Everyday Blessings: Or an Orthodontist, a Request, and a Cue from Grandmama

During our recent travels, my daughter ran out of the rubber bands that attach to her braces to correct her bite. It was a simple miscalculation. Problem is, we get those from her orthodontist, 1000-odd miles away from where we were staying. You can’t just walk into Rite Aid or Walgreens and pick up a few packs.

“Maybe we can get some from another orthodontist,” I said. “We can offer to pay for them. Surely they’ll go for that.” I picked the closest orthodontist office and off we went, just before we were due to leave town for our next stop up the road.

WP_20150601_13_04_28_Pro

We entered the office to find two women in scrubs seated behind a long reception desk. A man in a tie and jacket stood between them, discussing paperwork. Each of them adopted a serious face as I explained our quest and our willingness to purchase these rubber bands.

The two women glanced to the man, whom I correctly surmised to be the senior orthodontist. He was not seeing patients that day, but he stared at us for a moment and then said, “We don’t sell those.”

I prepared to plead.

He paused, looked at us, and continued, “You know what? I can give them to you. Ours are a little different, but if you hand me those (empty) packs, I’ll see what we’ve got that’s close.”  The orthodontist disappeared into the back of the office and reemerged after several minutes with 2 packs of rubber bands similar to those my daughter uses. He handed them to her and told her, rather gravely, “These ought to help until you get home.”

I wanted to thank him. He’d already refused money. The office was a rather understated set-up, into which effusive offerings of words would likely strike a dissonant note.  We all stood there for a quiet half-second.

And then it hit me.

When my grandmama requested and received a favor from someone, she would invariably tell them, “Ask me to do something for you next time.” Though she died five years ago, I can still hear those words in her voice. She meant them – and because she offered them with sincerity and grace, they evoked a resonant power.

Our situation, however, did not lend itself to such mutuality of engagement. Within minutes we would be leaving the state.

I repeated our thanks – and then it came to me. Echoing from the memory of my grandmother, I heard these words from my lips:

“May someone do something kind for you.”

The man’s face softened as he acknowledged our thanks and our blessing.

I walked away thinking about how this and similar small blessings might be repeated, either audibly or silently, throughout our days. Having simple rituals could enable us to reach out to those around us, to engage with them in a new spirit. How might the world and our own lives be better if we came to know and rely on a reflexive blessing or two?

I can think of any number of situations where our (ahem, my) reflex is the opposite – when I crack my elbow against a doorframe or encounter a car whose driver stubbornly refuses to let me merge on the expressway; when I hear the voice of an antagonistic politician or a the words of a neighbor proclaiming some old racist or homophobic fallacy. I can jump to a reflexive curse pretty quickly. And as southerner, I know that “bless your heart” often signifies a problem rather than a sincere wish.

But what if I had on hand simple words and rituals that speak of and to that which is good? Could I make kindness and connection come more easily to me? Could I make it my automatic response to recognize and honor that part of God that dwells within each person?

I’m sure plenty of people already do so, including those in faith traditions other than my own. But mainline Christianity as I’ve known it has not given me much experience in this area. I don’t have the words waiting for me. I may be prepared to fuss or cuss, but I’m not ready to bless.

I want to change that.

“May someone do something kind for you” is thus becoming one of my regular refrains, a small blessing I aim to offer throughout the day when I encounter manifest kindness.

(and if people use or create other everyday blessings, I’d love to hear the words that work for them).

I acknowledge that these are small and simple words in a big, complicated, and often bleak world. I’m not suggesting that such everyday blessings are a revolutionary means of righting wrongs and upending injustices. Instead, they serve as one way of deliberately connecting ourselves to other human beings. We cultivate an awareness of our interdependence and of our mutual need for deep kindness. It’s a step away from the dehumanization that infects our culture. It points toward transformation – in the image of God – of ourselves and our relationships to one another.

May someone do something kind for you.

On Observance

We are staying over the long weekend in a neighborhood that’s home to a substantial population of Orthodox Jews. In addition to the Christian celebration of Pentecost and the national holiday Memorial Day, this year the weekend also marks the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses and to the gathered Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

From the beginning of the Sabbath all through the weekend, we’ve noticed groups of men in suits and yarmulkes striding, women in soft hats and long dresses pushing strollers and carriages, attentive fathers listening to stories and answering questions from their small children, and older couples, accompanied by caregivers, making their way deliberately along the sidewalk. These assorted groupings of well dressed, carefully covered men, women, and children have repeatedly made their way back and forth from home to one of the several synagogues scattered around the area.

One memorable grouping was led by a father and an older daughter swinging a younger daughter by the hands as she jumped her way to morning services. They were trailed by the mother pushing an older woman in a wheelchair. The older woman’s husband walked alongside. This latter trio looked quite austere until the older man, dressed in a sharp navy suit and fedora, broke into a huge smile and complimented my dog for waiting so patiently for them to pass through a narrow passage of sidewalk.

The term ‘observant’ is applied to Jews who follow the careful prescriptions of Talmudic teachings. I heard a young Christian friend say recently that Jews had it easy because all they had to follow was the Ten Commandments. This woman was unaware of the vast scope of Jewish scholarship and prescriptive law that governs the behavior of the faithful. Observant Jews must pay attention throughout daily life and on the Sabbath to a range of guidelines that immerse them in a faithful life.

While their traditions differ from my own, I appreciate the idea of being ‘observant’. In doing this work, I’ve made reference to the sacrament of the everyday, to the acknowledgement of the sacred that permeates daily routines and encounters. We all have the potential to live lives suffused with holiness and justice and mercy . We can be observant in our daily practice of living with one another and in our connection to God.

It is not casual, but it can become habitual, our accustomed way to engaging with the world around us. We all have the potential to be observant. I thank those attentively observing Shavuot this weekend for the steady reminder.

Saturday on the Pediatric Rehab Unit

Written a while back, but for me it still speaks to bearing witness to difficult times – and there’s a whole lot of difficulty in our world right now.

Saturday on the Pediatric Rehab Unit

One sobbing 2-year old with burned hands.

One dislodged NG tube.

One baby’s blood on my shirt.

One young man obsessed with Mountain Dew.

One exploding gas line burns one house
and three people in it.

One rescue inhaler missing meant one heart stopped and one brain died, almost died, died to
the life that it knew, to the life his mother dreamed.
And now I stretch his stiff, sweaty limbs,
curling into knots
and watch his eyes for silent screams.

One smiling, unspeaking 16-year old, who
lives with a body that has turned on itself,
lives with her sister’s ex-boyfriend,
lives with a mass of knotted wig on her head, which her mother refuses to comb.

One breathing tube out. Finally.

One 5 year-old with the flu,
and a brain tumor,
just diagnosed,
inoperable,
and a mother who fears
the father who hates.
A thin sheet of pretense veils the room.

One boy who set afire a string on his shirt
and his shirt
and his arm
and his back
and his chest
I don’t go back to my mama’s, he says.
She throwed toys at me.

One boy with clay on his hands
a fresh scar dancing across his head
from the car that hit him
as he danced across the road.
His mother, tested for drugs, will not return.
His father, older, bearded, country, doting,
slices through plastic packaging
to open more clay, more crayons, more games and paint brushes.
Whatever he can give
to heal his boy
While you’re here, I’m going to go smoke,
he pleads.
I’ll be back, son, he says to the boy looking at solid food, meant for him,
for the first time in a week.
Pizza and grape juice,
of course.
Trembling fingers pluck thin strips of meat from each piece,
stretch out for the straw.
I roll the clay in my fingers and remind him:
Small bite.
Chew.
Swallow.
Sip.
Repeat.
We watch the day end,
the pizza disappear,
the quiet hope of the night stop by this room
for just one moment.

Church Parking Lot Ambiguity: Part I

Still not the what-to-do-about blight/Part II post (I’m still thinking), but an encounter from a while back. I’ve noted it as as Part I. That’s not because I have an immediate sequel in mind, but because there are many situations where mercy, justice, and moral ambiguity (and sometimes parking lots) intersect. It will come up again.

I attend Sunday worship in a busy, diverse urban neighborhood. One warm day, my daughter and I were walking across the parking lot at church after the early service, talking about a quick stop at the grocery store on our way home. We greeted the crew of regulars who sit, smoke, and talk on a short flowerbed wall between the two doors that most people use to enter the education building. I nodded to a short white woman in overall shorts talking on her cell phone after we turned the corner. We were about 10 feet from our car when I heard the words behind me “Hey, let me call you back in a minute.”

I knew what was coming.

“Hey, excuse me.”

We turn to face the woman in the overalls coming toward us. I’m only 5’2”, but I’ve got a good 3+ inches on her. I take her to be just few years older than me, but she has the familiar look of hard living. She reaches us and says “I get my food stamps on Thursday, but I was wondering if you would help me with some groceries or something until then.”

Ah, hell.

(that’s what I say on the inside.)

On the outside, I look politely at her, but pause before replying. She keeps talking – “I’ve gotten vouchers here before. I know Rev. Sally. Can you help me just until Thursday? I can’t come during the week because I’m working. I work 7-3:30 and I live over there in housing at the Neighborhood House just over there and I used to have a car but it quit working and you don’t know anybody that has a car I could pay on a little at a time, do you? They take us to the store and I’ll have my food stamps on Thursday and I work during the day, but I’m looking for an evening job. Do you know anybody looking to hire for the evenings? Just right there at the Village Market so I’ll have something to eat until I get my food stamps. ”

She looks at me. My 13-year-old looks at me.

Ah, hell.

I start with the easy route – “I don’t actually work here. I just come for church. I don’t know anything about the vouchers.”

She looks at me. My 13-year old looks at me.

The narrative that runs through my brain in about 15 seconds: I’veNeverSeenThisWomanHereBefore. IHateItWhenPeopleComeUpToMeInParkingLots. MyKidIsWatchingThisForALesson. WhatLessonDoesThatNeedToBe? I’veJustBeenToChurch. ThereAreSoManyNeedsInThisNeighborhood. ICan’tHelpThemAll. IsSheJustTryingToRipMeOff? ForGOD’SSakeIAmTakingAClassCalledEatingAndDrinkingWithJesusAndIStillDon’tKnowWhatIsTheBestThingToDo. IHaveJustBeenToChurchAndThisWomanIsTellingMeSheNeedsFood. WhereIsEverybodyElse? Sigh . . .

I have been in this situation countless times across my life and across the world. It is never easy for me to discern the optimal thing to do. Never. I am always winging it.

We have a mutual moment of silence there in the parking lot under a bright morning’s sun. Then I commit.

“So you just want to go down the street to Village Market and get a few things to last you until Thursday?” She nods. “Okay, c’mon. That’s my car right there. My name is Jennifer and this is my daughter, Lillian.”

She introduces herself as Gina. We talk about kids. I tell her Lillian is my only one. Hers are grown. She worries about her younger son, Vic, who is serving in the infantry in Afghanistan.

As we enter the small neighborhood store, I tell Gina, “Look. I’ve got some money, but not a whole lot of extra money. Will you make sure you just get what you need until your food stamps come?” She reassures me of her thrifty intent.

Gina picks out simple items, looking for what’s on sale: bread, eggs, Vienna sausages, orange juice, chips, sandwich meat, and cheese slices. I help her find a 2 liter bottle of diet Mountain Dew and don’t begrudge her a pack of the gum she likes. I grab a few items as well so that Lillian and I don’t have to make another stop. Gina’s portion of the groceries total up to $32.

After we’ve loaded our purchases into my car, she starts talking about paying me back in food stamps and recites her cell phone number. I ask her to show some kindness to other people she meets. I consider this a practical response. We drive the couple of blocks to her apartment, help her take the groceries to her doorstep, and tell her we’ll pray for Vic in Afghanistan. On the subsequent 10 minute drive home, Lillian and I discuss of the moral murkiness of the situation. I finally conclude with the thought to her that no matter what the truth of the matter is, the food will get eaten by someone further down the hierarchy of wealth and power than we are. I’ve modeled decency, I hope, by being friendly without prying, respectful but careful. I tell her it’s hard to know what to do.

And it is.

 

All Other Points West: 1553 to Dallas

In Atlanta, the ramp leads us down to the street as
buckets of water dump from the sky.
As one we pull up our hoods and
step beyond a waiting bus to the next, meant for us,
1553 to Dallas.

I trail a small boy, as black as I am white, tugging an enormous red suitcase
whose tag reads San Francisco.
A glance ahead suggests the likely mom,
pulling another bag and another brother.
Then another traveler, a thief of space, mistakes me for weak,
tries to gain a place in our long wet line.
I know this game and
checkmate her with a
single
polite
decisive
step.

Upon the bus, I scan the seats.
There sits the boy, three rows back,
across the aisle from bro and mom.
A safe seat mate.
“Hey, little man. Anybody sitting in that seat besides your backpack?”
Quick glance at mom, who nods.
He tucks the bag to his feet.
I take the window.
Soldiers with duffles,
small women with big purses, and
young lean men of every color slip past us down the aisle.

My seatmate compliments my blue pen,
likes it because it writes so fine.
He’s ten years old,
in the 5th grade.
The name is mumbled once, twice and
then I give up on getting it for now.
He eyes his brother
who has custody of mom’s phone and its games.
“Next time he crashes, it’s mine, Mom. Mom. Mom.”
It’s a word of many syllables.
Soon though not peacefully the phone changes hands.

We trade information.
“I’m going to San Francisco,” he says.
“That’s a long way,” I reply.
“That’s what everybody says.”

Four rows back a couple speaks loudly of sex
before subsiding as the driver works the aisle for tickets.
“We got tickets to San Francisco,” says my seatmate.
The driver smiles. “That’s where you’re going?”
My turn: “Don’t tell him that’s a long way.
That’s what everybody says.”

“Nice watch,” my boy tells the driver.
To me “I bet that cost a lot of money.”
“Well, he does work hard.”
He notes my Timex turned under on my wrist.
“Yeah. Hey, you wear yours likes that, upside down?”
“My granddaddy wore his like that and it became my habit.”
“Oh, okay. You want a mint?”
He’s generous and also offers gum. Grateful, I decline.

We wait
for another bus and its people.
Outside a man argues over luggage gone awry.
Or possibly going awry at this very moment.
He’s not getting far.
The driver paces the wet pavement, then turns
as the sister bus releases another line to join our crew.
These people look tired.
And quickly they are wet.
We silently assess their stuff.
Pillows, dripping coats, bags of boxes of cereal clutched close.

Then the rumble,
both sky and engine.
Darkness suspended briefly as we pull away.
The driver introduces himself as Roger, “our motorcoach operator,”
ticking off rules and destinations.
“This bus will go to downtown Dallas, Texas but
I will only go as far as Jackson, Mississippi,” he explains.

“We go through Mississippi?” asks my little man.
“You do. I’m stopping in Alabama.”
“We go through Alabama?”
“Yep, that’ll be our next stop.”

We turn back to the voice: “If any of you have been listening to the weather,
we probably are going to experience
some very bad inclement weather.”
I’ve been watching the screens as we waited inside.
The worst is past.

Still a thick grey of stormy night descends.
The slick streets give themselves to us
as we roll past sleeping shells of brick,
crumbles of commerce,
shadows of stone human beings.
A row ahead the angry man still fusses
and cusses on his phone about his luggage.
It will be a long story.

Back in our seat, my friend plays his game,
basketball,
on mom’s phone.
I pack my failing electronics away and
speak of reading.
“You read? You mean books?”
“Yeah, I like to read. You?”
“Yeah, I like to read. I learned in 3rd grade. No, 2nd grade. No, 3rd grade.”
His words are deep urban west coast.
My own speech a stew of south and mid-atlantic edu-speak.
We both must work at hearing them,
but tacitly decide it’s worth the effort.

My eyes close as we take the highway.
I hear him surrender the phone,
almost gracefully since it didn’t go to the brother.
Atlanta, Austell, Lithia Springs, Douglasville, Villa Rica blur by.
Familiar exits creep into my dozing brain.
A baby cries for days.
Okay, not really.

The quiet voice: “You mind if I turn on the light?”
“No man, it’s fine. I’m just resting.”
“Okay. Which button is it?”
The slender outstretched arm does not reach.
Not yet.
I help him out and then turn to look.
He’s got a book.
I blink at the paperback with snow and a sleigh on its cover.
A Candlelight Romance with very small print and a heroine named Calista.
“That’s your book, huh?”
“It’s my mom’s. She’s got a bunch of them. But I’m going to read it too.”
“That’s good.”

He begins to read softly, aloud,
each word a swirl of unfamiliar sounds pulled from the page.
“I read this book the whole thing once,” he says,
unfazed as my eyebrows raise.
“I sound out the words. Put them in chunks.”
Mom leans across, tells him to read to himself, quiet-like.

The book lasts until it’s time to drain
a huge bottle of Orange Crush of its final swig.
He offers me Doritos.
We talk in expert tones of Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese.
And then I explain Central Time,
the difference between Mexico and New Mexico
and between city and state.
Topics we will revisit.

“Alabama, it’s nice too,” he says. They have all those tomatoes.”
I’m still deciding what to say to this, when moments later:
“Wow! That’s Alabama?!?”
He points into the dark at acres of bright lights,
a huge, shiny RV dealer.
“‘Yes, this is Alabama.”

First stop is Anniston,
where the bus station is a gas station.
People disperse in search of food, cigarettes, and bathrooms.
I’m stuck to my notebook, with my blue pen.
I like this boy and want to keep the words he gives me,
this journey’s unexpected small treasure.

We resume.
The man in front continues to berate his phone about his luggage,
more loudly now that his seatmate’s wisely moved on.
I’ve been hearing his story for more than 100 miles and
still can’t make sense of it.
“Do you cuss?” my boy asks me.
“Not around kids.”
“What do you say?”
“I’m not going to say them in front of you. Not in front of kids, right?”
“I’m allowed to say the s-word. Because it comes from donkeys.”
“Uh huh.”

Leftovers of a Mexican lunch provide me dinner.
We share chips and talk of favorite foods.
He likes Chinese.
I have citrus to spare for him and bro,
clementines bought by morning for my daughter.
I accept some sour Skittles in return.
Orange, red, and then he adds a yellow.
“These are the best,” he says,
as he takes the yellow one and places it in my palm.

“Are you racist?”
“Ummm . . “
Aren’t we all?
but some of us choose to try to recover from it.
But I can’t say that, so I’m still thinking.
“I mean, do you like black people?”
“What do you think? Do I like black people? I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
“I like all kinds of people. If they are nice.”
“I’m with you on that one. It gets boring if everybody’s just like me.”

We watch the dark go by,
pass a bus-sized truck whose driver sips coffee,
then the sign for Chula Vista.
He says
“I asked my dad how he was doing. He said he was good.
I said ‘Good’ back to him. And then I told him ‘But man, you’ve got to put more details in it.’”

They’ve come from Charlotte,
a month-long visit so mom,
I hear her explain,
could “take care of some business.”
She offers me her phone charger
to juice my tablet,
but I tell her I don’t have far to go and
have enough juice for that.

And enough to show her boy a map.
He nods.
“I like maps. And globes. You know globes? My teacher has one.”
We touch the screen and trace his likely path across the states.
I tear a scrap of paper and write them down for him to keep.

North Carolina
South Carolina
Georgia
Alabama
Mississippi
Louisiana
Texas
New Mexico
Arizona
California.
At least I think.
I tell him I don’t know how they’ll go from Texas,
but maybe like that.

We review the Mexico-New Mexico difference again.
Then the talk turns to dinosaurs and what they eat
and then to iron and what we eat.
“That’s my TV, the window,” he says. “Are there any black people in Texas?”
“Why, yes there are. I do know that.”
“I mean like a lot of black people?”
“I guess that depends on how you look at it.”

“Look at those lights,”
I tell him as we glide into town.
“I’ve got to call my friend so I can get home.”

You’re a nice lady.”
“Thank you. I think you are nice too. I enjoyed talking with you.”
“Not everyone is nice.”
“No, not everyone is nice. You do have to be careful about that.”

We shake hands.
I finally get his name.
Elisha.
I tell him my own again.
Repeat it.

I give mom my card, tell her to have him e-mail me someday
when he learns how.
She says to him: “you made a friend.”

I hand her the last four clementines.
She has me give them to Elisha.
I remind him: “Now, they’re for you AND your brother.”
“I know.”
“Good.”

And then I go
away,
home.
And they go
away.

I sit this morning in the sunlight,
with my coffee and my dogs and my blue pen.
Elisha should be in Texas by now,
Dallas soon.
Then another bus will take him west,
so he can find his own way
home.