Tag Archives: acts of kindness

Contemplating Christmas without the crocodile

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I was over visiting Ms MPB today, reading her latest post, and it got me to thinking about gifts. She was pondering the changes that a baby would bring to her life, and one of the questions she asked was, “Will adoption make the rest of our lives messy?” Further down, in the comments, she commented on how much she dreaded having toys, especially plastic ones, all over the house.

After I’d done laughing, shaking my head, and murmuring, “Oh, honey, you have no idea how messy your life will become!” I found myself pondering the the stuff and clutter in my own life, and gifts given and received over the years, and which ones worked and why. It’s getting to be that time of year, people – Christmas is 101 days away, according to a nifty little countdown I have on my phone, and pretty soon the Crocodile of Christmas Present will jump up and grab you. We’ll need to have our wits about us to hold back the flood of cluttering Stuff – because if you don’t, it will suck you under, roll you over, and rip up the decomposing remains of your life just like a crocodile with its prey.

Well, you don’t have to be crocodile food or retail fodder. You can choose to break the cycle.

The thing about gifts for kids is, we’re always tempted by the Latest Shiny Thing – and the kids in our lives want it too. Oh boy, how they want it! They don’t just want it – they neeeeeed it to give meaning and fulfillment to their lives … right up until the day after Christmas. Or maybe it’ll last into the new year, if you’re lucky. But, guaranteed, the day they learn what their friends got, they’ll be dazzled and smitten by the Next Shiny Thing.

I rarely had much spare money when I was raising the Girl Child. Except for a few short years before the bank took it back, we didn’t ever live in a house we owned, and space was always limited. When she was very young she played mostly with the contents of my lower kitchen cupboards – pots and pans (delightful to thump with a spoon), plastic containers (they stack! They nest! You can put things in them and pour!), canned goods (they make towers and then they fall down and roll all over the floor, and sometimes make Mommy scream!) She had other people who loved her, though, so she accumulated some good stuff. She learned at an early age to entertain herself … and I learned, when I wanted to sleep late, to do so in a bed full of Lego.

But mostly I gave her intangibles. There was her own special china cup as soon as she graduated from a sippy cup, and for her third birthday her very first pillow in a bright yellow cover. (When I gave it to her, after several months of nagging, she exclaimed, “Oh! My pillow!” and hugged it tight. Some 20 years later I restuffed it with down off wild ducks Himself had shot, and she told me during her recent visit that she still had it, although it’s now a dog bed.) I know a cup and a pillow are tangible objects, but the real gift was the “You’re old enough for this now”. That’s a gift that lasts, because it’s not about the thing, it’s about the moment and the memory.

When she turned four I had a business trip that coincided with her birthday, so I gave her her first airplane trip, and she stayed with a friend while I was working. And the year she got her first bike, we packaged it in an enormous box. When we called her into the living room to open her gift she ripped off the paper then stopped, stared, and exclaimed, “A BOX!” because what could be better to play house in?

Best Christmas gift EVAH!

I got a robot instead of a baby. Perfect!

Himself and I have become pretty casual about gifts over the years. Last year I went all Fifties Housewife on him and requested a vacuum cleaner. This year it’s a replacement for my sick and sorry laptop. In both cases, I said, “Honey, what I’d really like for Christmas is…” and he ordered it a couple days later. The man has no self-control – he can no more wait for Christmas or a birthday to roll around than ignore that thumping noise in the left rear car tire.

He has surprised me only twice. When I married him there was no money for a diamond ring, so I told him that if I put up with him for 10 years he could give me diamonds then. Instead, he gave me a doberman. And then there was the birthday (I forget which, but it was one that made me grumpy and sorry for myself) that he kept asking, “Would you like your present now?” and I kept growling that no, I was busy. Eventually, near bedtime, I pulled myself together and mopily said I was ready. It was actually gift wrapped! I took off the wrap, and it was a beautiful jewelry box! “How lovely!” I exclaimed, while privately wondering why he’d give a jewelry box to someone who owned only junk jewelry. I opened it and … the box contained a string of pearls. No one had ever before given me anything so completely impractical and pretty. I am not someone who wears pearls. I don’t live a lifestyle, or in a place, that ever calls for pearls. But oh, how I love them! I wear them under my tees and sweatshirts while cleaning up after horses and dogs, and they’re like a secret between me and my skin.

By contrast, I love surprises, and although I’m hopeless at keeping secrets I’ve managed to surprise Himself a couple times. There was the year that he was grumpy the whole day of his birthday. I told him I’d give him his present when he came to bed (no, it’s okay, this is not where I over-share!) and he kept me waiting 45 minutes while he poked around reading the news online before finally stomping upstairs, to find me passed out and wearing nothing but a Stetson. (Oh calm down! The gift was the Stetson! This is not that kind of blog!)

Another time I gave him his gift before I got out of bed. He removed the gift wrap from a small box of shotgun shells, smiled awkwardly, kissed me, and said, “Thank you, honey … only … these won’t work in my shotgun.” I smiled coyly, reached under the sheet, and drew out the fancy new shotgun his best friend had told me to buy. “Well, will they work in this?” I asked.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is, it’s okay to buy stuff and get stuff. Giving and unwrapping presents can be tremendous fun! But let’s not get dragged under by the Jolly Crocodile, okay? I think the worst, most dehumanizing insult the world dishes out to us these days is to call us “consumers”. I don’t know about you, but I am so much more than a consumer! I’m a maker, a doer, a dreamer and a rememberer. I’m a lover, a player of games, a friend, a defender of the vulnerable. a celebrator.

When I give gifts, they’re not just Stuff – they mean something. And if they don’t carry the same meaning to you that I placed in them, then please pass them along. Just remember the receiving of a kindness, an act of friendship. That’s really the best any of us have to give anyone.

How to help Rara

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Rara went to prison very shortly after I became aware of her, so I’ve not really followed her blog and I don’t know her. However, my heart goes out to her, and I want to help her. If you feel so inclined, please make a donation to help her.

The Monster in Your Closet

There’s this blogger whose words I’ve missed greatly while she’s been imprisoned the last year or so.

Rara has been especially prominent in my heart since I saw her at her husband’s memorial a week and a half ago.

Madame Weebles has created this GoFundMe account to help ease Rara’s imminent transition back to the world beyond prison walls, and boiled down Rara’s heartbreaking last year more succinctly than I’d have dreamed possible.

Please take a look. If you are able to set aside $5 or $10, you’d be helping “put a roof over [Rara’s] head and food on her table” in her new life as (so much more than) a widow and a felon. I’d be grateful.

Can’t send money? Not a problem. You can send her your words (and/or silly dinosaur images) of support, and would appreciate your thanks for those within the prison who’ve helped keep her going the last couple…

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When your best is not enough

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Jane

Jane

Himself and I spent most of yesterday driving around 300 miles to help a scrap of a dog get home. We were just one small part of a big effort. To get Jane from Denver, Colorado to Spokane, Washington involved 14 drivers working in relay, after hours of intensive work by the coordinator who put the project together.

It feels pretty special to be part of something like that. Yes, you can argue, “Why put so much effort into one puppy when there are so many in desperate need?” And yes, maybe, differently managed, that same amount of human love, time and energy, not to mention the cost of the gas alone, could have been directed into saving a whole lot of dogs – or whales – or children.

I heard the same argument back when I ran a mission school in South Africa. I often asked people I met to make a small donation, or maybe sponsor just one child. The cost of sponsorship was equivalent to maybe one fast food meal for four, once a month. Several times wealthy people, who routinely spent more on a single dinner out than the families I served spent on a month of eating, replied, “But what’s the point? There are so many kids like that – I can’t change anything.”

The argument is valid, but it misses the point completely. We can’t change the whole world, but anyone can touch a life. As long as you stay safely outside the war zone of life, you can think in abstract terms and pray for world peace and argue on Facebook about which political party “cares” more. But, with heartfelt apologies to the Democrats and Republicans out there, no government program will magic away poverty, and nor will setting the market free enable everyone to pursue life, liberty or happiness. There is no global solution to the problem of human failure and imperfection.

If you want the world to be better, you have to make that happen yourself, one act of kindness at a time. And I honestly believe it doesn’t matter whether you direct your kindness toward a kid or a puppy or [Insert Cause Here]. Any act – large or small – that adds to the sum total of happiness, peace and beauty in the world is worthwhile. One of the best things to happen to me this year was when I was having a rough day, dealing with physical pain and a whole lot of sadness, and the guy ahead of me in the Dutch Brothers drive-through paid for my coffee. He didn’t save the world or change my life, but he transformed that one day for me, and while he has certainly forgotten the few dollars it cost him, I still remember how good that coffee tasted, and how it warmed my heart.

Sometimes a few dollars, or a bit of time, is all it takes. Sometimes it’s more about a change of attitude. Sometimes you get to take on something big.

Sometimes it costs a whole lot more than you bargained for. I have been trying for months to write about what it was like to create a dog rescue organization, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally – just as I broke beyond repair under the strain – to hand it off to people I trusted, and then to find that my trust had been misplaced. But writing about that kept leading to what it felt like to start a school out of nothing but a gang of children, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally to break when people I trusted turned against me. I wanted to write about what it’s like for your best never to be enough, about the pain of broken trust and shattered dreams, and also about the soul-scorch of burnout.

Here’s the thing about burnout: you hold it at bay for as long as you can, because the need – whatever it is – is unrelenting. You feel the heat, you know you won’t hold out forever, but you keep going in an effort to save what you can while you can. When you finally quit, you think that at last you’re free. That’s when you find out that all that’s been holding you together is the purpose that has also been devouring you from the inside out. Rid yourself of the purpose, and whatever is left collapses upon itself.

So I wanted to write about that, but I couldn’t figure out how to do so without sounding like I was whining or – worse – looking for a pat on the head. And while that might have been the case a year or even six months ago, whines and pats are irrelevant now that I’m through the pain.

I’ve just realized that what I want to write about is the fact that sometimes the cost of kindness is so high it seems to bankrupt you – but it’s still worth it.

Don’t get me wrong: it sucks when you take on something too big, and it eats you alive and hacks you up and leaves the remnants lying in the dirt. Burnout sucks, and being disappointed or betrayed or blamed sucks, and feeling guilty and ashamed because you know your personal flaws contributed to the crash-and-burn sucks most of all.

But it doesn’t suck enough not to risk it. I believe the key to riches is to give fearlessly whenever you see a need and have the capacity to respond, no matter how little you’re able to give. A small act of kindness may be to humanity like the perfectly timed flap of a butterfly’s wing – and even if it isn’t, it will still give wings to that one moment. And if you are blessed to have the freedom and opportunity to pour yourself out, do so with a lavish hand – because that may indeed change a small corner of the world, and it will certainly transform you.

The truth – my post-burnout truth – is that there are a whole lot of alive-minded young people out there whose kids call me granny. One of them, a girl who grew up in unimaginable poverty, is a qualified and highly paid engineer who now helps support my parents. Another is a musician, some are teachers, a few are entrepreneurs. One is a single mom who occasionally needs help with her kids’ school expenses. Also, hundreds of dogs and people are happy because we brought them together, and the rescue Himself and I started is still the best in our town and doing just fine without us.

Sometimes your best just is not enough, and then failure or burnout may strike with all the devastating effect of a forest fire. But time passes, you begin to heal, and the desire to re-engage rises like sap in a young tree. And then you take a deep breath, and you do the next best thing. Maybe you can’t plunge in too deep, because you’ve grown wary and the burns still hurt. But you can buy one child a study aid, you can help out one cash-strapped shopper at the till, you can give one puppy a ride home.

I asked my husband for a vacuum cleaner for Christmas

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So it’s official: I’m a plugger. Either that or an alien has taken control of my brain.

A few weeks ago I told Himself that the one thing I truly wanted for Christmas was a Roomba. And when, two days later, he came home from Costco and plunked one down on the counter, and I didn’t see it until I was halfway through bitching at him for not telling me he was going to Costco so he could pick up the things I needed … well, I cried. Yes, really – tears of joy. And then I called all my friends to brag about how much he loved me.

Argh. I’d better check. Did we move to Stepford and I just didn’t notice? Nope, can’t be – there are still six dogs living here. That would never happen in Stepford.

And speaking of the dogs, they are the one disappointing element in this scenario. When we introduced them to Stella (yes, the Roomba has a name, and her name is Stella, long non-PC story), I was looking forward to getting some entertaining video to share on here. But apparently they are inured to my habit of adding new members to our pack. Their reaction was, essentially, “Gee, no butt. Nothing to sniff. Ho hum.”

Argh … those poor floors need refinishing. And the walls need repairing and painting. Oh well, such is the price of five years of rescue. I’ll get to it – and in the meantime at least hairballs are now history!

Shortly after bringing Stella home, Himself departed for Darkest California to spend a week with his family. In his absence, did I set up a comparative research study into local cocktail options? Did I splurge on chocolates and red wine and invite my girlfriends over to watch porn? Did I treat myself to a full body massage and facial, change my hair color, and acquire a boy toy, or even a new vibrator?

I did not. I am a Plugger. I truly couldn’t think of anything more exciting to do than to clean my floor. (Boring? Yeah, well, you try living with six large(ish) dogs. On a farm. In a wind-tunnel. In the heart of a dust bowl.) But as I pondered the logistics of this task, I worried that Stella might choke or have a seizure if I set her loose on the army of dust bunnies. She’s a tough little thing, but it was a mighty army.

Plus, as I pondered and contemplated and generally thought about matters housewifely, it occurred to me that a clean floor would look so much better if the walls, and windows, and doors, and counter-tops, and furniture, and everything else, were clean too. Because here’s the thing … We used to run a dog rescue. (I have mentioned this once or twice before.) And although we used foster homes, sometimes we had more than 20 dogs in our home. Technically, some of them lived in runs out in the barn, but Himself is a soft touch, and I insisted on giving all of them “indoor socialization time”, and the end result was, quite frankly, icky. I retired last January and I’ve been trying all year to fix the mess and damage, but even with the amazing FlyLady as my guru I couldn’t ever quite catch up.

And I thought to myself, “Himself deserves better. I deserve better. Stella deserves better, for crying out loud!” So I blew a hole bigger than the one in Kimberley through our budget to hire someone to help me clean our house. And I stayed up past midnight doing things like reorganizing the pantry.

It's important to keep things in context ... so I just want to mention that Crater Lake, in Oregon, is way bigger than the Kimberley Big Hole. The hole in our budget was nothing at all like Crater Lake.

It’s important to keep information in context … so I just want to mention that Crater Lake, in Oregon, is way bigger than the Kimberley Big Hole. No seismic event occurred here, and the hole in our budget was nothing at all like Crater Lake. That has to count for something, right?

So now, every morning when I get up to let the dogs out, I press Stella’s glowing green belly button. She chirps gleefully and sets off, humming a happy note, to tackle her mission for the day. When she’s done she puts herself away, and I empty her when I feel like it.

And here we are, just days away from hosting our Christmas Day open house for anything between five and 50 guests, and although I am feeling just the teeniest bit of urgency with regard to getting a bit of food planning, shopping and preparation done, as far as cleaning is concerned there are no emergency measures required.

Honestly, it feels just like Christmas!

Gracefully gliding to a new position

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There was no good reason for it to happen. I wasn’t driving especially fast, we don’t currently have ice or snow and the road surface wasn’t seriously wet, and no I was not talking on my cell phone. (Or texting. I’m not suicidal.) But there’s this curve in the road just before you turn off onto the gravel road leading to our house and, well, I didn’t quite make it.

So there I was, after a quite graceful slide, nose down in a ditch. We’ve had a lot of rain lately, so the tires promptly settled snugly into mud.

It looked nothing like this. (Picture from Car Talk)

It looked nothing like this. (Picture from Car Talk)

The whole situation was more embarrassing than anything else. I called Himself to bring the truck, and phoned a friend to keep myself occupied while I waited.

After a while a car drove by, slowed, then drove on. “Well phooey to you too,” I thought. But a few minutes later a car came along from the opposite direction and pulled up, and out popped one of our neighbors.

I should mention that some of our neighbors are … unsavory. We live on the outskirts of a medium-sized town, in an area where the properties range from around three to 10 acres. Some of the folk here are farmers, mostly raising cattle or hay. And then there are the others, who have lived out here since before anyone cared. One family in particular – the ones who live right where we turn off onto our private road and drive off the map – includes several felons and their wimmin and their brood, all clustered in a falling-down house, and they spend a fair amount of time (when they’re not in prison) making huge fires in their back yard and sitting around them and just being creepy. Sometimes they shoot things.

When I drive past I’ll flick a wave, just to be friendly (and by way of insurance), but what I’m actually thinking is this…

What our neighbors' house makes me think. (Pic from Dollar Photo Club)

What my brain tells me about our neighbors. (Pic from Dollar Photo Club)

So, okay, the only time I’ve ever actually seen any of them looking like that was a few years ago when I drove past just as they opened up a freshly killed steer carcass that they had strung up in their back yard. But memories like that tend to stay with you.

Anyway, the neighbor who got out of the car that pulled up next to where I was waiting, trapped in the ditch? He wasn’t one of the farmers. He came from that house.

On the other hand, he actually looked rather a lot like this…

This could be my neighbor (only this evening he didn't have a fish).

This could be my neighbor. (Only this evening he didn’t have a fish.) (Not that I saw, anyway.) (Pic from “A River Runs Through It“).

Maybe a little blonder, but that’s him, right down to the smile. And once he’d ascertained that I was okay, and didn’t need him to fetch his pickup or call an ambulance, and had verified that I was too stuck to drive out of the ditch, he just hung on out there and kept me company until Himself arrived. He told me that the person who had driven past was his wife, but she was too scared to stop so she sent him out to me instead. “She finds it pretty scary, living out here,” he commented. “I’ve lived here all my life, and I like it, being out of town.”

Then one of his buddies showed up – and ja, he was pretty stoned, but friendly and wanting to help. Soon after that Himself arrived, and the two young guys hooked the chain up to our pickup, and a few minutes later I popped out of that ditch as easy as a champagne cork coming out of a bottle.

I’ll swing by tomorrow with some steaks (I haven’t seen them butchering anything for a while) and a malva pudding. Because when you choose to live out in the boondocks, usually that’s partly because you don’t want people in your pocket all the time – but good neighbors are still worth nurturing.