Random Acts

April 18, 2010

I keep an altar to Jenny in our living room.  For the first year or so following her death, the whole house was a shrine.  I had pictures of my daughter in every room, at every age, in every mood.  Gradually, the images coalesced into a single framed 8×10 black & white photo of the two of us sitting on a boulder beside a lake where I had just officiated a mountaintop wedding.  Her arm is draped over my shoulder and my head is resting against hers.  I seem to recall that when I first saw it I didn’t like my hair or my teeth or some other body part.  Now I cherish that picture with all my might.

The photograph rests on a hand-hewn wooden table beneath a window that opens out to a horse pasture.  Two small pewter vases in the shape of a heart, which I keep filled with fresh flowers, flank the photograph.  A tall glass seven-day candle, usually blue, is always burning there.  I take comfort in maintaining this token of my love.  I arrange the flowers carefully each week.  I light the candle with a prayer.

A few days ago, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store with a couple of bunches of fresh flowers for the altar.  “You know,” the checker told me, “we have a 3 bunches for $12 deal, which is better than 2 for $10.  You can go ahead and get another one if you want.”  Seeing that there was no one waiting behind me in line, I thanked the checker and ran over to the flower aisle to grab a bunch of bright pink carnations.  On my way back, one of my students stopped me.  He wanted me to meet his mother, who had just returned from 3 weeks in China.  I said I’d love to, that I was only buying flowers, and to please wait for me.

By the time I returned to my lane, maybe 60 seconds later, a woman was loading her groceries onto the belt.  I couldn’t fit past her.  Clearly exasperated, she sighed loudly and made a small gesture to move her cart.  “That’s OK,” I said, “I’ll go around.”  But there was no clear passage through the aisles on either side, so I returned, apologized for the inconvenience, and asked if I could please squeeze through.  (I’m not quite 5’ tall and weigh around 100 lbs, so it’s not as if I take up a lot of space.)  The woman was fuming.  She jerked her cart out of my way without a word.  Mortified, I apologized again, but she refused to look at me or acknowledge me in any way.

When I had paid for my flowers, I spontaneously turned to hand the carnations to my angry neighbor.  She refused.  “Please,” I insisted, “for the trouble I caused you.”  “I don’t want your flowers,” she said.  I insisted, thrusting them at her with the most sincere smile I could manage.  She had no choice.  She took them.  And I hurried away.

As I stood chatting with my student and his mother a moment later outside the store, the checker and bagger from my grocery line appeared before me with a big bouquet of flowers.  Without a word, they handed me this gift, smiled, and disappeared back inside.

The woman who was so put-out by my slowing her down at the grocery store had no way of knowing the nature of my task there.  Maybe if she had known that I was buying flowers for my dead daughter’s altar, she would have been a little more understanding.  Or maybe not.  The thought didn’t even cross my mind.  It was simply a spontaneous response to her pain, a natural urge to alleviate it.  But the fact is,  I carry the sorrow of losing a child every day of my life.  The other fact is, that day, two anonymous minimum wage workers who had no way of knowing about my loss, instantaneously alleviated my pain in an equally impulsive gesture of kindness.  The Universe is a good place.

7 Responses to “Random Acts”

  1. Doug said

    Compassion does not like no for an answer…
    I recently connected with an old friend on Facebook after 25 years. At the time of our last meeting he had ended up owing me money, and I ended up taking care of his cats he had abandoned in his apartment when he left (a mother of two who was pregnant with 8 more). I took them all in and found homes for them, including the kittens after they were born (a real privilege if I look at it correctly).
    Being excited to connect with him again I emailed him a ton of questions about our old friends, what he was doing now etc., but nothing about the money he owed me or how he had left all his cats to fend for themselves all those years ago. He never got back to me about any of my questions or said anything else for that matter to me.
    As I thought about him not responding to any of my questions, and how he had been in “the wrong” those many years ago, I struggled with wanting to simply send him a nasty email, or simply cut him off from my Facebook friends or react in some negative way. Instead I waited and just did nothing.
    Recently I received an email from him saying he had read and saw the eulogy for my dad I had put on Facebook, my dad having recently passed on. Ed (my friend) wrote he had remembered meeting him and my mom those many years ago when they visited me in Alaska. He went on to say if my dad was anything like his son, then he must have been a good man indeed. I wrote Ed back and told him I appreciated his kind thoughts and that I hadn’t even remembered him meeting my parents back then. We later chatted on line for awhile and have renewed our friendship. I still have not mentioned the money he borrowed from me, nor really got into how I had taken care of his cats after he had left.
    My initial reactions of taking his silence personally and perhaps wanting to lash back in some way taught me something about myself. His kind words about my father taught me something about the beauty of patience and letting the past simply be the past. Instead of “cutting him off” or attacking him for his actions and allowing no possibilities for future friendship, we have reconnected and perhaps a new friendship will go somewhere, maybe not, but at least like the lady in the checkout line, the doors were left open ….
    Perhaps that lady’s pain was no less than your own; we often have no way of knowing. But as Thaddeus Golas said in Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightment, “we need to go beyond reason to love, it is the only safe place”. Sometimes with a simple gesture, sometimes by doing nothing at all, we allow our brothers and sisters to exist here and now and simply be who they are, with a host of faults and virtues. After all what else can they be? What else can we be? I notice more and more my own pain comes from wanting things to be something other than they are. If I can only accept people, places and things as they are first, things become a lot easier.
    Thanks for a great story and a great response Mirabai.

    • The essential insight of Buddhism, right? Our desire for things to be other than they are causes suffering. Being with What Is seems to open this space around the experience so that we can breathe again, and allows us to explore reality with courage, tenderness, and innate curiosity. Thanks for your reflections, Doug.

  2. Jo said

    I like this. I love the succession of things and how God works through them. Your clerk taking the time to tell you about the special and thus offering to wait for you. Your buying the extra bunch of flowers, putting you in the proximity of being delayed by the student which then put you behind the lady in question. Her anger, most probably a result of something else brewing in her life. The ability of you to think and love on your toes. The delay/visit with your student which enabled the workers the opportunity to show their appreciation. And that does not even take into consideration the effect the clerk’s gift had on the student and mother. Wonderful expressions of kindness, witnessed by a person from another country. It wouldn’t have passed any better if it had been a cold germ. Random acts of kindness truly have a rippling effect – you were blessed to see the succession. And I am in turn am blessed by your relating the story. Enough! I will stop here before I continue rambling.

    • I so appreciate how you took the time to unpack my story and reveal all the layers of significance. You are deeply insightful, Jo, and I cherish your response. Especially the part about “thinking and loving on your toes” — beautifully said!

  3. Bob said

    This post is one more of your many reminders of how delicate is this dance of life. In my work with people I often find myself caught in the divide between my intention and the incovenience of their agenda. And of course, it’s all so apparently random. Or not.

    I love the way you take us from your grief to the laughable and even slapstick quality of this encounter.

    Earlier today I had a conversation with a woman whose father had just been diagnosed with a stage 3 cancer. She talked about doing this dance with her family–one moment great grief and fear–the next, absurdity–even comedy.

    Thank you for reminding us to hold the polarities the spaciousness of our deepest being. And thanks so much for the reminder that if others knew what we were about, it might make a difference not only to them, but to us!

    • Mirabai said

      I love your insight about “holding the polarities in the spaciousness of our deepest being.” Are you sure you’re a Baptist? You sound like a Buddhist. Oh yes, duality is delusional. Especially in your case. (“What a marvelous disguise?”)

  4. robert driscoll said

    …The things of the world are no competition. You long ago lost interest in material gain, in social status, in interpersonal drama. This wretched limbo lasts for years…

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