Value to be Gained

I was reading a story that has been in the making for a while. The topic was the bankruptcy of Sears, an originally Chicago company that has a more than century-long history. I’ve read a number of stories and articles about Sears over the years. Something about its demise illuminates the ways in which iconic institutions transform themselves and, even still, diminish and die. There’s something in that ending arc that’s worth respecting.

In my reading of stories, and this recent one in particular, I have remembered KMart commercials. I’ve recalled flipping through thick catalogues as a boy, searching the pages for stuff my mother wouldn’t and couldn’t buy. I thought about the time seven years ago I went into the Sears on 79th Street, near Stony Island, just because it was still open and how I shopped for vacuum bags and then went into a sister’s store where she sold fragrant oils and African cloth.

I have slowly reviewed the ways Sears could be the huge business it was, sell so many things, and, as slowly, crack into forgetfulness. I’ve watched Sears linger. I’ve grieved, in a way, at the death of a business so meaningful. And even without knowing why I’ve felt so endeared toward the store.

I’ve thought about all the years and all the people who have worked there, made careers there, been given first jobs there and about how very little is written about those folks. I’ve thought about the highlights from the cratering of Sears centering on the named executives. I’ve been disappointed that after one hundred plus years, the stories last told are about the high-level figures who made the most money and seldom, if ever, about the people who sold washing machines and light bulbs and winter clothing.

Even with my slow thinking about this store’s end, I don’t have many memories of the place. We shopped at Everblack–also called Evergreen Plaza–where Montgomery Ward held premium real estate. My big brother took me into Oaktree for a black suit, a peach shirt, and tie with images of something like grapes. Mama took me and Mark to McDonalds sometimes in the pavilion where they’d later play live music on the weekends. I bought a girl I liked a gold bracelet at Chain Reaction one Christmas, and the Original Cookie Company knew me for several of those splendid pizza-sized chocolate chip cookies. But I didn’t really sit with the decline of the Plaza. I drove by as they demolished it, but I don’t remember thinking through that change. Perhaps it was in the driving by, in the re-viewing, in the re-visiting that I grieved in a stretched out way for Everblack.

Now though, I’m sitting with the death of Sears and what it means. I don’t live near a Sears. It takes too much effort to pass by the 79th Street location just to witness that old building sitting like a shell  and to see this storied company’s death. Death is not a legal term. The company couldn’t compete, couldn’t maintain or re-engineer itself for the times, despite new leadership, changed strategies, effective-for-a-time consultations and re-organizations. Sears had to die.

I’m sad about it. Sad in a way that I can’t quite articulate. Sad, perhaps, because it’s one of those institutions that predated me that is now dying prior to me. And I hope to live a long time! Sad, perhaps, because it is something that was born before me that will not outlive me. Sad, perhaps, because I shop at the places that have contributed to the death of this store and company. Then, again, as the story said, Sears could return:

It may be that we haven’t seen the last of Sears. But insomuch as we may be losing a storied brand that holds some cultural value, there is value to be gained back in the form of insight.

Endings gift us with insight. Losing grants us space to mourn. Sometimes we notice and use that space. Sometimes we pass by it as we scroll down the day’s newsfeed, acting as if that title didn’t connect with an unwanted loss. So I keep considering where my grief begins.

I know the name and role of Julius Rosenwald is a part of my adult reflections on Sears. Rosenwald’s support of historically Black schools and centers of learning have developed in me profound respect. I used to walk around the corner to see his old home, to “pay my respects,” and to keep the appreciation for what he did alive in me. It may be there that my grief begins. Not that Rosenwald was single-handedly responsible for the success of Sears as we knew it. That may be attributed to him, but there is no such thing as single hands in business or anything else, is there?

My grief is related to Rosenwald but I’m sure that’s not the length of it. And I also don’t yet know the “value to be gained.” I’m not sure of this loss’s insight. I’ll have to wait. I’ll have to see. I do know that I have lost before. I know that all losses have eventually brought me something, even something small, and, in that offering, has been generous to me.

This loss–and all my losses–can be trusted for that. They are brutal, losses, and some of them intend to wipe away the easy comfort a person has with the world. Losing a job or closing a company or ending anything may mean changing the trust you have in your footing. You lose trust, but you still can trust that something else is coming. It may be insight. It may be grace. It may be a lesson. It may be a quality. Loss will take something from you, no doubt, but taking is never all that loss does.

In the meantime, you wait and when you can, you wait with hope. I’m right there waiting too.

A Long Way From Marsh Chapel

As I sat there, smelling of one long sunny day, of goodbyes to new chaplain friends, and of walks around Cambridge where I ducked into a comic store for the oldest boy and a used bookstore for the youngest and for me, I took a deep breath.

The lobster roll I ate left me a long time ago by then, but I wasn’t hungry because I had a completely unappetizing salad in a train station where I met a train-taking friend who was on her way to receive an award for her justice work in the world.

After two buses and a train ride from Boston to Providence, a brief interview from a police officer, and a search to find an outlet in an atrium that had only one, I sat in the hard-backed chair sitting across from a Southwest sign. The blue, orange, and yellow was like the brightness of the day turning into an evening of quiet.

The airport security area was behind me, the sign ahead. Nothing was moving. Conveyors were belted into silence. Lights and sirens dulled into repose. No one walked except the occasional environmental service worker.

One man who, like me, had his flight canceled, lay out his golf bag and pulled a pillow from his suitcase. I was determined to sit in the chair overnight. It felt like a small failure when looked to the floor and said without words, “I think I’m coming down there.”

I didn’t want to be the guy who slept on the airport floor. I chuckled to myself. It was perfect and terrible. I had never done that before. I had people in Boston, people who later reminded me that I had people in Boston.

I was and am blessed that I pretty much don’t travel anywhere in the US where I can’t call people who live within 2-3 hours of me, people who care enough to retrieve me from my stinky, stuck position after lugging luggage and trying to get home. I didn’t want to be that sleeping guy but I was.

l opened my luggage and pulled my black hoodie, the one I packed in case I got cold during the research conference. Hadn’t worn it yet. Perfectly folded, it was wear I put it, like it was waiting to be called into service. I zipped it up over my white polo and lay on that floor.

I didn’t really sleep. I’m from the south side of Chicago. Instead of sleeping, I put my leg across my luggage and dozed while forming fists and blinking each time I heard footsteps on the muffled carpet.

I was a long way from Marsh Chapel where I sat each day of the week, listening to the quiet, imagining what Howard Thurman did in that space, envisioning how students and ministers and others came there to sit, to wait, to hear, and to rest. I had been in Marsh Chapel but the airport wasn’t the chapel.

I would even go into an airport chapel during that upcoming thirty-hour trek to return home where I’d find a dark and equally quiet Chicago on a Saturday night. Returning would be like moving from Marsh Chapel, where one of my spiritual heroes did his work, to the airport, where I’d wait and wonder and get into new postures that surprised me and taught me how to return.

I was a long way from Marsh Chapel, and then I wasn’t.

Watching For Dead Rats

Near our hospital office building where the chaplains meet, a hotel is waiting through its final stages of construction. Men and women in hard hats are completing electrical lines and other finishing touches. The sidewalk is almost open again, and the long temporary roof that covered what was the skeleton of the structure is gone. A man has been there for the last few mornings, accepting my greeting and offering his own.

Today he said to line of us as we passed by, “Watch out. Stay to the right. There’s a dead rat to the left. You don’t want to roll over that.” He spoke to all of us but phrased his admonition to the woman in the wheelchair who was at the front of the line. Between me and that woman was another woman whose face was in her phone. She never lifted her head and probably only looked with her eyes the way I do over my glasses when people say things that unnerve me.

My mother’s words–she says them all the time, to anybody she needs to say them–came before me. Mama does not like us (or you or Jesus) talking on a phone or using a phone while you’re a pedestrian. This woman needs to meet my mother. I decided not to introduce her to Mama through me. And it came to me that the woman looking at her phone was handling the sidewalk. She didn’t walk over the dead rat. She didn’t trip or stumble. She kept a good pace ahead of me, didn’t slow anyone in our line down. She walked into my building so we probably work for the same hospital. How she walked was fine. Her pace was fine.

I thought about something as I went up the elevator. You can pay attention in a number of ways. Was this woman as attuned to her surroundings as I think she should have been? No. Was she in some potential danger walking down a street in Chicago while not looking up? Yes. But she made it to her destination. And she had, at least, one person who would have helped her should something have happened that did surprise her. I was there and I was alert. I was aware because Mama’s voice is in my head about being aware. In a sense, this woman had me in her corner.

It’s true for me. It’s true for you. Perhaps I’m not paying attention to dangers in my path, and I’m thinking about the spiritual path insofar as one can tease it apart from non-spiritual paths, something I don’t think can be done by the way. Still, maybe there are dangers ahead, dangers I’m unaware of. I can, like this woman in the line of passersby, use what I do have and I can trust that God will surround me with people who will be there to help when I need it.

In very specific and in less specific and vague ways, my future is unknown. I’m watching for dead rats, especially when warned about them. But I don’t see all the rats under the new building. I’m not able to recognize every threat. I do and will stumble. But when I do, I won’t be alone. I won’t be unprotected. I’ll use what I can and when that’s not enough, others will help. I have a hunch that this is true for you too.

Belts

When I started one of my latest continuing educations a few years ago, it was in a dojo, “a place to learn,” and in our dojo–like most American dojos–there is a belt system. Our dojo, Thousand Waves, has a large and wonderful youth program where hundreds of youth learn Seido.

In addition, dozens of adults with disabilities train through TW’s adapted program and dozens of non-martial artists come to learn self-defense skills through the dojos programs. In each of these, gauging competency is important, as is being rewarded for it. So, we have belts.

While I appreciate the belt system–really, I need it for different reasons–there were no belts in traditional Japanese karate. I like that because participating in martial arts is a means of pursuing integration of my physical, spiritual, and mental strength. Karate, for me, isn’t about belts but practice.

Now, the belts serve a purpose. They allow me to go through our structured curriculum at my pace, assessing my own needs. The curriculum builds in ways for me to know when I’m ready to test for a belt. But, by then, I’m not testing for a belt. I’m receiving a belt, but I’m testing to assess my effort and my practice to a point.

I read once that in the earliest Japanese arts, white belts were the only belts, that they weren’t associated with ranking in the earliest martial traditions, and that the longer a student wore that white belt, the dirtier it became. The belt aged as the artist did. By tradition, martial artists clean our gi’s, the outfits we train in, but not our belts. Your belt contains your energy, your effort, and your history with the art.

You never wash it or otherwise disrespect it because you’d be disrespecting your energy, effort, and history. It’s a part of the practice, a part of the way you learn to discipline yourself, respect yourself, and develop your art. I call this spiritual work.

The belt, then, gets dirty with use. Folding in a bag, tying it and tightening it around your waist for 2 or 3 classes a week, letting it rub the floor as you learn how best to fall–all of these movements, in a traditional sense, changed the nature of the belt. In that older sense, the fibers ripped with wear, the strands pulled apart over years of use. What was once white would, slowly, became black. You can imagine that white belt reflecting a number of colors on the way, no?

White turning yellow with the sun. White fading into gray. White smudged with brown flecks of dirt. White turning into black. Running barefoot down New York streets–the way Kaicho trained his earliest Seido students–the sun reflecting against a multi-ethnic group of students, rain or snow shining against the dull and moving group of people punching and kicking and offering guttural groans that weren’t decipherable to the uninitiated.

The blackness would emerge over years of practice, over failed attempts that in a martial sense were never failure. Blackness would skid across fibers, be indistinguishable from effort, identical to energy. Blackness would come through the repeated kicks you’d receive from your fellow karatekas who worked with you to show you how to form a weapon. Blackness would line the fabric of that once white line, never cleaned and only used and used and used.

I’m not “a black belt,” a modern way that people who aren’t martial artists speak of those who wear those dingy-but-not-so-dingy straps. The image with this post is of my master teacher, Sei Shihan Nancy Lanoue’s belt. I have a green belt, hope to move to advanced green in a couple months according to our curriculum and my practice. Gauging our curriculum and my schedule fairly–and my ambition to stay ahead of my oldest boy–I have about 3 years between advanced green and the first degree. In one way, it’s complimentary to say, “You’re a black belt.” It is a compliment because it can be a remark of integration. You become your practice. You become a black belt.

In another way, it is a misreading of the historical effort a person put into the martial way. You’re not a black belt. You’re a person. The belt is the image of the person you are. You put it on. You take it off. You better respect it. But you wear it. You’re a person with a black belt. In that way, I think, the belt is still available to be sullied by the next class, the next kata, the next senior teacher.