Friday, March 2, 2012

New Life

memoir and essay
by Greg Larson

The odd-shaped pieces of oak caught my attention as I peered over the edge of the dumpster.  Many of the pieces were curved, with the color and finish of antique furniture.  My curiosity was aroused, so I found an opening into the odorous bin and carefully stepped through the maze of trash to inspect the discovery.  Someone had discarded the parts of an old wooden chair with a curved back, vertical stiles and serpentine arms. The scooped wood seat and legs were intact.  One of the arms was broken and a portion of it was missing. It was the type of chair used in old courtrooms or police stations.  Its life as a piece of furniture had come to an end . . . or so it seemed.

Questions rolled around in my head.  When was the chair built, and where? Who used it, and in what setting?  I don’t know why, but something compelled me to resurrect it.

At that time, in my early adulthood, I had minimal woodworking skills, but I thought what the heck, I might learn something.  It was my hope that I could put the pieces of the wooden puzzle back together, and repair or replace the broken parts to make it whole and functional again.  

The process was slow.  I started by removing the layers of dirt and grime from each piece.  Then I stripped the finish and sanded all of the surfaces.  I could smell the distinctive odor of the oak as the sawdust filled my nostrils.  I sensed the chair coming back to life again. 

The most difficult task was replacing a portion of the curved arm that was missing at the connection to the back. The grain and finish of the new piece didn’t match the old chair, and the repair was crude by professional standards. But I was excited to have a chair - one with character.

Over the years, I’ve found old pieces of utilitarian furniture to save, or discovered ways to build something from discarded pieces of wood.   Our house has an eclectic mix of furniture.  It’s the variety that makes life interesting. 

As I’ve collected and repaired things, I’ve come to understand the American culture of marketing and consumerism doesn’t resonate with the patient and methodical re-use of discarded items.  We receive a daily drubbing of advertisements that advocate using things and throwing them away.  We’re supposed to be in a hurry.  The implication is that time is money, so it’s okay to buy new stuff.  The infomercials tell us so.

With the downturn in the economy, the public attitude has shifted, and that’s a good thing.  People are finding ways to repair their cars, and re-use furniture and other accoutrements found about the home.  I hope we continue to value those items that still have life left in them.

Sadly, there are people in our society who end up like the discarded pieces of furniture - used up, worn out, and left behind.  But these people are not inanimate objects. They have lives with feelings and emotions.

In my volunteer work at the Learning Center at City Union Mission, I assist men who are re-educating themselves to become productive members of society.   Many of them came from fatherless homes, or at best, dysfunctional homes.  Most of these men were addicted to drugs or alcohol, and they have low self-esteem and a limited education.  Although they want to change, they don’t know how to go about it.  They have a distrust of authority figures, and their spiritual life is almost non-existent.

Over several months, The Christian Life Program at City Union Mission helps the men rebuild their lives one piece at a time, from the inside out.  The professionals at the Mission provide them with counseling, medical attention, customized learning plans and spiritual guidance.  The men are put on a path to graduate from the program, get a job and a find a place to live.

My part as a volunteer is small, but I look forward to seeing the men each week.  I show them how to work on the computer, answer their math and English questions, and help them with their writing skills. I also like to memorize their names and faces as quickly as possible so that I can look them in the eye and greet them by name.  Showing that I care helps build their self-esteem.

I’ve seen men come into the program with hardened hearts, bad attitudes, and bruised emotions covered by their physical veneers – to the point that I thought there was no hope of rebuilding their lives.  But over time, the City Union Mission staff goes about helping the men turn things around.  I also know God is working within each man.  Over the weeks, their hearts appear to soften, and a calm and peaceful facet of their demeanor begins to appear.  Eventually, some come to greet me with a smile and they thank me for being there.  I see their true happiness as they graduate and tell me they’ve found a job and will be moving out.

My role as a volunteer has helped me see people as people, not just as figures on the street.  This last Christmas season, one of the men took the responsibility to find a Christmas card and walk it around to the other men in the class to sign. I remembered him as one of the toughest men with a bad attitude when he came into the program several months ago.  At the end of the class, he handed me the card and wished me a Merry Christmas.  Then he thanked me for coming each week. 

I know his best days are ahead.  Instead of being discarded by our society, he has a new life.

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