Who Let the Feathers Out?

Jewish folklore tells of a man who had spread many malicious rumors, hurting many people. Eventually, though, his conscience got the better of him and he wanted to make amends. He appealed to the rabbi for advice.

“Tell me how I can undo what I have done,” he begged.

“Go home and get a pillow,” the rabbi said. “Take it to a hill, and cut the pillow open. Wave it in the air until it is empty. Then return to me.”

The man followed the instructions. “I have done what you said,” he told the rabbi. “What is next?”

“Return to the hill,” the rabbi said, “and retrieve all the feathers. Put them back in the pillow.”

“The feathers have blown all over the countryside by now,” the man objected. “It is impossible to retrieve them.”

“You are correct,” said the rabbi. “And neither can you retrieve words once they leave your mouth. You can apologize, but you can never fully make amends

. . . . . .

When I was in high school, two girls approached me in gym class, interrupting my watching of the clock.

“You don’t have to respond if you don’t want to . . .” they began, and went on to explain: a rumor was circulating about me. They didn’t think it sounded right, and they wanted to offer me the opportunity to clarify.

The rumor was one of those false ones, as many are. (I had no idea how or why it had started, but rumors are sneaky that way.) They believed me when I denied entanglement in the situation. Watching them stalk across the gym (twice) to set a couple people straight, I was touched by their indignation on my behalf and grateful for their willingness to retrieve a few feathers, even though they had not been the ones to unleash those feathers to the wind in the first place.

It’s still remarkable to me that these girls—who didn’t even know me well—were willing to place themselves in the awkward position of bringing the rumor to my attention. I’d like to think that I would have done the same thing, but then again I’d like to think a lot of things about myself that would be filed under “In your dreams, lady.” (Reality is funny that way.)

I’m not sure what summoned up this memory today.

Maybe it was overhearing Sonny and Ace define gossip at dinnertime.

Sonny: “It’s like that game of telephone when you whisper, ‘My teacher went to Meijer Gardens yesterday’ to the first person and by the time the message gets to the last guy, he hears, “Han Solo loves to eat cheese.”

Ace: “Gossip is like sickness.”

Maybe it’s because a few people whom I care about have been wounded by gossip lately. Needlessly—of course. Unfairly—of course. Because people prefer to believe that where there’s smoke there’s fire than to acknowledge that forest fires are set by small sparks—of course.

Maybe it’s because, even as these particular rumors infuriate me, I wonder what feathers I have released, what feathers I have accepted from the wind without so much as a question. In some cases I don’t have to wonder very hard.

Operation “Let the Feathers Remain in the Pillows” coming right up.

Who’s in?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Election Countdown: 21 Alternatives to Angst and Fury

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.” –Jonathan Swift, 1738

“There are none so blind as those who will not see that the faults of my candidate of choice pale in comparison to those of yours, and that your political party is corruption incarnate, and that a vote for your candidate is a vote for evil, and that no valid reason—not even one—exists to support your candidate.” –Facebook (et al), 2016

Twenty-one days remain until the U.S. Presidential election. Without diminishing the importance of voting or of thoughtful discourse beforehand, these are not the only avenues of change around these parts. A recent bit of well-articulated wisdom (erroneously attributed to C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters) points out that arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people we have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control.

True.

I tell my kids not to worry about other people’s faults, but let’s face it: dwelling on others’ shortcomings is much more satisfying than confronting my own. Another bit of wisdom (rightfully attributed to C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters), notes that we can practice self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about ourselves that are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with us or worked in the same office.

What does advancing in personal virtue, character, and things we can control look like? Those who have ever lived in the same house or worked in the same office with me would probably be glad to sum up what this would look like for me specifically. Maybe I’ll gather the courage to ask them sometime, but meanwhile, here are 21 ideas that would be good companions to anyone’s political positions.

Anyone care to join me in tackling some of these?

  1. Donate food to a food pantry. Here’s a list of what is most useful.
  2. Forgive someone.
  3. Let your encouraging words and compliments outweigh your criticisms.
  4. Send a gas card to someone who travels regularly to doctor’s appointments and hospital visits.
  5. Help a foster family. (Yes, they receive reimbursement rates; no, these rates do not cover the expenses they incur.) Donate your kids’ outgrown clothes to a foster-care closet; bring the family a meal; babysit; invite the kids along with your family on an outing.
  6. Pay for an extracurricular activity for a kid who cannot afford one.
  7. Describe one positive trait of someone who is not your favorite person. Maybe describe three.
  8. Contribute to an ESL class: volunteer, provide transportation, donate books, bring supper.
  9. Be kinder than usual, one situation at a time.
  10. Be more patient than usual, one situation at a time.
  11. Give up your need to be right, one situation at a time.
  12. Be gentler than necessary, one situation at a time, even when you believe you have the right to be harsh. Especially when you believe you have the right to be harsh.
  13. Identify someone who does more than his or her share. Do something nice anonymously for that person.
  14. Write a note of appreciation to someone who is often taken for granted.
  15. Squelch gossip. Don’t start it, and don’t pass it on. Be slow to believe it. Challenge it when you hear it.
  16. Ponder a promise you’ve not yet kept. Fulfill that promise.
  17. If there’s something (recent or otherwise) for which you should apologize, do so.
  18. Rid yourself of sarcasm. (Sarcasm comes from the Greek word sarkazein, which literally means “to tear flesh like a dog.” Ouch.)
  19. Grant children the same basic dignity and respect that you grant adults.
  20. Give practical help to a single mother who chose to give birth despite challenges.
  21. Make a list of everyone who has helped you tug yourself up by your bootstraps. Include those who taught you what you have come to consider to be common knowledge and skills. Be thankful for these people. Tell them you are thankful.

Vote? Absolutely. Discuss the candidates and election process? Of course. But don’t limit yourself to those things.

“The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.”  Frederick Buechner

What would you add to this list?

 

 

 

 

 

The Chicory Lady

Last month we went to Comerica Park to watch the Detroit Tigers take on the Minnesota Twins. Traffic slowed to a tangle near the stadium, allowing long looks out the window at dingy scenery. But a clump of chicory grew bravely out of a crack in the pavement against the backdrop of a cement barrier, creating a surprise spot of beauty among tattered paper cups and plastic bags and their trashy cohorts.

Chicory is my favorite wildflower. It grew with grace and vibrancy among the Queen Anne’s Lace in the ditches along the half-mile stretch of gravel road between my childhood home and my grandparents’ red house. Every year I’d try picking some, but even when plunged directly into water the chicory’s petals would close—not so much from weakness, it seemed (it can grow in cracked concrete, after all), but from stubbornness. It didn’t wilt; it folded up, not wanting to play the game of being picked. Chicory: sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. Nobody’s fool.

An hour after the chicory had welcomed us on the highway, we had found our way through the park and into our seats behind the third baseline. The occupants of the row behind us wore matching blue T-shirts bearing the name of an adult day care center— several senior citizens, flanked by caregivers, out to enjoy the game. Most of them wore name tags around their necks.

Before we were completely settled in, one of the women leaned forward and started fiddling with my bag, which was under J’s seat next to mine. Perhaps it was in her way; maybe she wanted to stretch her legs and couldn’t because of the bag. “No,” she said when I inquired, folding the top of the bag over a couple of times and giving it a pat. “I just want to make sure nobody reaches in and grabs something from your bag. Steals something. That happens sometimes, you know. That’d be too bad if it happened to you.” She smiled, reassured that my bag was as it should be.

Next up: the announcer asked us to rise for a soloist’s delivery of the national anthem. We stood and listened, except for the aforementioned woman, who sang. Her friend stage-whispered to her, self-conscious: “I don’t think this is sing-along time. I think this is listen-to-the-singer time.” The woman was unmoved. “But I’m going to sing, though,” she said. And she did.

During the second inning J took Sonny, Ace, and their cousin to get their promised hotdog and soft drink. They returned bearing three hotdogs but only one soft drink; it seemed that the other two had spilled. (Don’t assume that the demise of two soft drinks was not a problem. It was. I assure you.) J got the boys seated and headed back to the concession area to redeem the soft drink situation. The woman, who had overheard the dark reports of being handed soft drinks with no tops in a tray that didn’t hold the cups securely, was concerned—concerned enough to lean over my shoulder.

“Do you need some water up there?” she asked. “It’s so, so hot. That sun is just beating right down.” I thanked her and said that we’d be fine; we had brought plenty of water with us, and besides J would return soon with replacement drinks.

“Are you sure?” she said. “It’s very hot. You could dry right up. You all need to drink something. You’ll dry up otherwise.”

That she didn’t have any water to share didn’t matter. She thought she did, and if she had, she would have shared it.

“Well, all right,” she finally conceded.

Now she pointed to Ace.  “I’m afraid that that hotdog he’s eating is just going to squirt right on out of that bun,” she said. “It’s sitting too loose. Can you poke it back in tighter? It’d be awful if he lost it. He’d hate that.” She watched closely until he stuffed the last bite safely into his mouth. Relief.

Perhaps inspired by Ace’s snack, she tried to order her own hotdog from the vendor touting refreshments in the aisle ten seats away. “Just toss it to me,” she hollered. “I’ll catch it!” The vendor believed her.

“Did you say you want ketchup with it?” he asked, reaching for a hotdog.

“No,” she said. “Said I’d catch it. Just toss it my way.”

One of the caretakers snapped off the transaction with a shake of his head and dismissive wave to the vendor, who caught on and continued up the steps.

“Hey!” the woman objected. “I’ll get you back for that. I get people back for things like that, you know!” The caretaker, not unnerved by her threats, turned his attention to urging her to put her name tag back on.

“Why?” she said. “I don’t need a name tag. I know who I am. So do you.”

“It’s in case something happens. Then someone will be able to know where you’re supposed to be.”

“I always know where I’m at,” she said.

One of our players hit a double. A tap on the shoulder. “He can really hustle his bustle, can’t he?” she said. “Look at him.” She nodded approvingly—whether at his hustle or at his bustle, I wasn’t sure—before leaning back and cheering.

At the seventh inning, when the last call for beer sales was announced, she offered to buy a beer for anyone who thought that sounded good. The caretaker: “No beer.”

“Why not? This is our last chance. I’d even buy you one.”

“You don’t have any money with you, and besides you don’t need a beer.”

Grumbling. “No beer today, I guess. Maybe next time,” she apologized to her friend. They both stood for the seventh-inning stretch and danced together to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and the little bit of “Brown-Eyed Girl” played before the game resumed.

Then she leaned forward and adjusted my bag again. “Got to be careful, honey. Someone could just reach right in and grab something. That’d be too bad.”

The eighth inning came to a close. The caretakers stood up and announced it was time to go.

Another shoulder tap. “You have such nice boys there,” she said, nodding toward my sons and nephew, who were eating cotton candy sprinkled liberally with Skittles. (Don’t ask.) “I’ve been watching them the whole game. They’re good kids. I’m so glad they’re having fun! Look at them having so much fun!” She smiled proudly.

Wise caretakers, getting while the getting was good, before the throngs clogged an easy exit. But I was sorry the group was leaving. I liked the woman who’d conversed with us, who had wanted to help us, whose vivacity had spilled into our row. She reminded me of chicory. Sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. Nobody’s fool. She reminded me that those who shun kindness as indicative of weakness are not seeing straight.

I want to be like her when I am old. Sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. (Sorry, Sonny and Ace.) Nobody’s fool.

Her kindnesses were small—attentiveness to our bag, concern for our drink and food, offers of humor, encouragement regarding the kids—but flowed from her naturally and relentlessly. She reminded me of a line from a book I read years ago. The book’s title and author and even the topic have long escaped me, but this bit of wisdom sticks:  “You don’t just wake up a sweet old lady.”

Clearly this lady had had practice.

Clearly being like her requires practice also. Guess it’s time to get started.

I’m going for a walk tomorrow. I hope I will see some chicory. It won’t work to pick any, but maybe I’ll take a photo. It would be a good reminder.

 

 

What Surprises Them?

This past summer I was swimming with Sonny, Ace, and my niece and nephews at my sister’s neighborhood pool. After about an hour, Sonny issued a challenge: that I jump off the diving board, an idea well received by his cohorts. I had not jumped off a diving board in years (okay, decades) but why not?

Overestimating my level of trepidation, the five of them chanted “Do it! Do it! Do it!” in unison and shouted other encouragements as I approached the diving board. After walking the plank and stepping off, I surfaced to many congratulations.

“Good job, Aunt Laura!”

“Yay, Mom!”

“Wow!”

Huh. They seemed impressed. And astonished.

So against my better judgment, I asked the obvious: “Did you think I would be too scared to do that?”

Smiles and sidelong glances.

“Did you? You can tell me.”

“Well,” one of the kids said gently. “It wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?”

I was much amused by their assumption. And touched by their encouragement and support when they thought I was trying something new and scary. Oh, and mildly chagrined that I’d evidently been presenting myself as wholly unadventurous.

Since then, Sonny and Ace have been surprised over many things I’ve done. Among them:

  • Singing along to “Take a Chance on Me,” a song they didn’t know.
  • Fixing the toilet.
  • Reciting the Preamble to the Constitution.
  • Answering “Buenos tardes, Mom!” with “And good afternoon to you!”
  • Successfully and without hesitation operating a VCR (a.k.a. “old fashioned DVD player”). Bonus points for knowing at a glance that the tape had to be rewound. (And yes, I had to explain what “rewind” meant.)
  • Hitting a baseball.
  • Firing up a gas grill.
  • Identifying Bugs Meany as the antagonist in the Encyclopedia Brown.

And so on. Each time I was somewhat surprised at their surprise, although how could they know that any of these were in my wheelhouse if I’d never shown them?

Recently, after I was short-tempered all day for reasons that were not good enough, Sonny asked me for a small kindness. When I complied, surprise flashed briefly in his eyes. Given the day we’d had, his surprise was justified, but still . . . realizing that your kid is surprised by your kindness feels much worse than knowing he is surprised that you were not too chicken to jump off a diving board. Kindness, willingness to give a little time or to listen, patience—these should not be dumped in the vicinity of Abba lyrics, Encyclopedia Brown characters, toilet repair, and diving board mettle to be trotted out seldom enough to surprise others. Even on a bad day.

Know what’s disconcerting? To ask yourself whether your kids (or others) would be more surprised if you showed kindness or harshness, kindness or impatience, kindness or sarcasm, kindness or selfishness. Even on a bad day.

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” – Mother Teresa

One Good Deed

Once upon a time, after a bombing that killed many civilians in Beirut, some reporters crowded around Mother Teresa as she helped load two wounded little girls into an ambulance. One reporter asked her if she considered her relief efforts successful—after all, another 100 children waited in another bombed-out hospital, and she wasn’t helping them.

Mother Teresa only replied, “Don’t you think it is a good thing to help these little ones?”

In defiance of the maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question, the reporter repeated himself: “The other hospital has many wounded children, too. Can you call your efforts successful if you leave them unattended?”

Employing the patience of a saint, Mother Teresa simply stated, “I think it is a good thing to help these children.”

—————————–

Last week a Michigan police officer pulled over a driver for a traffic citation and noticed that the woman’s child was not restrained in a booster seat as the law required. The mother explained that her daughter’s booster seat had been repossessed along with her car in August. (If there is a good reason for car seats to be repossessed—perhaps a better word would be stolen—along with cars, I’d love to hear it. Anyone? Anyone?) She couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

Officer Ben Hall could have issued a ticket for this violation. Instead, he invited her to the nearby WalMart and bought her a car seat with his own money.

The story of his generosity has gone viral. I’ve read articles from many news sources, large and small. While doing so, I have, against my better judgment, occasionally descended below the article into the Reader Comments sections. (This is always a bad idea.)

Many of the comments have been positive and encouraging. But naturally, this being the Reader Comments section, many aren’t. The usual band of naysayers are naying fervently, lest . . . I don’t know; lest the Internet implode without their input?—shoring up the dictum that no good deed goes unpunished.

The Survivalists: “My generation never sat in car seats when we were kids! We wandered around the station wagon and even rode in the back of pick-up trucks. Somehow we managed to live.” (Except the ones who didn’t.)

The Eeyores: “That was nice of him. If the mother was telling the truth, that is. She probably wasn’t.” (No, she probably was. People often do.)

The Leapers of Logic: “That cop gets paid with my tax dollars, so my money bought that seat!” (Huh?)

The Projectors of Their Own Sexism: “He only did this because the driver was a woman. A father wouldn’t have gotten off so easily.” (Had a father gotten off this easily, someone would have claimed that it was because he was a man. Just a guess, here . . .)

The Tossers of Bones: “I’m not sure I’d believe every sob story from every person who is about to get a ticket, but at least his heart was in the right place, so good for him.” (Yes. Good for him.)

The Jaundiced Eyes: “I wish someone would buy me stuff.” (That would be nice, wouldn’t it?)

The Yawners: “Slow news day? How about some real news? This article is a waste of space.” (More so than your comment?)

Cynics: “He did this for the publicity.” (How could he have predicted that this story would make news?)

The Tangential Ranters: “One good deed doesn’t offset other cops’ actions of rape, assault, murder, corruption, murdering their spouse and family members, filing false reports, lying, etc.” (Okaaaay. See also: Leapers of Logic.)

And on, and on.

But while the naysayers, in their many subspecies, continue to nay, a child is now safer than before.

Do you think it is a good thing that Officer Ben Hall helped this child?

I think it is a good thing.

A Tale of Two Strangers

The other day I went to the post office, an errand that always reminds me of a day about four years ago.

Sonny and Ace, then 3 and 1, and I were in line to mail a package. As waited, a woman on her way out of the building glanced down at my sons and then at me and announced in a voice leaking scorn, “I sure don’t miss those days.” And on her way she went.

What? Sonny and Ace were just standing there quietly. They weren’t throwing fits, begging for snacks, running, or kicking the nice man in front of us. They were not having any sort of bathroom issue. They were in no way channeling Caillou. They were not robbing the stamp machine. They were not doing anything that could be construed as annoying, even to that demographic who tend to conveniently forget that they, too, were once children, and imperfect ones at that. They were just standing there. Quietly.

I did not understand what had motivated this drive-by show of contempt. But I refrained from asking Ms. Grouchy Pants what had crawled into her Cheerios and died that morning and simply ignored her—outwardly, that is. Inwardly I was rather miffed.

It doesn’t take much to diminish someone.

A few minutes later, our business completed, we headed back to the car. On the path we met another woman. Her wrinkles had settled in all the right places, mapping out decades of smiles. She looked down at my sons with fondness and then looked at me.

“Well,” she said. “Well. Aren’t you lucky!”

Yes! Yes, I was. My irritation vanished.

The woman smiled at each boy and at me, nodded in emphasis, and went on her way.

It doesn’t take much to encourage someone.

Thank you, Woman Number Two.

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” –Seneca