Beautiful House

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been engaged in some home improvement, specifically, updating the kitchen in our condo. When we moved in, the vintage 1994 cabinetry and appliances looked quite up-to-date compared to the 1980’s stuff in our old house. But within a year I decided it would be nice to modernize with new countertops and stainless steel appliances. It would refresh the look and use of the kitchen for me to enjoy, as well as be a good investment for resale purposes.

I started talking about doing this way back in 2014. (One thing you can say about me is that I never move too hastily when it comes to home improvement!) I remember my mom being super excited about it, and she’d nag me gently ever so often. “When are you going to get your new appliances?” she’d say. She even slipped me some extra money in my birthday cards one year. “Put this toward your new kitchen,” she wrote on the inside of the card. 

A Month of Milestones

Today my beautiful mother would have been 90 years old. She wouldn’t like me making a fuss about that number, because she didn’t like being “old.” And she never seemed really old to me, despite the physical infirmities that interfered with her mobility and independence during the last few years of her life. She was sharp and quick witted, up to date on current events, and interested in the modern world around her - young at heart, as the saying goes. 

On the Night You Were Born

It was crazy windy here yesterday. March made like a Lion, and roared up a storm. Our utility company reported more outages than any other time in history, and says it will take up to a week to restore power for everyone. Trees are down all over, schools and businesses are closed. 

It was a mess. But all the while, the sun shone beautifully and there was nary a cloud in the sky. 

On the night I was born, 61 years ago today, it was crazy windy as well. My mother loved to tell that story, of the wind whistling around the windows on the top floor of the hospital. Of the way the large window by her bed rattled and shook until she was afraid it would crash into a million pieces. “There was thunder and lighting and rain pouring down all night,” she said. “I was a nervous wreck!” By morning, though, the wind had calmed, the sun was shining, and I had come into the world, red-faced, screaming, and with a headful of dark, wavy curls. 

Tender Spots

The month of March came blowing in like a lion early Wednesday morning, bringing with it many tender spots for me to massage. March 24 will mark the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, and March also brings both of our birthdays falling within three days of each other (mine on the ninth, hers on the twelfth.) Last year she spent her birthday in the hospital; this year she would have been 90 years old, a milestone date for sure, but one not destined for her to achieve. 

March is only two days old, and I’m starting to feel the phantom pains of remembered grief. I’m not surprised by it, and I think I’m prepared for it. The last eleven months have been an effective crash course in handling intense grief. I’ve always been a model student, and I give myself credit for surviving an event I believe was the hardest thing that ever happened to me. In the first weeks after my mom died, I felt sure my heart was broken forever. But the human spirit is indomitable. The restorative powers of time, love, and friendship began to work their magic, and the broken places in my heart and soul began to heal.


“Our whole lives can change in an instant - so each person who keeps that from happening, no matter how small a role they play, is also responsible for all of it. Just by giving friendship and love, you keep the people around you from giving up - and each expression of friendship or love may be the one that makes all the difference.” ~ from The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schalbe

In the city block where my grandparents lived, shabbily dressed men often walked the streets delivering advertising circulars for local grocery and department stores.  My grandmother called them “the bargain paper men.” They were often older men, thin and gray haired; they might walk with a limp, their hand might tremble as they fastened the rolled up advertisement to the door handle with a green rubber band. A shy, fearful child, I would often crouch behind the door out of sight when I spied them coming down the street. I felt a strange combination of fear and sadness toward these men. Sometimes, if my grandfather were around, I would run and crawl into his lap, thinking I could protect him - also a quiet, slender, gray-haired man - from the fate of becoming a bargain paper man, as if he could suddenly fall victim to whatever dire circumstance had led them to this place.

My heart ached for those men and all the things I worried they didn’t have - a warm home, a good job, meals to eat, people to love them. I couldn’t name it then, but those feelings were the first stirrings of compassion, the kind of concern for another’s suffering that seems to be in short supply in today’s world.

In the news right now are refugee children, thousands of them, seeking a better life on our shores; families in the middle east torn apart by political violence that has its roots in grievances thousands of years in the making; the innocent dead littered across a prairie after their aircraft was shot from the sky by an angry government.

There is so much compassion needed. Where do we find it amidst our quickness to anger and our rush to judgement? Even though every religion in the world espouses compassion and kindness as key values, we often turn deaf ears and hardened hearts to the needs of others. We’re protective of our own needs, snarly about giving away too much time or money. Or we think we can’t do enough, so we do nothing.

I  worry about people and animals who don’t have enough - enough love, enough shelter, enough to eat or drink. I want to help them in a big way, but I don’t know how. I give bits of time and money and effort to big organizations dedicated to compassionate care, but that seems like pitiable recompense.

I can’t begin to solve all the world’s problems. None of us can, no matter how much we pontificate or splutter on Facebook, no matter how many checks we write or mission trips we participate in.  But I believe every act of compassion builds upon itself: every time we smile at a stranger, or do a favor for a neighbor, or foster a homeless pet, we put a small piece of positive energy into the world, energy that multiplies and spreads.

My grandparents house also had an alley behind it, and sometimes in the mornings men would appear at the back gate asking for food. Perhaps these were the same “bargain paper men” I would see later in the day. Perhaps they were other homeless men. Yes, they could have been drinkers or drug addicts down on their luck. Nevertheless, my grandmother often handed them a sack of something to eat. “I always feed them,” she told me once. “You never know, one of them might be Jesus come back to earth."

How amazing if we could see divinity in every person we meet, whether they are rich or poor, black, white, refugee, or warrior. Difficult to do, I admit.

I fail at it on a regular basis.

But imagine - if every person on the planet did one small kind thing for someone else every day, what a wonderful world that would be.

The only way to get there is to start small.

Start with one person, one act of kindness.

With me. With you.

Note: This essay was originally written in July 2014, and I came across it as I was collating the essays for a new book, Life Goes On. It seemed appropriate for these days we’re living now.