Category Archives: Resilience

Small is Huge

Peace LilyRob and Ruth asked if we’d like houseplants they can’t move to their new home.  “Sure!” I responded.  Ruth, with a green thumb and a love for gardening, has a gazillion plants in her home.

While Rob fixed us Saturday brunch, the rest of us walked from room to room, choosing plant after plant for the brand new homeless shelter my husband manages, Compass at First Presbyterian Church of Seattle*.  We loaded 7-foot palms, Christmas cacti in bloom, weeping begonias and Aspidstra; plus tables and artwork, African masks, Peruvian baskets, and two bags of clothing into our pick-up.  The stark white, newly renovated rooms of the shelter need softening.  These would make a good start.

Of the four of us, only Mark realized how much this would mean to the shelter guests.

When we arrived at the shelter, guests emptied the truck in minutes.  One guest with a horticultural degree called each plant by its botanical name as it came in the door.  Another was reminded of the Christmas cacti that filled the deck of her childhood home in California.  A man whose calligraphy decorates the dining area brainstormed where to hang a large, colorful Picasso.  Yet another removed a safari shirt from a bag and, beaming, told me, “This is my Christmas present.”

As we drove home, we were a stew of conflicting feelings:  joy, humility, and gratitude, horror and rage.  We wiped silent tears and blew our noses.  We were lost for words.  How does one speak of the unabashed joy and gratitude we encountered as we delivered what seemed to us like mere plants?  How does one not feel humbled by the guests’ appreciation for the beauty such seemingly small things bring?  How does one articulate awe at the joy of such folk as they decorate a warm, safe, hope-filled shelter for themselves and future guests?   And how does are society justify throwing away people when they or their circumstances become difficult?

HomelessTents_Seattle_KIRO7_620-620x370The next morning, we brought a second load of plants.  It was like walking straight into a geyser of joy, gratitude, and pride.  Guests showed us plants from the day before which they had trimmed and watered as beautifully as if they were in an expensive nursery and which made the rooms softer and more human.  The shelter was full of hardship, resilience, joy and community.

Mark and I headed upstairs for worship.  The scripture read and discussed was a fitting close to Thanksgiving weekend and the beginning of our preparations for Christmas.  As you proceed through the month of December, I pray it will stay with you as it has with me.  Even the small can be huge in impact.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘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.’  Matthew 25:31-40

*The newest shelter in Seattle, Compass at First Presbyterian, provides a safe temporary home 24/7 for 80 men and 20 women from homeless encampments in Seattle.  Staff works intensively to locate permanent housing in 60 days, assembling documents such as photo IDs and birth certificates and helping with employment, medical and psychological care as needed.   King County has the third largest concentration homeless in the U.S. behind New York and Los Angeles, 11,643.

 

Beyond Cozy

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Butterfly in Mount Ranier National Park, by Mark Smutny

I pulled a soft blanket over my shoulders, tucked my hands under the pillow and fell asleep.  Sometime in the night, I woke up with my right hand and arm numb and hurting like Hades.  Curling myself into a ball felt cozy at first but eventually cut enough circulation to my arm that my arm and hand “went to sleep.”  Note to self:  Don’t stay curled up so long you become numb.

It’s been about two years now, that I’ve lived a mostly secluded life because of health issues.  First in LA, where I was pinned inside because air pollution inflamed my lungs and put my life at risk.  then in Seattle, where it’s taken a year for my body to recover from the injury I did to it in LA with years of pollution.  My world shrank as I curled into a ball to survive.

Safe to say, I’m not the only one who finds it hard to exit the cocoon and come back to life after a time of solitude.  Folding in on ourselves is often an essential, life-saving strategy.  It conserves our energy, lets our mind and body heal from illness or grief.  It keeps us safe.

But staying like that for too long can cut us off, numb us, cause us to feel invisible and useless, and make it hard to re-engage.  Butterflies struggle to emerge from their cocoon.  My fingers tingle and ache as I wiggle them back to life.  We hesitate to reach out friends, search for a new job, adapt to new circumstances, resume hobbies we used to enjoy.

I slept through my hand and arm going numb until it became too much to bear.  I only acted when the pain awakened me.  Then I rotated my shoulder and dangled my arm.  Action, even minor, restored feeling and life.

We emerge slowly.  Testing.  Pushing through discomfort.  Pausing.  Starting again.

Feeling returns.  Life flows again in fits and starts.  Bit by bit, we wiggle our fingers, dry our wings, and begin to live again.

Kings, Pawns, Popes and Purpose

My reservoir of resilience ran dry this year.  It feels like the seams holding it together came apart and I have tried to re-stitch them.  Along the way, four threads of resilience, humility and hope have helped.

I found one thread in Vice President Joe Biden’s commencement address at Yale in May.  Biden described how election as one of the youngest ever to serve in the U.S. Senate fueled his “raw ambition” many years ago.  He was full of himself, he said, until six weeks after the election, when his wife and young daughter died in an auto accident and his two young sons clung to life.  He changed his focus and commuted four hours each day between home and Washington, D.C. so he could be with his sons every morning and evening. Biden said that being present with his sons and family suddenly meant more to him than all he had striven for.  He commuted for 36 years.  His priorities have remained the same ever since.  Ordinary relationships and people are more important than prestige, said Biden.

A second thread of resilience came from President Barack Obama’s eulogy for the Reverend Clementa C. Pickney, Pastor of the historic Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.   State Senator Pickney and eight other African-Americans were massacred by a white racist in June at the end of an evening Bible study at the church.  Of Pickney, the President said,

 He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words, that the sweet hour of prayer actually lasts the whole week long, that to put our faith in action is . . . about our collective salvation, that to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society. . . .What a good man. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized, after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say somebody was a good man.  You don’t have to be of high distinction to be a good man.

A third thread came from former President Jimmy Carter as he spoke about his diagnosis of metastatic melanoma.  When asked by reporters of what he is most proud and whether he wishes he had done anything differently, Carter responded,

. . . When I was president, for which I’m very grateful—that was the high point of my life, politically speaking.  But The Carter Center. . . . deal[s] with individual people in the smallest and most obscure and suffering villages and that has been far more gratifying personally. Going into the villages, learning actual needs, then meeting those needs has been one of the best things that ever happened to me.

I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would have rescued them, and I would have been re-elected. But that may have interfered with the foundation of The Carter Center.  And if I had to choose between four more years [as President] and The Carter Center, I think I would choose The Carter Center.

The most recent thread and impetus to write came from Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last week.  Francis, from Argentina, is a Jesuit, served churches in slums, and rode public buses to work each day even after he becoming a cardinal.  Unlike previous popes, he eats in the staff cafeteria with custodians and cooks, and refuses as many of the traditional vestiges of papal wealth and power possible.  Experienced U.S. reporters were tongue-tied at the Pope’s simplicity and integrity when he stepped into in a Fiat hatchback upon arriving in the U.S.

pope-francis-arrives-in-philadelphia-a4a7dbb440aac5beFrancis ate lunch with 300 homeless people in D.C. instead of with congressional leaders; and paused gave attention to special needs children and their parents.  He visited poor children and their teachers in East Harlem, and prisoners in a Pennsylvania state penitentiary, held their hands and looked in their eyes as they spoke together.  He helped lead a multi-faith prayer service with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus at Ground Zero in New York where, instead of Christian exceptionalism,  he advocated mutual respect for all religions.  The Pope’s model of humility and solidarity with the vulnerable was an antidote to the self-righteousness, bigotry, judgement, and grandiosity which usually comprise the so-called Christianity most Americans see publicly presented.

Each of these people gave me a thread of resilience, hope, and purpose.  For although in powerful positions, each showed what matters most is not who one is–one’s status, wealth, or abilities–but the character of how one lives and the integrity of the love one demonstrates. One does not have to be of high distinction to be a good person.  At the end of our life, what is most important is that it can be said of us, “This was a good person.”  That is a purpose worth getting up for.