I was a bit irritated when I walked into the retail establishment and saw both clerks were already helping other people. I had specifically planned to be at the store when it opened so I wouldn’t have to wait in line. A couple of uncooperative traffic lights had disrupted my plans, and now I was stuck waiting.
The assistance I needed was simple and could have been quickly addressed, but the guy ahead of me was in no hurry. Instead, he seemed oblivious to anything but the long list of complaints he was making known to everyone in the store.
Being forced to listen to him was making me even more irritated,
And so while I waited, I judged him.
I judged him to be an uneducated, racist, redneck. I also guessed that he was about my age, which is why his anti-technology rant was so intolerable.
He was in the store to pay a bill and was complaining about the late fee. His bill had been due on Christmas, and he told the clerk that he couldn’t pay it because the store was closed. The woman politely told him that didn’t have to pay the bill on the day it’s due but could pay it in advance. He ignored her statement and told her that his previously bill was due on a Sunday, and he couldn’t pay it because the store was also closed. The salesperson politely told him the store IS open on Sundays. She also noted that he could pay his bill online.
And that’s when the anti-technology rant began. The man used his limited vocabulary to explain that the one time he tried to pay a bill online, the bank had taken the same amount of money out of his account every month. When he called to complain, he had to talk to someone who couldn’t speak English very well.
“I’m an American, he said. “I speak American. If people are going to work in this country, they need to speak American too.
That’s when the clerk surprised me. “My husband is from another country. He’s working to learn English, but it’s been hard.”
She said it nicely without any note of condemnation or disagreement with the customer. She was just stating a fact, and, surprisingly the man said little else. He didn’t apologize, but his rant stopped. He paid his bill with cash and left mumbling to himself.
“Wow,” I told the clerk, “that was amazing. You have so much patience.”
“I have to. I work retail,” she said. “I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.”
“I’m still impressed,” I said. “Especially since he was so angry about people from other countries. Where is your husband from?”
“Honduras. He’s been here nine years, and he still struggles with the language.”
“Honduras,” I repeated. “Wow, I bet he came here for a good reason.”
“The cartel took over his family farm,” she said. “We are still trying to get the rest of his family up here but we aren’t having much luck.”
I chose not to engage her in a conversation about the current immigration system or political environment. Instead, she asked me what I needed, and, as expected, I was soon out the door.
But the encounter stayed with me for much of the day. I was angry at the man but impressed with the clerk. I envied her ability to remain unruffled and almost kind to such an ignorant fool.
Only that night, when thoughts about the day raced through my mind as I was trying to fall asleep, did I recognize what a hypocrite I was.
My job is to advocate for people who struggle.
My job is educate the public about how stress, and adverse experiences, and lack of early childhood education can have a lifelong impact.
My job is to work with people who have few resources and little exposure to other cultures or countries.
My job is to help people just like that man.
For all I knew, the man was illiterate or have a learning disability. He might have grown up in an abusive, hate-filled environment. He might live where there is no access to technology because of geography or finances. He might have emptied his bank account to pay that bill.
Standing in that store wearing my middle-class, well-educated, self-righteous attitude, I had judged him based on nothing but how he was behaving in what was probably a very stressful situation for him.
I did exactly what I am always complaining other people do: I made judgments based solely on my personal perspective and experiences.
I could have spent a sleepless night worrying about my hypocrisy, but I didn’t.
Instead, I took to heart the words the clerk had uttered that day: I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.
She was right. What she didn’t say was that sometimes the person we have to forgive is ourselves.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Last week, two of my high school classmates passed away in completely unrelated circumstances. I was never more than an acquaintance of either woman, but their deaths affected me deeply.
They made me think about my own mortality.
Even though I’ve been known to say “I’m so old,” I really don’t feel old. In fact, on most days I forget that I’m even an adult. My friends and colleagues can certainly testify that I frequently forget to act like an adult.
But when two people from my graduating class died within days? That not only made me question what I’ve actually done with my life, it also made me reflect on everything I still want to do. In all honesty, it made me wonder about my legacy.
Amid those thoughts, I considered how much I’ve changed since high school, how much I haven’t changed, and all of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. And I realized that aging shouldn’t be measured by the crow’s feet around my eyes or the laugh lines around my mouth. Instead, it should be measured by all the nuggets of truth I’ve picked up among the successes, mistakes, joys, heartaches, worries and moments of peace I’ve experienced on this bumpy road called life.
I’ve had 52 years to accumulate these little life lessons, so it seems appropriate that I share one lesson for every year of that journey:
- Be a goofball. Life is so much more bearable when you find ways to be a goofball.
- If a situation or person makes you uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to walk away. There’s a reason your’re uncomfortable.
- If something reminds you of song, then start singing it out loud . . . unless you are at a funeral. Then just sing silently or people will give you angry looks.
- Speaking of funerals, always act as though you recognize the person in the coffin. If you don’t, never yell out loud that you are in the wrong place. You probably aren’t. The person in the coffin just doesn’t look like the person you knew because of the makeup or clothes or hair. Or all of the above. After yelling you are in the wrong place, you will immediately realize that you are in the right place because people you know will check to see if you are all right.
- Never hesitate to tell someone that you love them. Unless you don’t love them. Then you should hesitate.
- Spend time with people who are younger than you.
- Spend time with people who are older than you.
- No matter what the weather is, spend at least 30 minutes outside every day. Extreme cold, extreme heat, wind, rain and snow will do more for your soul than staying cooped up inside every will.
- Comparing yourself to other people will never make you a better person no matter how hard you try to be as good or as strong or as smart or as successful or as talented or as skinny or as pretty. You are disrespecting your own unique traits, and are just making yourself miserable.
- Not everyone you meet is going to like you. Why would they? You certainly don’t like everyone you meet.
- If you want unconditional love, get a dog. No human will ever give you the unconditional love that a dog does.
- At least once a year, spend time lying on your back looking up at the clouds. You’ll always see something interesting. When you get older, you might see some floaters against the blue sky, but you should ignore them. The shapes you should pay attention to are the ones in the clouds.
- Trying to be perfect only annoys other people. Instead, be genuine. The only people who are annoyed by genuine people are fake people. And who cares what they think?
- Always keep at least one toy in your office. If you can’t play at work, you should find another job.
- Never be ashamed of your opinion. However, make sure you don’t confuse opinions with facts.
- If you are in an accident, your underwear is the least of your worries. Medics and health care professionals don’t care if your underwear is clean or in perfect condition. After you’ve been in accident, your underwear is probably neither anyway.
- Vote in every single election.
- Never pretend to like music or movies for the sake of someone else.
- Don’t listen to advice from people who say you should eat your dessert first. Trust me. Eat your vegetables first.
- Don’t let you cat pee in the dryer vent. I say this, but I have no earthly clue how to actually achieve this. If someone knows how to prevent your cat from peeing in the dryer vent, please share it with ever cat owner you know. They will be forever appreciative.
- Become a student of history. Read books or newspaper articles. Listen to podcasts. Watch documentaries. There is so much truth in the quote “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’
- Do your best to remember people’s names and something that is important to them. Don’t do this for their sake. Do it for yours.
- Get a little bit of exercise every day.
- Admit your mistakes. Always admit your mistakes.
- Get a copy of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder). Seriously. Every day you are going to have to deal with irrational people whom you don’t understand. If you have a copy of the DSM, at least you can try to figure out what is wrong with them. You might not be able to actually to that, but going through the DSM will keep you so busy that you’ll be less irritated.
- Find those friends with whom you can bitch about other people. I know this doesn’t sound kind, but let’s face it, we are all human and other people annoy us. Find those friends who are annoyed by the same people and keep them on speed dial. It can save your sanity.
- Visit the world’s churches and cathedrals just to enjoy the architecture and the sense of serenity.
- Recognize that money will never buy happiness but using your money to help others will make you feel happy.
- Spend more time listening to music and reading than watching television.
- Learn to forgive. Forgiving is so much better for your mental health than holding a grudge.
- Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you forget. There are some people who are better just not being in your life, and you have the right to make that choice.
- It’s just as important to forgive yourself as it is to forgive other people. But since you can’t walk away from yourself, you have to make a conscious decision to learn from your mistakes.
- Medication can help with anxiety and depression, but so can gardening. When life is tough, plant flowers, Get dirt under your fingernails. There is nothing like the feeling of satisfaction of getting all of the dirt out from under your fingernails after a day of gardening.
- Buy and wear colorful clothes. Most of us went through a black clothes phase at some point. Despite what we thought at the time, there is nothing interesting about black clothes.
- Carry an interesting purse. It’s the best conversation starter ever.
- Always wear a bra when you leave the house. Always. Even if you are wearing a t-shirt, a sweatshirt and a coat to walk the dog. You might think there is no reason to wear a bra, but something might happen. For example, you might fall down, shatter your wrist, and end up in the emergency room.
- Trust your gut more than the advice of other people.
- Never, ever accept credit for someone else’s ideas or work.
- Always wear your lightest clothes to the doctor’s office and remove all jewelry before being weighed. If you are going to the doctor’s in the winter, wear shorts and pretend you just worked out.
- Find your passion and you’ll find your tribe.
- Don’t regret your past. If it wasn’t your past, you wouldn’t be the person you are now.
- Don’t accept anything at face value.
- Give compliments. Just make sure they are genuine.
- Never strive to be the most important person in the room. Strive to be the most understanding.
- Spend some time with trees. Seriously. The energy and vibes you can get from trees are amazing.
- Feed stray animals. If your neighbors complain, lie.
- Sometimes you have to lie to keep the peace, but never tell a lie that could hurt someone.
- Learn to master the eye roll. Then keep sunglasses handy.
- Always remember that no matter how much you want other people to understand your point of view, they are hearing it from their point of view. That means words you didn’t intend to be hurtful can be hurtful anyway and statements you make as explanations can be taken as accusations. Knowing this doesn’t fix anything, but it does provide perspective.
- Spend less time trying to figure out someone else’s motives and more time ensuring sure your own motives are good.
- Find and keep friends who can cook.
- Remember life is like a satisfying bike ride. Sometimes you’ve been going uphill for so long that you are exhausted and feel as though the climb will never end. And just when you think you can’t go on, you reach the top. Then you can relax into the joy and exhilaration of going downhill. Sometimes your are just riding on flat surface maintaining. And every time you ride, you get stronger and learn another technique to make you a better cyclist. All of those struggles and joys become memories, and the string of memories each of us creates becomes our legacy.
There’s an old saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The saying may be old, but it’s more relevant than ever. From the world stage to the community stage, too many people use the slightest bit of authority to benefit themselves. Sometimes they do so with no thought to the damage they do to others, sometimes they tell lies to hide their true intentions, and sometimes they just don’t care.
But those left in their wake do care.
I should know.
In the last few months, weeks, and even days, the fallout from multiple instances of abuse of power has seeped into both my personal and professional life.
But, like so much in life, I’ve had to make a choice. I can either ignore the problems or I can can learn from them.
I’ve chosen to learn, and here’s what I’ve figured out: people only abuse their power because other people let them.
Sometimes, people allow the abuse of power because they think they too will benefit. They realize what is happening is wrong, but the potential gains outweigh the immorality of the situation. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people are afraid to call out the wrong doing. They fear they’ll be hurt, someone they care about will be hurt, or that an institution or organization in which they are invested will be hurt. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people believe more in institutions than they do people, and they will do all they can to protect those institutions. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people are in such awe of power that they truly believe that the abuse of power is justified. Or they believe that those who are abusing the power somehow earned and deserve to be where they are and to do what they do. Or they were taught not to question authority. So they say and do nothing.
These may be excuses, but they should never be excusable.
In the end, people who abuse their power only do harm: to people; to communities; to organizations; to institutions; and even to countries.
And while their behavior is reprehensible, looking the other way when abuse occurs is what allows it to continue.
It’s the sin that sits next to power.
Yesterday, I discovered that the old tree I’d admired during so many bike rides is now a broken remnant of it’s former majesty.
The sight of it literally made me cry.
I’d always considered the tree a living definition of the term survivor. It had, after all, obviously withstood so many of life’s storms, including a lightening strike. Because of all its scars, the tree was much more magnificent than the younger trees nearby.
Yesterday, seeing what remained of it, I no longer thought so. Even more bothersome was that some time had obviously passed since it had fallen, and I hadn’t even realized it.
Granted, I changed my regular bike route a while ago so I haven’t recently ridden by the tree, but I didn’t think it had been THAT long.
Apparently it had been.
Like so much recently, the overgrown stump was a reminder of how quickly time passes. And with the passage of time comes loss: the loss of friends and family, the loss of youth, and even the loss of the roles and responsibilities that we think define us.
But as I looked at the stump through the tears, I realized something else. The remnants of the tree were still making their mark on both the landscape and on me.
And that’s really all we can ask of anything.
Moments and people can’t stay in our lives forever. Instead, we have to make the most of what they give us and then use that to shape the remaining time and relationships we have.
In the past, I’d always thought the tree was there to teach me the lesson that being a survivor is about staying strong during tough times.
Yesterday, its remains taught me a new lesson: survival isn’t just about standing strong. Sometimes it involves letting go of what we think defines us so we can reach out to find new ways to make our mark on the world.
And it taught me I can do all of that while still embracing the memories.
Neither age nor time has changed my opinion of Mrs. Gladwill.
I will go to my grave believing that my first grade teacher actually took pleasure in torturing little kids.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: at age six, when I watched the movie The Wizard of Oz for the first time, I was convinced that the Wicked Witch of the West had taken lessons from Mrs. Gladwill.
Horrible memories from first grade still haunt me:
- Being put in the corner because it was easier to move me rather than the kids around me who were cheating;
- Wetting my pants because Mrs. Gladwill believed that if you didn’t use lunch or recess to relieve yourself, you didn’t plan appropriately;
- Going to school with the mumps because I didn’t want my name to be written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard for being absent;
- Getting caught going to school with the mumps, being blamed for infecting most of the kids in my class, and having my name written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard anyway.
The list goes on and on. But nothing compares to the horror I felt for making my first mistake on a school assignment.
Up to that point, I though school was too easy. So, when Mrs. Gladwill gave her class a worksheet with rows of pictures and told us to circle everything that began with the letters ch, I scoffed at such a simple task. While my peers studied the worksheet and labored over the choices, I took more time selecting which crayon to use than I did actually circling the pictures: a chairs, cherries; checkers, a chicken, cheese and a few other items. I raised my hand, turned in my paper and took pleasure in being the first in my class to complete the assignment.
What I never anticipated was getting the paper back the next day with a big red circle around the picture of a church and an even bigger -1 at the top of the page.
I was so astonished, I forgot to be afraid of Mrs. Gladwill. I actually reached out and tugged on her sleeve.
“You made a mistake,” I blurted out in my moment of disbelief,
I immediately regretted my words.
Mrs. Gladwill turned around with a look that said “I never make mistakes.” Her lack of words, however, gave me the opportunity I needed.
“You circled the turch,” I said. “Turch doesn’t begin with ch, It begins with T.”
For the first time in my life, an adult looked at me as though I was stupid.
“CHurch,” Mrs. Gladwill said emphasizing the ch sound, “begins with ch.”
And that was the end of our discussion. But it wasn’t the end of my disbelief.
I took the offending paper home to show my mother, who, to my amazement, sided with Mrs. Gladwill.
I was stunned. We went to turch almost every Sunday. When I talked about turch, it definitely started with a T. And that’s how others people said it too. I couldn’t have been saying and hearing it wrong.
And yet, according to my mother and to Mrs Gladwill, I had been.
The day my mother convinced me that turch wasn’t a word was quite possibly the most humbling day of my life. My world was turned upside down because I realized that the way I perceived it wasn’t always accurate. That was the most important lesson I learned in first grade.
It’s also one of which I am regularly reminded.
Just the other day, I discovered that yet another person I knew had died of a drug overdose, and, once again, people took to social media to disparage her. There were comments about how she used the money she got from being on welfare to buy drugs. There were comments about her deserving to die if she did drugs. There were even comments that the world was better off with one less drug user.
And for every one of those comments, someone who knew would point out that she wasn’t on welfare – she had a job. They would point out that she was a kind soul who went out of her way to help others. They would say that she had a family who loved her. That seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The people who were making the negative, hateful comments were doing exactly what I did as a first grader – only instead of insisting that the word church starts with a T, they were insisting that there is only one type of person who dies of a drug overdose. Based on their judgemental comments, the only thing that will change their mind is when someone they know and care about dies of an overdose.
I wouldn’t wish that on anyone – just as I wouldn’t wish any child has a horrible teacher like Mrs. Gladwill. But there is something to be said for negative experiences. They teach us valuable lessons; they help us develop new skills; they give us a new perspective; and, hopefully, every once in a while, they teach us humility.
Mrs. Gladwill died ten years ago at the age of 94. When my mother sent me her obituary, all those negative feelings from first grade came rushing back. But something else came back as well: a memory of my mother telling me that the smartest people make a lot of mistakes in life. The difference between them and others is that they always learn from them.
Thanks Mom. And (I say this with a great deal of hesitancy) thanks also, Mrs. Gladwill.
On Friday afternoon, my 16-year old daughter and her friend giggled as they insisted I look at a picture from earlier that day.
In the photo, my daughter, who wears her glasses more than she wears her contacts, had placed several of her friends’ glasses over her own.
She was laughing with delight at the image of all those glasses perched on her nose. But just looking at the picture made my head hurt because trying to see the world through multiple lenses can be painful.
It’s so painful, in fact, that many of us avoid doing it.
But we should.
I was reminded of that this week when I begrudgingly attended a continuing education program that I needed to keep my social work license. The licensure requirements recently changed to include at least two hours about mental health issues for veterans, which was the topic of the workshop.
As soon as I entered the classroom, I realized that not all of us were there solely because we wanted to keep our licenses.
When I sat down, the older gentleman sitting directly across from me explained that, even though he wasn’t a social worker, he was interested in the topic.
He was a veteran he said as he gestured to a woman sitting near us who was wearing a hijab.
“I was taught to kill people like that,” he said to me. “Now I’m being told to accept them.”
I’m not even sure what hackles are, but I immediately felt mine go up. His words were in direct opposition to everything I’ve been raised to believe:
- America was founded on the principle of religious freedom.
- Christians aren’t supposed to judge people who are different than we are.
- Good people don’t want to harm others based on their beliefs.
With only a few words, this man who had spent most of his life in service to my country, made me question both his ethics and the agenda of our country’s military.
Only hours later, after listening to a presentation about military culture, hearing from family members of veterans, and getting bombarded with statistics, did I realize the man was crying.
A colleague was trying to comfort him as tears rolled down his cheeks. He was explaining how difficult adjusting to civilian life has been for him.
That’s when I realized the entire purpose of the continuing education requirement: I needed to understand that lens through which Veterans like him might view the world. He isn’t a bad man. He’s actually a good man who is living in a culture with conflicting message and ideals.
That was only one of the many reminders about different lenses that I’ve been getting recently.
For example, I had to change the lens through which I saw a childhood friend whom I’d envied for having everything I didn’t: a sense of style; easy popularity; a beautiful bedroom; horses and even a boat. She recently revealed that her stepfather had molested her for years in the house where I’d spent so many hours. In fact, she had envied me for my ability to express exactly what I was thinking and feeling while she kept everything bottled up.
I’ve had to change the lens through which I view some of the frustrating low-income clients who walk into our office after continually make poor choices. New medical findings show how poverty and childhood stress literally change brain structure.
I’ve had to change the lens through which I perceive people who allude to Fox News or share clips of Sarah Huckabee Sanders citing a recycled email. I have to remind myself to try to see the world through their tinted lens colored by dogma, lack of information, priorities, fear and their beliefs about their own circumstances.
Unlike my daughter, I’m not going to subject myself to a headache by putting on several pairs of real glasses that will make the world blurry. But I am going to try a little harder to look through the lenses that other people choose to share with me.
And in return, I hope they take time to look through mine as well.
I’ve been wanting to write about something that happened to me last Monday, but, up until just now. I haven’t been able to.
I could use the excuse that I’ve been busy (which I have been), but I’ve never before let that prevent me from writing about something so incredibly important.
The real problem hasn’t been lack of time. It’s been a lack of words.
I just don’t know how to write about hate.
You see, last Monday morning, a man came into my office and spewed racist venom at me.
I sat in shock as he got up in my face and yelled at me about using agency money to help Hispanic and black people. He even accused me of not caring about white people. Despite my efforts to be calm with a clearly irrational person, I admit glancing down at my arm and saying, “You do realize that I’m a white person, right?”
He couldn’t hear me. He was too absorbed in his own anger.
And, other than simply waiting out his verbal assault while my colleagues tried to decide what to do, I was powerless.
I can’t imagine how I would have felt if my skin color were darker.
I used to think I understood the problem of racism.
At age five, I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I discovered that I was the only white child in my class on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
But my parents and teacher (who was also white) rushed to my rescue. They had the only other white child in kindergarten transferred into my class so I felt more comfortable. I can only imagine how the man in my office would react if a Hispanic of black family had done something similar for their child.
By first grade, my parents moved our family off the reservation, and my class was full of kids who didn’t make me self-conscious about the color of my skin, eyes, hair or culture. As I moved from childhood into adolescence, I claimed to have experienced racism because I had been one of only two white kids in my kindergarten class.
I hadn’t. My limited experience didn’t even come close. Being a different color doesn’t equate to racism if you still have power. And my family had the power to get me out of a situation that made me feel uncomfortable.
But I didn’t feel as though I had any power last Monday.
I was in an office with no escape as the angry man stood between me and the door. I was in a situation in which reasoning and rational discussion couldn’t resolve the problem. And I was face to face with an individual who truly believed in a social hierarchy based solely on physical characteristics.
No matter how calm my voice was as I repeated the mantra “We care about all people here. We don’t care about their skin color or their religion,” I felt powerless.
When the man finally left, I rehashed the incident with my co-workers, expressed relief that he hadn’t been carrying a weapon, implemented a safety plan and complained that the current political environment is empowering bigots.
But I never doubted my convictions or the words I’d said to him.
He may have tried to intimidate me with his hate, but my words of love actually had more power – of that I have no doubt.
Hate might come knocking on my door. Sometimes, it might even walk in. But I will never, ever allow it to stay.
And knowing that makes me feel incredibly powerful. As it should.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend called me a hypocrite because, for a few hours, I didn’t want to focus on someone else’s problems.
I am, after all, a social worker. Not only has my career been dedicated to ” being the change I seek in the world,” but my profession follows me into my personal life like a hungry dog seeking a treat.
Sometimes I believe there is a permanent thought bubble hovering over my head that says “Talk to me – I care.”
Just this week, a man stopped my daughter and me while we were out walking our dog. He wanted to tell me about a dog he used to have. The conversation quickly turned to his life as a young African-American man growing up in the projects of Baltimore in the 1970’s and about the racism he experienced.
Fifteen minutes later, my daughter and I said goodbye to him. As we walked away, Kendall, simply asked, “Complete stranger?”
I nodded in affirmation.
Here’s the thing: I care about people. I care about other people a lot. I hate injustice. I can’t stand putting profit over people. And I abhor when religion or national origin or the ability to speak English are used as excuses to discriminate.
But here’s the other thing: I’m human. I have my own issues, insecurities, and flaws. I can be self-centered and insensitive. I actually get tired of hearing about everything that is wrong with the world when I’m struggling with my own problems. And yes, at times I can be hypocritical.
But there is a big difference between having a bad moment or a bad day and living life as a hypocrite.
At least I think there is. I certainly hope I’m not fooling myself. Because, from what I can tell, the worst offending hypocrites completely fail to see any hypocrisy in their words or behavior.
Which is why I’m more than willing to share a few simple examples I’ve recently observed.
You might be a hypocrite if…
- You use drugs recreationally but publicly shame addicts.
- You claim to follow the teachings of Christ then post negative messages about Muslims on social media.
- You complain about how vulgar our society has become but voted for a presidential candidate who boasted about molesting women.
- You constantly complain about paying taxes yet received a college education thanks to the GI bill, are enjoying a substantial pension from a government job, and expect your highways and public roads to be pot-hole free.
- You spent years making negative statements and sharing outright lies about our country’s former president then display self-righteous indignation about any criticism of our current president.
- You are an elected official who says you are voting in the best interest of your constituents when you are actually voting based on party politics and raising millions of dollars for your re-election campaign from special interest groups and corporations.
- You complain about lazy people who depend on tax payer support then, when you lose your job, complain that the SNAP (food stamp) benefits you receive aren’t sufficient.
This is far from a comprehensive list, but to be honest, I doubt the people I am writing about will read these words anyway. And even if they do, they probably won’t recognize themselves.
But I had to write all of them anyway – including the ones about my own imperfections.
As the saying goes, “I would rather be known in life as an honest sinner than as a lying hypocrite.”
I noticed the shoe just after dawn. It was lying on the gravel in a weedy, deserted parking area.
It certainly wasn’t the only single, abandoned shoe I’ve ever noticed. Over the decades, I’ve seen more lonely shoes in random places than I can possibly remember.
But this shoe caught my attention because it triggered a memory about something that happened in almost that exact same location last summer.
In both cases, I was peddling my bike down a straight stretch of road after conquering a particularly long and steep hill.
But that time, I wasn’t alone on the road. Instead, three bedraggled teenagers with two suitcases and an extremely, unenthusiastic dog were trudging along the shoulder. As I rode by, the boy yelled at me to stop.
My curiosity outweighed any concerns I should have had, so I obeyed.
“Hey, is this the way to Oregon?” the boy asked. In one hand, he was holding a rope that was tied loosely around his poor dog’s neck. One of the suitcases sat at his feet.
“Where?” I asked. We were currently standing on a rural road in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. People with no motor vehicle generally don’t ask directions to a state that is 2,500 miles away.
“Oregon,” he repeated.
“The state?” I asked.
One of the girls gave me a look I knew well. It’s the one every teenager gives a clueless adult.
“Yes,” she said. “We are going to the state of Oregon.”
When I asked why, I was rewarded with the same look again. “Because we want to,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that’s a really long way to walk.”
“We’ve already come all the way from Hagerstown,” the boy announced proudly. “Are we going in the right direction?”
Since Hagerstown was only 20 miles away, his efforts to impress me weren’t very successful. At the same time, they were heading northwest. So that’s what I told them.
They seemed satisfied with my answer, thanked me, and continued their walk down the road. On my return about 20 minutes later, they were still trudging along. I waved, and they waved back.
Shortly after I passed them, I noticed one of their suitcases on the side of the road. My first thought was that it must have gotten quite heavy. My second thought was relief that at least they hadn’t abandoned the dog. And my third thought was to wonder how much more they would abandon before they simply abandoned hope of getting to Oregon.
Or maybe, against all odds, they actually did get there.
I’ll never know.
For a few a days after our encounter, I paid attention to the news in case there were any reports of three missing or runaway teens. There weren’t any.
And so, I forgot about them. At least, I forgot about them until the sight of that shoe last Monday morning reminded me of the discarded suitcase, those kids, and of impossible dreams.
For years, I’ve considered single, lost shoes – or other personal items – on the side of the road as a mystery. I’ve never understood how a person could just lose one shoe or why they wouldn’t go back to get it.
Maybe what I’ve been missing is that, to the owners, the shoe wasn’t important. It was an item that could be replaced. For them, going back for one thing wasn’t nearly as important as moving forward down the road of life – wherever it may go and toward whatever dreams they were following.
Personally, I’ve spent too much time looking for things I’ve lost only to lose sight of where I wanted to go.
But this past week, the sight of just one shoe served as a reminder that getting where we want to go sometimes requires letting go of what we already have.
Some people would have been offended by the text message I received yesterday morning: “Every time I see a porta potty, I think of you, Trina.”
That text was quickly followed by one from the other person in the group: “Me too.”
But I wasn’t upset. Instead, I texted back “It’s my legacy.”
And I wasn’t kidding.
For the past few weeks, a porta potty has literally been keeping me sane during long, stressful hours at the office. And it hasn’t just been a constant source of entertainment, it’s been a reminder about humanity and finding joy wherever we can.
When the porta potty first appeared outside the Catholic Church directly across the street from my office, I was confused. I wasn’t sure if the church was providing a new public service or was having plumbing issues.
As it turns out, it was both.
The church is having its bathrooms renovated, and the porta potty is the interim plumbing solution.
And while I’m fairly certain it was never intended to be a social gathering place, I am absolutely convinced no one thought it would become a source of entertainment. Yet,that is exactly what it has provided for me and my colleagues. (Although I have no doubt that they are more entertained by my obsession with it as they are with what is actually happening across the street.).
But I’m not the only one who has become fascinated by its popularity. While I was pondering why it had become a social gathering place, one of my colleagues had started a running tally of all of the random people using it.
We also wondered about the shoe lying outside of it on a Monday morning, which prompted a story
about a wine bottle that had been in that same space during church services the day before. We watched municipal employees and homeless individuals take advantage of the same service.
One day, we noticed that the trash cans lined up near it resembled the children in the “Sound of Music” singing at the command of, well Maria Van Porta Potty.
The rest of the office was highly amused the day I cringed in embarrassment after two men looked up at my window and waved as I snapped yet another picture with my phone.
But, most importantly, we’ve laughed at our (my?) obsession with the blue box across the street.
And I’ve needed those laughs.
My job involves working with people who are already disenfranchised at a time when they are being threatened and marginalized more than ever. The office budget is tight and getting tighter. I have to deal with tough situations and difficult people on a daily basis. And yet, that porta potty has provided several reminders:
- Even though life sometimes stinks, it is sometimes, gloriously comical.
- No matter how our culture divides and labels people, in the end we all have the same, basic needs.
- One of life’s greatest mysteries remains the puzzle of those single shoes left in random places.
- Other people are incredibly interesting when they think no one else is watching.
- Laughter isn’t just the best medicine, it’s the best way to get through life. Finding joy in the mundane, routine, and sometimes difficult challenges of life isn’t optional. It’s an absolute necessity.
I know the porta potty will soon disappear from my life, but something tells me I’ll find some other source of entertainment. It is, after all, a matter of survival.