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Day 0 of Naropa University’s 2011 SWP June 11, 2011

Filed under: Naropa University,State of Mind — Annie Maier @ 7:48 pm
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Arrived in Boulder on Tuesday, eager, excited, nervous. My husband and daughter accompanied me on this initial leg of the journey, and we spent the early part of the week eating, hiking, walking, visiting Naropa, occasionally sleeping. In preparation for their departure, we went hiking at Chautauque yesterday so I could put my feet in the water and clear my head. Then we went off for tea at the Dashanbe Tea House (lovely). This morning, we got up, showered, dressed and headed out the door. Now they’re driving to Denver to catch a flight home and I’m here in Boulder wondering why I do this to myself, while at the same time heaving an enormous sigh of relief. Makes no sense, I know… or maybe it does. Maybe someone out there reading this is thinking, “yup, I can see that.” If not, I’ll try to explain.

Being the progressive, college town that it is, Boulder thrives on diversity. There are retirees walking the street in chains and leather, tattooed mamas pushing strollers filled with adorable, barefoot babies and street corners populated by buskers, hustlers and sad little old men in rags. At Naropa, a wonderful school founded on the principles of Buddhist contemplation, Western-education and near universal acceptance, there are students from all paths in life (see previous post). Some are male, some are female, some are gender neutral. Straight, gay, monogamous, single, polyamorous. Writers, dancers, artists, theater and religion majors.

None of this is bad. In fact, except for the proliferation of homelessness, it is all quite wonderful. Except that I’m a bit dull. Nerdy, even. Fond of words and coffee and small, still corners. Despite being independent, stubborn and perhaps a bit too fond of incense, I’m not an obvious rebel. I wear skirts and jeans with white t-shirts. I take my mom to lunch every Wednesday, floss most days and occasionally pay other people to paint my nails. I practice yoga in sweat pants. My hair is mousy brown and correspondingly lifeless and I haven’t a single tattoo. Though I am now largely atheistic, I was raised Catholic; cursed from birth by a strong history of guilt and conformity. And now, I’ve flown 1500 miles to once again plop myself down in the far out land of way cool hipsterdom. Even the anti-hipsters are hip. To the outside eye, the single thing in short supply in Boulder is that bastion of perceived deadly dullness—the traditional family. Did I mention I arrived here with my family? My husband of nearly 30 years and our basically well-adjusted daughter? Yeah. Nowwwww you understand.

I know that there are people out there who will read this in outrage: “What the hell is she complaining about—love, stability, happiness?—who doesn’t long for all three?” And I absolutely agree (b/c I am so grateful for all three), Hence the conflict.

But try to see it another way. In four days, this is what I’ve encountered: a waiter, unable to process the information that I was attending Naropa (he had asked what brought us Boulder), asked my daughter what she was studying. Arriving on campus for a meeting with an unknown classmate, I was confronted by an image of youth and beauty; tall, thick hair pulled carelessly back in a golden weave of tumbling curls, no time or need for make-up. Signing in at Snow Lion, Naropa’s dorm and my domicile for the month, I met a lovely woman—not too tall, pretty but not intimidatingly so, my age. Woohooo, I thought! Two seconds into the conversation, she informed me she was there dropping off her son. Sonsofbitches.

There are MFA programs all over America staying in business on the dimes of middle-aged women seeking a new course in life and I chose the only one slowly sinking beneath the burden of educating free-spirited young men and women arriving straight from college on scholarships. Even here, I am an anomaly.

But what the hell—isn’t that why I chose Naropa in the first place? We are all anomalies.

And I cannot wait for the month to begin.

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November 18, 2009 November 18, 2009

Filed under: Misguided Acts of Kindness — Annie Maier @ 11:07 pm
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A John            (Part 4)

By now I knew this man would never accept Mama’s ten dollars, but I also knew I’d better not climb back into that car without at least trying. “Since you won’t take food, I imagine money is totally out.”

He laughed, probably at my awkward delivery more than my words. “Yes, money is definitely out.”

Relaxed now – all my offerings had been dispensed and rejected, what else did I have to lose? – I found myself enjoying this man’s company. No longer bothered by the traffic, or the stares, I began speaking as a human being, not a helper of the homeless. “I think I understand,” I told him, “but I have to admit I’m a bit chagrined at being rejected.” As his eyes registered the slightest hint of remorse – rejection had definitely not been on his list of things to do today – I rushed on. “No, it’s okay. It’s was a lesson that needed learning.”

He let that go, instead nodding in the direction of the road, where my bright red Mini Cooper rested. “Nice car you have there.”

Surprised, because I had more or less decided this man was Jesus and who knew messiahs had any interest in cars, I thanked him. At the same time, I cursed whatever gods had given me the means to have such a vehicle when this man didn’t even have a safe place to sleep. “It gets great gas mileage,” I said. As if that somehow made everything alright.

“I appreciate you coming out here.” 

He did?

“It was a brave thing to do.”

It was?

I thought about this. I knew what he meant – I had felt exposed and stupid facing all that traffic. But twenty feet of discomfort is nothing compared to hours of cross-bearing. “I don’t know about brave. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I’m wrong about that sometimes.”

“Not entirely wrong – there is one thing you can do for me.”

I knew where this was going, of course. Had known since this morning when I first saw him. Somehow though, I had hoped to extract myself before Jesus offered me something I didn’t necessarily want. It was too late now, however. I had offered and he had accepted. I had no choice but to suck it up and be gracious.

 

November 17, 2009 November 17, 2009

Filed under: Misguided Acts of Kindness — Annie Maier @ 11:08 pm
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A John            (Part 3)

“I’ve got everything I need,” he said. “I have a tent, and I get food stamps.”

“Oh.” I swallowed. “I just thought…” I drifted off. What did I think? I thought he was homeless, which was apparently correct, but I also thought that being homeless meant he needed my help. As his eyes finally met my own, I realized how wrong I had been. They were clear and direct – so deep a blue as to resemble the autumn sky above us. Intelligence was there, as was humility and, now that he had acknowledged me, compassion. He needed something, to be sure, but not from me. Not from anyone naïve enough to offer in such a way.

In the blank space of my dawning awareness, he glanced down at the plastic bag in my hand. I had been holding it slightly behind me – trying, I think, to hide my sudden embarrassment from him as well as the staring pairs of eyes from the road beside us.

“I understand that you don’t need anything,” I said, “but you might want something… a soda maybe or a sandwich.” I lifted the bag higher, thinking maybe he could be tempted. “Wanting is much different than needing, after all.”

He laughed and the remaining embers of his aloofness vanished. “This is true, but I don’t eat or drink anything when I’m out.” He gestured to the cross. “It’s just my way.”

I nodded, finally understanding. He might not word it this way, almost assuredly not being Catholic, but this was his penance. An Act of Contrition without words. Having formed this opinion, I immediately jumped to the next – no one could be sinful enough to warrant living in a tent, eating food supplied by an indifferent government and standing on the side of the road holding an enormous cross and praying no do-gooders will come along to spoil your solitude.   

“I’ve committed my share of sins in the past,” he continued, smiling at the memory. “Maybe more than my share. This is a small gesture to make amends.”

 

November 10, 2009

Filed under: Misguided Acts of Kindness — Annie Maier @ 6:43 pm
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November 10, 2009

The following piece is about one of those experiences in life that you just can’t get out of your mind. I decided to break the telling into smaller segments because no matter how I tried, I couldn’t seem to make it any shorter. And while I love the sound of my own voice as much as the next person – I don’t think I should expect anyone to spend their valuable attention span molecules on my blog. Blogs should be short and pithy, a microcosm of the larger universe if you will, piquing our interest while leaving plenty of room in our heads for more lengthy and, some might say, important literary endeavors – like War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings.

(If you have another perspective on this assessment, please let me know.)  

A John

Driving to my mom’s house last week, I passed a man standing on the side of the street holding an enormous, handmade cross. He was bedraggled looking, with long gray hair pulled into a half-hearted ponytail, a straggling beard creeping toward his chest and ancient, soiled clothes of an indeterminate color. The weather was warm, and his sleeves were pushed up past his elbows. I saw him from about a half mile away, giving me plenty of time to form ideas and opinions about who he was and why he might be standing there. Slowing down to turn, however, I caught a glimpse of his eyes, and was startled to realize that far from engaging passersby as do most of the men who occupy this corner, he was staring off into the distance, deliberately avoiding contact. Clearly my first impression had been wrong. This was no beggar. But what then was he doing standing beneath the blaze of a mid-afternoon sun holding a cross and looking in desperate need of a handout? Surely he wanted attention – why else stand so openly exposed at the edge of a busy street? I had noticed a dirty backpack at his feet, but it seemed deflated, empty. Either he had no belongings or had stored them elsewhere for the day. Homeless? Maybe. Poor? Obviously. What about the cross? Hewn of two long tree limbs and tied together with an old, red rag, it stood about eight feet tall. Perhaps he was an evangelist, stumping not for any particular religion, but for God.

I picked up my mom and the two of us went on our way, running errands and having lunch as we do every Wednesday. Heading back at the end of the afternoon, I decided to bring the man some food. I had a sandwich, but nothing else, so on my way I stopped at a gas station and bought a bag of chips and a soda. The station also had Snowballs, my mom’s favorite treat in the world, and on impulse I bought those as well. As I climbed back into the car, Mom handed me a carefully folded ten dollar bill. I had told her I didn’t think the man wanted money, but she insisted. Then she handed me the cupcakes, saying, “Here. He needs these way more than I do.” Touched by the gesture, but still a bit put out that she had so readily given up my gift, I tossed them in the bag.

When we arrived back at the corner, it was rush hour. I pulled over, trying to get out of traffic as quickly as possible and thus avoid irritating any potentially volatile commuters, and jumped from the car. In my haste to get off the road, I had parked quite a distance from the man. Stumbling along the uneven mix of dirt, rocks and mud, I started feeling stupid. Despite my best efforts, I was causing a snag in traffic – people were slowing down, looking. Some were honking, and others shouted for me to get the hell out of the way. Lurching and sweating and wondering if I had lost my mind, I considered turning around and climbing back into the safe anonymity of my car. But I was on a mission and backing away from that didn’t seem like much of an option.

 

 
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