Archive for the ‘service’ Tag
I know I’m a little late for a Thanksgiving post, but tonight our family had an experience that left me feeling profoundly grateful for the gifts we are given each day.
To start off, the week before Thanksgiving, my 3rd grade daughter brought home a poem she wrote and illustrated at school. I loved the poem. Not just because my daughter wrote it and I enjoyed reading her thoughts, but also because the poem was a wonderful exercise in learning how to find gratitude. My daughter’s teacher had the students in her class think of eight things they wanted. After each longed-for wish, the students wrote something they already had that they were grateful for. For example, here is my daughter’s poem:
I wish I had another puppy, but I’m grateful I have one.
I wish nobody would get sick, but I’m grateful I don’t get sick a lot.
I wish I had all the books I wanted to read, but I’m grateful I get to read some.
I wish I never had hard times, but I’m grateful I have friends and family when I do.
I wish I had a job with animals, but I’m grateful I can when I’m older.
I wish I would never grow up, but I’m glad I get to stay little for a while.
I wish the day would last forever, but I’m grateful it lasts 24 hours.
I wish I could do whatever I want, but at the same time I’m grateful that I don’t.
I could add a few of my own: I wish my husband liked 19th century British literature, but I’m grateful he’ll watch Jane Eyre with me anyway. I wish I didn’t have to wash the dirty dishes, but I’m grateful I can feed my family. I wish I had more time to write my book, but I’m grateful for four children who keep me busy and make my life purposeful.
It really is a wonderful exercise – finding what you are grateful for in the moment you are longing for more. Tonight’s experience was all about that. My husband and I took our kids to a special event organized by a dear friend of mine: a concert by children for children. She and her family organize the event each year, inviting friends to come and participate in a night of holiday music. Children perform, sharing their talents, and at the end of the night donations are accepted for the One Heart Bulgaria foundation, which aids orphanages in Bulgaria.
At the beginning of the concert, we were shown a slideshow of orphaned children living in Bulgaria. I found myself drawn toward the children’s dark, quiet eyes as they looked into the camera, inviting me to see the world from their point of view. It allowed me to step away from the long hard stare I fix on the things I think I want most, both for me and for my children, and to appreciate the most basic and important elements of our lives: love, faith, and family; food, health and home. There are so many gifts that have already been given, so many wants that have already been met. And so many opportunities to give instead of receive.
I just returned from a four day trip to Cincinatti, Ohio with my eight year old daughter. Our reason for taking the trip was to visit some old friends of mine from Italy who are here in the United States seeking medical treatment for their six-year old son. While in Cincinatti, they are staying at the Ronald McDonald House. They are well taken care of by the volunteers at the McDonald House, and by the nurses, doctors, social workers and translators at the hospital. But they don’t know anyone in Ohio, and don’t speak any English, so I took my daughter with me to spend some time with them, and to give them what moral support I could.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave for Ohio, I received a phone call from a woman in Cincinatti. Her name was Lisa. She had taken my friends under her wing, picking them up at the airport when they arrived, visiting them in the hospital, arranging trips to the Cincinatti Zoo for them, and bringing them to her home for dinner and respite. She knew their case worker at the hospital, was working with the Italian Embassy in Detroit on some problems they were having with their paperwork, and knew every detail of their son’s medical history and current treatment. The reason she called me was to invite my daughter and I to stay with her and her family in their home during our visit to Cincinatti. I accepted her invitation.
During our time with Lisa and her family, my daughter and I were given soft beds to sleep in and warm breakfasts made from scratch. Lisa’s nine and eleven year old daughters immediately adopted my daughter as a special friend. They pushed two twin beds together so she could “sleepover” with them. They shared silly stories with her and taught her how to play badminton. “Mom,” my daugther said to me, “They are so nice. And they never fight.”
I was equally impressed. Every night the family invited us to join them for family prayer. They played games together, happily drawing us in to share in the fun. Lisa’s home was spotless, even while taking classes at a nearby university and baking chocolate chip cookies for her daughter’s soccer team, which she helped coach. One night I asked if I could help do the dishes and she cheerfully replied, “dishes are no big deal.”
This was a family that had made service a fundamental part of their lives. They did it naturally, cheerfully, and tirelessly. Over and over during my time with them I thought of this passage from the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kindgdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
My daughter and I were complete strangers to Lisa and her family. Our Italian friends were strangers to them as well. But that didn’t matter. She took all of us in, fed us and cared for us. I remain so touched and grateful for all that she did and is doing for me and for my friends. I know I’ll never be able to pay her back, but I do hope that the next time I have the opportunity to help a stranger, I will remember her example and do my best to clothe, feed, and care.
Recently the librarian at my children’s elementary school displayed a bushy-bearded photo of Walt Whitman and challenged the older students to guess the poet. My fourth grader, stumped, came home and asked me if I know who it was. The only clue I would give him was that every spring when our lilac bush starts to unfold its little curls of green, I think of these words from one of his poems: “heart-shaped leaves of rich green.” I didn’t tell him that the poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” was written as an elegy for President Lincoln. I didn’t tell him the name of the poet, and I don’t think he ever guessed it. But when he is a little older, maybe we will read Walt Whitman together, and share in the legacy that Whitman left behind.
Until recently, I considered Whitman’s greatest legacy his poetry. But I’ve been reading THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING: DEATH AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Drew Gilpin Faust. I started reading it last September when we took a family trip to Pennsylvania and visited Gettysburg. It was a sobering experience, visiting that battle site while reading Faust’s harrowing account of death and disease on and off the battlefield.
Faust speaks briefly of Whitman in her book. During the Civil War he traveled to Virginia searching for his brother George who was reported wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Whitman found George recovering from superficial wounds, but he also found a scene of awful suffering. Faust writes:
“Whitman became a tireless hospital visitor, spending seven or eight hours each day ministering to patients. He provided rice puddings, small amounts of spending money, stamped envelopes and stationary, peaches, apples, oranges, horseradish, undershirts, socks, soap, towels, oysters, jellies, horehound candy – and love, comfort and ‘cheer.’ And he himself wrote hundreds of letters – often, he reported, more than a dozen a day – for soldiers unable to do this for themselves.”
His letters were nothing like his poems. Simple, informative. Reassuring when circumstances allowed, consoling when they did not. He knew first-hand the anxiety of loved ones searching for news from brothers, sons, and husbands, and answered their need, as well as the needs of soldiers who were wounded or dying.
I think of those letters, and their profound importance to those who received them. Word for word, is it possible that they might be more valuable than his monumental poems of life and love, war and death? The letters haven’t remained, or been canonized in great books of poetry, but for those who received them they must have been like manna from heaven.
Maybe the answer is that Whitman has more than one legacy to share. One of the genius-poet, and the other of an ordinary man doing his best to “love, comfort, and ‘cheer’”.
“It is different. You can’t even imagine how different. Just believe me. It is different.”
These were the words of a young Haitian man named Daniel. I met him on Sunday when he came to our church to talk to a group of children about what his life was like growing up in Haiti. And he was right, I couldn’t imagine the world he described. But I did believe him.
“Even if you don’t have anything, you are happy,” he told the kids. ”Because there is no other choice.” He described playing with his friends outdoors, with no toys or games to entertain them. Only the ones of their own invention: hand games, singing games, dancing games. “If there is someone who is sitting apart, we ask them to join us. Everyone can play.” They were happy. I believed him.
Daniel asked the children if they had ever been hungry before, and what it felt like. “Imagine feeling that way for many days,” he said. “For months.” On Sundays his Mother would make food for her five children. Fried chicken with rice and beans was Daniel’s favorite. But before they could sit down and eat, his mother went from door to door, sharing what they had with their neighbors. They had no choice. But they were happy. And I believed him.
He spoke of his love for books and reading. At times there would be no electricity: for a night or two, a week, a month. But there was the moon. So it was under the light of the moon that he studied and did his homework. The children in the room breathed out sighs of wonder. Homework by moonlight. Astonishing. Different. And we believed him.
What he described was so different. A world where all are welcome for who they are, not what they have. A world where nobody has enough, and that is why everybody shares. A world where a shaft of moonlight can be a bridge to knowledge.
Maybe not everyone in Haiti lives that way, welcoming, sharing, and searching. Maybe just Daniel and his family. Maybe they were different.
Maybe I can be different, too.
I hoped the children might see that, and believe it. If nothing else, they learned that Haiti is more than a place of poverty to send their pennies. It is a place of singing, warm moonlight, and meals that stretch, like loaves and fishes, to feed multitudes.
It’s a season of angels. Of rushing and running from place to place, hitting three stores in one night to hunt down that last essential item, standing in line for twenty minutes just to buy your groceries, dragging screaming toddlers through the snow to get to the elementary school sing-a-long on time, and frantically rolling cookie dough for another Christmas party. But in spite of all the frenetic holiday bustle, it is a season of angels. And the encounters come unexpectedly, in moments that are brief, but brilliant.
Today it was the post office. The post office and the gruyere for what better be some tasty potatoes au gratin, because that is some expensive cheese. I decided to start with the gruyere and bustled my five and two year old into the grocery store through a flurry of soft, thick snowflakes. We found the cheese. Found snacks for the boys to keep them happy at the post office, and then hurried back out into the snow.
Pierce, my two year old, squinted up at me as the snow flew into his face. “Hold me mommy.” I scooped him up and headed for the car, calling after me for my five year old, Sawyer, to hurry up. I hadn’t gotten far when my angel stopped me. He was wearing a red grocer’s apron, his name, Glenn, printed on a tag on the side. He left the cart he was pushing toward the store and called out to me.
“Ma’am. I think your boy is slipping.”
I looked back. Sawyer was making his way carefully across the icy pavement. Without waiting for my response, Glenn reached his hand out to Sawyer to help him across the road.
Now when Glenn spoke to me, the first thing I noticed was the slightly slow speech. A disability of some kind. I saw that he wanted to help Sawyer. He saw Sawyer struggling in the snow and he wanted to help him so badly.
“Sawyer,” I said. “Hold Glenn’s hand. He’s going to help you.” And I prayed, quick and quiet, that my recalcitrant five year old would accept Glenn’s extended hand. Sawyer looked up shyly, and then put his hand into Glenn’s. I watched them for a moment, walking together, and then hurried to my car with Pierce, blinking away the snow and the tears that fell in my eyes.
When we got to the car, I turned to thank Glenn. The snowflakes were sticking to his hair and his lashes, but he smiled and asked my boys what they wanted for Christmas. “Playdough,” said Pierce.
Glenn’s smile turned up wide. “Playdough?” And I could feel from him an enthusiasm that was real. He wasn’t humoring my child, he was completely and deeply sharing Pierce’s excitement for mallable, colored dough. He was loving him. Pierce felt it. I felt it. It was all I could do not to throw my arms around this young man and kiss him on the cheek.
As I drove away, I thought about Glenn. What does it take to be so truly caring, so loving? Something anybody can have, if they want. A kind heart. Something I struggle to find, and hold onto. For Glenn, it seemed so easy to do. The disability I had first noticed when I saw him melted away as quickly as the snow that fell lightly against my windshield. He was an individual with incredible ability. A person with a great capacity to love. And today, he was my angel.
This morning my neighbor Mary came over for a visit. She brought her two little boys, the same ages as mine, and didn’t even bat an eye when my two year old balled his little hand up in a fist and punched her two year old. Which is only one of the many reasons why I love her. The other reasons? Too many to name. But I’ll try to illustrate with a story:
Last January I was over at Mary’s house, picking up my boys. She had watched them for me so I could volunteer in my daugther’s kindergarten class. (Just another reason why I love her — but not the point of the story). We were standing out front talking, enjoying a moment of sunshine that was doing it’s best to thaw the outer layers of snow and ice that had frozen our mountain-community, when a man from our neighborhood approached. He was someone we both knew, neither of us well, but we were aware of the fact that he was struggling with ms. He was out on a walk, using a cane to navigate the snow packs. But the ice was everywhere, and the cane wasn’t enough to steady him. As he neared Mary’s house, he slipped and fell hard. While I stood there, processing what had happened, Mary was already running carefully toward him. She crossed the street, jumped through the snow, and helped him to his feet. All this despite the fact that she is tiny. Absolutely, exquisitely petite. The man tried to say he was fine and didn’t need any more help, but Mary ignored him, cheerfully taking him by the arm and leading him to safe ground.
I watched her in awe. Me who deliberates, who second guesses myself, who worries whether or not something should be done instead of just doing it. Me who is twice her size and really should have been the one to help him to his feet. But that’s the difference. She didn’t wonder if she should help, or if she could. She just saw someone who needed help and she gave it.
Afterward, when she returned to her house, her little Parker asked, “Who is that, Mom?” She answered so simply, “Our neighbor.”
I hope you all have a neighbor like Mary.