Vulnerable

The other day, I sat in the parking lot of the grocery store watching people freak out about what they don’t have in their homes, and stuffing as much toilet paper as they possibly could into their grocery carts and cars. Truthfully, I was a bit shocked by the behavior I was witnessing. For whatever reason, people are panicking and stocking up on items like it’s the end of the world (in which case, they won’t need all this stuff, by the way…). This country has become so self-focused that “every man for himself” is the obvious motto people live by. In an emergency, grab everything you can! Don’t leave anything for anyone else! This mindset is both destructive and detrimental to any sense of community.

As I gathered my courage to enter the noise and complete chaos in the store for my weekly grocery run, I looked to my left at the car that was parked next to me. There, I saw a sad and curious sight. The car was packed full of stuff. Aside from the microwave sitting on the front passenger seat, the rest appeared, on first glance, to be garbage, in part because it was thrown in every which way, as if it had been carelessly tossed aside. There were open boxes of tissues and hangers and clothing. Small white paper bags that looked like they were discarded fast food bags and large plastic bags that appeared to be trash bags. A rolled up sleeping bag. Some socks and a shirt. The car was stuffed. Full of garbage and so much more.

There was a woman sitting in the car, and I was trying not to stare, but curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to study the contents of the car further, figure out what she was doing there.  She was parked in the handicapped space near the front of the store, and it appeared that she was eating a sandwich in the little space she had that was not taken up by stuff. She presented a stark contrast to the activity around her.

Homeless, I realized. She was likely homeless and living out of her car. I had a vague recollection of seeing this car, in this disorderly state, in this parking lot before—the tissue boxes sparking the memory. There was not much space for this woman to move about and get comfortable since so much of the car was taken up by her stuff. And yet, here she sat, alone and eating dinner in the silence and isolation of her car. Just outside her car, so many people bustled in and out of the store, stocking up on items to keep them fed and occupied and happy in the comfort and warmth of their homes while they wait out the coronavirus pandemic.

This, friends, is the reason that our panic and our focus on ourselves is not productive. We need to be mindful of the more vulnerable among us—the sick, the lonely, the homeless, the destitute. In times like this, we need to come together to look in on our neighbors. Make a phone call or check in with a quick knock on the door (keeping a safe distance from the individual who answers). Be willing to ask the question, I have to go pick up a few groceries. Do you need anything?

This is a challenging time for all of us, but for some more than others. Let’s come together and show the world who we really are.

{Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash}

Intimidating Stuff

Some things in life are intimidating, but the more you do them, the less intimidating they become.

Recently, a group of my student leaders was invited to have dinner with the University president. But the day before the dinner, we were notified that only a couple of the students had responded to the invitation, and the chef needed a head count. When we nudged the students to respond, some of them admitted they were intimidated by the thought of having dinner with the president.

And yet, the situations we encounter are often well matched to our development and to pushing that development just a bit beyond our optimal zone of comfort. Having dinner with a university president (who is well versed in dealing with young adults) is an appropriate situation for a student leader. Having dinner with the CEO of the corporation for which one works would be an appropriate situation for someone who had worked at the company for a while.

Life, you see, is about doing intimidating stuff. Because the intimidating stuff pushes us to grow and become better individuals.

But here’s the funny part. When you start doing intimidating stuff—making inquiry phone calls, engaging in debates with people whose opinions differ from yours, meeting with people in power, having dinner with your boss or the CEO of your organization, having difficult conversations—it stops being intimidating. It becomes the stuff you need to do.  You become more comfortable, and the difficult stuff…? It gets easier. Along the way, others start to recognize you as someone who faces situations head-on, they begin to look up to you, and you are given more responsibility. And more respect.

As you make your way through life, you need to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you. Sometimes, they are only presented once, and if you don’t jump, you may miss your chance. Take advantage of opportunities so you will be seen. No one is going to come looking for you to work on their project or create their videos or run their department… if they haven’t already met you or heard about you or seen you.

You will be amazed at the opportunities that open up all because you started doing intimidating stuff, and you didn’t let your fear hold you back.

Step out of your comfort zone. The more often you do so, the more comfortable—and the more ready—you will be when it matters most.

{Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash}

Warming Station

This morning, I received a local alert text. You know the ones I mean—they typically warn of accidents or road closures or malfunctioning traffic lights. This morning’s text read: “Arctic Cold Temps Tonight/Tomorrow.” This was followed by information on the location of a “warming station” where residents can go if they are in need a warm place. Perhaps this text was directed to the homeless or to people who have a home that isn’t as warm as they might like. Or maybe, these people don’t have the heating budget set aside to keep their home warm enough in the impending arctic cold.

Regardless, I got to thinking about warming stations and responsibility and how we tend to others. In many respects, we are (or should be) responsible for one another. If the weather is not friendly—if it’s too cold or too hot, if the pavement is icy, or there is a blizzard coming—we need to watch out for those who might not be able to watch out for themselves.

I grew up in a neighborhood with a number of elderly folks. The woman next door was (I assume) a widow who lived alone. On the other side lived an elderly couple, and they shared their home with the man’s elderly sister. Farther down the street lived my mother’s former high school coach who walked with two canes. While she definitely needed the canes, they often seemed most helpful for moving things and people out of her way.

Over the years, these people became part of a circle of caring that was integral to my upbringing and instilled the importance of caring for others. On Sundays, I would deliver donuts and the Sunday paper. In the summer, we shared the harvest from our garden, and on Christmas Eve, we would deliver heaping plates of homemade cookies. I would hang laundry, sweep porches, and shovel snow. But under the guise of delivering some goody or other or offering to help with light chores, there was a more important purpose. We were checking up on these people who were more vulnerable to various elements of life—like the changing weather. We were the “warming station” for our neighbors.

A warming station is not just a physical place where someone can go to get warm. A warming station provides safety, security, and comfort. That, my friends, is something that any one of us can provide, if we are willing.

So as I read the text this morning, I realized that it shouldn’t take the community to set up the security others may need . It takes people who are willing to go out of their way to check up on others. And hopefully, when we reach the point of being more vulnerable to the forces around us, someone will be the warming station for us.

Giving presence

My most important lesson from 2019: be present.

In recent weeks, I have spent a great deal of time observing life around me and considering the manner in which many people function in their day to day lives. I have bumped into people who were not watching where they were going (or rather… they bumped into me). I have had to engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid people who were texting: texting and driving, texting and walking, texting and pushing a grocery cart, texting and living.

Texting and living. Is that what we want? Sorry, I didn’t hear you. [I was distracted by my phone]. No matter where we go—the grocery store, a restaurant, the movie theater—people are on their phones. It used to be we went out to dinner at a restaurant so we could socialize and talk to our friends—those at the table with us. Now, the people at the table are busy texting the people who aren’t at the table. Hey, where are you? Look at this great meal you are missing.

I missed seeing you score your goal, kiddo. [I was texting my friend]. If you are going to take the time to attend your child’s game or go to dinner with friends or venture out hiking or go anywhere, really, do those things fully. Be in the moment. Take in all that your surroundings have to offer—enjoy the sights and sounds, experience the joys, and make the memories. By paying attention to each of the five senses, you can lock in amazing memories that will remain with you forever. Believe it or not, your neighbor’s post on social media will still be there when you return to Facebook/Instagram/Twitter in an hour or two. As will your friend’s text.

Sorry… I just have to respond to this [text, email, FB post…]. Because somehow, it won’t be there later. The message here is that the person standing right in front of you is not as important as what’s happening on your phone—the people who are elsewhere in your life, but texting you. As someone who grew up in the era of landlines without call waiting or voicemail, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that if someone wants to talk to you, they will wait for your response. Or they will text/call you again eventually. Why jump on each text, phone call, or post immediately? Our current world and technology have taught us that we can expect an immediate response. But why are we buying in to that?

Texting and living is not what I want for my life. My goal for 2020 is to take a lesson from the last weeks of 2019 and really work to be present in life. There is no better gift you can give to yourself and to those around you than to pay attention, listen, and be present for them.

{Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash}

Spinning

On a recent afternoon, I was working with one of my regular students. She is a first-year student, with whom I have developed a relationship comfortable enough that we joke around a fair amount. In reality, I joke around with most of my students because it helps them to relax and work better with me when I am … redirecting … their writing. And their academic focus.

This particular student has been working with me weekly—or semi-weekly—all semester. During our appointments, we laugh. A lot. And every now and then, we cry because that’s just the way life is.

On this afternoon, however, I was tired—silly tired—and she was working hard on developing a couple of her points before she moved on to her conclusion. As she took the time to think and compose, I started to spin in my desk chair.

“You keep working,” I advised her. “I’m just going to sit here and spin.” And with that, I spun the chair in one direction and then the other. (My office is just small enough that I couldn’t quite spin all the way around without hitting her backpack on the floor or my desk against the wall).

With that announcement, her face lit up with a smile. “You should!” she exclaimed. “Adults don’t take enough time to have fun!”

And you know, based on my experience as an adult, I have to say she’s right. Being a single mom put lots of responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and even though my children are now grown and fully capable of taking care of themselves, I haven’t quite figured out how to shake the weight of my parental duties. I still have a tendency (as we all do) to get busy with the mundane tasks and duties of adulthood, and I don’t take the time to be present, enjoy the moment, and have fun.

So I’m making this my goal into the first few months of 2020. I am going to be intentional about taking time to have fun. I will spin at my desk, regardless of who is watching. I will find opportunities to get away for an hour, a day, or a weekend. I will dance in the rain and play in the snow. I will decorate my house, go to the movies, find some new friends, look for rainbows, and wish on falling stars.

And hopefully, you will too!

{Photo by Scott Higdon on Unsplash}

Brian

I stood in the dairy aisle examining the dates on the gallon jugs of milk. I was searching for the one with the latest date, but in this particular grocery store, I was also making sure the date had not passed. Next to me, an elderly man hoisted himself from a wheelchair, so he was standing on his one leg, and he leaned into the dairy case over the chocolate milk. I watched him for a moment. He reached way into the back and dragged two half-gallons to the front where he could see them better. He leaned over and adjusted his wheelchair, then he pulled a magnifying glass from the pocket of his jacket, and he checked the expiration dates on the milk he had just moved.

I moved closer. “Do you need help?” I ventured.

“Not yet,” he said with a smile as he turned to examine this person who had broken through his alone-space. He squinted a bit as he studied my face. “What do you do? Or what did you used to do?” he asked me. I told him I worked at the university in town. “Ah,” he nodded. “You teach?”

“Yes,” I told him. “I work in academic support.” He smiled and nodded knowingly as he told me about his cousin—the most compassionate person he’d ever known—who was also a teacher. Everyone thought very highly of her, and it was clear from his words that he did, as well.

With barely a breath in between, he began another story, this one about his life and his career, and I listened intently. He told me about the crimes he solved, the cases that he had easily cracked when no one else could figure them out, and the seventeen police departments that had extended job offers to him when he was younger because they recognized his talent. He shifted his weight on his leg as he leaned on his wheelchair for support. All the while he spoke, I watched his face. His long mustache and scraggly beard covered the lower half of his face, but his eyes held the wisdom that comes with age and experience. They held kindness. And they held loneliness.

Despite the fact that I had never met this man before this conversation, I recognized something about him. It was in his eyes. It was in the way he started his sentences… his stories. It was in the way he reached out of his loneliness to hold me in conversation, to connect with me, if only for a moment. Even though we were strangers, I recognized his humanness.

His stories, though perhaps embellished a bit, reminded me of the stories my grandpa would tell. And in more recent years, the stories of my dad. There is nothing that compares to the storytelling of the older generations.

So I listened. I learned. And for a brief, fleeting moment, I connected. I offered him the human interaction that we all need, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

When I walked into the store, this man was a stranger, but when I walked out, he was Brian. The next time I see him in the dairy aisle, as I’m sure I will, I will greet him by name, and we will pick up our conversation where we left off. Although somehow, I believe I may just hear the same stories—the stories of his youth—yet again.

{Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash}

The Stranger

I recently had an intriguing interchange with a stranger.

First let me say, I love talking to strangers. I talk to them in the grocery store while I am picking out my produce. I talk to them while I am waiting on the interminably long deli line each week. And I will start conversations with them when I am out walking. I don’t apologize for my boldness. I am cohabiting this earth with others, and I would like to get to know them. Besides, strangers are only strangers until you get to know them.

So the other day at work, I was minding my own business. It was Friday afternoon around 3:00, and I was trying to finish up some tasks so I could actually leave for home at a reasonable time. My phone buzzed, and I received a text message from a number I didn’t recognize. “All done. When I get to better service, I’ll send a pic……” The number was from my mother’s area code—the area code in which I grew up and still have a friend or two.

Maybe it’s someone I know, I reasoned. I decided to wait and see if the person texted me again. I put my phone back on my desk, and I promptly forgot about it.

Nearly two hours later, my phone buzzed again. This time, my screen displayed a picture of a white horse, his nose in a feedbag. “This is how he was waiting for me,” the message read. The picture made it very clear that the texter was not someone I knew. Though I felt pulled to hear the story of the horse.

“Cute picture,” I texted back. “But I think you might be texting the wrong person,” I informed the stranger.

“Oops. Thanks for resending… glad I made you smile.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a part of me that wanted to keep texting. To probe deeper. To find out about this random stranger who texted me at quitting time on a Friday afternoon. To tell her about the coincidence of the area code. To find out about the horse. And to make her smile, too. There is a part of me that longed to make that connection.

Because a stranger is only a stranger until you get to know her.

Then she is a friend.

{Photo by Nikki Jeffrey on Unsplash}