Be the Change #41: Do what the pope says

When I was young, I assumed that I would live a big, exciting life, full of great achievements.  Instead, at 62, I look back on a life of patient devotion to purpose:  to my 35-year marriage, to raising our children, to building a career and some financial security.  I didn’t always feel patient, devoted or purposeful, by any means.  I often felt confused, or wildly angry and resentful, or just plain tired.  The siren song of “living your dreams” frequently beckoned, except I didn’t really have another dream. 

I wanted the life I had, just easier. 

I wanted my devotion to be immediately and consistently rewarded.  Instead, I had to persist in the face of obstacles, problems and my own repeated small failures. 

I wanted ego rewards, and instead had to learn to submit my ego to the needs of my family and the demands of my life.   

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  I think this is pretty much the life story of almost every decent human being on the planet.   

And I’ve just discovered a lovely phrase for it, courtesy of Pope Francis.  Here is what the Pope has to say about those of us who are deeply flawed, struggle against both our own wayward nature and the disappointments of life, and yet show up every day and do our best for our families and communities.  In his New Year’s Eve homily, the Pope said that he feels “sympathy and gratitude for all those persons who, every day, contribute with small but precious gestures to the common good, who seek to do their duty as well as possible.”  He calls these people “artisans of the common good.”

The theme of this blog for the past year has been Be The Change.  But, it’s easy to forget, when the world’s need is so great, that we don’t have to solve every problem.  Sometimes it is enough to do the work before you to the best of your energy and ability – and occasionally beyond the limits of your energy and ability, if needed.  Sometimes it is enough, as Mother Theresa said, to “do small things with great love.”

This week, be an artisan of the common good.  Maintain your devotion to your family, your community and the work that you do.  Be courteous and kind to the people God puts in front of you. 

But be compassionate to yourself, too.  Know when you are doing enough.   

NOTES:

I wasn’t able to find the full text of the Pope’s homily but here’s a LINK to a nice synopsis.

Also of interest is this DAVID BROOKS COLUMN that quoted the Pope and got me curious about the homily.  Brooks uses courteous driving as an example of being an artisan of the common good.


Be the Change #40: Dare to be Open

Raising children sometimes feels like a 25-year emergency.  You’re in the eye of the hurricane all the time, from sleepless nights with babies, to constant chauffering with tweens, to the college and post-college years when they’re moving in an out of your house every few months, with their mystifying electronics and 35 pairs of sneakers. 

Then, suddenly, they’re out on their own for good.  The quiet settles like dust, and many parents wonder what they’re going to do with themselves now.  Some people take up golf or bicycling.  Some just settle in front of the TV and wait for grandchildren.  Many find satisfying volunteer work. 

My co-worker Rick and his wife Carol chose to work on their spiritual growth via connections with other human beings.

Rick and Carol have been committed Christians all their lives, and in recent years, as their 3 children matured and left home one by one, Rick talked a lot about planning the next phase of their lives, often speaking wistfully of friends who were overseas doing missionary work. 

As it turned out, they didn’t have to cross an ocean to find their mission.  They are gregarious people, and also enjoy being “problem solvers” as Rick puts it.  They love being a shoulder to cry on, and helping if they can, when a friend is having trouble:  divorce, death in the family, wayward children, illness, emotional upsets.  They recently doubled down on that when a friend’s daughter, who has a physical disability, needed a place to live.  Rick and Carol welcomed her into their home, where she stayed for several months until she was on her feet again. 

Their experience with Rachel inspired them to want to reach out more, and they decided that they wanted to put a special emphasis on making friends with people who are different from them.  Shortly after Rachel moved out, a young African-American man was going door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions while Carol was outside raking leaves.  Carol not only bought a subscription, but had a long chat with him and ended up inviting him into their house.  Over the course of one conversation with this young man, these two white Christian conservatives learned some things about racism, mass incarceration and the private prison system that they honestly hadn’t known before.  They were shocked and appalled, just as those of us on the left have been appalled by those same things for a long time.  But they truly hadn’t known – until it was made personal for them by a young man to whom they had the courage to open their hearts. 

There is so much to learn from their experience. 

First, there is no substitute for person-to-person connection.  I’ve felt that for a long time, and Rick’s story just reinforces it.  Now more than ever, we must connect with others, and, like Rick and Carol, I believe we must make a special effort to connect with people who are unlike us or might disagree with us.

Second, when we make those contacts, we have to be open to being changed.  I would go so far as to say that it isn’t really contact if you go into it thinking that you’re going to have an impact on the other person but they aren’t going to have any impact on you.  Because Rick and Carol were committed to spiritual growth – which inevitably implies change – their hearts and minds were opened.  Yes, that can happen – but only when we put the human connection ahead of our ideology. 


Chrstmas Present #3: I Have Forgiven You

Here is the full text of my short story I Have Forgiven You, as published in the literary journal Metamorphosis a few years ago.  Merry Christmas and all the best for 2018!

 

Do you know that I’ve forgiven you?  I felt so unwelcome when I first came into your family.  Your house was overheated and aggressive with the smells of pine and boxwood, and everybody was talking at once, to everybody except me. My first mistake was getting engaged to your only son the same Christmas your oldest granddaughter got engaged.  Missy showed her ring and everyone whooped and hugged Joel and clapped him on the back and welcomed him into the family.  I showed mine and you nodded politely.  Well, I was 25 and already divorced.  And Tom and I had been living together for a year.  That didn’t go over with you in those days, when you were still vigorous enough to be judgmental.  Later, when your grandchildren cohabited, you learned to overlook it, but a mother-in-law is a more exacting judge of a daughter-in-law.

What hurt me the most was when your judgments extended to my kids.  They weren’t potty trained early enough to suit you.  They didn’t eat enough to suit you.  They made too much noise to suit you.  Whenever something got broken, my kids came under suspicion, never Missy’s.

I can’t claim to have forgotten, but I have forgiven.   Who could hold a grudge against you in this state:  gray and thin and loose-skinned like a baby bird, your hair a scrub of wild white tufts barely covering your scalp.

I patiently spoon lemon ice through your cracked lips.  You close your eyes with delight at each bite.  I’m glad to finally be able to please you in some way.  I hope you know that I’m glad to do this for you.

We don’t talk much.  You’re practically deaf now, although I suspect you don’t know it.  You never could understand half of what I said anyway.  You’d wince like I was hurting you and say, “PARDON me?” so impatiently.  I always talked too fast for you, in my New York way, but maybe, too, you weren’t interested enough to really pay attention.  It was only your own daughters, and their children, who were interesting to you.

We always did leave a lot unsaid.  You come from that generation who kept things private and kept up appearances.  You grew up in a slower-paced era when people stayed put and had all the time in the world to get to know each other, so intimacy didn’t need to be hurried.  Your generation got to know people by the gradual accumulation of their actions and seemingly-inconsequential words over the years, not by gushed confessions on second meeting.

I finally came to know you that way, in your own slow time.  And, by the same method, you probably came to know me better than I thought. I came to suspect that you were more like me than I thought.  I recognized the unhappy child’s determination that her children will have the childhood of her dreams.  Over the years, Tom left me clues in what he told me about his own childhood:  the homemade ice cream, the nature walks, the winter afternoons that you spent playing children’s card games instead of paying bills or scrubbing floors.  I got a glimpse that maybe your youthful hope was the same as mine:  that our children would be happier and more secure than we had been.

You taught your son to recognize bird calls and to spot wildlife by scanning for movement.  Years later, he taught me.  I love that about him:  that he patiently taught this Brooklyn girl to step quietly through the woods, slowly enough to hear a robin’s pleading song or notice the squirrel frozen on a tree trunk five feet away.

I thought you were so hard on my kids, and yet they always loved you.  I thought you favored Missy’s kids so blatantly, but my kids never seemed to notice.  They were always happy to see you when they were little, and they visit you now willingly, as long as we aren’t staying too long, kissing your tissue-paper cheek and holding your frail, bony hand, not even wrinkling their noses at the odor of diapers and looming death.  Their vision was clearer than mine.  They saw through the judgment to the love.

I never told you that you hurt my feelings.  Later, I never told you that I forgave you.  Do you know?

The Italian ice is gone.  I ask if you want some of your Sprite and you nod.  I raise the straw to your lips.  You latch on like a baby to the nipple and turn your cloudy eyes to mine gratefully, just for an instant.

***

Do you know that I have forgiven you?  I know you don’t have to be here.  My own children have to be here, and they’re the kind who do what they should.   There’s comfort in that.   But you:  you never did what other people thought you should.  It  always seemed to me that you did exactly as you pleased.  I didn’t like that in you, but now I find a different kind of comfort in that, too.  You must be here because you want to be.

Well, God knows I can’t afford to be picky about who spoons mush past my lips.  I can’t feed myself any more, can’t get myself to the bathroom, can barely roll over without help.  I know my hearing’s going, and you all assume that my mind’s going, too.  Well, it isn’t.  It tires me to talk and it tires me even more to strain to hear what people say back.  But I can still think.

I understand less about people than I thought I did.  When I was your age, I thought I had a lot of things figured out.  I thought I could predict how stories would end.

I didn’t think much of you at first, I admit.  Tom had just had his heart broken by that smart-alecky first wife of his, and you looked to us like the same mistake about to be repeated, with your loud voice and your New York accent and all those black clothes.  And you were already divorced at 25, for the love of God.  What did you expect us to think of you?  Once he took up with you, we hardly saw Tom.  I felt like you’d put him under a spell and would just chew him up and spit him back out like that first girl.  I can’t even remember her name now.

I started to forgive you a little when you can us two more grandchildren.  I can tell you we were surprised.  You seemed like the type who was more interested in books than in kids.  But, then you had them and you hardly ever brought them around.  I confess I didn’t think much of you and Tom as parents at first.  No, I didn’t.  You made such a big deal about not spanking them.  You were always explaining things to them.  You left me long lists of instructions when I kept them, as if I hadn’t raised four kids and didn’t know how to take care of a baby.  I admit I thought you spoiled them and that they would break your hearts.  But, I am surprised to find that they are two fine young people.  I don’t know how that happened.  Maybe you two got lucky.  Maybe you were better parents than I thought you were.  Either way, the world isn’t the predictable place I once believed it to be, and I’m too tired to figure it out all over again.

Oh, that ice feels good in my mouth.  My tongue always feels fat and sticky.  I must have revolting breath.  I probably have that old-person smell, too, all musty and decayed, like something already dead.  I should care, but I don’t.  I’m too tired.

I’m grateful that you still love Tom after all these years.  I think I finally forgave you for taking him away when you stayed with him when he was out of work for a whole year.  A year!  I respected how you went out and found work and supported the family.  I loved how you still loved my boy, really loved him, I could see that.  You stayed willingly, not bitterly.  None of my own three daughters could manage to stay married.  My oldest granddaughter couldn’t stay married.  But you and Tom did.  Another reminder that I don’t know what I thought I knew:  I didn’t think you had that in you.

Do you know?  I’m not much of a one for displays of affection.  I don’t like the way people your age are always hugging each other.  They even do it in church.  In my day, there were 100 people in the congregation and we all knew each other.  We dropped off casseroles when someone was sick or had a baby, and we went to the funeral home when someone died, but we never dreamed of hugging each other.  But, Lord, now there are 600 members and they hardly know each other’s names but they’re always wrapping their arms around each other like movie stars.

Oh, you can have this world, you young people.  I’m ready to go.  Maybe I’m just too old and tired to hold a grudge, but I wish that I had come to love you sooner, and I hope you know that I have forgiven you.


Christmas Present #2: Merry Go Round

Here is the full text of my short story, Merry Go Round, published several years ago in the literary journal Metamorphosis.

MERRY-GO-ROUND

You are a skinny little girl, but you have a big round belly like a starving child.  “Barrel belly” your family calls you affectionately.

You watch the world from the safety of your mother’s body, peering out with longing eyes from behind her legs.  Your sister touches bugs, runs races with boy cousins, and chips her teeth riding too fast on her bicycle and falling off.  She has black grit under her ragged fingernails, and her hair is always messy.  When your mother brushes your silky, fawn-colored hair, you are careful to keep it as neat as she made it.

You are at a park today, and your sister has ridden all of the rides.  You are holding her hand.

Your father squats to speak to you.  “Wouldn’t you even like to ride the merry-go-round?  We’re getting ready to go home.”

“Don’t force her, Ken,” your mother cautions.

Your sister pumps your arm up and down. “Ride the merry-go-round!   Ride the merry-go-round!  Pleeeeease!”

You raise your  pale, round face to it.  The legs of the horses are at the level of your eyes.  They are brown, black, milk-colored.  They wear bright necklaces of flowers.  Some are still.  Some churn up and down as the platform spins.  Some rear their heads and show square white teeth.  Children laugh above the tinny, gay music.

Your hearts squirms like a minnow in terror and desire.

“Ride the merry-go-round! Please!” Your sister pleads again.

You remove your hand from her sticky, grimy one.  The ride has stopped.  Another group of noisy children teems toward it.

“Would you like to ride?” your mother asks.

You nod.

“Well, all right, then,” your father shouts, swooping you up and depositing you on a black horse.

“A white one,” you whisper.

“What?”

“I want a white one.  One that doesn’t go up and down.”

He lifts you and plops you onto one of the milky-white horses, one that doesn’t churn. “Okay?” he asks.

You nod again.

Your father backs away.  The platform starts spinning and the music begins its skipping tune.

Your mother stands smiling.  Your father has raised the video camera to his eye, his cigarette dangling forgotten between  his slabs of lip.  Your sister bounces on her horse and waves wildly each time she passes them. 

You sit straight, both small hands wrapped around the metal pole.  You gaze straight ahead, unsmiling, in solemn dignity. 

 


Christmas Present #1

Over the next few weeks, I will be offering some of my short fiction to my readers.  Here’s your first present:  my short story Infamy, recently published in the December issue of PIF Magazine.  You can read it for free HERE or order for your KIndle (for only 99 cents!) HERE.

Enjoy!!!


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