Usually I blog about poems. This morning I was awakened with so many thoughts. I felt I had to write them down in order to properly proceed through them.
This week I went to a dinner & graduation at the OC Rescue Mission. People were leaving the Mission to begin their lives afresh. There were only about a dozen graduates, but the building was filled to capacity. As the single mothers graduated, they and their toddlers went to the stage to accept the awards. Both, mothers & their children received awards. The toddlers grasped their plaques tightly with little, dimpled fingers & toddled off to their new lives.
I was moved this morning thinking of one young man in particular. He had come to California from Boston looking for his dream life. He got into a troubling situation and could no longer afford his home in Boston. The Mission took him in for several years. Now he was graduating and returning to Boston. When he went to the stage to accept his award, the audience went wild! They cheered as if he were a superhero who had just saved the planet. Afterward I asked a man who had been hugging him what this young man did. He said, “Nothing. It’s how he is! Sometimes he cooks here. Sometimes he cleans. He does whatever anyone needs. He’s a servant, you know? Everyone loves him because he’s humble, man. He’s like Jesus. No one’s like that anymore.”
I woke up with so many thoughts about what that meant to me personally. I instantly thought of my parents. They were both high school teachers & very active in the community. Both had their Masters in Education. Whatever they had they tirelessly shared with everyone.
With five kids, we seven lived in a tiny three-bedroom home until I was eight. I shared the room with my two brothers, sleeping on a trundle bed that collapsed each day & slid under my older brother’s bed. I remember sometimes that made me feel somewhat “temporary.” My younger brother slept in a crib. With my two sisters in their own room, sometimes I would resent the arrangement when I stepped on the green army men figures’s bayonets beneath my bare feet. But my brothers were a blast and we had a loop-to-loop matchbox racetrack that supplemented my dolls nicely. We also had a huge, full bookcase in our room, which I loved. Even though it fell one time & it might’ve killed me in the big ’73 earthquake if my trundle hadn’t flown across the hardwood floor with me in it.
Objectively I can say our house was the ugliest little house on the block, but we had a big back yard & an above ground pool with a slide. Our house was so fun though, it was always filled with people. Even the baseball teams wanted to come there instead of places with in ground pools and fidgety mothers.
Eventually we moved into a large, tri-level home in Lakewood. My parents’s tastes were modern and eclectic. Our home was always filled with people, visitors, foreign exchange students, & great home-cooked food. Always wafting through the air was garlic, coffee & music (usually Sinatra, Tony Bennett or standards on the stereo), lively discussions, tons of laughter and love. We never had any real money, but they made sure we all had college educations. And growing up they bought us books, all kinds of musical instruments, gave us various dance & music lessons, and brought us up celebrating the arts, going to theatre, symphony, concerts, ballet, jazz clubs, museums, galleries, & backpacking trips.
Nearly every spring & summer was spent traveling. We’d often go to Yosemite, The Sierras & San Francisco, where my mother grew up. Several summers we loaded up our wood-sided station wagon and traveled across the country each time taking different routes. From the ice chest in the trunk, my mother would create the world’s best, exotic submarine sandwiches. We stopped at every historical place, landmark & national treasure we could. My mother, the scientist would teach us continually about the flora & fauna along the way. My father, a history/ government teacher would teach us about the history of every place we explored. My parents believed that every moment is a teachable moment.
Yet out of all the lessons I learned from them, the most poignant was about how to treat others. My parents shared everything they could with others. They were hospitable & generous with everything they had: their resources, time, energy, and affection. They were totally strong and gentle at the same time. They were servants everywhere they went. They too were beloved like the young man I saw at the Rescue Mission. And what is really amazing to think about is the way they never lost their wild enthusiasm for life and for serving people. Even though sometimes life was hard or they were tired, even when we had our house vandalized, egged, cars stolen, even when they went alone to a play and returned to find out that arsons set our house on fire with all of us kids, our cat and dog inside. But we survived all of it. And as the area got rougher, gang bangers accosted my mother several times & even shot bullets through our windows, my parents still refused to leave their community. And they never grew bitter or slack in serving. They were wildly tuned in and turned on to life until their dying days.
I grew up in this way serving others with joy in every capacity possible. Yet, if serving others is the key, why do I still feel unfulfilled?
I thought back about times I’ve felt truly happy. What were the secrets of those times? Then I thought of our family’s trips across the country. They allowed me to see my parents treat waitresses, janitors, and room attendants with the same regard, grace and enthusiasm in conversation as I witnessed them have while meeting celebrities and even former Presidents of the United States. Then I thought of the old saying: “We all put on our pants the same way.” But how is all this linked to feeling happy and fulfilled?
I remembered that I have been to shanties which were more like lean-tos and have been treated with more grace and class than some of the owners I’ve met in 10 million dollar mansions. Those owners knew “the cost of everything but the value of nothing.” I have been to parties where the hosts are quite poor, but feed and treat their guests like kings, so much so that I could split in two upon leaving. Conversely, I’ve experienced bitter secretaries & office workers who are on sexualized, Stalin-esque power trips & people who treat their dogs & dog food with more regard and kindness than me. This has nothing to do with socio-economics or gender. It pervades all levels. It is the spirit I’m addressing. I’ve also been to parties in multi-million dollar homes and on yachts where we guests were eating lukewarm shrimp out of the ass-end of puff pastry swans, and where everyone was highly educated, yet instead of sharing, enjoying, and celebrating each other – building upon knowledge together. I’ve noticed a growing tendency to be terribly competitive with each other, to be wise in one’s own estimation. So much so that I felt bored out of my mind and hungry when I left.
What is it that leaves us so hungry? Why do I sometimes escape the gilded guests and slip off into the kitchen preferring to have real conversation with the food-splattered chefs and servants of this world? Why do I take moments to stroll in the moonlit garden alone when there’s a party inside bustling with fabulous people? One more fabulous than the next. I think it may have something to do with feeling safe and peaceful in the presence of real people – people who understand how to simply “be” in the moment and fully present with me.
Being continually pursued by hateful King Saul, the future King David wrote of his time in the wilderness. In Psalm 42:09 David speaks of God as “El-Sela” which means his “hiding place.” El-Sela is a large, split rock that has crevices for hiding. I understand how God may be our hiding place. But there’s something more. What does this mean between us? How can we be an El-Sela for each other?
I realized the Rescue Mission is a hiding place, a place of encouragement and hope which allows people to rest and have their basic needs met, while they gather themselves up to be their best, highest-selves, and then move on to their new lives. My parents’s house provided that same vibe. They understood how to love. Looking back at my life, this is sincerely what I have always tried to be for others as well. Yet why do I still feel unfulfilled? And why have I always felt like I’m from another place and I don’t really belong in this world? Does anyone else feel like this?
My dad used to say, “This is it! Life is not a dress rehearsal.” My mom used to quote Auntie Mame, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Since they’ve gone to Heaven, all I have left are memories and these beautiful remnants to piece together. This morning I’m asking myself, what were they trying to say?
I have been noticing a deep need for something on this earth, some element of truth that I can espouse as a goal for my life. I think keeping my focus on having a servant’s heart is a key part of that goal. After all, those are the times I feel most fulfilled. But it never lasts. The hunger always returns. For me, continual learning and growth is another key part of the goal. Is it this hunger for fulfillment the very thing which keeps us moving forward, or is there something else?
I’m reminded of two equally haunting moments in film. 1) In “As Good As It Gets” – when Jack Nicholson’s character asks: “What if this is as good as it gets?” 2) In “Schindler’s List” when Oscar Schindler panics at the realization he could’ve done more, saved more people by having fewer material possessions. Both of those moments are chilling to me. Both indicate the same type of hunger I’m trying so desperately to understand. Wanting to do more, be more, but the frustration of being somewhat blocked in doing so.
But lately I’m being most drawn to the idea that real fulfillment also, and maybe even more keenly, has something to do with being in the presence of real people who understand how to love. The type of love I witnessed at the Rescue Mission. The type of love my parents shared. My parents & I could talk about any subject under the sun. No topic was tabu. We could also look at each other and speak volumes with only our eyes – without words. I’m talking about having such a spiritual connection with one who anticipates you with honor, attempts to fully understand you, delights in your complexities and knows how to love. After experiencing that kind of intimacy, with someone who is truly a hiding place for our soul, perhaps that is what drives this hunger. Could it be the very thing we hunger after is itself found within these sacred places, our El-Sela, and among them, accessing this deep well of love we already hold after all?