Lucky

After several days of heavy rains the sky was clearing, the clouds drifting slowly into high, white masses. The sun shone down peacefully as if grateful for the respite. The air was clear and clean and after many days of silence, the birds were once again singing.

He was a middle-aged man, still slender but showing streaks of gray in his hair. Behind the wall of his brown eyes, a sadness and disappointment shone. He said he had grown up in a single parent family and although they had never gone hungry, there was never any money for the nicer things of life.

He had put himself through college, worked hard, and eventually rose to an executive position within a respected company. He had a devoted wife and two healthy children; a big house with a view, a sports car of his own, a travel trailer for family vacations, electronic gadgets and toys – in fact, all the things he had dreamed of owning as a young man were now his.

He said that when he looked at his life he saw many of his business associates starting their own companies, getting even bigger paychecks and bonuses, receiving recognition from peers in their industry. He wanted to know why he wasn’t lucky like they were. Why wasn’t he happy too?

Lucky. When we feel lucky we feel full, complete. When we feel unlucky, there is something empty inside us that wants to be filled. Some want to fill that hole with money or fame or love or God. If only something ‘out there’ could be obtained and put ‘in here’, all would be well. We would be complete, we would be happy.

This ‘thing’ that we believe we need is always just ahead of us, just a little out of reach, around the next corner, in the next relationship or the next job – and if we just try a little harder, run a little faster, we can get what we need and finally relax and finally be happy.

And when we do get that prize, we do feel better for while – a few hours, a few days, a few months – and then that awful ‘wantingness’ comes back. The happiness we felt with that fulfillment was not because of the ‘thing’ we finally obtained but because, for a while, we had no desires. It was the cessation of desire, not its fulfillment that allowed the joy to be felt. Joy fills all emptiness.

So it is not how many things we have, or their quality. In fact, possession has nothing to do with peace. We are lucky, we feel fulfilled, only when we stop wanting. When we stop wanting, we can recognize how lucky we indeed are. Gratitude for what is, no matter what that is, is the foundation for all joy.

It was not many months later that the man developed cancer which seemed to prove to him that he really was unlucky. But when he left this life he was surrounded by all the people who loved him for his courage and devotion and then he understood.

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GENEROSITY

panhandlerOur winter season is alternating between beautiful sunlit days and the fog filled gray skies I wake to this morning. The air is still misty from the overnight rain and as I drive to the grocery store to pick up a few items, the shining wet streets look like slick black ribbons. Few cars are on the road at this early hour but as I slow to stop for the red light at the big Wal-Mart intersection I see standing on the median an old man wearing a shabby pea coat and holding a hand-printed sign.

Begging in the rain is a tough occupation; no benefits nor medical insurance, no overtime or days off. You can, however, make your own hours. It is not a job that I would want. I press the button that rolls down the window and pass a dollar bill to him. His face is gray and needs shaven, his eyes barely meet mine as he takes the money, stuffs it in his pocket and turns away.

The light turns green and as I leave I am reminded of another man I encountered last summer. I was driving through the drop-off at the local post office and saw sitting on the grass under the shade of a small tree four young children. Their father stood a little apart from them and was holding a sign reading, “Will work for food. Please help.”

My throat tightened. I waved to the man to come over and hesitantly handed him a bill. When he saw it was five dollars, his eyes got large, looked directly into mine and filled with tears. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, his head bobbing up and down and his hand quickly and gently touching the back of mine.

As I drove away my heart was filled with gratitude that I had been prompted to give five rather than the one dollar that was my norm. In contrast to other times I had not thought how glad I was not to be in that situation myself; this time I did not feel spiritual.

In this meeting of our eyes the man and I shared a moment of communion. It was a soul greeting that said we both understood what it was to be a parent of children who depended on us and for whom we would do anything – even beg or steal – to keep them safe. The man and I were accomplices in the Game of Generosity in which the giver and the receiver were one and the same.

There was a great joy in my heart that day that I have never forgotten. Now when I hand an offering through the window, I look carefully to see if anyone might be looking too.

THE TABLE

“Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted sno-o-o-ow.”

When I was young we had weekly music classes at our school, and art classes, too! We learned all the old standard American songs and the one above was the tradition for Thanksgiving. We might not have sleighs anymore – I’m not that old! – but we did have grandmothers and woods and snow.

Cooking the Thanksgiving turkey was an honor and responsibility reserved for the older generation in the family. Thanksgiving dinner was usually a large one because all of the parents and aunts and uncles would come with their children. Every year the same menu would be served, except when a marriage brought an ‘outsider’ into the fold who brought a side dish we all would view with suspicion.

After dinner the boys would go outside to test each other’s physical prowess, the men would turn on the football games and smoke cigars, the girls and women would clear the table and make a start on a formidable pile of dishes while gossiping about absent family members and neighbors.

In the 60’s and 70’s as more children went to college, got smart and followed jobs out of town, the family gatherings seem to get smaller and smaller. Extended families were replaced by nuclear families. There were fewer places laid at the table and smaller turkeys roasted until now the grocery stores sell ready-to-go Thanksgiving dinners or turkeys comprised of only a breast and leg.

Another thing that has changed is the Thanksgiving table. At how many tables is grace actually said now? How many blessing are acknowledged and enumerated for all to hear? Are we really grateful for anything other than the end of the meal – so we can go shopping or watch football? Why has it become strange to sit around the table at the end of the meal and just talk?

Is it because everyone is playing some long-running role that we play every time we get together? Is it because we do not feel we can ‘be ourselves’ in this room full of relatives? Is it because we expect too much from our families? More than they can give.

If we no longer share some of our family’s beliefs or viewpoints, the dining room table can become a combat zone. It is a favorite location for making sweeping announcements – we come out of the closet or announce impending (undesirable) marriages, switch political parties, join cults that require unquestioning obedience, leave the law firm and decide to become an actor.

We make our announcements and then want validation, approval, acceptance. When we don’t get it, we get angry and say nobody understands us. When they don’t agree with us we accuse them of being short-sighted, small-minded, prejudiced or without vision.

Who says they have to understand us? Just because we may be related doesn’t mean they have to support and agree with everything we do. When was the last time we understood, accepted and validated them? What we are really asking for is unconditional love and approval – and most of the time that just ain’t gonna’ happen in this world unless we happen to be related to a bunch of saints.

‘Being ourselves’ is one of the hardest things to do in a family. It seems easier to be cool or wise or enlightened or spiritual when we are with friends or acquaintances. They didn’t know us ‘when’, they don’t know of our bad choices, stupid mistakes, dark secrets, and may not have any long-term investment in our lives.

Perhaps we should just accept our relatives for who they are and leave the judgment and the need for approval behind. This Thanksgiving let’s focus on what we have to be grateful for. After all, in many homes will there be one less setting at the table because of death or illness. Perhaps this will be the last time we will be together with our grandparents, parents or siblings. We never know what the future holds. Let’s be grateful for today and what we have and who we share it with.

MOTHERS LOST & FOUND

Faceless Madonna, Marie Taylor 2000

Mother’s Day will be here in a few days and as someone living in a senior community it is a touchy time for many residents. Those who never had children feel a little left out, and those who did have children are secretly praying that they will not be forgotten on this special day.

My own mother died about eight years ago at the age of 93 but today as I reflected I saw there were some other mothers I wanted to remember. First, my Aunt Lucy who is still going strong at 97, God bless her, and my cousin Mary who is in her 80’s. Both women were very good to me all through my life. Then there is my daughter-in-law Lori who is such a good mother to my grandchildren. I sent them all a card to remind them of my love.

But there is one more mother I do not want to forget. I was adopted as a baby and never knew my biological mother – who is probably 80-something now if she is still alive. Her name was Eleanor Fisher and from what I heard she was of Scotch-Irish heritage. Back in 1944 she was going to college – which was still pretty rare for most women back then.  I assume she got pregnant by a soldier- it was wartime.

I was born at St. Elizabeth’s catholic hospital in Meadville, PA and she named me Linda Lou. I don’t know if she was ever allowed to see me or to hold me in her arms. In those days they discouraged such things. I was placed in foster care for several months and then adopted by my mom and dad just before I was scheduled to go to the county orphanage.

I have had some curiosity about this absent mother off and on during the years but other than registering at a national adoption match agency I never sought her out. Partly I thought it was best to let sleeping dogs lie and partly I didn’t want my adoptive mom to feel I didn’t love her – and she would have.

In any event, although I have never sought out Eleanor she has always been in a private part of my heart and today I want to acknowledge her. Believing that intention is stronger than physical reality, I want to send a message into the cosmos knowing that it will find its way to her where ever she is.

Mama, thank you for giving me life. It could not have been an easy time for you in those days when an unmarried pregnancy was so shameful. I hope your family stood by you and that you were not alone. I hope you loved my father. I must have been conceived in love because there is so much in my heart.

Through the years you have probably thought of me many times and wondered how I was and wondered if you did the right thing. I did pretty good and you did do the right thing. I had a good start in life and I went to college, too. I had two fine sons along the way and now have three grandchildren.

I hope you married and had other children. I hope you got to experience the joy that we couldn’t share together. Don’t feel any regrets or sorrow. I know you did the best you could and that you loved me. If there is such a thing as another life, I want you there to meet me when I come home. Wear a red rose in your hair so that I will recognise you. 

Happy Mother’s Day, mama,

Your daughter Linda

THE GRACE OF GOD

There has been a topic running through my head since moving back to Sacramento. Because it is a ‘real’ city, Sacramento has a full range of people and lifestyles. The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly are all on view.

Everyday I see men and women in wheelchairs – some missing a leg, others carrying an extra 100 or 200 pounds in weight – rolling down the side walk to their destinations. I see elderly ladies loaded down with grocery bags and young mothers pushing prams waiting for the city bus. I see a blind man with a white cane tapping his way across the street and I gasp.

There are military vets at the intersections with signs saying “will work for food” or “everybody needs help sometime.” There are overturned trash cans along the sidewalks and walls with graffiti staking out territories. There is the background wail of ambulances and police cars, and silent alley ways are littered with broken syringes and cardboard boxes.

In the clean, quiet and middle class, suburban neighborhoods I have frequently lived in, all unpleasantness is hidden away, along with the cemeteries, halfway houses and methadone clinics. These neighborhoods have the resources to hide their imperfections from the common view, and are reminded to be charitable by walk-a-thons and occasional money-raising appeals.

But when the less fortunate are not included in the communal photo, all suffer. Those in need do not receive the help and attention they require, and those who are temporarily blessed lose an opportunity to learn gratitude and compassion. For if life teaches us anything, it is that it is a cyclic and this Wheel of Fortune is constantly turning.

The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike which means that forces greater than our personal desires, affirmations and actions have the power to change the course of our lives. Today’s socialite can become tomorrow’s drug addict; today’s athlete can tomorrow be struggling with cancer; today’s suburban family can tomorrow be living in a car.

When I was younger, two close friends and I used to believe that as soon as this or that crisis was over, every thing will be okay. We didn’t realize at that time that nothing is constant – the good or the bad. We kept waiting – and waiting – for things to stablize. But when one part of our lives would get better, some other area would disintegrate.

Eventually, and reluctantly, I learned to appreciate the present rather than yearn for some better time in the future. Once you give up hope, everything becomes clearer. So today when I drive the city streets and see those less fortunate than I am, I feel compassion – not in an ‘I’m better or luckier than they’ sort of way, but as a recognition that we are all part of the human family not matter what our faces, histories, or circumstances.

I now carry a handful of dollar bills in the car and when I see someone carrying a sign and asking for help, I no longer ‘think’ about whether I should give, or whether he looks ‘honest’ or how he will spend the money. These dollar bills are not mine but simply passing through my hands to other destinations. So I roll down the window and pass one through. In every single instance, the recipient has always said, “Thank you and God bless you,” and I have felt that blessing –  whether it was sincerely meant or  not is not my concern.

And when I pass people in wheelchairs or old women struggling, or street people stumbling, I mentally say, “God bless you,” and feel that blessing in myself. So who is it who has given, and who is it who has received?