The Little Girl and the Doll

Christmas morning 1952.  Light drizzle was falling as my sister Jill and I ran out of the Methodist church, eager to get home and play with the presents Santa had left for us and our baby sister Sharon. 

Across the street from the church was a Pan-American gas station where the Greyhound bus stopped.  It was closed for Christmas but I noticed a family standing outside the locked door, huddled under the narrow overhang in an attempt to keep dry.  I wondered briefly why they were there, then forgot about it as I raced to keep up with Jill. 

Once we got home, there was barely time to enjoy our presents.  We had to go off to our grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner.  As we drove down through town, I noticed the family was still there, standing outside the closed gas station.  My father was driving very slowly down the highway.  The closer we got to the turnoff for my grandparents’ house, the slower the car went. 

Suddenly my father u-turned in the middle of the road and said “I can’t stand it.”  “What?” asked my mother.  “It’s those people back there at the Pan-Am, standing in the rain.  They’ve got children.  It’s Christmas!  I can’t stand it.”

When my father pulled in to the service station, I saw there were five of them: the parents and three children – two girls and a small boy.  My father rolled down his window.  “Merry Christmas,” he said.  “Howdy,” the man replied.  He was tall – had to stoop slightly to peer in the car. 

Jill, Sharon and I stared at the other three children and they stared back at us.  “You waitin’ on the bus?” my father asked.  The man said they were.  They were going to Birmingham, where he had a brother and prospects of a job.

“Well, that bus isn’t goin’ to come along for several hours and you’re getting’ wet standing here.  Winborne’s just a couple of miles up the road.  They’ve got a shed with a cover there, some benches,” my father said.  “Why don’t you all get in the car and I’ll run you up there?”

The man thought about it for a moment, then he beckoned to his family.  They climbed into the car.  They had no luggage, only the clothes they were wearing. 

Once they were settled in, my father looked back over his shoulder and asked the children if Santa had found them yet.  Three glum faces mutely gave him his answer.  “Well, I didn’t think so,” my father said, winking at my mother, “because when I saw Santa this morning, he told me he was having trouble finding y’all, and he asked me if he could leave your toys at my house.  We’ll just go get them before I take you to the bus stop.”  And all at once, the three children’s face lit up, and they began to bounce around in the backseat, laughing and chattering. 

When we got out of the car at our house, the three children ran through the front door, straight to the toys that were spread out under our Christmas tree.  One of the girls spied Jill’s doll and immediately hugged it to her breast.  I remember that the little boy grabbed Sharon’s ball, and the other girl picked up something of mine.

All this happened a long time ago but the memory of it remains clear.  That was the Christmas when my sisters and I learned the joy of making others happy.

My mother noticed the middle child was wearing a short-sleeved dress so she gave the girl Jill’s only sweater to wear.  My father invited them to join us at our grandparents’ for Christmas dinner but the parents refused.

Back in the car on the way to Winborne, my father asked the man if he had money for bus fare.  His brother had sent tickets, the man said.  My father reached into his pocket and pulled out five dollars, which was all he had left till the next payday, and pressed the money into the man’s hand.  The man tried to give it back but my father insisted.  “It’ll be late when you get to Birmingham, and those children will be hungry before then.  Take it.  I’ve been broke before and I know what it’s like when you can’t feed your own family.”

We left them at the bus stop in Winborne.  And as we drove away, I watched out the window as long as I could, looking back at the little girl hugging her new doll.

Anonymous

 

At the Corner Store

There was an old man behind the counter – skinny, brown and eager. He greeted me like a long lost daughter, as if we both came from the same world, someplace warmer and more gracious than this cold city. I was thirsty, and alone, sick-at-heart, grief-soiled. And his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning.

Coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register, which were still and always filled with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens, back to the knobs of beef and packages of hot dogs, these familiar shelves full of potato chips and corn chips, stacked up beer boxes and an immortal Jim Beam.

I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water, and he returned my change beaming, as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees, as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow. And he was blessing me as he handed me my dime. Over the dirty counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips, this old man who didn’t speak English beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death. So when I emerged from his store, my whole cockeyed life – what a beautiful failure – glowed gold like a sunset after rain.

Frustrated city dogs were yelping in their yards, mad with passion behind chain link fences, and in the driveway of a peeling townhouse, a woman and a girl danced to contagious reggae. Praise Allah, the Buddha, Kwan Yin, Jesus, Mary and even jealous old Jehovah. For the eyes and hands of the Divine are everywhere.

Alison Luterman

We do come from the same world
May our faces light up in each other’s presence
May we be seen as everything beautiful
May we be blessed
The eyes and hands are here

Lost in TV?

Well, there’s my history … and then there’s my future.  I imagine grand unknowns up ahead.  Should they be entirely fresh or should I welcome glimpses of the past?

My dear wife Jody and I loved the TV series “Lost” – the story of plane crash survivors finding their way on an uncharted island.  We cuddled on the couch for six years (2004 – 2010), living and dying with the trials of Kate, Jack, Sawyer, Hurley, Sayid and Locke.

In recent times, long after Jody died, I’ve occasionally thought of my island friends with a wee smile.  And then it was on to the events of the day.

Two days ago, I was enjoying “Elena of Avalor” on Disney Plus.  What an amazing, good-hearted teenager Elena is!  I decided to snort around the Disney menu to see what they’d added recently. After a pleasant meandering, I clicked one more time … and there it was – all six seasons of “Lost”!

In the spirit of yielding to temptation, last night I entered the world of Season 1, Episode 1.  Oh my God!  “Hello, dear ones.”

Memories flooded, and there were moments when I knew what a character would say next.  I was cozy on the couch again.

So, Bruce, now what?  As of this moment, I’ve devoured the first three episodes.   The hooking is happening.  Trouble is, there are 117 more chapters beckoning to me.  Will the mature, forward-thinking youngish man prevail, on his way to new TV-less adventures?  Or will I succumb to the revisiting of a darned good story?

Stay tuned.

Kissing

I haven’t kissed anyone in six years.  The last time was in the wee hours of the morning on November 12, 2014.  I had awakened in Jody’s hospital room to the sound of no breathing.  My wife had died.

Will there be more kisses in my life?  I think so but I don’t know when.  What I do know is they won’t be a peck on the lips as I rush out the door.  There’s something precious about two bodies being parallel, directly facing the beloved.  And staying there, in that field of contact.

The next kiss will be sexual … and far beyond.  It won’t be two people trying to get close.  It won’t include thoughts such as “Am I doing this right?”  It will be a communion that also includes the richness of life flowing over the horizon.  It will be timeless, and moving just the same.

Namaste … the God in me sees the God in you.  Our lips linger.  And somewhere across the world, another couple smiles into each other’s eyes.

Well Done

Some years ago on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Seattle, a young Catholic priest stopped to talk to a parishioner and her five-year-old daughter Carmen.  The little girl had a new jump rope and the priest, being young, began to demonstrate the intricacies of rope jumping from his own childhood.  Delighted, Carmen began to jump – first once, then twice.  The mother and priest clapped loudly for her skill.  Eventually the little girl was able to jump quite well on her own and wandered off with her newfound skill.

Priest and mother chatted a few moments until Carmen – with sadder, wiser eyes – returned, dragging her rope.

“Mommy,” she lamented, “I can do it, but I need lots of clapping.”

Anonymous

***

How come so many people are stingy with praise?  Or perhaps never offer it?  My dear wife Jody told me years ago that her mom never gave her a compliment to her face.  Oh, she may have bragged about Jody graduating as an occupational therapist from Western University in London, Ontario.  But if so, Jody never heard those words.  Far more sadly, Jody had no memory of her mom ever saying “Goodnight” to her.  And it gets worse:  Not once did she hear “I love you.”

(Sigh)

Do we think that there’s some giant teeter totter where if I raise the other person up, that means I fall?  No, life is not a “zero sum” game.  When I hold you aloft, my toes leave the ground.

So I’m on the lookout for anyone who does anything well.  My hands are ready to come together for you.

 

Shared Unity

Jack Kornfield is a Buddhist teacher who knows all about bringing people together. The unity he fosters is not about folks crossing the gap from one separate being to another. It’s not about being a good listener or being compassionate to someone outside of yourself. The communion instead is people being immersed in the same reality, feeling as if they’re one body, pouring love to the fingertips and toes … and far beyond.

Another thing that’s really made a difference, for me and so many people who have undertaken a path of practice, is to have a place to practice and to have friends (sangha, community) because when we lose it someone else reminds us. I’ve been reminded as much by all the people who come on retreats. And the level of courage and the beauty of people’s devotion to awakening or genuineness, I see over and over again.

I’m thinking of myself being up there on retreat. There was a woman in the community whose teenaged daughter had died and she was on the retreat a year afterward over the anniversary of her daughter’s death. So it was really a tough, grief-filled time. And the day came and I talked with her. I said “Why don’t you do a little ritual? This morning while we’re sitting quietly, why don’t you go out at the time you know that your daughter died, and ring the bell 108 times – the great big bell that’s up there? It’s a traditional way of paying respects or honor. 108 is a kind of mystical or sacred number in India. It means everything included. Ring the bell 108 times in her honor.”

We’re all sitting in there meditating, and all of a sudden I hear her ringing this bell right outside the meditation hall. People have been quiet for a long, long time. She was really hitting that bell, as if the sound of it could somehow reach her daughter.

Usually we have the bells to begin or end sittings or call people together, so people were kind of wondering “What’s happening?” In the middle of the sitting, I said “The bell you’re hearing is because someone’s child has died a year ago today, and she wants to honor her.”

I heard this woman ring the bell, and everybody else was sitting there listening, with tears streaming down their cheeks, as if she was somehow needing to talk to her daughter’s spirit. Then she came back and sat with us.

Be Here Now

If you can drive safely while kissing someone
you’re simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves

Albert Einstein

I think Albert was on to something here, whether it’s about romance or doing your taxes.  We tend not to go all out, not to throw ourselves into an act with the total oomph it deserves.  But what does it mean to give 100% in the moment, rather than the tepid 50% we often manage to express?

I’m partial to kissing.  Let’s go there:

1.  Harder … More pressure:  I don’t think so.  The vacuum action doesn’t bring forth intimacy

2.  Faster:  No, it’s not a race to the finish line

3.  Wetter:  Sounds good but it ain’t necessarily so.  Slobberiness can get in the way of the connection

4.  Longer:  Now this is promising.  I wrote a few days ago about a couple’s wondrously extended kiss in an airport

We’re in the wrong territory here.  It’s not about technique, physical stamina, or the drive to make love.  Those are fine but actually the eyes know what real kissing is.  It’s the communion that lives when two people enter the same sacred reality.  The 50% approach won’t do – a brush of the lips on the way out the door, a peck on the cheek while you check your texts.  No.  Going into each other’s eyes please, and all the way through to where the loved one’s essence lies.  That’ll do nicely.

When we drive, our hands are on the wheel
When we kiss, our hearts are in each other’s hands

Who Do You See?

One package is wrinkled and troubled and old. The second is smooth and beckoning and young. But we don’t know what the packages contain. We don’t know the secret life of the inside.

I believe we need another type of vision. Can we detect the hopes and fears, sorrows and loves, that lie beneath the skin? Can we gaze upon what is truly real?

We need to. And then we need to bring each one of us into the circle of our care.

***

A family went to the restaurant. A little seven-year-old kid and his parents. The waitress goes around the table and takes their orders. She looks at the boy and says “So what is it you’d like to eat?”

“I’d like a hot dog and root beer, please.”

And his mother says “He’ll have meatloaf, mashed potatoes, carrots and a glass of milk.”

The waitress goes around, taking the other orders, and as she’s leaving the table she says “Would you like ketchup or mustard on your hot dog?”

The little boy looks up as she walks away and says “You know … she thinks I’m real.”

May I …

I figure if it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama, it’s good enough for me.  Word has it that he wakes up every morning with seven sentences on his lips.  And they all begin with “May I …”  As in there are forces here with us that are too big to see, too stunning for human beings to absorb.  May those forces align in such a way that I can contribute to the ones who need contribution.  For why else be on our dear planet?  I could become rich, famous, handsome, athletic and immensely intelligent.  So what?  All else pales before the ability and willingness to love … without hesitation, without evaluating the wisdom of such an action, without any diluting.

I’m going to print out the Dalai Lama’s words.  I commit to joining him.  I commit to the memorizing and the saying every morning for the rest of my life.  You have my word.

May I be a raft for people to cross the flood
May I be medicine for the sick
May I be food for the hungry
May I be a resting place for the weary
May I be a lamp in the darkness of ignorance
May I be an inspiration for those who have lost hope
May I do this as long as Earth and sky and suns and galaxies exist

Love Them All

Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos On The Heart, is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.  He has worked with gang kids for thirty years.  Many of the teens don’t have a family or a safe place to live, so they join a gang.  This story from Greg says it all:

I always bring a couple of homeys with me to talk, and they get up and they tell their story.  We were taking a long flight and I took a couple of homeys from different gangs.  I like to mix them up.  One of them worked at the bakery and the other worked in the store where they sell Homeboy stuff.  They had never flown.  They were terrified.  We’re looking out the window and two of the flight attendants were going up the steps with cups of Starbucks coffee and I said “Well, pretty soon it must be time to take off because they’re trying to sober up the pilot.”  I know that wasn’t fair to say to these guys but anyway they get on the plane. You gotta mess with them sometime.

We get there.  It’s a thousand people (psychologists and social workers) in this major city.  “I want you to tell your stories first, and then I’ll talk about how I work.”  And so they get there, Mario and Bobby.  They were both nervous.  Their accounts moved people very deeply because their stories were filled with violence, abandonment, abuse, torture, homelessness of every kind.  Honest to God, if their stories had been flames, you’d have to keep your distance.  Otherwise you’d get scorched.

They spoke before me, and before I presented (because I wanted to include them ) I asked if anyone there had any questions for these guys.  A woman raised her hand.  She had a question for Mario, and he started to quake, like how do I do this?  “You’re a father … you’ve been at Homeboys for nine years.  Your son and daughter are starting to reach their teenage years.  What wisdom do you impart to them?  What advice do you give them?”

Mario was silent, and trembled and closed his eyes, and blurted out “I just …”  And he couldn’t say anything more for a long time.  Finally he looked at her as if pleading and said “I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me.”  His words felt squeezed out, and his sobbing was now more pronounced.

The woman was silent.  No one said anything.  She stood up again.  Now it was her turn to cry.  She pointed to him, and her voice, quite certain through her tears, said “Mario, why wouldn’t you want your kids to turn out to be like you?  You are gentle.  You are kind.  [He was known as being a gentleman at Homeboys]  You are loving.  You are wise.”  She planted herself firmly: “I hope your kids turn out like you.”  And there wasn’t much of a pause before all one thousand attendees stood up and began to clap.  The ovation seemed to have no end.  All Mario could do was hold his face in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion.