The Economics of Friendship II

Spirituality

“We have to go now,” our host, Professor Alexander, calls up the broad, Victorian staircase of his home. I am hastily collecting the last of our belongings from the guestroom to finish packing our car.

The Alexanders, myself, my husband and infant child are all leaving to meet the Alexanders’ adult son and daughter-in-law for a quick breakfast. The Alexanders’ son and his wife are new hires at a local secondary school, after having spent eight years studying and working toward their undergraduate degrees. They need to be to work on time.

With the car fully repacked from our overnight stay, we pull out of our hosts’ driveway to follow their vehicle to the pancake house two miles from their home. We are planning to depart New York state from the restaurant to spend another eight-hour day driving cross-country.

Upon entering the restaurant, apologies are made for our tardiness at the same time that hasty introductions go around.  A small amount of light banter starts the conversational ball moving about the large table. From this, we learn that the Alexanders’ son and daughter-in-law have recently returned from a three-day weekend in Montreal, having travelled to Canada to spend time with three other couples—old college friends from their early undergraduate-school days. Most of the members from among the other couples went on to complete some type of professional schooling, becoming doctors or lawyers.

Before the conversation can continue, Professor Alexander breaks in abruptly, “You can’t keep spending money like this. You are on a very different budget than these people. Three days in a hotel, a professional sporting event and how many dinners out? You can’t afford these weekends with your old friends. May I remind you that you are public-school teachers with a significant amount of student-loan debt to repay?”

The table grows momentarily quiet, then Mrs. Alexander picks up the conversational ball with a more conventional breakfast topic. I retreat into the realm of my own thoughts to consider Professor Alexander’s paternal plea for fiscal prudence. It is one of those instances where an entire group of relevant questions surfaces at once.  I understand Professor Alexander’s genuine economic concerns for his son and daughter-in-law.

Professor Alexander is right, where budgeting is concerned. Yet, his impassioned plea for fiscal prudence has ripped a hole in my heart.

What happened to enjoying each other’s company over a shared, potluck dinner at a person’s home? Must we relinquish cherished friendships when we can no longer afford the same recreational adventures?

Hanging back from the general conversation, I recall my grandmother’s stories about how she and my grandfather made things work while going through the Depression as a young couple–by taking turns with other young couples on the issue of hosting dinners and taking turns with covering fuel or travel expenses.  What these stories from my grandmother taught me is that where the heart is concerned, there are always solutions.

The Economics of Friendship

Driving across the state of New York, we have a full day on the road ahead of us. Fortunately, one of my husband’s summer-school classmates, an established professor in the state’s university system, and his wife have invited us to overnight at their home on the western edge of the state.

In order to coordinate our time of arrival, a few phone calls pass between us. In addition to establishing arrival time, inquiries are made about my possible dietary restrictions, as I am breastfeeding.  Our hostess asks me whether or not I am eating onions and garlic, a respectful consideration about which I have never even thought.

Spirituality

After a full-day’s drive and with a summer of intensive, academic study behind us, we pull into our hosts’ driveway physically hot, sticky and thoroughly exhausted. The Alexanders’ home is a towering two-and-one-half-story Victorian which has been fully restored.  An extensive, rowed stand of freshly trimmed arbor vitae salute us like a brigade of crisply uniformed sentinels clad in dark green, guarding the borderline of the property.

Exhaling, we open our car doors slowly unbending to begin the process of selective unpacking. We are here for one night.

Soon the Alexanders are at our sides to help us carry our things inside. As we enter their home, we set our things down for a tour of their restored and carefully maintained property. The charcoal grill on the back patio has already been fired up for the outdoor dinner they have planned. Ushering us through the house, we are shown through the large kitchen, formal dining room, den, expansive living room, two full baths, one half bath and four bedrooms. The attic alone remains a mystery. The bedroom, where we are staying, has three tall stacks of extra-large, plush towels carefully laid out on its bedspread.

After settling in and freshening up, the three of us descend the broad staircase to meet our hosts on the patio for a generous, outdoor meal.  Stories about travels, extraordinary people and life adventures are exchanged. My husband and I attempt to express our gratitude for the incredible degree of hospitality being shown to us, to which the Alexanders graciously reply, “You will be able to do this for someone else someday.”

Over dessert and tea in the formal dining room, we are informed that a breakfast date has been set for seven o’clock the next morning. We will be meeting the Alexanders’ son and daughter-in-law, both newly employed public-school teachers, at a pancake house for breakfast. With this last bit of news, we are excused for the evening and climb the stairs to bed.

Spirituality & Decision Moments

Spirituality

Dispersed throughout our lives are decision moments. Decision moments have a distinct quality about them. They usually occupy a greater sense of space and possess a clarity of recollection within the context of the timeline of our lives than do the other, more mundane elements of our days.

And, upon replay, decision moments usually draw themselves out in crystal-clear, film-like presentation. These pivotal moments are the times when we have said “yes” or “no” to augmenting or diminishing the Light within ourselves or the Light within others.

Say, “Yes,” to the Light within your heart, when you make your next decision.

The Work

Standing behind a newly plowed mound of snow, I wait outside in the cool air for my friend, Adam. We have an informal appointment to go to the coffeehouse together to catch up on things.  Adam is excited to tell me about the new woman he is seeing.

Spirituality

Driving up in front of me, Adam slows his vehicle to a stop. Then, quickly leaning across the inside of his car, he opens the passenger’s side door.

Taking a large step across the freshly plowed bank of snow, I approach the car in two more steps only to face a wall of profound grief. Sliding into the passenger’s seat, I close the door swiftly behind me to conserve the interior’s heat.

Turning to Adam, I ask, “What is up with this wall of grief?”

Adam gazes at me intently, while shrugging his shoulders and shifting the vehicle into gear. We begin to move.

“Don’t you feel it?” I ask rather impatiently, trying to cut through to the heart of the matter. Adam is normally a focused, chipper, can-do man with a highly and amazingly developed sense of emotional attunement. It surprises me to find him at a loss of awareness about the sea of sorrowful emotion by which he is being completely walled off.

“Where is it coming from?” I ask yet another question on the same topic. “There is something wrong. Your essential Adam-ness is being injured.”

Finally Adam responds, “I am not sure what you are picking up on.”

Taking a slower approach, I attempt to explain what I am experiencing, “Normally, when we get together there is a certain ‘Adam-ness’ about you and your personal energy. It is kinetic, generally happy, quite focused and aware. Today when you opened the car door, it was like hitting a great barrier of grief that was smothering your essential being—a profound sadness is permeating everything. This is not you. This is not who you are. The profound sorrow is not yours.  Where is it coming from?”

In a brief conversation, Adam describes some of the trauma his new girlfriend has experienced in the past.  He also talks about wanting to help her get to a better place by holding some of the grief for her.

“It doesn’t work that way, Adam,” I explain, shaking my head emphatically.

“Can’t I even help her just a little bit?” Adam intones, “—Emotionally?”

“No. The grief will not leave until your new girlfriend makes the decision to divest herself of this old, emotional baggage. She may need help going through the grieving process, but you cannot do her work for her. You cannot carry any of this grief and expect her to make any progress—not even ‘a little bit,’ as you say.  She must do the work on her own. It is the only way.”

“Granola Girl” Checking In

“If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not so very long after beginning my employment with a sprawling healthcare facility, I discover that a few of the staff members have been using the nickname, “Granola Girl,” when referring to me.

Though fairly innocuous, I find the label and the idea of being nicknamed problematic because of the images the name conjures up for me—images with which I do not readily identify—as well as raising the larger issue of being disempowered because I have not been involved in my own naming. “Granola Girl” is not a label I would choose for myself. Yet, here the label is, staring me full in the face.

At home, in an effort to work through my reaction to this news, I call an old friend for another perspective.

Spirituality

“Granola Girl?” my friend shouts into the phone, crossing the miles of airspace between us with an emotional explosion of righteous indignation. Then she plows forward, “You’re darn right you’re ‘Granola Girl.’  If you hadn’t been, you’d never have made it this far.”

Her words give me pause. I am grateful for the fact that my friend has retained enough of her personality’s righteous indignation so that I might continue my attempts at dismantling my own.

“Yes, I suppose that is true,” I answer hesitantly. “It is true that I eat properly. My sensitivities require it. I guess I am having trouble with the attributes which might be associated with such a nickname. You know….”

“I think you should own it,” my friend breaks in flatly. “If you work there long enough, it will fall away, be modified, qualified or stick.” She continues, “Don’t put any more energy into what other people think about you. You are there to put in your time and pick up your check.”

Emotions aside, this is the grounding reminder I need.

“Yes, thank you for that,” I answer. “I guess I feel that we should each retain the right to name or label ourselves.  At least that is how I would have things function in my ideal world.”

Spirituality: People in the News

While I was attending graduate school, my husband took contracts as a foreign-language interpreter. As a working professional, he was invited to join a small group of interpreter/translators, who met monthly in the metropolitan area where we resided. (Interpreters work with spoken language; translators work with written language.)

Although we were very busy, these monthly luncheons and dinners were much anticipated, joyous events with an international vibe, which included husbands, wives and sometimes children. A great deal of business information was shared, as well as the occasional matter regarding our personal lives.

Spirituality

The group’s informal membership represented a wide range of cultures. Many members had a wife or a husband who had emigrated, after marrying a U.S. citizen who had been overseas studying or on exchange. Thus, there was always something interesting, new or fun to learn from someone.

One afternoon, after sitting down to lunch in a small restaurant conference room, I heard several people discussing a recent tragedy which had been in the local news. (A local family had lost their only child in an accident.)

As the incident was discussed, I listened in surprised silence as minute details, which had not been part of the news reports, were carefully related to the membership in attendance. The discussion was not a sensationalistic disclosure, but a compassionate and concerned relating of the accident’s unpublished details and emotional facts.

At the time, I remember observing the tender care the speaker was taking in relating additional  information about a very public news item and wondering why such a level of discretion was being applied to an incident which has been broadcast over almost every medium in the city.

Then, at some point in the telling, it became clear the the “people in the news”–the strangers–were actually a family who had attended an interpreter-translator meeting, which my husband and I had missed.

My heart fell. This “news item” was not about “those” people in the community out there, but it was about “our” people in our immediate community right here.

We are all “the people in the news.”

Thus, all tragedy should be addressed, spoken about, reported on and reacted to–with this same level of compassion, as if whatever has occurred has happened to one of our own.

Spirituality: Fashion Lessons

On the first autumn, when layered outerwear made its initial appearance on the racks of a local hiking and outdoor retailer, I recall vividly my disparaging, internal reaction, “Humph! Fashion.”

Spirituality

In the North, where I was living, winter comes and winter stays, with hardly a shift in the mercury—day or night. Yet, in front of me, I was facing racks and racks of layered coats, with windbreaker shells and interior down jackets, featuring removable sleeves which allowed the jackets to be converted into vests. The cost of this new line of winter outerwear, at the time, was quite outrageous and logically so because of the sheer number of components, pockets and zippers.

My internal, fashion observations finished with the question, “What were they thinking?”

Then, years later, having taken up residence in a community of some altitude in the far west of the United States, I observed a very different winter than the one I was accustomed to weathering.

On the phone with friends, I would describe experiencing all four seasons in the context of one twenty-four hour day. Snow would fall in the deep of the night, a spring-like thaw appeared in the late morning, all afternoon we enjoyed a warm, sun-kissed landscape and early evening would mark the beginning of plummeting temperatures, heralding the autumn of our day and entry into another night of winter.

At some point, during my first winter in the West, a light bulb went on in the recesses of my mind’s fashion closet, “This is the climate and region for which those layered winter jackets were designed.” (A trip through west Texas had already set straight my heretofore biased opinions on the issue of “western wear” as an inappropriate, Nashville fashion statement. There is a place where the sun shines so relentlessly that a ten-gallon hat is not a fashion-identity statement but a biological-outerwear necessity.)

All of this is to say that it is so very important for us to hold our initial reactions, opinions and impressions loosely and our tongues quietly, while keeping our minds open to the idea of exchanging ignorance for new, more informed impressions—because there may be a time, place, location or circumstance where, what seems to be out-of-place, illogical or even inappropriate, will fit right in, be just right or even serve a very critical purpose.

Amen. Blessed be.

Martha & Mary

In the Christian “New Testament” of The Bible, there is the oft retold story about two sisters, Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42), where Martha receives Jesus into her home as a guest. And, as Martha busies herself with hosting duties, she notices that her sister is seated at Jesus’ feet “to hear his words.”*

Spirituality

Martha attempts to enlist Jesus’ aid in steering her sister toward helping her with the hosting duties (envision a large dinner party or multiple trays of prepared food). Yet, Jesus tells Martha that she is being “worried” and “excited,” as well as admonishing Martha for not paying attention to that which is more important—the so-called “good portion” which the seated Mary has received and which “shall not be taken away from her [Mary].”

In most homily treatments of this story, we are taught that the “good portion” is, perhaps, a golden nugget from one of Jesus’ teachings. Or, in other treatments, the story may be read as a reminder to shift our focus away from the physical/material aspects of life in order to refocus on the more important spiritual aspects of living.

And both of these readings are among a number of perfectly valid interpretations, which I have heard.

Yet, having sat down to tea with people from the modern Middle East and having witnessed the amount of time taken in actually listening and being with another person and her concerns, I am reminded of the fact that the guest-host relationship in the Middle East is sacred.  In that cultural context, one person honors another person’s presence and Light by taking time to sit and be with one another. Thus, the Aramaic Jesus may be reminding us that the good portion may be had by taking the time to slow down and cherish each other’s company.

This culturally contextualized reading also takes into consideration the fact that, in the big picture, we are all guests here and for such a brief time. We all need to slow down to focus on honoring and cherishing one another’s company, as if we were receiving Jesus himself into our homes.

*George M. Lamsa’s translation from the Peshitta was used for quoted material.