Dear Future Students

Thank you for taking my class. I want to tell you that showing up is enough. Show up as often as you can and be here as present as you can be.

I’ve spent the past year working in a public library in the children’s room. I didn’t go to school to learn how to do this, so don’t worry. No matter what degree you get, you can still do whatever the hell you want.

I want to tell you about a magical bag. It’s the canvas bag I bring into every storytime I do at the library. The bag holds smaller bags and bundles of objects, props, and noise-makers. There are scarves, egg shakers, a barn full of stuffed farm animals, a parachute, felt bears, and laminated song lyrics. I hand various props out to the kids and parents to keep them engaged with the book we’re reading or to use while singing songs during our instrumental break between books. Toddlers live in a constant state of distraction (and arguably so do adults), so working with their energy flow is a fun challenge.

I never know what I will use in the bag which is why it is full of so much stuff. One day I forgot the egg shakers in the closet. Of course, that was the day a parent said, “Zack’s been asking me to do the egg shaker song at breakfast every morning.” And that was the day I ran back to the closet to get out the egg shakers.

At the end of the half hour, we’ve read somewhere between one and four books, danced, thrown things, someone’s probably cried, we’ve laughed, people have sprinted into and out of the room, and most definitely, one of us has attempted to eat something they shouldn’t. Next we do our craft. Everyone sits at the two tables to work on a creative project. All of them look and feel different. Often I have some grand idea of how these projects should look, and set my example on the wall. It’s interesting because the adults try to follow my example closely while the toddlers don’t give a flying shit. What could have been a tree becomes a bush, and sometimes a bird grows three wings and a second beak protruding from its stomach.

One time I read that whenever I’m really mad at someone, I should picture them as a child. How was their voice? Did they hug or smile? Of course they did. These images instead of the present ones you carry will distill all resentment or annoyance toward the person in their adult form.

I don’t know if this works. Maybe it’s an area for my future healing. I do believe though, that the more we can live in basic state of being, the better humans we can be. If we can live like children, nourishing simple joys and pleasures, then we can begin to remember exactly who we are, and stop worrying about some grand purpose we have imagined for ourselves. I hope that in this class we can make space to be like children. I can bring the magic bag, and you can bring yourself, your work, and your essential beating heart.

Sincerely,

Bethany

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Work Notes: Habitat’s Summer Crew

When I was touring the house to my dad and aunt who are visiting Minneapolis, I realized how far along our house has come since mid-June when we started. We’re building a two-story 5-bedroom home in Frogtown, a neighborhood just North of downtown Saint Paul. We have yet to hear who will be living here. One saying I’ve learned (in addition to ‘measure twice, cut once’) is ‘we’re building a home, not a house.’ People will be living here, growing up, growing old, having fights, crying, and doing homework. This is easy to forget as my life currently revolves around the house before it fills its true purpose. Show up to site at 7:30AM, get out materials, greet volunteers, teach, find the one thing we forgot in the tool shed, talk about unfinished basements in farmhouses, crew lunch, lemonade refills, dance parties, and the love/hate of nailing two boards together. And something unique to Habitat that wouldn’t happen on a normal construction site is that a community forms in the process of the build. Where else would first generation immigrants, retirees, bankers, and anthropology students like me get a chance to spend a day working/playing together? Where else would they come together to build a house for a stranger? This is mythical stuff people. And at the same time, doing it every day feels so ordinary and sometimes even boring! Anyways, this is all just to say, I am just realizing at the end of my AmeriCorps term how rare and special a thing I have been a part of.

Can you imagine how much life your house had inside it before it became a home?

 

Work Notes: Ladies Doing Demo

My boss and I destroyed an entire office building in South Minneapolis in less than two weeks. Since we finished our last house in North, we had the month of May open before our new build begins in Saint Paul. This demo project is to prepare a recently acquired old warehouse/office space to become the second Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity Re-Store.

The building was the old office of a moving company. Talk about 8 hours a day of smashing sheetrock, wall slicing, and slicing through electrical wires. After months of building, destruction at first seemed very easy. There is no finesse, no measuring, just a lot of muscle and a ruthless mindset where you see everything in front of you as something to be ruined.

Here are two of my journal entries from the weeks of demo which left my body somewhat battered and my mind strangely light and airy. My boss and I decided two weeks of demo was the most we could handle.

Journal 1: Tearing down office walls

Cutting a steel stud with a sawzall has a particular smell. It’s burning, sour tangy. It’s so strong you taste it even with your mouth closed tight to avoid swallowing the tiny metal flakes spraying toward you. Shrapnel. Be sure to wear googles, and for goodness sakes, save the ears too! Plug up the hearing canals for eight hours and indulge in letting the warehouse become your only grey and pink world. The saw will shake a lot so it looks like your arms are seizing. Keep the arms as steady as you can and apply gentle pressure forward. Try not to close your eyes even when it gets scary. Eventually, the tool will do her work. As it slices through the steel stud, the tendency is for gravity to pull down the weight of the saw with your arm. Don’t let this happen! The rest of your body is down there standing on the ladder and you’d hate to see that get sliced instead of the next stud in the wall. The wall’ll come down easy once you slice through a few studs at the top. Hop down off the ladder and grab a friends to help heave it over. Creaaaaaka booom!!! There goes the wall. How many more to go?

Pete: It’s just you two ladies today?

Us: Yeah….

Journal 2: The Tile Saga

On to the tile floor in the women’s and men’s bathrooms. Yes, we could have rented a jackhammer, but we don’t know how to use one. Our arm muscles have been training for our whole lives. We have one maul that my boss has borrowed from her husband. It’s a like a hammer with a short handle and a pointed head that’s weighted. The tiles we need to shatter are 1.5″ squares and cover about 30 square feet for each bathroom. Day one: we smash through the men’s room and half the women’s. It’s humid. We’re sweating through our t-shirts. Day two: we smash through the rest of the men’s. We find that one of the cool air exchange vents has been accidentally left on. One of us stands under it while the other wails on the tiles for as long as she can hold out. We call this our circuit training. In addition to standing under the cool vent, we can sweep, shovel up loose tile, and use the crowbar to remove top plates which have been nailed into the concrete ceiling. We finish the tile at the end of the second day, celebrate with Dairy Queen, and head home to our respective beds for long naps.

Soon Ryan Construction will come in and frame up some walls for a new entryway, polish the concrete floor, and grind residual bolts off the ceilings. Soon, it will be beautiful retail space reminiscent of a Target. Actually, I hope it’s prettier than Target. There will be a mural on the wall. I can’t wait to return in August for the grand opening party.

Work Notes: Service in Texas

HELLO AND HAPPY VALENTINES DAY.

MY HEART IS NOT A MACHINE

Just back from an AmeriCorps trip to build houses with the Habitat for Humanity Affiliate in Austin, Texas. One year ago, I never could have imagined that I would take a twenty hour road trip which required packing a tool belt.  The trip was great and the sun revitalized all of our staff. I had literally been seeing white for months between the snowy weather, silvery city buildings, and all the base, shoe, and window/door trim we’d been putting up in the house I’m working on. In contrast, the Texas palette was brimming with variations on tan. Even the state capitol was a strange shiny beige. AmeriCorps got tan. We got just a little bit buff (as much as you can get from a week of heavy labor for 8 hours a day). I remembered why I can’t wait for summer in the midwest. To be framing up a house in the sun: pounding nails, climbing scaffolding, traversing the high beams of the walls between roof trusses. This job is such an adventure!

Above are some pictures of the printed ‘Sounds of the Dark,’ Sound-Bites, edition 4 zines. They are 16 pages, full color and are waiting for you! Cost is $3. The online version will be expanded and out by the end of this week.

I’ll write more about the Austin Habitat affiliate later, but for now, this’ll do. Very happy to be back with my pets and in the snow.

Keep on finding love, even in the dark 🙂 ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

Working Women, Working Bodies

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Everyone is on site at by 8:30AM. To me this is excruciatingly early to be seen in the world, but for most people in construction it’s late. Our crew consists of me, an 82-year old Italian, three retired engineers, and my boss, the only other woman. In the world of construction crews we are far from normal. We are not young white men smoking cigarettes on our lunch break. We’re what the cat dragged in and despite ourselves we get a lot done. In face, we build houses.

Today I came into work not knowing what was going on. I’ve gotten used to this. Turns out the warehouse truck was coming with a huge delivery that we unloaded. Fridges, cabinets, light fixtures, and toilets. You name it, that truck had it. Although this finishing stuff is exciting, I miss the large loads of lumber that fueled our summer framing projects. Once we’d run all the items out from the truck, over the snowbank, and into our living room, it was time to get started on the real work.

My boss set me on cabinets with one of our most famous, quiet, and genius volunteers. He’s volunteered for something like twenty years, and built multiple houses on his own and donated them to Habitat. We set to installing the kitchen cabinets. Using the house plans we penciled in a giant map on the wall of where all the cabinets would go. This involved measuring the proper dimensions for each cabinet and making sure all our lines were level. No one wants a counter where all your blueberries roll onto the floor in the summer! Next we screwed the cabinets together on the floor in the proper order. They have special cabinet screws which are gold and look prettier than normal screws because they’re the rare type of house hard wear we actually see. Fixing the cabinets to the wall involved a lot of standing and holding them up and really still while they got screwed in.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a women on a construction site. At Habitat, there are a lot of us, at least half the people working in the field are women. We wear Carhardts, 5lb work boots, and tool belts. At work, I feel pressure to dress, look, and act more stereotypically masculine than I would like. Mansplaining happens every day. I remember my old boss telling me that she left construction because of the sexism implicit in the work. I am in love with the home we are making, and because I am invested in my work, I have to ask myself and my co-workers, why do cultural conceptions of how we should be influence how we can be?

Work Notes: What do you mean you build houses?

I wrote this piece a few months ago and it’s finally getting some fresh air on the Twin Cities Habitat blog. It’s interesting to look back on my first impressions of the AmeriCorps gig. I’m still in love with taking pictures of houses but it’s a lot colder. Today was spent organizing tools, running errands, fiddling with the heater, and throwing drywall scraps in the dumpster outside at a frigid negative 4 degrees.

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Blowing insulation into the attic
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Cutting siding

 

Power Problems in Construction–I’m Not Talking About the Circuit Breaker

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about sexism in the workplace. When watching our corporate volunteer group this week, I could see many power dynamics I learned about in my cultural anthropology classes. A lot of anthropological theory today talks about power. Who has control in a situation and why? Who gets listened to and who doesn’t? The people who have the privilege to ignore hierarchies are those who have the most power. In the case of a construction site, the people in power are consistently white men. What the heck?! The precedent for the entire day is set early in the morning when we divide up into task groups for the day. Men volunteer for all the most technical tasks such as roofing, placing and setting walls, and hammering in top plates. Women raise their hands for domestic or menial activities like sawing, carrying lumber, and organizing our tool shed. This can be percieved as timidness, as a natural tendency for women to enjoy the work of behind the scenes. Unfortunately I think this is something we are taught as women. We are not taught to be the actors. Instead, we are raised as supporters and nurturers. I even find myeslf falling into patterns like picking up trash around the site or handing men pieces of plywood instead of nailing them in myself. But I’ve found my favorite thing to do is pound in a good nail and I’m going to make a conscious effort on my own part to do this more often even when the guys do have more experience in construction than I.

This makes me think about some questions:

  1. What is strength? Is strength gendered?
  2. How is being strong/tough valued in American society?
  3. How is strength related to power?

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