Monday, April 13, 2015

When We Fail

Sometimes I get unexpected looks at the uglier side of New Orleans. I know, that sounds terrible, I have been singing New Orlean's praises since I moved here. But there have been a handful of times when I've been confronted with some of the deep seated problems that plague a city I hold so close to my heart.

I have to be honest, I don't work in an atmosphere where I am directly confronted by some of the harder realities of New Orleans. All in all I'm pretty isolated. Project Homecoming builds homes in some neighborhoods that people outside of New Orleans would consider dangerous. We are usually a welcome site when we set up shop. At PHI we've had some tools stolen, there once was some gunfire a few blocks away from a house some of our Americorp were at, but all in all we are pretty contained. I don't even do the construction, just stuff around the office. The most I have to worry about is making sure I don't leave my purse in my car.

It's easy to wane philosophical about our country's social failings. America is deeply flawed. So many aspects of what we do poorly feeds into other things that we also do badly. It's hard to extract a single thread and follow it. No one thing is the source of all problems. The ways in which teachers and students are held accountable in school is broken, our incarceration system is laughable, I have a relative with a serious mental illness who is a shining example of all the ways we as a society ignore/shun/castigate those like him. This country has failed him.The people that we elect to represent us in the government have failed all of us. Finally, we continue to fail each other in pretty horrible ways without even realizing it.

Thankfully, I just get to think about these things.

But sometimes I have the unpleasant experience of being confronted with the reality of these failing systems. Today, after school, a man opened fire on a bus stop full of students. I know this because my housemate works at the school those students attend. She was not as the shooting, but to quote her "My kids shouldn't have to go through this. They shouldn't be afraid to ride the bus home." And she's right, they shouldn't be afraid to ride the bus home. Or ride the bus anywhere for that matter. My housemate works in a high needs school. She frequently breaks up fights between students. A lot of afternoons she comes home burned out from working with students who don't understand how to manager their anger. I have no doubt that each and everyone of her kids needs to spend time with a counselor every week to even have a fighting chance at being something more. But that support, and the funds necessary, just don't exist. Not for those kind of kids, not at that kind of schools

I wish I could end this on a positive note, but I'm tired and sad and I don't have much more to say right now. Those kids deserve better and we all continue to fail them. Right now all I see is a long tunnel with no end in sight. Here's to hoping that tomorrow I can see a little more light, give myself a little more grace and find the strength to continue to offer this city my best me, whatever that may look like.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

PYCC (or my new awesome extended family)

As I started my job with PSL, we (as in me and my advisory board) began to throw around this idea of a youth council. First of all, let me preface this by saying that PSL only had a youth coordinator position for about a year before I was hired. So everything down here is new. Very new. Anyway, when I began my job in early August, the idea of a youth council was brought up. As I was exploring what this could look like for a presbytery that is smaller (about 50 churches) and very spread out (it takes about 4.5 hours to get from New Orleans to Lake Charles) one of the board members sent me information about the youth council in New Covenant Presbytery. Maybe it was purely luck, I like to think it was more than that, the name on the front of the packet was one I am very familiar with: Caressa Holloman.

Just a little bit of background, Caressa's aunt is the pastor at my home church in Dallas. Her uncle was the assistant director at Synod Youth Workshop the year I was on planning team. Her husband was my small group leader one year at SYW and her parents did all the behind the scenes planning for SYW while I was attending in high school. When the packet was presented to me I knew Caressa pretty well, maybe not as well as most of the rest of our family but to say that our paths crossed on occasion would be an understatement.

Naturally I sent Caressa an email just asking for a feel of how PYCC works. It's a youth council that has existed for a very long time and led a successful weekend retreat for all of the youth in New Covenant. Through out the conversations I was invited to attend the planning retreat for PYCC back in late August (or early September, I can't quite remember).

PYCC is the youth council in New Covenant Presbytery (so Houston area plus some). Every church is eligible to nominate 1-4 youth to be on the PYCC. Every spring the entire council nominates 2 youth co-moderators for the following school year. In addition to youth there is a whole score of adults who volunteer their time and talents, so there are also 2 adult co-moderators (or co-mods for short) as well as adults that help with the various teams. The youth are broken up into a bunch of different teams, with an adult and a youth serving as the team leaders. In turn, all of these wonderful people put on a retreat in late February called Conclaves. The youth not only lead music, come up with the theme, perform keynote skits, lead worship, come up with a mission idea, take care of all the a/v  and lead rec, they also all serve as small group leaders. Pretty neat in my opinion. All of the adults provide guidance, but in general try to be as hands off as possible. They basically serve as an awesome support system.

I went in August and had an amazing time. I picked their brains about what works, what doesn't work, what seems to be the key to PYCC (I'll get to that in a minute), how the teams are decided, how they come up with the theme, how many meetings they have every year etc. I had so much fun getting to know the youth and adults. Seriously, it was a great weekend. It was so great in fact that when Caressa invited me to come back for Conclaves (their all youth retreat in the spring), I couldn't say no. I had the opportunity to see all the plan, now was my chance to see them all in action.

Conclaves is all sorts of awesome. First of all Camp Cho-yeh is a well run retreat facility. I was so impressed by their staff, their buildings and by the activities they offered. Secondly, it was amazing to see so many youth in leadership positions. When I was told that high schoolers got to lead small groups with other high schoolers in that I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical. That was silly. The youth on PYCC did a great job in all aspects. I swear, I'm not exaggerating. They have tons of energy and are so excited. The theme was on point, the activities were engaging, all 250 people in the room were interested in what was going on.  Not only that, the adults were so generous with me. I had multiple people offer to come to New Orleans to help me get my own council together. Seriously, these people are already volunteering for PYCC and they want to help me get my own program off the ground in their free time. How amazing is that?

So, what makes PYCC so successful (in my humble opinion):

1. The youth are nominated by their home churches. As Caressa put it, these churches know the youth best. Also it creates a system of accountability for not only the youth, but also for the home churches. It's one things when a youth is picked from a stack of applications, it's another when session has to take the time to nominate a youth to represent their congregation. This model impresses an extra layer of responsibility on the youth while also involving the home congregation.

2. There is a core group of youth sponsors who are willing to give up a handful of weekends throughout the year to be on PYCC. In my experience you're more likely to have a stressful youth event because of adult sponsors, not youth (not all the time, but most of the time). Having a core group of adults that support and serve as the leadership and are truly dedicated make a world of difference is integral.

3. The youth maintain a lot of control. Don't get me wrong, the adults are clearly key assets to PYCC, but the youth did a lions share of the work. It was truly inspiring to see how much high schoolers can do if you just give them the space to do it. Seriously, instead of micromanaging, the youth were given the space to make the important decisions. I keep relearning that youth will surprise you in the most wonderful ways. 9 out of 10 times they will basically kick your ass with how awesome they are.

Speaking of youth kicking ass, the two youth co-mods, Danielle and Marco, gave the sermons at the Sunday worship service. They were both completely different in their presentation and they were both wonderful. They were insightful and personal, connecting with everyone in the room, (confession, I may have texted my dad saying: "I think my crisis of faith just got its ass kicked by an 18 year old").

Thank you PYCC for taking me in! I feel like I have an awesome extended family in New Covenant Presbytery. You all are awesome. I learned a lot and I hope that someday PSL's future youth council can work with ya'll. Wouldn't that be great?

-Alex
This is my only picture from the weekend.
A selfie on the drive out to Houston. I swear I'm excited!


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Scortez Celebrates Mardi Gras

Yeah, you read that right. Scortez. Originally our house was going by the name Cortez Estates, but Scortez just has a certain ring to it.

How did we celebrate Mardi Gras you ask? Well in about a million ways. First of all, Mardi Gras is a magical time when the city of New Orleans shuts down so the residents canget free stuff thrown at them and drink lots of beer. And grill out. And generally have a great time. I LOVE Mardi Gras. Check out my blog from 2014 Mardi Gras if you want to get a better idea. For now, I'm going to give you all a bunch of pictures. Enjoy!


The infamous mardi gras tree in full bloom

Me, Valentina and Maggie


Me, Valentina and Alyssa

These are my friends

One of the many awesome floats this year

Anna Leigh and Thomas preping for a game of stump

My view for Endymion.

Endymion selfie

Best seats in the house

Post Endymion lunch, Anna Leigh accidentally got 2 salads



Life in New Orleans is kind of beautiful right now. Things are going to be chilly the next couple of days, but seriously! Look at that blue sky! I'm all about this life.


Price Milner taking advantage of a photo op

Finally, some words of wisdom from the bathroom at Twelve Mile Limit.



-Alex

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Quarter Life Crisis

I used to think that was basically a load a garbage, this idea of a mid (quarter) life crisis. And yet, I think I may be experiencing one. Don't worry, I haven't spent an extravagant amount of money on a sports car, or decided to run away to Dubai. My quarter life crisis, like me, is pretty controlled all things considered.

Although, the more I think about it, the more I think I could be experiencing a quarter life awakening. That sounds pretty pretentious, but I'm not sure how to describe what's going on in my head and in my life.

Everything feels so much closer to the surface. I'm not sure how else to describe it. I've always enjoyed a good book, but recently the books I've invested in carry more weight. Maybe I've been reading some really wonderful novels. I think that's a part of it, but I don't think that's all. I'm not the teary type, but I was reading this novel called Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel and I started tearing up at some of the passages! Also, Swamplandia! (Karen Russell), completely captivated me in a way that hasn't happened since the first time I read American Gods (Neil Gaiman, my junior year of high school). I am simmering in feelings which is not a bad thing, but it is intimidating.

I blame Station Eleven for triggering what I have jokingly referred to as my existential crisis. At 3 AM. On a Wednesday. Hear me out. In the novel, a strain of avian flu sweeps through the world and kills just about everyone. That's kind of the precursor. The real meat of the story takes place 20 year after the pandemic, following a troupe of Shakespearean performers. This band of musicians and actors travels from hamlet to hamlet performing different plays. Because, when the whole world gets wiped out by an avian flu, Shakespeare still captivates. What really got me thinking was this passage where a man who lived in the world pre-flu, sees what will probably be the last plane take off from the airport. The last plane, ever, flying away.

There is a second part where this kid who was 7 when the flu happens basically ends up leading this crazy sect of people who go around enslaving others and making all the young women his wives etc. etc. when he grows up. Medieval, and evil, stuff.

Which brings me to the existential crisis part. Just follow me for a minute. When you take time to think about it, pretty much everything we as human beings find valuable actually does not have an inherent value. Money, religion, systems of government, art, love, even gender and so many more things only hold value because we have decided that they do. Here's a great example that I'm still thinking about days later. The color red. There is nothing that is the actual color red because at some point along the way a person noticed that this things was different then that thing visually and came up with the idea of color. Nothing is actually red, we just decided that this is what we want red to be. Fair warning, it's easy to fall down that rabbit hole, especially if you really examine so many structures that we take for granted (capitalism, consumerism, gender conformity, art, even religion).

I blame Plato's allegory of the cave and multiple english theory classes. If you don't know about Plato, look him up. Check out his ideas on perfect forms and Plato's Allegory of the Cave (look, I even supplied some of the text for you). Maybe I should have been a philosophy major, but I think that might have damaged my brain. So maybe all of these important facets of my life are actually completely meaningless. Talk about having the ground under your feet shake.

But maybe not. Maybe, in order to be more than cavemen, we have to watch the sun go down and think about how shocking and otherworldly that array of colors is. Maybe, words strung together can be so beautiful you could drown yourself in them (in Station Eleven Shakespeare has the ability to captivate and challenge audiences even when the world has pretty much come to an end). I have experienced love in all kinds of forms and I have to believe that the connection I have to other people is more than just a desire for protection, or the natural need to go forth and multiply. Even the crappy stuff is important. Heartbreak, that's real people. When someone let's you down so hard you feel the weight of it all grinding your joints together, there is something inexplicable to all of that.

Sometimes, when I'm feeling restless, I go for a late night drive by the bayou. I play some music, sometimes it's Fleet Foxes or the Head and Heart. Sometimes it's Childish Gambino. A lot of the time it's Explosions in the Sky. I roll down the windows and for a few minutes I feel like my soul is pushing at my skin, trying to get as close to the surface as possible.




The forecast is 75 and sunny for the rest of the week. That may just be how certain hot
and cold fronts collide, but I like to think it's a combination of luck, timing and grace.
-Alex

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hands in Clay

I've decided to spend a little bit of time talking about clay. Pottery to be exact. I've been posting a lot of pictures on instagram and Facebook and the positive feedback is great. I've actually been doing some form of pottery for about 10 years on and off, so it's become a pretty integral part of my life. It's been such an integral part of my life that I don't really talk about it that much. Or, I don't talk about how I got started and how I actually have quite a history with pottery, so I figure might as well start sharing now.

In 8th grade I took my first ceramics class. We made hand built pieces (so nothing involving the pottery wheel) that ranged from basic rattles to plates of food to slab form vessels. All pretty basic stuff. I like to consider that first class Mr.Huntoon's weed out class. If you can't take the time and have the patience to make a vase out of slabs (a process that would take at least 3 classes), then you definitely did not have the patience to work with the wheel (something that is still really challenging for me). 

Obviously something stuck because I worked in the studio in some form or fashion for my entire high school career. My teacher, Gary Huntoon (go google his stuff, he makes some pretty amazing pieces) and I had a great relationship. We have a very similar sense of humor, so when he called my first thrown pot a door post, I laughed, a lot. Because let's be real, that's about all that piece of junk was good for. 

The studio door was only locked after school hours, so I would head on in and work on the wheel whenever I could make time. Just to be clear, I made a lot of time. During the summer I would go up to Parish to work on projects and keep building up that muscle memory on the wheel. In retrospect I was pretty spoiled. I had free clay, free class time, free glazes and a free teacher. Mr.Huntoon is a talented, extremely creative potter who recognized my passion and decided to foster it. 

So, when I was at freshman orientation at Rhodes and was told that they did not have a ceramics program I called home and told my mom that I needed to transfer immediately. (Un)Fortunately my mom's logic won out, I could do things back in Dallas at Mr. Huntoon's studio and if I really wanted to take ceramics I should have checked on that BEFORE freshman orientation. The summer after my freshman and sophomore year of college I would spend some time with Mr. Huntoon at his studio, working on pieces, spending time with him, his wife and their two little Japanese Chin puppies. Then,  Mr. Huntoon decided to up and move to North Carolina. So for the next two summers I didn't touch any clay. Granted, during that time I did live abroad, pursue some great career building opportunities and fine tune my writing, BUT I didn't get my hands in any clay for two years.

During my YAV year we spent some time talking about 'self care' and what that looks like for each individual. As we were talking about what brings us joy, I kept circling back to pottery. It was a big risk, walking into a class full of strangers with a teacher that I didn't know, but at some point you have to take the plunge. I am so glad I did. I started my first class at Hands in Clay studio in November of 2013. I have not missed a single session since. It's more expensive this time around (what do you mean I have to actually pay for supplies?!), but I absolutely love the community that comes along with working in that studio. 

There are very few things that consistently fulfill me spiritually, emotionally and physically. Working on the wheel surrounded by kick-ass people does the trick every time. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but there is something so immensely satisfying about centering a piece of clay, or having sore shoulders because you've decided to throw with more clay than you're used to. Or finally getting a piece out of the kiln and having the studio owner leave a compliment on a post-it note on your shelf (that's happened approximately twice since I've started taking classes there, something I consider an accomplishment).  Wednesdays are my favorite days because I know that for two and half hours I get to hang out in the studio and (attempt) to make something beautiful and unique. I started working with this red clay at the end of the December, I can babble on for hours about it. If you want the nitty gritty details, let me know. For now, I've compiled most of the pieces I've made the past few months. I know they're floating around the internet, but they aren't all in a single place so I figured it was time to do that. Also, sorry about the formatting. Blogger is only so good with pictures.


Mug phase 1


Mug phase 2
    
I'm really into lidded vessels right now

Also learning how to carve things into things 



See what I mean? Trying all the carving things


Finished product from my first carving adventure


Glazing, the final step before the finished product



Finished bowl!
    

Another finished lidded vessel

Vessel with lid
And without lid!


Clock faces
The finished product 

Nothing more satisfying than eating breakfast out of a bowl I made


Yep, even made a couple of little hedgehogs.


-Alex



Monday, January 19, 2015

Performing Under Stress

During my YAV year our house spent a lot time talking about, identifying, and addressing anxiety. We did this on a micro and macro scale, talking about our individual triggers, as well as recognizing societal anxieties. Anxiety is now comfortably seated in my vocabulary and I like to think that I at least have an idea of what triggers my own anxiousness.

So the good thing about anxiety is that it can drive you. Or at least, it drives me. Which is great because I am starting one the busiest weeks of my year. Let me tell ya'll, I perform awesome under stress. I go into machine mode and get high quality work done in record time. I take after my father in that way. Unfortunately I'm not the most pleasant person when I'm in work mode, but dammit I get things done!

This week I have two very important things happening. The first is for my presbytery job. We are having our first youth committee meeting since I started the job in August. I've done a lot of prep work for this, a lot of this meeting will set up parameters for how I do my job while I am employed by the presbytery. So no pressure or anything.

The second is for Project Homecoming. We are having our Second Annual Gala: A Decade of Difference (I came up with the theme!) this Saturday, January 24th. This event is a culmination of the work I've been doing since August. At Project Homecoming I've been spending about half of my time recruiting for our Summer Youth Mission Program and half of my time getting parts together for this fundraiser. I am technically overseeing the silent auction, but I have been helping with everything from creating signage to recruiting volunteers to acquiring an a/v system for the evening. We are officially in crunch time. I spent today getting my life together for the rest of the week because I'm expecting long hours through Saturday. Sometimes being an adult is... stressful sometimes.

That being said, the event is going to be amazing. We have a chef from Mr.B's Bistro coming in and catering the event, the Brass-A-Holics are playing a two hour set, I even managed to get some awesome packages put together for the silent auction. Oh! And an open bar. It's well worth the $50 to come.

Also, did I mention my parents are coming into town to attend the gala? Yeah. The other good thing about stress is that I clean lots of things. Don't worry mom, the house is pristine. I am so happy they will be in town to support me and also to buy me dinner and brunch, amiright?

I will have lots of fun things and pictures after this week! Promise!

Wish us luck!

-Alex

Monday, December 15, 2014

On Being Lonely

Ya'll, I don't know if it's the weather (although, let's be real, it's a high of 72 and sunny today in New Orleans) or the way it gets dark at 4:30 or maybe just something about my chemistry that gets out of whack come late November, but I have been feeling very lonely. Let me be clear, I am not alone. I have about a million people who support me, friends near and far, family, co-workers even a therapist who is a phone call away.

So I am not alone, but I am lonely.

A lot of times, these are hard for me to reconcile. How in the world can you be lonely when you have so many resources at your finger tips? Well, I'm not really sure. All I know is that, right now, I wake up some morning and feel like I can move mountains. You could throw anything at me and I would happily catch it and run with it. But there are mornings, like this morning, when there are 3 things I want to do.

1. Sit in my bed and cry for a bit. Not too long, but crying is starting to become therapeutic for me.

2. Call my mom so she can listen to me, but also so she can tell me how awesome I am. Because some days you just need that from your mom.

3. Text a friend, set up a brunch date and and spend an hour or so talking about the things that are weighing you down. Even if they are trivial, a good friend will listen and not minimize your frustrations and sorrows.

Today I did all three. I woke up felt kind of sorry for myself, cried on the phone with my mom (who did in fact tell me how awesome I am and sent me videos of our cat that is in a cone right now as an extra pick-me-up), then went to brunch with Valentina. And by brunch I mean I stuffed my face full of croissants, drank a lot of coffee and talked about pretty much everything that is pressing down on my shoulder and causing cricks in my neck.

While we were talking I made the comment along the lines of, "I just feel like everyone else is getting their lives together and mine is a mess." Isn't that silly? Like, what?
Valentina's response was gentle and reaffirming. "I don't think that's true. You have a great job situation, you go to the gym almost every day. You eat really healthy food, and you're a good friend." See, what a reaffirming thing to hear. And ya know what, she's right.

This post isn't necessarily the place I want to delve into all the possibilities for why I feel lonely, because there are a plethora and some things are meant to be private, but I did want to share how I deal with it.

How Alex Shakes Off the Lonelies 101*

*it should be noted that these are different then the ones listed above. These are more of a day to day routine kind of things, as opposed to having an exceptionally lonely day kind of thing.


1. Gym. In the past month I have really taken to exercising. There is nothing like a nice kick of adrenaline to keep you going.

2. Food. Well, cooking food. For a long time I associated eating out and eating rich food with happiness and now I have to lose 20 lbs. So, instead of eating out, I am making the time to cook something yummy that lasts me a couple of day. Today (after the croissants of course) the menu was baked chicken, sauteed squash and zucchini and a yam with brown sugar. Ok, so the brown sugar is probably not the healthiest of choices, but woman cannot live on yam alone.

3. Reading. It's like I'm 12 again (that's about the age I was when I got in trouble for reading too much at school). I am devouring books like it's nobodies business (when I have to do something on the treadmill I try to have some kind of reading available).


  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is amazing. And sometimes kind of sad, but also inspiring. It's so creative and well done. I haven't done much fiction writing since graduation and this book has inspired me to sit my ass down and spend some time on a new short story. Currently only on page 3, but that is single spaced people!



  • Sometimes I indulge in a graphic novel, or in this case a series of graphic novels. This story was written by one of my favorite horror authors, Joe Hill (check out NOS4A2 for some scary writing). Valentina lent me her copy of the first one. I proceeded to devour the next five over the weekend. The graphic novel is called Locke & Key, the story is by Joe Hill and the graphics part is by Gabriel Rodriguez.


  • The one I'm currently deep into is called, "When Mystical Creatures Attack", by Kathleen Founds. This story deals with mental illness and coming of age themes through a series of fictional essays and letter high schoolers write to (and for) their English teacher after she has a bi-polar episode and is admitted to a mental institution where she has to earn "Happiness Points" in order to be released. It is hilarious and awesome and I am continually astounded by how creative it is. Who comes up with these things (well besides Kathleen Founds of course)? I am envious. 





4.  Writing. Once upon a time I woke up every morning and wrote a little bit. Granted I did this because Professor Behr threatened to fail me in Intermediate fiction, there by kicking my ass into gear, but still! I would get up and fiddle away at my short story. I have come to learn that my second drafts are always substantially better than my first drafts and my first drafts are only worth while if I make the decision to spend some time on it. I started a short story last week and I've fiddled with it some. I will continue to fiddle with it. Wish me luck.


5. Friends. Last Monday I made the decision to drive out to Auburn to visit Megan. Best decisions ever. For a few reasons. First of all, Megan is a wonderful unicorn of a woman (yeah, you read that right). She is great. I wasn't sure when I was going to be able to visit her and it turns out this past weekend was the last time before mid-March because of my work commitments. So off to Auburn I went. There were quite a few great things about this trip. The first being that I love driving in my car. 5 hours is just long enough to give me thinking time. I listened to Serial, I also played this awesome song on repeat (see below). Nothing like blasting music with the windows down to clear your head. I spent the weekend with Megan, decompressing and talking and generally enjoying myself. I got to meet her adorable dog. While Heidi's farts may be all the way from the seventh circle of hell, Heidi is kind of awesome. I love her so much.




So, in summary, my life is actually kind of not so bad. I made some comment to friend the other day about how, "Maybe I'm just not meant to be alone," and that's a load of horse shit (pardon my language), talk about being self indulgent. Being alone is a discipline in and of itself. Being lonely happens to everyone. And if you can't handle yourself then no one else can. So here's to me figuring out how to handle myself on my best and my worst days.

-Alex

P.S. to get the full effects of that song, listen to it while you're going 80 down some random highway in Mississippi. Windows down preferably. Try to race one of those oversized trucks if you can.