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.


The Incredible Shrinking Woman

I’ve always been “vertically challenged,” as my friend Darlene puts it. In practical terms it means I need to keep a folding stool handy just about everywhere in the house. It means I need to stand on a small wooden riser when I play handbells. It means I really need a six-way adjustable drivers seat in the car so I can reach the gas pedal and still see over the hood. It means any pants I buy ready-made are too long, even those marked “Petite.” It also meant I could wear the highest heeled shoes I wanted without being taller than my boyfriends, (although that was always a moot point since my one and only “boyfriend" was a good seven inches taller than me.) It didn’t take long for my son to surpass me in height. At age 12, he was a full head taller than I was, a sobering realization for me in more ways than simply physical. 

I’ve never minded being short, never seriously wished I were tall and willowy like fashion models. Occasionally I’ve longed for an extra inch or so, mostly when I’m in crowds - it’s surprisingly claustrophobic being in a dense crowd when there’s nothing in sight except a sea of backs and shoulders. Overall, I’ve been content with my stature.

But in the past few years, I’ve had an inkling that I was shrinking. It’s not surprising - most of us do lose height as we age. I noticed it first when we lived in our old house and I started having trouble reaching the mixing bowls on the top shelf of my cupboard. Those bowls had lived there since 1976, and I’d never had a problem reaching them before. Until one day, I couldn’t.

Ready or Not

Like most little kids, my grandson loves to play hide-and-go-seek. His version is slightly different than the one I’m most accustomed to playing. He likes to hide objects instead of people. So one of us will hide something while the other one closes their eyes and counts to 10. When we’re finished counting, we’re supposed to shout out, “Ready??” to make sure the object has been sufficiently hidden.

Sometimes when I’m the “hider” I scramble to find a good hiding place for whatever I’m tasked with concealing. “Wait!” I have to call out. “I’m not ready yet!” Connor usually sighs in exasperation, but graciously gives me another few seconds. “Are you ready YET??” he finally shouts. 

“Okay,” I concede, even if I’m not. And he tears off looking for the model car or the stuffed animal or the book or whatever it is we’re hiding on this particular day.

The game of hide-and-go-seek with it’s “ready or not” concept is very appropriate to life, isn’t it? So many times we’re faced with the prospect of change and hesitate because we’re not ready.