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.

 

3    Email This Post

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

4    Email This Post

byron, the original SEXIEST MAN ALIVE

byronMad, bad, and dangerous to know.

That’s how Lady Caroline Lamb described George Gordon, Lord Byron — the English Romantic Poet whose dashing mop of dark hair, devilishly sensual pout and scandalous reputation secured his reign as the 18th century’s Sexiest Man Alive.  Byron was born January 22, 1788 and reached his artistic peak at a time when poets were rock stars.  He went on European tour, trailing an entourage including the young personal physician John Polidori, who was offered 500 pounds by a publisher if he’d keep a diary of his adventures.  As English majors, we watched our professors light up when the syllabus got to Byron.  In my particular seminar the professor had us rapt with attention as he described eager emulators affecting everything from his hairstyle to Byron’s limp in an attempt to be like him.  It’s hard to imagine that happening 250 years ago.  With no Instagram or Twitter?  If you’ve read his poems as I have and struggled to find in them this rakishness he’s so notorious for, here’s a little reminder.  Byron penned this swoon-worthy love letter and then slipped it into a book he had borrowed from the Italian Countess Teresa Guiccioli.  I would have loved to have been a butterfly on the wall of that garden when she discovered it . . . .

My dearest Teresa,
I have read this book in your garden, my love, you were absent, or else I could not have read it.  It is a favorite book of mine.  You will not understand these English words, and others will not understand them, which is the reason I have not scrawled them in Italian.  But you will recognize the handwriting of him who passionately loved you, and you will divine that, over a book that was yours, he could only think of love.
In that word, beautiful in all languages, but most so in yours – Amor mio – is comprised my existence here and thereafter.
I feel I exist here, and I feel that I shall exist hereafter, to what purpose you will decide; my destiny rests with you,
and you are a woman, eighteen years of age, and two out of a convent, I wish you had stayed there, with all my heart,
or at least, that I had never met you in your married state.
But all this is too late.  I love you, and you love me, at least, you say so, and act as if you did so, which last is a great consolation in all events.  But I more than love you, and cannot cease to love you.
Think of me, sometimes, when the Alps and ocean divide us, but they never will, unless you wish it.

Byron

 

As our emails, catalogs, and store windows clutter up with love tokens for sale these next few weeks, why not put those aside and read something charming instead?

 

From a more serious but no less smitten Victor Hugo

My dearest,
When two souls, which have sought each other for,
however long in the throng, have finally found each other
…a union, fiery and pure as they themselves are…
begins on earth and continues forever in heaven.
This union is love, true love,…
a religion, which deifies the loved one,
whose life comes from devotion and passion,
and for which the greatest sacrifices are the sweetest delights.
This is the love which you inspire in me…
Your soul is made to love with the purity and passion of angels;
but perhaps it can only love another angel, in which case I must tremble with apprehension.

Yours forever,
Victor Hugo

 

And this from a boyish (and besotted) Mark Twain

Livy dear,
I have already mailed to-day`s letter, but I am so proud of my privilege of writing the dearest girl in the world whenever I please, that I must add a few lines if only to say I love you, Livy.  For I do love you, Livy…as the dew loves the flowers; as the birds love the sunshine; as the wavelets love the breeze; as mothers love their first-born; as memory loves old faces; as the yearning tides love the moon; as the angels love the pure in heart…
Take my kiss and my benediction, and try to be reconciled to the fact that I am
Yours forever,
Sam
P.S.– I have read this letter over and it is flippant and foolish and puppyish. I wish I had gone to bed when I got back, without writing. You said I must never tear up a letter after writing it to you and so I send it. Burn it, Livy, I did not think I was writing so clownishly and shabbily. I was in much too good a humor for sensible letter writing.

 

 There are four questions of value in life, Don Octavio.  What is sacred?  Of what is the spirit made?  What is worth living for and what is worth dying for?  The answer to each is the same. Only love.

~ Byron (1788-1824)


 

4    Email This Post