A Shared Umbrella

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The insistent ring of the alarm. Heavy eyes, still swollen partially shut with sleep. Awareness that it is Tuesday, and I must wake up. The slow methodical movements of my body on autopilot knowing what has to be done to go from sleepy-eyed to one of the many productive people rushing through mass transit to make this machinery called the ‘economy’ work.

All of this for what? For a paycheck? For retirement? For a new dress? For a re-built transmission on our car? For an electric bill? For kids college? There are days when it feels so trite. So nothing.

To add to these bleak thoughts, it’s been raining. Hard. Not short showers where the sun blinks through as though crying a little and then bursts forth into smiles; rather it’s downpours where the bottom of your jeans get wet, your purse is soggy and water seeps through your shoes. It smells like rain and all the trash of the city is mashed together under foot.

Umbrellas are everywhere and instead of people bumping into people, it is umbrella on umbrella, small spokes getting caught in other small spokes. Most have their own umbrellas, but occasionally you will see people sharing, heads bent together to ensure maximum coverage. While those of us who are alone are walking quickly, impatient with the raindrops and downpours that stymie our progress, those who are sharing are often laughing or talking intensely.

Along with the sharing of umbrellas comes the inevitable sharing of life.

Several years ago, while still in high school, my son Micah did a project for a video contest. His skill and technique have improved ten-fold, but I still loved this, one of the first projects he did for competition.

Called “A Shared Umbrella” it tells with few words and many actions the story of a teenage girl, defeated and done with life. At her window, high in an apartment building she looks out at a bleak city scene of rain and sorrow. Pills are poured out in her hand, she’s ready to end her struggle, her struggle with life and with pain.

She looks out the window and sees two strangers – one dressed in a suit and tie, a business man off to work; the other dressed in old clothes, clearly without money. They are both waiting for the same bus. The business man waits with an umbrella, the poorer has none. And then in an unexpected act of humility and kindness the business man walks over and holds out his umbrella, sharing it with a stranger, offering a shield against the rain pouring down. They stand together until finally the bus comes carrying both off to their respective lives.

Just this simple act is enough to give the girl hope. If an umbrella can be shared among unlikely people, then life may be worth living. It is a small act of redemption in her bleak world.

I love his piece. I love the images, I love the graphics, and I love the story.

Offering protection and hope through sharing an umbrella is seemingly so simple; why do I make it so hard? Especially today, when nothing feels redemptive, least of all sharing an umbrella.

Today as I walk in the rain, I am acutely aware of my humanity and frailty; ashamed of my blah spirit and my feelings that none of this makes any difference; aware too of the humanity of all around me.  And with that awareness, tired as I am, I want to offer hope; I want to share my umbrella.

But first – can I have some sun?

Oh Canada

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Today I’m boarding a plane and going home. While the Canada Goose is turning her beak to the south, I’m turning mine to the north. I’m off to Canada!

Canada is where my story started. There’s a warm and weird nostalgia that comes over me when I think about Canada and all things Canadian: Coffee Crisp chocolate bars, Shreddies cereal, Swedish fish, Tim Hortons coffee and donuts, Canadian Tire, London Drugs, Cheez Whiz, Nanaimo bars, Nuts and Bolts, Aero chocolate, homo milk, Beaver Tails, poutine, ordering French fries with a side of gravy, Kraft Dinner, the loonie and the twoonie, the Canadian flag, klicks.

I suppose my attachment to the Great White North is a little suspect. I’ve really only lived 15 of my 46 years there. But Canada served as a pivot place for my childhood. Although we left when I was 8 years old, Canada was where we always went back to. Canada housed my grandparents, most of our aunts and uncles, our cousins. Canada was the place of my parent’s childhoods, their stories, their romance and marriage.

Later, when mom and dad were back from Pakistan, Lowell and I would marry in a tiny church in a small town on the vast Canadian prairies. We honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies between Banff and Lake Louise. Come to think of it, those months leading up to our wedding was really the last time I lived in Canada. We’ve been married 22 years ago. That’s a very long time ago.

Although I self-identify as Canadian, and have a Canadian passport to prove it, I’m quite likely the most unCanadian Canadian you’ll ever meet. My connections are weak at best, based largely on sentiment and maple syrup. I know very little about Canadian history or folklore. Canadian politics still perplex me on occasion. I’m hardly fluent in the Canadian vernacular. My vowels are now too relaxed, my consonants too indistinct, my syllables too lazy. When I talk no one suspects that I’m from north of the 49th parallel.

I know it makes no sense but I suppose this is the crux of the TCK tale. There’s no accounting for how and when the heart feels momentarily at home. The math doesn’t make sense. Only 1/3 of my life has been lived in the True North strong and free. On the other hand I’ve lived 22 years in Pakistan and India. Only nine years have been spent here among the sunflowers in Kansas.

And yet Canada still represents something to my soul that really defies logic. For reasons I can’t explain there’s a part of me that still sighs with relief when I enter her borders. I exhale and relax just a little bit more when I arrive. This time tomorrow morning I’ll be sipping tea at my parent’s dining room table. I’ll take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’ll set down my foreignness for a bit. I’ll be among my people and somehow that brings me a measure of consolation.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.

Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.

How dear to us thy broad domain,

From East to Western sea.

Thou land of hope for all who toil!

Thou True North, strong and free!

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies

May stalwart sons, and gentle maidens rise,

To keep thee steadfast through the years

From East to Western sea.

Our own beloved native land!

Our True North, strong and free!

 

Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer,

Hold our Dominion in thy loving care;

Help us to find, O God, in thee

A lasting, rich reward,

As waiting for the better Day,

We ever stand on guard.

In Memory of George

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George was one of those guys that I saw early morning. As I would wander up Tremont Street from the Park Street T Station he would be setting up in front of the Granary Burying Ground. This cemetery is Boston’s third oldest cemetery and the final earthly resting place for the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

Outside of this historic cemetery, George would set up his earthly belongings. It was a perfect spot in many ways — never in the direct sunlight, but always in the line of visitors to Boston who might spare a dollar or two for the homeless.

So early morning I would walk by and we would greet each other. No matter how grey the day, George would smile. His personality showed through and as I would pass by he’d never fail to say “Have a good day Babe!” Maybe it’s because I’m daily growing older, but somehow I loved that he called me that. I never gave George money. We would just talk and then I would go on to work and he would continue on in his day.

It was the beginning of August that I realized I hadn’t seen George for a couple of days. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was too warm and he’d found another spot. Two days later as I passed by his place in front of the iron fence of the cemetery I stopped cold. Flowers adorned the fence and there hung a picture of George along with a typed story about him. I gasped aloud as I read it. The picture resembled a magazine cover with a banner over the top that read “Rest in Peace.” The bottom had these dates:

October 7th, 1972 – August 4th, 2016

George Dagraca, 43 years old, had died. 

I felt a sense of shock and sadness. I didn’t know George’s story, I had never heard it. We were early morning greeters and our conversations didn’t go deep. Turns out, he was a heroin addict, addicted to those highs that could temporarily remove him from some of the pain of his youth.

Along with the picture was a eulogy of sorts, by someone like me who met George on his daily walks.

We don’t fully know who we will meet in life, who we will touch and who will touch us. Many like me mourn his death and somehow that gives me hope. Because if we who barely knew him care about his death and mourn our short, daily connection, how much more so does the God who sees a sparrow fall?

My faith holds me tight in times like these. Earthly status means nothing to a Heavenly God. Whether our lives be small or great, he counts the hairs on our heads, the freckles on our noses. He cares about our habits, our diseases, and the addictions that sometimes kill us. This is the goodness of the Lord.

A favorite verse comes to mind many times when I walk on Tremont Street and I think of it today:

“I would have despaired, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage,  Wait, I say, for the Lord!”*

I walk up Tremont Street, a sky brightening over the Atlantic Ocean. Sparrows sit on the fence above George’s memorial.

In a sky brightening,in sparrows chirping, and in a homemade memorial I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And it is enough. 

You can read more of George’s story here. 

*Psalm 27:13-14

And Lady Liberty Weeps….

 

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“Give me your tired, your poor,” she says.

Ah, but first we must verify income and employability; we must make sure these people fit with “our way of life.” We must make sure these creatures are not leeches who steal jobs from those who really belong.

“Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”

Make sure the huddled masses have clear lungs and negative TB tests, their HIV status is negative, and that no communicable diseases will be passed on to our current healthy, chronic-disease-free citizens.

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

But first, these wretches must fill out forms in triplicate or learn to swim. UNHCR, Homeland security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement must approve said forms. I heard that one lucky wretch has an interview before 2022.

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,”

Wait. What’s that you say? They’re Muslim? Muslims need not apply. And are they really that destitute? Come on! They have cell phones!

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Which door? Ah! That one – the one that says ‘Trump Towers.’

And so the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning for freedom, the wretched refuse, the homeless and displaced, the refugee turn away, eyes vacant and heads shaking, trying desperately to find another door.

And Lady Liberty bows her head and weeps.

It’s Getting Cold

It’s getting cold.

I walk to work in the morning with my body bundled into a warm coat, my feet in boots, my head down to keep the wind from biting too fiercely. We who are on these streets walk quickly, there is no room for small talk or conversation. We are glad to get to our destinations and breathe, away from the wind and the cold.

It’s getting cold. Yet there are still homeless on my streets. There are still men and women huddled together, spooning under blankets for comfort, there are still signs that say “Homeless. Can you help?” Shivering in the morning wind, Charlie asks me for spare change. I get him a cup of coffee and move on.

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It’s getting cold. And Syrian refugees in no man’s land are in flimsy tents with little to guard them from the incoming winter. Bare feet and no jackets for children of all ages, families that have nothing left, a system strained under fear and corruption that has to fight to make sure aid goes where it is most needed.

I am acutely aware of all of this as I take a hot shower and sit before a warm heater drinking hot coffee. It’s getting cold and there are so many without — without heat, without home, without family. I can hardly bear this, hardly bear the thought of millions of refugees that can’t keep warm or nourished. Hardly bear that I walk by homeless huddled for comfort.

“This is not the way life should be” I shout in my head to a silent Heaven.

It’s getting cold and I have my choice of 3 coats to wear and scarves line my closet. It’s getting cold and I have warm sweaters and food, heat and light. I pray the only prayer that makes sense: “Lord Have Mercy” adding a question to the end of the prayer:

“How can I bring warmth to a world that is so cold?”

How do we bring warmth to a world that is cold? 

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date raisin muffinsI don’t know about you, but I find baking healing. Especially when the goods can be shared. Stacy has an amazing recipe today: Date Syrup Raisin Muffins. One of the things I love about Stacy is that she links stories to her recipes. Here is what she says about this recipe: “This week on Monday, 2 December, the UAE celebrates its 42nd National Day so I decided to create a muffin with some local-ish flavors.  This muffin is made with date honey or syrup and cardamon along with some cinnamon and raisins.  For those who can’t find date honey, molasses is an excellent substitute both in deep flavor and consistency.” If you try these muffins – let us know! Either click on the picture or the link above to get to the recipe.

Learning to ‘Be’ Instead of ‘Do’

Learning to Be

In the spring I moved to a 4-day work week. Basically 40 hours in 4 days instead of 5. This is a good move for me as I needed the space a 3-day weekend provides.

But it also means that on Thursdays I’m tired. Really tired. I meander more than usual, I am unable to efficiently get dressed, get to the subway, get to work, and click control/alt/delete.

I’m finding that inefficiency is a gift.

I’ve found that in the inefficiency that is Thursday I stop and find out the names of those on the streets: those who curl up under the tall pillars of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral; those who cuddle concrete and brick walls close to ward off the cold; those who spoon together for physical comfort under tattered blankets, their hoodies pulled tight over their heads.

It’s on these days that I learn more about buying coffee instead of giving money; where I find out who needs surgery, who stole a wheelchair, why Sheryl is so thin.

I am not sure why this happens on Thursdays – maybe it’s because I’m tired and with my tiredness, more relatable. But I think it’s more that I give myself permission to be more than a machine, I realize how I live the ‘now’ is important, realize getting to work a few minutes late because I stopped to get someone a coffee is somehow worth it. It’s these moments I will remember when I can no longer work, not the efficient minutes in my grey cubicle.

There is a stark contrast of this Boston to the Red Sox Boston, to the Celtics Boston, to the Harvard, MIT Boston, to the Robert McCloskey Make Way for Ducklings Boston. And yet this is part of the fabric of the city and the people here don’t much care about that other Boston. Their lives are caught up in the crisis of today with its hunger, addictions, and relationship struggles.

I will never know how to “do” poverty; “do” homeless – and maybe that’s part of the problem. Before I’ve always thought of this as something to “do” and it is in the doing where I trip up. I alternate between guilt and pride, between true empathy and anger, between ignoring and connecting in a sickly sweet way that oozes pity instead of true concern. Maybe “doing” is all wrong – not what this is about.

Because on these days, where interacting is natural and comfortable, where there is no guilt, where I am tired, I learn what it is to just “be”. To relate human to human in the early morning fog of tired, steam rising from manholes, and the city in its pre-workday quiet.

Maybe it’s about “being” instead of “doing”. Maybe in being I learn to bear witness to the human story that gets lost in the doing. Maybe.

Image credit: wrangel / 123RF Stock Photo

Coffee or Quarters?

It’s Boston hot.* With high humidity even mid-eighties feels uncomfortable. As it goes to the high eighties you’re dripping.

Give me the dry heat of Phoenix and 122 degrees any day. Really.

With the beginning of summer the visible homeless population has increased ten-fold. On my three-minute walk from subway to office I pass by 12 homeless people in varying stage of wakefulness. Some groggy eyed; others loud, ushering in the morning light with raucous interactions helped along by the strong smell of marijuana; three of them curled up, asleep in the doorways of nearby businesses.

It’s never easy. I don’t know much about the homeless, but I do know that there’s nothing simple about it. I do know that the issue is multifactoral and my response is shaped by the complexity of the issue.

quarterI’ve discovered something in the past couple of years as I daily see the faces and slowly learn names of some of the homeless in this area. I’ve discovered that giving quarters doesn’t work well for me. Because a quarter is too easy.

What’s hard is stopping and offering coffee.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” That’s hard for me.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” means a couple of things. It means I’ll get to work later than I wanted. It means I may have the inconvenience of waiting in a line. It means I need to pay attention as I ask what kind of coffee — Cream? Sugar? Hot? Iced? It means they become a person. It means I have to engage the humanity of the person.

And a person is much harder to ignore than a body.

A body is just a body. But a person has a name, likes, dislikes, a personality shaped by life and their response to life, a temper, a mouth, language and more.

A person challenges me to see through the eyes of God, something that isn’t easy. A person is my equal. When I begin to see someone as a person, not a body, not a statistic, I move into uncomfortable and necessary relationship. It forces me to face my prejudice and privilege.

Seeing someone as a person reminds me that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory

So offering coffee is my new response. I don’t always offer it, and even when I offer it, it’s not always accepted. But overall, “No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” is teaching me far more than giving out quarters ever could. 

What do you think? How do you, or would you, respond? 

*I qualify heat by describing it as Boston hot as opposed to Djibouti hot which I’m learning defies imagination.