Good People

As I was standing in line at the coffee shop, a man approached the counter. He was quite elderly, using a walker. A skinny man in shorts and a tee shirt, wearing a baseball cap, tennis shoes with socks covering his thighs. The thick lenses in his large, black frames gave him that typical grandpa look.

He began to order when the clerk interrupted and told him he had to go to the back of the line; she pointed past us and repeated this twice. He seemed to not get it, was possibly hard of hearing but began shakily navigating his walker down the aisle.

I was second in line behind a young woman; in unison, both she and I said let him go first as we waved to get the clerk’s attention. That he heard. So, he turned his walker back toward the counter and began to order.  I heard him say quite deliberately that he wanted coffee and some eggs.

When asked for money, it was clear he didn’t have enough and the clerk was having a hard time making him understand. The young woman next to me stepped forward and slipped a few bills onto the counter. I don’t think he even saw that.

The clerk gave him a cup of coffee and he set it on the seat of his walker; but when she tried to give him the numbered marker to take to his table, this caused much confusion. I could only hear a few words of her explanation and the back and forth that ensued. Between her loud voice and his misunderstanding, it was quite a show.

Suddenly, another young woman appeared, getting up from her nearby table and without a word, took the marker in her hand and guided the man toward an empty table with the poorly balanced coffee cup shaking away on the seat of the walker. All this, while speaking in a quiet voice and reassuring him all was well.

As I walked with my chai tea to the back of the shop, I saw him sitting alone, peacefully waiting for his eggs to arrive.  I wondered how he’d even gotten to the coffee shop. Its located in a busy business and residential neighborhood. Then I wondered how he’d get home. Hopefully some kind strangers would help him navigate the busy street crossings. Here’s also hoping he wasn’t driving.

I’ve thought of this seemingly minor incident many times as I’m watching the latest TV examples of unkindness, poor manners and down right meanness. Like that nasty man berating a woman for wearing a Puerto Rico tee shirt and telling her, a US citizen by the way, to get out of the country.  One of a multitude of examples.

Each time I become discouraged by the latest news of the day, I recall these two young women, not the typical millennials we usually malign, stepping forward to help. This reminds me there are so many good people among us. I’ve chosen to believe there are many more good people than the other kind.

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A Front Row Seat

Saturday, March 17, 2018: According to the newspaper, this was the 6th annual Leprechaun 7K, benefitting the MACC Fund (Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer). The parade involved nearly 3,000 runners and walkers and 150 volunteers. It started right on time, a little after 9:30 just as the newspaper article had stated.

Earlier that morning, I’d noticed the orange cones placed fifty feet apart all along the road. So much for my plan to run errands since the road going past my building would be closed all morning. So, I got comfortable in my pajamas, with my cup of chai tea, and prepared to be entertained by this menagerie of mankind passing right outside my window.

First, a white pick-up truck slowly drove down the street, led closely behind by a tall, slim man dressed in a bright green, sparkly body suit, green sneakers and a shamrock shaped cap. Running at full speed, he looked as though he was taking his position as the leader very seriously.

After a smattering of single runners, the clusters grew into a cavalcade of all shapes, sizes and ages of sprinters wearing green shirts, funny socks and hats. It was easy to see that for some, a good bit of work had been put into designing just the right outfit.

Others were more generic with lots of stripped socks or a perfunctory, silly hat. It was a sea of green tee shirts scarves, tiaras and ruffled tutu’s. My personal favorite was the man skipping down the roadway with a lovely, pink tutu on his head.

As the parade progressed, the slower participants came by who were going at a leisurely pace. A combination of walking and running was common and clearly some were really just out for a walk and some social time. Even with my windows closed I could hear the laughter and chatter of the crowd.

Pretty soon there were rows of four and five going down the road in a line. One mom and her very young child stepped onto the grass so he could catch his breath and take off his jacket. The sun was out in force and it was getting warmer. Some runners stopped to rest or take a quick stretch before forging ahead.

Once the runners thinned out, the walkers came into view. Here were those with younger kids and babies in strollers. As the slower pace proceeded, the white pick-up then appeared going in the other direction. It was quickly followed by the tall, slim man in the green body suit, still the leader and going at a good clip. Both lanes of the street were full of runners, for and five deep, going in both directions.

As the crowd thinned, a yellow school bus came slowly down the street signaling the end of the parade. I noticed people were riding in the bus. How nice, I thought; the school bus was a way for anyone who couldn’t walk or run to still participate.  I kept watching until the school bus passed by on its return trip. All was done by 11:15. A police car with lights on made the final sweep and the orange cones were kicked to the curb and picked up later.

It was as though nothing had happened. No one in sight and not a scrap of litter anywhere. What a lovely community event. And all over America similar parades and community events are happening. Everyone is Irish for one day at least

I had a great time in my front row seat, watching everyone having a great time and helping a good cause. I had to wonder what these hardy and not so hardy runners and walkers would be doing for the rest of the day. For some, it’s probably nap time. Or, whether Irish or not, I’ll bet Leif’s Lucky Town or O’Donoghue’s Irish Pub was busy serving green beer!

 

 

The Suchness of my Muchness

Third place in 2018 non-fiction category of the WWA Jade Ring writing contest and published in Creative Wisconsin Anthology: 2018 Jade Ring Winners

What do the Mad Hatter, Buddhism and Shakespeare have to do with my most recent worries about why I am the way I am? That was only reinforced when reading my horoscope from Shepherd Express, an alternative and entertainment newspaper I pick up at the grocery store.

I don’t put much stock in astrology and read it for what it is, a thought of the day and sometimes a good laugh. Pisces that I am, I was informed that in the next nine months, I’ll encounter brave souls who will be able to handle my muchness. The column included a poem:

I have a deep fear of being too much. That one day
I will find my someone, and they will realize that I am
a hurricane. That they will step back and be intimidated
by my muchness……..
― Michelle K., Rumbles From My Head, Jul 10 2013

Intrigued, I googled and found Michelle K.’s poem has revived an old word that has a fascinating history. The dictionary definition says muchness is a state of being great in quantity, extent, or degree. Shakespeare who coined such words as ‘silliness’, ‘tardiness’ and many others is thought to have invented the form. But those wanting to give him all the credit need to get real; the actual word ‘muchness’ was first used in the 1400’s, predating Shakespeare by more than a century.

Then, the Shakespearian sounding phrase ‘much of a muchness’ appeared considerably later, 1728, in the play The Provok’d Husband, a collaboration of John VanBrugh and Colley Cibber . Lewis Carroll picked up on that when, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the Mad Hatter worried that Alice was losing her muchness, that she’d been   “much muchier” in the past.

In a casual lunch conversation, I mentioned the horoscope message involving muchness and this led to a comment about “suchness” as it relates to Buddhism. Back to google, of course. Tathata, which means suchness is a word used primarily in Mahayana Buddhism to mean reality, or the way things really are.

The Buddhist emphasis, of course is on reality right now. It’s always changing, but at this moment, the suchness of this moment, is just the way it is. The thinking mind has to stop and listen. Then you will be relating to the suchness of the moment.  Deep!

I’ve decided everyone has muchness. Some have more and some have less. We’ve all known people who are a bit much. Think Joan Rivers. Think Zsa Zsa Gabor. Think that high maintenance friend or relative whose oddness never surprises us.

Yes, I have muchness. Being an oldest child, I was used to being in charge and having to get the job done. At work I’d been told more than once that I was intimidating. At book club, I’d been told I have a strong personality.  An ex-husband once told me to stop lecturing him like a school teacher. But I can also think of times when I didn’t have much muchness. That three years when I was navigating a divorce, retirement and a major move all at the same time, my muchness was at low ebb.

Now that time has passed and I’m settled in, my muchness is just fine. Retirement has brought calmness and peace. While I certainly don’t think too much of myself, I have come to appreciate some of my muchness. I’m probably still a little over-organized and not shy about my opinions. That’s just how I am.

Then there’s the muchness of others. After all, everyone has some. No doubt, sometimes the mucniness of others can be a bother; but then, maybe I bother them too. So it was the final sentence of the horoscope that made me feel hopeful:

“I suspect the odds will be higher than usual that you’ll encounter brave souls who’ll be able to handle your muchness……I suggest you welcome them as they are with all their muchness.”  Touché!

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Feeding the Wolf

There is an old story that says a lot about today:

An old Cherokee chief told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people: the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy…. arrogance, self-pity….resentment…. lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love…humility, kindness…….empathy….truth, compassion and faith.  The grandson thought for a minute and then asked, which one wins? The old Cherokee replied, the one you feed.

The wolf can be a person, a group, a city, a country or the whole world. In these difficult times, let’s examine where we are going and where will it lead.  More importantly, let’s determine what can be done if we believe change must happen. Or, if some changes cannot be allowed to happen. Giving in or staying silent is a choice. Taking a stand or speaking up is also a choice. Deciding which wolf to feed is the most important choice.

 

 

 

Disconnect

(April, 2000)

I love the movies because they mirror life and teach great lessons. Sometimes though, the moral of the story is not on the screen but in the audience. Such was the case when I saw the movie Hanging Up. Walter Mathau was the star and remembering the grumpy old men movies, I expected a light, perhaps touching no-brainer.

The trailers led me to believe it was a comedy about three sisters, perplexed about their cantankerous, aging father. That sounded similar to my own life with father story so I was ready for some ironic laughs.

That day, as I walked toward the theater, I noticed three women who’d each driven up in their expensive, shiny new mini-vans. One was the newest Mercedes Benz model. As they walked forward, it was clear they knew each other well. They were madly checking their cell phones and answering last minute calls as they entered.

They visited loudly from a row or two in front of me and sounded like the typical women I’d often see around town in our area. Cedarburg is a bedroom community north of Milwaukee, an old farm town being taken over by suburban yuppies turning fields of grain into sub-divisions of mansions.

“North Shore Nancy” is the somewhat unflattering name given to anyone who is generally a stay at home mom, wife of a high powered business executive, with lots of jewelry, perfect hair and designer clothing. From what I could tell, these ladies fit the description perfectly.

The movie started and within half an hour, it was taking a more serious turn than I’d expected. Though basically about three sisters who were pursuing careers and trying to remain connected to each other and their aging father, it was also about deeper and darker things.

As their dad becomes older and frailer, his needs change and most of his care falls to Meg who’s trying to maintain a small business in order to prove she’s worthwhile. As dad’s condition worsens, Meg becomes more frazzled with the responsibilities and finally breaks down.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Meg’s parents divorced long ago. Dad, a hopeless alcoholic, has not adjusted well. This fact gives us much insight into Meg’s behavior as an over-protective caregiver and her general doormat attitude.

Then, Meg becomes acquainted with an older woman who counsels her much as her own cold, abandoning mother never did. Meg is encouraged to “hang up,” to disconnect from the frenzy of life and its unrealistic expectations. This piece of sage advice is given to Meg as she and the woman are sitting in a bustling hospital cafeteria; the constant ringing of cell phones from one end of the room to another and the jumbled noise of many interrupted conversations drives home the point better than any lecture.

“Just hang up,” she repeats. Meg is energized, goes through her home, car and entire life getting rid of all the faxes, phones, pagers, answering machines, cell phones and anything that even roughly resembles a communication device.

It’s exactly at this point, when Meg is being told to disconnect, that the cell phone of one of the North Shore Nancy’s goes off. We, the audience, mesmerized by the scene, are mildly distracted by the flurry of activity while “Nancy” picks up her call, talks a bit, then moves to the lobby.

A few minutes later, “Nancy” returns to pick up her things, and with a few hushed comments and a giggle to her friends, leaves the theater. I think I heard her say she had to pick someone up.

Within a few moments, the rest of her party also departs and we, the audience, are left to watch the rest of the movie in peace. They didn’t get it, I’m thinking. Disconnect. This message was lost on them. Just the people who really need it.

Meg did better. In the end, she disconnected a little, just the right amount. The final scene shows her better in control of the situation. She asks her sisters for help, has a long, serious conversation with her father and renegotiates responsibilities with her children and husband. The usual Hollywood ending, some would say. Or maybe a message for us all.

 

 

Little Ditty ‘Bout Adam and Wayne

I was at a conference when Adam, the waiter at the hotel restaurant, showed his swishy sense of humor right away. I’d walked into the empty dining room and joked, wondering how he’d be able to manage with this huge crowd. He came back lightning speed with a quip and so, began an evening of nonstop laughter.

Adam said he was working alone that night. I felt immediate empathy as I recalled the time I’d spent with Wayne in a similar situation. It was in the 1960’s and I was working my way through college as a waitress at a small hotel and supper club near the campus. Wayne was the bartender.

My usual customers were traveling salesmen, men who went from town to town on a prescribed route to get orders from their regular customers. Every Tuesday, the man from the paper supply company. Every Thursday, the man from the paint business.

Between 5:00 and 6:30 every guest in the hotel, all traveling salesmen, swooped down into the dining room until each of the fifteen tables was occupied by one person. Fifteen set ups, fifteen orders, fifteen pick-ups and fifteen clean-ups. What a job!

Each shift, I’d come in early since I was the only waitress and had to be ready for the influx. That meant bread baskets stacked high and condiments filled to the top. I recall how my heart sank each time I came from the kitchen to see another solitary figure at the door waiting to be seated. Such relief to finally look up at an empty doorway. I’d made it another night, I sighed.

Once everything was set up and before customers started arriving, I’d sit at the bar with Wayne, the only bartender. He was a student of poetry. We’d chat about school, friends and such. It was like talking to a girlfriend, heavy on feelings and emotions, short on events, possessions and the other things men usually talk about.

During a few rushes, mine not his, Wayne would deliver bread baskets for me and check for second drink orders, sometimes taking them to the tables himself. He kept a tight eye on how I was doing and I was so appreciative when he asked if there was anything else he could do. After the evening was over, Wayne and I would sit at the bar for a while and talk some more. Once I’d jokingly tried to give him some of my tips but he refused.

Wayne was self-protective; it took him months to finally talk about the man who was his English professor love interest. It was unknown territory for me to find out about their need for discretion amidst the university politics that governed their relationship. I felt special that he trusted me. That experience taught me that gay men make the best girlfriends and Adam seemed another example of that.

How the name teasing started is a mystery. But amidst our joking, he said, “you can call me anything you want. Even Sally.” I know in these days of new openness and acceptance of gay issues, it’s now okay to say what was unthinkable long ago.

Our joking continued throughout the night until we laughed good bye to Sally as if we were old friends. It wasn’t until much later that I worried that I’d insulted him by calling him Sally the whole night. I tried to play back our conversation. Had I made a gross generalization, assuming he was gay when I really didn’t know? And couldn’t that be insulting too? Luckily I got a chance to right my wrong. If I’d even committed one, that is.

In a replay two nights later, we again entered an empty dining room. After the usual greeting and a continuation of our established jokes, I asked right away. Sally was adamant he’d not been insulted, saying , once again, I could call him anything I wanted.

Later he brought his boss over for introductions; we were the nice ladies who’d named him Sally, he explained. The boss said, without a blink, that she or all the other restaurant staff called him Amanda. So, he’s really Sally/Amanda/Adam.

Since the place was not busy, Sally had time for a chat. He said nonchalantly that he’d been married a few years earlier in California and his husband and he spent time throughout the year there, in Tennessee and in Wisconsin connecting with different factions of their families.

As we finished our meal, Sally delivered two gourmet chocolate desserts. He said his grandmother always told him that when you meet people who make a difference you should be extra nice to them. He walked off too quickly for us to respond. I think I saw the hint of a blush.

All I could think was the world is getting better. Here was a proud gay man who almost instantly could share his whole, true self without recrimination. I hope Wayne is somewhere enjoying the same freedom. And while I know Adam lives in a world that can also be judgmental, I’m happy that my friend and I could share a special time with a very nice person who just happened to be a little different than us. But also very much the same.

Rustic Roads: A Positive Step Backwards

(Fall, 2012) I’d never heard of rustic roads until living in Vilas County where I discovered one quite by accident. Today, on a Saturday afternoon, as the leaves had just begun to change color, I and a friend purposely re-routed our road trip to Hanson Lake north of Boulder Junction to take in the pleasures of this leisurely drive.

On this truly rustic of the rustic roads, there are no shoulders so tree branches sometimes brush the windshield and the side of the car as we take in the mature forest of oversize trees; the forest canopy creates a tunnel. That day, the foliage was thick with tree tops almost completely joined, blocking out the sky. The sun was to the west as the afternoon lengthened and low level light filtered through the leaves and branches making shadows appear ghostly yet welcoming.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation describes Highway K that runs from north of Sayner to west of Boulder Junction as:“this winding route tracks through the 220,000 acre Northern Highland American Legion State Forest. Canopies of coniferous and hardwood trees enhance the scenic beauty of R-60 as it passes near old logging camp sites, hiking trails and an old saw mill located in Star Lake. The entire stretch of this scenic drive traverses a heavily wooded area abundant with wildlife. R-60 offers frequent scenic vistas of numerous, clear northwoods lakes and dense forest land.”

GetAttachmentAt the beginning of the road where it meets Hwy N, is a small, rectangular road sign that’s brown with yellow lettering. It says: Rustic Road, R-60, next 13 miles. The R-60 means it’s the 60th rustic road established. My love of this road and its specialness, made me wonder what it takes to become a rustic road. The DOT has very specific guidelines.

It must have “outstanding natural features” such as “rugged terrain,” “native vegetation” and “wildlife.” It needs to be a lightly traveled access road, be a minimum of two miles in length and connect with major highways at both ends. It can be dirt, gravel or paved, one-way or two-way with a maximum speed limit of 45 miles per hour.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation web-site devotes a page to rustic roads entitled: “A Positive Step Backward.” That describes the theory. Step back in time. Slow down and enjoy the journey. It’s also a stark reminder of our need to look ahead and to look backward at the same time. We will then appreciate what we have and also realize we may not always have it.

Wisconsin is the only state in the union where the rustic road designation is found. Several other states, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa to name a few, have described scenic byways as roadways with “unusual or distinctive, scenic, historical, archeological, natural, recreational or cultural features.” There’s quite a difference between this grand portrayal that includes every kind of road imaginable and the focus and uniqueness of the rustic road.

Rustic roads began when Earl Skagen, the highway commissioner of Racine Wisconsin noticed “progress” while driving to work on his favorite road, Maple Lane near Burlington. Since building roads was his job, he could see clearly how bulldozers could and would end forever his leisurely drive to and from work. So, he became an activist and through his efforts, the Rustic Roads Board was created by the Wisconsin Legislature in 1973.

The first rustic road is in Taylor County and Mr. Skagen’s beloved Maple Lane is the second. Now Wisconsin has 111 rustic roads throughout the state but before they existed, there were a smattering of books and articles touting the pleasures of traveling sideroads.

Clay Schoenfeld an outdoor columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal wrote an article that expanded into a book in 1966, Sideroads to Somewhere. In 1979 he did a sequel, Down Wisconsin Sideroads.

In 1999, William Least Heat-Moon took the ultimate American road trip, travelling the Blue Highways. Those are the roads marked in blue on road maps, what he called the small roads. He wanted to see the real America, took off in his old truck driving only the small roads and then wrote how it felt to stop the world and step back in time.

My discovery of R-60 made me appreciate these gems of relaxation and natural beauty. So, when traveling around the state, I’ve been known to take a sudden detour when I see those little brown and yellow signs. And I’m rarely disappointed.

Whether called small roads, side roads, scenic byways or blue highways, the rustic road offers a rare opportunity to slow down, take in some natural beauty and enjoy. Thank you Mr. Skagen for having the foresight to see what might be lost and to do your part in preserving it.

A Visit With the Bard…Sort of

 

In late September, 1999, I visited Stratford, a small, idyllic town in southwestern Ontario dedicated completely to theater. This trip, with my friend, Mary and her adult daughters, was like traveling back in time, a visit to another world.

The Stratford Festival which began in 1953, as a modest annual Shakespeare festival had grown to a season of nine plays running in repertory from May through November. The 1999 acting company, comprised of slightly more than ninety actors, was enrolled in either their classical theater training program or their academy for life-long learners. They performed a variety of plays in one of three theaters.

Seven days a week, anywhere from four to six plays were scheduled at 2:00pm or 8:00pm at the Festival Theater (1,836 seats), the Avon Theater (1,083 seats) or the Tom Patterson Theater (487 seats).

It was a nearly full house for each play we attended. During our trip we saw: The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pride and Prejudice, The Alchemist and West Side Story. Five plays in three days! Grueling but fun.

This was a four day bus tour arranged by the drama department of a local liberal arts college. Half the bus passengers were students and the other half people who had heard of the trip and signed on. The first day, the ten hour bus trip began well before sun rise and ended with just enough time to unpack and get to the theater. We stayed at the Queen’s Inn, a 150 year old landmark hotel located in downtown Stratford. Accommodations were lovely.

The next morning, we thought it imperative to seek out a coffee shop. There on the main street, we found Balzac’s (how apropos). The names of many stores were a derivation or combination of theater related terms or a noted actor or character.

We leisurely sipped, chatted and watched the cadre of local gentry and international travelers streaming in and out. I wanted to ask each one what was their story. We were certain we’d rubbed shoulders with actors we’d possibly see performing later and stage hands we wouldn’t see. In spite of the noise and bustle, we emerged refreshed and ready to see all we could cram into the time available. Shopping or lunch was carefully scheduled around the play bill.

Even though it was late September, the weather was mild enough for comfortable walking. And walk the town we did. The five blocks to the Festival Theater was a breeze with each street lined by old, beautiful, predominantly brick homes all with impeccable gardens. We meandered along the shore of the Avon River, leaves in full color. Swans swam close to the bank. One was walking near our path and allowed us unbelievably close before squawking off frantically.

Entering the theater, felt like a scene from Shakespeare in Love, hurrying to our seats as the lights dimmed. Just part of the huddled masses of common folk, suspending our busy day to be awed by the tension, moved by the emotion. Since I’d never been to Broadway, I lacked the experience to compare, but the actors were phenomenal, the productions superb.

Before, after and between plays we headed for town in search of bargains, coffee or local delicacies. The downtown reminded me of Door County with its myriad of specialty shops, friendly sales people and slow pace. The exchange rate made each find all the more appealing. We visited the Shakespeare store, various other theater related gift shops, a Scottish clothing store, several garden shops and some art and book shops. Most unusual, was the “Growling Gourmet,” a bakery for dogs.

The only challenge involved the travel itself. And that’s on two counts. First, the distance, the schedule and just the time it took was wearing. We had mechanical problems on the way home and ended up, for several hours in the middle of the night, stranded in an all-night coffee shop waiting for bus repairs. But, these things happen. We were quickly on the road again and home on schedule.

Second and most disappointing, the behavior of some of our travel companions left something to be desired. I assumed because they were college students, enrolled in a drama class that they’d be enthusiastic and rather the scholarly type. Not so. Instead, they were a bit unruly and not too sensitive to the needs of their fellow travelers. I was embarrassed by their thoughtless behavior toward the staff at the all night coffee shop we imposed upon; I was disillusioned when many of them skipped plays due to compelling card games, sleeping off hangovers and other hanky-panky.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip and a first time experience that we’d repeat for several years. But we’d opted away from bus and group travel to finding a better way. Next time, we’d drive and once take the Lake Michigan Car Ferry across which would cut our travel time in half.

Each year, as planning began with the selection of the plays we’d be seeing it was exciting to think of that time when our lives would be suspended. We’d enter the exciting world of theater. Who was it who said “all the world’s a stage?” Oh right. That was Shakespeare. So, each year we got to walk on that stage, the village of Stratford, and pretend. A grand pleasure for a few short days.

 

 

Follow Your Bliss

 

(Cedarburg, WI, 2002) The meaning of life was aptly addressed in a quirky situation comedy, Dharma and Greg. The characters are the epitome of balance in a couple, where the strengths and weaknesses of one person dovetail with those of the other, creating an illusion of perfect symmetry.

Greg, a Harvard graduated attorney from a conservative, wealthy family, works as a district attorney. Dharma, daughter of two hippies still living “the summer of love,” is a yoga instructor and most definitely a product of her upbringing. They meet, fall in love instantly and marry the same day. Their trials and tribulations as they adjust to married life are handled in a hilarious and entertaining way. But there’s more depth to this story.

A recent episode involved the dilemma faced by Greg. With Dharma’s encouragement, he suddenly quit his high stress job. Follow your bliss, she shouted, insisting if something doesn’t make you happy, then you need to find what does and pursue it.

Greg realizes, now that he has time to sit back and think, that he’s always wanted to be a cook. So, he promptly goes out and tries to get a job as a chef. After many rejections, he becomes a fry cook in a small mom and pop diner. He loves it and is having the time of his life; his parents think he’s gone crazy and Dharma’s parents praise him for rejecting the corporate lifestyle.

Then Greg’s dad sadly reveals he always wanted to cut hair but put it aside because he had responsibilities. Later, Greg’s mother reveals her long forgotten dream of being a dancer. After a few days of slopping the hash, Greg realizes he misses his old life when he sees that following his bliss won’t earn him an adequate living. Then too, after several days, the newness has worn off and this has become just another job.

The idea of following your bliss is intriguing and I couldn’t help but try to make some enduring sense of the story. It does seem that every one of us, at times, think our job is tedious, stressful and unrewarding. A nurse I know asserted that all jobs end up feeling like you’re on a tread mill. Even the intricate job of the surgeon, she noted, must on some level, begin to resemble an assembly line.

Working by Studs Turkel, a classic sociological examination of how people feel about their jobs, came to mind. Though originally published in 1972, it reads like today. It’s amazing how the plight of the telephone operator quoted then, sounds like the predicament of today’s data entry clerk. No one back then seemed to really like their job. No one seemed very challenged. Same as today, I fear.

So what are we to do? Maybe we need to become more realistic about what work is. Long ago I decided my job was what I did to earn the money that paid the bills, allowing me to have a good life. The fact that I like my work is perhaps a bonus.

My husband doesn’t like his job. But he follows his bliss through several very demanding and all engrossing hobbies that completely fill his time away from work. He is never happier than when he’s out in the barn working on a restoration project. Or visiting junk yards looking for old parts. Or on one of his perpetual road trips in search of abandoned machinery. His job provides the money to support this bliss.

I’ve always wondered if this labor of love would become drudgery if he had to do it for a living. Would my gardening become a chore if I had to weed and hoe each day to put food on the table? Would writing become a burden if I were forced by economic realities to do it day in and day out?

A recent letter from a friend who works in a book shop (one of my secret dream vocations) hit home. I’ve always thought it would be so great to have a job like that since I love to read and feel so alive in book shops and libraries. Wow, to be able to spend entire days there! To find that hard to locate book for a customer or to turn a child on to reading. But to hear her talk, it’s stressful, either too busy or too slow and sometimes boring. She warns me it’s not as challenging and rewarding as I might think.

The biography, So Far, So Good…, tells the story of Wall Street broker Roy Neuburger, now ninety four years old and still working every day as he has his entire life, trading in stocks and making still another fortune. But his passion as a young man was to be a painter. He tells how he went to art school and found out, as a painter, he “was no damn good.” So what to do about this passion?

He went on to use his money to collect art and build a gallery in Purchase, New York which houses the paintings of many famous artists. He followed his bliss by promoting and helping starving artists. This has paid off royally by the increased value of paintings he owns done by then unknown, now famous artists. But it isn’t about money, says Neuburger. He just loves art.

Perhaps Greg could use the money he makes as an attorney to buy a restaurant so he can dabble in his passion. Maybe Greg’s dad could teach a class in a barber school and share his talent with young people just starting out. His mother could use her time and money to sponsor an ingénue who’s unable to study dance without financial assistance.

Much in the style of the Carlos Castenada books and other new- age writings, we are told the journey rather than the destination is the important thing (all paths lead nowhere, so enjoy the path). So, “follow your bliss” may be just part of the message. Perhaps it has less to do with what kind of work you do, possibly more to do with the real person you are.

 

Hijacked

DECEMBER 09 Round Robin Essay

 

(Eagle River, WI Fall, 2009) Since moving to my new home in a small north woods community, I’d been looking for a volunteer opportunity. Finally, I thought I’d found it and worked last year in a holiday toy give-away program.

Parents filled out an application that included their children’s wish list. Donations were solicited then the program shopped for the requested presents; toy donations from local programs and businesses were received. Such as, Kohl’s Department Store gave what they’d received from their toy drive. Toys for Tots had an excess that came our way. Kindness for Kids did likewise. The community was very generous.

At the actual event, held at a local church, small groups of parents came in throughout the day and were given points to spend on gifts for their children. After an explanation of the program, a volunteer shopper helped parents choose gifts and they could have them wrapped.

The number of gifts for each child was dependent upon each child’s needs and how many donations were received. The event was a huge success. Over 225 children were shopped for and the parents were ecstatic to be able to give their children hand-picked presents. A real strength was that it put the selection and gift giving into the hands of parents themselves.

The public agency where I worked collected the applications. Anyone could sign up and the program determined who was eligible. Our agency’s past problems with the eligibility issue convinced us we’d found a perfect match. Then I, as a private citizen, donated a full day to the actual event, signing people in and giving them the point coupons as they arrived. The program seemed a win for everyone involved.

Now in the second year, the program leader had sent written materials describing the program’s mission and announced the group would meet the next week. When reading the materials, I became concerned about the new direction the program seemed to be taking.

The program description was “to follow God’s example in giving parents the gift of faith in Jesus which is what will help them in every desperate situation including Christmas pressures.” The mission was described as “a Christian outreach celebrating Jesus as God’s gift to us.”

Public agencies need to be vigilant when making decisions on what programs can be supported. And, how they can be supported. Following a discussion with my Director, we decided I would go to the meeting, find out about the changes and express our concerns. We both agreed we could not be involved in what was put forth in these written materials.

The group leader began the meeting by saying she was sure about the new mission of the program. She explained the importance of spreading the word of God and wanting to return to a “keep Christ in Christmas” theme. The group shook their heads in agreement. She recalled the year before when people were ready to do their shopping, that she had given them what she called her “spiel.” She was excited about doing the same this year.

I had an instant flashback of her “spiel” and was uncomfortable once again. It began as a short welcome to each group, describing the generosity of our community, the program’s goals and then a short synopsis of what to expect when they did their shopping.

But as the day progressed, the “spiel” evolved into a lengthy explanation, including her statement that she had prayed to God and he heard her and how fortunate the parents should feel that God had blessed them. By the end of the day, her “spiel” resembled a sermon at a revival meeting and barely mentioned the process of shopping.

This year they planned to give one toy to each child instead of several as they’d done last year. And they wanted to give each child a Bible. One toy and a Bible. Though the leader was aware that her “spiel” made people uncomfortable, she declared, with a glassy eyed gaze, that she felt compelled to continue her ministry. That was the most important thing. The group agreed wholeheartedly. All but me.

I told the group that our secular agency worked very hard to serve the entire community fairly. I wondered out loud, how non-churchgoers or non-Christians might feel about coming to such an event. In fact, would they? I stated that I’d also noticed a high degree of discomfort while the “spiel” was being delivered last year. It wasn’t clear to me why she felt it imperative to express her religious motivation. Isn’t that a private and personal thing? That seemed to go over everyone’s head.

I didn’t think our agency could participate, I said. My Director and I had discussed this, I said. Silence ensued. She had no answer to my question regarding respecting differences, accommodating all. I left the meeting, knowing this volunteer experience was over for me.

A few days later, the group leader called my Director and he agreed that we would continue to accept applications for the program.   Political correctness reigns. In my view the program has been hijacked by people who are ignoring its goals and promoting their own agenda.

Is this a bait and switch? Let’s say it’s a toy give-away program. That way we get a higher attendance. But our real agenda is to spread the word and bring people into the fold. I did notice on the sign up sheet, in very small print, there was a statement that the program was Christian-based. The group leader said she thought this statement was sufficient as a declaration of their intentions. “Won’t people realize what they’re participating in?” she asked.

My other concern, and equally important, was for the donors. It’s always essential that the wishes of donors be respected and honored. I wondered if donors were being fully informed.

After not attending any other meetings, time approached for the program to kick into high gear. The group leader called unexpectedly, saying she wanted to see me. When she came to my office, she asked “are you with us?” I said no. She didn’t ask for an explanation but she did mention something interesting. The pastor of the church where the event had been held last year was not going to allow the program to take place there. The pastor, she said, was not comfortable with the program’s new mission. So, for that, I felt a bit validated. She went on to say they had already lined up another location and seemed nonplused by the whole thing.

Some may think I’m overreacting. I know this is just one little program in one little town. But it’s all part of a larger issue for me. We live in a society that is increasingly being taken over by religion and faith. I’ve read articles justifying the murder of an abortion doctor. Politicians are being banned from communion for doing their job as legislators. Business meetings often begin with a prayer. Some may say these are extremes and not that common. Or these are small things and that I’m making a big deal about nothing. I just don’t want to ignore or minimize this and then wake up some day living in a restructured version of Iran. There are a few things I know for sure. A really neat program has been hijacked. I did the right thing by taking a stand. And I’m searching for another community volunteer experience.

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