Catered event at the office.
At closing time we had about 10 gallons of food left over. Three tubs of raw shredded kale leaves. Two tubs of bean salad. Tub of pasta. Tub of chicken roasted with little skewers. Sandwiches even.
Well, the local needle-exchange safe-injection-site church thrift shop, staffed by wonderful volunteers, runs a teen shelter and a nightly dinner program.
So it made perfect sense to pack up an armful of food and walk it over there.
I showed up in the kitchen doorway with the three tubs of kale.
The busy cooks looked up from their knives and cutting boards and stared at me.
(Hello? Is this okay?)
The head cook said “We didn’t have enough food for dinner tonight. And no salad or greens at all.”
So, back I went to see what other food was left.
The rest of the stuff was much heavier to carry. I wrapped and packed it all, looked up and down the halls for anyone left who might be able to help me (no one; it was closing time on a Friday) and wobbled downstairs with a first load, wondering how my arthritic hands and I were going to make it back to the church.
“God?” I wondered. “Help?”
Just then, a car pulled up to the curb. “Mary!! Can I give you a ride?”
It was a co-worker who just happened to be driving past at that moment.
She waited while I ran up and down the stairs with tubs of food. With everything packed and ready, the mission went off without a hitch. The church had some extra food, all thanks to a friendly helper on wheels with a good heart.
Savior of the Nations, 12/2016
Lutherans call this LSB 322 – “Savior of the Nations, Come.”
Venturing in the door of the religion of Mom’s youth opened a whole new trove of hymns. This melody is also known as “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (Wittenberg, Johann Walter), with words composed by Martin Luther.
Here is a fine rendition appearing with the note “Notre Dame Basilica Schola, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame, Indiana.”
12/12/2015: Turning Back
A neighbor and I set out on a brisk wholesome walk, to a festive holiday acoustic music event two suburbs away.
My sensibly shod and clad walking companion had thoughtfully checked various phone apps to select optimal landscape and hill management through a gently meandering scenic route. Our spirits were high as we bundled up in rain gear and set out in a fine refreshing drizzle for our music pilgrimage. We had a good chat and managed well, at least for the first forty five minutes. Then it was whimsically obvious to my fellow traveler and I that as she set a confident pace, I kept ending up 10 feet behind examining the muddy ground for steadiness before planting each foot.
We reached our splendid urban lakeshore with its famous walking trail three miles long. There the wind hit us head on. The lake had flooded, so the usual grassy slope was now a churned mess of footprinted mud. As is said in Scandinavia, there is no such thing as bad weather; there is only poor preparation and inadequate clothing. They’re right, too: my comfortably worn vintage Crocs were no match; twice I slipped with pinwheeling arms and nearly fell. So I stayed off the grass and kept to the walking trail with its more secure bed of gravel. The trail happened to be six inches under water, but at least provided friction and support.
Then the rain closed in like a slappy wet curtain, obscuring all familiar landmarks and all trace of sun through the clouds. It was hard to tell how much farther we needed to go. What’s more, an arthritic flareup from earlier in the week came back, with increasing pain from toes to shins. Every step hurt more than the step before it. Finally after limping on both feet a while I felt a quiet intuition flash to mind:
I’ve never thrown up in the middle of a jogging trail before.
But, there is a first time for everything.
At that, my feet stopped in their tracks and dug in their heels. It was time to try honesty. So I confessed to my companion that I could not go on, and that instead of waiting for me she had better walk herself out of this. In concern and caring she began to call a taxi, so that we could ride the rest of the way to the event. But I had to decline, assuring her that all I needed was a slow return to a familiar part of the lake and a familiar bus to take me home. Our decision was made, and we split up our exploration party.
Alone I looked around and took stock. Rain a solid downpour. Temperature in the 40s Fahrenheit. Wind rising. Bearings gone. No passersby. Path six inches submerged. Eyeglasses uselessly fogged and streaming. Scientifically speaking, I would have been warmer lying in the lake. Maybe I’d long passed the bus stop and was starting another three-mile lake loop? (Makes a nice picture, doesn’t it? Even the cormorants look happy. Walking around it is tricky though, if you can’t see where you are going.)
Another thing: Doctors don’t know much about rheumatoid arthritis. But there’s one point that they agree on. You won’t hear them say “What you need for that flareup is an hour’s walk in an ankle-deep winter flood.”
With it all, that moment of surrender and turning back brought a tremendous sense of relief. In a mystical manner impossible to explain, my journey turned itself over to Christ. We can call it hypothermia, but I felt his presence right there, an energy to lean on. Now instead of wincing at every sharp pebble or slippery leaf, I praised him for all the pebbles and all leaves, and the pattern that they lay in.
What came to mind next was… the random wedding and talent show hit, “You Raise Me Up.” That was a surprise. I never noticed that song before, oblivious to its sentimental delivery style and dramatic key change in the last chorus. But, live and learn: being lost and wet and cold changed all of that. Now the lyrics were exactly right. I sang it over and over, chewing the words like a bite of sweet wheatgrass.
Then the beauty of the landscape struck home, elements of light and air and water fusing in motion and cold and the finest shades of silver-to-jade. What a Grecian urn that would be, those grasses and waves thrown on a potter’s wheel, with lilts of gold from the weeping willows on the shore.
Small waterfowl (some kind of Coot?) appeared in droves, adorable dark plum puddings with white beaks and a tuneful call. They were charming merry company. We migrated along in a companionable flock until finally I spotted a familiar building off to the side. I skidded up the grass slope, reached the main street, hobbled a few blocks, and after a short teetering sprint caught a bus. Then a transfer. Then a wet half hour waiting at another stop. Then a second bus. Then a slosh through a block of puddles. Then up four flights of stairs. Then home to peel off my things and hang them in the bathtub to drain.
Using a wheeled chair as a handy crutch, I dried off and bundled up in flannel and wool. Over a hot foot bath and miso soup I read some Slavonic psalms. Then curled up under every blanket in the house I drifted into the most healing 6 hour nap. Still with Christ nearby. Still with words in mind to sing.
8/29/15: An Ill Wind
Today we had a welcome hearty rain. Then the clouds parted for a fresh clean blue sky. I was happily waiting in the checkout line at the grocery, while our cashier explained in detail the backup generator and other provisions made by the store so that it doesn’t need to close, not even if the power goes out.
I said “What’s the disaster discussion here?”
A customer said “Why, it’s the high wind warning. Due any time now.”
What? It was a beautiful day! What was he talking about?
Well, I took my purchases home. Hm… my plastic chairs were on the patio, with lots of empty flower pots. On impulse I brought the chairs in and put them in the bathtub. Then I stacked all the pots neatly, put them in a planter trough, and pinned it all down with a very heavy slate tile. I laughed at myself for being overly dramatic, but oh well.
Then in the management office I went to pay my rent. Today we had a new temp staff member. Suddenly the electricity turned off. The phones started ringing off the hook, with distraught tenants calling to complain and find out what was going on. As calls came in on more than one line, my natural impulse was to start answering the second phone. A tenant said “The pool umbrella just flew right over the fence! Please go get it before somebody gets hurt!”
Hurt? By an umbrella? Oh well.
“I’ll run right out and have a look,” I told her, and ran to the pool area.
Golly! This umbrella was about 10 feet wide, heavy cloth with sturdy wooden spokes and a stout wood pole. I couldn’t believe that it pulled right up out of its table and flew right out of the pool area. It was jammed against the fence by the wind. I grabbed it, and the wind nearly lifted me off my feet. After a few minutes of struggle, I figured out how to pull out the key and chain, and then unwind the rope to close the fabric. The umbrella was much too heavy to lift, so I rammed the pole into one of the chain links in the fence to anchor it.
Then I ran to close the other umbrella inside the pool fence. One of the school boys in the complex saw me and came running to help. He was terrific — fast, resourceful, persistent. He helped me unwind the rope, and we rushed to stack the plastic chairs and cushions and shove them into the rest rooms. Then we heard a cracking noise behind us. This pine branch came down outside the pool fence — right where I’d been standing 10 minutes before:
Another neighbor came out later to look at the tree and said “Someone was looking out for you.”
As soon as the winds let up (gusts up to 70 m.p.h., as we found out later), a lot of neighbors came flocking out of their electricity-less homes to gather on the lawn and street and look around.
There was loss of life and damage today with this surprising weather. People out there are grieving and have lost loved ones, as well as homes and cars. Dozens of us stood outside all afternoon, just staying close together and exchanging our impressions and being thankful.
It also made me resolve two things this very week: To buy a hand-cranked weather alert radio, one with a cell phone charger and flashlight attached, for us neighbors to share; and to open a social media account of some kind so that we can exchange alerts when something serious happens, and we can team up and take care of each other.
A big day, with sobering lessons to learn and reasons to be grateful.
8/12/2015: Gathered Together
For the summer picnic I was working registration for 170 guests and a passel o’ dogs.
The organizers hired a plainclothes security guard to blend with the crowd and circulate around, keeping a radar out for complications.
I didn’t expect to hear from him all evening. My mental image of “Security” was of a glum uncomfortable-looking authority figure who would stand in the corner and be bored out of his mind, maybe working Sudoku puzzles on his cell phone or nipping from a pocket flask. Who knows?
When a young man in a down-home plaid shirt came strolling by and introduced himself with a courteous handshake, it took me by surprise. Then he quietly started following the setup crew, arranging tables and decorations. Then he worked registration with me, greeting each guest and surveying all the family groups to see whose children belonged to which grownups. As he did that, he told me about his experience showing up early, before our event, to have a talk with the men and teenagers who live in the picnic pavilion. He went around to all of them, explaining that we would be coming soon, and that the Park Service had rented out the pavilion to us for the evening. “I could tell just walking toward the group,” he said, “which guy was going to take offense and cause a protest. And he did. Started calling me names and all. Fine with me; he can say what he likes, as long he doesn’t do anything. I offered them the top slope above the pavilion instead, and said it was fine with me if they spent the evening there. So they moved.”
Our guard began unloading the caterers’ truck, helping the musicians with their sound system, toted ice and beverages — all while blending in and watching the crowd. “Pitching in with the activities helps me to circulate and keep a better eye on people,” he explained to me later. When the leader of another group showed up expecting our space (Park Service double-booked the pavilion to two groups on the same evening), he quickly cleared two tables for them, and mollified the group leader with sympathetic listening and a complimentary dessert. He even had the grand idea to distribute beverages and dessert vouchers to the caterers and to the band, though he himself politely declined all offers of food (“Distracts me from the work.”). In between, he told me fascinating stories about his usual job, intervening in fights and accidents of all kinds, just calming people down so helpers can get in and help safely. He was a walking textbook about the nature of humans under pressure, how some explode in distressing ways and how others rise to the occasion and serve those around them.
At the end of a long hot evening, his shift was done and he was free to go.
But he didn’t. Instead he spoke to the caterers, and then walked around the park calling back the teens and men who live there.
Then he took the catering leftovers and cutlery, seated the men at a picnic table, and he stood there serving them dinner.
One young man came to the pavilion and saw the hot dinner waiting for him. He walked straight to our guard with his hands out. “Aw Jeez, Man — all that stuff I said to you a while ago? I’m real sorry.”
“It’s fine,” our guard told him. “It’s all good.” Then he passed the salad.
8/6/2015: Home is the Chair
Young man gets on the bus with a wheelchair with some neatly strapped belongings and a courier pouch on top. The passengers around get to chatting with him, and in the courier pouch a cat peeks up and stretches. All around us it’s traffic and noise, people brushing by in the aisle. The cat takes an interest, but he’s perfectly content and calm cuddled up to his human.
The young man says “He was a feral cat, totally wild, crazy. Then a woman fostered him two months and got him all rehabilitated. She was great. She did it all so he could LIVE in a good HOME. Home meaning house, like other people live in. But for me and for him, home is the chair. I take him everywhere I go, everything I do. We’ve been together five weeks.”
I said “Cesar Milan says the most psychologically stable balanced dogs in America are the ones who live on the streets with their person. Because they have a job and a mission all day long: to keep moving, to check out the territory, and most of all to follow and protect and stick close to their pack leader. I guess it applies to cats too.”
“Yes, that’s it,” he agreed. “We’re in a tent at N__ shelter now. They have a backyard and trees. Every evening I unclip this leash and watch him walk away in the dark. First night I thought ‘O Lord, don’t let me lose him.’ But I had to let him go. Can’t keep a cat from his own cat life; when it’s night time, got to let him go. Go be a cat. So he went off, into the dark.
But I woke up in the morning, and he’s sleeping right next to me. Same thing every day now. Nights, I let him go. Mornings, he’s right next to me. He knows. Home is the chair.”
This week, in a round of defeated spirits, I took a long stroll. After a long scenic route around, at rush hour I finally headed home along a busy street where car after car zipped by about every five seconds.
Walking west into the setting sun, at first I didn’t notice him.
He was a male Dark-Eyed Junco. They look like a small hoppy darting ground sparrow with a black head and a flashing white tail. Juncoes are an everyday home sight. But as I came within six feet of him, his behavior caught my eye.
This bird was out running in the traffic.
He perched on the curb, looked around, then hopped out in the street and began picking up small bits of something on the asphalt.
Within five seconds the next car came shooting past.
With a high peep, the bird backflipped and sprinted back to hop up on the curb. There he sat looking both ways. Once the car was gone, he took a flying leap off the curb and advanced confidently back to his pecking spot on the asphalt.
At the next car he yipped and ran back to the sidewalk, bent low, head down to blend in and make his escape.
On the curb, he watched the car drive away.
Then he hopped right back to the asphalt. Over and over.
Something good is waiting for me — off I go to get some.
Wait — yike! Run for my life!
Something good is waiting for me — off I go!
He was just a little puffball, but his reactions were so expressive and responsive and brave that my heart forgot its own dejection and went right out to him. I wanted to scoop him up, take him home out of danger, and feed him a good meal of whatever a Junco would enjoy most. But there was no point in anthropomorphizing an animal or projecting my own feelings and struggles on him. He probably didn’t see himself as a pure droplet of cuteness in the Lost Eden of a world taken over by commotion. He probably saw himself as a proud successful provider, out to fill his tiny gullet with a cropful of the very best gravel or seed bits to bring home for the kids. Each time he avoided death and landed safe again on that curb, he didn’t sit and show upset at himself for trying or show fear of the street or brood over every time he’d been sideswiped by a tire. Instead he headed right out again, with just as much eagerness and energy each time.
It was just the right lesson. In gratitude I took home his example, feeling much more willing to try that same courage the very next day.
Today at the drugstore I was using the photo machine to print out a few pictures from my thumb drive.
“Can I help you?” asked a friendly young cashier, and he came right over to staff the photo desk and ring up my pictures.
As I paid for the pictures he handed them over, and mentioned in a casual neutral way “Oh, and that last one out of the printer — I just happened to notice. This guy?”
He pointed out the last one of all:
“Why yes,” I said. “That is my favorite icon of St. Pantaleimon. I did a Russian web search of icons, and chose the one who looks least scary.” (I picked this picture for its beautiful background and its appealing resemblance to Paul Simon.) The legend goes that the young man became a physician. After seeing a young child killed by a serpent and then miraculously restored to life by a prayer to Jesus, Pantaleimon became a Christian and a physician treating patients without pay. So many people were spontaneously healed by his prayers that soon the local doctors had no more income! They denounced him to the Emperor Maksimian, who condemned him to a series of tortures from which he emerged unscathed (even the wild beasts in the arena merely knelt and licked his feet) until a voice from heaven summoned him home and his body gave up its spirit in 305 A.D. Pantaleimon, portrayed holding a spoon and a box of healing medicines, is a well-loved figure in many Orthodox churches.
“And that’s who he is,” I told the young man in the Photos & Cameras department. “I want to mail it to my friend, who is at home recovering his health. Please, take this picture. I can print another copy.”
“Oh no,” he said. “That is fine; you go ahead and send it to your friend. I was just asking who he was. See, years ago I took an art history class. He was definitely one of the art subjects that we studied. It’s funny how his face stayed in mind. Just someone that I don’t forget.”
3/13/2015: Trees of Life
I was still new in town that year, and took a walk one day to air my worries in the soft spring light. I stopped for a look at an interesting tree in a parking lot, and snapped off a blossoming twig to take home for the vase on my altar.
An elderly gentleman came up behind me. Seeing me snap the twig, he named the species of tree and its family and genus. His voice was hesitant and self-effacing, yet hopeful, as if he were not accustomed to being heard but was trying anyway in case I was someone who might listen.
I felt shy myself, being caught swiping that blossom. But I was so happy to listen that soon the man ventured closer and put down his dustpan and broom to free his hands so he could talk in an open and confiding manner. He told about this tree, its age and preferences for sun and land, and how he himself would have planted it not here but two blocks yonder, and why.
He was a master gardener and arborist for our city park system, until he was given retirement due to his age. He lost his wife then, and found it lonely staying home with his little cat. So he went looking for work. Some large out of state property management company took him on at the shopping center to tidy up the grounds, and it gave him a chance to do a little watering here or pruning there for the trees while he was at it.
Soon I put my groceries down and settled in for a good listen to his recollections.
Years before in his large scale tree-planting responsibilities, he’d had an idea. “As a memorial to honor a deceased loved one, a family may choose to plant a tree. But I thought, ‘Why wait? Plant that tree today! Let’s honor living people with a tribute tree. Then, take him or her there, show them the tree, and enjoy it together.’ And that’s what I did. As I planted trees, I would choose special ones and ask myself ‘Now who in my life is best honored by this tree?’ Thinking about some favorite person gave me inspiration; it connected me to the nature of each tree, and seemed to guide me in choosing just the right spot for it to thrive, and giving it good care.”
If only I’d known I would never see him again at our shopping center! I would have tried to angle for his contact information, and brought him to my studio for some soup. Instead I just stood there enchanted by his quiet enjoyment as he talked with deep feeling about his living tributes, his trees of life.
“How wonderful!” I said. “Do you still take your favorite people on outings to your favorite trees of life?”
As he thought over my question, the light faded gently from his face. His eyes took on a far-away look. Again his voice sounded hesitant and tentative as he bent down to pick up his dustpan and broom and go back to work. “Why… why no, Miss. They are all only memorial trees now.”
12/31/14: Big Inc., Small Change
At the checkout line I enjoy keeping a little pile of coins all ready for the cashier, so if the bill is $9.11 I can whisk that 11 cents into her hand along with a ten-spot, and she can hand me a dollar instead of going to the trouble of counting out 89 cents in change.
(Often cashiers are rather pleased by this. One time a representative of the US Postal Service was impressed that someone was giving him pennies, of which his register drawer had none at all. He said “I really don’t care if you’re holding up the line. If you can give us pennies, we’ll buy all you have! I ain’t letting you leave with them.” Then he thought that over. “Uh — that was not meant to be like a terrorist threat or anything, Miss.”)
But last night New Year’s Eve Eve I was as always in a rush to set out my groceries, wrap my leafy greens to keep the conveyor belt dry, put down my basket in an unobtrusive place, swipe my discount card fast enough to keep from holding up the line, and scoop out the change fast enough so the cashier wouldn’t be kept waiting. This time I had the change in a jar instead of a miso container. For some reason I dropped the jar, in a pleasant chime of coins and glass shards.
I apologized to the cashier, and assured her I’d sweep it up and carry the mess home. But in a flash, two calm kindly young men appeared out of nowhere with a broom and dustpan. They swept the money and glass to the side, pulled on white latex gloves, and to my small yips of remorse began cleaning off each individual coin, placing my small change in a fresh clean paper baglet (for which, as I suddenly realize typing this now, they were supposed to charge me 5 cents or one freshly cleaned nickel). They kindly waved aside my dismay, assuring me that it was no trouble at all. Disposing of the glass they handed me my change. The senior of the two coached me in sweet earnest about further money laundering. “We brushed this all pretty clean, but there are definitely some little dust-like particles left. What you’ll need to do is get a strainer, and rinse those coins again. We sure don’t want you to get a piece of glass in your thumb. Have a nice evening, and a happy new year.”
Now this is not the super-progressive, beautifully appointed buy-local food coop only ten blocks away. I don’t shop there any more. It was just too stressful, being shortchanged at the register and then trying to convince the unimpressed cashiers that sesame seeds are not goji berries and applying to the managers for a refund. After weekly shopping trips for over five years, the staff there still didn’t know who I was and wasn’t interested in finding out. The day one of them raised her voice at me, I left and never went back.
And this is why it doesn’t work, to make untested generalizations that one entire human group is better than another, even when the groups form large corporations. Because there are great people everywhere. At Massive Mega-Entity, second largest grocery chain in America, the cashiers know my name and holler greetings as soon as I walk in. One of them takes my change purse and counts out the exact change because she sees the condition of my arthritic hands. One talks to me in Klingon. One practices his standup comedy routine. One wants to talk music. The produce guy always has a new recipe or gardening tip for me to try. And when a young store manager (a neighbor in our building) passed away this summer, and 60 of us tenants gathered in her memory in the garden, the store staff didn’t only show up too; they brought food and beverages enough for everyone there.
And, on New Year’s Eve Eve, let the record show that Randy and Sam in latex gloves crouched on the floor for 20 minutes, wiping every dime I owned and wrapping it in clean paper. “Store is slow at the moment, it’s okay,” and “Stuff happens all the time,” they assured me. “Not to worry. It’s all good.”
12/26/14: The Way We Get By
Three community elders in Bangor, Maine, joined forces and hospitality to make a difference in a lot of lives. Open the home page, and click the arrow to see the 2009 trailer.
Mr. Y. was out doing his chores this morning, and hailed me with the usual greetings and blessings and inquiries about my happiness and health.
I told him a story. “Today I was walking to work. My mind was upset about some people and actions from the past. ‘Why did they do this? Why?’ and I was rushing along with these thoughts, not really noticing the day or things around me.”
Mr. Y. comes from a country with a magnificent ancient culture, and also great trials and adversities. He speaks several languages, but English is only the most recent. It takes him a moment to absorb the implications of what I’m saying. Let’s see: a beautiful day, out walking, but missing it all because of old thoughts?? His kind radiant face shadows over with dismay. Imagine! Having a mind that does that!
“But then,” I hurry on, “There was a pink flower. I don’t know its name. It didn’t blossom in that spot before. But there it was, so I got on my knees and took a picture.” I show him my phone:
He sets his broom aside, and with his hands at his back peers at the phone and lights up with happy exclamations at the loveliness of the flower, and at my good fortune.
I’ve just learned a lesson from him.
He picks up his broom.
Bus is packed; the world and their kids are heading downtown for the fireworks. I fall into a seat in the way back with the young people, next to one with a boom box turned way up.
A nervous ripple of laughter and furtive jeering goes through the teens around me. I consider moving up front and hanging on a strap instead. Scanning for cues I sit quiet with my head down, and after a while through the decibels I figure out that they’re saying to my seat neighbor “SHE is so gonna tell you turn that junk DOWN. You watch. I bet you.”
In fact, the music sounds about like a cement truck, the abrasive safety warning noises (rotch rotch rotch) that tell you it’s backing up. But then I think of Ron Taffel, the New York therapist for teenagers, who made himself learn all about his young clients’ music and media. So, glassed in under direct sun with the crush and random alcohol fumes, since there’s no escape from these incessant lyrics, I sit and listen.
At first they’re like a big verbal furball. But then meanings here and there tease out into threads of sense.
“German???” I turn to the young man with the music.
“German, Ma’am,” he says. “This here is the Snowgoons. You will be surprised, how many people never heard of the Snowgoons. Here’s another of theirs.” He taps some buttons on his smart phone, and tinkers with a little black plastic brick in his other hand; that’s where the music is coming from.
“Now what is that music box?” I ask. “Impressive. It’s certainly powerful.”
(His friends across the aisle, losing their bet, swap incredulous looks.)
“Blue Tooth, Ma’am. Controls work like this. But this song here is not your kind. I’ve got just your kind for you here,” he assures me, punching more buttons on the phone.
And what might that be?
He surprises me by relinquishing his Blue Tooth. He sets it next to my knee like an offering, and cranks up the volume. It’s a song about Vietnam combat PTSD, a monologue which happens to be (I looked it up) about the performer’s father.
… And I didn’t sign up to kill women or children
For every enemy soldier, we killin’ six civilians!
“Wow. What is this??”
“Jedi Mind Tricks, Ma’am. ‘Uncommon Valor.'” Over the combat music he has to shout to talk to his friends across the aisle. They’re swapping cautionary stories of people they know getting killed too; shot, stoned, fights, just as if the war moved over here. He launches into the lyrics and acts out the beat and all the different synthesized effects layered in, each one getting its own finger signs and nods and riffs; his hearing and timing look flawless.
Pray to the one above, it’s rainin’, I’m covered in mud
I think I’m dyin’, I feel dizzy, I’m losin’ blood
I see my childhood, I’m back in the arms of my mother
I see my whole life, I see Christ, I see bright lights
I see Israelites, Muslims, Christians at peace. No fights.
We’re leaning over the box like it’s a bedtime story; me in surgical scrubs worn out from a day of skills practice at school, he in a fancy jacket with chains around his wrists. He looks up in my eyes. He smiles.
I smile back and pull the bell rope for my stop. “Thank you for talking to me. It’s like meeting a real D.J.”
“Yes. That’s what I’m like,” he says, with a thoughtful nod. “Have a good day.”
Thank goodness the patient’s in surgery; our nine-hour day of paperwork and lab tests and tension and waiting is finally over. The OR team just swept Mom off through the double doors; it’s in their good hands. All her daughter has to do is wait. Well, and wait some more; they’ll be back in 6 hours, and Mom will spend the night upstairs.
I’m off the case.
I pack up my clipboard and paperwork, rummaging in my knapsack to make room: pull out rain slicker, lunch, and book, then pack it all again.
“What’s that?” says Daughter, leaning forward.
It’s a battered dollar copy of the sentimental 1897 In His Steps by Charles Sheldon, sincere clunky prose with stilted dialogue, about a town that decides to start acting only and always exactly as Jesus would. It gave us the oft-parodied phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” Mine has a stylized Savior picture; white robe, blond curls, blue eyes gazing dreamily skyward. Funny how for Jesus we have no photos and only artist renditions, but he still has more worldwide recognition than anyone but Ronald McDonald.
“Oh. This? Mm, a book,” I say.
“Do you think,” she nestles closer in total trust, “that perhaps I could borrow this book for just tonight? I will for sure return it to your office in the morning, promise!”
I can absolutely lose my job for this. This here is a state facility. No ideology at work. No politics, no fundraising, no religion. My boss is a fine healthcare advocate, who runs a supportive high-morale ship. Won’t she be pleased when a patient shows up and says Mary was passing out Christian literature to vulnerable clients. Besides, this lovely young woman belongs to a culture group where everybody knows everybody. Word travels fast in this patient group. By this time tomorrow they might well say “Mary gives presents to Christians. Her Christian patients receive better health care.”
“You see,” she explains, all eager sincerity, “Mama took sick so suddenly, that I could only call the ambulance and hurry in the car. My husband is at home with our babies in [name of town an hour away]. He has no way to bring me anything. Not even clothes or snack. Tonight sitting up at Mama’s bed, how nice it will be if just I can read some nice and religious book.”
She and I go back and forth a bit over it; me assuring her that
1. the book is pretty dated and not exactly fine literature,
2. we can go ask the volunteer team for books that she might like a lot better,
3. For the sake of the patients, I made a commitment with this job to never impose my beliefs on anyone. It would be wrong of me to betray the hospital’s trust in me.
She listens in perfect patience, hands clasped like lotus flowers at her throat, waiting for the next six hours for Mama to come back (or maybe not; maybe not) and then a long night in an armchair. Her sweet exhausted worry-worn eyes rest on that saccharine portrait and can’t tear themselves away.
And looking at her sweet pale face I say the only thing there is to say. “I guess Jesus would give you this book.”
Her face lights up in a smile. She holds it in both hands and clasps it to her heart.
1/24: But she’s my UNCLE!
It’s 10:00 at night, and we are waiting for the elevator.
My shift began at 9:00 this morning. It was supposed to end at noon. But, we have a problem here.
The problem is a rare disturbing ailment brought in to the country by the sweetest most vulnerable little lady wrapped in veils and robes in a wheelchair. Doctors, labs, scans, phone calls, Health Department must ascertain, stat, just which ailment it is and on what order of magnitude. Then they’ll choose and employ treatment and prophylactic measures to protect her, her family, and if need be the American public.
It’s 10:05, and we are still waiting for that elevator to the parking garage. We need to be back here at 8:00 tomorrow. We just left the MRI unit, where we explained to Grandmother six ways from Sunday in three different languages what the test is, and why we need to roll her in to a tiny and loud capsule for a long time, and why she needs to hold perfectly still. Our explanations make no sense to her. Neither does the tiny loud capsule, which she keeps trying to crawl out of, so the tech crew has to start the scan over and over. The rest of us stand in the control room hollering encouragement to her. Over the microphone we hear her little voice pray “My God, My God, why did they lock me away in here? Did they forget all about me? Where did everybody go and leave me all alone?”
It’s 10:10 and we’re still waiting, her daughter and son-in-law and I, so the elevator can take them to their car. The floor is silent and empty but for one crumb-sized distant figure like a Monopoly playing piece character, holding a crumb-sized mop. In both directions, the empty shining floors of the hospital extend into space, disintegrating into long intersecting planes of waxed glare.
The daughter, mother of three little ones, Grandmother’s full-time caretaker, rustles and rustles in her raincoat for her change purse. She pulls out a cough drop and feeds it to me with a kind smile. Four hours ago, the hospital presented her, husband, and Grandmother with three meal coupons, good for supper in the cafeteria. “Four,” said Daughter, in her shy English. “Must to four please.” Her silent but resolute husband murmurs assent, indicating with adamant gestures that I must be fed too. But no, the hospital informed them both that staff people like me don’t get a coupon; complimentary dinners are provided only for the patient’s blood relatives. At that, Daughter threw her arms around me and held on tight, crying out “But she is my UNCLE!”
Let the record state that on the night in question, Admin was seen to dole out an extra free dinner. It was tasty, too.
I eat my cough drop, and smile back at her. I tuck in sleeping Grandmother’s outdoor veil. Daughter puts an arm around me while she and Husband confer on where we should all meet in the morning.
Next day it will all turn out fine.
All kinds of lab results will come home to roost. Pathology will swing into action, putting Grandmother to bed on an I.V. drip with an armament of drugs, and send her home with a Health Department nurse for followup with pounds of colored pills. By next day the little dear will feel so alert and full of pep that she will all but fling her breakfast off the serving cart, and will threaten in three languages to storm downstairs to the kitchen and teach these smartie doctors how to make a decent bowl of oatmeal.
But for now it’s 10:15, and we’re reduced to dazey whispers as we finish our strategy huddle, and shake hands all round.
The elevator clunks along behind closed doors, and then open ones.
They’re free to go at last.
In the meantime, we don’t notice Grandmother as she finishes a brief doze and sits up, reaching her little feet in beaded slippers down to the floor and inching her wheelchair up behind me. She takes my hand and presses it to her forehead and her heart, and before she lets go of it she kisses all five fingers mwa mwa mwa mwa mwa like a rainfall of blessings.
11/2: Hatch Battening
What a day! In the mountains they’re getting 11 inches of snow and gale winds. Here in town we had a hard downpour at dawn, then flashes of sun through racing clouds and gusts of 60 mph and higher; that means the suburbs have trees and power wires falling. Out the window the leaves were torn right off the maples.
When our Intrepid Grounds and Building Crew appeared outside the management office, I hailed them with some foolish teasing.
Mary: Now fellas, you know that big shingle project you’ve been wanting to start? I think you ought to put it off a day.”
Mr. M: Hey, Mary! Thank you for your patience. But we are heading up to your roof right now. See that?
They pointed out my bedroom window.
Right above was a long long peel of what looked like rubber matting, flapping in the wind about to tear off. But it was a great sheet of metal!
Going out there 5 floors up was dangerous work. I was worried about them, but as we walked there they joked around to cheer me up.
Mr. M: Maybe I’ll just tie J. & me together and I’ll go sit on the stairs. After all, I weigh in at more than he does.
Mr. J: If you see something fly off the roof, it’s ’cause he pushed me.
Well, I had to go up with them at least to sit in the stairwell in case they needed me to run and fetch anything or in case the roof door got stuck and they couldn’t get back in.
Mr. J: We’ve got to keep this door closed tight. It’s gonna blow right off the hinges. Better leave our hats inside too.
They’re strong men, but they had a struggle managing the door and closing it behind them. Working side by side they had to shout hard to hear each other.
I pulled out my prayer cards and worked through Psalm 50 word for word three times. By that time they were back.
Mr. M: Mary was praying for us. Weren’t you Mary?
Mr. J: Must have been. The wind dropped just as we started nailing.
Mr. M: A team effort.
Mr. J: Lock that door.
Mr. M: Yeah. We sure don’t want Mary going out there.
Mr. J: Oh, I don’t know. I used to watch “The Flying Nun” as a kid.
9/7: Fail, Fail Again
“People seldom see the painful halting steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved….
Keep on beginning and failing. Each time you fail, start all over again, and you will grow stronger until you have accomplished a purpose — not the one you began with perhaps, but one you’ll be glad to remember.” — Anne Sullivan Macy
9/1: A Million Channels
“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them. You can burn my books, and the books of the best minds in Europe. But the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels, and will continue to quicken other minds.”
— Helen Keller, excerpt from letter to a Nazi group that organized a public burning for her books. Minute 3:58 of Helen Keller — Her Amazing Story
(One can only imagine the reaction at the words “best minds of Europe…”)
8/19: Gifts in Green
Four plant gifts in one week! From left to right…
Fresh-picked purslane from a kitchen garden; purslane rooted and growing; home-grown lemon verbena for tea; and as a handsome backdrop, a potted palm from Church. There I told the ladies, “In America, a potted palm was traditionally a sign of great wealth. The bus passengers seeing me carry this pot home will be impressed by my high social status.” The givers all had such good taste in gifts, and even better taste in recipients.
Texting vs. Eye to Eye
Werner Herzog’s 34 minute documentary for AT&T:
One Second to the Next
Interviews with people who texted while driving, and the ripples it made in other lives. It’s really about the way our culture values emotional engagement. It’s whether or not we watch where we’re going and think where we’re watching and acknowledge the people right in front of us. At first the action seems very slow, but by the end it was clear that the form followed function to prove a point: relationships (live and untexted) take time and attention, personal contact and listening and talking out our stories.
Stitch in Time 7/23: Letter to the Landlord
Your Maple Street team deserves applause for a new property asset with a surprising life of its own: a residents’ garden. Thanks to the staff, three raised beds of weeds now grow vegetables and flowers for ten tenants and their families, plus occasional volunteers, guests, and donors. (Our plants posed for the photos attached with this email.)
The Maple St. office team let the tenants use the plots, asking only that we supply all the work and funding. They took extra trouble to get the idea going. Our dear Nancy (aka “Garden Queen”) bravely set out to administer the individual resident gardening agreements and to field a hail of phone calls and questions. Nancy found herself the peacekeeper at a vehement meeting, where tenants demanded “Why don’t They (the Office, intrepid maintenance team, owners, City, Government, Green Giant, whoever) dig out the roots and buy topsoil and……?” It is a wonder she didn’t kick us all out and scrap the whole idea. Janette took the trouble to pass on gardening messages. She also cleared bamboo from her property, and trimmed it to make tomato stakes; she is very patient about loaning me the bulletin board key to post gardening notices. The intrepid maintenance team of Jim, Ross, and Tom (alpha order) tackled stubborn roots in their spare time, and were always gracious about letting me use their shovel; they even built two beautiful nearby picnic tables for the enjoyment of the families. Tom also turned some scrap wood into more stakes, and loaned me a hammer for installation. All of them provide welcome moral support and appreciation to us green thumb types.
If we figure in parts and labor, we pioneers could save money by crossing the street to buy carrots at Safeway. But it is very touching to see how people passing by, and especially our elders and children, stop to gaze at the plants. Even those who fervently prefer privacy have been won over by the appealing sight of blooming things. Potential residents viewing apartments look pleased to ask questions about the garden; it’s a nice way for them to learn more about living here. We tenants started swapping phone numbers and growing tips and vegetables and supplies, sharing lunch outside, and keeping an eye on each other’s plots or apartments when people vacation.
I already love living here. But the garden has brought acquaintance with many more residents for a better quality of life. The garden beds are like a village plaza where people holler and wave from their balconies and windows, and can’t wait to hurry over and show me their latest vegetative triumph or to share the bounty. Already they are eagerly discussing plans for next year, brainstorming on how to make the garden even better and more inclusive. Appreciation for living things has brought folks together in sympathy and fellow feeling. That neighborliness was the real harvest all along.
Stitch in Time 7/3: Remembrance
Memorial for someone in a street attack last Friday night. Police came, and went searching for clues. People left flowers and clothes and messages on cardboard and sidewalk chalk and a spray paint R.I.P. across the pavement. Five days later they were still gathering in little groups, just staying close.
The intrepid Building & Management Team always stops to give me a big hello and to say something supportive about my “Sugar Ann” pea plants. In fact, back in February it was the Team who kept reassuring me that yes, the first sprouts were in fact real sprouts, long before I could see them well enough to be sure.
Today, The Fellas took note of the fact that at planting time I had somehow not placed proper stakes in the ground for the peas to climb.
And why is that?
Because I made a point of purchasing Dwarf short bush Sugar Anns, to avoid the need to go buy stakes. The package specified that instead of staking the peas, I was supposed to plant them at their destination distance of X inches apart, then let them connect in the middle and all hold each other up. Well fine, but for some reason my compacts are now 3 feet high and toppling each other over.
The Intrepid Ones deduced my little problem right away while watching me try to pound a broken shard of cutting board into the patch with my fists in lieu of a stake. After a few tactful inquiries on their part, and hearing that I was going to go get my unused bathroom plunger and install that next, they wished me luck and moved on to the workshop basement. Lo, not 15 minutes later when I came back outside, they had made me a dozen proper stakes, sawing one end pointy and the other flat, and left them in the patch with a shiny new hammer to pound them in. (Guys, if you are reading this — I left your hammer downstairs on the dryer. And wow, thank you!)
It took a good hour to wedge a dozen stakes in among 100 pea plants.
A lot of the work was leaning with elbows in the dirt and my head in a green thicket, tracing and untangling the tendrils that lock the peas together.
What a Nature lesson that was.
Walking past a pretty patch every day is one thing. But one hour huddled down unfurling a heap of tendrils, and seeing how they latched on to my fingers right away with such determination, made me ponder. Clearly peas are happiest when holding tight to one another, and to some stable support that lets them climb up to the sun and sky. Apparently a little tendril can sense the presence of another object, if only another searching little tendril, and can lock right around it in only a matter of hours. It really brought home how powerful bonding energy is.
If plants can do all that, then how about human beings?
The term “Clinging Vine” is a joke when we use it for people. But from an elbow-high view I wondered how it might look, and how it might help, if our culture offered more respected ways for people to cling around.
5/18: It’s all Stars to Me
To: [Undisclosed Recipients]
Subject: morning update
… and, in conclusion, Ross will be out today at a VIP exclusive viewing of the latest and greatest Star Wars, soon playing at a theater near you.
Mary’s Lo- lo-tech entertainment tip: a pensive vignette from Attraction, a charmingly modest troupe from Hungary who rehearses in a space with “only mouse and garbage”:
“Attraction Shadow Theatre Group on Britain’s Got Talent 2013”
This has been our office update for Friday, May 17. A merry little weekend to all.
Subject: your update
I just freaked out that there was a new Star Wars and I didn’t know it!!! Then I realized that you meant to write Star Trek. Haha.
To: Captain Vickie
Subject: It’s all Stars to me
UH-OH. How many replies am I gonna get on that one?
Well thank you, when people flock to my desk for details they can watch me set myself straight.
I’m gonna Reply All so you get lots of comments. AHAHAHAHA!
You are adorable, and yes go right ahead.
You can tell that I care more about impoverished Hungarians who can afford nothing but shadows and are still brilliant. Bye-o.
5/1: Fancy meeting you!
The morning bus is almost empty. It starts out in a quiet little residential neighborhood before heading downtown. A half dozen mature ladies sit up front in a little bevy, each of us choosing the same seat every day. We all look around and make sure everybody in the bevy made it to the bus, and we smile and nod and say hello. Same routine. Every day.
Well last winter a young man staked out a seat up front too. He’s there every day, right in the bevy. But each time when I get on he’s extremely busy texting with his head down, absorbed in his work. Every morning I give him a nod and a soft hello, not wanting to disturb him, but he is much too busy texting to notice. Every morning, same greeting; every morning he’s too busy to notice any of us. So it’s been for, oh, months.
(“And you brought your own baggage to that,” said an astute colleague. “The same generational idea that I would have brought. ‘Why can’t you put down that g–d– iWhatever, and pay attention to the people around you?”
“Yes!” I told him. “I brought my fixed notion that Life is a better place when we look up and scope the people around us. But that is a fixed notion of my very own. Is it universally true? Apparently not.”)
Today I was sitting in my usual place, one of the sideways seats facing the aisle. The driver slammed on the brakes. When she did, then time slowed to a crawl. I noticed with interest that my seat crept slowly away, receding out from under me. My shoulder bag floated gently into the air. The floor, inch after inch, began passing before my eyes. One foot. Two feet. Three.
My thoughts said “Wait, where am I going? How far will I go? This can’t be happening!”
But the floor floated past and past and past.
Finally my head came to a soft landing, in the lap of the texting young man. My arms and legs waved around, but for a moment were not able to remove said head from said lap.
In a flash he caught my shoulders, held me up, and with large concerned kindly eyes said “ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?”
It took me a moment to shake myself and get my breath and balance before answering. But thanks to him there was no harm done, and soon I was gathered up and seated again.
When I got off the bus I gave him a smile. He smiled back.
4.24: The Driver
[Online Commendation Form, N___ County Metro]:
Raining hard on Saturday night.
A gray-haired lady was apprehensive about maneuvering off the bus to the wet pavement. The driver lowered the bus and said “Careful, Dear — good night now, I will see you next time on this route.” The lady straightened right up and smiled; just the thought that someone would be looking out for her made a difference.
A half dozen boys shoved on next. They were really loud. Really. Loud.
The driver said “Evening, gentlemen! Careful with that language.” He reminded them three times during the trip: “Whoa, no cussin’ now.” He did it in a friendly good-natured way. (Yup, we’re all men here, we know how hard it can be to watch our mouth when we’re out with our buddies.) The boys gave him a royal apology as they left. The driver said “Take good care of each other.”
I told him “You did some nice parenting there with them.”
He said “That is just how I was raised: When adults are present, there are words that you do not use! But didn’t those boys take it well! It’s a blessing, it’s a blessing.”
So many of our bus drivers do so much more than pilot a bus. They also change our neighborhoods with their presence. Please thank this driver, and thank yourselves while you are at it.
3/29: A better prayer.
It’s Good Friday. As in years past, it would have been right and fitting for me to work with some fasting and to go to church for Stations of the Cross and the Seven Last Words. Instead I felt truly compelled to go to the store for extra drinking water.
At Local Grocery, there was a man sitting at the door in tears.
When I stopped and asked him what was wrong and what he needed, he wept “I’m just hungry. I have a place to sleep right up the street there, but my leg hurts so that I can’t get up. I am hurting, and people are cold. Some beef would really help. I have never come so far down as this before and hope you will forgive me.”
He gave us his name, the same as one of the four original Doctors of the Western Church. He was new in town far from home, from a very proud traditional culture that was too often hurt and scattered.
He truly didn’t want an ambulance. So for this Good Friday I went in to the deli counter and bought him a little packet of roast beef, and explained to him that it was all ready to eat without cooking.
The store manager came out and politely said “Now Buddy, you need to move along.”
I explained to the manager that we were trying to figure out what this man needed so he could stand up and go home. The manager looked young and kind and rather at a loss himself, and stayed with us too.
Other shoppers stopped and stood around in a ring, circling the wagons as it were. One took out a roasted rotisserie chicken and gave it to him. Another gave him money. A younger lady brought him oranges.
He looked up at us in amazement and said “Is this what happens when you pray? I didn’t pray soon enough, but I am praying now. Will someone please pray with me?”
The younger lady who brought the oranges asked me if I’d come along so we could drive him back up the street.
He seemed much more encouraged now, and was able to stand and get in her car.
We drove him where he needed to go and unloaded his groceries.
“Can we pray now?” he asked us.
My neighbor said a prayer for him asking for his protection and safety and peace.
He said “Can I say a better prayer than that?” He took our hands and started chanting. “O Lord, O Lord! Forgive me, I did not love you enough, and some times I do not love you at all. But you always love me better and if you love me better then maybe I can BE better and a better person and love you better too. Now, Lord love these two girls because I don’t know what they need but you know better! Amen!”
Then my kind neighbor drove me home and we had a nice chat.
“That was unusual,” she said. “What a sweet man.”
“Clearly some angelic being in disguise,” I pointed out.
I hope to see her again in our neighborhood.
3/19 Randy Says
At my local grocery, Cookie Sale Season ended on 3/17.
Before that, those colorful box stacks were everywhere, staffed by hopeful Girl Scouts and their grownups. (There are no Boy Scout cookies. Are the boys off washing cars and mowing lawns?) When I apologize and say that I can’t eat sugar, they say “You can buy them for your friends, and keep the box in the freezer until they come to visit you!”
And they are right. I can.
But I have to explain that I have tried this stunt before, and the cookies never made it home.
One of the girls was so friendly and inspired, talking with me about how she wants to use her sales experience as a life skill for college.
I told her “Randy Pausch said that when an Eagle Scout came to him for a job, he would try to hire him. He really respects Scouting skills.”
She said “Who is Randy Pausch?”
So I said “He is the professor in The Last Lecture at Carnegie-Mellon. Look it up on You Tube. It’s about achieving your childhood dreams.”
(It happens that I’d watched the Last Lecture again just last Friday.
And by the way,
here is my favorite Randy clip at this link.
And now Mrs. Randy, Jai Pausch, has written Dream New Dreams for other families. I want to read that next.)
Our Scout said “OH! Sometimes I wonder whether my dreams can really be achieved.”
I said “Don’t go yet.” I ran home and got my book copy of The Last Lecture and gave it to her. She and her family were just so happy to get it. “Thank you! Thank you! Are you sure?”
“Randy wants you to have this,” I told her, and we all waved goodbye.
3/6: Getting there from here
Today I left the dental clinic, and after cutting into the courtyard and turning right and in the center door, turning left at the side hall, up the stairs, left then right, then walking way-hay-hay down several blocks of corridors wing to wing to the main hospital building and in to the main lobby, out to the street, down the ramp, and heading for the tunnel leading under the road to my shuttle bus, I overheard a young lady coming the other way, asking a man how to get to the dental clinic.
Ja. What would you say?
So I told her “I just came from there. Let’s go.”
Well, it was heartening and pleasant how delighted she was. (Gratitude, Friends, is not a given if you try spontaneous tour guiding. It is not unusual for one’s flock to give pained lamentation at a long and winding road when it becomes too long and windey.) We wended our way rejoicing as she explained for me a new concept of serendipitous synchronicity: that at times when one truly needs a moment of intervention, it is possible for a passing human to simply step in to the role of being a momentary angel. This idea appealed to me very much and was cause for rejoicing in itself.
We reached the clinic in good time, and there we exchanged coordinates.
I hope she enjoyed a very good visit with her new provider.
2/27 Lost & Found
I was at the Reception desk when a call came in. We’ll call her Miss Tearose.
“Hello, I’m trying to reach the Police Department admin office.”
“Well, you’ve reached [Big Company] instead, but I can look up the Police number for you now while we talk. Is everything all right?”
“Yes, I’ve found a wallet outside my house on Maple & Oak Streets, and I am trying to return it to the owner.”
“Maple & Oak! We’re neighbors. That’s where I live.”
“Then maybe you know him. It’s Tadeusz Matuszewski.”
“Ah, no. But there is one place I can try looking him up.”
“I think he works at Libby’s Gyro. There’s a bunch of coupons in the wallet — buy 9, get one free.”
If he works at Libby’s, the last thing he wants to see at day’s end is another Gyro, but I didn’t bother pointing that out. I just promised to call her in the morning.
“Any time,” she said. “I’m home recuperating from some surgery, so I’ll be right here.”
All right then.
30 seconds of sleuthing tracked down Tadeusz, and I left him a voicemail with Miss Tearose’s contact information.
As the day went on I wondered how Tadeusz was getting along without his wallet and all his ID and cash. But honestly, there wasn’t time to worry about him; I was in a rush to prepare for a vendor visit.
The vendor was stopping by for a routine inspection. Let’s say he was checking up on the elevator, or the seltzer machine, or the garage door. I had some prep to do, and was in a hurry to finish the paperwork to give him the next morning.
So next day I finish the paperwork for the vendor and call Miss Tearose to see how she is.
“Tadeusz was here!” she tells me. “He left his work right away and came to get the wallet.”
“That’s good news. I’ll call off the dogs.”
“Thank you for bird-dogging this in the first place.”
“Thank you for calling. You probably saved him from identity theft.” Might be hard to pass as someone that most people can’t pronounce, but who knows.
Here comes the vendor rep. He’s fast, efficient, capable, very polite, very young, and shy. He is also surprisingly handsome in a wholesome sweet way, but that is none of my business. The paperwork is, though, and I sign his copy while he signs mine.
At the same moment we blink at each other’s signatures and look up.
“Tadeusz Matuszewski,” I tell him. “Hello.”
“Mary. You got my WALLET back,” he says.
We shake hands.
“Go bring Miss Tearose that 10th Gyro,” I tell him as we wave goodbye.
And here are the brothers and sisters, 172 of them, planted in little rows today in my little patch. Here is hoping that they germinate in 8-10 days.
1/20/13: Taking it to the streets
It is nice to think that our biggest addictions actually contain precious keys of wisdom about our dreams. For example, a rapt obsession with Ukrainian talent shows may tell us that the viewer really wants to be Ukrainian too, or at least would like to play and sing for other people. So far I’ve started playing psaltery at the parking garage at work and at my favorite fruit stand. The next step is to take the psaltery out every day and play some, just to be part of the noise of the world.
Also I just asked a galfriend to let me play some psaltery music tomorrow, so she can film it on my cell phone. Maybe there will be a little film clip for this blog soon.
Meanwhile, my gosh there is a lot of talent in Ukraine!
Anna Khokhlova, Donetsk
Evgenii Litvinkovich, Belarus
Oleksii Kuznetsov, Matveevka?
12/26: Dear Manager, don’t look now
Stopping by the mega grocery chain to use their water filter machine, I carried my refilled jug to the counter while hauling an oversized shopping bag full of rice milk cartons.
“That will be 41 cents,” said the pleasant courteous cashier.
“Here you go, thanks. And, I want to show you my trash. Look in here. This bag is full of rice milk cartons, the same brand that you sell here.”
“Oh. Why so it is. (……?)”
“On my way to the store, I stopped off to tip this bag into the recycle bins. But all the bins are full. So, I had to bring all this along to the store and will haul it all home. I just don’t want you to think that the cartons are full and came from your shelves. See, when I walked into the store the overhead loudspeaker kept announcing a Customer Service Code 201.”
“That’s right. Code 201 means that the Customer Service desk has an incoming call, and they need someone to pick up the phone.”
“OH. I thought it means ‘Lady with head scarf is filling a huge sack with cartons of rice milk.”
“Nah. You’re off the hook. Happy holidays! Enjoy your recycling!”
12/5: Free Snow, thanks to WordPress.com
It’s December, and WordPress has turned on our free snow. “Snow” is an option that shows up in our user settings, and if we bloggers checkmark the option box we can get falling snow to trickle through our sites all month! Thank you, friendly tech support! (I just noticed that the snow falls through the actual typeface of the individual letters as if they were transparent, and that by dragging the cursor I can steer the snowflakes. Who thought of all that?)
11/21: Missing Accessory
Last night’s event: interfaith service + cookie buffet.
Got all dressed up, fixed a raw vegetable platter for the buffet, headed out to make friends.
Attempts to establish conversation or even eye contact proved inconclusive. Perhaps it’s just that interfaith anything is sincere people who keep smiling and try really hard to say and do neutral things so that no one anywhere can be offended.
The one refreshing ray was the sole representative from the local Masjid. At the microphone he greeted us with “Salaam Aleikum.” (On reflex I hollered back with a hearty “Wa Aleikum es Salaam,” because that is what one does, and of course was the only holler in the whole building.) Now my understanding was that Muslim people as a rule do not join interfaith gatherings, and do not pray in a room with a crucifix or other artist renderings of venerated figures. So sure enough, there seemed to be no sign of a Muslim contingent or a family member with our guest, and he did not actually say any prayers. Instead he gave a tastefully concise commentary on gratitude from the Quran, then stepped out to the vestibule to greet the organizers. I took a program home with his name on it so I can call the Masjid on Monday and thank him for being there.
The cookie buffet was a mighty groaning board of confections. I stood hovering with my vegetable plate and little ingredient list, trying to get through the crowd of people who stood smiling for dear life with cookies in hand. Finally the thought came to me “You’ll only confuse them. Go home.” Passing our lone Muslim I said “Jazak Allah kheir! May Allah reward you!” and he looked surprised and offered me a proper and cordial handshake.
Outside it was windy and cold with low rushing storm clouds. To shake off that service and get back to baseline, I walked home singing Church Slavonic prayers, belting them out all along the street in my reflective vest, holding my safety flashlight with the pretty loud hand crank. Then it occurred to me how this might look: some figure in the dark ranting who knows what, cranking away “GER-wa, GER-wa.” The only missing accessory was the monkey.
11/14: YOUR Reluctant Stuff
At the store there’s a new young man stocking the shelves. He has such an appealing face: broad, beaming, rock star smile, little touch o’ Down Syndrome going on maybe. He’s having a blast schmoozing with the customers while he works.
One older man stops to buy himself a bottle of wine.
The new stocker calls out “Card him! Card him! Is he really over 21?”
The cashiers and the customer, who appears to know him and to be very familiar with this joke, have a good laugh.
I’m in the parking lot when this kid comes flying after me. “Oh Ma’am. Ma’am! I think that this is yours.”
And sure enough, it’s my water refill; I left it on the counter. Hoo boy. How did he notice that?
I’m back in the parking lot, and hear it again: “Oh Ma’am!” He just found my reflective vest in the store, and remembered seeing me wear it when I came in. “Ma’am,” he says. “Looks like YOUR stuff just doesn’t want to come home with you.”
“Looks like you should just start running my life,” I tell him.
He finds that very comical. Clasping his hands overhead he does a little victory lap around the shopping carts before hauling them back indoors.
It’s a dark windy rainy night. I’m barrelling down the sidewalk in the usual long rain slicker, going to the store to refill the water bottles. A man is coming the other way. We give each other a nod, and at first I don’t even see the child with him until the little boy washes right up against me and holds on to my slicker. I’m a little startled that his Dad would let his kid grab at strangers, but Dad just laughs. Then I see that the little guy is holding something up for me to see. “Well look at that,” I tell him. “You found yourself a horse chestnut shell. It’s all prickly, like a crab. It was holding a horse chestnut inside. They look like smooth brown stones on the sidewalk.” He claps his hands a couple of times and goes frisking off into the dark.
10/17: Fine dining
10 seconds, Wednesday: The microwave at work is out of order. My co-worker asked me some intelligent question about the nature of the malfunction. I saw this as a teachable health moment, and ordained myself as just the person to do the teaching. Aiming for a tactful tone, yet puffed with inner pride, I replied, “Gosh, I wouldn’t know; I never eat out of microwaves.”
He with straight face said “And, you never should. First, hit the Stop button. Then take the food out of there, and help yourself to a plate.”
There was a barter fair in town today. Huddled under flapping tents in a hearty rain, people kept booths with their home canning and crafts and soap and bread and hand-raised bin worms. One of them set up a little tool-sharpening station, and was working away on sharpening garden and kitchen tools for neighbors. The main excitement though was three large beautifully crafted wooden hand-crank cider presses. Traders of all ages took turns manning the cranks and pressing out cider from the trees in local backyards. People had a great time bargaining for goods and sharing recipes and know-how.
Then my own barter opportunity came up when I packaged some day-bright soup and cole slaw for my friend and her father. They were dropping off vegetables and seedlings for me from their garden harvest. I planted the seedlings right away. Half are in the garden now, and half in the kitchen at night, and balcony by day; we’ll see how they do:
10/10: Be Reflective! (= !evitcelfeR eB)
10 seconds, Wednesday. Wearing my disco ball safety vest again, feeling like a Peter Max painting. Crossing at my little corner, I took off the vest and swung it like a cape on one side for one lane, then swung it on the other side for the other lane — even though one lane was empty and the traffic in the other was still a block away.
As I was walking to the driveway, an SUV braked right in the middle of the street and a woman leaned out. “Excuse me!! Can I just say? THANK YOU! Nobody ever does that. And I can not SEE them!”
That does it. I’m mailing one to Mom.
10 seconds, Tuesday. Walking in the morning dark to the bus stop in the new super-fluorescent safety vest. Now that I have one, I wonder how I did without it? They are a really good idea! This does not stop me from feeling like a walking disco ball. Then turning the corner here’s some fluorescent safety-vested utility workers walking to the road repair across the street. The woman in the group chimes out a big good morning, checking out my vest: “Very smart, very smart. Be reflective!” Fellowship of the psychedelic.
10 seconds, Monday. The carpet replacement guys are moving through the office early before work. Pretty soon we’re chatting up, and when they leave I offer them some roasted almonds, and one says, “I get it: You’re kind of the den mother around here, aren’t you?”
10 seconds, Sunday.
At the Orthodox church they’re giving a baby a baby-sized exorcism, and they dunk him in the baptismal font three times. Then the grownups wrap him in towels and give him a snuggle and a jiggle around. When he cries, they start laughing. Strange at first, but then it dawns on me: they’re celebrating his reaction to this first life disaster, as a way to hope that all the other calamities pass by this easily; caught in white towels and rose-scented oil by people who love you, in sunshine through applique stained glass.
9/25: Holy Day
Beth Shalom congregation, 6:39 p.m. (21 minutes to sunset. Yom Kippur maybe?). The doors are wide open. A table is set up in their walkway, neatly piled with heavy attractive books. Men and women are waiting at their posts to greet the worshippers. From blocks away, walking from all directions, families are coming. Everyone is wearing white! Some even wear all white, from kipa to shoes.
It’s such a festive sight. And just imagine, we live in a country where this festive sight is possible for us today!
There is one other outside observer looking on. He’s a member of the city police department guarding the walkway. His uniform is not white, and neither is he. He turns to me and smiles with a bow.
“Oh, isn’t it nice!” I stop and say to him.
“It is nice, Miss,” he says. “It is very nice.”
At the book table, a young man and young woman look over from their greeting duties. They saw me stop and say something to the policeman, and now they’re quietly alert, watching us. Problem, Officer?
So I hurry on my way; he and I nod our goodnights.
The garden started with five bitty kale plants and one donated bitty pumpkin plant. Since then, people have kept stopping by to contribute more items here and there. Now our garden has 1 geranium, 1 punkin, 2 cabbages, 3 potatoes, and plants of 8 different herbs. One neighbor brought a solar hummingbird light; it soaks up sun all day, then glows for half the night, changing colors from one end of the rainbow to the other and back again.
Neighbors on the garden-facing patios tell me that people passing by, especially little kids and the older residents, stop by to check out the progress on what-all is growing. Well, that called for a garden meeting so we plant-growing types could finally meet and talk. Last week, one neighbor offered a lot of moral support and a soup contribution, so we picked today’s date to meet from 3:00 to 5:00. I put two little flyers in the garden and told a few people. About 10 of us met today at the garden picnic table for a snack chat. Our building & maintenance team colleague brought plenty of tasty chips and smoked-pepper salsa. I brought cole slaw and raw apples and vegetables and nuts. We all sat and talked, and then after cleaning up and tidying our kitchens 3 of us met again outside and kept right on talking until 10:45 tonight! Already we’re planning another little supper for next month, and the garden for next year. But most important, this was a chance for the single parents with teenagers to team up. Everyone talked about Family, sharing their stories of what it means to them, and how all of us are wishing for more little steps toward family ties in our own lives.
Starting with a few plants and snacks on a table. For starters.
9/20: In All Things
This is a trailer for the documentary film Inokinia (Инокиня). Sister Iuliania (Irina Denisova) is the conductor of the church choir at St. Elizabeth’s Monastery in Minsk, Belarus. Poem composed by Hieromonk Andrei Logvinov, arrangement by Sister Iuliania. That repeated refrain of “Vsevo-to Navsevo” means “In all things…” In all things do not grieve, In all things love, In all things forgive…
9/3, Ukraine’s Got Talent: The performance starts at 3:10; the song is “The Winter” by Balmorhea.
This is The Workout Collective, just in case anyone out there tonight is wondering, “Has Ukraine Got Talent?”
Looking for “House of Clocks” by Al Stewart I found it here, as the soundtrack for a 2:59 animated clip.
Cara Antonelli (Arenyth) deserves the credit for “The Clock Tower,” 2008; the full-screen version here was her student project from the Ringling College of Art and Design.
After listening to the song many times over, I finally was able to bring myself to try a look at the cartoon. Usually I have to steer around animation and avoid it completely; it might be that the visual tricks are too disconcerting to the eyes and brain? And too often the images are strange or distorted in some way. But for this one, the talent and vision and hard work are just admirable, like the change in the doll’s eyes when she touches the balloon. At first the story is quite sad (life’s a festival, but you can’t have any). After a third view I saw quite the opposite: No matter how routine or hidden or mundane our jobs may seem, we all keep the world going round, and keep the colors in the sky.
One of the neighbors has planted a bunch of seed potatoes. I don’t know what they look like coming up, but now they are on my bucket list for things to water in the evening. It is very good to see someone else so enthusiastic about the garden. Whether they grow or not, I’m inclined to go to the store in 3 months and buy a few and stick them in the ground.
7/31 Today a neighbor moving out left a jumbo chocolate-scented peppermint in a heavy clay pot. The plant is really just a solid brick of potbound root with a few leaves left. I snipped a few shoots to root in water, and soaked the brick overnight to loosen the roots, but 24 hours later they were still a potbound brick. So I tore the root sod to pieces and planted them in several containers of potting soil; when they send up shoots I’ll put the pots in the garden. I hope it likes it here and thrives with that special Girl Scout cookie smell. When I was hauling it in the house and struggling with the front door, a group of tenants came along. Their Grandpa said “Uh-oh, a stranger with a bucket and pots! Don’t let her in!” I said “Wait! Look! I have an official apartment complex key chain!” He said “Oh, ok. Then you’re one of the In people. Can I have your autograph?” His granddaughters had never smelled a Girl Scout cookie growing in dirt before, so they had a nice time picking samples to take in the house. Then Mom and I got talking, and it turns out she has the fabulous corner balcony garden. I may have talked her into planting something outside too.
Then a corner grocery had a dollar sale on plant flats. They were pretty much all baked in the sun, but I picked out a parsley and a sage. The cashier started laughing and refused to charge me for a dead parsley, so I got 2 plants for a dollar. I trimmed all the dead leaves off, and gave them a good soaking and fresh soil. They’re in the garden now. Then a full moon stepped over the black maples to shine on the balcony with its row of Russian Red kale in little pots. It didn’t photograph at all at any angle, but it’s a lovely serene sight on this warm evening.
7/28 Today in the community garden, the donated pumpkin plant opened a big yellow flower. I borrowed the shovel and turned over another six feet of turf, and planted my potted fennel. Then some neighbors moving out saw me, and offered me the herbs from their balcony! Then another neighbor introduced herself over email, one with a balcony garden and a supply of garden books. One new property manager told me she really likes mint plants, so I gave her a potted slip from mine and some new slips so she can have mint outdoors and in. So it goes around.
Today our intrepid team in Building & Groundskeeping let me borrow their shovel yet again. I tackled the next section of garden by hopping up and down on the shovel and then flipping over the turf one bit at a time. One neighbor came out and we chatted about the garden that she built herself out of little boards. It’s all in neat wooden boxes on the ground; from one box she gets almost more tomatoes than she can eat, and Alpine strawberries most of the year. She asked me to water her boxes during her vacation, and offered to water my garden if I ever go away, so now we have a nice exchange going.
Meanwhile, a surprise: some neighbors were moving out, and a visitor was housesitting here. Between them they took five herb bushes and a little cactus, and planted them in the garden when I wasn’t looking! Another neighbor added a lovely hummingbird solar light that charges sunshine all day and then glows at night in rainbow colors! Tomorrow I’ll try for a better photo, but even in this one it’s a big improvement from plain dirt full of roots:
That bit of flowering geranium just over the fence slat is from the kitchen. That’s a memorial for my Russian godmother, who died Friday July 20, on her 83rd birthday. Thinking about her brings to mind all the beautiful stories she used to tell, about the people in her village back home. She loved gardening, so this flower is for her. Светлая память! Bright memory to you!
7/10: Stone Soup
Today someone left two little fence sections in the garden!!! That is the third offer/contribution so far, like the fairy tale about the Stone Soup. I hacked out some roots for the posts, then lined up rocks (= soup stones) on both sides to prop them up. Now it all has a nice intentional look. I approached one of the team on Groundskeeping to ask him who just might have left that for me. He seemed to already know about the surprise, but was uncharacteristically non-committal and non-chatty about guessing. This puts him right in my sights as a possible henchman. See what a nice difference a little fence can do. (I regret cutting my charming neighbor out of the photo, but I doubt that she wants her portrait catapulted across the world wide web.) In the punkin mound I buried some dried almond skins for drainage, then buried 2 eggshells; apparently eggshells are an inviting shelter for earthworms to nibble & hide in. Then I watered it all with water from cooking quinoa pasta, and from washing kale smoothie out of the Vitamix. One week and the garden is still alive!
7/9: Begin the Begin
Start Somewhere, thought I. So I went downstairs to our new tenant community raised-garden, and stuck my trowel in the dirt.
The trowel bent right in half. So I braced my hands over just the blade, and holding it chest high made a lot of chipping motions at the dirt. Ergonomically this doesn’t go far. So I went to the headquarters of our intrepid Building & Groundskeeping team, and asked the guys for the shovel. They were very kind about entrusting it to me. So I got up on the raised bed and hopped up & down on the shovel, chopping up a few inches of dirt at a time. That worked a lot better. In one hour that day and next I cleared a square yard of dirt, hacking out a shopping bag of roots. (Digging up roots is about like digging rocks. But the rocks don’t tie themselves together in growing wads.) At least the guys on the groundkeeping and management team and I got some entertainment value out of it. I told them maybe we can apply to FDR for one of those New Deal mules. It was great fun to be tilling some land.
Then I planted 5 tiny Russian Red Kale seedlings, and now water them twice a day with buckets of dishwashing/cooking water. Here are 3 of the 5 plants, below. Can you see them? Maybe you can if you were the kind of kid who clapped your hands to save Tinkerbelle:
Nice things are already happening with this garden. One neighbor stopped to watch and actually said “Tell me what kind of seeds you need, and I will go out and buy them for you.” Another tenant bought a punkin plant and dropped it off at the office as a contribution! That leaf at front and center died, but the other leaves are still hanging in. Now it’s the big tourist magnet at the south end:
7/4: Happy Are You
Today at Mass, the sermon was a simple concise one that I could take away and keep as an everyday help. Father talked about the Beatitudes (Happy are you, when…) as a compact formula for real happiness. For America’s birthday he also proposed a tactful suggestion: the founding theme of “the pursuit of happiness” has less to do with the consumables for which we are famous, and more to do with freedom to practice the values in these Beatitudes. Here they are in Slavonic, subtitled in English:
Valaam Monastery – Beatitudes
7/1: Teens who stick together
These two are 16 and 17 years old, inseparable. You already know how this audition will turn out. Britain’s Still Got Talent: Charlotte & Jonathan’s Big Chance!
And isn’t Tim the music master going to heaven with his 133 lads? Or creating it right here from Wales: Only Boys Aloud
6/30 Marketing Distribution
This morning I was taking out the garbage. Near the trash pen there was a rained-on scrap of paper lying in the mud. I picked it up to put it in the recycle bin. Lo, it was a drawing of a tall spider in full color with large fangs. The artsmanship style showed that this was the work of the Hopscotch Chalk Artists. They populate our asphalt with daisies and smiling suns and houses with shutters and smoking chimneys, but also monsters and aliens from space. Then I saw that it was a carefully written invitation to attend free summer art classes at an address in our complex, for lessons on how to draw this terrifying creature and much more. The writer requested that people sign up on the form. There were spaces for 18 people to sign. But no one did, because the flyer was a muddy wad on the ground. Then, by the recycle bin, there was another muddy wad. Could it be? Yes. Another flyer, with another carefully colored-in fictional character ready to pop off the page and create mischief.
Two offers, right at my feet! Who could pass up an adventure like that? I cleaned off the flyers, ironed them between paper towels, and put them in clear page protectors backed with cardboard so the girls could post them again even in rain. Then I wrote a letter to The Artists congratulating them on their good idea, explaining the difficulty in their marketing distribution scheme, and left it at the door of the address listed on the flyers.
It just tugged my heart, the thought of these enterprising girls preparing their art supplies and then waiting for people to hurry on down. Or, going outside and wondering who tore down their nice posters. After all, optimism and goodwill like theirs deserves a chance. Maybe some day I’ll get to meet their parents and them. I’ll ask them all for permission to post one of their drawings on this anonymous geographically-neutral blog. That way we can all have an interesting glimpse at the fictional creatures flying around us, waiting to be colored in.