Responding to Suffering

“You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.”

–Franz Kafka

Tell me about a time you responded to the suffering of someone outside your immediate circle of concern.

Comments

  1. cissy says

    Who is outside of our circle of concern? Is anyone? I can’t stop thinking about what is home and who is family and who are we responsible for?

    I wrote a letter, in my mind, unsigned and unsent, to all the staff people at homeless shelters. It was selfish, at first, and all about me. My biological father is a homeless veteran and was a violent drunk. Even before he went to Vietnam he beat my mother and even his own children, a toddler and a baby (me).I do not want to invite him into my life or home, into my daughter’s life.

    Yet, he still resides in some spaces within me. In truth, I’ve never stopped thinking about him, wondering about him. When I see homeless people I wonder if they know him. When it’s cold and rainy I wonder where he sleeps. I wonder if he thinks about his family, has any sense of what family means or if the only food, care and kindness he gets, are from people paid to work with the homeless or who volunteer.

    And to them, I want to say, thank you for smiling when you open the door and see his face. Thank you, if you make him a cup of tea or coffee and ask about his day. Thank you for listening with uncluttered hearts. I can’t do it but I am glad someone can and does.

    Instead, I hug the neighbor who is grieving the loss of his wife, I hold the bunny of a neighbor as she dies, putting the phone on speaker so the owner can talk to and soothe her beloved pet as the body stiffens in my lap. I reach out to the step-mother of a friend in early recovery from trauma to let her know she is not alone.

    I’d like to reach out more, arms out stretched to the world, to know the difference between care taking and care, compassion and diving into others to avoid my own pain. I’m not there yet. I don’t even know if it’s weakness or strength that I care about someone who hurt me, my sister and mother.

    And I don’t have to know the answer to know I ache for a world where children are safe in their bodies and homes and families, one where they are in love with the world and life, and will want to outstretch and embrace everyone.

    But in the now, in the real moments between thoughts and longing and curiosity and regret, someone pulls up at work already dressed, sits at a desk in pressed pants and a sweater, is there to open a door and put sugar in a mug or write a voucher for food, and to that person, who greets my father’s suffering, I give thanks.

    • Kate Samuels says

      This is a very compelling and beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing so much of your life and pain here, and how you continue to think about your father although he caused you so much pain. I also enjoyed this line: “I’d like to reach out more, arms out stretched to the world, to know the difference between care taking and care, compassion and diving into others to avoid my own pain.” Bravo- this is a piece I will continue to think about. thank you!

    • Karla says

      Cissy,
      This piece was profoundly moving and made me well up with tears. I thought it was courageous to write about the transference of compassion from those who are harder to find compassion for, because of our history with them, to those who help them, to those that we can attend to the suffering of. I like the twist you took with this prompt, it resulted in a creative and beautiful piece of writing. It was a lovely journey to read along with. Amazing writing. Thank you!

    • says

      Cissy, this was beautiful and so heartfelt. I loved this part, “And to them, I want to say, thank you for smiling when you open the door and see his face. Thank you, if you make him a cup of tea or coffee and ask about his day. Thank you for listening with uncluttered hearts. I can’t do it but I am glad someone can and does.” The part about having an uncluttered heart was so moving–sometimes we can do for a stranger something we can’t do for someone much closer to us. I loved that.

      I also loved the honesty and depth of this question you raised: “I don’t even know if it’s weakness or strength that I care about someone who hurt me, my sister and mother.” Personally, my vote is I think it’s strength.

    • Terilynn says

      I love that you have compassion. And that you maintain boundaries. That is the delicate tightrope. I could learn from you.

      • cissy says

        I really get so much from this community, the prompts to write, the space to share and then to get feedback. And all for free.
        It means so much to me.I ‘m not here ever week but just knowing this space is here and so vital is something that nurtures. Thank you Laura for creating and maintaining and participating so fully in this space. It’s a service. And thank you to all who participate. It’s a safe heart space and writing space. Either is valuable. Combined it’s divine.
        I find nothing more healing and shame busting than the continued receptivity to honest and complex words and issues. I always half expect a, ‘Can you write about something happy?” to anything I write and that never happens. That alone heals. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

        • Sheila McGinley says

          I wish I could tell you which words I liked the best. I can’t. You had me with you as a baby being harmed by your father and then you knocked me over with your thank yous for everyone who gave him care. Start to finish it was beautiful. It laid me out with its beauty. Thank you.

    • Hazel says

      Wow, Cissy. What a beautiful tribute to people who are kind to your father. Father’s are important in our lives and you have so richly expressed how you feel even though you would not want him to be a part of your life; “Yet, he still resides in some spaces within me. In truth, I’ve never stopped thinking about him, wondering about him. When I see homeless people I wonder if they know him. When it’s cold and rainy I wonder where he sleeps. I wonder if he thinks about his family, has any sense of what family means or if the only food, care and kindness he gets, are from people paid to work with the homeless or who volunteer.”

      Very sad for both of you.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Cissy, what a poignant story! I feel the pain, bewilderment, confusion, sadness, gratitude, anger and semi-surrender (knowing that what you do to alleviate suffering counts too). I wrestle with the latter every day and know how it feels to me. Thanks so much for this post. It is lovely.

  2. Teresa says

    Such a beautiful and heartfelt response. It could have been written by my niece who faces the same challenges with her mother who has been on the streets and in homeless shelters for years. This feeling of abandonment is all too alive for her at 35 years of age.

    • cissy says

      Teresa,
      Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry for your niece. I’m glad she has you. One book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn speaks to this issue of having a parent who is homeless. When I first read it, I felt as though there were lines, private and unsaid, lifted from my own heart. It was so refreshing to have something said, to know someone had a similar experience. Anyhow, thank goodness for writing, huh?
      Cissy

  3. Fran Stekoll says

    Every Thanksgiving for over 20 years I took Thanksgiving meals to the Santa
    Clara County Mental Health Department. I was an employee there and felt sorry that some couldn’t have time with their families.

    It was ingrained in me from childhood, as my grandfather would invite a service man and a bum off the streets of Middletown, N.Y. for Thanksgiving dinner.

    This year I reached out to those in my Mobile Home Park who were not able to share with family.

    There will always be those who are for one reason or another suffering in one way or another.

    Last year I took zip lock bags to the homeless filled with toilet items, granola
    bars, and food coupons.

    I realize there are needs greater than mine and our Women’s group also fills shoe boxes with toys for girls and boys to be distributed to those less fortunate.

    When my three children were growing up we would adopt a needy family and fulfill their list of food and clothing during the holidays.

    We also traveled to areas where those less fortunate would receive what my children really didn’t need.
    I think this exposure allows us to be humbled.

    I’ve always felt it’s better to give than to receive and I’ve always been given
    to in other ways when I least expected.

    • Karla says

      Fran, I enjoyed this piece, especially hearing the history of compassion in your family, and in the list of simple ways that one can enact compassion in different contexts. I especially liked this line, “I think this exposure allows us to be humbled.” Very true (if you allow yourself to feel it). Thanks!

      • cissy says

        Fran,
        Your writing made me want to do more WITH my daughter. This line, “There will always be those who are for one reason or another suffering in one way or another” also seemed so wise. This is the reality of the human experience.
        And the responding and caring is the medicine. It’s wonderfully simple.
        I have made my daughter so aware of taking care of and paying attention to her own feelings, but there is much to learn from you, about living the example of helping others, including others not in your own circle.
        Cissy

    • Hazel says

      Fran,
      Thank you for the generational history of helping others and I agree that our kindnesses never go unpaid somewhere down the line.

  4. Karla says

    Loud sobs filtered through the heavy metal door, into the tiny, windowless and apparently ventless room at the jail where I was sitting with my client. These sobs were not the broken, up and down the register weeping of someone who was making an effort to control them. They were just full on and no-holds-barred, as rhythmic as heartbeats, without variation in volume or tone.

    I stopped talking and tilted my head towards the sound behind me. She stared at the door and shrugged. I said, “I don’t usually hear crying outside this room.” She cracked a smile, one of the few times I had seen her emotion flag during the two days I had spent working with her.

    My observation about the noises heard inside a jail sent my memory spinning, not unlike repeated plays on a roulette wheel, through some of what I’d heard over the years. I’ve heard lots of shouting: correctional officers shouting the door numbers they want unlocked, correctional officers shouting at inmates, inmates shouting at their lawyers or other visitors, and once, the heavy thud of a rubber slippered foot cracking the glass of the door of the visitation booth. I remember walking out of the jail at the end of the day and seeing the small chunk missing from the center of the window, cracks spreading in all directions like the ripples in a pond. Less often, but not infrequently, I’ve overheard laughter or giggling. The time I thought I heard a fire alarm, the panic blooming like bile in the back of my throat—because the only way I was getting out of the jail was through the four doors that had been unlocked to let me into this room. Maybe the most common sound I have heard is the rolling and clanking of the carts delivering meals from the kitchen to the pods around noontime, the scent reminiscent of my grammar school cafeteria trailing behind. One of my clients scoffed once, playing with a term from a popular series of children’s books, “there’s the mobile vomitorium!”

    Many times, as I’ve been led through the maze of cinder blocked hallways to a remote room turned into my temporary workspace, I’ve been struck by the absence of sound. The hallways are insulated from noise by the thick walls and the shatterproof glass of the windows looking into the dayrooms of the pods where different groups of prisoners spend most of their time. I see the televisions on, inmates sprawled on the metal picnic-style tables, but I don’t hear the sound. I can observe the card playing at a far table and see conversation taking place, but I don’t hear the slap of cards on the table or words being spoken.

    One sound I haven’t overheard before is crying. I’d assumed, when I was new to this, that a women’s jail would have a lot of it. Since then, I’ve been educated that crying in jail is dysfunctional, that it signals weakness to others who use it as power to extract information or to manipulate. If you cry in jail, you communicate that something bad has happened to you, and that attracts the sharks who want to spread “your business” out to those you need to keep it from. If you cry for more than a few minutes, the correctional officers will be summoned, and they will most likely place you on “suicide watch” where you will be isolated in an empty cell with only a hospital gown and a blanket. Your only company will be the officer who shines a light through the metal slot of your completely enclosed cell once every thirty minutes.

    The tap on my memory of “sounds from jail” has run out, and I’m back in the present moment, listening to the loud sobs outside the door.

    “Do you mind if I check on her?” My client nods an okay. The door of our room has remained blissfully unlocked during our work, as it is within sight of “central control”, where several correctional officers sit and watch the screens from the security cameras all over the jail. I crack it open and peer at the backs of two women, one of whom is a tall woman officer and the other who is an inmate who is shorter, and at least as petite as, the girls in my son’s 7th grade class. I am curious about their matching postures: they are standing stiff, hands at their sides, pointedly not interacting. This wouldn’t be strange at all, but for the smaller woman’s crying.

    I shut the door, and return to my client. There is nothing more I can do.

    • Barbara Keller says

      I worked in Juvenile hall in LA a long time ago, boy did it take me back. You caught it so well. Thanks,

      • cissy says

        I could hear the slap of the cards and was aching for those sounds you were describing but couldn’t hear. You brought me right into the prison with you and I was hanging on every word. The light shining every 30 minutes as the only company. Ugh. I could feel my gut sink and reacted physically to the writing. Wow.

    • Hazel says

      Karla,
      You had me all the way through this piece. I must say that I was relieved when you opened the door to check on the “sobs” even if there was nothing you could do. I showed me everything about your willingness to become involved if necessary, and your caring. It is like you cannot help yourself. Have I said, “I love you, sister?”

      Thank you for sharing.

      • Karla says

        Hazel, I don’t know if you’ve said it before, but I’ve certain felt it before. And I send my love to you– and have sent it, even if I haven’t said it. I am, as always, grateful that you continue to see the best in me.

    • Ilana says

      Oh my gosh! This piece is so powerful. I was drawn in from the first sentence. I think that fact that we never found out what made the woman cry made it even more intense. What a story. Well told and thought provoking. Ilana

    • Terry Gibson says

      Karla, this is so raw and gritty, it held me for two days now. (I’ve been ill and got behind in responses but came back to be sure I didn’t miss out.). I have always had a fascination with prison life, which I think is due to my experiences as a child. I can feel your concern, fear, sadness, and impotence (at needing to get through four locked doors if something went wrong, and being incapable of doing anything beyond your job in that tiny room). When I imagine myself in your shoes, I know how hard I would find it–how I’d keep sucking in all that emotion and try to refocus from my heart to intellectual self with every sound, audible or not. Like Hazel, I’ve got to tell you, Karla: I think you are amazing! I’m so glad you are on Roadmap, and will grab your book in a second. I value your posts and responses here and, well, (insert shy embarrassment here) I care about you a lot too. You, your son, your life, your writing–all of it. I’m happy we’re friends.

      • Karla says

        Terry, if I could reach through the screen and grab you in a bear hug (gently) right this minute, I would. Thank you for what you said here, in the gift of your friendship, and caring. I have soaked up your kindness– in this precise posting as well as all the other times you have encouraged me, and cared for me– at Commonweal, and since then. I am grateful for your presence in my life and if I have not said it directly, I hope you have felt my love and friendship directed at you.

  5. Nancy Qualls says

    How can one have a circle that is deemed theirs to be concerned? Sure there are those who are selfish and narcissistic enough to live withing their own little circle that is “ME”, but mostly people are good, caring and benevolent souls. We all have encountered situations where we feel, and then act, responsible. There is just something in us, even men, that makes us respond because our hearts will allow us not to respond.

    Years ago, I would admonish myself for always doing for others. Why, to make them like me or, in some cases, to quell the situation? Then, one day, I decided I did not need to justify what or how I did for others. It is in me and it makes me happy. So, on that day, I chose to make myself happy. I am a caretaker, like many of you are, and I am happy ironing the seam in my (now ex-) husband’s shirts and pants and I can iron his work clothes too.

    Outside of my ‘circle’, I worked in the health care field. In the mornings, for first medication rounds, instead of walking into the patient’s hospital room and flipping on the lights, I would turn on the bathroom light so there was just enough to see. And I would then bring them a warm washcloth for their hands and face, and go get a coffee/tea for them. Little considerations that make one’s day start a little nicer.

    In the nursing homes/extended care facilities, as many of you may know, the patient’s often get taken out of bed, put in a wheel chair and lined up around the halls, many are still in their thin hospital gowns. My mother attitude kicked in and I would go to the Salvation Army and buy sweaters and sweat shirts/pants and socks and haul them back to bed. Can you imagine being on several medications that make you drowsy and being stuck in a wheelchair in a flimsy nightgown, under flourescent lights.

    I was happy doing what my instincts told me and I didn’t feel guilty about ‘doing too much for my husband’ or ‘kissing up to the hospital administration’…okay, that didn’t happen, actually I got in trouble for a nondescript reason. But, the moral to the story is to do what your heart tells you, what makes your soul happy. Be good to yourself and it will enhance your inner ‘circle’ relationships.

    • says

      Nancy, my mother is in assisted living and i love thinking of her caregivers being as kind and thoughtful with her as you were with the people in the nursing homes. Thanks for sharing this portrait of caring and going the extra mile.

      • cissy says

        Nancy,
        This was wonderfully affirming to read. I like that you just do what makes your soul happy without worry and knowing yourself as a caretaker are at peace with care taking. I’m often thinking about codependence and interdependence and this was another take. You are making your soul happy doing what it loves. I also particularly liked the ironing of your ex’s clothes.

        • Nancy Qualls says

          Cissy, I like to iron-it is theraputic. I put on Andrea Bocelli and iron those seams. Once I accepted my caretaking, I was no longer co-dependent. They can put labels on you but if you ignore it you then give yourself permission to do what makes you happy.

      • Nancy Qualls says

        Know that the hospitals and facilities have mostly loving, caring staff. The trouble is that the administrations keep the staff minimal and that adds more responsibilty to everyone, which leads to frustration. Just imagine that, because they are so busy during their shift, they have to clock out (no overtime) and stay another hour or two to do their charting. Altho I was a specialized therapist, I had no problem jumping in to change diapers or get something.

    • Hina says

      Nancy, what a lovely piece. This is something I have been struggling with. Told I am ‘too nice and care about too many’ was what came from a therapist, she chided me and told me she didn’t want to be added to my list! Feeling like my understanding has been taken advantage of recently by those closest to me I have been feeling I need to close that part of me down.
      Your piece gives me permission to be who I am.

    • Karla says

      This piece really resonated with me, as a caretaker who also observes other caretakers. I think I can often tell when a caretaker is helping others based on some intrinsic motivation (as you describe in this piece) or whether it is for some extrinsic purpose– for the “glory” or the “kissing up” (as you say)– as these later motivations usually reveal the caretaker’s resentment or unhappiness at some point. I have watched my mother care for my 90 year old father, severely disabled by a stroke 5 years ago that has left him virtually speechless, blind, deaf, and unable to be left alone for more than a hour at a time. Many people (including me) would say that she is doing “too much”, but over time I’ve come to accept that this is just who she is, and she’s doing it out of love and that really shows. So your piece really struck a chord with me, and thank you for bringing a voice to caretakers who “care too much.”

      • Nancy Qualls says

        Karla, I think the fourteen years that my mother cared for my father, who had Parkinson’s, gave me this mindset. The last seven he was bedbound and unable to move. He did not spend one day in the hospital or ECF because of her faithful and loving care, just like you and your mother does for your dear father.
        There is a healthy co-dependence and a healthy need for one to do what their soul deems. Once I made up my mind that I was going to follow myself, I was no longer co-dependent on my (ex) husband, and no one’s opionion will affect me.
        I am overwhelmed by all of your responses, thank you.
        Amen Hazel!
        Nancy

    • Hazel says

      Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

      As a therapist who was always being accused of doing too much for those I cared for, I am glad you have given voice to us. I never regretted or resented any of the things I did for those who could not care for themselves.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Thank you, Nancy for sharing this story. As I read, I saw my brother sitting in one of those flimsy gowns in a hallway, even when he didn’t have the ability to sit up any more. Your description is so good. What caregivers do is a cherished gift and I thank you for it. Also, this reminded me of something I practice when I remember: I put myself in the other person’s position. That works for me and makes me more helpful to them as well.

  6. Terilynn says

    As a registered vet tech, I am no stranger to animal suffering. When I found myself with 12 cats I felt forced to make a difficult decision. At what point do my own suffer when I keep taking new ones in? I had to draw the line at the young and healthy. I am the queen of the gimps and geezers. Everyone here (I’m down to 7 cats now) came in with a medical condition and a hard luck story.

    Each baby has been a teacher. As such, I have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Where I can no longer rescue, I now educate and assist others to do the rescue work. I get calls and emails from all over the country, asking for help with difficult cases.

    I’m no saint. I was heading toward hoarder status, sort of an occupational hazard. I stopped taking care of myself, drank too much and felt myself burned out and overwhelmed in a field I was passionate about. I came to the painful realization I had to take care of myself before I could be of use to anyone else. I was failing miserably at self-preservation.

    I am a giving person by nature. It likely stems from the neglect and deprivation I suffered as a child. I was trying to compensate by accommodating anything on four legs. But I can’t forget the child still within.

    As such, I give. I alleviate suffering where I can. And I work to maintain boundaries.

    • cissy says

      Terilynn,
      My favorite line, “I am the queen of the gimps and geezers” made me laugh, not at you, but in recognition and relating. I have been the queen of dogs with probs. Anyhow, it must be so hard to see animal suffering and not act. How do the people who serve animals and peoples and see it so close up not get overburdened and overwhelmed and overloaded? I’m glad you are making sure YOU are on the list of those worthy of your care as well.
      Cis

    • Karla says

      I really liked these lines:
      “I am the queen of the gimps and geezers. Everyone here (I’m down to 7 cats now) came in with a medical condition and a hard luck story.” Thanks for being humor and compassion together in this piece.

    • Hazel says

      Terilyn,
      Thank you for being the Savior of Animals and that “As such, I give. I alleviate suffering where I can. And I work to maintain boundaries.” Glad you are taking care of yourself and enjoying your animals.

      We adopted 2 rescue terriers nearly 2 years ago now and I don’t know what we would have become without them.

  7. Barbara Keller says

    I can’t say it always works out well, this responding to the suffering of others, but it does seem to be my nature. I think I am not the one Kafka is referring to as inclined, with permission, to turn away from the suffering of others.
    I stop and talk, offer advice and money, bring people home for a meal or to stay, and sometimes adopt people for years.

    Since I think my job on this earth is to share the news of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross to pay for the sins of mankind, I always assume these are opportunities for me to talk.

    My oldest friend’s grandson came to live with me here in Baja for a year and a half – he was 13, and obnoxious. He had been ill and kind of comatose for ten years, and his entire family washed their hands of him. He was thrown out of seven schools, was rude to the core, and had celiac disease, which was the origin of the problem. His parents said they were going to turn him over to juvenile hall. I was happy to be able to take him.

    It’s important to remember that although this sounds kind of glorious – 23rd hour rescue, the reality was a lot different and much more about everyday living than grand rescue. Gluten free food, no school terrors and failures, lots and lots of talking, a boy ready to belief God and pursue Christ, plenty of quiet, safety, and love. Yes, he got better, and is about 92% well, graduating from high school now. I consider him a success.

    When I met Efren, he was 32, an exhausted, smart, twenty year meth addict with excellent English. After six months in rehab, five years of prayers, conversation every night on the phone to Sonora, money from me sent to help with his family’s expenses, and my love and hope, our relationship is winding down. He’s no longer interested in God or the bible. He’s proud and thinks he can do this up hill climb on his own strength. I wouldn’t bet money on his survival. This is hard because I love him dearly and I’m used to him in my life.

    There are no guarantees, are there? Whether it’s your own children or strangers you reach out to in their troubles. Will they be OK? Maybe yes, maybe no.

    • says

      Barbara, you demonstrate that help can’t come with strings attached–that we have to give because we want to, not because we can control the outcome or the appreciation of the recipient. Thanks for sharing these stories with us.

      • cissy says

        I love the honesty of the opening line as a lead in to the stories you share. It makes there be some tension (in a good way) as I read because I don’t know what goes well and what doesn’t, but I’m curious about the people and the relationships you have with them.

    • Hazel says

      Barbara,
      Thank you for sharing this story of your helpfulness. I know your conclusion is true whether I want to accept it or not: “There are no guarantees, are there? Whether it’s your own children or strangers you reach out to in their troubles. Will they be OK? Maybe yes, maybe no.” It is always their choice in the end.

      • Barbara Keller says

        Thanks for your responses. I appreciate them. Hazel, I don’t even know if it’s their choices. Mostly, I think, people do their best. I am not sure exactly where the dividing line is between those that make it and those that don’t. It’s in the mix: health, hope, strength, faith, opportunity, extent of the damage, and timing are some of the pieces I see as relevant.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Thanks for sharing this story, Barbara. I like how you take us inside the non glamorous 23rd hour rescue. Your sincere attention to and care of people in trouble is wonderful! I wanted to add that when the person moves on, a ‘success’ may not appear so, yet be that just the same; sometimes I needed to be lost a bit longer, until I was ‘cooked’ as Judge Judy says. If I was your ‘adoptee’ let’s say, I’d do everything in my power and put my heart into learning from you, my benevolent teacher and kind parent. If I didn’t come out of it a Christian the day I left, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be overflowing with gratitude for all the love, kindness and compassion you showed me during those pivotal years.

    • Ilana says

      Love that last line. It is the question that will always remain when we help someone. I guess, for me, it is easier to take comfort in what I have been able to do and the joy that was inspired by my actions. I also appreciated the juxtaposition between the two people you helped. Nice job, Ilana

  8. MaryL says

    When I was a young girl, I thought of the postal service worker as our friend. As far as I knew, he brought birthday cards, packages, and other gifts. I remember my mother opening a letter and reading it to us. It was a note from a school for American Indians in North Dakota. My mother tucked a few dollars in the return envelope, and told us that this money would be used to help the children, who needed warm clothing for winter.

    These days I receive tons of what I now call junk mail. Initially, receiving a knitting catalog or an ad for a really good sale at my favorite retail store was another gift. When I first moved to my current location, there was a gap in the bulk mail delivery, for about three weeks, and I felt a little lonely.

    Then the stuff came, exponentially more stuff. Unsolicited, repetitive, unbendable, glossy, or marked urgent, or even “check enclosed.”
    My new least favorite of this kind of missive is a thank you note from an organization to which I have donated a modest sum. Included in the thank you is a suggestion that I join the team and give monthly!

    Mail is just a small part of my life ordinarily. My fibercrafting – knitting, crocheting, and other handwork – is a beloved and relaxing hobby and a chance to gather with friends a couple of times a week, to chat, laugh, pause, and chat some more while making lovely things. Last year I found a beautiful chunky yarn, perfect for making winter hats.

    Somehow the stars aligned – or something – and I received an unsolicited donation letter from North Dakota, from a school for Native American children. I immediately recognized this as the same place with which my mother had connected with her dollar donations so long ago. I could envision the lovely faces of abandoned children, the little toddlers, their mothers at the nearby shelter, some escaping terrible situations, hoping for a little respite. I could almost sense the director shivering, not only from the cold, but from anticipation of another enormous heating bill.

    On September 30th I sent out this year’s box of handmade hats, scarves, and such “in memory of Mom.” A blizzard blew through the Northern Plains only days later, but the package reached its destination. I felt warm inside and I trust that the little ones shared that warmth a little bit, like friends who have been away and have returned.

    • says

      MaryL, thanks for this beautifully crafted tribute to your mom’s legacy–and a wonderful story besides. I found your take on junk mail entertaining and provocative. Thanks for a great read.

      • cissy says

        I love this story and how you gave warmth right before the blizzard came in. LOVE that it’s the same organization your mom gave to. The crafting you do, and your love for it, also adds color and warmth to the writing.

    • Barbara Keller says

      I just loved this piece, I’m still crying. Thanks so much. Everything, the reference to your early feelings for the mailman and your mom’s gift, the move through time and change, to the lovely conclusion, a great chunky yarn and warm hats flying through the mail to real people – wonderful.

  9. Hina says

    All in black

    Draped all in black for the hot summers day.
    A niquab is a way, a way to pray.
    Reasons for these coverings?
    A belief in God.
    I stood looking … completely shocked.

    Surely, I thought, God didn’t want that,
    Why would he want you, clad in black?
    Especially on a hot summers day,
    Surely shorts and t-shirts are the way.

    Nothing left showing just the slits to show her eyes,
    Sandals on her feet
    Silhouette from all sides.
    Where is the freedom or individuality?
    Why is it to show your hair is such audacity?
    Where are your hips or facial expression?
    What was the purpose of this lesson?

    This woman was one I knew from school,
    She was fun and kind and kept all the rules,
    She was educated sometimes much more than the men.
    But why did she agree to be ‘invisible’ for them?

    She recognised my face, and seemed to understand my confusion,
    She smiled and offered to explain her seclusion.
    “I tell my experience of how my life came this way”,
    Peering through the eyeholes her tenderness versus my dismay
    She told why it was that she had dressed this way.

    “When I was young
    My father would happily say,
    Lila go run, Lila go play,
    I would roll down the hill with my body on the grass, and my hair in two pigtails, and oh how I laughed.
    My mother told me I was precious and beautiful too,
    She swore angels had come to bring me to her anew.
    My heart was a joy and life was a blessing.

    The years went by I got older, and learned all I could
    Despite my aunt telling me, I should not think what I would.
    I wondered why she was so angry for me to better myself.
    And then it unfolded like a book from the shelf,

    My uncle had lost in a shameful game,
    And decided his penance would be in my honourable name.
    I was to be betrothed in a union
    To erase all his debt and there my choices
    I had no longer left.

    Businesses and money and travel and sea,
    My mother had thought this might be good for me.
    But my father was afraid and didn’t agree.
    Uncle was older and his word was sound,
    My honour, my marriage, my life had been found

    She began to whisper, this school friend of mine,
    so I needed to move even closer
    to make the best of our time.
    “So your father didn’t want you all covered up that way,
    he wanted you free,”
    I began to say.
    She looked up quite slowly with tears in her eyes,
    she told me the true reality of her life.

    “My gambling husband had told me,” she trembled to speak,
    Woman you are property that I will reap.
    You are my wife and cover up good
    Don’t get any ideas that you know you should.

    If other men see you it will put ideas in their head, and I will have to kill you if I find him with you in the bed,

    It will make no difference what you might say,
    You can tell me you said no,
    And didn’t want it to be so.
    You will be the one to blame.
    Dishonour and reputation will not sully my name.
    I will kill you like that with a thin blunted knife,
    That is what you get for being my wife.

    Hear me woman, and hear me good,
    You are just a woman,
    No second chances where you are stood.
    You will serve me well and do what I say.

    With me you will lie every time that I want,
    I like depraved games you will be my prop,
    If I invite my cousin, or another to play,
    Best not protest or your parents will pay.

    The boys that you bear me will adhere to the rule,
    that you are never to touch them,
    and they will do what I do.

    So wear the robes that cover you good,
    and make up my dinner and wear your hood,
    Clean the house and put away your books,
    A fool like you should know when she’s got it good”

    My tears flowed for my friend now, when she told me so kind,
    “It not my choice to wear this bind.
    The impression they desire,
    that they most want to give
    is that our women are chaste,
    are angels, and the way they want to live.

    But oppression, humiliation and violation can thrive,
    for if you can’t see me, then there’s no need to hide.”

    My heart was pounding for this woman underneath,
    this big black garb that shielded her grief.
    From any who would want to help,
    I realised this had created a prison for herself.
    “How can I help you, what can I do? Just tell me what works and I’ll do it for you?”

    She touched my hand through the fabric of her cloth,
    “Thank-you my friend, this has been enough.
    For I must do as he tells me forever you see,
    as it is this way in our family.
    All women in niquabs do not share my fate, but
    For now,
    for me,
    it is far too late.”
    With that she got up and as graceful as she came I watched her walk,
    Starting up past the lane.
    I felt sad and angry and powerless to see,
    a friend from school-
    the same age as me.
    Only living a life that wasn’t fair or right,
    ravaged and twisted in an horrific plight.

    What could I do, what could I say,
    When suddenly I saw my 168 come my way.
    I jumped on the bus and politely waved.
    Ashamed of myself,
    This is what human rights is today.

    • says

      Dear Hina, welcome to the Roadmap blog. Your encounter with the woman who was completely covered gripped me from the beginning and carried me all the way through to the end. You portrayed her experience and story vividly.

      I was also glad you included this important line: “All women in niquabs do not share my fate, but
      For now,
      for me,
      it is far too late.”

      Men control women in every culture–and not every woman who is covered is being abused or controlled. I am sorry this was the case for your friend. Your words made me care about her.

      • Hina says

        Thanks Laura it’s an honor to be around so many talented writers.
        I agree about the distinction this is not to be viewed as all women in niqabs share this situation, but sadly the ones who do, dont get much attention because people just dont know, it was a story I felt needed to be told.

        • Terry Gibson says

          This is a compelling story, Hina. It seized my attention quickly and as I read on, I felt my pulse quicken and adrenaline flood my system. I cared for and care for her. Thanks for being my teacher today. Oh yes, welcome!

    • Hazel says

      Hina,
      Thank you for telling us this story of your friend. Our world is far more cruel than kind. I felt compassion for your friend and wished her circumstances were different. You told her story well.

      Thank you for sharing.

    • Karla says

      I think your choice to tell this story in poem verse was a really great one. I think the economy of words used added an objectivity to the story and to the emotional reactions I felt throughout it. Thank you.

      • Hina says

        Karla, thanks so much for that- almost telling it as verse gave the the ability to pick out the facts of her story as cleverly as I could, otherwise I would have been a balling mess!

        • Karla says

          That is such an interesting point, and makes me think about how writing can be healing. It never occurred to me that *how* you tell the story, in terms of word choice or style or the like, could facilitate not only the effect the writer’s trying to create, but also manage the distance between the story and the telling in healthy ways. I guess in my own writing– which involves mostly stories about awful things that have happened to other people– I do work on this by sometimes coming “closer” in my descriptions at certain points. Sometimes I am a bawling mess, and sometimes that’s healing and sometimes it may even produce good writing, but the key seems to be (for me) knowing how to be self aware enough in writing to know how to preserve my emotional health and how to tell the story, and hope those things don’t conflict. Thanks, though, for the chance to talk muddily about this.

  10. Hazel says

    For me, anyone I see who truly needs help that I can give is within my immediate circle of concern. These days I am mostly confined to my home so do not meet other people that might need help. I do not have much so making donations to the many groups who always seem to have their hands out is not even a remote possiblity for me. I find myself in tears sometimes that I cannot give more.

    We had moved into this house, which is in some ways in a choice spot here in Northwestern New Mexico, in that it is only a few blocks from the San Juan River and the several irrigation ditches that dissect the floor of this narrow valley provide us with many huge elm and cottonwood trees that hang over the road and provide a cool place to walk or drive. That may be why we have so much traffic on this road. We are only a few blocks from the Post Office which marks this place as Fruitland, and a few miles from the Navajo Reservation. Many of the Native Americans either do not have cars, or have lost their drivers license because of DWI’s, or their cars have broken down somewhere and are now rusting amongst the sand, buffalo grass and sagebrush somewhere. When we first moved in here we were told that there were many drunks who walk this road and not to respond to them or we would be inundated with them.

    I went about the business of laying out my yard and garden and working to make my place neat and tidy and inviting as I always do. All the while watching the people who walked the road. Most of them did not seem drunk to me. Still I was cautious.

    One day I was in the house getting a drink of water and cooling off ready for a short rest when I heard a knock at the front door, my little old Yorkie went nuts, so I knew someone was actually there. I went to the screen door and there was a Native American man standing there. He was dressed neatly although I could see beneath his straw hat he was very hot. In his soft Navajo voice he asked me for a drink of water. “Of course, just a moment.” I went to the kitchen and poured him a large glass of water. He gulped it down so I refilled it quickly. While he drank the second glass more slowly he told me he had stopped at four houses before this but people just told him to get out. He told me that his car had overheated and he was on his way to see his wife who was in the hospital in Shiprock. “Where is your car?” I asked. He told me it was about five miles back toward Farmington. “Do you think your car just needs water?”

    “Yes, I think that may be so.”
    “I will ask my husband to take some water and go with you back to your car if you like?”
    The man looked at me with large unbelieving eyes, I got my husband and he took several old gallon milk jugs full of water for the car and a quart jar of drinking water for the man, which he put in the pickup and they left. When my husband came back he said, “What is the matter with people that they can’t give someone a little water? That’s all the man’s car needed. I let him have what didn’t go into the radiator in case it leaks and overheats again. He was very thankful, thank you for giving him a drink. He really needed help.”

    I don’t want to become the way-station for all the Native Americans that walk our road, but how could I not give a drink of water to this obviously dehydrating man who really needed a drink on a hot summer day, here in the desert?

    • says

      Hazel, this piece is heartbreaking. It shows how people can harden their hearts against a whole class of people by making blanket assumptions. I’m so glad you and your husband helped that man.

    • Karla says

      Hazel, you told this story very skillfully– I thought the pacing of it was particularly great, and I found myself feeling tension in spots (Yorkie barking, husband getting into car with stranger) and relieved when it turned out like I hoped. A very enjoyable read for the writing, and a good moral of the story.

    • Hina says

      Wow, i think your story shows such simple kindnesses that can change someones course, and yet the fear that most have of even daring to say hello or to smile, thank heaven for you and your kindness. Your husband is quite right.

      • Hazel says

        There is a lot of mistrust in this community on both sides of the “white” vs “Indian” line. I have fun at our local Walmart, which is the one on the “Indian” side of town and has more commodities purchased by them than the one on the other side of this town, that ordinarily would not have two Walmart stores. I always smile at the old Native American women, the ones wearing all their gorgeous turquoise jewelery, the ones with the gathered colorful skirts, the ones that shuffle around on arthritic legs that barely move, the ones that still speak to one another in Navajo language, to see how many of them will smile back at me. At first they are confused and then you can see a bit of a smile appear. I love it!

    • Ilana says

      Hazel- This piece is lovely. It is sweet and bitter on so many levels. It is rich and full. Even though your husband had very little “air time” I still felt like his actions were another way of saying “I love you.” to you, because he was honoring your desire to help this man by his feeling that desire himself. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you! Ilana

    • Terry Gibson says

      Hazel, this is a beautifully written story. I guessed at what was coming and was thrilled I was wrong. I’m so happy you and your husband could help this man. When I lived in Winnipeg where racism is rampant between the whites and First Nation people, I was taught to stay away. But then Mom contradicted herself by saying how strong and handsome the men were; to me, with one concession made to the so-called absolute ‘truth’ about native people, made it all a bunch of generalizations and lies. Thanks for sharing this story.

  11. Ilana says

    You Don’t Have To Understand to Care

    “Lucy” That’s all that was written in the subject heading of the e-mail. I was fast losing my fondness for the sender of the e-mail but Lucy mattered to me. I opened it wondering what was going on. True to form the writer communicated what was happening to our mutual friend with an underlying message of self importance. That didn’t matter now. Lucy was hurting. After six months of trying to conceive she’d had to abort an ectopic pregnancy to save her life. I had miscarried also, five years ago. I had since had two babies and made peace with my loss. I knew the deep anguish of losing a child, though, even one that had only just made its presence known. Lucy had been carrying twins and the other one was doing fine, growing in the right place.

    Her loss was unfamiliar to me. When I’d miscarried after six months of trying to get pregnant, I lost everything, the only baby and my identity as an expectant mother. I was going to have to wait two more months and then start the agonizing process all over again. I remembered how I’d tortured myself each night to avoid waking up to realize the truth all over again. “Not pregnant. Not pregnant. Not pregnant.” I’d chanted to myself all night long. Lucy was going to escape all that. She was still pregnant. There still was a baby inside of her. I was both jealous and relieved that she was spared that pain. I called my friend and made arrangements to come see her.

    Armed with a freshly baked challa and my well loved copy of “Tear Soup”, a book for mourning, regardless of the loss, I rang her doorbell. A tearful Lucy answered the door and invited me in. I don’t know how long I was there that day. I fed her challa and read her the book with its beautiful illustrations and words I had taken such comfort in at the time of my loss. We talked and she shared about the guilt she was feeling.

    “I did this to myself and endangered my children.”

    “How could this possibly be your fault?” I protested.

    “I got impatient and took Clomid. You shouldn’t take it when you’ve only been trying for a few months. It’s for people who can’t get pregnant. I already had my son.”

    “No, Lucy. This was not your fault. It just happened. These things just happen.” She broke into tears and I held her while she cried. I did not understand what Lucy was feeling. I had not been in her position. I had not had this miscarriage. You don’t have to understand to care, though. Another friend’s words came back to me from all those years ago. “I can’t say I know how you feel. I did have a miscarriage but every woman is different. No one can ever truly know how another person feels. All I can say is that I care.”

    When she finished crying I gently shared my story with Lucy, how I’d tortured myself all night, every night. “Not pregnant. Not pregnant. Not pregnant.” I told her how grateful I was that she was not going to go through that. She understood “But my baby still died.” She protested.

    “Yes. It did.” I agreed and held her while she cried some more.

    That was more than four years ago. Lucy gave birth to a healthy, beautiful, baby girl and a year and a half later she had another boy. Now she has three kids, just like me. She is a fantastic mother and so happy. To see her face light up when she talks to her babies is enough to give anyone joy. It’s my turn to be struggling. It’s my turn to be sad. Lucy’s there for me; through thick and thin. She’s never been through what’s happening to me but as we have both learned, you don’t have to understand to care.

    • Barbara Keller says

      Thanks, it’s true and you told it well. I’m sorry for whatever you are sad for now and glad you have a friend to share it with.

      • Ilana says

        Thank you, Barbara. Looking back at this story I feel better about what’s going on now. I am also finally able to understand why Lucy has been so kind and patient with me. She is a dear person, true, but she also has a reason to love me. I have been there for her. I suppose I had forgotten that. Remembering it makes it that much easier to accept her support now. Thank you for helping me remember too. Ilana

    • Karla says

      I loved the juxtapositions of your story, Lucy’s story, and the story of the two of you together. This set up worked really well and the writing had a beautiful symmetry. It also reminded me how comforting it was when my friends told me about their experiences after I had a miscarriage. I never felt that anyone was trying to tell me that they knew just how I felt, but there is something so compassionate and loving about sharing your own experience with someone who’s recently experienced a loss, in addition to deeply listening to them. Thank you for sharing this piece.

    • Hazel says

      Ilana,
      Beautiful, just beautiful. Well told and heartfelt. So great that you can have compassion for each other and by the telling of your story you have shown compassion for others as well as they don’t feel so alone anymore.

      Thank you for sharing.

      • Ilana says

        Wow Hazel. Do you really think that hearing my story can give others comfort too? That feels really good. Thank you! Ilana

        • Hazel says

          I know that it can! I know how lonely it is when you think you are all alone and if you know that even one other person has lived through what you are going through it makes all the difference in the world. We are all here to find out what it is like to be human. The more we share the more knowledge we all have.

    • Terry Gibson says

      I like this story a lot, Ilana. It reiterates to me as well what I already know to be true. There will always be finicky details we don’t share with someone but what really matters is showing and sharing our heartfelt concern for them. I am happy you both have children now and it is a source of great joy in both of your lives!

  12. Sheila McGinley says

    Outside your circle of care. Figuring out where that circle ends, when reaching beyond myself is easy and when impossible, is a lifetime of work.

    When I was 10, I came home from my friend’s house and found my bicycle gone. I ran into the house to find my mom to tell her. Looking apologetic, she sat me down with milk and cookies. “The Learys were over today. Pat brought all 6 of her kids, not one bicycle between them. They rode yours, laughing and calling to each other, not wanting to leave. So happy.” She looked down at her rough and worn hands, covered with flour from the dinner she had been making. She turned them over as if searching the palm for answers, then turned them back again. I sighed. Shook my head. My mom looked at me, brushed away my hair. “I will get you another one, of course.”

    Of course she would. That was my mother. She took care of the old and senile lady who lived across the street, the one who had let a scheming middle aged man move in so she didn’t have to be alone and then cried when he took all her money. She gave the neighbors rides if they couldn’t drive. She sent money from her tiny teaching paycheck to my father’s mother, to two uncles, to the lady down the street with 13 kids. Tidy little checks that she recorded neatly in her budget book, month after month, the same day and the same amount. No one knew, but if I was quiet enough I could sit with her and watch her do it.

    I would watch her deliver secret bags of little Christmas presents to the tired mothers of 8, 9, 10 kids, sew blankets for a family that was struggling. She did these things in between making pies and Irish soda bread for us and chocolate chip cookies for the dozens of kids that almost lived in her house every day until dinnertime. I watched her every morning when we picked up my friend Pat and her sister to go to school. That family had 15 kids. Mom would honk the horn twice and then the kids would get out of bed, coming out to the car half dressed and brushing their hair. She did not get exasperated. Instead, she would pull a bag out from under the car and hand each of them milk, a sandwich, a cookie and a piece of fruit. She never said a word, but acted as if she had hundreds of families to whom she gave such bags. As if they had dropped into her lap from the sky.

    People would ask me if I was mad when she gave my things away. How could I be? I always got another, it was never me who suffered. And I knew that if she had a bike of her own it would have been first out that door. My mother never stopped, even as she got older, caring for others. She was many things, but she was not a good model for drawing that line. Her mother before her, Nana to me but Aunt Rose to half the world, was even worse. They were the best, these two women, but I could never have the endless kindness and nurturance that they had. If my mother could carry furniture she bought for me up two flights of stairs to my New York walk-up at age 75, she could carry the world without seeming to falter. I tired easily, and, like my father, needed my peace, my privacy, worried about not having enough. And yet I yearned to be able to open my heart and give. To go to Africa, or Harlem, or Tijuana and save the world. Make myself worth having been saved from death myself. Make myself just like her.

    I suppose I do reach out beyond my personal circles with big acts of caring sometimes. When one of my daughter’s childhood friends had a baby young, struggling on her own because her frightened immigrant single mother had told her to leave, her car died too. I tried to remember that it was alright to keep my daughter’s college fund for her alone, to let her old friend cry on my shoulder but give her a few bucks and send her out to a life on the bus, going to work, day care and Cabrillo. But my resolve slipped out from under me and I took out the special checkbook, the hoarded account, and wrote her a two thousand dollar check for a down payment. She hugged me and returned the next day with a used Honda, baby seat and baby tucked safely in the back.

    Does that even count as reaching beyond my circle? I knew this girl since she was 6, worried about her when her mom got angry and threw things at her, took her to the drugstore to buy her the necessary day after pills when she had willy-nilly sex with lost wannabee gangstas at the age of 14. Why wouldn’t I help her now? And did it wipe her off my caring list because one year later she arrived at my door with a tight little bundle of money, paying me back all but $200 dollars of what I had given her? She had saved all of her tips from her night job for me. We hugged and she was on her way, and I still feel relieved, three years later, at how easy that was to do, how surprised I was that I really had succeeded in not caring if she ever paid me back.

    I was given the greatest lesson about giving of my life when I worked as a brand new psychologist in the numbing sadness of a children’s inpatient hospital in the horror of the South Bronx, a city of burned out buildings with dark and empty windows filled with people who called this home. The work was endless and futile, children who had broken under life’s unfairness tearing at my heart. All I could do was keep us all treading water, our lips just above the waves. But I decided that I could do one thing more: treat every family member, every child, as if they were my family, my teacher, my friend. And so I spent hours explaining things to families lost in cycles of failure, held the hands of mothers who couldn’t choose between rage and endless tears. When they called on the phone I stopped what I was doing and talked to them. It made me feel better, as if I had an anchor in this storm.

    One day, after explaining to a mom how to fix her kitchen ceiling so that it would pass the “No roach and vermin” law of public health that was stopping her from bringing her child home, I hung up and turned around. Five of the toughest, most unforgiving to white folks nurses sat there and stared at me, their hands crossed across their chests, shaking their heads. I loved them all, but I was afraid of their constant disapproval. “What?” I asked. “What did I do wrong this time?”

    They looked startled for a moment, then looked at each other and grinned for a split second before getting up and going back to work. “Nothin.” said the toughest of them, not looking at me but gathering up the medicine cart and the kids’ charts as she talked. “We were just listening to you.” Her back was to me and the rest of them had moved on out of the nurse’s lounge. “Listening to what?” I asked. She turned to face me. “Respect.” she said, stopping for a tiny second and looking into my eyes. “You treat people with respect. We don’t hear that often from white doctors.” A brief smile crossed her lips and she was gone.

    I sat there for awhile under the sputtering florescent lights, feeling surprise and pride flow into me. I can do this, I thought. If I try a little, I can always do this. I won’t get tired, and it will be something. Maybe in my own little way, I can be like mom and Nana. I can save the world with respect. That will do it.

    That’s how I learned that you don’t have to have money, or energy, or cleverness to do your little part to save the world. Light one candle. For a brief second, be Nelson Mandela, or Sister Teresa or so many others, then go back to your day job. Easy enough. Treat people who are hurting with respect. And that is how I have managed to reach beyond my own circle and I am working on within my circle too. A few split seconds of Nelson Mandela, a grain of Mother Teresa, and I have saved myself too.

    • Laura Davis says

      Wow, Sheila! This is a beautifully written piece. But what shines the most is the incredible generosity. What an amazing legacy your mother gave you. And what a beautiful tribute you wrote to her. I’ve never known anyone like her. And I think you, either. Thank you so much for sharing this. It gives me hope and inspiration.

      • Sheila McGinley says

        Thank you Laura! It was one of those pieces that came to me yesterday morning and I had an annoyingly busy day of meetings and politics and it sat there calling at me. So it was 12:45 and it had to be written! I always feel a little insane when it is so late when I finish. But it made me happy to have captured my mom and my Nana like that. So happy!

    • Hazel says

      Sheila,
      That was so beautifully written and what a tribute to your mother, your Nana and yourself. Thank you for sharing. You remind us that kindness is always rewarded in some way, especially when we are not expecting it. I am humbled by the reading.

    • Penelope says

      Beautiful story, Sheila! Thank you for sharing your experience and your memories of your mother and Nana so vividly. I can only hope to be as generous as you, mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela especially. It is so easy to think that we don’t have anything to offer, but there is so much more than just money can buy.

  13. beverly Boyd says

    Windfalls
    My friends have been windfalls*
    Cast from the tree of regard
    By a big blow.

    There I found them cradled in the grasses sheltering
    Their rejected good. To the good I cling
    Knowing possible rejection
    By others safer…whose sins are unknown.

    The good I saw adds its reward
    My inward fruit shows finer color
    Though, some may think it not.
    1956

    *In the part of the country where I grew up windfalls referred to fruit that had fallen from the tree. Grass was grown and allowed to pile under the tree to keep the fruit from bruising. There is also the more known meaning that is a sudden serendipitous occurrence. Both meanings apply here!

    I wrote this poem four years after Sharon hurried up to me one day as students were passing to classes. “Please, let me be your friend. I’m not what people say I am!” After all these years I remember those words exactly as she said them. The urgency in her plea still brings tears to my eyes.

    I was new in that school, but I already had been filled in on Sharon’s reputation. She was a beautiful blonde with limpid blue (“bedroom”) eyes. A Marilyn Monroe lookalike. Even in a modest skirt and loose fitting turtleneck sweater she looked like a “sexpot.” I knew it was a risk, but I took it. When friends warned me to stay away from her, I let them know that they were misjudging her…that she was not all like her reputation.

    In fact she was a very devout Catholic and like many Catholic teenage girls in my day had fantasies of being a nun. She gave me a tiny prayer book that was a treasured possession for many years. Even though I lost it I still remember and use a couple of the prayers in it.

    But also like many teenager she was interested in boys. We spent many nights sharing secrets and talking about our current love interest. We planned small parties and of course made sure to invite those boys. While we talked we took turns scratching each other’s backs. When I left to go to college we went to the five and ten and purchased back scratchers (tiny plastic hands on long thin plastic arms) and ceremoniously gave them to each other. The next year she also came to Syracuse and became a sorority sister.

    We were both busy mothers of large families married to military men and moved a lot. For many years we kept touch but eventually lost touch. I never regretted taking that risk.

    Sharon was not the first, nor was she the last person I responded to. Sometimes the friendships were quite difficult Like Richard, a schizophrenic artist, who I offered a room in my home when I became concerned about his living situation in a hardscrabble residence hotel in West Oakland. Anges, Micheala, Brinton, and Nancy, and others all of whom were outside of my “circle of concern” though in the tradition of navy wives everywhere had become temporary expended family.

    Then there were those random acts of kindness that I love.

    There was the man outside the convenience store.
    His clothing and skin were all the same shade of homeless tan. He didn’t make any move or ask for help, but I thought of him as I picked out a snack. In the car I poured half the can of V8 juice into a cup and offered it with half a sandwich to him.
    “Thank you,” he said. “I was hoping that was for me.” His sweet gaze was like a blessing.

    And the young man I met at the coffee shop, who sat talking to as he taped a pen onto an artificial flower. When he finished he offered it to me. I offered to buy it, but he just wanted me to have it. The flower is getting tattered and is now on its third pen replacement. I keep it on my desk where it is a constant reminder when I am feeling down of someone with a generous spirit.

    The little old lady who didn’t know how she would get home with a package too big to carry.
    On our walk to her house we had a lively conversation and she became a friend. When we had our wedding reception at the officer’s club across from the Naval Academy I invited her to come. She was delighted because that had been her girlhood home. When another friend, a long-time Annapolis resident saw her she wondered how she came to be there. It seems she was quite a personage about town.

    “Oh,” my mother said. “She’s someone Beverly met at the Post Office and they became friends. Beverly’s always meeting people that way!”

  14. Penelope says

    “You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” Franz Kafka.

    I found this quote at the beginning of this blog interesting and thought provoking. I often hold back suffering and wonder if denial actually is a a river in Egypt.

    I immediately thought about the history of the Woman’s Suffrage movement at the turn of the 20th century and felt for the women of that day and age. I guess we have come a distance since that time, but women are still under the gun of a male driven society, of which so many of us still suffer immensely on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it has become so commonly accepted, that it is hardly considered a problem.

    Incredibly, the Catholic church has barely come out to apologize for so many wrong doings, with the centuries of criminal behavior practiced in the name of “God” and the bible. The rights of human beings on this planet have been compromised for the sake of a few powerful men, who have left their mark with the imprint of their personal ideals of greed and corruption on our lives. Luckily, we have had leaders such as Nelson Mandela, who have given hope to many of these people. So many people are giving tribute to him now, in celebration of his life, now passed, but living on through those who loved him. He is an icon representing sacrifice in the name of freedom for his people’s suffering.

    My personal contributions to those who suffer, are first of all, to not add to their suffrage. I believe the best one can do to help people that appear to be suffering, is to help them help themselves. I will encourage them to move out of the dark and into the light. The people who have shed darkness in the lives of many people are suffering too. It is hard to feel sorry for them, but knowing they are pathetic human beings, who don’t know any better, allows them to see a little light. Surrendering to the force of evil is a choice one must make. Letting them know that they can make that choice at any time, and they have permission to change the path they are on at any time, which not only contributes to their freedom, but yours, mine and many others as well.

    As a teacher, I have often been drawn to a child in the classroom who is in the greatest need of help. Although there are times when I feel helpless for not being able to turn it all around for them at once, empowering them with alternatives is always the best thing I can give. It is especially heartening when I see the other kids trying to help too. Usually they don’t know how, until they see it modeled.

    Right now there are many people who are out of jobs. I hate to see people treating them as helpless, like that could never happen to them. We live in a very unfair society, where we are forced to compete with each other, rather than working together to support each other. Everyone has something unique to offer. The best we can do is to help bring that out.

    • says

      Penelope, thanks for sharing your philosophy and your generous spirit. I’d love to hear some stories about specific students you helped–and how. Work stories are some of my favorites.

    • beverly Boyd says

      Penelope,
      You say you hold back from suffering. The big issues you mention seem so overwhelming. Yet in the simple situations of the here and now, reaching out to the children in your classroom who need that extra attention and encouragement it doesn’t seem like you hold back.

      I really appreciate your philosophy of being careful not to add to anyone’s suffering.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Thanks, Penelope. My biggest takeaway from your piece is the reminder of ‘First, do no harm.’ I am careful in this regard with people, but not always spot-on. That situation is always delicate and, therefore, something I contemplate from every angle. This is especially true in situations on the street where there is no luxury time to think before acting to assist another. I value that you help the kids at school. That’s the best!

  15. Camilla Sørensen says

    It is Christmas the holiday of hearts, and I was walking in Copenhagen as usual, the streets full of busy people walking past me, minding their own business, not seeing, not noticing anything but their busy selves. However, I do love walking in Copenhagen, that old city which holds so much history. H. C. Andersen lived in the city in the 19th century, he wrote some of his best pieces there, he may even have walked the same streets as me today thinking of the ugly duckling or the tin soldier or all of his other wonderful fairy tales and stories that have enlightened and inspired so many people around the world for 250 years.

    The buildings that tell the story so well, also about the two fires which crippled them in the late 18th Century, where first one half of the city burned down then some years later the other half burned. At that time there were not fire trucks, there were no firemen to put out the fire, just people running from the flames trying to save their lives, thus losing everything they owned. Yet the morning after they started building up the city again as it presents itself today. So many people have walked the streets of Copenhagen, so many feet touching the history of this Capital of the Kingdom of Denmark, the country best know for the Little Mermaid, bacon and wind turbines. It was nominated to be the happiest country in the world not so many years ago, which actually brought Oprah Winfrey to the country. How could this small country be the happiest country in the world? There is no Hollywood, there are no billion dollar mansions, the Danes pay the highest taxes in the world, and the city is one of the most expensive to live in, what then are the Danes doing to well? Nothing! We do as we are told, we pay our taxes, and let the system take over, and that is what makes our system so vulnerable for being exploited by the people in power, because it is based on trust – the Danes trust the system to know best, and that’s a problem in my opinion, which do not make Denmark the happiest country in the world, but one of the most controlled.

    This afternoon in Copenhagen with all the Christmas lights lighting up the streets in the darkness of wintertime, was just like all the other walks I have taken – to explore, to see, to understand, to take in what is happening in my country. Why have we become so distant to one another? Why don’t we talk anymore? Why have we grown so much apart? I remember as an kid, how we used to talk to our neighbors, how we trusted one another, how my grandparents, my parents and the generations before them built up what we have today. They worked their whole lives on building a system, which was designed to take care of people who had less, that we stick together and help each other when we need to, and I see that disappearing. We’ve stopped seeing, stopped listening, and only celebrate to be the best in the world. The politicians recently discussed old people, that gave their lives on building as system, trusting that when they got old, that same system, which they built, would take care of them, to be respectful of their sacrifice, to be compassionate and loving, to give their last years of their lives meaning, but today there is a Denmark that “can’t” afford to give them that dignity, to not be able to find the funds to provide two baths per week for them. The politicians just don’t feel like the government could spend that money on people, which may not be the best in the world, but the people that made it possible for them to be in the job they’re in today, and all of this is echoing in my mind on my walk through the streets of Copenhagen this afternoon, seeing the stores booming with highly expensive commodities, things that are the “best” in the world to the people of Denmark, and my heart is bleeding.

    How did it come to this? I’ve spent years in the system in Denmark believing in that same lie as the generations who built it, that the system is there for you when you need it. “It is only through love that we can sacrifice for one another,” is the words of an old Indian Chief Dan George. “It is only when we know that we are loved that we can march tirelessly, that we can become who we are meant to be.” But when money start to control everything, when we believe in the illusion that money can be eaten, and in that illusion we come to believe that we are immortal, that we don’t have a responsibility to one another or to ourselves. We live the illusion of the pursuit of happiness, which we have been taught to find outside of ourselves – if only I can get this, I will be happy, and we spend our lives living that illusion, until we discover that we have other choices as Buddha said: “there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” But in a society that thrives on individuality and on narcissism, and stop loving outside ourselves, and we start feeding upon our own egos, and therefore become isolated and distant from one another. Love becomes commercial, love becomes Valentine’s Day, love is what we see on TV, but something that many don’t feel worthy off. Many people walk around thinking that all the others are happy, that it is only us that is not loved, that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. Because we are single, because we’re not rich, because we don’t look like a model or are skinny as one, that we believe in the illusion which the media presents us with every day of what love is.

    How many hours do we spend on TV? How many hours do we spend on our mobile? How many hours do we spend on our computer? Alone! And how many hours do we actually spend on talking in person to one another? And so do we dare to really talk to a stranger without prejudice, without pointing fingers, without judging, without fear and with an open heart and a listening ear to hear what this person has to say? I guess not many hours.

    In my years that I have worked on healing from child sexual abuse, I’ve come to see things very differently. I question many things, because I have lived a very isolated life, cut off from contact with other people, and lived behind a glass window thinking that I was the only one who felt like this, that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was not worthy of love. Four years later into my healing, I am better able to see people; I am able to feel their hearts; to see their souls; to listen to their stories without judgment, and to see life as the greatest gift one can get. I am able to love; I am able to open my heart up to other people, and in that relatively short period of time I have touched hearts, and I have had people say to me that nobody talked to them like I did, that I had had an impact on their lives just by listening with love, care and understanding even though they were strangers to me.

    Not so many days ago, I went in to a store in Copenhagen to find a Christmas gift for my mother. Four years ago I wouldn’t have dared to even talk to the woman in the store; I would have felt like nothing compared to her. But that day we started talking, and I listened to her talk about her life, and what she had done. She had tried so many things, she had been to France working on a castle, she had had a restaurant, she had worked for at big company, she had had a flower shop, and today she worked in a women’s clothing store. And in this conversation I opened my heart and listened to her talking taking every word she said in. She noticed my interest and asked me what I wanted to do in my life? And I said with a smile: “I want to go to America and live with the Indians,” she looked at me not surprised, but with interest and asked? “Are you an Indian?” I smiled and said: “Not that I know off, but many people ask me that question.” “It’s just because,” as she said; “you have the features, you look like an Indian.” I smiled and felt a warmth rushing through my whole body, because I feel like one, it’s something that has come from deep within me, something that I really dream of doing; to go and find my roots, and here there was a woman embracing my dream, so I replied, “but it’s going to take me a while before I am ready to go, I am still in therapy healing and changing my life.” And then she said after awhile listening to me talking about my dream: “You are going to get there, with your drive and energy it won’t take many years before you are on that plane.” And I looked deeply into her eyes to see that she meant it, and I smiled at her taking every word she had said to me into my heart.

    Our conversation went on for a half an hour, and when we said goodbye I could see that we had touched each others’ hearts that day, and my pessimism on behalf of Denmark slightly subsided, when I realized, that maybe we are not all lost in money, that we do still talk to each other, that we do stick together, that there is change, there is hope, there is a Denmark that is not lost. That I can leave this country, which I love so dearly with peace of mind, but also the country that broke my heart completely. I will not leave with hatred and anger in my heart, as Nelson Mandala said when he was released from prison: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” I can change just as much in Denmark by living with the Indians as I can living in Denmark. So, it’s time to slowly say goodbye to the country that has so much to offer, to the country that has a tough road ahead, to learn to change, to learn to embrace healing, to open its eyes to the real problem, that you cannot put money before people, and that was the vision the system originally was built on by our grandparents; our parents and now us to ensure the future of the coming generations.

    And I’ll end this with an ancient Indian proverb: “treat the earth well; it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth form our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

    • Janet says

      Camilla, thank you so much for this powerful piece. I have read it and reread it. I have been thinking much lately about, “the illusion which the media presents us with every day of what love is”. Reading your passage for me was like waking up from a dull sleep and finding hope, meaning, and light. Love is why we are here and taking care of one another is the center of that. Thank you so very much.

    • beverly Boyd says

      Camilla,
      What a rich journey you are having. I love the change you are experiencing from a pessimism about the country you obviously love and feeling of isolation to the fascinating conversation with the woman in the store who four years ago you would have been afraid to talk to. And here you are sharing your dream of going to America and live with the Indians!

      Another thing that struck me is that Denmark is often pointed to as a country where the people are happy and knowing they are being taken care of, don’t mind having to pay high taxes. Hmmm. Your share makes me think there is another side to it.

    • Hazel says

      Camilla,
      Fascinating story. I would say, it is a long way from Denmark to live with the Indians, and also, they are not very accepting of blonde haired blue eyed people but I am sure it will be an interesting adventure.

      • Camilla Sørensen says

        Thank you all for your comments, I wasn’t sure about the story, because it’s about Denmark, far away from the US, but I just had to get it out – my frustration. I just have to say, that many times I experience being stopped on the streets of Copenhagen, being asked if I speak Danish? Happens all the time. I don’t look like a typical Scandinavian, I just thought I would mention that.

        • Terry Gibson says

          Camilla, Laura, and Janet, I’m sorry I messed up these two threads. I didn’t realize where I was. Camilla, you write this piece with such passion, addressing many issues I pay attention to worldwide. I love this quote, ” … and in that relatively short period of time I have touched hearts, and I have had people say to me that nobody talked to them like I did, that I had had an impact on their lives just by listening with love, care and understanding even though they were strangers to me.” Not only do you capture the sweat-soaked, stark beauty in urban ugliness (not just Copenhagen), but you also share hope and promise with us. Thank you, Camilla. I am happy to know that in your interactions with people, you now enjoy some of the bounty we were denied by growing up in isolation, which I did too.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Like others, I have no immediate circle of concern. Yes. There are those with whom I speak or get together regularly, but the people out there—at the bus stops, in my classes, the library queue, or pushing their three-year old daughter in a shopping cart around the grocery story—I have infinite care for them too. We have just not met or chatted yet.

      Most would never notice what I do because I do it so quietly. I pull people aside for privacy and share with them a few sincerely felt words. Sometimes, as is my gentle way, the intended receiver misses what I am doing, which has made me belly laugh. I love that moment of gentle mirth but it is not completely fine with me. There is always intention behind my actions. (1) I planned to buy a slice of pizza and coffee for a homeless man. (2) Chose to stand fifteen minutes in the cold at the market to converse with 83-year old stranger, Roy. (3) Bought the requested two raspberry chocolate filled licorice logs for my friend, only to give one away before I got home. (4) Let a disabled customer ahead of me in a lineup. (5) Spent hours listening to young rape victims pour their story and heart out to me, and (6) emptied what tiny bit of money I had into the wizened hand of a First Nation’s woman. I aim to help but do not want attention drawn to these acts. To me, that is cheating. It robs me of my anonymity and opens me up to people’s praise; depending on the receiver’s emotional weather that day, to them, it could translate into public humiliation, a loss of dignity, pride, and an already floundering self-esteem.

      “There but for the grace of God, go I.” This quote is close to me always. I am only one-step away from being any one of them. No. I do not mean that in an existential way: no coins clink in my jeans pocket. I know it. I see it. I smell it. I fear it. I rage about it. I plan for it but will not accept it. I will always do whatever I can within my humble means. With this, I hope that perhaps one day, when I need it, a stranger will extend themselves beyond their world and reach out to me in my own suffering or sickness.

      • Karla says

        Terry, as I was reading this I had an image of you as a brightly-colored, curious creature, generous in its presence– as if it doesn’t have to give anything else but just be in the world. For all the things that you listed that you do in compassion for others, it just seems that you also simply live in compassion with others. That is a rare and beautiful thing, as was the writing in this piece, as you are yourself.

        • Terry Gibson says

          Karla, I am so touched by your words. It is strange. The essence of what you said here is exactly how a woman once described my brother to me. Thank you. You know what’s funny? With all I consider in reaching out, I also wrestle with my own inner weather–usually a combination of shaky self-esteem, fear (as helping got me hurt before), and not wanting to embarrass myself or have people laugh at me. I wouldn’t decide to ignore something because of these factors (except in real danger), but I am always looking for a clean getaway bus. :)

          • Karla says

            What you’re describing as your “inner weather” (great term) is very normal and expected, I think, when you’ve been hurt in this general neighborhood. Thanks for replying to me– and I realize that I forgot to include that the hummingbird was the gentle creature I was referring to. They are shy, yet they seem to be willing to stick around when they think it’s safe.

  16. Janet says

    As a school teacher, there are lot of opportunities to respond to the suffering of others. A few years ago on a very cold day, a child in my class said he did not sleep the night before because he was cold and his “brother takes the blanket”. So I had a “contest” for good behavior the next day where the prize was a box of two new blankets. I made sure he received it. Now every year when the weather turns cold, I have a contest for good behavior and I give blankets to the children in my class who are most in need.

    Though often my giving to those outside my immediate circle of concern is often through money or support of some physical nature, responding to the suffering of others is not just about supporting physical needs. I sometimes give through just really listening to what others are saying. I realized I could offer a gift by just being present with someone after I was told by someone that they felt better after talking with me.

    Lately, I have been thinking about retiring which will mean a lot less money. I asked myself what things I enjoy that cost no money. Number one was, talking with people! Right along with thinking, meditating, walking (ah, with my dog, Bella and other friends), reading and sleeping. WOW.

    • says

      Camilla, thank you for sharing your heart in this piece. I really felt for you and your mixed feelings about your native land–how the promises have come undone and how disappointed you are by the changes. I also loved what you shared about having an intimate moment with a stranger–taking the risk for real interaction instead of the superficial.

    • Hazel says

      Janet,
      You know that the Bible says that Jesus said, In as much as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me. I think what a wonderful story this is, and you have told it so simply.

      Thank you for sharing.

    • Terry Gibson says

      Janet, I love how you made sure the one who needed the blankets got it! I am always for a little ‘fixery’ for the right reasons. At every point in my life, especially when I was in the most distress and danger, having someone actually sit and listen to me always had the most impact; it was potentially life altering. They say for every negative interaction a child experiences, it takes about five positives to override it. That means we have a lot of listening to do no matter what age, what stage of life. We also need someone to listen to us; that need does not go away because we are older. Thanks so much for being a part of that and for sharing this story!

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