The Silver Dollar

I remember a time, I must’ve been about six, when my family was at a company picnic for my Dad’s work. I was playing an organized game with some of the other kids. It was something about being the first to kick a ball in the center of a circle. Anyway, the prize was a silver dollar. I was already an avid coin collector, and I really wanted that silver dollar. I think the way it worked was, a pair of kids in the circle was chosen each time and they would stand in the center with a ball in between them. An adult blew a whistle and then the first one to kick the ball won that round, and the other kid was eliminated. I guess I was really “on” that day, because it was the last round, and it was down to me and a boy several years older. The whistle blew, and I thought I was the first to touch the ball with my foot, but the judge declared the boy the winner of that coveted silver dollar. I watched in dismay as the judge handed over the beautiful coin to him.

Being only six, I couldn’t contain myself. I really believed I had won, and I burst into tears and became inconsolable. In a minute or two, the boy came over to me. He smiled, and to my utter surprise and delight, slid the silver dollar into my hand. I wiped my tears away and thanked him. My misery turned to joy. I don’t know if the boy’s parents had told him to give the prize to me or if he did it on his own. But, because of the friendliness I saw in his face, I’ve always thought that it was his own doing.

What gives some people such generous hearts? We know that people sometimes give out of guilt, out of a sense of personal inadequacy, out of obligation, even out of a sense of moral superiority. But I’m talking about giving that comes from a healthy place, a healthy spirit. I think it has to do with that chalice of our being that Dag Hammarskjold and Dick Gilbert speak of. (Full Text Here) That chalice of our being that we hold out to receive, to carry and to give back.

What I mean is that I think our feelings of generosity are often linked with a sense that our cup is full. It’s a matter of perspective. There are people who spend their lives accumulating more and more material things, seeking one pleasurable experience after another, and yet who always feel a sense of lack, of something missing. And there are many who spend equal energy filling their time with unimportant, unsatisfying things, in order to escape one form or another of emotional pain or discomfort. They also are plagued with the sense that their cup is empty.

At all times and in all places the world is full of beauty and ugliness, of pleasure and pain, of abundance and lack. Sometimes it seems easier to focus on the unbeautiful, our pain, and our lack; what’s wrong instead of what’s right. But we always have the opportunity to pay attention to “the graces of life that abound,” as Dick Gilbert puts it.

As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, may we pause to truly feel the abundance in our lives. May we know that, although we don’t always get what we wanted, our cup is still always full enough to give something to someone else who is in need. May it be so.

NOTE: For those of you who were not able to be part of the service on November 20th, where I discussed the story of Thanksgiving, including Indigenous perspectives, please contact me if you’d like to receive a copy of the sermon. You’ll find my contact information listed in the UUCD directory.

“Woodstock –Fifty-five Years Later”

I recently spent a couple of days with friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Something about the pandemic, as you may have noticed, has led many of us to want to reconnect with people we haven’t been in touch with for a while. I think the pandemic has led some of us to appreciate the value of our relationships with others more, and maybe to take them less for granted. That’s the case with these friends of mine, with whom I spent a lot of time in my 20s. We reconnected and had a Zoom conversation about a year ago, texted here and there after that, and finally made arrangements for me to go up to New York State and spend a couple of nights with them at their summer house on the Delaware River.

It was a great visit. You know how it is; when you see people who you haven’t seen in a long time, you don’t know how it’s going to be. I have reconnected with people who, either they changed or I changed (or maybe both), and I found I no longer had the desire to continue to be in touch with them. These friends in New York, happily, were just as I had remembered them; warm, welcoming and caring, with the same sense of humor and liberal attitudes.

It turns out that their house is not far from Bethel, NY and the site of the famous three-day Woodstock Festival of 1967. There’s now a Woodstock museum there near the site, and we visited it while I was up there. Woodstock was such a pivotal moment in popular music and for the whole “hippie generation.” I wasn’t there, being a few years too young, but of course I had the album, which I practically memorized. In the museum, the mementoes, the visuals and the recordings relating to that weekend, plus integrated exhibits that portrayed the major events happening in our country during that era and a sampling of the trends and styles of those years, the whole mix really took us back to those times. The museum was very well done and it’s worth a stop if you’re ever in the area.

I’m not usually a nostalgic person, but as I drifted from one exhibit to the next, I found myself feeling a pang of longing for those times. And at first, I wasn’t sure exactly why. I didn’t literally want to re-live those times, which included the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement and numerous assassinations. I think it was partly that I loved the music of the era. My stage in life (my teens and 20s), the lower level of technology and a slower pace of life also made things seem simpler. And it was also a time of idealism, and renewed hope for a future society in which there was less violence and more peace and harmony.

So I think these are the things my heart was responding to. It’s easy to romanticize the past, of course, but I had that moment of cherishing some of what felt so good about those times: music that spoke to me, greater simplicity, idealism and hope. The times we live in now feel so different in many ways.

But that’s a conversation for another day.

A Wheelchair in the Woods

Several weeks ago, I had to make a quick trip to Massachusetts to take my dad to several medical appointments. A year and a half ago, he and my mom moved from Chappaquiddick Island (yes, that Chappaquiddick) to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where my sister, who lives nearby, had found them an apartment in an assisted living facility.

As any of you who are or have been caregivers well know, often this role is more demanding on one’s time and psyche than had been anticipated. My sister is doing a wonderful job caring for our parents, but her own full-time job can also be very demanding, and she asked for my help this particular week.

My trip up was unusually smooth sailing all the way, on a route that routinely includes traffic jams and/or slowdowns. Not only that, but it was one of those stellar fall days in New England, when the sky has that certain clear blue light, and the brilliant foliage absolutely glows. I thought about how my dad always loved being outdoors and especially hiking in the woods. Looking back, I think those hikes we shared when I was growing up were times when we felt like kindred spirits. He would have appreciated seeing what I was seeing.

With that thought lingering in the back of my mind, I took my father to the first of two appointments at the hospital. He was finished at about 10:30 am, and I had to take him back 4 hours later for part two of the test he was having. It was a bit of a drive back to his place, so I thought about what else we could do. It was another gorgeous fall day at the peak of the season, and I had the idea of looking for a park or someplace where he could enjoy the day. My dad, who’s 92, now uses a wheelchair, so we weren’t about to go on a hike, but I thought maybe even sitting in the car and looking at the foliage might lift his spirits.

As you know, he and my mom lost their only son, my brother, at the beginning of October, and although my dad was doing his best, his heart was broken. When I searched for “parks near me” on my cellphone, a series of serendipitous events began. It turned out there was a Trustees of Reservations property less than two miles from the hospital. This piqued my dad’s interest, because he had been a volunteer and big supporter of this same organization on Martha’s Vineyard. We pulled into the parking lot, which was surrounded by tall trees and fall foliage in reds and golds against the vivid blue sky.

When I asked if he wanted me to push him around in the parking lot, he said, “sure.” Now, the wheelchair in the back of my car was one with tiny wheels, not much good, really, for more than going from car to building and back; its only advantage is that it’s lightweight enough to get in and out of the car. But I pushed him around the parking lot until we got to the head of a gravel trail that went into the woods. I was dubious about the wheelchair’s ability to make it on anything other than pavement, and, although I tried, we soon turned around.

There were three women gathered near the head of the trail, chatting with one another, and when they saw us, one of them mentioned that the Trustees had literally just gotten a grant for several trail wheelchairs, and that if we could find a staff person, we could probably use one. My dad was game, and we headed over to the staff parking lot area to see if we could find anyone to ask about it. The lot was empty, except for a young woman emerging from her car, and I asked her if she would happen to know anything about the new trail wheelchairs. She replied, “You’re asking the right person, because I’m the one who wrote the grant!” Within minutes, my dad was sitting in an impressive racecar-red rig with knobby tires, ready to go. In the photo I took, he looks happier than I’ve seen him in months.

My dad and I did a mile and a half circuit through the woods. About halfway along, as I pointed out beautiful trees and plants and other points of interest, he said to me, “You know, I feel invigorated, and I’m not even the one who’s getting the exercise!” The exquisiteness of the beauty all around us had put me in a state of awe, and then he said that, and I got choked up. And I think he got choked up, too, because we knew we both were feeling the same thing, a moment of deep connection with the beauty of nature and with each other.

I reflected on how rare it has been for my dad to experience a sense of awe. He was heartbroken at having to leave the Vineyard, in part because he was awed every single day, with breath-taking natural landscapes and coastal views at every turn. Now, I felt the enormity of his loss, because I suspect he has had very few of those nature-inspired moments since moving to the interior world of assisted living.

How spiritually debilitating these assisted-living communities can be, where most people spend almost all their time indoors. I’ve become so aware of how much we need awe in our everyday lives to feel truly alive. It’s no wonder that residents typically decline dramatically after moving in. As sad as this makes me, I feel powerless to change the circumstances of the untold numbers of people who must live in this sort of environment. But I was able to do one small thing. I was able to give my dad a few hours with his oldest daughter, where, with him riding and me pushing, we could still share in our appreciation of nature’s splendor as kindred spirits. Whether or not my dad still thinks of that day, it’s a memory that I will treasure for a long time.

Joe and the Italian Ice

Some years ago, my then-spouse, Dave, and I visited an Italian ice shop in Middletown, CT. We had heard about this place. Stepping inside was like stepping back in time about 50 years. It appeared that very little had changed in this place since the ‘50s, from the immaculate black-and-white checked linoleum floor to the gleaming stainless-steel chest freezers against the wall. After a moment, a short, bald, elderly man appeared behind the counter. He put on a white, sailor-style ice-cream server’s hat, made of paper. It had the name “Joe” written in Magic Marker on one side.

Adjusting it carefully, he announced, with a discernible Italian accent, “OK, now I’m ready.”

“Hi, Joe,” Dave said. “You had to get your cap on first, huh?”

“Yeah, I was out back raking leaves,” he said, shaking his head. “You know, it’s funny this time of year. The leaves are coming down, but they’re not even turning yet. They’re still green.

“But I gotta get them raked up,” he added earnestly.

He explained in great detail the temperamental drainage situation in the yard behind the shop, and how if leaves clogged the drain out there, the whole shop might flood.

Finally, as if suddenly remembering why we were there, he waved his arm dismissively toward his raking project and said, “So, anyway, here I am, going on, when I could be serving you!”

Yes, he was “going on,” and we were looking forward to our homemade Italian ices, but when I looked over at Dave, his eyes were twinkling, and I had a smile on my own face. When, at last, we got what we had come for (in white cone-shaped paper cups, naturally), I thought about why my heart felt so warm, even though my head was on the verge of brain-freeze from eating the ice too fast.

There was something about the way Joe had talked with us, as if we were not strangers, that almost made me wonder if he had us confused with some other couple he knew. But I suspect he probably related to all his customers that way. He just assumed you’d be interested in hearing about his life, and somehow you were. In his naturally open way of being, he invited us into his life, and we accepted.

But it wasn’t all about him. He also took obvious pride in the way he served his customers. It seemed to be important to him to serve them with genuine courtesy and caring. While times have changed, Joe was undoubtedly operating by the same values he had held since he first opened the shop half a century ago.

Reflecting on this event from 20 years ago, there are several things that stand out. First, long-standing, independently-owned small businesses are becoming rare treasures. And, in the case of Joe, what a fine example of treating customers with genuine friendliness, caring and courtesy. This brings me to the third thing. And that is, encounters with strangers.

More than two decades ago, the Quaker author and speaker Parker Palmer began writing about the importance of the public sphere, where we regularly come in contact with people we don’t know as we go about our daily lives. He gave as examples the longstanding traditions of public squares and outdoor markets. And he lamented Americans’ withdrawal more and more into the private sphere, because it’s a loss of an aspect of our humanity. In our modern world, we’ve seen those opportunities for interactions with strangers dwindle, with self-checkouts at chain stores, online banking and other human-less ways of doing business. What I have observed is that the less we occupy the public sphere, the more distrustful and fearful we seem to become toward those we don’t know. And friendliness and courtesy are sometimes in short supply.

Which means, encounters with strangers are important. And so, I’d like to invite us to swim against the current. I invite us to look for more opportunities to practice engaging with the stranger, to make those small but often meaningful connections, to sincerely thank someone for their service, to rejoice together about the beauty of the day. Those brief encounters remind us of our common humanity, in all our joys and our struggles. Like that exchange with Joe the Italian ice man, those connections can warm hearts and spirits. What a difference they can make, both for ourselves and for those lives we touch, even if only for a moment. We never know when our kindness and a moment of genuine connection might be the highlight of someone’s day.

Life’s Transitions – Living in the Goo

In her book, Trusting Change, author and UU minister Karen Hering writes about goo. Yes, goo. Rev. Hering gave a sermon to her colleagues last June at Ministry Days, which take place each year right before General Assembly. She told us how, in the span of a single week, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and her father went into hospice and died. In this sermon and in her book, she describes the metamorphosis of a monarch from caterpillar to a butterfly in greater detail than I’ve ever heard before.

She explains:
“Protected by the chrysalis, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes that break down all shape and form –caterpillar legs, eyes, mouth, its whole caterpillar way of being. It becomes a mass of goo, a thick soup cooking up something new. Only a few parts of the caterpillar will not be consumed: latent imaginal discs, a set of highly organized cells embedded from the beginning that contain everything needed for the change that lies ahead.”

Most of us know what it is like to live in a time of goo. For some of us, it seems that, like the monarch in the chrysalis, we are always in the midst of one major transition after another. Others of us have known stability in our lives, only to have it suddenly dissolve into a shapeless gooey mass. A sudden job loss, the ending of an important relationship, an unexpected death, or some other heart-stopping news.

In the short bio I wrote last August to introduce myself to all of you, I didn’t, obviously, include all of the details. I was divorced for the third (and final!) time this past March, something I hadn’t expected. If you’ve ever experienced having your sense of stability suddenly dissolve (and I know some of you have), you know what it’s like. The shock, and then the gradual acceptance, and then the moving forward with all the decisions that have to be made.

But then, we realize that, even when we think we’ve gone from goo to butterfly, there’s more goo. In the case of a divorce, often we lose not only the partner and the good parts of that relationship, but we also lose our relationships with that entire family. And we lose our home. And we lose our neighbors. In my case, there were a dozen beloved neighbors, only a few whom I’ve seen since my move from Bethlehem to Emmaus.

All of us, to some extent, are living in the goo. Rev. Karen acknowledges the tremors of change that have been affecting us all: “pandemic and insurrection, hate crimes and gun violence, climate change and border surveillance.” We are all living on the threshold of change.

For me, my spiritual practices of mindfulness and meditation are what keep me centered in my daily life, despite the challenges and changes –all the goo!— in my life and all around me. It’s said that fear and faith can’t live in the same house. We all feel fear at times, but it’s important not to let ourselves get stuck there. I always have faith that I will be OK, and that I’ll have the courage to face whatever comes my way. I acknowledge the presence of a higher power in my life, an overarching spirit of Love and Life, that will always be there to guide me with its wisdom. I feel deep inside me that I am living my best life ever. Like the imaginal discs in the goo of metamorphosis, I trust that I have contained in me all I will need for the changes that lie ahead. What are the practices that help you in these times?