Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Can I help?

“Can I help?” the young man with the intense stare said. Usually one or two of the people who come to our food closet pull us aside and say they want to help. Some appoint themselves a task, sweeping the walkway after all the pet food has been given away or refreshing the snack trays we put out for those who wait for their number to be called so they can go collect their grocery bags.

The men want to go downstairs and do the heavy lifting – bag the groceries, load the bags into the cars. They want to feel useful. When we can we make room but more often we say, “We actually have so many volunteers that we had to send some home today.”

It’s a good thing that so many people in our community feel compassion for those who go hungry. We use our talents to organize and staff an enterprise that distributes food and a chance for people to visit with each other. We don’t make much room, though, for these folks to join us in useful work.

Sometimes they make suggestions on our process, and sometimes their suggestions are good ones.

The young man with the intense asks why we don’t recycle.

“We have no staff to deal with the bins.”

“Why don’t we let the guy who collects cans for money be responsible for taking away our recycled bottles and cans?”

There’s a good idea.

Work is a sacred activity. When people are deprived of work – by economic downturns or by personal circumstances that prevent them from holding a job, their spirits are as depleted as their empty stomachs.

“I thought about getting here early because I knew someone would need to shovel the snow away so people could get here,” the young man said. “But I had to wait for a ride. When I got here, it had already been done.”

Those of us who are blessed with health and brimming with ideas need to stand aside sometimes to make room for others. They will have ideas of their own, and different ways of doing things that we may not like. But we will all be blessed in the give and take.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The 7 Laws of Money

Natalie sat up in bed at 5 a.m. on Monday and looked over at her sleeping husband. She reached for her book light and her morning devotional. Forty-five minutes later, Greg rolled out of bed and headed to the kitchen to start the coffee. Natalie pulled her laptop across her knees and switched it on. She opened her email and clicked on a message from an attorney informing her that that her Aunt Maggie had passed away and left her a sizeable sum of money.

Greg came back to bed with two mugs of coffee and handed her one. “Honey, I must have done something right!” Natalie hopped out of bed and danced around the room. “This is what I’ve worked for all my life! Now I have enough money to go to Europe for the opera audition season.”

“Don’t count your chickens, Greg said. “You don’t have a check yet.”

By Tuesday, the chickens had come home to roost. Natalie had a Publisher’s Clearing House moment when she opened her door and signed for a FedEx package with an unreadable return address. As she tore it open, Greg said, “Did you even know you had an Aunt Maggie?”

Natalie pulled a sheaf of papers out of the cardboard mailer. Rummaging inside, she came up empty handed. ‘There’s no check here, only instructions. The attorney wants to me send him information about my bank so he can deposit the check electronically. He’s asking for passwords and pin numbers.”

“Is Aunt Maggie’s attorney possibly from Nigeria?” Greg asked.

On Wednesday, Natalie stayed in bed until noon. She was thoroughly depressed. She had set her heart on finally attaining her goal – enough money to live in Europe for a year. She had fantasized for so long about writing checks with no thought to taxing her bank account. She would rent an apartment in Paris, take voice lessons from the masters, shop for haute couture fashions befitting a diva, and enjoy all the accoutrements that enabled the life of a rising opera star.

By Thursday life had become a nightmare. “Did you tell anyone you inherited a fortune?” Greg asked her after the mailman piled several boxes of mail on the front porch. All the boxes contained cards and letters pleading for money. “I might have said something in a tweet,” Natalie said, pulling the covers over her head. She had disconnected the phone and stayed in bed all day. “I didn’t know having money was so hard to handle.”

At 7 am Friday a chastened Natalie woke up and told Greg she realized she had set the wrong goals for herself. “I’ve been acting as if that money would make a difference between whether I have a career in opera or not.” She vowed that if by some miracle she did receive a check, she would give the money away. That afternoon, she received a check in the mail for $500,000. True to her word, she sat down and began to draw up her philanthropic plan. It wasn’t long before she realized that giving away money was a career in itself.

Early Saturday morning the attorney called to remind her that if she cashed the check, she was agreeing to the terms. What terms? Natalie wanted to know. Didn’t you read the sheaf of papers I sent you? said the attorney. Your aunt specified that if you accept the money, you must join the Libertarian party, become a Scientologist and move to Nova Scotia. Natalie tore up the check.

On Sunday Natalie stayed after church to rehearse for evening Vespers. Her voice teacher pulled her aside after rehearsal and asked her if her phone was out of service. “I’ve been trying to reach you all week,” Elizabeth Schiller told Natalie, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “You’ve won Operalia, the World Opera Competition. You are going to Europe for a year, and you won’t need a dime.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rewriting History

“I willingly turn off my brain to get through the racism and sexism on every other page,” Bruce Holland Rogers writes in defense of his love of Tarzan pulp novels. For the sake of a good story, I’m willing to do that too. When the sex strays into gratuity in film or when a hero spits out a racial slur in a novel I note it briefly and edit it out. At question is whether I want someone else to assume this task for me, or for school children. I do not.

The most present controversy is whether Mark Twain’s newly released journals should be banned from public schools or rewritten to remove the offending racial slurs. The terms in question are offensive in our day and they were demeaning in his day, but culturally acceptable at the time he wrote.

Eliminating the offense by banning the book or rewriting a treasure has two effects: We lose a teaching moment and children lose the opportunity to develop a critical thinking skill. Could we not present such writing in the context of history and then have a lively discussion of how things have progressed? Could we not go deeper – what words do we use today that we may be judged on in the future?

Stories laden with language that offends universally go out of print if they have nothing else to recommend them. Stories with raw language and gripping plots stick around. I’ve developed my own fine line of how much profanity I will tolerate for the sake of a good story. I’ve also developed an appreciation for the role of the profane in literature.

I recently posted a devotion titled “Season of the Witch” on FaithWriters.com. I was exploring the concept of the witch as an archetype rather than a literal being. Some reviewers felt I was treading on dangerous ground (with them, I was). Others were inspired by my suggestion that many of us experience a witching hour or season that can lead to useful self-examination.

A last thought. I watched Sonora’s Stage 3 production of Big River. The director made a creative decision to leave the n-word in play. It was a powerful account of the dignity of a demeaned slave. It made everyone uncomfortable to watch the effects of both intentional and thoughtless hurtful speech. (I felt deeply for the actors who had to deliver and receive such offensive lines.) I think the director made a good decision; up to you whether you bought a ticket or not. I highly doubt any of the young people in the audience walked out feeling they were now in possession of a new word that enriched their vocabulary.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Have your people call my people

Have your people call my people. That toss off phrase reminds me of a little boy in a cafĂ© we happened onto in our travels. I was standing at the cashier’s counter looking out the window at a man working in a field when the proprietor’s son noticed my idle gaze, pointed to the man and said, “That’s our person.” Captivated by the thought, I turned to Joel and said, “I want one!”

Now, I don’t want to own people. I don’t even want to manage people. I want staff. Maybe that’s why I so thoroughly enjoyed Masterpiece Theatre’s recent offering, Downton Abbey, which featured a “family enduring for generations and its staff, a well-oiled machine of propriety”. I figure a well-oiled machine should be able to manage itself. The Earl of Downton Abbey put good people in place and let them run things. I could do that. Here is what I think I need:

Technical staff – my techweenies; at a minimum I need a personal photographer to snap and post my photos, a webmaster to keep my social networks up to date and a scribe to record points in my weightwatchers tracker system – that is a time consuming!

House maintenance staff – over and above the garden and housekeeping chores, I really could use the services of a plasterer, painter, rough and finish carpenter and handyman with plumbing and wiring skills on a pretty regular basis.

Personal maintenance staff – here is where the serious overhead occurs. I’m thinking a dietician, a chef, a fitness trainer, a shopper and a dresser who will not let me leave the house thinking my midnight blue jeans are really black and pairing them with the wrong socks and shoes.

Design staff – a personal interior decorator to advise me on what shade of purple I should use on the accent wall in the bathroom I’m redecorating. It is so easy to make a mistake.

Business staff – in addition to the obvious, the finance manager and the bookkeeper, I would like some clones and drones – people who can stand in for me at meetings when I double-book myself and do volunteer work when I over commit.

I know what you are thinking. I haven’t addressed the expense of maintaining such a staff. Watch enough Masterpiece Theatre and you know that the great houses crumbled under the expense of such maintenance. That’s the oil required to keep the machine running. I’m just going to have to depend on the salesman at Orchard Supply Hardware to help me choose the right shade of purple.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


There was a time when she could see the shore from her boat. She spent long lazy days bobbing off the coast. Sometimes she practiced maneuvering her craft; sometimes she lay on the floor boards and watched a cinema of clouds play in the sky. She hardly noticed when her boat caught a drift and pulled her away from the shore.

As the shore receded from view, she used the skills she had practiced to keep her boat steady. At first, she kept an eye on the distant shore, but soon she learned other ways to navigate. The sun and the moon helped her stay on course, although what path in these waters she followed she couldn’t say. Each morning, other vessels appeared on the horizon and it seemed good to her to set her compass in their direction.

She found she was happiest in the society of other vessels. In the vast stretch of water, she would tie her boat up with others and they would drift together for a time. Self-proclaimed captains, they would tell each other stories that encouraged, dismayed, intrigued, delighted and terrified. In time, it seemed prudent to travel in flotillas.

She didn’t pay as much attention to the heavens now. There was too much work to do: maintaining the boats, fishing, bringing new arrivals up to speed on how to navigate the changing seasons. Then, just as she had slipped away from the shore so many years ago, she found herself unmoored and alone in her boat.

The sea was a wall behind her, obstructing her view of where she had been. She couldn’t see above the chop of water ahead of her. Above her, the sky was dark. Starlight reflected a weak Illumination on the black water that surrounded her. She no longer felt in control of her boat. The skills she’d honed over the years were gone and there was nothing for it but to keep her balance as best she could. She focused on trying to stay in the boat.

After her little boat broke apart in the ocean, before she began a new journey, words formed from the deep and roared in a whisper in her ear. Well done.

Psalm 77:19 KJV Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.