Friday, September 28, 2012

The White-Haired Lady on the Ground

Today has been a tough day. I just want it to end. I spent the morning in class. Teaching usually energizes me, but I am dealing now with a personality that presents me a challenge. My initial reaction is to make the problem go away. My more measured response asks me to consider that we are all different and that perhaps there is a lesson here for me to learn. I am attempting to practice tolerance, patience, and compassion for this individual. Still. I have set guidelines for how he may talk to me (“Do NOT yell at me.”), determined where the nearest security phone is, and reviewed procedures for having a student dismissed. Just in case.

I have dragged my butt now to the coffee shop to grade exams. I will have minimal distractions here and welcome the white noise of the lunch date chatter and the dinging oven timer. I sit with my latte and my purple pen, a stack of essay questions spread across the table. Grading is not a part of my job that I especially enjoy. I find it draining. I would much rather lecture, discuss, converse, talk, laugh, interact. I have seriously considered verbal exams. But here I am, nonetheless, doing what I am paid to do, poring through answers that are all the same, question after question, one at a time, to determine if, indeed, the student knows the material, and if, indeed, I have done my job.

Where is all that inner joy I felt the other day? I should have bottled some of that and saved it for times like this. It has been a difficult morning, and I am looking forward to sleeping away some of these negative vibes with a nice long afternoon nap.

As I am making my way through the parking lot, I notice the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles. I slow my car, and as I do, I see the white-haired lady, unconscious on the ground. Or maybe she is dead. She wears green slacks and a purple floral blouse. Her hair looks beauty shop fresh. It is teased and white, reminding me of the days when women visited the salon once a week. She lies on the concrete just outside the local Weight Watchers. She looks like she could have been out with the girls. I attended Weight Watchers meetings at one point in my life. Some of the older ladies do that. They use the two hours once a week as social time, as a reason to get out of the house. They never really lose and never really gain. Was she catching up like this? Or was she meeting her daughter for lunch? Was she looking forward to her time out this morning?

And why is she unconscious on the ground? Was she hit by the young woman in the black Pontiac? The car is at an angle, turning into the lane where I see the woman. Very possibly the unconscious woman was hit. Or did the young woman turn into the lane to see the white-haired lady already on the ground? Did the older woman’s body fail her? Did her heart give? Is she dead? Am I looking at the end of a life? Or the hope that life is still there? The medics are placing something under her body. I assume they are preparing to lift her onto a stretcher and into the ambulance. This just happened. Had I left any earlier I would have seen the answers to my questions. Had I left earlier than that, I would not have seen anything at all.

I try to move along, careful not to cause a second accident while staring at the first. I creep slowly through and make my way home.

Was she having a good morning? Or, like me, a bad day? Were the last words she heard the “Have a good day, and see you next week” coming from her meeting leader? I cannot get this woman out of my head. I may have just witnessed the end of a life. It happens like that. One minute you stand on a scale in front of the receptionist for your weekly weigh in, careful to take off every bit of clothing publicly acceptable so as to get the lowest read. The next you are on the ground being lifted into an ambulance, fighting for your life, or saying goodbye to it.

I rethink my day.

Yes, it has been stressful, but I am breathing. I have enjoyed the company of students who make me smile. I have spent my morning at a job I love, a job that brings me joy, a job in which I have opportunity to positively impact the lives of others. And, yes, I had exams to grade, but I did so in the comfort of a warm and inviting coffee shop with baristas who know me by name, who know my drink, who chat me up and make me laugh. I was comfortable. I was warm.

How did I leave the last person I saw? I must think on this. It is suddenly very important. Was I kind? Did I smile? Did I make a point to lift up his day? I was asking about a new e-reader. “Nice Christmas present idea.” Those were my last words. What if those were the last he heard? I didn’t wish him a great day. I didn’t thank him for answering my questions. What if those are the last words he ever hears?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Her Story

Special thank you to Lisa Kost and her granddaughter, Bella, for the beautiful artwork.

I had a student ask me if I had been drinking. Um, no, this is just how I am. I had another suggest that I was all over the place, a huge fan of tangents, and not at all easy to follow. If you don’t know me, I can come across as scattered, flighty, a bit unbalanced, distracted by glitter and all things that sparkle. If you know me, you know that I am focused, driven, a woman on a mission. You know that I am determined in my efforts to motivate, move, encourage, inspire. You know that I believe we are all interconnected and that, to benefit oneself, it is necessary to benefit the whole. To benefit the whole, in turn, it is necessary to fully develop and throw out to the world everything one has to offer. It works like that, like a circle, like one big, beautiful circle. My goals are simple and deliberate. My methods are not always pretty.

I am distracted now once again. I intended to write in a different direction. I sat down to put other words to print, but I heard a story today that I need to address. An acquaintance shared her childhood with me. She told me of a mother who didn’t realize she was pregnant, a mother who drank and partied and ignored the baby once that baby came. This young woman in front of me told of loving grandparents who would arrive at the house to pick her up only to have to wait and wait until the mother had eeked out chore after chore after chore from her child, good enough never being good enough. The grandparents called this young woman princess, adored her, doted on her. The mother, jealous of the grandparents’ attention, called the young woman Cinderella and treated her as such. The young woman was eleven and was not allowed to have food. She shared with me that she would sneak a handful of dog food on her way to bed. She would eat the dog food so that she wouldn’t be hungry at school the next day. The mother did not give her breakfast and would reprimand her horribly if she discovered her daughter taking the kibble from the dog’s dish. The young woman ate dog food so that she wouldn’t be hungry at school. She ate dog food. I couldn’t hear anymore. Some words just don’t fit into the ears, at least not without significant pain upon the heart. How do we let this happen? How do we allow this sort of “parenting” to exist?

I am vegan. I’m sure you know this. I believe in peace and love and compassion toward all creatures. I fall short, I do, but I do my best to live a kind and gentle life. I shop for shampoo, for soap, for cleaning products that have not been tested on animals. I avoid leather and wool and silk. I don’t eat honey. Bees are sometimes harmed in the process of getting the honey. Besides, they make it for themselves, not for me. I am careful to consider all creatures in my decisions, to consider the impact that I have on the lives of those with whom I share this earth.

And, yet, here is a woman standing in front of me whose brain, according to the doctors, failed to develop properly because of ridiculously poor nutrition. I am worried about shampoo, and this woman stands in front of me. Her grandparents and her father knew what her mother was doing. They would sneak Little Debbie Snack Cakes under her pillow so that her mother would not know, so the child would not be physically beaten for having food. If the young woman was lucky, she shared with me, she would find some Little Debbie’s under her pillow when she went to bed. If she was lucky.

I don’t really know what to do with this information. Yes. I am scattered and flighty and a bit of a bubblehead, but I absolutely believe that this sort of thing should not exist. I absolutely believe that no child should ever have to eat dog food or rely on morsels sneaked under the pillow for sustenance. Some children are hungry because there is no food. Some children, I know now, are hungry because they are not allowed the food that is there.

After I heard this story, I had to walk. Walking and writing are my ways of clearing my head. I strapped on my Vibrams and headed out into the woods for a nice long walk among the grasshoppers and hawks and wild turkey. My husband is out of town, so after this beautiful walk I treated my daughter to dinner out. I stuffed myself on some pasta marinara with a nice house salad. When I got home, I poured myself a glass of wine, lit some candles, and sat at the computer for a little Facebook chat. I cannot get this woman out of my head. I cannot erase her story from my heart.

And, so I write. I write to share her story, to move those who might be moved, to encourage another who is in a position to help. I write to suggest that it is not about the career or the paycheck or the position or the house or the cars or the vacations. It is about making a positive difference in the life of a child. It is about that circle of I care for you, you care for me, we are the same, we love and care for each other. I stuffed myself on pasta. I will go to bed uncomfortable because I have too much, while she went to bed uncomfortable because she had too little.

I am distracted again. I cannot be comfortable with myself and with my life while I know that a child is going hungry, while I know that a child is being neglected or abused, hoping on every hope that there is a bit of food under her pillow when she goes to bed. I cannot be comfortable with my life of so much while I know that a child goes to sleep tonight with nothing more than a handful of dog food to comfort her and to sustain her until the next. I cannot. I just cannot.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Spread the Love

I feel compelled to respond to all the political “debate” taking place. Just to know, I am not much a fan of politics just as I am not much a fan of religion, even though I am both political and religious. I think both institutions have the unfortunate side effect of contributing to much anger and hatred.

The Dalai Lama has a wonderful quote that states, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” I am sure you’re aware that I lean to the left, very far to the left, maybe even farther than that. In the end, though, I can disagree with you on issues of political interest without trashing who you are as a person. I believe each individual we meet has something to teach us. Each individual is worthy of love and compassion. I know it sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but I like to take a Dalai Lama approach to the whole politically charged conversation. I love and care for you as a person. I may disagree with you on an intellectual level (sometimes vehemently) but that, to me, is not worth destroying our relationship. It is not worth belittling you in front of others. And it is not worth compromising my own character by making an ass of myself.

My political bent is very simple. My political bent is compassion for my fellow man.

I challenge myself on meeting someone with whom I disagree. I challenge myself to look for the good, to search for the light, to find what I might learn from this person, even if it is nothing more than an understanding of “the other side.”

Can I not love you even if you are not like me? Can I not care for you and wish you good things? I can hear some of you now. Oh, my gosh, she’s one of THOSE freaks. Let’s all just join hands, sing Kumbaya, and life will be just grand. Yes. I AM one of THOSE freaks. I do feel it my mission to love each person who comes in front of me, to love even when that person is not in front of me, and to love even when that person does not love me.

I have an activity I do with my students on the first day of a new semester. I have them scribble down on a scrap of paper any question at all that they would ask me about myself if they were given the opportunity, anything. Over the years, I have gotten some interesting responses. I have never refused to answer, but always reserve the right. Who does your hair? (Kathy) Where did you go to school? (Just about everywhere.) You talk funny. Where are you from? (Tennessee. Then Indianapolis.) Where did you meet your husband? (Frat party.) What do you like to do besides teach? (I enjoy long walks on the beach, soft music, candlelit dinners. For real. I also write. A little.) What would you say is your passion? Another student who has had me before shouts, “TEACHING!”

I must admit this is a question I have never had. I think on this. I think fast. I enjoy teaching, but it is not my passion. That would be like asking what I like to read and answering, “Books.” I enjoy writing, but that is not my passion. I am stuck for a response, but the young twenty-something in front of me expects an answer, and this is a question for which I, personally, would like to KNOW the answer. I enjoy reading, but again, that is not my passion. Teaching, writing, reading, spending time with family and friends, traveling to new, beautiful, interesting places. I enjoy all of these, but none are my passion. Then I have it, the underlying theme. I know. I know it now. I know what it is that I consider my life mission, my ultimate goal, my raison d’etre.

My passion, I tell the class, is promoting peace and love and compassion. I hold up two fingers on each hand, offering the peace sign, giving a warm and genuine smile, and suggesting that we all just sit around and spread the love, man, spread the love. I get a chuckle from the crowd. This is a great icebreaker. But I am serious in my answer. It does not serve me to hate you. It does not serve me, and it does not serve society.

My mother used to tell us girls to play nicely or to get away from each other. On my part, I am choosing to play nicely. I am choosing to love. Love me back or don’t. I really don’t care. Either way, my heart is filled with good feelings for you. It radiates a warmth that you need only reach out and grab. My heart is happy and full. If you will let it, it can make yours happy and full. Honestly, I think it would do the world good to get together for one gigantic group hug. I think it’s sad how so many rules are tied to the idea of loving another. Just because I am not married to you does not mean that I cannot care for you. Just because you do not believe in God the way I do does not mean that I cannot love you as a person. Just because you stand for everything I do not does not mean that I cannot envelop you in a warm embrace of peace and compassion. I can hear what you’re thinking. People just aren’t like that. It’s a nice idea, but it would never work. Some people just aren’t worth loving. Well. I say you’re wrong. I say maybe it wouldn’t work, but it is at least worth a try. I say maybe I cannot love EVERYone, but I CAN love the ONE who stands in front of me. I say maybe you have issue with me, and others think me strange for continuing to care, but I cannot stop caring because that is how I am. I say that no matter what you do, who you are, what you think of me, I can have love in my heart for you, and I can share that love. And I WILL share it. I will share because, yes, I am one of THOSE freaks.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Table for Two

Who would you choose, dead or alive, to sit down with for dinner? A friend asked me this today. I chose to think of someone dead, because if someone is alive and I really want to have dinner this person, I figure I can make that happen. If someone is dead, however, well let’s give it a shot. So, I chose to focus on a dead person. Then I thought, why dead? And why an Einstein or Mother Teresa? Why not my Pop or Oldmom or Grandma Wadley? Why Freud or Hitler or Jesus and not the kindergarten teacher who passed away unexpectedly when my kids were in elementary?

And this is what I came to.

Famous or not, dead or not, everyone has something from which I can learn. Everyone has some perspective, some word, some thought, that in some way can contribute to my world. Most people surround themselves with like-minded souls. I never understand this. First, then who would there be to convert? Second, if I surround myself with those who are much like me then from whom would I truly learn?

I have a friend who stands at the other end of the spectrum on most every life issue. I have found him very irritating at times. I have found him very irritating many times. I cannot believe the words, sometimes, that come out of his mouth. He puts down huge groups of individuals. He freely expresses his disdain for those not like him. I don’t understand. I just cannot comprehend his thinking at all. And yet, on a personal level, I have never found him anything but kind. I know that should I ever need anything at all, he would be at my door. If I am ever verbally attacked by others, they are wrong, I am right. He has my back. I know this. I would welcome dinner with this friend. I would welcome it any time.

I have another friend. He is all about peace and love and compassion. He is all about what is best for humanity. He is all about living in a kind and gentle way. He is much like myself. He does much work for the benefit of society. He does good work. He helps those who cannot help themselves. We would seem a very nice fit, but on an individual level, I find him arrogant. I find him a bit of an ass. This disturbs me as I see him much as I see myself. We are much alike. We have chosen the same profession. We each value family and education and environmental consciousness. We like to travel. We enjoy an afternoon at the beach, a good book, a glass of wine. It is not difficult to understand this friend, as we are the same point on the continuum. We take up the same dot. And, yet, he finds me disturbing to the point that we are no longer friends. It was something I said. It was inappropriate, perhaps, but I said it. I miss the friendship. He is funny and smart and kind. I miss the conversation. I would welcome the opportunity to sit for dinner. I would welcome it, and most likely, I know, we would order the same dish.

I am learning from both of these friends.

I don’t think one has to be a Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Poe to have interesting things to say. I could learn from my friend’s five-year-old as much as I could learn from a Maya Angelou or Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen. Let me sit for a second with the man I know who is living from his car. Let me sit with him and learn what inspires him to go to class each day even when he cannot go to dinner. Or maybe it is because he cannot go to dinner that he goes to class. Let me sit with the twenty-year-old who is the only living family for his dying father. Let me sit with him and learn what drives him to continue his education when hospice is his life. Let me sit with the teenager who was sexually molested by her father, the same father who told her he loved her and read her bedtime stories each night. I can learn. I can learn something from each person I meet, from each path I cross. No matter how different our values, our lives, may seem, no matter how uncomfortable I may feel, there is something I can take from each one of these encounters. There is something I can learn.

Who would I choose, given the choice, to have dinner with, dead or alive? I would choose you. I would choose you. Even though I think I may know everything about you, there is always something to learn, there is always something to know.

And what about you? Would you sit with me? You may think you know me. You may think me an open book. You know that I write, that I teach, yes, but you have no idea what is inside this head. You have no idea. Let us sit down, you and I. Let us sit down, and let us learn a bit about each other.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Begging a Dollar

I sat down to write. That was the intent, but then that guy at that table over there begged a dollar from the lady in the orange shirt. I heard him. Actually, I heard the woman who sits with him. How can I listen to my own words in my head now when my heart says listen to this?

I am in the bookstore, in the café. I sit here with my computer in front of me, blank page waiting. I’ve ordered a chai latte, my second today, but I’m not sure I’ll finish it. My bathroom scale suggests that perhaps I need to rethink the drink. Iced tea, black, unsweetened. Zero calories. That would be more like it. But it’s not because I am dieting that I don’t want the drink, mostly I am just stuffed. My daughter and I tried a wonderful Middle Eastern place today for lunch. I had the lentil soup with some saffron rice and a falafel wrap. On the way home we stopped off at the grocery for a couple of things. I grabbed a soy chai for me, and a white mocha frappuccino for my daughter. I’ve spent the afternoon on chores and homework and homemade banana bread. So now I sit to give my brain some breathing space, to do what it wants to do, to play on the page, to get silly or serious, as it will. I sit with the chai just because that’s what I do. It’s, like, required.

But the guy at that table over there, and the woman he is with, sit with water, lots of cups of water. Water is free. I think you can get a lemon for it. They also sit with magazines and books that they are not going to buy. They are just reading, reading and drinking water. Maybe with lemons. The guy is in a blue plaid shirt and dirty jeans, but not dirty enough to be disgusting. He needs a shave. I noticed him when I walked into the café because he was walking out. We did that awkward, stepping-out-of-each-other’s-way dance. He was polite, but somewhat unkempt. The woman he is with is blond. I like the way she has her hair clipped up. She is dressed nicely and looks like she smells pretty. They don’t seem to belong together, but they do. I can hear while I don’t look that they are talking but don’t know what they are discussing. Then I hear her.

The woman looks at the lady in the orange shirt, who sits at the table next to them. The lady in the orange shirt sits with who I assume is her daughter. They both sip their venti drinks, peeking into the stack of books they have bought. The daughter is in her team jersey with her laptop open in front of her. They chat about the daughter’s plans, upcoming events, whether they should split a scone. The woman who is with the man looks over at the lady in the orange shirt and asks if she has a dollar. I turn away from my blank page to peek.

The woman says that she and her friend are just a dollar short. The man pretends to rummage through his wallet and the papers on the table to determine if they might somewhere have the remaining dollar to purchase a pastry. The lady in the orange shirt opens her purse, pulls out a dollar, and gives it to the woman. I am surprised. I am surprised, then, that I am surprised. It is obvious the couple is panhandling. They intend to buy nothing. They are not a dollar short. They are just short. And yet, the lady in the orange shirt just gives them the dollar.

I go back to my attempt at writing, but nothing comes. I decide that I am forcing the issue and put away the words until another night. Heading out of the strip mall I notice the man and the woman in front of one of the other stores. They are confronting a couple, begging money. I know this because the gray bearded gentleman they accost reaches in his pockets and shakes his head. He has nothing to offer them. My daughter, on a fresh learner’s permit, is driving. I tell her to turn around, to go back. I tell her to pull around and let me out, to wait, to just give me a second.

I am thankful to have a belly that is stuffed with food. I am thankful to have the choice between water and chai. I am thankful that I can stand in front of students and get paid to talk instead of having to beg a dollar from a lady in an orange shirt. I am thankful that my home is bulging with books, hidden in every crevice, teetering on every surface, gracing every room. I am thankful for my handmade lavender soaps from the soap guy at the farmer’s market. I am thankful for my hot steamy shower in which to enjoy my lavender soaps every morning. I am thankful for the little tan Prius my daughter is pulling into a parking spot as the couple walks away.

I have too much, and they have too little.

I catch up with them and tell them I noticed what they were doing and ask if they need money. I think the woman thinks they are in trouble for begging in the businesses. “Oh, no,” she says, “We are just trying to get food. We are homeless, and we are just trying to get food.” I give her the bill I have worried in my hand, the bill I have worried because I don’t know if they will use it to buy drugs or alcohol or if, indeed, they will use it for a good purpose. My head says, “Kiss that twenty goodbye.” My head says, “Give them food, not cash.” My head says, “That’s another book and a latte.” My heart says, “Shut up. Just do it. You have much to be thankful for, and you are not out on a summer night drinking water with lemon, asking strangers for cash.”

There have been times in my life when I could have used a dollar or few, when I could have used a dinner. There have been times in my life when I was hungry and there was no food. I am thankful, whatever they do with that money, that I had the money to give. I told her to buy food. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Giving the money was for me, not for her.