Setting Boundaries

There was a bank robbery. Or, more accurately, there was an attempted bank robbery. The bank was a counter outlet with two tellers within a large grocery store.

Approaching the bank counter with a note, a man demands all of the money in the teller’s drawer. Amy, the teller, looks the man in the eye, demanding back, “Do you have a withdrawal slip?”

Knocked off course and flustered by the unexpected question, the man stammers, “No.”

“Well, at this bank in order to withdraw money, you need to have and complete a withdrawal slip. No slip. No money,” Amy concludes firmly.

Dazed and confused, the would-be robber turns to leave the store. The police arrive shortly.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Later, a short report of the incident appears in the local paper, cautioning readers never to behave as Amy did and, instead, hand over any funds that are available.

But, if you knew Amy—one of my favorite bank tellers ever—you, too, would understand why that man left empty handed.

Diva

“I am so sick of you Americans and your Puritanical thinking; I can hardly wait to go home,” Bernard responds to me in a flat, literary-salon tone through his French accent. Walking slowly up the aisle of the movie theatre together toward the exit, we take our time as the lights come up in the house, allowing our eyes to adjust.

For Bernard, it is the end of a long academic semester of foreign exchange. And, I imagine, he is quite tired and ready to go home.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Standing near the exit, I am eager to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine. I know the sun is warming the broad leaves and blooms on vast spreads of tulips planted across campus. Along with tulips, remnants of plowed snow still lay melting in small, scattered patches across the landscape—even as we approach the beginning of May.

Having just viewed the French film, “Diva,”  from the director Jean-Jacques Beineix, my Belgian friend had asked me what I thought of the film, a thriller. Quite candidly, I revealed that I had found portions of the film challenging—especially the script’s treatment of women.  And, in some instances, the film had been disturbing because it was difficult to discern which characters adhered to a code of ethics concerned about something or someone more than their individual interests.

Unlike many typical or “traditional” American cinematic works—especially Westerns—this film, its script and characters were not presented in a moralistic black-and-white format. Due in part to the film’s genre, there were no “overly” simplistic ethical lines.

These observations had served as the catalyst for Bernard’s heartfelt retort. Homesick and longing to return to a place and a people who knew him and the unspoken, internal norms from which he operated, he had responded to me directly from his heart.

Dogs

Everyone wants to write a story in which he is the hero. I wish I could tell this story from that perspective, but I cannot.

A block and a half away from where I am walking with my dogs, I see a sinewy, tan chihuahua-mix with extralong legs, darting into and out from the edge of the road. The dog is perhaps fifteen pounds and wrestling small, bite-size pieces from a discarded pizza. The pizza is stuck to its delivery box, making every bite a hard-won prize. The dog is lean. And, its demeanor tells me that it has never really been treated properly, that it has never been loved.

As I stand there observing the dog at work, two ladies pass before us. They are also out for a walk—a talking walk. Interrupting their conversation and hanging onto hope, I call out, “Is that your dog?”

“No,” one of them shouts back. “We thought it was yours,” a woman finishes while nodding toward my two dogs, one on each lead in each of my hands.

I think to myself, “Another loose or stray dog. Why?”

When we first moved into this region, we were amazed by the number of stray cats in the neighborhood, as well as the sheer number of animals people kept. We also learned that the region boasts an unusually high rate of reported domestic abuse and/or violence. Not a good combination.

As I stand still, a Divine nudge comes through. “Go get that dog.”

Observing the skittish creature running to safety on the curb then back into the street for a bite of pizza, I see the gaping mouth of the city’s storm sewer system. Rain storms here can come so fast and heavy that, if the skies were to open up right now, the pizza, its box and the dog might all be swept away into the mouth of the drainage system’s toothless grin. Watching this poor dog, the world does not feel like such a safe place.

I answer my leading, “Not with two dogs already at home. Look at that dog. Somehow it has been abused or hurt. How could I possibly bring another emotionally compromised animal into our household?”

I look down at our first rescue dog, Lily, wagging her tail and looking back at me. She came to us as having been both neglected and abused. When she first arrived at our house, Lily could not even cross our yard without experiencing exercise-induced fatigue because she had been kept in a cage for so long. And, most of her front teeth were ground down to the gum because, as the vet put it, “She had probably been a cage-chewer.”

Lily’s own road to recovery had taken time and effort. We treated her with consistent respect, reinforcing basic household rules. We take turns. Everyone has a chance—to fetch, get a treat, be fed. Making salmon a regular part of her diet at the beginning of her tenure with us helped her cognitive functions improve as we trained her. The ash-colored places under her single layered coat eventually turned a healthy pink. And, we came to trust one another, though Lily sometimes still resented having to share her new-found home with our preexisting and more senior dog.

Then, considering the force of the Divine nudge, I attempt to envision the logistics of even approaching the Chihuahua-mix. Both of my dogs would have to share one lead. If I were to approach the pizza-eating stray from this direction, it might send the dog into the traffic on the busy cross street. Standing under the hot sun, mulling over the details of a potential “rescue,” I feel the perspiration begin to drip down the front of my body.

Upon moving into this community, I recall one of my husband’s first observations of several years ago. After returning home from a walk, he said, “You know, if we were at home (in the Upper Midwest) and people were addressing their children like they address their animals around here, I would be calling child protective services.”

Then, while turning my back on my guidance and a situation that desperately needs addressing, I mutter, “No. I cannot.”

In exasperation, I utter a pathetic prayer, “Dear God, please grant that this little creature finds a situation of safety and a good home. Amen.” I send the prayer up.

I mollify my conscience by promising the Divine that I will drive through this neighborhood again, during my afternoon errands. I do. The dog is gone. In my heart, I hope the dog is safe.

Two or three days later, as I am walking solo to work at a downtown coffeeshop, I find myself not two blocks away from the corner where I first sighted the Chihuahua-mix eating a discarded pizza. It is an average residential street in an average, local neighborhood.

Hearing a painfully loud yelp from a distressed animal, I turn to look across the street from where I am walking. With a broad back to me, I see a massive, not overly-tall human beast—of perhaps two-hundred-eighty-five-pounds and a non-descript gender—holding the same Chihuahua-mix dog by its back legs, upside-down in one fat fist. The human beast is systematically pinching the distressed animal with its free hand. The dog is yelping in pain at every assault.

Crossing the street, as I fold the umbrella I use against the sun, rage rises in me. I see the human beast retreat into the side door of a house. I follow, stepping firmly onto the front porch of the same house. The blinds are drawn. Taking the handle of my umbrella, I wrap firmly on the front, screen-door.

“Open up. Open this door,” I demand loudly. One of the blinds in a front window moves ever so slightly. “Open up,” I repeat. I knock again, repeating my demand.

There is no answer. There will be no answer.

Backing off of the porch, I make a note of the house address. Abandoning my plans for the coffeehouse, I walk straight home and sit down to type up a report about what I have just witnessed.

In clear, precise prose, I describe the manner in which this small, perhaps, fifteen-pound animal was being abused. Leaving the house, I travel immediately to the city’s animal shelter, north of town. The facility’s door is locked. All of the officers are out, responding to calls about stray animals. Taping the report to the facility’s locked door, I wonder how long it will be until this dog can be delivered from this abusive situation. How long will it be until we can all live in safety?

Rag Peddler

The house in which I grew up had a story attached to it. This is part of that story.

Once upon a time, there was a rag peddler well known through out most of town. Almost daily, he went about his rounds, knocking politely door-to-door to inquire about old clothing, worn-out coats, woolen suits, which busy moth millers may have found tasty while they made unsightly with holes, as well as collecting used bedroom and kitchen linens ready to be recycled or burned in the backyard barrel of a household’s yard.

Spirituality
Spirituality

The rag peddler even collected worn-out rag rugs which were compromised, because some of the cotton strings–which had been binding the rug’s carefully ripped strips–were spent. Those over-worn places on the rag rugs had seen many shoes, slippers and winter boots shuffled, scraped or wiped across them through the seasons of many years. The rugs camefrom near a front door—or a back door, at the side of a bed on a cold floor, in front of a kitchen sink or even from before an old-fashioned cast-iron stove. At any rate, the rag stripping was now herniated, bulging past the broken cotton strings once binding it together.

Knocking, asking and collecting had to be done every day of the work week. Mr. Fox’s wife and their nine children needed to eat. In addition to this, each item Mr. Fox collected had to be sorted and possibly dismantled according to its fabric type. Cotton. Wool. Linen.

Fabric choices were simpler years ago, as they were not usually blended or combined. Synthetic or “manmade” fabrics were not in widespread use at the time. This made Mr. Fox’s job less complicated than it would be now. The most complicated tasks he may have faced involved removing as-yet-unremoved buttons or zippers, separating the felted-wool liners of winter coats from their cotton shells or ensuring that wool suits were separated from their polished linings.

Every fabric type had its place, its proper pile. Mr. Fox and his wife lived frugally and almost one on top of another with their children. The fabrics Mr. Fox collected were sold, once they were rebundled. Woolen fabrics might be shredded, felted and remade into the linings of yet other winter coats or boot liners. Woolen comforters had their internal battings recarded to be made into new bats. Cotton and linen fabrics were bundled and sold to be remade into expensive papers.

No one in town really knew how Mr. Fox and his family made ends meet, but they did. Everyone in town knew to hold onto their worn-out clothing and linens, waiting for Mr. Fox’s next round for pickup. Winters were long, and people in our town tended to look out for one another, as much as any neighbor can look after another. Still, everyone knew Mr. Fox and his family were probably better off here in the New World than they may have been in the Old World.

In my own experiences of childhood, not much went to waste; and, I imagine having a resourceful recycler helping the community in the form of a rag peddler was just part of the landscape of a smart, efficient local economy.

On the very north edge of town one day, the building of a new house began to take shape. The foundation for this new house appeared to stand all by itself in a field, because it was so far north and apart from the other houses of the city. Stone by stone, the home’s basement was constructed. Eventually, the house would have a large living room, matching dining room and a grand kitchen, as well as four bedrooms—for Mr. Fox, Mrs. Fox and all of their children. But, the biggest luxury was that this new house had indoor plumbing, a fairly new phenomenon.

Mr. Fox and his family surprised many people in town when they moved into their modern home. After years of hard work and careful saving, this house was theirs. No one spoke of the rag peddler and his family as poor anymore.

Patience & Compassion

We love our veterinarian–I and my dogs. He is an all around good guy who knows his stuff and who shares his professional knowledge liberally. Dr. Veterinarian also ensures that his staff is well informed on current trends, which makes life much easier for pet owners with routine questions.

The other day, one of my dogs and I were visiting his office with a minor concern. Near the end of our appointment, I mention to the vet how happy I am with the dog food we are using, pointing out my canine companion’s dark and extra richly glossy fur coat.

The vet concurs, then turns to me, asking, “What are you feeding him?”

Spirituality
Spirituality

My mind goes blank. I can see the dog-food bag in my mind’s eye–actually the entire line of offerings from this same company, but I cannot “read” the brand name on a single, envisioned package.

Still struggling to pull a name out of the air, I respond meekly, “Well, I can tell you what the entire line’s graphic design looks like, its color schemes and where to find it on the shelf at the local pet-food store.”

Shifting my focus from the bank of visual images in my mind to gaze back at the veterinarian’s face, I am suddenly five-years-old again, facing my father in a rare moment of impatience with me. The veterinarian’s facial expression is one of contorted, impatient disgust, telling me he does not have time for my bumbling lack of recall, especially this late in the afternoon near the end of the week.

Crestfallen internally, I decide to keep my mouth shut about my mild aphasia. Leaving the examination room, I pay my bill and exit with what little dignity I have left.

Walking out of the clinic’s front door, the sun greets me with the same comforting warmth it always does, as I ponder how many times I must have sent my own students, clients and acquaintances back to their childhoods through my professional or personal impatience and lack of compassion. Notes to Self: Be more patient. Be more compassionate.

Spiritual Communion

Gazing down at my banana-yellow downhill skis, I see that—about a foot from their upturned tips—they are hopelessly crossed over one another. Hanging from leather straps around my wrists, my ski poles twist in confusion around me, adding to my cold entanglement.

The bottom of the ski hill is a busy place. I stand frozen, pigeon-toed and strapped into the dead weight of my heavy skis. These are old-school downhill skis, and there are no quick-release binders. There is no quick fix to my situation.

Working to lift my right leg off the ground to maneuver my right ski off of the top of my left ski, I feel the almost impossible heft of the wooden ski pulling on every muscle, ligament and tendon in my pint-size hip, leg and foot.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Hoping to rectify the situation more quickly, I glance up toward my father, who has gone out of his way in his attempt to share his love of downhill skiing with me, having borrowed a pair of skis for my use during some informal instruction.

In place of the humorous, often patient twinkle that I am used to seeing in his eyes, I see a look of undisguised disgust at my predicament. The look cuts into my five-year-old heart. I am an inept disappointment. Somehow, I have messed up. I do not recall how we moved forward from that point. But, we must have. I do not remember ever trying downhill skiing again.

Years later, at fifteen, while rummaging through the family cedar chest, where we kept the specialty woolen wear “too good” to use, I stumble upon an exquisitely handknit wool sweater—a ski sweater.

The sweater is wrapped carefully in pristine tissue paper. Pulling the sweater out, I notice its unusually soft suppleness. The sweater’s body is knit in a realtively loose manner in a natural off-white yarn. The neck and shoulders feature a beautiful, understated Nordic pattern in a muted light-brown yarn.

Turning the sweater over in my hands, I wonder, “Where did this come from?” It looks to be my size.

After a very careful line of questioning, I learn that my father purchased this sweater as a gift for my mother, while they were still dating, in the hopes that they might go skiing together. My mother is deathly allergic to wool and, as a hot-cocoa-fireplace-with-a-good-book type, I imagine she proved as inept on the slopes at the age of twenty, as I did at five.

Parents. Partners. Children. Family. As “family” we are bound together by choice, blood and love. Sometimes family members share overlapping interests, talents or skills, and sometimes we do not. Even amidst the most tightly knit, active and lovingly respectful members of a family, a single soul can experience a tremendous sense of loneliness—especially when that individual soul is unable to share with those closest the activities or interests which make that unique Spirit come alive.

I try to imagine the dispiriting loneliness my father must have felt as a young suitor, wanting to share an activity he loved, one that made him feel more alive, with the primary someone he cared about most. Suddenly, the scene from my own five-year-old’s attempt at downhill skiing comes into a state of profoundly heightened focus. My father’s look of disgust was the emotional mask he was wearing over his own Spirit’s profound grief.

Spirituality & Verbs

“Sometimes I feel like we just use one another.” It is the late-night, exasperated comment from an overly tired friend after a long week.

Pausing before I respond, I begin slowly, “Some people do ‘use’ others. But, there is another way to function in the world. There is a different paradigm which can be employed. Some people, while taking exceptional care of themselves, actually ‘assist’ others. And, in turn, they generally receive the assistance they require. Some members of society ‘rely’ upon others, as they walk their very individual paths.

Spirituality
Spirituality

“Try thinking in terms of an interlocking system of loops—circles of giving and receiving. A system of free-flowing and, sometimes, compensated giving and receiving is very different from a system in which people only ‘use’ one another. There is no measured quid pro quo in the system of free-flowing, assisted exchange—only a voluntary, ‘How may I help?’ which may be declined or honored.”

My friend chimes in, “It sounds too good to be true.”

“In this alternate system, people cannot simply ‘use’ others or ‘take’ what they want and dispose of relationships they no longer find useful. In the system of assisting, a great deal of trust and listening are required; and, greed would need to be removed from the equation. Ideally, people would best be served if they were able to contribute according to their unique gifts, talents or skills and receive according to the things they lack.

“Anyway, it is late to be having this conversation. Try working with a new verb in the context of your relationships this next week and see what happens.”

Braids

“Hey, I like your braids,” the Navajo man—sitting adjacent and behind me—comments as I await my food order.

Watching the front counter, I sit sideways on the firm seat of a canary-yellow Formica booth, immediately behind this man and his dining partner.

The man and his dining companion started their meal by splitting a burrito, purchased by another customer. When my initial order came up, I handed my plate of food to them as well, so that they would have enough food to eat between the two of them.

Spirituality
Spirituality

My sense is that the proprietor was neither overly pleased with the first burrito handoff, nor did he seem exceptionally happy with me for relinquishing my initial order to these two diners. Both of them appear to be quite tipsy. Yet, they are also both very hungry.

Soon, my own (second) order is up. Walking to the counter to retrieve my plate, I stop at the salsa bar to select a few extra condiments, then, return to my seat to eat quietly.

Everything on my plate is a hot, melting, mounded delicious blend of flavors. Letting the warmth from the food move into that empty space in the middle of my hungry being, I forget about our restaurant host’s potential consternation, hoping he can be happy with the opportunity to have sold two additional meals. I understand his perspective, as well as that of the hungry people behind me.

“Braids,” I muse silently, considering the twin issues of identity and heritage. In my mind, I think—braids, Heidi, blondes, Switzerland and the Alps or, alternately, braids, Inga, redheads, Scandinavia and fjords. But, why not consider braids, Morning Star, raven-colored hair, Pawnee and The Great Plains? Sometimes our minds and individual I’s settle into self-referential ruts. I had been stuck.

Shifting into a state of gratitude for this man’s indirect thank you ,which may be what the comment regarding my braids was about, and without uttering a word, I nod to this man in my mind’s eye, answering him spiritually, “You are most welcome.” We are part of the brotherhood of braids.

Exposed

Travelling through the “headwaters” of the American South, I stop at one of my favorite stores to pick up a few items for a thick lentil soup. I am on my way to see family who now live even further afield from the Upper-Midwestern region we used to call home.

Walking the aisles, after a few hours of driving, I fill my shopping basket with millet, brown rice and large, locally grown produce—onions, tomatoes, cabbage and greens. As I shop, I notice someone in the store has been working extra hard to introduce some levity into the store’s shopping environment.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Alongside the jasmine rice, there is a highly-colored cartoon image of a princess; and, in the dried-bean section of the store, an image of a popular musical act is next to a stack of black-eyed peas. The visual puns and light humor are a welcoming phenomenon in contrast to the linear look of a dull, itemized grocery-store list.

Then, as I round the corner of another aisle, the soft smile of amusement—which had formed almost involuntarily on my face–leaves quite suddenly. Next to an area with seeds and beans for sprouting, I see an image of the African-American, child actor who played the character of Buckwheat in Hal Roach’s “The Little Rascals.” He is covered in a spray of white flour, and his hair is in an unkempt afro towering above his head. Inside of me, some invisible line has been crossed—where humor does not reside. The image does not strike me as funny.

Taking my basket to the checkout, I pay for my things as I attempt to sort through the emotions of my internal reaction. While walking to the vehicle to load my groceries, I try to decide exactly what it is, if I were even remotely centered, I might be lead to do.

Something. Not nothing. Have a conversation. Keep it light. Open a conceptual door.

Turning to lock my vehicle, I walk back into the store and ask whether a manager is available. Our conversation goes something like this:

—Hello. Do you have a moment?

—What can I do for you?

—I wanted to tell you that I love to visit this store. You always have all of the things I am looking for, the dry items I need and the produce.

—Good to hear.

—I also appreciate a lot of the visual puns you have been placing through out the store. They add some levity and fun to the shopping experience. Could we walk over here?

Stopping in front of the image of the childhood actor, Billie Thomas, portraying Buckwheat in “The Little Rascals,” I turn to face the manager.

—You know, I’m not so sure about this one image.

—How so?

—Well, you know how people like to share the things they love with the people they love, like good food, where to shop and humor? I was trying to imagine travelling through to shop at this store with some of my husband’s extended family, they are of both European and African heritage—biracial, and I don’t think that they would find this image funny. I think they might even find this one visual pun offensive.

—You really think so?

—Well, the image does not feature an afro from the 1970’s. It isn’t about black power or racial dignity, is it?

—I suppose not.

—You know, I am not of African heritage, and I am from a different region—a different culture. And, if I were to speak truthfully, I would have to say that I find this image offensive. It represents a place in time where we were culturally—once, with our humor. I don’t think we are there anymore nor should we be revisiting the place of this antiquated form of “humor.”

—Hmmm.

I watch the manager’s wheels turning in his mind. He can’t seem to make the conceptual shift to see this image from a different perspective. I wonder whether or not the manager grew up on a diet of Little-Rascals, after-school reruns.

—Contrast this image with the one of the modern, musical group. The modern image is inclusive. The musicians have named themselves. They are performing together, as adults, in roles they have chosen. This other image is quite different. You have a few stores in your chain, right? Maybe the next time you have a group meeting with corporate you could have a conversation about the feedback I have given you and make a decision from there—amongst yourselves.

—Yes. We could certainly do that.

—Yes. Do that. See what kind of feedback you get. Thank you for your time and taking my concern into consideration.