Saturday, December 31, 2011

Helping others

I just wrote a post about helping others. When I talk about helping others, I mean being aware of and respecting their feelings and wishes. There are a lot of things people call helping others which are really not helpful at all.

When you say to a sick person, "You would be fine if you just exercised more," that is not helping.

When a person is trying to clear all the clutter out of their house and you give them some useless knick-knack as a gift, you are not doing them a favor.

When a person is struggling with something and you say, "It's not that hard," you are not helping.

The above three examples are all cases of making things worse. I hate when people make things worse like that and then expect to be thanked for their helpfulness.

Helping others is about listening. It's about attuning yourself to the wishes of others. It's about treating other people with respect. It's about appreciating what others have to offer.


A lot of people seem to think American Beauty was a wonderful movie. I hated it. To me, it's about a man who quits his job, neglects his family, and spends his time lusting after a friend of his teenage daughter. Meanwhile, his wife brings in the family income, takes care of the kids, prepares the meals, and takes care of the house and yard. And, the movie portrays her negatively for being uptight and glorifies her husband for being such a free spirit.

Spending time with my family over the holidays, I was reminded of this movie. No, things in my family are nowhere near as bad as they are in the movie. I just felt that some people were working for the welfare of the family, while others were not considerate of the efforts being made.

It started weeks before, as I planned my travel dates. I tried to find out everyone's schedules, and plan travel dates that would allow me to see everyone. Once I made my plan, I notified my relatives, so that those who still had not formed their plans could plan accordingly. Then, weeks after I had made my plan, my brother informed me that he and his family would be visiting my mother's house on a day that did not coincide with my plans. I had to re-work my plans, and after considering the alternatives, chose to cut short my visit with my father, because it was the least bad of the alternatives.

My brother and his family said that they would be at my mother's place from supper on one day through supper on the following day. My mother and stepfather planned menus and bought groceries to accommodate this plan. Then, at lunch on the second day, my brother and sister-in-law announced that they did not plan to stay for supper after all. It made me mad that my mother and stepfather, who don't have a lot of money, had gone to the trouble of buying food for a meal, and then my brother and sister-in-law decided they were not going to show up for that meal.

The lunch on the second day was our big meal, our Christmas dinner. Usually at my mom's house, we don't have sweets. Sometimes my sister-in-law tries to avoid sweets, but other times she enjoys them. A few weeks in advance of the Christmas dinner, my mother asked my sister-in-law whether or not they should get dessert for the Christmas dinner. My sister-in-law said yes, so my stepfather bought pies. Then, on the evening in the first supper, my sister-in-law mentioned that she did not want any dessert for Christmas dinner.

What bothers me is that my mother and stepfather went out of their way to accommodate the family, and those efforts were trampled on. I feel I am often in the same position. I feel like I'm always looking out for other people -- my family, my friends, and the people I serve in my job. I look out for them, and they take what they want and then leave me behind. I had a friend once who always wanted to spend time with me when I had a car and he didn't. Then he got a car and a girlfriend, and suddenly he wanted nothing to do with me, and alleged that it was all because of my own flaws that he wanted nothing to do with me.

I stayed an extra day at my mother's house in order to see my brother and his family. After they left, I went to my father's house. As I prepared to stay overnight at my father's house, I found that I seemed to be allergic to the blanket I had been planning to use. I got a different blanket, and that one seemed to be okay. However, my father told me all the places I could look for blankets, jackets, etc., in case I should wake up in the night and find I was allergic to this blanket after all.

After all the energy I invest in looking out for other people, someone was looking after me. It was like after tightening my coat against the cold, I could bask in sunlight. And it was not only that it was that I was being looked after. It was that I had a partner, someone who shares my belief that looking after people is the thing to do.

There is some emphasis in our culture on being assertive, standing up for yourself, not being taken advantage of. There are people who think that if I feel I am helping others but others are not giving back, that's a sign that I should be more assertive. But for me, standing up for myself means standing up against those who tell me I should stop helping others. I will not stop looking after other people because other people tell me I ought to. Instead, I seek to build a community where everyone looks after each other. I will look after people, but I will focus that energy on people who are trying to build the same kind of community I'm trying to build.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Vandals or cultural representatives?

While I was away for the holidays, I went for a walk on a dirt road which is surrounded by forest and a lake. This is one of the places where teenagers go to do things their parents don't approve of, like drinking. The forest is full of boulders, and young people like to put graffiti on the boulders. We think of the people who put the graffiti on the boulders as vandals.

Looking at graffiti on a boulder, it occurred to me that maybe some centuries in the future, some archaeologist will look at that graffiti as they try to understand our culture, just as we now look at cave drawings to provide insights into the cultures of the past. At the time those cave drawings were made, were the people who made them rebellious teenagers committing vandalism?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sustainable living in past generations

Nowadays, sustainable living is fashionable. People buy more expensive products because they are better for the environment. But past generations were not like this. My grandmother told me that during the Depression, it was common for people to gather food from the woods. She said many people were skinny because they did not have enough to eat. Her family was relatively well off because they had a big garden and chickens, and because her father knew how to make furniture and had a regular job as a mailman.

My mother blows her nose on cloth handkerchiefs. They are not cloth handkerchiefs that were bought in a store. They are made from old shirts. There were some nice plaid flannel shirts that were secondhand when I got them. I wore them often, but at least 15 years ago, I stopped wearing them because they were coming apart at the elbows. I gave them to my mother. She cut the sleeves off at the elbows. She converted the shirts into short sleeved shirts, and converted the ends of the sleeves into handkerchiefs. She still wears the shirts and uses the handkerchiefs. How old are these shirts? She has had them for 15 years, but there were two previous owners. Maybe they are about 25 years old.

My mother has a nice soft t-shirt that she wears as an inner layer. This was something that I got secondhand, and then gave to her. How old is the t-shirt? Probably older than the flannel shirts.

When people take showers at my mom's house, there's a place where the water tends to land on the floor, because the shower curtain doesn't quite close the gap with the wall. In order to prevent water damage to the floor, my mother puts a folded up old towel on the floor. I asked her about the history of the towel. She said it is the towel she and her sister used to take swimming. "So it's about 50 years old?" I ask. She says, well maybe it's not the same towel, maybe it's another towel of the same kind, that her mother got at the same time but did not use as much.

I still wear a sweater that belonged to my aunt before I was born. I'm in my 40's, so that's an old sweater. It does look a little worn. I wear it as a middle layer, between a turtleneck and a newer looking sweater. It's wool so it's nice and warm. It's a small size for me, which means it fits well under my newer sweaters.

Instead of getting swept away by trendy, expensive forms of sustainable living, we need to remember to go back to basics. We need to learn to live as our parents and grandparents lived.

A fresh and joyful approach to life

In my everyday life, I get jaded and cynical, but my family reminds me to be fresh and joyful.

A few weeks before Christmas, my grandmother's cousin visited my grandmother and aunt in Florida. She wanted to get a stick to take back to Maine from Florida. When she got one, she seemed so happy about it that my grandmother or aunt asked what she wanted it for. She said excitedly, "I'm going to make a Charlie Brown Christmas tree!"

Every day, the first word my two year old nephew says when he wakes up in the morning is "Play." When he falls down and gets a bump, some kisses from his Mama heal all his hurts. He resumes running around the house, chortling with glee.

My grandmother's cousin is old and my nephew is young, but both find joy in life.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Slower pace

The place where I work is closed for a week. Even if it weren't, I would have taken this week off to be with my family. There was much to be done before I embarked on my trip. It's a busy time of year at my job, and I wanted to tie up all the loose ends before our offices closed down. I wanted to send Christmas cards to 14 people, and to prepare presents for 12. I wanted to get my bills paid and my house cleaned. I did laundry. I packed clothes, toiletries, books, laptop, Christmas presents, and even bedding and a Christmas tree. (I have a two foot high artificial tree, an air mattress, and a pump for the air mattress.) I was out of vitamins so I had to go to the store for vitamins. I went to the post office to mail some gifts.

There was so much to be done. I couldn't finish it all. But finally I just had to leave. There's a saying, "What's done is done," but for me, it was, "What's undone is undone." I just had to accept that some things were not going to get done.

So now here I am in my hometown, staying at my mom's house. What's undone is undone. Those chores are behind me now. It's a slower pace. I sit and listen to my mom. I sit and listen to my grandmother. This is what we do. We stop and listen to those around us.

I am here in this small town, where families have raised their children for generations. My grandmother tells me of when she was young, how they would gather greens from the woods for food. It was the Depression, and people needed food. I see two teenage girls walking in the woods. It occurs to me that they may be the daughters of my high school classmates.

Life goes on. These houses have stood for decades and centuries. Generation after generation, children went to school, grew up, got married, had children, and their children went to school, continuing the cycle. Feel the age of these hills. Footsteps treaded these hills hundreds of years ago, and footsteps tread them today.

I stand outside at dusk, watching the crescent moon in the west. The bare trees are silhoutted against the sky. The trees in our front yard seem to reach much higher into the sky than the trees on the hill beyond them. The trees on the hill are actually on higher ground. It is only because the trees in the yard are closer that they look larger. And so it is with life. That which is closest to us looks so large -- the tasks at work, the house to be cleaned, the bills to be paid. But if we look beyond, we see that today is only one small part of a much larger pattern.


People say that Christmas should be about celebrating the birth of Jesus, not about consumerism. But Christmas is many things. I'm not into either consumerism or celebrating the birth of Jesus, but I do celebrate Christmas. For me, Christmas means a number of things. For one thing, it is a part of my cultural heritage. And there is a Christian aspect to it for me. I'm not Christian in the conservative sense of the word. However, what I was taught growing up was that the message of Jesus was that we should love everyone. That's a message I do believe in.

The way I was brought up, and what I still believe, is that Christmas is a good time to remember that message. It's a time to reach out to others in love. It's a time to re-connect with family, to spend time with those who live far away. It's a time when we think about what our loved ones might want, and to give them gifts that we think they would enjoy. It's a time when we send cards to people who are not part of our every day lives, as a way to maintain connections with them. It's a time when we think of those in need and make charitable donations.

In my own family, we spend the day together. We start off by going for a walk in the morning. Then we have a meal together. Then after lunch, we sit around together opening presents. Opening presents is a way of spending time together as a family. We open our presents, and together we look at them and play with them.

Christmas is also a solstice holiday. The solstice was an already existing holiday, and then the birth of Jesus was put in as an add-on. Winter solstice is a time of cold and darkness. We bring warmth to this season by gathering together, singing songs, and lighting lights. It seems a good time of year to remember someone who brought us a message of love.