Thursday, September 29, 2011

Paul and Puzzles: What is it about Lucky Charms?

   Everyone must feel selfish after having breakfast. I cannot wake up before eight o'clock (thank you university-lifestyle) with a smile on my face. Nothing beats having to taste the remnants of last night's late night snack on the hard-to-reach part of your tongue. As sour as that flavor might be, I always feel even more bitter; hating that I have to wake up before eight one day out of the week.
   Yet, when I finally dragged myself to the buzzing cafeteria, even after ignoring the over-looming reality that lots of other people are up at this hour, I found solace in a good bowl of Lucky Charms. As another rainbow marshmallow found my lips, I can't help but think: you selfish bastard! I wake up early to go to Service Learning. This isn't about me. Well, it is actually. The Jesuit slogan for community service states 'for and with others'; implying that someone has to be there in order for the preposition with to grammatically work. Service doesn't work if my body shows up and I'm not there there. Somehow the Lucky Charms fuel me with my passion that brought me to SJU to serve.
   Again, like the last post suggested, I can't help but see my new home in west Philadelphia with a new set of eyes when I get behind the wheel of a Ford Focus. Traffic somehow snapped my college-oriented mind back to a real world setting. The radio has the similar effect when everyone has PCs or Macs to blare their own tunes off of; no one possesses a transistor radio, and no, the speakers that iPods plug into do not have FM or AM radio. They are strictly car -a symbol of autonomy- items. I chatted with my service partners that it was yet another gray day as we headed into north Philly. 
  We reached Mercy Neighborhood Ministries with five minutes to spare; I casually weaved in and out of traffic to avoid causing a bad first (second) impression. Something changed this second time we parked. I, for one, was not panicking over the MapQuest directions that were off by half a block. This allowed for a better look. What I found was that the lighting changed. It was not the actual light, for the sun was covered by a thick blanket of ominous clouds. It was more of PhotoShop effect in which someone must have toggled with the sepia and cyan tones. (Try it to catch my meaning!) I didn't feel foreign to my surroundings which could no longer be classified as "new."
   On entering, we received the same cheerful 'good morning!' from the receptionist as last time. Our arrival time happened to be, and will continue being an awkward time between breakfast and the morning's first activity. There was a lot of shuffling of feet as we seemed to be "thrown to the wolves"; two individuals sat at different tables with a staff member. One of my fellow service members went to the lady on our right while by default I found myself entering a conversation between Paul and Kim. 
   "Hey Kiiimmm!" a voice croaked. 
   "What Paul?" returned a tired voice. It was only 9:05 and cloudy. Yet Kim was wearing sunglasses inside the building.
   "Why are you wearing sunglasses already, Kim. There's no sun in here," Paul nagged; a grin hiding behind his pursed lips. 
   "I told you already. I'm taking medication for my ulcer."
   I chimed in, "Ulcer, that ain't no fun." Kim proceeded to explain that her medications had to be taken once every hour (including the night) and a separate pain killer twice a day for the ulcer in/on her eye. Sheesh! Not only did Kim's sickness explain her preposterous idea of wearing sunglasses inside, but it also set an incredibly high standard for us three new service volunteers. If Kim could come to work under such miserable circumstances, there was no way I could ever come half-assed and not ready to participate in the activities. 
   I couldn't stop smiling as Paul wanted to pick a fight with Kim if she didn't make his coffee right and the way he yelled out after staff members as they came and went from the cafeteria. However old  Paul was,  he would not let my smiling and snickering go unnoticed. 
   "What's so funny? Stop following me with that big goofy smile!" 
Shiva Linga (the black stone represents the godhead of Shiva,
also known as Nirguna Brahman-God in the abstract form.
Shares similarities with the Christian Holy Spirit.)
A further explanation can be found here.
   We eventually found ourselves in the activities room. Other members sat around the TV as Ms. Barbara started to lead current events and gave the weather. The activity that followed hit a soft spiritual spot within me. In the middle of the circle was a plant with a tall vase of water. Libations. Ms. Barbara asked if anyone knew what libations were. The thought that came to my mind was a Hindu process of worship called Shiva Linga in which devotees pour liquids over a sacred rock. 
  While we individually poured a little water into the plant, we spoke a name of one of our deceased ancestors. This simple ritual was followed by the lighting of incense. Using a feather, Ms. Barbara wafted the smoke towards us. Cleansing, as I have learned from my participation in a Lakota sweat lodge earlier this summer, smoke has several uses in Native American practices. It was moving, to say the least, to be in Philadelphia and have a strong recollection of being in Virginia in a sweat lodge. Coincidentally, one of the aspects in sweating and in Lakota traditions is a respect for the elderly. Among the members at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries (MNM), I felt close to God in that quick instance. 
   The other woman we first encountered in the cafeteria was named Shirley. She picked me to be her "tutor." Ms. Barbara explained to us in our last visit what that title entails for the day. Shirley was illiterate until a year ago in which she learned the alphabet, spelling, and reading. Her tutor would continue helping her learn how to spell and read. I had no idea at what level she would be writing or reading, but when we began to write letters that would be sent to a former employee at MNM, I was blown away at her capacity to write as if she was literate from an early age. I could only think about how a commonly held belief today is that the brain is a sponge. And somewhere after a few years from birth, the sponge dries up and it becomes difficult to learn at the same quick rate as a developing child. Working with kids at summer camp throughout high school, I have no doubt seen that sponge effect work. It's incredible. Yet I was stunned to watch this woman write so simplistically. I was humbled. 
   But not humbled enough. Puzzles: one of the activities closely related to Bingo as one of the elderly's activities. Shirley wanted to work on her 300 piece Under the Sea puzzle which was vibrant with two octopi, a crab, and clown fish that she dubbed "Nemo." Talk about a lesson in patience. She worked twice as fast as I did putting pieces together at a rate I could never keep up with. I ripped through the box looking for matching colors. I thought that would help until I realized there were two octopi...I really didn't want to separate the two. I felt waves of stress crashing over me as the decisions of where to start looking to put pieces together, what went with what, and how dumb I must've looked to Shirley began to fill my head. 
  Time for us to go. 'Phew' was all I could think. Puzzle solving had me worked up. And before I knew it, goodbyes were exchanged, my service partners and I were back in the car, and I found myself in our own cafeteria eating another bowl of Lucky Charms for lunch, watching how the marshmallows connected as they floated on top of the milk. Like a puzzle... 

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