Friday, September 25, 2009

When One Woman Wins, We All Win: Why I Give $5 a Month to AROHO

“Never had much money . . . but I lived like a millionaire.” Jane Vanderbosh

Inspired by my late friend and fellow writer, Jane, I decided in December of 2001, to give $5 to anyone who asked for money that holiday season. The world was still reeling from the aftershock of 9/11, I was a single mom working for a small non-profit, a full-time graduate student, and I was hosting an international student to make ends meet.  Needless to say, I did not have deep pockets.

My friend Jane never had deep pockets either. Yet, in the months prior to her death, I witnessed with great admiration the generosity of heart that guided her life. 

When I shared my memorial plans for Jane with my son he shook his head silently. As long it did not interfere with his allowance, my foolishness would be overlooked.

In her apartment overlooking the lake, Jane spent her final days resting while an army of women attended to her needs. One day, after a chemo treatment, I sat listening to her read from a novel she still hoped to finish when someone knocked at her door.  I answered it.  There stood a man in a state of extreme agitation, rambling incoherently, and reeking of perspiration and stale beer. To my consternation, Jane invited him in.

When I returned from the kitchen with a pot of coffee, Jane was listening to this man so attentively, with such love in her eyes, that he eventually calmed down and stopped speaking, altogether. But before he left he asked her for money. Again. Jane sent me to the kitchen for an old jam jar that contained a wad of bills bound in a rubber band. She asked me to give him a five-dollar bill.  I did. Though, I doubted it would be used for constructive purposes.

After he left, I voiced this opinion. Jane smiled. The sun shone through the window highlighting the hollowness in her cheeks, and though her skin had taken on a gray palor of impending death, a hazy luminosity surrounded her. She waved her hand across the room. “Look at how lucky I am. It’s none of my business what he spends it on.  My business is only to give when I have something to give. Giving makes me feel rich.”

As I collected the empty coffee cups, she said, “Try it.” It felt like a dare.

Inspired, by Jane’s ability to manifest miracles and create abundance, I began by sending a check for $5 to the American Cancer Society. Within a few weeks, additional requests trickled in. Soon my mailbox was stuffed with complimentary address labels, shiny nickels, pictures of children with bloated stomachs or cleft lips, oily beaches smeared with dead fish, a myriad of newsletters and always, always, more requests.

As I wrote my $5 checks or stuffed $5 bills into Salvation Army buckets, or street musician’s cans or baskets for 9/11, I did feel rich.  I decided Jane was right.

That was until one bitterly cold day when I was walking downtown with my son and a man in a wheelchair shaking a battered cup wheeled in front of us. His hands were frostbitten, his eyes were bloodshot and he reminded me a bit of Jane’s visitor.  I peeled off my glove and pulled out $5 bill.  He thanked me and blessed me. My son shook his head and continued walking.

“Why are you wasting your money, Mom?” He pointed behind us as we got caught up in foot traffic. I looked back just in time to see the man, step out of the wheelchair, and walk into a bar.  None of my business, I reminded myself. Yet, deep down, I wondered if, in this instance I had been foolish in my “giving.”

I began to talk with Jane’s in my head (a life-long habit of talking with dead people) about my doubts regarding the path she had encouraged me to embark upon. I told her I needed proof that this philosophy of generosity actually worked. I remembered the man in her apartment and I argued with her in my head. What if he had used that money for street drugs, OD’d and died, wouldn’t that matter?

“That’s God’s business, not yours.”  I heard her clear as day

“I thought you were an atheist!” I countered aloud.

“I used a term you’d understand,” she said, and was gone, leaving me to my own internal wrangling.

Ironically, within a few days of my demand for proof, our host-student announced she was moving to New York. This left me short on rent, with an empty room, in record low temperatures that had spiked the heating bills through the roof. Then, I lost my wallet. Then, my job! Trying not to panic, I kept giving, even though every request tempted me to forget this crazy quest. 

Nothing works quite like fear to get me to my knees. Unlike Jane, whose sassiness had apparently survived her transition to the other side, I do believe in a mysterious force I call God.  So, I got on my knees and I prayed. I prayed for the strength to keep giving. I prayed for the courage to trust.

The very next day a package came in the mail without a return address. It contained my wallet, completely intact. There was also a letter offering me a six-month severence package, and my landlord called to say, “Forget the rent . . . just cover the utilities until you get back on your feet and . . . oh . . . Merry Christmas!” 

Why do I give to AROHO?  I give because I can. I give because I hold a vision for my work and for the work of all creative women. I give because I believe in an abundant and benevolent Universe. I give because beyond the struggle, I have seen the light, and when one woman wins we all win! So today make a decision to be someone’s miracle because you may just manifest your own. 


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Introspective Essay on the Existence of Evil

“It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.” Edmund Burke

Once, while witnessing a particularly brutal beating metered out by my mother onto the body of my ten-year-old brother, I attempted to intervene by telling her that if she didn’t stop I would call the police. She shook her wooden spoon at me and laughed. “They’ll never believe you,” she said. I was twelve-years-old at the time and sadly, I believed her.

“She’s evil,” concerned friends or family members whispered on those rare occasions when they witnessed my mother not living up to the saint-like persona she projected in public. Others, who may have suspected things weren’t quite right, teachers, neighbors, even our parish priest seemed hesitant to speak up. This was before Oprah and Dr. Phil, when children were considered personal property and the Ten Commandments held more persuasive power than a few bruises on some kid’s back. 

As the eldest of six children, I had been raised to be obedient not only to my parents, God, and the Church, but to a deeply ingrained system of family secrecy. So, on those rare occasions, when people did speak up, I would dismiss their concerns with compassionate logical explanations, such as “She just gets like this sometimes,” or “It looks worse than it is,” and as I grew older, “She’s mentally ill.”

My mother did her part to protect and maintain this system of secrecy by diverting people’s attention. Usually this was accomplished by wringing her hands together with her face contorted in pain to indicate that her arthritis had flared up or by becoming despondent over some perceived injustice regarding someone else’s behavior. Most often my father, who, though certainly overwhelmed, managed to abdicate much of his own parental responsibilities by perfecting his avenues of escape; a smoke, a drink, an appointment at the office.

Yet, no matter what other people said or thought, I steadfastly refused to call my mother “evil.”  Whether this was born of wisdom or fear I’m not sure.  What is certain is if I chose to question her behavior, I risked exposure to the answer to the question of “who would believe me?”  In strange way, the potential pain I might cause myself or others, by revealing the lies, felt more threatening than the pain of living with them. So, for survival’s sake, in my mind, I simply split my mother into two people: the Dr. Jekyll who masqueraded as my mother and the Mr. Hyde who loved me.

Those who used the word “evil” would look at me like they felt sorry for me. How simplistic and ignorant I must be. They assumed I had no sense about the true nature of love or safety. In this regard they were right for well into adulthood I seemed unable to discern between the good or ill intentions of others.  Some said this was due to a natural innocence, others to an unconscious ignorance, and the hard-liners saw it as a calcified coping skill that had grown into a willful denial.

Fortunately, life has a strange way of teaching each of us what we need to learn. Over time, I found myself continually being drawn into circumstances where I became a key witness too, or the target of, someone else’s questionable behavior. Behavior that others deemed “evil.”

A former in-law who lowered his voice as he explained that smart businessmen keep two sets of books, one for the IRS and one with the actual numbers. The employee I caught charging hundreds of dollars worth of tools on the company account, who, in retaliation for my discovery, embarked on a slander campaign that derailed attention from his activities and made me the target of a generalized hatred: “Are you paranoid? I said good night,” he’d say, and then whisper again as he shut the office door, “fucking dyke.”  

However, the event that blew the rusted shutters off of my denial was when my partner of seven years returned home late from Bible study to confess that she’d become romantically entangled with the minister of our church. A married man with a handful of beautiful blond-haired children, a man whose sermons had led me to tears, a man who espoused the open and affirming stance of his congregation, as I was to learn to too late, to a fault.

Impelled by the pain that had seized my heart, I finally spoke up. For this life-long habit of silence in the face of physical, emotional and spiritual destruction had become a noose around my neck. Though the twelve-years-old within secretly wished that someone stronger and more articulate than I would step in and save me. But the pain had more to teach me. In the end, we learned together that the same shadowy system of secrecy that protected my mother protected this man as well.

Yet, the effort was not wasted, nor were the words that wobbled from my mouth, for I knew my heart was true, and as I came face to face with this man’s denial, I was forced to see my own. Eye to eye, I saw evil for what it really was. And it disappeared in the light of the truth.

So, this man, who could have been any man, helped me see that my pain was my project. It was my responsibility to embrace my own healing journey, to hold and assure the terrified child within that I can and will speak up! Furthermore, if I listen to myself, I will always be able to discern the truth, and define for myself in any situation the degree of deceit (my own or another’s) at work.  The only one who needs to believe me—is me.

Evil exists only when we deny the truth of who we are and nothing but an illusion can separate us from ourselves, from our truth, or from our God.