Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ohana Means Family: Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.

The first day I met Pops, my two girls, ages 13 and 7, and I were walking from our hotel in the city to a restaurant nearby.  He was at the corner of Robinson and Main St with his paper cup, the kind you'd get a Coke in from a fountain dispenser at the Zoo or hotdog stand something.  The kind of cup that fountain soda is dispensed into- sturdy and kind of waxy.  We dug in my purse for some change and left him with approximately a dollar worth of pennies, nickels, and dimes.  I only had 20s for bills and didn't want to part with those.  I felt awkward though. He most likely could see the green bills that were shoved in my purse haphazardly, and notice that I wasn’t reaching for those.   
He was standing right next to us, and I could smell the smoke on him.  I wasn't sure if it was stale cigarette smoke I smelled or if it was from a cigar.  He was about six inches shorter than me with dark, chocolate colored skin, a knee brace on his thin right leg, a worn looking wood cane in his right hand, and he wore a baseball cap.  I don't recall if there was a team logo on it, but it was well worn and a mixture of blue and white.  
I dropped the change in his cup and we crossed Robinson before the thought occurred that we were going to eat- perhaps he'd like join us.  I asked the girls, who immediately agree, and I quickly scurried back across Robinson.  
"We're on our way to have breakfast," I explained. "Would you like to join us?"
"Oh," he said hesitantly.  The image came to mind of how it would look to the staff at a fine dining establishment if I showed up, a white middle aged woman with two young girls who were clean and well dressed, with Pops, a beggar who may or may not be homeless but was certainly recognizable to everyone in the downtown area as a regular on the street corners.  
"I got a sandwich in here for my lunch," he said as he motioned to the plastic bag he carried in the same hand as his cane.  I nodded, not certain if I should say more and point out that he could have his sandwich later.  
I told him I'd see him later and hurried to catch up with the girls who were still waiting for me across the street.  I told them he declined, and we continued to the restaurant on the corner.  
I was thinking about him though, the entire time we were there.  As I added cream to my chai tea for richness, I wondered when was the last time he had the luxury of adding cream in his coffee.  Would he think that a luxury? Was he really doing all right and just scamming by begging, when in reality he had everything he needed?  On the other hand, did he sleep outside at night?  My imagination went wild pondering homelessness in our 'rich' country and how the people who pass them by on a daily basis, myself included, don't seem to notice.  Or we notice and give a few bucks.  Does that assuage our guilt?  Have we then done all we could do?  I can't take care of every person I see on streets corners can I?  Who is responsible for these people and this situation and what can be done about it?
The second day we came across Pops is actually the day I learned his name and introduced the girls and myself.  He smiled and told me that Kamala was an interesting name.  
"It's Indian," I answered, "it means lotus blossom or the opening heart."
"What tribe are you from?" was his reply with a smile on his face.  After telling him I wasn't part of a tribe, he asked me what color his eyes were.  I told him they we dark, but I was having a hard time seeing them.  They were bright and clear and seemed to be reflecting the light of everything around us.  
"Blue," he said, "they're blue.   I'm fritz-creole.  My daddy was from Louisiana.  My great-great-great grandmother was Caucasian.  I have apache blood and I'm also African American."  I laughed and told him that was an interesting mixture, that he IS the great American melting pot.  He chuckled and said he was a mutt. 
I invited him to come with us for ice cream, but he again declined, saying that he was working on getting a sandwich.  
As I opened my purse today, I noticed the sparse amount of change in his cup and gave him some bills to get his lunch.  I felt easier about giving- more than I had yesterday.  There was a familiarity that I felt now that I hadn't before, yet what did I really know?  The personal interaction we'd shared wasn't of much depth, at least anything tangible.  I didn't know much more about him now than I had the day before.  The familiarity might have just been from seeing him, interacting with him, previously- about asking him to join us yesterday, which in itself open the door to knowing more about one another on a deeper level.  
I had a desire to know more about him and his life, how he lived, what was wrong with the world and our society (according to my standards) that resulted in some people being left behind.  I mean, what about the American dream?  What about 'Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness'?  Is that story just a myth?  Does the fairy tale only come true for some people?  What does it take to have the 'American Dream'?  To keep it?  What is it like from the perspective of the haves vs. the have nots and vice versa?  Is the American dream still what it used to be?  The manifest destiny has been to conquer, expand, and have more-- to have a house and a yard, a pet, a family, the ability to buy a car or two...the ability to buy.  That's what it is.  The American dream is all about ones ability to buy desirable things.  Isn't that what the emphasis of life is?  The newest technology or you're left behind, gadgets and gizmos for the house and yard- the list never ends.  Does the American dream have more to do with 'stuff' than it does with personal contact or how we treat people?  In what ways are we, as consumers, directed to act toward one another?  Competitors or allies?
         After asking what was wrong with his knee, why he wore that brace, he told me he needs a surgery.  He's putting it off though, he explained, on account that he just wasn't ready to do it yet. He assured me he could, at any time, go into any of the local hospitals and they'd take care of him.  I'm not so sure I believed that, but I didn't press him any further on what exactly his ailment was.  Again, my mind crept into the territory of cynicism.  Was he wearing a brace to elicit sympathy from passersby?  Was it part of the beggars ‘costume’ if you will, appearing woefully in need?  I'd never know.  
Next, he asked me how old I thought he was.  Dang.  There's nothing I'm worse at than guessing a persons age.  You know what I mean, right?  The fear.  Not wanting to guess too high and insult someone, nor too low and appear foolish.  Two ages came to mind as I gazed at his moderately wrinkled face and the whitening bits of his short curly-haired beard, 56 and 63.  I erred on the low side.  Of course, he accused me of calling him an old man to give me a hard time first and then shared that he is 73.  Truly surprised, I told him he looks much too spry to be that old.  As he laughed again, I took in the merriment and ease he seemed to have about life.  Once more, I wondered about his life and the source of what sustains his joy.
He told us to have a good time and thanked me for the money.  Told me he was truly blessed to run into us again.  I know we were just as fortunate. 
The more I thought about him over the course of that day and evening, the more I wanted to know.  He must have stories of his life that are fascinating, whatever his living situation.  Even if there wasn't anything I can do to change the situation of his life or the hundreds thousands of others like him in the U.S., I could listen to stories of his life.  
Third consecutive day and just my little one and I were walking downtown.  When he saw us, he broke into a grin, his dark skin a stark contrast to his white smile, which had a few spaces in it.  As we approached, I could hear him softly saying, "I know you.  I know you."  
"Hey there, Pops," I said, "how're you doing today?"
"Oh, I'm ok.  Strugglin, though.  I had lunch earlier, but I'm looking for something later on this evening."
         As I opened my purse, I mentioned how a man like him must have quite a few stories about life to share.  
"Oh, I got one or two," with a smile. 
"Could we get a cup of coffee?  I'd sure love to hear one."
"Aw, baby girl, I tell you what.  Next time I see y'all we'll sit down and I'll tell a story.  Right now I've got to keep moving, but next time I promise you," and he gave me his hand to shake on it.  

The image of baby kitties came to mind.  I grew up on a farm and there were often litters of kittens in at least one corner of the hay loft.  We weren't able to get too close to them right off.  They took some time to warm up to us, hissin' and spittin' if we moved faster than they were comfortable with us.  Perhaps this is what a relationship with Pops would be like.  I can see finding out about him taking a while- probably with less hissin’ though.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Coming to Terms With My Validity as a Unique Individual at the Aquarium

Recently I took my children to Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium at the Mall of America.  As we walked through, touching starfish and sea anemones, watching sharks get fed, I noted the difference in each animal’s ability or approach to aquatic life.  The rays, gosh, they just glide through the water with barely a flick of their fins.  It’s weird to even call them fins because they don’t look like what I think of as fins, I mean, sharks – now they have fins.  Or sunfish that I take off fishing lines in the summer, those are fins – I’ve felt the business side of them before.  But rays are so smooth and their fins are shaped differently than any other sea creature.  They're just, rays, I guess, but they aren’t what I’d call typical fins.  They’re different.  Even watching them eat was different from the others.  They could sort of trap food between themselves and the glass of the tunnel we were in and, without fingers or arms or even moving their mouths to the food, they were able to wiggle around and quick as a wink, scarf up their squid delicacy. 

One of the girls was watching the sawfish trying to beat out a turtle, maneuvering in some pretty tight corners, and she commented that it must be difficult to learn to get around with that nose.  It’s so huge, she thought, it must bump into things a lot at first, learning to exist.  

I wondered about that.  Maybe it’s like going from driving a Honda Civic to driving a station wagon or a Suburban.  That takes some getting used to, but if that’s how sawfish are when they are young, do you think they have to learn to be how they are?  Wouldn’t they just BE?  Similar to, does a fish realize that it’s in water?  Or does that realization only happen once they are out of water?  What is so close, what is reality for so long, is not thought of by the person or fish as odd or weird, is it?  Not until it’s compared to others?  Until they see a difference.  
I’m saying water to a fish is like my thought patterns to myself.  It’s hard to gain perspective when they are so close to me.  It’s not until I learn from other people what their thought processes/behaviors are that I’m able to see mine as being uniquely my own.  It's in that moment that I am given the chance to accept who I am in the world.
After our wandering through the ocean tunnel of this underwater world was coming to a close, I again looked at the differences of these creatures that all live their life in water.  Similar yet different.  I contemplated whether or not there was rivalry in the water.  What if there was competition, cliques in sea life?  The eels lamenting over how long they are compared to the turtles.  Those interesting fish with the bump on their forehead- are they ever self-conscious about it?  What if, after being told that bump-free foreheads are desirable, they were offered a no-bump cream to remove the unsightly lump, would they take it?  If eels could be rid of that creepy green wrinkled skin, would they change how they look?  Perhaps becoming more vibrant colors like, say, a clown fish.  Maybe the sea turtles are snobby and look down on the mere painted turtles.  Is there a possibility of marine bullying?

Entertaining these thoughts and how ridiculous it seems for these trivial matters to plague the animal kingdom, I’m curious how it happens so easily for humans.  To feel inferior because of someone else’s more shapely or lean body, financial situation, occupation, sexual orientation, or the kind of car they drive seems a little foolish with this awareness.  
Wouldn’t it be nice if all beings would be secure in the knowledge that our life is valid and perfect no matter where it lands on the line of continuum?  That, no matter how I live my life and the choices I make, there is no need to justify my existence.  That I don’t need recognition from anyone else to validate my right to be alive and exist as an individual.  That by having been created- being here, in this space, at this time- is all the substantiation that has ever been needed.  That ever will be needed.  It’s no longer negotiable. 
What would the world look like if I were able to see others as different and not feel threatened by that difference but embrace it?  Understanding that “them” being who they are makes me who I am?  Ahhh…the ability to embrace such beauty.  Such perfection.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Holiday sewing machine update

With the donations that I’ve received so far, we’ve been able to purchase two new machines for Umuregwa, or Mama Joyce, as she’s known in the market.  
My professor from the 2012 trip abroad recently returned to Rwanda and was kind enough to bring the money recently raised with her.  She gave it to our tour guide, Yván, and he visited Musanze and Mama Joyce on November 16th.  I appreciate beyond words how helpful and trustworthy Yván is because I’ve not received such a complete update on what has been happening there for her in a while.  Communication is difficult being such a distance apart, speaking different languages.  Here’s what he had to report.
Last spring Mama Joyce’s daughter was sick and in the hospital for two months, which kept her from the market.  The cooperative that was started soon after I was in Rwanda fell apart and the second woman I bought the machine for, who was her partner, went back to working in the market place independently.  It sounds like it was a stressful and disappointing time for these women.  Mama Joyce told Yván that she didn’t trust other women in the market place because they had been on their own so long, it is hard for them to comprehend working collectively.  She told my trusted tour guide that what she would like to do is bring in women with no experience with sewing to avoid these problems in the future.  Going forward, Mama Joyce will be training new partners to sew and they will grow together – being more loyal to their cooperative because it’s where they gotten their start.  After buying two more machines together, Yván left her in charge of finding the women and implementing the cooperative.  He is planning monthly visits to keep abreast of what is happening and will then be in contact with me about their progress. 
I feel confident that with this new start, their cooperative is going to take off.  Interaction between here and there will be easier now that Yván is involved again as a translator. 

Thank you to everyone who donated thus far.  Tell your friends about this endeavor and have a blessed Thanksgiving and Hanukkah week.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Helping vs. Being in Service

Recently I came across this article, which talks about the difference between helping and being in service of life.  I thought I'd share it.  Tell me what you think.

                                                 In the Service of Life
                                              by Rachel Naomi Remen

In recent years the question how can I help? has become meaningful to many people.  But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider.  Perhaps the real question is not how can I help? but how can I serve?

Serving is different from helping.  Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals.  When you help, you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength.  If I'm attentive to what's going on inside of me when I'm helping, I find that I'm always helping someone who's not as strong as I am, who is needier than I am.  People feel this inequality.  When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness.  When I help, I am very aware of my own strength.  But we don't serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves.  We draw from all of our experiences.  Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve.  The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life.  The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me.  Service is a relationship between equals.

Helping incurs debt.  When you help someone, they owe you one.  But serving, like healing, is mutual.  There is no debt.  I am as served as the person I am serving.  When I help, I have a feeling of satisfaction.  When I serve, I have a feeling of gratitude.  These are very different things.

Serving is also different from fixing.  When I fix a person, I perceive them as broken, and their brokenness requires me to act.  When I fix, I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them.  When I serve, I see and trust that wholeness.  It is what I am responding to and collaborating with.

There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing.  Fixing is a form of judgement.  All judgement creates distance, a disconnection, and experience of difference.  In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance.  We cannot serve at a distance.  We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch.  This is Mother Teresa's basic message.  We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.

If helping is an experience of strength, fixing is an experience of mastery and expertise.  Service, on the other hand, is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe.  A fixer has the illusion of being causal.  A server knows that he or she is being used and has a willingness to be used in the service of something greater, something essentially unknown.  Fixing and helping are very personal; they are very particular, concrete and specific.  We fix and help many different things in our lifetimes, but when we serve we are always serving the same things.  Everyone who has ever served through the history of time serves the same thing.  We are servers of the wholeness and mystery in life.

The bottom line, of course, is that we can fix without serving.  And we can help without serving.  And we can serve without fixing or helping.  I think I would go so far as to say that fixing and helping may often be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.  They may look similar if you're watching from the outside, but the inner experience if different.  The outcome is often different, too.

Our service serves us as well as others.  That which uses us strengthens us.  Over time, fixing and helping are draining, depleting.  Over time we burn out.  Service is renewing.  When we serve, our work itself will sustain us.

Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose.  When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose.  Fundamentally, helping, fixing and service are ways of seeing life.  When you help, you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken.  When you serve, you see life as whole.  From the perspective of service, we are all connected:  All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy.  The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.

Lastly, fixing and helping are the basis of curing, but not of healing.  In 40 years of chronic illness, I have been helped by many people and fixed by a great many others who did not recognize my wholeness.  All that fixing and helping left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways.  Only service heals.

Reprinted from Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1996

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Launching: Sewing Machines for Christmas

The last time I spoke with Umuregwa, the first woman I bought a sewing machine for in Rwanda, the number of women she organized in her sewing association numbered ten.  Of those ten women, only two of them owned their machines, while the other eight are still renting.  

The reason I purchased the machines for two women, if you recall, is that rent for a sewing machine costs the equivalent of 33 USD per month, which is 66% of her gross income.  It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out most of what she is working for goes to paying for her machine and that in approximately four months she could buy a machine with what she pays in rent— if she were able to get ahead.  This is money that she could be using to buy food and clothes for her children each month, or money she could be using to reinvest in her community, making it a better place to live.  By building a park, for example.  Or maybe a kindergarten.  Or maybe medicine for her sick child.

My goal is to raise funds for purchasing eight sewing machines for the women who are still renting them, by December 25th, 2013.  Wouldn’t it be a nice to make a significant difference in someone’s life that won’t cost you more than a night out at a movie or a cup of coffee?  Now, I’m not suggesting you go without the pleasure of a buttery-popcorn-candy-filled night watching your favorite flick or a daily cup of pumpkin-spice-doughnut-flavored caffeinated deliciousness.  Consider matching what you spend on an indulgence to feel the gratification of doing something more-- be something more.  Right now.  Today. 

Make a donation in any amount as you appreciate the abundance in your life and then share it with others.  By empowering these women with more financial influence, I believe they will become a more commanding voice in their communities.  More money means more choices.  More money means economic stability and independence for Rwandan women. 

This holiday season, when your families are deciding to which charity to donate, please consider giving the gift of a sewing machine to a woman Musanze, Rwanda.    Do a little more.  Be a little more.  Begin today.