Monthly Archives: July 2015

empathy

I would have placed you masked on a dark journey to understand the perils of blindness.

I would stuff your ears and send you into a noisy world to understand the piercing silence of the deaf.

I would strap you to a wheelchair to navigate a busy street to know the traps of the disabled.

But to understand the plight of the truly homeless, hungry and impoverished,

I would simply leave you alone and invisible to die in a blind, deaf, immobilized world

where nobody sees you, hears you or comes to your aid.

Happy 76th Birthday, Mom!

I first encountered this poem by Jenny Joseph 30 years ago when I was in college.

And while 99% of all the stories I publish here on my website are my creations, original and true, occasionally I will pass on something like this one that changed my life in some way.
Today, I present to you a special gift to my mother on her 76th birthday.
Warning:  When I am old I shall wear purple

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

-Jenny Joseph

Almost buried treasures

24,000,000,000 computers in the world and not a single one will ever carry the story of Lois, the 91 year-old award-winning poet, prairie woman, and mother of ten. The ranch is gone, the children are gone and her binders of rhymes on the living room shelf will soon be tossed in the dumpster behind her studio apartment, as forgotten as the unclaimed plastic box of her soon to be cremated remains.
Underneath, people, like icebergs on a slow melt, aren’t always as they seem. White and pale for years on the surface, so many layers of translucent centuries-buried colors are concealed and only slightly revealed, rarely seen by mankind. Like pages of a novel dissolved away by a surf of disinterested waves, the iceberg and its colors will soon be no more. And no one will know any different.
I had done her a small favor.
Lois had lost most of her sight in her old age and had tired of pouring watery canned julienne carrots over her pasta, mistaking it for a can of sauce. Her tiny food pantry was mostly proceeds from food banks and she could no longer tell the difference between a label of carrots over one of marinara. So I’d printed 48 point Helvetica Bold stickers and arrived to organize her pantry so she could now tell the difference with a flashlight and the large magnifying glass she kept within easy grasp at the window sill.
She offered me toast and marmalade as her thank you which I declined mostly because I didn’t have the heart nor stomach to eat what she believed she was serving. Mental note for a return visit: refrigerator labels.
While I needed to soon return to my regular post at the senior center outreach where I’d left a note “Back in 45 minutes,” I didn’t know then it would be at least two hours before my return.
A slow stroll behind her walker toward the sofa for a brief chat before leaving was almost unbearable until I noticed the many white notebooks of poetry on the shelf, labeled Olivia, Jenny, Christopher and names of several others. Inquiring, she invited me to take ‘Christopher’ home for the weekend knowing I was also a writer though somewhat less a poet. “I think you’ll like that one, Don.”
She went on to explain she’d written poetry as a young woman and had been published more times than she could remember. Many of her poems had become greeting cards for Hallmark and before that, smaller card companies across the nation and abroad. The bookends bracing her impressive collection were various trophies for writing and poetry whose engravings had long since blurred and tarnished over the many years since she lost her sight. She could only rub to read them, which she’d done probably thousands of times since.
We talked of many things, including her ten children for which each of the white binders were named, her little farmhouse on the prairie, the brevity of her fame before losing her sight, and her enduring fondness for capturing inspirational moments in recitals of prose. So immersed in her colorful stories of the past, I looked at my phone to see time had already come and gone to return to my post. We said our goodbyes and it was my Friday, so I took Christopher and headed back to the office to pack up and enjoy my three day weekend.
The saddest story in all of history will always be the one which went undiscovered and untold to no person nor pen and was buried alive eternally in an old soul.
These were the words that came to me while I sat on my bed and had coffee with Christopher for three hours that Friday evening. Reading the poems and prose, I didn’t cry once, but a half dozen times or more. The richness and antiquity of the words of that 91 year old prairie woman melted my soul, imagining that someday, with no one to claim them, the orphaned binders Christopher, Olivia, Jenny and the seven others might end up in a dirty dumpster and a landfill, and probably very soon.
It was the weekend, and the days when I take care of my own aged mother .
Though 15 years Lois’ junior, I wondered what stories I will have missed of my own family history if I hadn’t taken the opportunity that weekend to chat with Mom on her on the sofa that rainy afternoon. I primed the pump with a few nostalgic recollections of our family and we had a few laughs as she played solitaire on her Kindle. I could tell I’d begun brewing something more. Her game slowed as small oral vignettes of her own family history emerged piecemeal and at random until she was telling me complete stories of times growing up in Storm Lake, Iowa on the farm. Each story she told seemed to revive another she’d perhaps never told another. The kids she played with in the church across the street and a scolding from the pastor for playing hide and seek among the pews on a Saturday afternoon. The memories of her parents and aunts and great grandparents were flowing in alternating waves of sadness and laughter. Though they weren’t poetic, they were the stories of her life, and by distant relation, those I were valuing as my own.
Each of us has a story to tell. But in these electronic days, few take the time to listen in the way stories should be told. Indeed, storytelling, the old fashioned way that families passed on their histories, values and expectations to the next generation, is a lost art. And out of 24,000,000,000 computers in the world, only a handful will find it important to pass on the stories of people who will otherwise soon be buried with them undiscovered and untold forever.

It was Monday morning again, and my day to return to the low income senior center where my outreach first introduced me to Lois and her shelf of many children. With Christopher tucked neatly under my arm, and a handful of refrigerator labels, I closed up and affixed a note on the door.
“Back in 2 hours.”
There are so many older Americans whose fame was never counted by measures of celebrity, celluloid screens or column inches in fabulous magazines, but whose life stories are noteworthy nonetheless. And I have found that the aged ones who never sought audiences for them, sometimes have the most engaging of all to tell.
Especially if you will take the time, ask, sit back with a coffee, marmalade toast, and listen.
And bring your computer to capture their almost buried treasures.

$6.72

It was on a Sunday.

While I don’t remember all the converging circumstances of the moment,  my entire paradigm shifted about five years ago while eating a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

If you’ve never really had nothing, it may be difficult to grasp the power of the instant  you realize it. Since, I’ve had countless recollections and dreams  of sitting at that table chewing on that sandwich until now when for some reason, the significance of that moment has become amazingly clear.

I’d been clean only a few months after eight years on a methamphetamine diet when eating a sandwich was something you did only because people said you were getting too skinny as meth often does.  I had been an unemployed and unemployable mess for so long, I’d stretched my last $300 down to just $6.72 and the shame of who I’d become after all those years had eaten through any remaining pride or self esteem as I walked to the store to spend it on the ingredients for what I believed was my last meal.

On the cusp of poverty and homelessness,  that bacon sandwich changed my life.

I had always considered myself a sympathetic man, thinking of the plight of others before myself.  The many epiphanies I’d experienced during my cold turkey withdrawal from the drug months before (see “My 9-1-1” story from September 2013 below) were just the beginning of a deeper, more profound purpose and direction for which my life was now headed.

I vividly remember each bite and swallow, the feel of the hard chair on my bony ass and the cup of warm tap water I used to wash down the agony of each bite.  I was flooded with emotions and realizations of what my life had come to.  I was a poor man. Once rich in spirit and life, I’d become a shambled, lonely, pitiful mess of an addict in recovery eating his last supper.

I was not at all unlike so many other newcomers to my recovery meetings who, having abandoned a life of drugs, theft, porn and sex, were clean but poor and yet without aim.  I now believe this is why so many return to the destructive lifestyle, lacking something bigger than themselves to grasp onto in exchange.

I say again, by the grace of God, I was saved by a bacon sandwich.

At that table, on that chair, at that last bite, I literally felt my head twist to the right a little and buried it in the crumbs on my plate, having realized what my life was meant to be.  It wasn’t going to be drugs, poverty or a mere bacon sandwich anymore.  I was being called to become an agent of change for the drugged, the abandoned, the homeless and the hungry.

I think I fell asleep at the table for a long while, waking with the crumbs of the past stuck to my face and experienced my first real glimpse of hope in many years.  I would like to say I remember the dream I had during that upright sleep but I don’t.  I can only recall the waking and the twisted change it had made in the way I have since viewed my single, celibate, drugless and solitary existence.

Several events occurred in the days following.  My house got cleaned, I reached out to friends and associates from long ago, I redrafted my resume, and I began writing again.  Soon after, I was very graciously hired as a janitor at my church and eventually worked into my current position with a charity that had been waiting  patiently for my occupation.  I again now count myself a rich man.

To this day, I am the highest  when with the lowest.

They say that finding your purpose in life is an alignment of what you’re good at, what you love to do, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

For me, it was revealed in the most unlikely of places.

A divine moment on a Sunday afternoon between two slices of white bread.