what takes your breath away?

Raindrops on roses
And whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

A few weeks ago, as I was making a routine journey back and forth along the busy street I traverse several times a day, I couldn’t help but hear the leaves.  I heard them.  Yes.  That’s what I wrote.  I  h e a r d  them.

They were the deepest, most crimson red they’d ever be this year.  Saturated with beauty and singing their highest notes.  An opera for my ears, a crescendo of color.  Have you ever noticed that?  How autumn leaves are this most vivid, crisp color just before they begin to fade and fall to the ground?

There are so many things like this that take my breath away.

Yesterday marked the winter solstice, the darkest night of the year, and at a time in which we find our world community tempted toward anxiety and despair, when I know so many of us are caught up in the tumult of life, it’s these moments of awe and wonder that fill me with gratitude and propel me forward in hope.  There are kind strangers holding open doors for you.  There are clerks smiling behind cash registers.  There are even drivers nodding and letting you in to jammed city streets, waving back at you, you’re welcome.

There are so many things . . . just listen.

By now the rains have come, and those beautiful leaves have fallen at our feet, a small sacrifice for the springtime flowers to come.  But it has me singing, welcoming the coming light into the world and wondering, what takes  y o u r  breath away?

 

 

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells
And schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

wintercouple

 

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS, from two or three little birds.

 

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seeking human kindness

People are overwhelmingly trustworthy and generous.  ~ Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

holding-handsSo as I mentioned in a recent post, littlest love and I have been reading The Odyssey together.  (Her idea, I swear!)  As much as this is an epic poem chronicling Odysseus’ adventures on his return home to his family in Ithaca, it is also a story of its people and their culture–the palpable interconnectedness between them and the divine, their sense of fate, destiny, their own humility and their obligation to honor one another with kindness and hospitality.  Part of the joy of any story is that imaginative act of being transported–and we are loving journeying through this mythical land of kings and goddesses, gilded palaces and warm Aegean breezes.  Homer’s seductive Dawn, with her rose-red fingers . . . .

So we’ve finally reached Book 4–the last chapter of Telemachus’ journey–and littlest has been attentively listening each night as Telemachus travels from one kingdom to the next in search of news of his father.  She loves the interplay between Athena and the mortals and I suspect enjoys imagining her in disguise among the courtly atmosphere.  And perhaps she’s even enjoying the language and the other-worldliness as much as I am.  The way Telemachus is cared for and welcomed. The way his hosts greet him with wide open arms and offer him seats of honor at their tables, the best cuts of meat, their finest wines.  Why, he’s even bathed and anointed by his royal hosts’ most beautiful daughters–and they don’t even know who he is!  He’s an uninvited guest–a complete stranger–and even when wandering into an elaborate wedding feast, the hosts drop everything they are doing and rush to greet him and offer him hospitality.  Help yourselves to food, and welcome! says Menelaus.  Once you’ve dined we’ll ask you who you are.  Does that even happen anymore?!  I suspect if you crashed a wedding banquet in Beverly Hills today, you’d be swiftly escorted to the curb.  No Cristal and caviar for you, and certainly no hot oil rub downs so sorry Charley.  Buh bye.  And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

We certainly have devolved into a culture that is immediately suspicious of strangers and selective with our generosity, haven’t we?  I don’t pretend to offer any theories but only know that, even though I like to think of myself as charitable and kind, I have grown hardened to that woman walking up and down the median with the sign reading Help! Need bus ticket home. Only $50 short.  I look in her eyes and see the dark circles of addiction.  A hooded sweatshirt covers her stringy hair, but I can tell she’s only about twenty years old.  A bus ticket my ass, I’m thinking.  And I can watch everyone else thinking the same thing, too, as they turn away from her.  We tell ourselves,  If I give her money, she’s going to spend it on drugs.  But as I type this right now I know that I should be more generous with her, that even if I gave her money and she did spend it on drugs, the gesture alone would extend some kindness to her.  And if enough people did that, maybe she’d grow more hopeful . . . .  But yet I never roll the window down.  She’ll just mock me and call me a sucker,  I tell myself as I pull out of the grocery store parking lot and head off to pick up my daughter from school, a brown paper bag in the backseat piled high with canned goods bound for the local food bank.  As I drive past women like her, I often wonder, if only she held an honest sign that read Forgotten: need drugs to numb the pain, anything helps, would I be more generous?

I think we are a suspicious cynical people when it comes to strangers, especially strangers that seem in the most need of our help.  We are selective and direct our acts of charity to known communities and organizations rather than to unfamiliar people, I think because we don’t want to feel cheated or duped or vulnerable.  Reading Homer with my littlest love is making me wonder if there isn’t some small way we can try to let go of some of that fear and be more hospitable, kind and generous.  To look at the Homeless Vet Needs Work sign and see instead, Lonely and Cast Aside.

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called Craigslist Joe, which was about this very notion of hospitality.  In the film, unemployed twentysomething Joe Garner decides to travel the country for a month with no money or car or cell phone contacts.  He vows only to use the internet swap meet site Craigslist to connect with people in hopes he will find work, food and shelter from the strangers he meets.  It’s a spiritual quest of sorts intended to test our capacity for kindness and generosity.  Now, Joe looks nothing like a wan-eyed meth addict.  There’s nothing counterculture about him–no tattoos, no piercings, no patchouli or dread locks.  He’s a clean, well-educated suburban kid with a cameraman in tow, not to mention a two-parent safety net and a living room full of friends to welcome him home after this experiment is over, so of course he’s not bound to draw suspicion on the road.  While this may be a small flaw in the film, I don’t think it detracts from his journey in any way because what you see much more than him are the strangers he meets.

His plan is simple:  he looks for community on Craigslist, and once he connects with a person or group, he asks for their hospitality.  He answers all kinds of ads–advertisements for free dance classes, calls for open mic comedians, requests for tutoring or soup kitchen volunteers.  He shows up and participates in the activity and then hopes he can find someone willing to put him up for the night and share a meal with him.  What you see in the film is stranger after stranger inviting him into their home.  He also uses Craigslist to locate drivers looking for travel companions, and these take him from LA to Portland and Seattle, across to Chicago and then on to New York, down through Florida and New Orleans, and then back to San Francisco, which I am sad to say is the only city that shut him down and forced him to sleep on the street.  In each of these other cities, he meets kind and generous people who shelter and feed him.

Are we at a place in our society with you know the technology of the internet and websites and human interaction where we can take care of each other? ~ Joe Garner

It’s a remarkable concept for a documentary, and as I watched the film, I was conscious of how each of his hosts seemed a little off the grid, some more so than others.  They were eccentric or lonely or cast aside in some way and perhaps in need of his companionship.  They were people I would be suspicious of–POWs as I have been known to call them– pieces of work I’d size up and dismiss as too much trouble.  But Craigslist Joe was forced to put his trust in them and opened himself up to their stories, and we see instead of their strangeness, their kindness and humor and generosity.

Some of their interactions were deeply moving.  In New York at Christmastime, Joe decides to begin placing his own ads for volunteers so that he can provide assistance to anyone who needs it, and one of the best portions of the film is a scene where he and another volunteer visit the home of a woman dying of cancer who posted an ad asking for help of any kind.  They have no idea what they have signed up for and arrive at her apartment ready for anything, only to discover she is not only suffering from cancer but is a mentally ill hoarder with quite a story to tell.  When you witness the kindness they show one another, it will remind you that these sorts of meaningful encounters can only happen if we put aside judgment and instead are open and trusting and generous with one another.  Because aren’t we all in some way, each of us, holding a sign that reads Seeking Human Kindness?

Craigslist JoeThis was by far and away the most inspiring experience of my life–the generosity of people–the stories they shared–the connections I made in one month were so deep . . . just meeting everyone and telling them my story and the journey–having people invite a complete stranger into their homes and feed me and invite me to go out–it was truly inspiring to know that we can take care of each other.  ~ Joe Garner AKA “Craigslist Joe”

 

Add Craigslist Joe to your Netflix queue

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moving through summer

grass-wind-field-summer

I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through.  ~ Hafiz

Summer is an exciting time. A season of travel, movement, being. We have been programmed to think of summer as a time fit for slowing down, a time of rest and relaxation, but my isn’t it one of the busiest seasons of all. I don’t know about you, but each year as the month of June approaches, I long for those lazy days. I recall the summers I spent as a child, swimming in our backyard pool, playing cards on the living room floor with my brothers, riding a bicycle to the drugstore for a scoop of ice cream or a pack of bubblegum. I have so many fond memories of days spent doing nothing more than waking, eating, playing and sleeping.

For many years my family lived in a five bedroom split-level house tucked into a suburban cul-de-sac in a neighborhood full of children. It was an idyllic backdrop for childhood adventures. Furnished by a single father, our decor was sparse and indestructible. The front room was originally designed to be a formal living room, with elaborate faux-landscape wallpaper, white shag carpet, and a grand window with sheer drapery meant to be drawn back dramatically and pooled on the floor. You know, the kind of room your parents kept meticulously clean but never allowed you to enter else you die. Well, once we moved in it became our play room. Along the faux-landscaped wall sat a lone geometric print black, red, and gold crushed velvet couch. The only other piece of furniture was a tall maple cabinet that housed our beloved Sony Trinitron color television, replete with a dozen silver push button channels with green glowing backlit numbers, and our pong and Atari video game consoles. What more did we need? My father preferred the family room off the kitchen and set it up with a tower bookcase holding his elaborate component stereo system, two custom-built speakers, and another equally funky tweed couch and that was it. In our formal dining room? A weight bench. God bless my dad for providing us with such a wonderful place to call home, with good schools, winding streets lined with leafy trees for climbing, neighborhood friends for moonlit hide and seek games, a pantry full of healthy cereal and boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. When I wander through this house in my mind, I don’t see all the missing furniture but only feel the sunshine and laughter of summer.

While those days of simply waking, eating, playing and sleeping are long gone, we can still make time for summer. In many respects, the slowness of summer is a state of mind, because let’s face it, it’s already August and we have jobs and family and obligations and places to go people to see. Reality is racing all around us — it doesn’t stop for an iced tea in a patch of shade. That new movie you’ve got to see. The restaurant you’re dying to try. The friends who just called to let you know they’ll be in town, tomorrow, with all their kids AND the drooling dog. That calendar fills up, even if you’re retired or perhaps a teacher like me with summer spread out before you. But what if we were more deliberate in our leave taking? What if we set aside one section of our day and moved more slowly through it. What would that kind of summer look like for you?

I’d enjoy long stretches of morning and spend as much time as I could in my pajamas, reading or just listening to the breeze through open windows, to water trickling from a backyard fountain. I’d never pass up an invitation to travel, I’d linger longer over conversations with strangers — grateful for good fortune when it brings me to kind people who like to talk and tell stories as much as I do — and I’d savor the extra time I have to experiment in the kitchen, making jam and baking bread. It’s in these moments, those moments in between meetings and parties and appointments and classes, in between weekend trips and laundry loads, where my movement, my being, is filled with summer.

 One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.

~ Jeannette Walls


What if we set aside one section of our day and moved more slowly through it. What would that kind of summer look like for you?

 

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