Friday, April 8, 2011

The Fine Line

Practicing compassion, caring for others and sharing their problems, lays the foundation for a meaningful life, not only at the level of the individual, family or community, but also for humanity as a whole. ~ His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

People say that there are only three seasons here in Maine: Summer, Autumn and Winter. Summer is glorious and we revel in it. The long hours of sunlight, filling our days with the beach or boating. Lovely picnics and laughter well into the warm evenings. Autumn is nothing short of magical. The trees turn colors we only see in gemstones; rich ruby, glimmering topaz and vibrant amber. Winter, while seemingly endless, takes on a rhythm and sense of coziness. The snow blankets every surface and shines like diamonds each morning. Spring, however, remains elusive. Gray skies, torrential rains and fields growing nothing but mud seem to be the norm. The past few days, however, have been exceptional. I have taken to walking my dog, Murphy, and have taken full advantage of the sunshine to get back into shape following my surgeries. Walking has been therapeutic for both my own health, and for Murphy' he tends to look more like a Hippopotamus, than a Retriever mix. 

Our long walks have taken us into town, exploring streets we don't normally travel. It's been a bit of an adventure for the two of us.We love setting out in the morning, with no particular destination in mind. We may not be ready for a 10K walkathon, but we are definitely improving our stamina. 

However, a recent walk left me shaken, not from over-exercising, but from my own fears. As Murphy and I lumbered along in our usual mediocre pace, I saw a young man on the road ahead of us. He had a tattered coat, an over-sized backpack that was bursting at the seams and a very long, shaggy beard.  His entire demeanor gave off a threatening vibe. I looked around and didn't see another soul on the road, either in a car or on foot. In short, I was scared to death. I was a woman alone with a dork of a dog on an isolated country lane. 

My conversations with my friend, Jennifer, immediately sprung to mind. Jen is a gifted social worker and teacher on womens' issues of  personal safety. I have learned more from her than from anyone else on this subject. Jen taught me to scream "FIRE!", rather than "Help!" in an emergency....people being who they are are far more likely to respond to the former plea than they are to the latter. I learned that, if someone tries to pull me into a car to hold onto something solid, like a telephone pole or, when biking, to my bicycle. Jen explained a number of ways to incapacitate a would-be abductor. All of these scenarios flashed through my mind in an instant. I felt my heart pounding in my throat as the scary fellow approached. I seriously considered turning my dog around and running as fast as I could in the opposite direction.

In the next instant, I was filled with shame. Here was someone clearly down on his luck, and walking to his next destination. My recent theology class discussion about compassion rang in my ears, and I was horrified to have judged harshly when I espouse kindness above all else. Are my lessons in practicing hospitality, generosity, graciousness and consideration just empty ideals, with no place in my real life? Can I say one thing in an abstract setting and another when faced someone in need? My face burned red with embarrassment.

So, where is the fine line between ensuring our personal safety and practicing altruism? How can we remain grounded in a dangerous world, and be mindful of our own vulnerabilities, while still showing tenderness to those in need? With my thoughts on ways to keep myself (and Murphy) safe, I continued walking towards the intimidating man. I made eye contact, I smiled and said a cheerful, "Good Morning!" to him. He stopped and looked right at me. His gentle blue eyes showed nothing of the 'keep away' signs I'd seen before I spoke to him. Though bedraggled, his entire persona seemed to shift before my eyes, transforming him into a handsome, albeit world weary, traveler. He reached down and patted Murphy's immense head before looking up at me and saying, "And, good morning to you, Ma'am" with such kindness in his face. We exchanged another smile, and then went each in our own direction.

I was reminded of the verse from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels without knowing it."  I didn't entertain the young man, nor did I invite him home. I knew that that would be foolish of me. But, I am happy that I showed kindness, rather than rudeness, and a peaceful heart, rather than a fearful one.

Who knows? Perhaps I just 'entertained an angel'. Or, at least, brightened someone else's day. In either scenario, I feel both blessed and grateful for the encounter.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A book by any other name is still as sweet

These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.  From each of them goes out its own voice... and just as the touch of a button on our set will fill the room with music, so by taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a man far distant in time and space, and hear him speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart.  ~Gilbert Highet

It should come as no surprise that I'm a book lover, a true Bibliophile. From the first moment I wake up, until my eyes grow unbearably heavy in my head, I am reading. Books, both reviews and in metaphor, have been a large part of this blog, not to mention, my life. I can't remember ever not reading. My mother loves to tell the story of my seething, incensed Kindergarten teacher who told Mom, after my first bewildering day at school, "She knows how to read!", believing that I should be unable to do so, by virtue of my age. To quote Curtis Sittenfeld's wonderful fictional account of the former first lady, Laura Bush's passion for books, "Above all else, I was a reader." I'm sure those who know would feel this is a fitting epithet for me too.

Although I graduated from both high school and college, and was well on the path to an M. Ed., I still maintain that my greatest education has come from reading. I consider myself to be an autodidact. I learned far more about physics from reading "Einstein's Dreams" than I did in class. My passionate love of history was animated far more from essays and fictional accounts than from dry lectures aimed at entrapping fellow students on exams, rather than imparting knowledge. I never knew I could be enamored of geography, philosophy or chemistry, until I began perusing them on my own. I've discovered a world of fascinating subjects simply by turning the pages of a book on a subject about which I knew very little. For me, reading has been a way to shine the light on a world of possibilities...ones I never deemed accessible.

In my blog piece, a couple of years ago, I daydreamed about what heaven would be like for me. I envisioned an English library, with ever changing views to suit my mood. In my interpretation of heaven, every book I've ever wanted to read would be available at my fingertips. I have since gone on to think about my long desire for one of those fabulous library ladders on casters, a la Harry Potter in Olivander's wand shop. I truly stand by this interpretation of my own desire in "The World to Come"...I can't fathom eternity unable to read. 

To Kindle or not to Kindle was a piece I wrote not long after my meditations on heaven. Having borrowed a Kindle from my library, preloaded with a few titles that the staff had picked (two of which I'd already read), I can't say I was impressed. I simply didn't 'get' the big deal of a Kindle. I missed the tactile sensation of page turning. I missed using a bookmark. Silly though it may sound, the ability to watch my reading progress by the advancing movement of my bookmark, gave me a profound sense of satisfaction. I knew I'd miss wandering aimlessly around bookshelves, my hand alighting on a tome that no one had picked up in a long time...feeling as much a discoverer as Christopher Columbus, and realizing I'd come upon a land of treasure.

This opinion of the Kindle recently changed. During my confinement (which I define as an inability to get to the library), my girlfriends banded together and bought me a Kindle and an Amazon gift card with which to purchase e-books. I was in so much pain, and feeling so trapped in my own home, that something I had once 'poo-poo'ed' became a delightfully transporting mechanism. Since simply getting up and walking down the hall was a challenge, I knew that my meanderings around the library or a bookstore would be months off. The closest I could muster would be meandering around the Amazon website, picturing the concept of virtual shelves in my imagination. As tactile as I am, it was a bit of a challenge for me initially. But I came to realize that I could 'pick up' a book by reading sample chapters and I could chose to put that book back down, or to order it on my Kindle. And thus, a new love affair began.

I adore my Kindle now. I bring it everywhere. I can finally travel without having my entire carry-on bag be crammed with half a dozen hardcovers. I can slip it into my purse and sneak a chapter in while waiting in doctors' offices, during boring meetings and ever-so-carefully in the bathtub. I treasure how tiny a space it takes up and how giant a world it opens up for me when I'm reading. I am completely and totally a convert, with all the zeal and enthusiasm of one who has just found a new religion. I now espouse that books, in any form, are still books. I preach the saving of trees to all who will listen. I share the wonder of any book available at any hour of the day or not. I have shown an elderly friend, who is losing her sight, how large the print can be made to suit her. I have helped my mother, who is my soulmate in reading, how to use her new Kindle, and have successfully transformed her into adoring it too. It's become a way of life for me, in just the few months that I've had it.

Given my new creed on the use of an e-reader, has my vision of Heaven changed? Do I now picture something entirely different? No. My imagination, my comfort place and my illusion of where I daydream about is still my wonderful library. I picture Mahogany shelves from floor to ceiling. I can just make out the unbelievably comfortable chair, the side table holding my tea and the beloved wheeled ladder. I can smell the slight mustiness coming from the tomes. But in my eager hands, there is just as much likelihood of seeing a conceptualized Kindle, as there is a leather bound volume. 

As far as my previous opinion, mea culpa.