I walk to my car after a presentation by Peace Corps volunteers. Tales told of rehabilitating lives, landscapes and structures in far off, impoverished countries get me thinking, What is my calling?
I recollect a story of Mother Teresa hearing of a Hindu family who had not eaten for a long time. She brings them rice and finds children with eyes shining with hunger. Their mom takes the rice and goes out. When she returns, Mother Teresa asks, “Where did you go? What did you do?”
The woman answers, “They are hungry also.”
And who are they? — A Muslim family.
Mother Teresa beams as the children and mom radiate with joy and peace on account of the mom’s love. Mother Teresa doesn’t bring more rice that evening because she wants them, Hindus and Muslims, to enjoy sharing, knowing this will feed a greater hunger.
I probe my pockets for keys, awestruck by this family’s love, pondering the essence of being poor.
Mother Teresa observed, “The spiritual poverty of the West is much greater than the physical poverty of India. In the West millions suffer terrible loneliness and emptiness, feel unloved and unwanted. People are not hungry in the physical sense, but in another way, knowing they need something more than money, yet not knowing what it is.”
I unlock my door acknowledging there are deeper wells to draw from than physical founts; poor folks are the blessed ones.
I bend into my car pondering the loneliness and emptiness in the West to which Mother Teresa points. I struggle to keep connected with others amidst independent living arrangements and time-consuming schedules. I grapple to keep afloat in a flood of belongings and groundswell of tasks. Mother Teresa speaks my mind, What do I do about my spiritual poverty amidst physical excess?
My work is right here.
I sit behind the wheel, mindful of my solitude. I’ve worked hard to create a natural space, just right for me, full of organic cotton, heirloom tomatoes and farmer writer Wendell Berry tales. Yet, I remain preoccupied with e-mails, paperwork and organizing. Writing unending lists of chores to do, struggling to squeeze in time to talk – much less sit – with friends and family.
I fasten my safety belt thinking, the American dream promises if I buy and own more, I make progress. And I do in a sense, when I don’t have enough. But past a point of sufficiency, I bloat my house with a closet clogged with shoes for any occasion, a pantry packed with enough pasta to feed the neighborhood and a table top buried beneath piles of magazines I never look through. At this point, for me, having less is moving forward.
I start my car’s engine and hear Jackson Browne swoon:
These times are famine for the soul while for the senses it’s a feast…
And there’s a God-sized hunger underneath the laughing and the rage (Looking East)
I drive home determined to better feed my soul and cut down on physical preoccupation. As cars race past on the expressway, I wonder what’s essential and what’s unnecessary, best to let pass by. The thought of hungry folks, scantily clad in tin shacks helps me trim the fat. A bowl of rice and beans, a hat and coat, walls and a roof are basically what I require.
I drive past another newly constructed mall thinking, I need to pare down.
As I prepare to change lanes, I glance in my rear view mirror remembering as a teen feeling overwhelmed and saddened in stores. Sprawling selections of milk - one percent, no fat, low fat and whole – beside aisles of shampoo, laundry detergent and toilet paper elicit endless decisions about trivial pursuits. Over time, though, I grow concerned about choosing just the right item for me and quiver between buying green leaf lettuce and romaine. Now I see that getting tied up in meaningless decisions eats up my energy and deprives my soul of simply being satisfied and grateful for food.
As I signal and look to the right, I remember living in Asheville, North Carolina. In this mecca of natural and cultural beauty, my greatest joy is visiting nursing homes to sit and sing with the elderly. Amid empty halls and vacant rooms dotted with card tables, pale, languid faces stare into space. My guitar strings shimmer. Heads and voices lift together in song: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” Eyes connect in bare stillness, souls unite. I am fed beyond the sustenance of Jackson Browne’s lyrics and Mother Teresa’s tales.
Real connections feed me.
I turn off the AC, roll down the window and sense the heat of the day sting my cheek. Sweat strolls down my rib. A flock of ibis glide by in formation. Hip hop pulsates from a Corvette speeding by. Less buffered, I am in touch.
I exit and U-turn, forgoing thrift store shopping to drive to a hospice care facility and be with my 58 year old friend Richard, spending his last days alone. Gaunt and listless, plodding behind his walker, he beckons me to a garden. We shuffle between palms, love grass and hibiscus and sit on a wooden bench. I slow my breath to settle stirring thoughts and be with him. He soaks in his surroundings and utters labored syllables spelling out his surrender and acceptance. Serenity fills the air. We inhale and exhale the lightness of being. And embrace our goodbyes.
Awakened to the pulse of life, I stroll to my car.
I’ve been isolated and absorbed, caught in a web of material comfort and ease. Casting it away and reaching out to others, I come alive and nourished.
I sit behind the wheel and leave the door ajar. Sun illumines my face. I reach for my calendar and pore over tasks of the week weighing their importance. I make a list of names of folks in need.
Budding branches reach to the sun. When laden with fruit, they bow to the ground. I have more than I need. I must bend down and offer my fill. When I am emptied, I will receive more.
Beside my parked car a red jacaranda sways in the wind. I am reminded of Carol, once vibrant, glowing with life. Now 76, she is trapped in an Alzheimer’s care facility. She got lost driving, couldn’t find her way home. Her son flew down from Philadelphia for the weekend, sold her red hybrid Honda, ruby love seat and crimson-doored house — without her consent. He then placed her in a facility for safe keeping because her memory is weakening. I call her to make plans to visit.
I drive home and clear the cooler, umbrella and beach chair from my back seat to make room for Carol’s wheel chair.
Days later I travel across town. As I wheel Carol through the facility, we watch two dazed women gazing at a flittering TV screen and a man wandering, giggling into space. I notice Carol’s bold demeanor is dulled after a few weeks’ immersion in this muted world. I pull open my passenger door. She struggles to lift her troubled body up holding onto the window frame then shuffles onto the seat. Looking forward she pronounces, I want my car back.
I nod in silence, sit in the driver’s seat and maneuver our way out of the parking lot. Slowly, grasping for words, Carol composes the landscape of delusional characters with whom she dwells, from whom she seeks relief. My heart sinks, knowing she does not belong here, yet aware there is little I can do but take her out for brief respites and listen.
Over the ensuing months, I carve space in my schedule to be with Carol and help carry her load. Her forbearance, persistence and composure are gifts to me.
Perhaps life is not an upward climb, but a spiral trajectory, looping between loss and gain, need and plenty, weakness and strength – both essential to growth and well-being.
One year later, through determination and will, Carol persuades her doctors and son to place her in a more suitable assisted living facility. Our world is set aright. My heart resounds, Hallelujah!
I am driving to Salvation Army with a backseat of boxes containing the tofu maker I’ve never used, old Yes magazines and dusty snow boots. I think of my friend Joe, on disability, unable to work. His trust fund ran out and he can no longer pay rent. He’s terrified he’ll be homeless as New York’s frigid winter approaches. Ashamed, I squirm, I’m here in Florida, grappling to shed frivolity, while Joe is scuffling to find a friend’s couch to sleep on to keep him off the icy streets.
What can I do to help him get what he needs? How can I free myself from excess, which leaves others without enough? How can we come from our separateness to share?
Excerpt of Mother Theresa’s address at the United Nations’ “International Conference on Population and Development”, held in Cairo on Sept 5 -13, 1994