Archive | September 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

My college graduation picture – 1970.

In 1970 I graduated from college as a newly minted English teacher. Growing up as a Midwesterner, I had never been to New England, but I thought it would be an interesting place to live, a place with lots of history and literature to discover. I didn’t know a soul out there, but I figured I’d make some friends once I got there. So, that’s where I looked for a teaching job. I found one in Plainfield, Connecticut, a small, economically depressed town – an old textile mill town – on the eastern edge of the state.

My brother, his pregnant wife, and their three-year-old daughter helped me move out there and find an apartment. But when they left, I was completely alone, knowing no one at all.

Burt and Loretta were some of the best strangers I have ever met. They had the apartment directly under mine. On day one they invited me to eat dinner with them. They oriented me to the area and asked me to join them for their frequent picnics in the state forest. They took me out on the ocean in a small fishing boat they borrowed from friends. We spent many weekend afternoons fishing. They taught me to dig for clams, and how to steam them. I learned more from them about New England ways and regional traditions than from anyone else I met in Connecticut.

Burt, Loretta, the 3 kids, and I had just enough room in a wooden 18′ fishing boat like this. We went fishing in Long Island Sound where the ocean waters were quite calm.

Burt was an American Indian, Loretta was of Mexican descent, and they had three kids under age five. Burt worked as a part-time handyman for the apartment building in exchange for their rent, and he tried to find other odd jobs for cash wherever he could. Prior to working out this living arrangement with the apartment building owner, the five of them had lived in their car. They welcomed me, a complete stranger from a very different background, into their family.

I lived in Connecticut for two years and then decided to move back to the Midwest. I kept in touch with Burt and Loretta for a few years, but then we lost touch. I’ll never forget how these kind strangers eased my transition into living in Connecticut.

In February of 1973, I moved to Chicago. I knew a few people in the city and a few more in the suburbs, but mostly I was surrounded by literally millions of strangers. This is where I first started to think about how I should relate to strangers, to the thousands of people I would see in passing every day.

Part of my daily routine was to take the “el” to the loop for my job. There was a “bag lady” who sat on a crate outside the “el” station every morning. She reminded me a lot of my grandma. She looked like she was in her seventies. She had white hair and sparkling eyes. She wore many layers of clothing – possibly all the clothes she owned except for what was in her shopping bags. Each morning, she looked at me, gave me a big smile, and said good morning. It wasn’t just me. She greeted everyone who walked by her. I smiled back and said good morning. That was the extent of our interaction. I looked forward to seeing her every day. I liked seeing her smile at me. The daily ritual was a warm acknowledgment of our shared humanity, even if we were living very different lives.

During the years that I worked in the loop, most of my twenty years in Chicago, I tried to go for a walk during my lunch hour. Usually, I walked from my office in the Sears Tower to State Street to do some window shopping, or if it was a really nice day, I walked all the way over to Grant Park, sometimes covering up to three miles in the walk. One nice fall day, it was particularly windy. As I walked by the Plaza next to the First National Bank of Chicago, a very frail, elderly woman, slowly and cautiously came up to me and asked for help. She was afraid to walk out of the protection of the plaza to get to the bus stop, about a hundred feet away. Would I help her so that the wind wouldn’t blow her down. She needed to get to the bus to go home. I offered to get her a cab to take her home, but she insisted that she’d be okay on the bus, if I’d just help her get to it. So I helped her walk to the bus. The bus driver saw her coming, and stepped down to help her up the steps. All three of us smiled at our teamwork.

Remember when Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”? It’s recorded in Matthew 25:35. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” [NRSV] And then, in verse 40, Jesus explained, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Fortunately, a lot of people take these verses seriously. Yesterday, I decided to watch for everyday instances of people treating strangers nicely – like they would treat friends and family members. Mim and I were in Madison doing some errands. A man at the recycling center saw us dropping off some cardboard and struck up a conversation about how to get paid for recycling cardboard. A woman at the resale shop complimented us on our “clothing selection” and then asked us to let her know if we changed our mind on one sweater in particular, because she thinks her mother would like it. A woman who was giving out food samples at Costco went out of her way to help us find something that we just couldn’t find on our own. None of these acts of kindness was overwhelming, but all together, they helped make our busy day more pleasant.

That gave me an idea. I want to be more intentional about being nice to strangers. Occasionally, we hear stories about someone who pays for the person behind them in line at Starbucks. Or we see someone with a cart full of groceries who offers to let a person with just a few items go ahead of them in line. Or we see someone run ahead to open the door for a stranger carrying a big load.

It’s easy to be too busy with my own agenda to notice how I can be kind to a stranger, or to be inspired by how someone else is being kind to a stranger. Instead of being too busy, I want to take time to smile and say good morning to the bag lady again, or to whoever else God puts on my path.

God Sent a Deer to Remind Me

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
[Psalm 42:1 NRSV]

A young deer was cautiously watching me as I stood at my copier making a few copies of some music to put in my organ binder for Sunday’s church service. I spied her as I looked through the patio door while I waited for the copies to print. Slowly and quietly I pulled my camera out of my desk drawer, slid open the patio door, took about ten steps toward the pond, and snapped the picture. One picture is all I got before the deer decided to flee into the cover of the woods behind her. I hope she was able to get her drink of water first. I hope she feels safe enough to come back for more drinks whenever she’s thirsty.

Seeing the deer beside the pond in my back yard immediately brought to mind the Psalm that begins – “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”

Throughout the month of September, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the noisy and busy world we live in. “The Monastic Way” pamphlet written by Joan Chittister has been prompting me to think about these things, especially about how important it is to live my life intentionally rather than just going along with whatever happens. How important it is to take time to examine my life and to think about what I’m doing with the time that I have. It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The pond and woods outside my office, next to Whispering Winds.

It’s important to think about my life and how my daily activities are forming that life, but in order to do that self-examination in our busy, noisy world, it’s necessary to find some way to be where it is quiet, a place where we can take the time to meditate, away from the noise and distractions. Chittister quoted Hans Margolius as saying, “Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted. Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world.”

Is it really possible to quiet our minds in today’s fast-paced, noisy world? “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” We seem to have a natural thirst for quiet time together with God, “to see the world undistorted,” “to examine our lives,” and to think about the life God has called us to live.

Some days we may be able to set aside just a few minutes of quiet time with our thoughts and with God. Other times, perhaps, we can schedule more time, maybe even a whole day, or even several days to ponder our lives and focus our attention on drawing closer to God, on understanding our purpose in life.

Music is something that helps me quiet my soul for prayer and meditation. Here are links to four YouTube music videos that just might be a good start for some quiet meditation today.

AS THE DEER http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZv3jzOTE70&feature=related (with lyrics)

AS THE DEER http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wzWWggsOJI (piano only with wonderful pictures)

TAKE TIME TO BE HOLY http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zut3rCzk6bw (Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but with less commonly used tune for this hymn)

TAKE TIME TO BE HOLY http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMlsifnlQN8  (Instrumental version with original tune. Lyrics shown over scenic pictures.)

The Message of Two Cornstalks

Abbey posing with our two cornstalks

This morning as Mim and I were walking Abbey I asked Mim if she had any ideas for me to write about in today’s blog. She responded, “How about the two cornstalks growing next to the road at Whispering Winds? Remember Jesus talked about seeds that fell on good ground.”

It’s actually been kind of fun watching those two stalks of corn grow this year on the edge of the lawn, right along the roadside. Last winter the snowplow scraped the edge of the lawn as it barreled along Highland Road. A few chunks of sod were torn out of the lawn. We added some soil and sowed some grass seed over the damaged area in the spring, but as dry as the spring and summer was, the seed never germinated. Last year there was a cornfield across the road. (This year it’s soybeans.) Somehow a couple kernels of corn found their way onto our patch of open soil that had been unwelcoming of the grass seed. The corn sprouted easily, and two proud stalks of corn have been growing all season. Mim decided to mow around them to honor their persistence. Despite the drought in our area of Wisconsin, these two plants of field corn have done fairly well. The wildlife (raccoon, probably) have enjoyed a good harvest.

So what did Jesus say about seeds? In Matthew 13:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version):

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying, “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on the rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Jesus’ disciples asked him what he meant by this story. Apparently, it wasn’t just about growing corn to feed the raccoon family. In verse 23, Jesus explained, “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit…”

So, what is God trying to tell us by having two cornstalks grow on the good soil on the edge of our lawn at Whispering Winds? Perhaps, it’s as simple as “Take time to smile at the little miracles we see all around us.” Or maybe, to some people driving by, the message is “Bloom where you are planted.”  Or to others, it’s “See. God really watches out for the needs of her creatures, even the raccoon.”

Owning My Name

MARIAN KORTH
Kindergarten picture

My name is Marian. I never had a nickname. That’s too bad, because I never liked my name. I first struggled with my name in kindergarten, as I described in my blog a couple weeks ago. My teacher, Miss Polly, tried to spell it with an “o” instead of an “a” and I knew she was wrong.  I survived the school system and I learned to live with my name, even if I didn’t like it. I sometimes wonder why my Mom and Dad gave me that name.

ELSIE the Cow

My Mom didn’t like her name either. Her first name was Elsie. Sometimes my friends and I teased her about being “Elsie, the cow” which was the marketing icon for Borden’s milk in the 1950’s. Mom didn’t like being called “Elsie,” but she hated her middle name, “Thelma May,” even more. Whenever she had to write her full name she used her first name, her maiden name, and her last name in order to avoid using her middle name. I don’t think I ever saw her first, middle, and last name in writing. That was a problem. It’s a long story, but I’ll give the short version here.

When my Mom was nearing the end of her life, she and my Dad came to Chicago to live with Mim and me so that we could take care of her. They lived with us for her last 6 weeks. When she died, we called a local funeral home to pick up her body and process the legal paperwork. The Cambridge funeral home then came to get her body and coordinated the visitation, funeral, and other final arrangements in Cambridge.

The man who came from the Chicago funeral home had to fill out all the legal paperwork. He asked me the questions and he wrote my answers on the form. Then he gave the form to me to review. I noticed that he had written my Mom’s middle name as “Thelma Mae” – with an “e” rather than a “y.” I thought about that a little, and tried to remember if I had ever seen her middle name written. I don’t think I had. So, I didn’t know if it ended with a “y” or an “e.” I decided not to change what he’d written on the form since I didn’t really know which spelling was correct. That’s unfortunate. The person who typed the official death certificate from this form changed “Elsie Thelma Mae Korth” to “Elsie Thelma MacKorth.” That’s the name that was officially filed with the State of Illinois Records Bureau in Springfield. What was involved in getting her name corrected (necessary to settle her estate) is a very long story for another day.

Names really are important, whether we like them, or not. In the women’s worship service in the county jail the chaplain instructs us to pray for the person on our right by name. If we don’t know the person’s name, we need to ask her before the prayer time begins. We pray for each other by going around the circle, each person praying for the person on her right. I’ll attest to the fact that when I hear the inmate on my left praying for me by name, her prayer resonates deeply within me. Then I have the honor of praying by name for the inmate sitting on my right. She can experience that same feeling of being blessed, of receiving a special blessing just for her. And so on around the circle, we all are blessed.

Using someone’s name is powerful. When someone calls me by name I assume that they know me, because they know my name. In the New Testament, Jesus is often described as “the good shepherd” who calls his sheep by name. In the Old Testament, God called Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and others – all by name. Even though I don’t particularly like the name, “Marian,” I think I’ll stick with it. That’s what all my friends, and even God, know me by.

Here’s my 2-cents worth on working

I guess I was a little older than this when I started working, but not much. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t work.

The earliest job I can remember having was before I started school. My Mom hired me to do two jobs – clean the bathroom and dust all the furniture in the house. Each job paid 2 cents, and each job usually took me about half an hour. (I wasn’t fast, but I was pretty thorough.) I was expected to do both jobs every Saturday morning, and I was given 4 cents for my labors.

I received a big promotion and a slight raise when I turned 5 and started kindergarten. Instead of being paid each time I cleaned the bathroom and dusted, I received a weekly allowance of a nickel. In exchange for that allowance, I was expected to clean the bathroom, dust, and do whatever other jobs my Mom occasionally asked me to do, like scour the kitchen sink, or carry the trash out to the burning pile.

A couple years later I got another promotion and a really big salary bump. My weekly allowance grew to a dollar, but I was strongly encouraged to give 10 cents to Sunday School, put 75 cents into my plastic bank to save for college, and use the remaining 15 cents for spending money. With this promotion, I was also given more responsibility. I had to do dishes every day (shared responsibility with my brother), and help with more house cleaning.

Growing up on a farm, I also was expected to do lots of other jobs, especially in the summer. My favorite job was baling hay. It was always a beautiful, warm, sunny day. I sat perched on top of the red “H” tractor, and slowly drove the tractor around the field, pulling the baler and a wagon behind. My dad stood on the wagon, pulling the bales out of the baler and stacking them on the wagon. My instructions were to steer the tractor so that the baler would pick up all the hay, and to drive smoothly enough that I didn’t throw my Dad off the wagon. (Unfortunately, that happened a few times when I stopped too abruptly or turned a corner without slowing down enough.) Other than the noisiness of the tractor and baler, and the hay dust in the air, it was a beautiful place to spend a summer afternoon.

Obviously, that’s not me on the tractor – but that’s the kind of tractor, baler, and hay wagon we had.

By the time I graduated from high school, I knew how to work. Some of it I enjoyed. Some I didn’t. In college I had a variety of jobs, from doing dishes in the dining hall, to doing clerical work in an office, to being a church organist. But my real reason for being in college was to figure out what kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and to get prepared to begin my career.

Reflecting back over the past 40+ years, I realize now that the basic premise that I would have one career in my lifetime was wrong. After college I was a high school English teacher for a couple years, then an editorial researcher for a couple more years, and then I got into business – earning an MBA and working for a large corporation in downtown Chicago. As I moved through these post-college jobs, working became mostly a means of paying my bills rather than actually doing something meaningful with my life. That was a frightening observation! If that was true, was there really any purpose to my life? The only areas of my life where I felt I was doing something that could possibly make the world a better place was in my volunteer activities – serving on the boards of a couple not-for-profit organizations.

It really wasn’t until I became self-employed – first as a business consultant, then as a B&B owner, assisted living provider, church musician, writer, and retreat coordinator – that my life calling seemed truly related to the work I did for a living.

Sr. Joan Chittister talked about finding purpose in your life work in her book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy, with these words:

We need to ask ourselves again why we were born. What is it that we have that the world needs and is waiting for us to provide? That is the star we must follow to its end. Then we will not only hear the silent applause of all those who benefitted from our having lived but we will find the whole of ourselves now wholly developed, waiting for us, as well.

For some people, and for some parts of their lives, the work they do for a living is the fulfillment of their purpose in life. For these people, you might hear comments like, “he’s a born teacher” or “it’s obvious she was meant to be a pastor.”

For others, the labor they do for a living is just that, earning money to pay the bills. Doing the jobs that need to be done.  These people still have a purpose in life that God has called them to. They just don’t receive a paycheck for fulfilling their life purpose.

So, what’s my 2-cents worth on working this Labor Day weekend? Not all jobs reflect our life purpose. Some do. Some don’t. But we were all born with a life purpose. Discovering how to fulfill that purpose is the most important job of our life. Frederick Buechner gave us a clue about how to discover our purpose in his book Wishful Thinking. He said, The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.