Iowa Writes

BEKAH GRIM
Excerpt from Community Service for the Existentially Frustrated


        The concept of giving back to the community was not instilled during my formative years—it was enforced.  I come from a well meaning, yet urgently Baptist family: middle class in the Midwest, six kids, homeschooled with Dictionary for Christian Students as curriculum, parents employed in roles of clinical empathy.  My father was a family practice physician, and the Immanuel Baptist church lobby became a makeshift office for diagnosing growths, testing reflex, the stamping out of fire from rash.  My mother sewed fleece blankets for the congregation's newborns.  As a psychologist, she counseled the weeping, the depressed, the damned.  I was taught: service is salvation.  Yet, this form of volunteerism divided the world into the helpers and the helpless, demanding allegiance to a neatly woven doctrine for hope.  As an adult, I've been trying to figure out what being of service to others could mean, beyond dogma, beyond how I was raised.
        Nietzsche wrote that the philosopher must preach by living, and for the last year, I've tried to live the question of service by working as the afternoon Karaoke Leader at a women's homeless shelter.  I discovered my passion for karaoke in the midst of tragedy.  A close friend from college committed suicide, a poet and committed cinema lover, who cashiered long shifts at a DVD rental store, reading Althusser under the table.  After his death, I felt like I had too many emotions and no place for them to land, and I started singing karaoke as a way to feel a momentary release.  There was something life-affirming, connective about singing Neil Young and seeing disparate tables of bar flies sway together and unite in the feeling that yes, we all know the words to the repeating cycle of love and loss.  Karaoke is a church where the people preach.

        The concept of giving back to the community was not instilled during my formative years—it was enforced.  I come from a well meaning, yet urgently Baptist family: middle class in the Midwest, six kids, homeschooled with Dictionary for Christian Students as curriculum, parents employed in roles of clinical empathy.  My father was a family practice physician, and the Immanuel Baptist church lobby became a makeshift office for diagnosing growths, testing reflex, the stamping out of fire from rash.  My mother sewed fleece blankets for the congregation's newborns.  As a psychologist, she counseled the weeping, the depressed, the damned.  I was taught: service is salvation.  Yet, this form of volunteerism divided the world into the helpers and the helpless, demanding allegiance to a neatly woven doctrine for hope.  As an adult, I've been trying to figure out what being of service to others could mean, beyond dogma, beyond how I was raised.
        Nietzsche wrote that the philosopher must preach by living, and for the last year, I've tried to live the question of service by working as the afternoon Karaoke Leader at a women's homeless shelter.  I discovered my passion for karaoke in the midst of tragedy.  A close friend from college committed suicide, a poet and committed cinema lover, who cashiered long shifts at a DVD rental store, reading Althusser under the table.  After his death, I felt like I had too many emotions and no place for them to land, and I started singing karaoke as a way to feel a momentary release.  There was something life-affirming, connective about singing Neil Young and seeing disparate tables of bar flies sway together and unite in the feeling that yes, we all know the words to the repeating cycle of love and loss.  Karaoke is a church where the people preach.
        The first few months at the homeless shelter felt very intense.  It was equal parts terrifying and liberating to walk into a space where women were dealing with incredibly heavy circumstances, plus carry the personal struggles I'd accumulated like a human lint roller through the minutes days years, and then, even then, amp up the rickety Sony speaker system, cracked music machine, letting the pop ballads fly.  I was hoping there would be a separate room for the women electing to participate, but due to limited space, we sang in the middle of the lobby, surrounded by clappers and wannabe nappers.  One afternoon, a social worker flung open her office door, moved by the sonic sirens of Nelly's It's Getting Hot In Here, So Take Off All Your Clothes, and accordingly, removed her sweater, helicoptered it overhead, revealing hot pink tank-top, busting serious game, women dancing and spinning around her.  It felt blissfully absurd.  It was absurd.  And.
        I kept uncovering shared soft spots: TLC, Rick James, Funk Masta, Otis, The Commodores, Aretha.  Still, when I went into the shelter, a feeling of dread and overwhelm flooded in.  That lack of answers, in-over-your-head sickness.  The feeling of how could I possibly help others when I barely know how to help myself?  I tried to remember Buddha's last words: Make yourself a light.  I love that Buddha's offerings are in the form of precepts, not commandments.  He isn't suggesting we fix or convert or testify.  It isn't go forth and raise urban literacy rates by twenty percent, or verify whether others share your interpretation of the light, or nail the rap in Biggie Smalls' Juicy and hit all the high notes on the chorus.  Make yourself a light, the kind that flickers out in the wind.           Be             a             flash             of             radiance.

more

About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


BEKAH GRIM

Bekah Grim is a first-year graduate student in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program.  She is working on a book about white water rafting.

This page was first displayed
on May 22, 2015

Find us on Facebook