It’s almost midnight here, but there are a couple of hours left of Mom and Dad’s 59th anniversary back in western Washington state, where they began, and still practice, the fine art of marriage. So before I tuck myself into bed, and because I couldn’t reach them in person to say so the first three times I called, I will take this opportunity to thank them for having had the excellent taste in partners that put them together in the first place, the temerity or mild insanity—or both—to have us kids and keep us, and the strength of will and love and hope to stick together for all of these amazing years. Blessings to you, Mom and Dad, and may whatever comes only strengthen your joy in each other.
This is a story as old as human community, and yet it’s notable how little it’s changed. The ugliest, dirtiest, the most physically demanding and unpleasant tasks, the ones that no one in his or her right mind would usually choose to do, let alone without any recognition or reasonable pay, these jobs don’t cease to exist because nobody likes them. They simply get done by people who have no other choice. And do we thank them for it? Do we give them public honor and paychecks commensurate with the knowledge and patience and back-breaking effort and yes, specialized skills that are required of them?
You know the answer. In this country, we spend more time and energy on vilifying the working poor as nuisances and a weight around the necks of their higher-taxpaying richer neighbors, at best. At worst, we accuse them of criminality, many of coming into the country illegally—which they may well have done—to snatch bread from the very lips of our own better educated and better protected children through their stealing jobs from the local citizenry. Which, of course, they rarely do, considering that neither we nor said children are willing and able to do without the jobs that the working poor do for us, let alone perform those tasks ourselves. Never mind that those we abhor for daring to come across the nation’s borders unseen are doing precisely what the vast majority of our own ancestors did, and out of the same desperation for survival, but now with the additional barrier of laws designed more out of fear and hatred than out of specific plans to better the safety and welfare of any of the parties involved.
If immigrants could remotely afford the risky business of taking a national day of “working poor flu,” the way that unionized workers go on strike or recognized organizations march in protest, just imagine what that day would look like across the United States. I don’t begin to think that there’s an easy solution to the problems of regulating this country, protecting individuals and the nation from the very real danger of criminal activity and the bane of individualism gone rogue. The latter being, in my opinion, a far larger risk to the rest of us from among native-born citizens who take their American privileges as the right to do as they please, even by force and against US governmental “interference” with their personal sovereignty. But I can’t believe that the draconian and targeted proposals many suggest these days are the right solution, either.
Let our internal renegades, our legal complainants against immigrants, and all foes of the “lazy” or “problematic” working poor themselves take up the labor and care required to ensure that every one of their fellow Americans has enough food to eat, education to navigate life and progress beyond restrictive ignorance, health care to prevent the spread of diseases and unnecessary pain or early death, and a safe, clean place to sleep without fear of exposure to the elements, destruction of their environment, or unfriendly intruders. Then I might start thinking we can narrow the gates to allow in only primly approved new neighbors able to contribute equally to the cause. Or would anybody out there like to see what happens on that imagined Flu Day, when all of the orderlies, cooks, construction workers, landscape maintenance crews, sanitation workers, child- and elder-caregivers, and all of their fellow underpaid workers lay down their tools and lie down on the job for even 24 hours?
I surely don’t know the solution to any, let alone all, of the problems that roll up into this one massive puzzle we have sitting on our doorstep. But I know that I will try to do better at giving proper respect and thanks, and a hand up when possible, to anyone who does what I can’t or won’t do myself. My life depends upon it.
That which is ubiquitous in my life, the thing that I walk by every single day or experience every time I am in a particular, familiar setting, can become invisible to me. For good or ill, I can forget to notice anymore those things that are so close they could bite me on the nose before I paid proper attention to them. They might be so near I could change them for the better with little effort or they could, if I’m too foolish to do that, turn on me and make my life or someone else’s immeasurably worse for having been left unchanged; good things, conversely, can be so near that I could be uplifted by the mere thought of them if I only gave them a thought in passing.
I must pay better attention. My senses should be enough to remind me of all the woe and wealth that surround me at every turn, and my will should follow my convictions enough to make me respond with a hand of aid, a voice of change, or a heart full of admiration and gratitude. The vast majority of the world hasn’t nearly the kind of wealth and privilege that surrounds me in my life—materially, yes, but also in health, safety, opportunity, hope and happiness—and while there is no reason to reject what I have, it should motivate me to take a closer look around me. I ought to take constant inventory and be willing to counter the wrongs and repair those things that I can, or at the least, call upon those who are able to make positive change. And I should be glad at every sign that states the obvious good in my life. Thankfulness is a small enough part of true mindfulness, but looms large in the world of well-being.
I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.
Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.
Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.
Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.
I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.
He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.
When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.
I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.
It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.
This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.
Even when we’re young we pick up clues pretty swiftly regarding what sort of behavior and attitude is expected of us in our interactions with others. As a child, I learned ever so quickly that I am not the boss of anyone else and practically everyone else is the boss of me, and not much has ever changed in that department. Whether happily or unfortunately, depending entirely on your point of view, I also figured out as speedily as most kids do that as long as I behaved in the expected manner when anyone was watching I could get away with a fair amount of far more self-indulgent–if not subversive–ways. Sure does simplify my life!Show of Proper Respect
The Mistress in her jewelry and finery and furs
Thinks everyone should bow and kiss the ground—that’s also hers—
And genuflect before her grand tiara and her mace,
So that is what we tend to do—at least do to her face.All frivolous jocularity on the topic aside, however, getting trained by our elders and betters, in particular our mothers, is both more complicated and more happily meaningful for those of us who are blessed with great moms. Me, I’ve got two. The mother who gave birth to me and raised me from my days as an only mildly subversive little sprout into the silly but exceedingly happy big kid you see before you today is worthy of recognition as one of the great teachers not only for giving me a framework on which to hang my sense of right and wrong and general grasp of manners but also the education and freedom and knowledge of being unconditionally loved that enabled me to choose how to build on those foundations as I grew. My second Mom, brought to me courtesy of (her son) my beloved husband, gets credit for instilling the same curiosity and drive in her children and, in turn, for reinforcing in me through her example what it means to be a lively and lovely person who is good company, an active part of the household and community at every turn, and a tireless learner and adventurer who earns her place in those settings with remarkable grace. Whether I can live up to the standards set by either of my Moms remains to be seen, but they certainly give me the tools that should make it possible if anything can.
If it can’t, I guess I’ll have to fall back on my naturally ridiculous ways and just pretend to be better than I am for as long as I can keep up the front. Those of you who are looking for reliably good, sound company, go see Mom W and Mom S. And also my sisters and my sister-in-law, great mothers to their children, and all of those other mothers, who by birth, adoption, random acquisition and teaching, raise better people, who in turn make the world a better place altogether. All of whom I thank profusely not only on Mother’s Day but every day for being such great examples even for those of us who are a little too childish to be motherly examples ourselves. Go ahead, you can say it right in front of me. I’ve learned that much, at least!
It’s easy to love the grand gesture. I’ll never say No to heartfelt generosity–at least as long as I don’t think the giver will be harmed by my acceptance–knowing how much it pleases me to know that others enjoy my gifts. But more than anything, it’s the smaller, maybe more intimate, maybe just more spontaneous, things that truly move me.
Sometimes amid the siege of an endless conference or workshop, a silently knowing meeting of eyes across the room is all it takes to get me through the whole rest of the event. Or it might be that one light pat on the shoulder as two of us pass each other hurriedly in the hall. The warm smile from the lady I met only last week that says she already names me Friend.
It’s certainly the one person who gently asks after the status of my current concern, whether it’s an upcoming test or finishing an important project or, especially, the health and happiness of my loved ones. That moment of being willing to ask, and of quietly listening to my reply, speaks volumes of kindness that wrap my heart and spirits in petitions and repetitions of comfort. And when words fail or have no place, there is the silent embrace of a gracious and caring friend.
To all of you who practice these beautiful arts, I say, Thank You. It means the world that you do, even–maybe, particularly–when we who are on the receiving end of the exchange have no words or gestures of our own with which to respond and express our gratitude properly. The best that we can hope is that, borne up and our way made brighter by their light, we’ll be made strong and peaceful enough ourselves to pass along the gift to someone else who may not even know he was in need. Someday we, too, will be the one who asks.
Once again I have been receiving kind and generous notices of recognition over the last few weeks from my gracious blogging friends, and I’m overdue to say appropriate thanks in response. So here I am at last, with another lovely gift-basket filled with Genuine Blogger, Versatile Blogger, Sunshine, and Kreativ Blogger Awards and feeling overwhelmed as always at the munificence of the online community. These latest are conferred upon me, regardless of my deserts, by my fellow poets, artists, foodies, gardeners, essayists, music lovers, travelers and others with whom I’ve so fortuitously crossed paths out here in the ether and am enjoying the marvels of mutual entertainment and discovery.
It is with a humble and happy heart that I thank Meg, Susie, Mark, Mars, Kofegeek and Tamara. Some of these have been friendly correspondents of mine for a lovely while now, and others are quite new to me, and I highly recommend that you have a look at all of their blogs! Meg is a veteran traveler for her relatively few years’ opportunity, and always posts marvelous pictures and original thoughts and ideas about places visited and things done there. Susie writes with great good taste, artful illustration and photography, and shares stories and samples of fabulous food and outside-of-kitchen adventures, too. Mark, an outstanding graphic designer in the UK, sometime DJ and constant educated music listener, gardener and traveler, always has a wise and witty twist to his posts. Mars has lived a rather cosmopolitan life but keeps a grounded and sensitive point of view, traveling, writing moving and insightful observations about life’s vicissitudes, and seeking beauty and light in the world. Kofegeek brings ingenious humor and insightful discourse to matters of science and math, cats and coffee, and much more. Tamara is a marvelous gardener from Ljubljana who is working to create intergenerational conversation about that earthy art.
Meanwhile, I am required by the rubrics of these awards to do a little personal sharing with you, my readers, and to introduce to you other worthy bloggers, and so I am going to combine my efforts and ask that you have a good visit to some truly worthy sites elsewhere as well. Share the love!
First, 10 blogs and bloggers worthy of your attention:
Natasha @ http://comeduemaiali.wordpress.com/ (seriously, how can you not enjoy eating ‘like two pigs’? I know I do, oink oink) Important update announcement: I am clearly not as smart as even one little piggy, because I completely missed that Natasha had been one of my award benefactors in the first place. But I’ll pretend I Meant to Do That just so that I could pass on the other awards back in her direction! Because, and I am not making this up, she really deserves them anyway!
Meanwhile, back to talking about myself, because I’m so incredibly exciting!
I think almost anything could be improved by the addition of browned butter (beurre noisette), possibly including a plain spoon about to be stuck in my mouth;
& I have rather excellent printing (lettering) skills because my cursive handwriting, though perhaps interesting to look at, is almost indecipherable even to me;
& If I don’t sleep at least nine hours a night I am not very likeable company;
& Classical music is often my go-to choice, but there are others that have particular allure for me at different times or under varying circumstances, i.e., Blues music during physical labor, vintage ZZ Top, Oingo Boingo and Van Halen on road trips, reggae on a beachy sunny day, jazz and swing for hanging around people-watching in a cafe, and so forth;
& The smell of coffee is heavenly to me, but I don’t drink it often and then only as flavoring for lots of cream and sugar;
& Perhaps because of my temperate Northwest upbringing, I think of green as a perfect neutral color, just as much as the traditional black-white-grey-brown palette;
& I’m not particularly girly (in the ruffles and bling and pink sort of pop-culture way) but I am fond of being female and even sometimes live up to sex stereotypes, if accidentally;
& Not much of a crier (maybe I tend to try to be stoic when genuinely sad), except at the most silly sappy stuff, but I am an inveterate hugger and hand-holder;
& I’m so old that I went to a school where there were no lockers, only a cloakroom; that the houses and cars in the neighborhood were all generally left unlocked; and that the older kids piled loosely in the backseat of the car while the baby sat in Mom’s lap up front;
& I’m so young that I think Bucket Lists are for people thousands of years older than me because I have all the time in the world and naively believe that I will get around to anything that matters enough, eventually.
On that note, I really must finish this up for today and get it posted, because despite my limitless future I find that blogging is a time-consuming joy and can easily eclipse numerous other activities that may well turn out to be worth the doing if I don’t get too obsessed and distracted leaping around the meadows of the Internet in the grand company of my many admirable blogging playmates and mentors and companions.