New Web Site

I created a new Web site at http://www.brianharper.net. Please feel free to visit to access my music, writing and photography!

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Dear Friends/Queridos Amigos

Dear friends,

I am a little bemused to find myself writing this message from the house where I grew up in Fond du Lac, Wis. I did not think I would be here before December or January, nor did I believe I would ever live here again. Unanticipated circumstances being what they are, though, I am back in the United States sooner than I expected.

While still in Peru near the end of April, I was diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous membrane around the heart. This condition is typically caused by a viral infection, and the primary symptom is chest discomfort. After controlling the inflammation through treatment from very attentive and caring doctors and nurses in Cusco and Lima, I went back to my life and work in Andahuaylillas.

Unfortunately, the pericarditis returned shortly thereafter, and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and some important figures in my life in Andahuaylillas determined that it was necessary for me to go back to the U.S. for additional care.

Since arriving in the U.S. a month ago, my doctors have discovered that some of the medicine I have been taking, while treating pericarditis in the short-term, increases the likelihood of recurrence. The solution is to wean myself off this medicine over the next six to nine months, with regular blood work and check-ins to measure progress.

All this is to say that my time as a volunteer in Peru has come to an early end. Anyone who has read this blog will know how difficult this news is for me. I found my work at Fe y Alegría to be incredibly life-giving. Living, learning and growing with friends, students and my volunteer community in Andahuaylillas has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.

Though I am sad that my time as a volunteer ended so abruptly, I am also exceedingly grateful to have had the experience at all. I feel great appreciation for the students I taught, colleagues with whom I worked, volunteers in my community and friends with whom I spent time. I owe a lot to all these people, as well as my coordinators with JVC. They helped make my time in Peru worthwhile and allowed a trying departure and illness to be a little more manageable.

I will continue to post Peru-related writing on here in the weeks and months to come, so I hope those of you who have enjoyed following this blog will continue to do so.

As I said, this medical condition and my subsequent departure from Peru were completely unforeseen. While that certainly makes all of this harder, it also opens me to deeper reflection about the uncertainties facing the lives of countless people I encountered in Peru and throughout the rest of the world. Though I dealt with the relatively comfortable doubts of whether or not I would be able to return to a place and life I grew to love, many people have the far more serious concerns of not knowing the source of their next meal or paycheck. Nevertheless, so many in these circumstances carry on with incomparable grace, faith and kindness. My hope is that some of this influence has rubbed off on me.

Thank you to all of the people who have supported me in any way throughout my time in Peru. I will always be grateful and hope to see some of you soon.

En paz,

Brian

Queridos amigos,

Estoy un poco perplejo a encontrarme escribiendo este mensaje de la casa en que crecía en Fond du Lac, Wis. No pensé que estaría aquí antes de diciembre or enero y no pensé que viva aquí otra vez. Circunstancias inesperadas, sin embargo, tenerme en los EE.UU. más pronto como esperé.

Mientras estuve en Perú en el fin de abril, fui diagnosticado con pericarditis, una inflamación de la membrana fibrosa alrededor del corazón. Esta condición típicamente está causado por una infección viral y el síntoma principal es dolor del pecho. Después de controlar la inflamación con tratamiento de médicos y enfermeras muy atentos y bondadosos en Cusco y Lima, regresé a mi vida y trabajo en Andahuaylillas.

Desafortunadamente, el pericarditis regresó un poco después, y el Cuerpo de Voluntarios Jesuitas y algunas personas importantes en mi vida en Andahuaylillas decidieron que era necesario a regresar a los EE.UU. para más tratamiento.

Desde mi llegada en los EE.UU. hace un mes, mis médicos han descubierto que algunas de las medicinas que he estado tomando, mientras tratar el pericarditis en el principio, aumentan la probabilidad de reapirición. La solución es que necesito destetarme de la medicina en las próximas seis hasta nueve meses con pruebas de sangre y visitas médicas a medir progreso.

Todo esto dice que mi tiempo como voluntario en Perú ha terminado. Cualquier persona que ha leído este blog sabrá la dificultad de estas noticias para mi. Mi trabajo en Fe y Alegría 44 me daba mucha vida. A vivir, aprender y crecer con mis amigos, alumnos y comunidad de voluntarios en Andahuaylillas ha estado un de los gran privilegios de mi vida.

Aunque estoy triste que mi tiempo como voluntario terminó en una manera tan abrupta, también estoy extremadamente agradecido que tenía la experiencia. Siento apreciación grande para los alumnos enseñaba, los colegas con que trabajaba, los otros voluntarios con que compartía comunidad y los amigos con que pasaba tiempo. Debo mucho a todas estas personas y también a mis coordinadores de JVC. Ayudaron en hacer maravilloso mi tiempo en Perú y hicieron una despedida y enfermedad difícil un poco más manejable.

Continuaré a poner cosas relacionados a Perú en este sitio en las semanas y meses siguientes, así que espero que los de Uds. que han disfrutado en seguir a este blog continuarán a hacerlo.

Como dije, esta condición médica y mi despedida de Perú eran completamente inesperado. Mientras esta ha hecho todo de esto más difícil, también me abre a reflexión más profundo en las incertidumbres en las vidas de muchas personas que encontraba en Perú y en el resto del mundo. Aunque afronté las dudas relativamente cómodas de si o no estaría capaz de regresar a un lugar y vida para que tengo amor, muchas personas tienen problemas más serias como no saber la fuente de su próxima comida o salario. Sin embargo, muchas en estas circunstancias viven con gracia, fe y bondad incomparable. Mi esperanza es que algo de esta influencia ha pasado a mi vida.

Gracias a toda la gente que me han apoyado en cualquier manera durante mi tiempo en Perú. Siempre estaré agradecido y espero que vea a algunos de Uds. muy pronto.

En paz,

Brian

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Students Deserve Best We Have to Offer

Throughout my time in Peru, I have written occasional columns for The Fond du Lac Reporter, my hometown newspaper. The following piece originally appeared in the June 30, 2013 issue of the Reporter and can be found at http://www.fdlreporter.com/article/20130630/FON06/306300059/GUEST-COMMENTARY-Students-deserve-best-we-offer

My thanks to Gary Clausius and Mike Mentzer for editing these articles and helping with this project.

Parents say they do not have a favorite child, but nobody with siblings believes this. My brothers think I am the preferred son, while I feel a strong case can be made for our dog.

I do not have kids, but my time as a teacher in Peru has made me aware of favoritism. Though I would like to say I treat all my students equally, I can indicate which make work a joy and which make me want to hit my head against the whiteboard.

The golden students tend to be those who refrain from throwing pencils at their classmates.

There are, however, some lovable troublemakers. These are the kids whose mischievousness manages to be endearing. Kike (pronounced Key-Kay), a second-year student in the Fe y Alegría School where I work, falls into this group.

How does one describe Kike? Imagine a tornado disguised as a teenager. Kike rarely spends more than a few minutes at a time in front of his desk. He prefers to peruse the classroom’s aisles, occasionally stopping to kick one of his peer’s seats.

Though he is very bright, paying attention is not a forte. His participation usually consists of asking the meanings of swear words.

So why do I like him so much? The reason is simple: he has a lot of personality, which, as Samuel L. Jackson says in “Pulp Fiction,” “goes a long way.”

Kike has an unusual way of looking at the world. Once when I asked him how much Jell-O cost, he held up two fingers and announced, “One sol.”

“How do two fingers indicate one sol?” I wondered. Kike thought for a moment.

“Each finger is 50 cents.”

Kike also has a colorful — as in dark— sense of humor. One day when I asked him where his brother was, he inaccurately reported his death.

Nevertheless, he cares about others. After missing work for medical reasons, I bumped into Kike in a store. My absence had forced another volunteer, Theresa, to cover both of our classes, and she was understandably tired.

“Where have you been?” Kike asked bluntly.

“Sick.”

“When are you coming back?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” I replied. Kike shook his head sadly.

“Theresa’s suffering,” he lamented. Never mind that he was probably giving her more grief than any other student; his concern was touching.

Recently, I learned Kike had been bullying a younger student. I was disappointed but was relieved to learn he would not be expelled. I never mastered the art of disciplining him, but an experience last year gave me some ideas.

We had an oral quiz in which students would fail if they spoke while a peer was answering a question. I knew this rule would be particularly tough for Kike, so I privately told him how critical it was that he remain quiet during the test. More importantly, I stressed my faith in his ability to do so.

Kike did not make a sound during the quiz and was arguably the best-behaved student in class that day.

In chaotic moments, it is easy for me to forget that students behaving badly are usually not acting out because of personal vendettas or major character flaws. They are adolescents, still maturing and learning what is and is not appropriate in social settings and relationships.

Moreover, many of my students have unbelievably challenging lives that make their misconduct more understandable, though not excusable. In my weaker moments, I forget this and yell. In my stronger moments, I manage to maintain the firmness many of them are already accustomed to while introducing patience they otherwise might not be getting from an adult. They do not always respond well, but sometimes, as in Kike’s case during the test, they do.

All of this is to say that whatever my failures as a teacher, I refuse to give up on any student. Especially not Kike. He is simply too fun to have around. 

With Kike after his First Communion.

With Kike after his First Communion.

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Today’s Vocation

It is virtually impossible to receive a Jesuit education without hearing about vocation. What you study, the job you will hold, the direction your future will take—Jesuits have a knack for presenting life’s most important questions as part of a grand vocation we all must discover.

Having studied under the Jesuits at Marquette University, I, too, have generally thought about my vocation in terms of life’s larger themes. Should my passion for writing dictate a practical major like journalism or would an English degree be truer to the person I am? Would I be happier pursuing a career in public policy or music?

For the past year and a half, my short-term vocation has taken me to the Peruvian Andes as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). My primary work here has been teaching English, religion, computer and literature classes at a local high school. It has been an incredibly rewarding opportunity. I have learned innumerable lessons from my students, colleagues and friends, and I like to think I have experienced some solid growth along the way.

Though my stint in JVC has been an ample stretch of time, volunteering will obviously never be a definitive answer to the question of what my life’s vocation is. Many people asked me what I intended to do when I got back to the United States before I even moved to Peru. Neither this question nor my anxiety whenever it is asked have subsided as my return draws nearer. Because for all my ideas of what I would like to do or feasibly could do, I have no idea what I will do.

Recently, I have had cause to think of vocation in a new light. A few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous sac around the heart. My recovery involved a week-long hospital stay, during which I had little more to do than read and watch reruns of Two and a Half Men.

Amongst the reading I found in my possession was Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints. The book is a wonderful collection of biographies of important spiritual figures throughout human history. Some, like Rose of Lima and Francis of Assisi, have been officially canonized by the Catholic Church. Others, like Albert Camus and Mahatma Gandhi, were not practicing Christians. Each in their own unique way, however, seemed to illuminate a divine spark in their very human lives. All pursued whatever their vocation was with singular courage and conviction.

As a member of an organization named after St. Ignatius of Loyola, the irony was not lost on me that, as the founder of the Jesuits had done after suffering a cannonball shot to the legs, I was lying in a hospital, reading the lives of the saints and meditating on my own vocation.

Ignatius’s reflections led him to form a new religious order, venturing into the world to spread the Gospel and accomplish grandiose, heroic deeds for the greater glory of God.

My musings were a little more modest.

What struck me more than anything while reading All Saints were the countless small, slow and seemingly-insignificant ways so many people’s vocations developed over time. The shapes of the saints’ lives often fell into place haphazardly and with plenty of fits and false starts. In many cases, a person’s vocation seemed less the major decision I had always thought it to be and more of an arrival, a gradual accepting of God’s grace in her or his life.

Moreover, I started to see vocation less as an ultimate choice for what to do with my life than as part of the dynamic, ongoing process of discovering who I am in the world. Vocation need not only apply to vast subjects like what career I will hold or who I will marry. It also involves common, day-to-day details. As one of Ellsberg’s saints, William Stringfellow, said, “Vocation means being a human being; every decision is a vocational event.”

In his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin, S.J. movingly makes a similar point as he relates the story of Walter Ciszek, an American-born Jesuit priest who spent 15 years doing hard labor as a suspected spy in Russia’s Lubyanka prison. Quoting from Ciszek’s memoir He Leadeth Me, Martin explains how the priest came to discover his vocation, or “God’s will” for him, during his incarceration:

[God’s] will for us was the 24 hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time. Those were the things God knew were important to him and to us at that moment, and those were the things upon which he wanted us to act, not out of any abstract principle or out of any subjective desire to ‘do the will of God.’ No, these things, the 24 hours of this day, were his will; we had to learn to recognize his will in the reality of the situation.

The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people and problems. The trick is to learn to see that — not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God’s grace, but every day. Each of us has no need to wonder about what God’s will must be for us; his will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day, if only we could learn to view all things as he sees them and sends them to us.”

It is important to intentionally consider where God might be calling each of us in a broad sense.  But it is also essential to avoid the temptation of only seeing life’s crucial questions as part of one’s vocation. Though I will not be a volunteer for the rest of my life that is what I am right now. Today, my vocation need not involve much more than trying to be the best teacher, friend and community member I can here in Peru. As the lives of the saints make clear, the bigger issues will often sort themselves out anyway, fits, false starts and all for the greater glory.

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Resurrecting My Tendency Toward Death into New Life

The following piece originally appeared in an online publication called Busted Halo. You can read it by following this link: http://bustedhalo.com/features/resurrecting-my-tendency-toward-death-into-new-life
My thanks to Barbara Wheeler-Bride, the editor-in-chief of Busted Halo, for getting this published.

The Christian narrative is, to borrow the cliché, a matter of life and death.

I do not mean this in a Bible-thumping, accept-Jesus’-death-to-save-your-soul-and-find-life sense. Rather, I am talking about the possibility of the most gruesome, violent of deaths giving way to the most dramatic and powerful of new lives.

A few weeks ago, my Jesuit Volunteer community shared dinner with a group of Sacred Heart nuns. Before the meal, a Spanish woman living with the nuns and discerning a call to religious life led us in a series of activities reflecting on resurrection. In one instance, she pointed out that Jesus’ female followers were the first to learn of His resurrection. She suggested that this is because women, who after all bear children, are more open to life.

I found her take fascinating. For the past 3 1/2 months, I have been the only male in a community with up to six women. Whatever insight I have gained from this leads me to affirm that women — or at least the ones I have lived with — are indeed very open to the beauty of life and all it entails.

During the activity, I was the only man in a room with eight women. Our Spanish friend seemed concerned that I might feel attacked by the inherent implication of what she was saying: namely, that if women are more prone to life, men must be more oriented towards death.

I have no idea if this is true of all, or even most, men, but I think about death all the time. This is odd, as I am only 24 years old and (knock on wood) of sound mind and good health. Death, nevertheless, has been a surprising theme throughout my past year and a half living in the Peruvian Andes.

Musings on death

On the surface, my preoccupation with death can probably be attributed to three people I have at one time been close to dying unexpectedly while I have been in Peru. Nothing reinforces an awareness of the fragility of existence like a life cut short.

That said, my musings on death go beyond the loss of certain individuals. One way in which these thoughts have manifested themselves is in how I view time.

When I first arrived in Peru, the 2-year commitment that lay ahead of me seemed like an eternity. My eventual return to the United States felt like something that would happen in a future life.

Now that I am well past the halfway mark of my service, I am aware, to borrow another cliché, of how much time flies. It only feels like a short time ago that I landed here. The notion that I have less than a year left is difficult to grasp.

Coming to terms with how the briefness of my remaining time involves accepting that I will leave with countless goals unfinished. There are many places I will not have the chance to visit, many subjects I will not have the opportunity to explore, and many projects I will not have the occasion to realize.

This is true not just of my time in Peru but of life in general. Nobody’s time on this planet is boundless. While I hope to lead a full life, I know I will die with many possibilities unrealized. Limitations involving my time in Peru have led me to think about the limitations in my life as a whole.

Time is, of course, far from the only constraint I have encountered in Peru. Sometimes, my experiences here feel like an incredibly concentrated study in failure. I struggle with the language barrier, my inexperience as a teacher, homesickness, physical sickness, cultural faux pas, and a host of other inadequacies that should be well known to any expat.

St. Ignatius spoke extensively about consolation and desolation, and in the face of my faults, my tendency is typically towards the latter. I feel angry, scared, confused and frustrated that despite my best efforts I cannot seem to achieve my goals as well as I would like. In short, I am upset that I am imperfect.

Death is perhaps the greatest sign of human imperfection. Just as none of our endeavors — as hard as we may try — will ever reach flawlessness, so are we completely unable to avoid death.

As I indicated, our reaction to this news can be feelings of desolation — sadness, fear, etc. On the other hand, we can also respond with humility. Knowing we are broken beings that can only do so much and will often mess up in the process is, I would argue, a requirement for living life honestly and realistically, as well as for being open to the idea of a graceful God. If one does not acknowledge that some of one’s weaknesses are beyond human effort to change, believing in a higher power is hardly necessary. For me, thinking about God does not mean praying for a life without failure. Instead, it involves believing that I am loved, not in spite of the ugliest aspects of my personality but including them.

This is something else my time in Peru has taught me. No matter how lousy a teacher I am or how many mistakes I make in Spanish, my friends and students like me and are genuinely glad to have me here.

Because unconditional love begets more of the same, I have found this affection to have a transformative impact on my ability to love others, resurrecting my tendency towards death into something that feels like new life.

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International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

March 21 is the U.N. International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Though my current setting leads me to think less about racism than other social ills like domestic violence and poverty, Peru, like anywhere else, demonstrates signs of discrimination. Adolescents in the youth group I accompany have spoken of the shame people from metropolitan environments sometimes thrust on campesinos or rural residents who speak an Andean language called Quechua. This is a pity, because while Quechua is extremely difficult to learn and almost exclusively oral, it is a truly beautiful idiom.

As an expat living here as a guest, I am far less comfortable speaking about discrimination in Peru than I am in my own country. Even in the U.S., however, I was much more likely to think about injustices that were not racially-based. It was only when I studied in South Africa, a country that suffered through nearly 50 years of apartheid, that I began to deeply reflect on racial discrimination and the privilege I have experienced as a white man. I was eventually moved enough to write about these thoughts.

Any writer who is honest with her or himself will probably admit to genuinely liking close to five percent of the words they put to paper. This percentage exponentially decreases as the time between the writing and the present moment increases. I tend to avoid reading papers I wrote in high school, not because I do not have the time but because they make me want to rip my eyes out.

That said, I occasionally come up with something I like. The following piece, which I wrote during my senior year in college, is one of those rare examples. It can be read below or by following this link: http://marquettetribune.org/2010/11/04/viewpoints/harper-looking-at-race-jm1-az2-dac3/

Last Friday I decided to go for a run to Lake Michigan before embracing my inner Dude and celebrating my final Halloween at Marquette.

As I stood by the Milwaukee Art Museum, staring across the water and pretending I was brooding, I noticed a man walking quickly behind me. My hand moved toward my pocket before I remembered I wasn’t carrying a wallet or any other valuable possessions. The man was black.

Moments like this are difficult to come to terms with. Like most people, I like to think of myself as an open-minded and accepting person. I am proud to have friends of different races, cultures and religions. Last year, I spent five months working and studying in South Africa, a country as famous for overcoming apartheid as it is for the vuvuzela.

And yet, the sight of this particular man, who gave me no reason for suspicion, caused subconscious fear.

My inclination — and I would argue most of our inclinations — is to push experiences like this aside and pretend they say nothing about who we are.

But this is exactly what is wrong with the way we view race in this country. We are wonderful at measuring our progress toward becoming a more equal society in terms of our achievement of tangible goals like the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, the nomination of the first Chinese American to a cabinet position during President Bush’s administration in 2001 or the election of the first black president in 2008.

We are not as great, however, at noticing the nuanced role race continues to play in our everyday lives.

Take a study published in the journal Science just 11 days before President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The researchers studied how two groups of participants reacted to a racial insult made by an actor playing another participant.

While the group that was told about the interaction or saw it on videotape generally expressed discomfort and an unwillingness to work with the participant who made the comment, the group that saw the encounter in person was less likely to feel troubled and more likely to accept the participant and disregard his remarks.

In other words, we may be more prejudiced than we’d care to acknowledge.

I am not suggesting the strides we have made as a society are unimportant, nor am I saying there is no point in continuing to pursue racial equality on a large scale. What we also need, however, is to be honest and pay closer attention to what race means in our own lives, whether reflected in the offhand jokes or the prejudices we suppress. As long as we are indifferent about this, the ongoing disparity in employment between whites and blacks and other racial issues that are less enthralling than the aforementioned accomplishments will fail to grab our attention.

As I said, it is hard to accept that we all may subconsciously bear some racism. A story in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness,” however, may provide some comfort.

In the story, Tutu recalls feeling great pride when he was on a flight piloted by a black African man. At some point during the trip, the airplane began experiencing turbulence, and as his seat shook, Tutu was surprised to find himself wishing a white person was the pilot. This is Desmond Tutu — a man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent leadership in the anti-apartheid movement. If he is struggling with deeply-held racial prejudices, at least we are in good company.

So yes, we must acknowledge that we may be more discriminatory than we thought. But we also must recognize this as a problem we all share and, as the cliché goes, realize we’re all in this together. Because that understanding, more than historic elections and laws, will ultimately be the way we move forward.

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The Canadian Tuxedo

It is truly a rare person that can pull of the Canadian Tuxedo. Defined by Noah Webster as “wearing denim top to bottom,” the Canadian Tuxedo usually recalls family photos from the 1990s or pop stars who have completely given up.

Besides a few notable exceptions…

George Harrison (Denim Dan)

George Harrison (Denim Dan),

The inmates from "The Shawshank Redemption"

The inmates from The Shawshank Redemption

and Keegan Harper (Denim Dave)

and Keegan Harper (Denim Dave),

…most people wearing Canadian Tuxedos end up looking more like this:

A caption could not do justice.

A caption would do no justice.

I am pleased to announce that I have encountered another most excellent exception: Lucho, a math teacher at the Fe y Alegría High School where I work.

Lucho is the kind of guy I wish I’d had as a profe along the way. Every Monday, teachers are expected to wear suits and ties for a weekly assembly. Lucho apparently dislikes this enough that sometimes after the assembly, he will use free periods to go home and change into the track suits he so loves. When another instructor complained at a staff meeting that the male profesores were not adhering to the dress code, Lucho raised his hand and exonerated his colleagues, pointing out that he was really the only person not wearing the “right” clothing.

But Lucho really upped the ante today and deserves credit for his extraordinary accomplishment. Salud, Lucho.

Stealing a moment with the man of the hour.

Stealing a moment with the man of the hour.

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