A Generous Dash of Humility

Dell is with her colleagues. They are bunched tightly together in the lobby of the building, listening to the CEO expound on a large gift their not-for-profit has just received. Cameras click; words like ‘capital campaign,‘robust giving,’ and ‘moving the effort forward’ float like cartoon bubbles above their heads.

“Incredible generosity,” the CEO intones. Her mind closes its speech-receiving door and takes a wander.

Define generosity, Dell instructs herself. And she thinks about some things.

*************
There is this:

Ten people found packages on their desks on Monday morning, sturdy gold toned boxes tied with wiry ribbon of autumn orange. They were filled with the most delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies. Ten people reached in and removed a cookie, took a bite, and smiled.  Ten Mondays just got a whole lot better.

There was no note, no card, no hint of whom the provider might be. Hmm. Pixies have been at work, maybe?

But most of them had a pretty good idea of their benefactor’s identity. There aren’t too many people who’d stay up until 2:00 AM, packaging freshly baked cookies to bring smiles to tired faces. And they know he didn’t do this for elaborate thanks and gratitude.

He’s just a generous guy.

***********

And there is Kim.

Kim has a project, a pet project, one she has been angling for permission to roll out. And that permission has finally arrived.

She’s an organized woman, Kim, and she has neatly written plans and timelines. She knows exactly how this should look. She knows exactly who should be involved–the right people to take this project to exactly the place she wants it to go. Kim creates a binder, a structure of the project, kind of a neatly-presented seed pod that will produce a wonderful, living, breathing, plant.

Kim has got a project. And Kim has got a colleague whose office is next door.

Her colleague is talented and lovely, but a little bit…bossy. A little bit…opinionated. If you invite this colleague to a  meeting, there’s a good chance the meeting’s facilitator will have to continuously grapple the conversation back onto the rails, keep it moving in the predicted direction. Often, the derailments lead to unplanned discoveries, but rarely are deadlines met, and seldom do meetings wrap on time, and the neatly ordered plans in binders sometimes get torn out and replaced by projects and events and activities and plans that no one had envisioned when the whole shebang got underway.

Kim’s colleague is audibly aching. The project that colleague has been working on, one whose objectives are closely related to those of Kim’s own project, just crashed outside of her domain. For no reason that Kim can discern, her colleague has been replaced as team facilitator; she’s been replaced and not invited even to sit on the team itself.

The colleague sits in her office instead; from next door, Kim hears a muffled sob.

She looks at her binder, neat and ready to be implemented, step by step. She thinks of the meeting she has called for later that day, and the three key people who will see what she sees, who will take it and  create it just the way Kim’s been envisioning.

She thinks of all that, and she thinks of her colleague, and suddenly she is in that office, explaining what she’s planning. Wondering if the colleague, whose eyes begin to light up, might have time to join Kim’s team.

The sum will be greater than its parts, Kim knows, and she bids a regretful farewell to her tidy control. The outcome will, once they’ve fought their way through all the unknown mess and chaos she’s certain is to come, exceed her expectations.

But that afternoon, the meeting, as expected, plunges, roller coasters, veers out scarily into unexplored territory. There’s a little bit of vertigo involved for Kim.

She kicks herself until,  just before she leaves work, the colleague comes in, with shining eyes and a new idea, and Kim’s heart leaps at the transformation. It might not be the clear and tidy road she wanted to take, but her goals will be accomplished, and a talented person will feel worthwhile and needed on the way.

****************

There’s Sherri, too, of course.

She’s exhausted, Sherri is, and what she could use right now is a glass of white wine, a chance to take off these god-awful shoes, and thirty minutes of quiet before the race to dinner begins. Her neck is one great knot, and the parting shot from her supervisor doesn’t help her mood.

She’s jonesing for a momentarily empty house and a chance to pull herself away from the teetering abyss.  And then she sees her married daughter’s car in the drive.

Sherri pulls in and sits, just for a moment, just gearing up. And then she turns her key and hefts her bag and heads inside to where her daughter waits, turning slowly as she hears her mother at the door. And Sherri sees tears standing in that baby’s eyes–her baby even though she’s thirty-four–and she can’t tell right now if those are joyful tears or desperate ones, but she does the only thing her mother’s heart will allow her to do. She opens up her arms, and her baby girl flies into them.

And they will talk and cry and whisper plans, and never will the daughter know her mother’s stress or need. Sherri will be present and her love will never falter.

Her only concession will be the kicking off of shoes.

************

There is Liz’s chocolate cake.

The chocolate cake was wonderful; they have all enjoyed it. It’s a recipe she’ll use again, dark and moist and rich, and the frosting…worth the extra effort of simmering and fussing. Reminds her, it does, of the fudge they used to make every year when the Wizard of Oz was on TV, an annual event, a once a year treat. So this cakes tastes like right-now-goodness with a hefty dash of happy history added.

Everyone had had two pieces after dinner; they couldn’t resist. There was just one small corner left, and now that the house was settling, steps slowing overhead, bed-springs creaking, dog sighing…now she is going to get herself a glass of milk and sit at the table with her book. And she is going to just sit and savor, both the quiet end of day and the last morsel of delicious cake.

Then her husband materializes in the door, his face etched with all the worries of the day. He strokes the foolish dog’s silky head, he takes the lumbering beast out for her final evening venture, and then he comes back in to where his wife waits, with the one little piece of cake, and with two glasses of milk and two dessert forks.

************
Oh, Dell thinks, what is generosity? Is it the giving of donations with fanfare and hoopla (an act that is certainly meaningful and necessary to many important issues and initiatives)? Or is it the quiet giving of self? Is it the relinquishment of tidy control for messy sharing and growth? Is it, maybe, the setting aside of personal troubles to listen to the worries of another?

Is it thoughtfulness undertaken in the quiet of the night, undertaken and dispensed in anonymous form?

The season of thanks approaches, when we are grateful for generous gifts. And, as the crowd politely claps a final time and begins to disperse back to their busy work days, Dell’s thinking the best of those gifts are the last to be recognized.

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Another Ordinary Day

But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.    

Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise”

 

It’s really, really early, and I’m so bleary I have to check the date on my phone. I pull the loose-leaf page toward me, pick up my Pentel RSVP pen, and I write Tuesday, May 10, 2016.  Then I sit back and sip my coffee and look at the date I’ve written. It seems, somehow, significant.

Is today a special day?

I wrack my mind.  Not, I think, my parents’ anniversary–that was last week, I’m pretty sure.  Not my nephews’ birthdays–Jason’s is tomorrow, Zack’s on the 15th. I page through the ‘Dates to Remember’ section in the old address book.

I get nothin’.

May 10th: just an ordinary day.

I yawn and stretch, struggling to wake up: I am out of bed at 5 AM now, or a bit before. My workplace has gone to a four/ten-hour day schedule, and my arrival time is two hours earlier than it used to be.  So I am adjusting, and I am a little slower waking up on this ordinary morning, in this ordinary day.

It comes to me that someone else–someone I don’t even know–is up, somewhere,  too, pacing and excited. She’s wound up because for her, this is far from an ordinary day.  I can see her, suddenly: a young woman, a new graduate of a two-year school, I think, who starts her job today.  My first ‘pantyhose job,’ she’d laughed when she called to tell her mother the good news. All her other jobs have been food-service, supermarket, grease-stained jobs.  She earned this position by her return to school, by her amassing of skills. Doors she didn’t even know were there have opened in her mind.

And job doors have opened, too.  She is thrilled.

She is terrified.

Her new boss is really nice.  And she’ll have her own office–a cubicle, really, but she will bring in flowers, an inspirational sign…

Her mother has framed a photo for her office. It’s a picture of herself, aged seven years, playing “work” at the dining room table.  She has a pile of papers in front of her.  She has been scrawling nonsensical phrases across each sheet and creating stacks.

“There’s a lot of paperwork in my business,” she famously told her father, the photographer. In the photo, she’s frozen in the act of speaking to him sternly, eyebrows drawn together, right hand flung over her hand.  Pencil brandished. Her head: a mass of errant curls.

A funny, perfect photo. And her mother is both proud and aching–she is letting go so her daughter can head down a path where she can’t ever follow.

***********

Another woman awakens, somewhere else, but stays flattened in her bed, weary before the day even begins. She’s negotiating.  Give me just today, she wheedles the beast that eats her from within.  Today: I’ll take a walk, I’ll mop my floor.  I’ll pick a sprig of rosemary from the pot by the back stoop. I’ll crush it between my index fingertip and my thumb.  All day long, I’ll smell rosemary on my fingers; it will surprise me.  I’ll remember roasts and soups and sauces and planting.  I will lean into normal joys.

Give me that, will you? she asks the beast, a plain, hard question. But there’s no hint or murmur of any kind of an answer.  For the thousandth time she’ll wonder why she cannot sense the thing that grows within.

************
And somewhere else, today, a woman becomes a mother, reaching out for the squalling little bundle that, all wrapped up, they come to place in her arms.

The tiny, puckered being wails, little fists flailing. “I know you,” the new mother thinks in wonder. The momma whispers a universal calming shooosh, and the baby catches the meaning like a strong spun thread, like a lifeline. Little hands stop; head turns.  Eyes lock on to the momma’s.

There is the snick of slickly oiled metal gears sliding snugly into place.  These two are bonded now, locked together, promise shared and commitment forged.  They are joined irrevocably for what will no doubt be a crazy, crazy ride.

**************
But another woman, today, holds her husband’s hand.  They sit in soft gray chairs in a plush private office.  They watch the doctor shake her head.

This woman feels a burning brick drop to the very pit of her, drop to flatten that wasted, empty womb.

She cannot look at David.  She cannot even cry. Her mind is blear and empty, a uselessly shiny black orb, like those old magic eightball games kids once used to tell fortunes. Just one word floats to the surface, taps gently against the watery screen, demands to be read. It is despair.

***************

And here is someone who doesn’t have to go to work today–who can’t, in fact, go back to that job, that world she’d inhabited for, yea, these many years.  That place into which she has poured so much energy and love: it’s closed to her now.

She’s been let go. Her professional email has been shut off, her office phone unplugged.  She has cleaned out 15 years worth of professional accumulation.  Boxes, thickly taped, surround her bed.  It’s the only place she could find to put them in her tiny house–the tiny house she has to figure out, now, how to pay for.

It’s all too much, too new, too raw, and she thinks she might as well just go on and sleep for another three hours. What the hell?  Why not stay in bed all day? 

Then the dog whimpers and the cell phone chirps and she knows, wearily, that she has to drag herself up to slog through the long and empty day.

***************
Somewhere today a hiker crests a hill and moves aside a leafy branch and gasps.  There’s glory spread out before her, a scene she will not ever forget. In this moment, her senses widely open, the reality of joy and beauty tumble strong within her.

And somewhere else a woman mindlessly cradles an injured, dirt-crusted child, trying–she doesn’t remember why it matters–to find help.  Is it so important that this child should live?  Is it even, in all of this mess, wise?  She can’t be bothered by existential questions.  She just needs to forge ahead, follow the path before her, navigate the battle zone that is her everyday.

And somewhere a new puppy yips, and a child laughs as the warm little being squirms to lick her face.  Somewhere a widow chews the rest of her lipstick off, reaching out to take the neatly folded flag.  Her son–God! she thinks, my son is an old man himself!–takes hold of her arm firmly.

Somewhere a step van pulls up to remove the stained furniture they can no longer pay for.

Somewhere else, in the very moment I write this, two people fall in love.

And everywhere–all over the damned place–people eat and talk and squabble.  They nudge each other away from the toaster:

Give me the butter. 

I’ve got to run.

Did you call the cable?

You gonna leave those dishes in the sink?

**********

An ordinary day, a common clay bead on a long, long string of them: the kind of bead that creates a calm setting for the ones that stand out. Those stand-out beads shout beauty and outrageous glee, or they are hammered, whimpering, into a different shape–they are uncommon, intervening, thread-changing beads that only show up on this predictable, regular string once in a very great while.

Thank God, for the common clay, I think; thank God.  Thank God for this time of calm, of dull, of same old / same old. For I know the other days will come.  There will be glowing days; there will be days that gut-smack me, bruise me in their grasp, threaten to suck the singing from my soul.

Some day, the poet tells us, someday it will be different.  And I pick my pen back up to write, and I think: God willing, today will be a ‘same day,’ and I will take the time to live in and appreciate it.

Today’s May 10th, I write, an ordinary day.

All that I have are these…

Photos

“Awwww,” colleagues say when they ask me what I am doing on my vacation. I tell them I’ll be cleaning my neglected, cluttered house, and they look sad.

I compose my face in lines of resignation and nod, slowly.  Ah yes: what a martyr I am!

They squeeze my shoulder.

I sigh.

Then, on Friday evening, I pack up my desk, gleeful.  My sparkling little secret is that, when time and energy are in confluence, I LOVE cleaning.  I love the feeling of creating order, of restoring things dulled by time and dust to their original glow.

I go home, and the boys and I grill dinner; we watch four episodes of Dinners, Drive-Ins, and Dives together, and then I grab my book and trundle off to bed.  The next morning, I wake up in full cleaning mode.

********

Years ago, recently moved and in between jobs, I worked for a professional cleaning company, and I learned the technique of cleaning from the top down.  So I arm up with my Swiffer duster, new dust-catcher in place. I shoulder my bag of cleaning supplies, and I attack the ceilings in the rooms that have floors which can be mopped.  By noon, I have worked my way from cobwebs and furzy fan blades to cluttered countertops to splattered cupboard doors, and I’m wet-jetting the vacuumed tiled floors.

In the afternoon, I run errands. On Sunday, we take a family outing. But Monday morning, I’m back at it–the carpeted rooms fall one by one to my cleaning blasts.  James catches the spirit.

“Just tell me what I can do to help!” he proposes, and I am not one to let an offer like that go unanswered.  He runs up and down stairs with bags of trash and papers to recycle. He moves misplaced items to their proper niches.  He makes big piles of dirty linens disappear and returns with crisply folded clean ones.

In the afternoons, I treat him to a frappucino and a toasted stuffed pretzel at the coffee shop, where he sets up his MacBook and I open my hardcover with a blissful sigh, knowing that clear, gleaming spaces await me at home.

By Thursday we are almost done.  I am upstairs; I have flung open windows, and a fresh, cool breeze blows through.  The guest room is cleared and tucked and gleaming; Jim is putting finishing touches on his own newly organized spaces.  The master is vacuumed and tidied. The bed is made, pillows plumped, a soft, coordinated, sweet-smelling blankie folded neatly at its foot against the new November chills. I am putzing with the duster, clearing off horizontal surfaces of dressers and bedside tables. I pull open the drawer of the little table on my side of the bed and find unexpected treasure: a two inch stack of photographs with a couple of cards and a program or two thrown in.

I lift out this little stack and I look at the clock–it is 11 AM, and, for all intents and purposes, my work here is DONE.  So I close the drawer and I take the little pile of memories and I go downstairs to the dining room table.  And I plunge.

*********
There is a black-and-white photo from 1989 on top; seven school-aged  cousins  cluster on the lefthand side–photographer off kilter here, for sure.  Meg and Jessica bookend the standing boys; they both have curled bangs and big, long, permed hair. Jessica holds a fat gray and white cat (Well, hmmm: it could be orange and white for all I know, come to think of it; in this picture, everything is gray and white.) Matt, to Jessica’s left, holds up bunny ears behind her head.  Jason leans an elbow on Meg’s shoulder; Meg looks as though she is muttering under her breath.  Behind them, Ben, the tallest nephew, avoids eye contact with the camera.

In front, Tommy, signature bowl-cut intact, hugs a big old fuzzy black dog. Zack is on the other side, buzzed hair, grinning.  Zack is straddling a basketball.

They’re in a field of sorts; it is bounded by scrub trees and tall grasses, and I realize the photo must have been taken at a family picnic at my brother Dennis’s rented house in Machias, New York, when he was assistant principal at a middle school, a centralized rural school that had a name like Liberty or Freedom.  It seems to me that someone decided to be family photographer that day; they grouped all the kids together. (Where, I wonder, were Brian and Shayne?  College? Working? Out with friends?  Had Brian already moved to Chicago then?)

That unknown photographer also grouped the siblings together, and somewhere, probably neatly taped or glued into a photo album, I have  a special artifact from that picnic–the last photo, I think, taken of the five of us together.  The next time all the siblings gathered in one place it would be for Dennis’s funeral.  We would take pictures then, too, but there would only be four of us clustered, solemn and bereft.

We have pictures, too, of all the long-suffering people who’d married a sibling.  They smile in the photo, looking relaxed.  Probably best they don’t know, in that July of 1989, about all the interesting times ahead.

**********

I have drawers and cupboards full of photo albums and memory caches.  As a young girl, I loved preserving artifacts, so I have books packed with photographs, invitations, newspaper clippings, restaurant match books, and dried flowers–things gathered in my teens and early twenties.  I have books devoted to trips I took and books that detail family adventures.

We have scrapbooks that chronicle our moves–several from Whallon Street, with Matt growing up, from bowl cut to aviator glasses, from trendy teen to sailor to shaven-head daddy; Jim appears in there and grows from infant to tumbling toddler to serious-faced kid.

We have a book that shows our year in the old inn–circa 1820’s–we rented: a gracious and spacious place with a scary cistern in the basement. It was nestled in a vineyard that made Mark and Jim sneeze and wheeze for at least six months of that one year.

We have chronicles of our life on Orchard Street, in that house that embraced us, with those wonderful friends just houses away.  There, Jim learned to ride a two-wheeler, proud moment captured.  There, Mark launched into law school.

I have books from the law school years, photos that show the transformation of the house trailer we bought, an adventure in down-sizing we enjoyed and don’t want to ever do again. There are shots of Mark’s grinning classmates and their families–a wonderful, serendipitous mix of personalities that met and merged and then were flung apart after three years of intense, bonded study.

I have picture books from Mount Vernon, showing wonderful friends, amazing church adventures, a raccoon on the roof of the house on Pleasant.

So why was this jumble of pictures and mementoes stuck in a drawer?  Why this random mix of shots and moments  from all different ages and places? What was I doing with this pile of memories in my bedside table?

********

After the black and white shot of cousins, I find:

–a baptismal shot of Meg’s Mia, 2012, looking angelic in a frothy white christening gown, eyes sparkling as her head rests on a white satin pillow and she reaches for someone from the depths of a white wicker bassinet.

–a little stack of photos from my twelve-month foray (1993, maybe?) into home day care on Whallon Street. What I remember from that year–Jim was three, I think,–is being exhausted.  The pictures show picnics and parties, art projects and outings.  The kids are smiling and laughing, running and hugging.  I might not remember much, but we must have had fun.

—formal class pictures, with shiny faced students’ head shots stuck into little squares. There is one, too, of me and my colleagues from the Catholic school staff in all our eighties glory.  I linger there, remembering many who are gone.

—Miss Maddie, Shayne’s youngest, on her second birthday, hugging a blue balloon.

There are shots of workplaces, of a young Jim sitting at a vintage keyboard, of a winter scavenger hunt with a find by a railroad crossing sign–kids in knit caps and scarves forage in blowing snow. There are Christmas shots.  There’s a letter from Wendy, and a description of a an autumn hike in western New York.  There’s a program for the Picasso Effect, an exhibition of artists influenced by Pablo; that was from not so long ago in Columbus. I went to remember seeing the Picasso exhibit in Chicago with Brian.

There’s a cozy shot of Shayne, looking glamorous and snug, grinning as she curls up in an overstuffed chair, dangling one high-heeled foot over the edge. There is a photo Christmas card of Sean’s kids,–not arrived yet in that black and white shot from 1989–Sarah and Seamus and Liam, dressed as characters from Lord of the Rings, standing in front of some sort of a cave.

There are shots of our granddaughters, lovely Alyssa and kinetic Kaelyn. There is Alexander. Mark’s brother’s kids grin at the camera during a Zanghi family Christmas. There are snaps of grand-nieces and grand-nephews as they grow, year by year–Gabby, Pat, Maddie; Kirsten, Ryan, Mia; Quincie and Brennen. There is Zack’s grinning little mini-him.

**********

My mother kept, for a long, long time, a great big trunk full of photographs.  Once in a very great while, on an occasion as special and rare as the annual airing of the Wizard of Oz, she would pull out the trunk, and we would be allowed to look through the pictures.

We would carefully mull over black and white photos of unknown aunts and uncles, grandparents dead before we were born, people in quaint and antiquated clothes–photos that represented the mysteries of our past.  There were dashing young men; there were pretty women in flowered house-dresses or suits with high padded shoulders and spectator pumps. We knew some names and faces; but we never knew the actual people who sported the high lace-up boots, the skinny ties and voluminous sleeves.

Other kids had grandparents who visited.  Other kids had huge family celebrations, and other kids got cards and gifts from all their enormous extended Catholic families full of relatives.

Why didn’t we? I wondered.  Why didn’t we ever meet our long-lost aunts and uncles, our battalions of cousins?

Be careful what you wish for, muttered my father, alluding to mysterious conflicts, to long-buried events we could only imagine.  My mother said nothing.  Also in the pictures was a chronicle of the 18 month-long life of my sister Sharon, Mom’s firstborn, who died of encephalitis when my father was away in the Philippines during World War Two.

Later, when her kids grew up, and when things slowed down, my mother would put the photos in albums.  She would create collections and boxes for each of us children, which we would carry with us and augment and treasure.

But the mystery and allure of those unknown relatives stayed with me.  Perhaps that’s why I am pushed to chronicle every episode and adventure, ensuring new generations will have the facts they need.

*********
I set the photos aside to make some lunch for Jim and me, and afterwards, he has an appointment. I need to get packages to the post office; we have a little bit of shopping to do. The car needs gas.  I want to be back in time to simmer a pot of beef paprika.  I put the photos on a shelf.

The weekend dawns; we have recycling to do and people with whom we need to connect.

It is Tuesday–and I am back to work–before I get back to the photos. That evening, I examine a picture of baby Grace, my wonderful friend Teri’s baby girl.  I slide it next to the computer screen.  Teenaged Grace, on Facebook, holds a baby just about the same age she was in the photo–her brand new nephew.  Look at that–same gentle smile, fifteen years later.

I stack the photo pile, lining up edges on one side, and put it next to my computer.  I don’t know why I had gathered this particular clutch of memories–probably, they were squirreled away over months and years, with a vague, “I’ll get to these” self-promise as I slid the drawer closed and forgot them. But here they are, whyever.

I will bow to the times, and scan photos to share with the folks who grace them, or who fondly remember their subjects.  I will post some on my FaceBook page and enjoy the groans of young, respectable adults who might rather forget their big hair days, or their infant drool.  I’ll attach some to emails and connect direct.  Some, I’ll even use on my blog.

And then I’ll make a book. I have card stock and a binder that needs a purpose.  I’ll attach each item, label it as best I can–there are some photos without dates, with names missing (Who WAS that neighbor boy? I’m hoping Mark might know…) and I will place them all together, the treasures from my drawer, into a handmade book.

I think I’ll sketch a cover to decoupage onto the binder; I’m thinking of what, exactly, I can call it. Something, maybe, from Jim Croce’s lovely old song, “Photographs and Memories,”–words that show the loss, the gratitude in this month of thanksgiving, the depth of wonder, at the people and places I’ve been blessed to know.  Who knows–this random, seemingly meaningless jumble of mementoes may become my go-to memory resource.

“Photographs and memories,” sang Croce, “Christmas cards you sent to me…” and I heard the loss palpable in his voice. “All that I have are these, to remember you…”

I have these, and I have more; we all do–our memories, our continued relationships, the evidence, in grown up children, of love and conflict, supporting hands and wings grown strong enough to fly.  I have webs of connections that encompass long-lived bonds and draw in new ones. I have living memories of wonderful people passed now to another realm.  I have much to be thankful for, and much to which I look forward.

Croce was right: we sure did have a good time way back when.

And we’ll have more good times in the days–and, God willing, the years–to come.  I sort my photo treasure stack–some to scan and some to save, and some to mail away.  House cleaned, I have my gratitude project to begin.