn) Sister and I picked up my sister-in-law, Shawn. She was coming with us to El Paso. She hadn’t slept at all. She told me laughingly, “I knew y’all would come for me early! That’s what you folks do!”


The people at the Annunciation House in El Paso wanted us to be there at 1:30 PM. That meant we had ten straight hours of windshield time to get to their shelter. We drove through the darkness from Bryan. The rising sun caught us on I-10 somewhere west of Fredericksburg, Texas.

I-10 is brutal. If you drive to the west, the landscape becomes increasingly more desolate. You start with live oaks. Then you go to junipers and mesquite. Then you go to sage brush and creosote bushes. Then you go to dirt. Nothing but dirt.

We got to El Paso, with is sort of an oasis.

I insisted on listening to Nirvana on the final stretch to El Paso. I cranked up “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

“Hello, hello, hello
Load up on guns and bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over-bored and self-assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

An albino
A mosquito

Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low”

Sister Ann Catherine made no comment at all.












November 14th, 2019

“The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.”
― Saint Oscar A. Romero,  from “The Violence of Love”

All right, so what is “conversion”? What does it mean to be “converted”. Father José spoke about that topic at our meeting in the cathedral in Tuesday evening. He said that our five-day trip to the Mexican border has to be a conversion experience for us. He has been there twice, and it has definitely been a conversion experience for him. So, what does that really mean to anyone else?

Almost all religious traditions talk about conversion. In Judaism it is “t’shuvah” (תשובה), which roughly translates to “repentance” or “turning back”. In my ten year experience as an unofficial member of an Orthodox Jewish congregation, t’shuvah seems to mean much more than that. It means self-transformation. T’shuvah is about radical change. It means becoming a new person.

I also have experience with Zen Buddhism. In that group, there is very seldom any talk about conversion in a religious sense, probably because Zen isn’t really a religion. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not a religion. In any case, in Zen there is the idea of change and enlightenment. A person can change, through meditation, and see the world more clearly. The Buddha was, by definition, a person who became awake. Zen has no gods. Zen only talks about recovering our inherent Buddha nature, which just means waking up and becoming who we really are.

Conversion, in its roughest form, just means “getting your shit together”.

This is hard.

We do not have many good models for conversion. In Christianity, the most obvious example of conversion is that of Paul on his way to Damascus. That example is almost useless. Conversion seldom happens that way. It is unlikely that any individual will be struck down in the road by a brilliant light, and then have God speak directly to them.

Conversion happens in slow and subtle ways. A Buddhist once told me that I would never recognize a change in myself, but other people would. I found this to be true. Conversion is not often apparent to the person being changed. However, other people notice.

Sometimes, in Christianity, people are eager to tell about their conversion experiences. This can be less than useful. I have heard, from at least one person, a story of how he found Jesus, and it was clear to me that his new-found connection with Jesus did not affect his lifestyle in any way at all. He was still an asshole. Conversion means more than just kneeling at the foot of the cross. It means a fundamental change. 

Conversion is not something that can be forced. People cannot be truly converted by the sword or by the threat of torture. Conversion has to come from within the person, and even that cannot be forced. I cannot say to myself, “Today, I will change my life.” Conversion does not happen through the force of will. It is more of a letting go of things.

In the Heart Sutra of the Buddhists, it says, “No attainment and nothing to attain”. We do not strive for conversion. We collapse, and we sit down in ashes and sackcloth, and we accept conversion.  We just let it happen. It comes to us.

Have I been converted by our trip to El Paso/Ciudad Juarez? I have no idea. Maybe. I guess I will find out later.


November 10th, 2019

“People are like stained – glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are”

from “Wake Me Up When September Ends” – Green Day

My father died a year ago today. I still don’t miss him.



Yeah, I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. I’m not angry with him anymore, but I don’t miss him. Actually, he isn’t entirely absent from my life. I can still hear his voice in my head. I still hear him bitching about something or other. All I want him to do is leave me alone. We’ll meet again soon enough. In the meantime, I just want him to keep his distance.



I remember my dad’s funeral. It was remarkably soulless. I went through the motions, and I think that some of the other people there did the same thing. Nobody said anything about my father, except for the priest, and the priest hardly knew the man. I didn’t even want to be at the funeral. Karin convinced me to go there for my own good, even if I didn’t want to be there for my father. I guess I would feel bad now if I had not gone to the service. However, I went there out of a sense of duty, not necessarily out of love. Well, maybe there was a little bit of love. I don’t know.



Karin and I went to a funeral yesterday. It was held at the Victory Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee. The church looks like a warehouse from the outside. It is on the corner of Teutonia and Center on the north side of Milwaukee. The neighborhood is a little rough. There is a lot of poverty there, and the population is almost entirely Afro-American. We attended the funeral of a woman, Latanya, who we really never knew. We were actually there to support a woman that we do know. The woman we know is Merry Jo.



Merry Jo is the widow of Earnel Nash. Ernie died in August of 2017. Blood cancer. Karin and I were friends with Ernie and Merry Jo. I had worked with Ernie for probably twenty years. He thought I was an asshole, and that’s probably true. Somehow, we got to really know each other, and we were close during his last years. Since Ernie’s death, Karin and I have stayed in contact with Merry Jo. That has been a blessing for us.



Let’s pause for a moment here. You have to understand how racist and segregated Milwaukee is. It’s bad. There aren’t many white people who are willing go up to Capitol and 18th Street, where Merry and Ernie lived, and there aren’t many blacks who will come down to Oak Creek, where we live. But we all did those things. Merry Jo and Ernie came to our house, and we went to theirs. We ate together, and laughed together, and eventually grieved together.



Merry Jo called me on Tuesday evening. She has a soft, musical voice, one that is always soothing. She told me,



“Frank, I just want to let you know that our daughter passed on.”



I was stunned by that. “I’m sorry”, I replied.



She went on, “Well, I just wanted to tell you, because you’re family.”



That cut to the bone.



Merry Jo continued, “The funeral, it’s going to be on Saturday at noon. The viewing will start at 10:30. You gonna come?”



So, what was I going to say? What could I say?



The fact was that I had an electrician coming to the house at noon on Saturday. I told her,



“I might not be there for the funeral, but I am going to the east side to see my rabbi on Thursday morning. Can I stop at your house when I’m done talking with him?”



Merry Jo said it was okay.



That’s what I did. I first went to talk to the rabbi at Lake Park Synagogue. I’m a Catholic, but I still have a rabbi, in case I need a second opinion on a spiritual matter. I’ve been part of the synagogue for ten years now, so they accept me as I am.



It always feels strange driving to Merry’s house. Sometimes folks give me a second look when I park on 18th Street. I guess that they might think I am one of those damn probation officers. Why else would some old white guy be stopping in their neighborhood?



Maggie answered the door at Merry’s house. Merry wasn’t there. I talked for a while with Maggie and Ora, two older black ladies. Well, they are my age. We are all on the same page. Ora asked me about my kids. I mentioned that somebody I dearly love is in prison. She didn’t even blink at that. We talked about the prison in Taycheedah. Ora knew all about that place. So did I. We had something in common. Merry was didn’t come home while I was at her house. She was busy arranging things for her girl’s funeral. So I left after I told the ladies that I would see them on Saturday.



Karin and I didn’t see Merry Jo until the funeral on Saturday. We were there for over an hour before we saw her. Karin and I viewed the deceased, and then we sat in a pew.



Okay, let’s talk for a moment about race.



The church was packed with people for the funeral. All the pews were full, and there were a number of individuals standing in the back. There might have been two hundred black people in attendance. There were maybe a dozen white folks. Does that matter? I don’t know. All I know is that I was like a grain of salt in a pepper shaker. Nobody said or did anything to disrespect me or my wife. Karin and I were welcomed there, and we are grateful for that. We just felt out of place. That was our reality.



The deceased, Latanya, had died at the age of forty-four. She had left behind two adult daughters, and a five-year-old girl. The central section of pews was completely filled with Latanya’s extended family. There were her daughters, her brother, her mom, her uncles, aunts, cousins, and others on the family periphery. There were lots of people gathered there. That impressed me, because I remember there were so few people at my father’s funeral. Granted, he was a very old man when he died, so not many of his contemporaries were still around. However, he had alienated so many people in his life that he had almost nobody left at the end.




Most of my experience with funerals is from within the Catholic Church. We have ritual, and that helps to keep things moving. True ritual touches the human heart. The Baptists have ritual too. The pastor kept the service flowing, even when people wanted to sing hymns solo. The people in this church own these funerals. They know how to tug at the heart strings. They know how to call on God. This service was like Ernie’s funeral; it was totally real. It was strong and it was righteous.



Merry Jo looked tired, and a bit dazed, during the service. She sat in front with her grand-daughters, and she occasionally reached over to them to hold their hands. I could see the love within that family, and it made my heart hurt. These people cared about each other deeply. It showed.



One of the elders gave a sermon. It was about Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. The man spoke like an old school preacher. He was completely authentic. He got himself wound up, and he wound up the congregation. There were numerous “Amens!” from the crowd, and some women held up their hands in praise. I don’t know if I agreed with the man’s theology, but I was in love with his spirit. When he spoke, I believed.



Karin and I were only able to find and greet Merry Jo once we got outside the church. She was surrounded by people, and we kind of pushed our way in to her.



Both Karin and I hugged her.  We told her how much we loved her.



That was a good funeral.



November 7th, 2019

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.”
― Ruth Reichl

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
― John Donne

During the trip to El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, several people told our group to work at building community. I remember, in particular, Father Bill mentioning that. It sounds like a good idea. The problem is: what does it really mean? How do you build community? What exactly is a community, and why do we want to build it?

One definition of the word “community” is:

“A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”.

That definition doesn’t help very much. It could mean almost anything, and maybe it should.

During one of our evening reflections at Casa Vides, a member of our group remarked that we had already done much to build community among ourselves. Really? How and when did that happen? In the last few weeks, since we returned from El Paso, I have heard from five people who were in our company. That would be five out of fourteen. So, does that make us a community? Perhaps not.

Building community, whatever that actually means, is a long and arduous process. Spending five days together with strangers does not make a community. During the five days, I spent hours talking with some people, and I spent at most five minutes interacting with others. I suspect that this sort of thing is normal. I connected quickly and easily with some folks, but I felt a distinct barrier in my dealings with others.

Building community takes time. A person does not become part of a community overnight. Sometimes, the process requires enormous patience. I am part of a shul, an Orthodox Jewish community. I am not Jewish. I would estimate that it took probably five years before I was accepted into that community. It took that long for mutual trust to develop. This might be an extreme example, but I mention it to emphasize that building community is not as simple as friending somebody on Facebook.

Building community requires listening. To truly connect with somebody, a person has to shut up and listen to other people. In our culture we are not good at that. Often when I talk with someone, my mind has already gone some place else. I find it difficult to be with another person 100%. However, that total commitment is necessary to establish a bond with the other individual.

Building community cannot be forced. Connections between humans happen in a haphazard sort of way. There are environments that are conducive to community-building; for instance, meals taken together. However, communities, like friendships, develop at their own pace. Community building is not always an active process. Sometimes, it requires that people abandon their agenda and just let things flow. Our culture is not good at that either.

People move in and out of communities. A person may be part of a community for just a week, or maybe for their entire life. Communities are fluid. They are dynamic because they are alive. Living things move and change. Only death is static.

Is our small group from the El Paso trip a community? I don’t know. It may be in the process of becoming one. We have shared an important experience, and some of our interests are the same. However, we are, at this point, mostly just strangers to each other. We could easily drift away from each other, and that would be a shame.

I guess we’ll have to work at this.




November 7th, 2019

“I stand here at your border crossing
What a way to meet
Face in total disarray
Papers incomplete
A traveler at your mercy
My future rests on you
Will you turn me back around
Or will you stamp me through

Please forgive my awkwardness
I know I’m quite a mess
If I were a smuggler
I’d have much more finesse
Yes, if I were a smuggler
I’d breeze across this border
My clothes a bit conservative
My papers all in order

So please do check my pockets
And by all means check my bag
Make sure you search my vehicle
And check the license tag
And when you feel I’ve met
The strict demands of your employer
I hope you find it in your heart
To lose your paranoia”

“Border Crossing” from Timbuk 3

I don’t understand borders. I realize that statement does not make much sense, but it is true.

When I was in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, the border was in my face all the time. The wall, the river, the bridges, the ports of entry: all these things made it abundantly clear to me that there is (literally) a line in the sand that some people cannot cross.

I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why these things exist.

My wife, Karin, is not a U.S. citizen. She has a green card, and she has resided in the United States for almost thirty-five years. She has chosen to remain a German.

A number of people have asked me about that. It bothers them. They usually ask things like:

“Why doesn’t she want to be an American? This is her home, isn’t it?”

Those questions only make sense if a person assumes that there is actually a difference between being a German and being an American. Karin does not see a difference. Nor do I. Karin and I, being rather Catholic (or occasionally Buddhist), really believe that there is only one human family, and therefore the divisions between peoples are all artificial.

This means that we consider borders to be things that are only man made, which means they can also be unmade. Borders exist first and foremost in our minds. Borders are just ideas, at the beginning. Later, they take on concrete form. Human borders do not exist in nature. The only physical border that can be seen from space is the the Great Wall of China, which is no longer functioning as a border. All borders are ephemeral, and in a sense unreal. Yes, walls of steel and cement are tangible, but they are not natural. History has shown that they do not last.

What else has history shown us? From my reading, history shows a continual migration of peoples across the globe. There has been an endless mixing and movement of populations, regardless of the obstacles placed in their ways. Even in my own lifetime, borders between countries have changed and shifted. The permanence of these boundaries is an illusion. We spend endless amounts of time and money to stop a relentless tide. We fight against our own future.

It was striking to me when I walked over the bridge from Mexico to the United States. I jumped through all the hoops provided by the Custom and Border Protection folks. I showed them my passport, my little magic book. After a quick glance, they waved me through. Other people, they don’t wave through. How do they decide who is worthy, and who is not? Is there an objective standard? I doubt it.

Am I any better than an asylum-seeker from Honduras? No. So, why can I come into the U.S., but that person cannot? Why can I have a home here, and the other person has to sleep in a tent on the other side of the border? In this world, in this age, what does it mean to be a citizen of a certain country? In a time when the free flow of goods, and information, and especially money is paramount, what does it mean to be a citizen of a particular country? When multinational corporations spread their tentacles across the planet, what does it mean to be a citizen of one country?

Who are we?

Are we not one?