Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Do Unto Others

Perhaps the annual ritual of raking leaves does not put one in mind of applying the Golden Rule, but I will try to persuade you otherwise. I spent the better part of the morning raking leaves. Not so unusual, you say, considering that it is autumn. True, but the leaves I was raking came mostly from my neighbors’ trees. Thus begins my annual agony of determining the best course of action—do I rake all the leaves that blow into my yard AND try to rake from my neighbors’ yards the leaves that fall from my trees, or do I rake only the leaves from my trees, wherever they may be (within reasonable reach) or do I take the course my neighbors take and rake NO leaves?

Perhaps you can sense that this annual dilemma is a source of considerable annoyance to me. While we have many trees on our small slice of suburbia, more than half of them are mature evergreens. When we moved here more some 26 years ago, we were the first residents in our house which was in a newly built neighborhood. Either there were no trees here, or all trees had been banished during construction. Since I am a tree nut, I set about planting trees. I enlisted my not-so-willing but loving husband’s help, and he tilled a row all along the back end of our property. Since that was the north and northwest corner of our property, planting trees there made perfect sense as it cut the wind that whistled down off the gentle slope hitting the back of our house full force and freezing the bedrooms in winter. I selected 14 evergreens, a mixture of Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce, Norway spruce, Austrian pine, white pine, and Japanese pine. They were all bare root stock, and I planted them about 6 feet apart—a distance that looked enormous with those little 18 inch trees struggling to grow. Well, grow they did and eventually we had to take down every other tree—fortunately what we took down were the Japanese pine which were not as attractive as they grew.

Sprinkled around our house are the hard wood trees—a pin oak, a green ash, a sunset maple, a Japanese maple that recently succumbed to some wilt, a white dogwood and a redbud. Many of these were also bare root stock. For reasons not entirely clear to me, except perhaps the genetic makeup of these trees, they tend to drop their leaves fairly early. The green ash tree thins out first, then the dogwood, with the pin oak stubbornly dropping a few leaves at a time. Finally the sunset maple drops its leaves. And I merrily rake as I go. BUT every year, after I have raked the leaves my trees drop, our yard fills up with large yellow maple leaves and spear-shaped leaves from an unidentified tree that do not come from my trees. And I begin to fume.

The topography of our yard mysteriously is tilted in such a way that all leaves blow into it. I have occasionally gently remarked to neighbors that it is curious that I have a yard full of leaves from trees I don’t have. One neighbor, several years ago, laughed and said—oh yes, we never rake our leaves, we just wait for them to blow out of our yard. AHA! I thought—I knew it. Some years, I have tried to shame neighbors into gathering their leaves by making huge conspicuous piles of leaves, just next to their yards, that they can’t possibly miss. Sometimes it works—suddenly a neighbor will appear, as I am out raking and picking up leaves, and pitch in helping ME move THEIR leaves to the curb for leaf-pickup.

In the literature course I am teaching this semester, last week we just read Robert Frost’s famous poem,
Mending Walls. Of course, I asked the students if they had read this poem before—most had. And I asked, what the most famous line is: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Then I ask, what is Frost trying to say with the poem—and of course the students repeat the famous line.

I confess that at this time of year, I long for good fences to help me have good neighbors. But, ironically, the true meaning of the poem rests in the other famous line—the opening line. Frost’s narrator, speaking very much in a Frostian voice, says “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And so, in the poem you have the tension I experience every autumn. In our neighborhood, particularly on our street, we have back yards mostly unfettered by fences. I like that. It has been my (albeit limited) experience that neighborhoods with fences are unneighborly and those without fences are very neighborly.

So, I will struggle with leaves each autumn—I will rake leaves that blow into my yard that are not from my trees. I will grit my teeth, stifle my urge to write an indignant note to each neighbor saying—do you mind, pick up your own leaves! I will do to them what I wish them to do to me.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Love & Country

No, this is not going to be a post about country music—even though love and country are two favorite themes for such.

Last night, I finished reading the next in the
No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, by Alexander McCall Smith—this particular book being called In the Company Of Cheerful Ladies. The book ends with this paragraph:

“Love—that is what redeems us, that is what makes our pain and sorrow bearable—this giving of love to others, this sharing of the heart.”

This series is set in Botswana, Africa, and features the main character, Precious Ramotswe. While there are many other novels about Africa that are far better (for example
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga), I gravitate to this series because in part it resurrects for me a view of the Africa in which I grew up.

When I was growing up in Africa, I used to attend the occasional movie at a theater in Bulawayo, and my memory is that the movies, distributed from the United States, would begin with a display of the American flag and the playing of our national anthem. I always felt a cachet of pride seeing the flag streaming in the wind. Secretly, I would think, a lone American among a theater full of white Rhodesians (remember this was in the 1950s), that’s MY country. I had a cachet of pride not unlike Precious Ramotswe’s strong feelings for Botswana.

I reflect with rue how times have changed for me. These days, when I attend an event where the national
anthem is played and the flag is displayed, I am almost overwhelmed with shame. Yes, the United States is still a great country, and I still do love this country, but I am so ashamed of our bullying stance in the world. If we decide that a country should behave a certain way, why, let’s just march “over there”—wherever there is, and impose our will. A one approach to government fits all. No wonder we are increasingly reviled around the globe.

Well, what about love? The other half of this blog’s subject. Precious Ramotswe loves country and she loves the people around her. In particular, she frequently reflects on her good fortune in loving one good man. (I don’t mean to turn this blog into a comparison between me and Precious, but. . .) I have been blessed with the good fortune in loving one good man—my husband and I will celebrate our 40th anniversary a year from now. So, as I finished the book, closed it, took off my glasses, I reflected—love, that is what redeems us.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Of all the cleaning tasks I hate. . .

So I threw myself into cleaning this morning. Yes, I do my own cleaning, but oh how I hate cleaning. Admittedly once the task is done, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. Besides I can look at my work and have proof of having done something.

There was a time when I was working full time that we had one of the franchised companies come in and do cleaning. You could always tell they had been here, since the sinks were wiped off and you could see the fan pattern on the carpet indicating they had vacuumed. When I no longer worked full time, it seemed like such a waste of money. Then I read
Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America. As part of her experiment with working in jobs that did not require an education to perform, she cleaned for just one of those franchised companies that we had used. Maybe even the same one. Her experiences were a revelation to me.

Among other things she revealed, she indicated that these companies do not use real cleaning agents. They “scrub” sinks but use not much more than water that they spray. The wonderful fan pattern on the carpet is a signature way the employees are taught to do as the last thing, so that no footprints mark the carpet and the customer has visible proof of cleaning. But, as far as actually cleaning goes, she points out they do little.

Perhaps far more disturbing was the way that these workers are treated. They receive something akin to day wages. So if they are sick and unable to work, they do not get paid. Ehrenreich recounted one sad occurrence when a co-worker of hers twisted her ankle. It was obviously badly sprained, but the woman persisted in her work. She pleaded with Ehrenreich, her working partner, not to tell anyone so she could keep working. Particularly she begged that her boyfriend not be told because he would be angry at her for being clumsy. When it was apparent that the injury was very serious, Ehrenreich took the woman to the doctor and paid for the care herself. Obviously, not only were these employees the equivalent of day laborers but they also had no health insurance.

Of all the cleaning tasks, the one I loathe the most is cleaning toilets. The only factor that redeems this task for me is a story about Gandhi. Among the goals that Gandhi had in his amazing life was to rid India of the odious
caste system. At the bottom of the caste system was the so-called untouchable. The jobs that fell to the untouchables were those tasks that others found so distasteful because it defiled their ritual purity, such as handling dead bodies, animal or human, tanning leather, collecting garbage and cleaning up animal and human waste.

At Gandhi’s ashram, he had decreed that there would be no private toilets, and that all the residents had to share public toilets. Further, he decreed that everyone had to empty the toilet buckets. He was using the issue of cleaning public toilets as a kind of object lesson, since in part the status of the untouchables as outcaste at the bottom of the system was reinforced by their obligation to clean public toilets. Gandhi set the model. Not only did he take the lead in carrying the buckets to the fields for emptying, but he insisted that everyone share in the task. When one resident at the ashram, who was from the Brahmin class, protested, the following exchange occurred:

Then he (the Brahmin) sought an excuse. "I hold a doctorate from the London School of Economics," he argued. "I am capable of doing great things. Why do you waste my time and talents on cleaning toilets?"
Gandhi replied: "I know of your capacity to do great things but I have yet to discover your capacity to do little things. So, if you wish to seek my guidance and blessings you will have to observe all the rules of the ashram."
from the
recollections of Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson.

Well, I don’t plan on moving to any ashram, and I am not certain I have learned the lesson of humility that such an exchange must have brought about in the Brahmin. But, I remind myself as I clean, bathrooms and all, that first I am not a day laborer bereft of health insurance, nor am I so proud that I would put myself above Gandhi.

Oh, yes, and the house sparkles!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

That’s Entertainment

For no apparent reason, the other day I began humming to myself “Skeeters am a-humming on the honeysuckle vine. . .” Yes, those are actually words to a song. The song, Kentucky Babe, is one I grew up hearing my father sing to me. Now, I don’t know what stimulus prompted me to recall that old (and I mean old—the song was written in 1896!) song, but it got me to thinking how much what we consider entertainment has changed.

Along with that song, my father sang me quite a few others with equally quaint lyrics:
Mairzy Doats, Lonely Little Petunia, and other 1890s gems. Our family was a singing family—as we drove around to various churches while my parents were home from their mission work, we could tune up and sing a favorite hymn. We had four part harmony pretty well covered: my mother sang soprano, I sang alto, my brother tenor, and my father bass (sorry, Denise, you weren’t born yet).

Home entertainment a century before these family hymn sings might have consisted of family and friends getting together to play concerts. Not everyone was concert worthy, but many people played instruments and gathered for an evening of music. When my husband and I honeymooned in
Williamsburg, Virginia, one of the events we delighted in attending was a musical concert in the Governor’s mansion. There in the formal ballroom was a group of musicians playing period instruments of the 18th century. The sound was not pristine, but the candlelight and intimate setting made it a wonderful evening of entertainment.

Back to the lonely little petunia song. When my daughter was in fifth grade, she enjoyed a visit from her best friend from third grade. Her friend had moved away from central Pennsylvania at the end of third grade, going literally across country to the west coast. Two summers later, she returned to central Pennsylvania to visit with some family friends, and spend some time with us.

Our daughter decided she wanted to do something really special while her friend was visiting, and asked if the two girls could spend a night in a local bed and breakfast. Rather than just spring this idea on the proprietress of the place, we stopped by in advance to make sure that would be acceptable. The woman showed us all over the large Victorian house, stopping last in a formal parlor. There sat an old Victrola. Our daughter looked at it quizzically and said—what’s that. Well, the woman said, that is what we used for entertainment, and proceeded to wind it up. Then she set the needle down on an old record, and out came the music to “Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch.” Our daughter listened for about a half minute, wrinkled up her nose and said: “You call THAT entertainment?”

Yes, that was entertainment!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Living in a Land of Excess

In a prior blog I referenced George Carlin’s brilliant routine on Stuff. When I use that essay in one of my classes at the community college where I teach, I frequently get these blank stares when I ask students—why do we have all this “stuff”? It is easy for them to jot down a list of the stuff they own, but they are challenged when it comes to putting forth a reasonable explanation of WHY.

Our present national obsession with more and more acquisition really troubles me. We are no longer satisfied with the type of houses that dominated the housing boom post-World War II. Now, mega-mansions spring up, replacing the 2,000 to 3,000 square foot homes with ones that are 11,000 square feet. Our houses must be bigger, our cars ever expanding (witness the obscene Hummers), and our meals super-sized. It is no surprise that our bodies are expanding, resulting in increased sizing of everything needed to hold us, including eventually caskets! That’s right—there is now a line of larger caskets to hold the super-sized deceased.

Growing up in a church with Anabaptist roots, I came to appreciate the emphasis on simplicity in living. One of the visionary thinkers in this regard was Doris Janzen Longacre, who compiled the book
Living more with less . Published more than 25 years ago, this book is a collection of tips on how to live more frugally and simply. It is also much more than that—in many of the examples, we Americans are challenged by the ways in which people in emerging countries value things we take for granted. One particular example I recall is that of a woman who had lived in a country where people did not throw away envelopes in which the mail came. Rather, they carefully sliced the envelope open, so it would lie flat and provide a new sheet of paper ready to receive whatever needed to be written. I think of that example as I contend with the daily mail we receive, much of it uninvited.

The church I attend (
Market Square Presbyterian Church) houses an international service center. When this work first began, it was founded by Vietnamese refugees who helped their fellow country folk resettle in this country after the close of the Vietnam "conflict." During a recent renovation of our church, their offices were moved. To accomplish the move, the office staff for this center needed to dispose of used electronic equipment that had been donated. The result was a wrenching experience, since having done “without” for so long, they were loathe to part with equipment, even though these machines no longer worked. Contrast this approach to the easy disposable society most of us live in.

Several years ago, I heard the late senator Paul Simon speak at a Presbyterian conference. He challenged attendees to think about producing annual reports that included a Matthew 25 report. Senator Simon thought that every church should be able to report what we had done during any given year to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned. When we become so focused on “stuff” that we lose sight of the least of these, then we have surely lost our souls.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Family Matters

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

So begins Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. While I don’t necessarily ascribe to Tolstoy’s prescriptive definition of family, it is most interesting to ponder—the Family.

We all have one—oh, maybe not the cookie cutter nuclear family of mother, father, and two children type, but at the very least, we all began somewhere.

I think about my own family. Obviously, as someone who is married with children, I have created my own family circle with my husband, our son and daughter, and their respective partners. Naturally (that’s what I think—but I realize how fortunate this circumstance is) I came from a family—a loving home with my mother and father and two siblings.

What an irony that as a nation we are engaged in an unseemly squabble over the definition of family. Political parties vie to see who can co-opt the term “family.” Family really can mean many things. It does not take Ozzie and Harriet Nelson to create family.

I have an aunt who never married, based on her own choice and the direction that her life took. To say she does not have a family is to completely mis-state her present situation. For a long time she lived in Manhattan, and there she had a close circle of friends. Together these people created a family, sharing lives, meals, spending holiday time together. As someone who was not married, she had no children of her own. However, she has nurtured nieces and nephews (including me). She has become a grandmother in her current neighborhood. When nearby neighbors had twins, my aunt was pulled in to help provide an extra set of arms to hold, hands to care for these girls. She is now their beloved “nana”—not a grandmother in flesh, but certainly in spirit and bonding.

In Robert Frost’s poem
“The Death of Hired Man” two characters named Warren and Mary, a husband and wife, talk about a hired man who has returned “home” to die. While their conversation revolves in part around a definition of “home” some of what they say makes me think of family:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.”

“I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Several years ago, I read Sue Monk Kidd’s
Secret Life of Bees. This wonderful novel tells the story of Lily Owen, a young white teen struggling with an abusive father. She fixates on her dead mother, and sets off on a quest to unravel a family secret. In the process, she discovers a family—made up of three black sisters, who enfold her in their circle of caring.

While I was reading this novel, I attended the General Assembly of the
Presbyterian Church (USA) in Denver, Colorado. During that meeting, a Presbyterian study document on family was presented for our consideration. It was eventually returned to committee because a more conservative minority report did not find the definitions of family included in the document sufficiently Biblical. Perhaps I need not add that I was voting to have the document received.

Family, after all, can exist in many ways. It can exist as the birth families some of us are fortunate enough to experience; it can exist as families created out of a circle of friends and neighbors; it can even exist as strangers who take us in and nurture us in time of need.