How to Build a Village: You May Need it One of These Days

three person riding bikes on green grass field
Dikaseva on Unsplash

Does it really take a village? Probably.

Some of us need a sturdier village than others. But villages are good. Worth both the cultivation and the acknowledging. I admit to needing a LOT of villages; some cultivated, some spontaneous, most acknowledged, all appreciated.

For instance. On getting home from a recent cross-country trip rather late one evening I did a little unpacking, a little going through the mail, and eventually I played the accumulated messages on my land line phone.

“Hello, Mrs. Johns,” said a pleasant voice. “This is gate agent Sheiako with Alaska Airlines. We have your wallet, that was left on the plane . . .” This is news that’s particularly welcome before one notices the absence of the wallet and enters full panic mode. And it definitely proves the existence of the village: cleaning crew, miscellaneous supervisors and agent Sheiako all together. I’ve no idea when or if I’ll fly Alaska Airlines again, put I’ve paved any future path with letters of sincere gratitude to and about every member of that village I could think of. Villagers usually appreciate knowing they’ve been of help.

A similar village assembled only a short time later to retrieve my Discover card at the local grocery store. One would think some earlier lesson might have been learned, but anyway. What’s interesting here is the fact that when I went to collect (with extreme gratitude again) my credit card from the store manager, she opened a drawer literally crammed with credit cards, miscellaneous cards and at least a half-dozen driver’s licenses. Are all those owners unaware of their villages?

My friend Pam’s husband was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, not long before their 50th wedding anniversary. She offered to make their planned overseas celebration trip happen anyway, but he was apprehensive about being away from his physicians. So instead, Pam joined with her son and daughter-in-law (relatives are primary villagers) to send invitations around the country to a giant anniversary party. Her husband, as it turned out, did not live to make the party. But she found herself not only widowed in an unexpectedly short time but also surrounded by a village. In her case, it is strengthened by her unfailing habit of recognizing every birthday, anniversary &/or significant occasion in the lives of her friends and family with a hand-addressed, snail-mailed card. Some villages are cultivated over the years.

person's hand over brown floral field during daytime
Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

When my own good husband died I was fine with attending him through the very few days it took to complete that journey; but I balked at being nearby when the cremation people came. So from another room I heard the front door close on their departure – and realized, with a sense of utter desolation, that I was the only person in my suddenly silent apartment. Next, I realized I was in a retirement building into which we’d moved a few years earlier so I could see us through this. “So, why am I here?” I asked myself; by now it was 7 AM. Thereupon I went down to the dining room and surfed among the tables saying, “Bud just died; I need a lot of warmth and hugs.” Not what most folks want for a conversation-opener while they’re having their morning coffee, but everyone blinked a few times and then surrounded me with comfort. Some villages come about by design. Or a reluctant move.

But back to the lost-and-found department. My friend Carol is a retired schoolteacher and thereby knows stuff. Such as: put a card with the phone and address of your building into your wallet. (Some villages need advance planning.) Returning from a visit to a nearby town she stopped at a downtown bank to get some cash. And – you guessed it – dropped her wallet into the cushions of the chair in which she was reorganizing things. A few minutes later she was seated in a Lyft car, having quickly made friends with the driver. (All villages function better with friends.) She soon realized she was without money or identification, and her wallet was somewhere in an unfamiliar bank. But she had her cellphone. Not to worry, said the concierge at her building. “The bank has already called, and all you need to do is show up and utter the magic code: Star Star 7.” So the Lyft driver did a wheelie and returned to the bank, she uttered the magic words and was reunited with her wallet. Some villages seem downright weird.

Here’s the thing. It really does take a village to get us through this life.

The good news is that villages are everywhere.  

The Luxury of Hope

sun rays coming through trees
Wonderlane on Unsplash

“We don’t have time for the luxury of despair,” said a recent political pundit. Because this space tries to avoid politics the source will remain anonymous. But the pundit had a point. 

Despair is easy to come by these days. Even if you’re not just a teeny bit worried about the future of democracy, or the loss of civility in today’s world, or fill in the blank: (homelessness) (pollution) (nuclear weapons) (immigration) (gas prices) (prejudice) (create your own fill-in) – despair hunkers down behind every one of them. And if none of those get to you, roam around California for a while and consider the thought of one errant spark sending the state up in flames. Planetary extinction can sometimes out-despair everything else you can come up with.

The anti-despair forces point out that it is a crippling state of being, that nothing changes if we the despairing are pulling the covers over our heads, as we are some days inclined to do. Luxuriating in despair is the coward’s excuse for inaction, they say, a surrender to the bad guys. OK, we say from underneath the pillow, go tell that to (fill in the blank.)

As it turns out, though, there is an anti-despair mechanism lurking within most of us. It’s called hope. I got that word straight from Rev. Marci Auld Glass. After writing the above first two paragraphs on a Saturday night, my friend Marci threw out an unsolicited follow up on Sunday morning. “We’re wondering if we can hope,” she said (from the pulpit, for goodness’ sake) “because we are exhausted by despair. But we are not in the despair business, we are in the hope business.” The message here was obviously for me to go home and finish this essay.

 On Monday afternoon, a sentence or two farther along, the mail arrived. It bore this word from my friend Ally McKinney of Justice Revival. “The political violence of January 6th surprised me,” it began, “but it did not steal my hope.” Imagine. Among other things, Justice Revival is working to get the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution formally adopted. You thought the Equal Rights Amendment was a done deal? Actually, no. It’s been ratified by the required 38 states, but women (to cite one category of humankind) still have no constitutionally guaranteed equality here. Anyone working to finish a bill proposed to Congress in 1923, reworded in 1943 and first sent to the states for ratification in 1972 – who is still hopeful – that says a lot for hope.

Despair gets lonely; groups offer hope. Here’s where I find hope, in addition to the above: Climate One. Greenbelt Alliance. Trust for Public Land. Doctors Without Borders. Ploughshares Fund. Fill in your own nonprofit blanks. Throw in a little music and art and the ancient Sequoias still standing despite the drought and hope begins to win out.

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces,” Martin Luther said, “I would still plant my apple tree.” Maybe we should all go out and plant a tree.  


 [FJ1]

Optimism in Five Easy Steps

Image from The News International

We’re still here. The Optimists of the World Society may hold its annual meetings in ever-smaller closets, but it is a relentlessly ongoing – optimistic, you could say – society. Here are a few steps with which you can guarantee continued inclusion.

Faith. For example, I live in a 12-story building with two elevators, both of which currently operate on faith. Oh, they are reportedly safe – a nice touch – but the electronic system involved with button-pushing has spun into its own inscrutable non-pattern: the Up or Down button may or may not light up, or both buttons may have already been pushed by some passing ghost. This is the current passenger system: If an elevator stops at your floor, you get in. Say you want to go from Floor 7 to the lobby, but the elevator decides to go Up. Not to worry. When it gets to 12 it will eventually go Down. If you’re lucky it will make fewer than 11 stops before attempting to deposit you in the Garage, but hang on, it’s likely to go straight back up to the lobby, which is where you wanted to go. There are very few enthusiasts about Kone Elevators in my building, but we are nothing if not patient. Which brings up the second step –

Patience. I know, I know. Still, just as the elevator will eventually come, your turn in the phone queue will too. This morning I was informed, after finally getting through a dozen or so menu options, that I was #14 in the queue to speak with a person who might cancel my account. Speaker phones are good for this step, as they allow you to put the thing in a far corner until you find yourself at position #1. Position #1 will drive you to a chat, which often leads to a solution. In this particular instance, my patience led to a happily cancelled account.

Kindness. Always works. Will conquer pessimism, even when malfunctioning elevators and phone menus have rendered you temporarily pessimistic. For instance – speaking of pushing buttons – those buttons in drugstore aisles that say “Push for Customer Assistance”? These require patience and kindness in the extreme. Unlike the elevator buttons which summon no elevator, they summon the Assistant to your precise location – – eventually. Sadly, the Assistant tends to be a grumpy little guy in a rumpled blue jacket who answers any question by saying, “Just tell me which one you want!” He probably just got yelled at by the last customer. Try to be kind. Once he unlocks the little shelf, just pick any one of the 17 varieties of medication on which you wanted his advice. They’re probably all about the same.

Perseverance. See above. The elevator will eventually get you to the right floor, the scammer will give up and the drugstore Customer Assistant will unlock the shelf so that you can pick one of the medications whose 17 varieties had so bewildered you. If you persevere.

And last but not least –

Hope. That business about faith, hope & love? That’s a given with optimists, who tend to love people/times/circumstances largely because it’s easier than hating. But with some people/times/circumstances being so thoroughly unlovable these days, one is left only with hope. Hope that the anti-vaxxers will wake up before they nurture new variants to come after us all, if they don’t get covid and die first. Hope that the rains might miraculously come before drought and wildfires consume the west. That members of Congress will decide to get together and do stuff rather than pointing fingers and playing power games.

Hope springs eternal.  

This essay appears also on Medium.com

Must Hate be Here to Stay?

Jason Leung on Unsplash

When did instant hate become okay?

There’s a charming new neighbor in my building. We have a lot in common: graduate-degree education, reasonably successful grown children, a fondness for historical fiction and long walks around San Francisco. One major difference: nobody ever yelled at me to go back where I came from.

Or spat on the ground while passing by me.

black and white wooden signage
Lerone Pieters on Unsplash

Early in the pandemic but just before the lockdown, my new friend was talking with a college-age cousin in front of a San Francisco store. Two white men dressed in casual work clothes, appearing to be in their forties or early fifties, walked past. One spat. The other looked directly into my friend’s somewhat “Asian-looking” face and uttered those exact words: “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” For the record, she came from Manhattan where she held a high-level corporate management job; before that she came from New Jersey, where she was born. She has voted in every election since the 1960s.

Stories like this, exposing the hostilities stirred up in recent years, make it hard to stay hopeful. But my hopefulness is reinforced by the groups and individuals working around the clock for change. One example is in an unusual nonprofit I’ve only recently come to know. It’s the New Breath Foundation, briefly introduced here: New Breath seeks to offer “hope, healing, and new beginnings for Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) new immigrants and refugees, people impacted by incarceration and deportation, and survivors of violence.”

One of the interesting facts about New Breath is that Founder/President Eddy Zheng is himself an immigrant – and a former “juvenile lifer” in the bargain. Eddy managed to turn his life around while in immigration jails and the prison system. While still incarcerated he began counseling at-risk youth, created an Ethnic Studies program, and co-edited a book. After his release he set about leading youth development and violence prevention programs, and cross-cultural building activities in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally.If the NBF mission seems a tall order, Eddy found a shortcut. It’s called (something like) Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel. Or – find people and groups already working toward your goals and give them the support they need. New Breath Foundation therefore, conducts targeted grant-making, education, and advocacy efforts in support of other hard-working groups. In its scant four years’ existence the nonprofit has supported causes and events including an AAPI Women Lead conference, Survived and Punished, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and a variety of others. Those are the sorts of groups that give me hope.

https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1616707424144-03c58bbba79f?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=934&q=80
Jason Leung on Unsplash

Hope that people like my new neighbor will walk the streets of America without encountering hostility and worse. Hope that instant love and acceptance might replace instant hate.

Hope springs eternal.

Joy! Prosperity! Here’s to the Eights

Should be a very good year. Having just turned 88 on the 8th, I am assured by many of my Chinese friends of an especially fine time ahead: Double joy! Prosperity! Wealth and success! Devin, my extraordinary acupuncturist, tells me that when he was racing motorcycles (a few decades ago) his number was 88 – and here he is, still alive and practicing acupuncture. I may not be Chinese, but I’m a believer. So  I hereby embrace it all, the whole cloud of blessings.

With a little help from Wikipedia, the TravelChinaGuide people, and even a few highly questionable biblical reference sources – I offer this look at the year ahead for the Eight-blessed. Even if you aren’t turning 88, surely you can find an association that will let you in.

Lucky number 8 people, it is said, have strong intuition and insight, and thus “the potential to explore things undiscovered.” Can’t argue with that. We are supposedly also able to complete our plans step by step; somehow I missed this trait. It conflicts, I believe, with the Gemini inclination to zizz around from one thing to another before completing any plan at all. But I’m into numerology today, rather than astrology, so am decidedly accepting that insight thing.

Number 8’s are reportedly mild and honest to others. “Their characteristics would never lead to arguing with other people or causing them to be depressed. In order to avoid hurting people around them, they always hide their real emotions.” I’m only partially sure about this one, being decidedly mild and honest and inclined to avoid hurting anyone anywhere. But hiding my emotions? They are written on my very forehead.

The number 888 is a triple confirmation of the biblical meaning of the number 8, one of my questionably reliable sources reports, but I’m going with this too. “It is ostensibly the number of a new creation, new beginning, resurrection . . .” If the world ever needed new creations and new beginnings it’s now; and while we’re at it we could resurrect a little kindness and compassion to spread around. And double joy.

Let’s hear it for the 8’s.

Change, Masks & Humankindness

How many Presbyterians does it take (you may have heard this one) to change a light bulb??

C-H-A-N-G-E???

I get to repeat this, having been a Presbyterian for about sixty years and being intimately familiar with our reflex opposition to change. However. The global changes of the past 14 or so months have given an entirely new meaning to things like the trauma of switching a word in some obscure hymn.

With the baby steps we are now taking into the New Normal, some of it looks pretty abnormal. We – I, at least –  created an interim sort-of normal and adjusted to it for a year. Wasn’t that normal? But now it does not feel normal to do normal stuff because we declared it not-doable for all those months of the old normal. 

The #1 case in point is the Mask Issue. Early on, I found masks to be a giant bother: hot in the sunshine, uncomfortable oftentimes, and impossible when trying to communicate with someone hard of hearing. Not to mention the regular panic over having forgotten the mask when already a half-mile out on a walk or – heaven forbid – about to enter a Walgreen’s. In my building, one could be sent unceremoniously back to one’s apartment if unmasked in any public space, although eating and drinking were indeed allowed once public spaces opened up. But still, masks remain the rule. They can be quirky, funny, political, decorative; Brian the concierge quickly turned them into fashion statements by appearing in matching mask and tie sets (he has five in all.)

But now. The CDC says it’s fine for the fully vaccinated to go maskless outdoors. Some governors agree. Some governors are thinking it over. Some governors still think Donald Trump is president and everything is a hoax anyway: virus, masks, vaccine, you name it, it’s all just a hoax, 580,000+ U.S. dead people notwithstanding.

There’s only one universal truth:

We need to be VERY kind to one another. We’re all on the same planet, and in the U.S. that includes people who are going to keep wearing masks for a very long time and people who absolutely refused to wear masks and now are more or less validated. And definitely unmasked.

Recently, while walking in a super-trendy area of San Francisco, about a mile from my home (which is in a good but hardly trendy area itself) I had my mask hung over my left ear while eating an ice cream bar. I was overtaken – within a few feet, certainly not a proper social distance – by an attractive, well-dressed white man who appeared to be in his 50s or early 60s. He was fit, maskless – and angry. As he strode alongside we both slowed (or, he slowed to match my already-slow pace) and he glared into my eyes.

“I thought we don’t have to wear masks outdoors,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, with a disarming smile that did not disarm him, “I just keep mine handy, in case I want to go into a store or something.”

“Ridiculous,” he said, as he began to walk ahead. Which was my clue to let it drop. But still seeking to disarm I added, “Maybe we’ll all avoid getting the flu!”

“The hell with it,” he threw back over his shoulder. “I’m getting the flu. I’ve had it with this expletive, expletive, expletive.”

So much for friendly passages.

I worry about the fact that this guy and thousands with similar sentiments and temperaments will continue to co-exist (and walk the streets) with mild-mannered sorts like myself. I think we need to find ways to avoid both shouting expletives and making inane comments that provoke others to shout expletives. Could we plaster the country with posters to this effect:

AHOY, MASK-WEARERS: You haven’t been vaccinated, and are being extraordinarily considerate of the rest of us. You have compromised immune systems and must be super cautious. You have terrible cold sores disfiguring your mouth. Thank you for wearing that mask!

AHOY, ALL UNMASKED : Happy to see your smile. Isn’t it lovely to emerge from the dark days. Thank you for being fully vaccinated which I’m sure is true.

TO EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE: Let’s just cut each other a LOT of slack until the world turns fully right-side-up again.

Remaining masked doesn’t have to mean I’m a snob, or a Democrat, or a generally bad person. Being unmasked doesn’t have to mean I’m a threat to your health, or a Republican, or a generally bad person. Several billion masks have been manufactured or created since early 2020 and it’s going to take a long, long time for them to go away.

In the interim, maybe we could take a collective deep breath. And try smiling.   

Downsizing: The incredible lightness of being

Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

On moving from a four-story, century-old Edwardian into a 1600-sq-ft condo eight years ago I wrote a lengthy feature for the local newspaper (The New Fillmore, May 13, 2013) titled “Lessons Learned from Downsizing.” It drew editorial applause and a bunch of affirmative comments. But it seems not to have sunk in all that well.

I am back in the downsizing business. This time around it is partly a matter of trying to get organized, but despite the donating/tossing/selling/shredding activities of 2013 I am once again (or still) overwhelmed with Stuff. You don’t have to be a Marie Kondo drop-out to know how quickly Stuff can overwhelm. (I applaud every KonMari success story out there, but frankly never got past Step One.)

Here is the Big Truth: downsizing is good for the soul. Whether it’s moving from a 4-story Edwardian into a 3-room condo or reducing a tall pile of photo albums into one small box, there is a lightness akin to joy in the afterglow.

Photo by Max Vakhtbovych on Pexels.com

Looking back on it, there was some pretty good advice in my 2013 article. But as it ran to something over 5,000 words I’ll spare you the whole thing. (Digital copy on request.) I itemized its wisdom in eight lessons learned, which included: Treasures are your enemy; and The Fast-Disposal Plan: put it on the sidewalk with a large sign taped to it reading FREE. Also, even eight years ago much of what is cluttering up the planet (and our lives) could be digitized and made to disappear.

Downsizing is probably good for the soul at any age. What’s your teenager going to do with that wall of blue ribbons from hockey games or dressage events? Maybe one Little League trophy could be representative of the other 57 after the other 57 go to the Goodwill? Or wherever the trophies of our youth go to die. And that, of course is the other half of the Big Truth: wherever our souls go when we leave planet earth, our Stuff remains.

Award-winning (multiple major awards at that) author Ann Patchett confirmed my theory of the Big Truth – this writer uses any crafty means of mentioning herself and Ann Patchett in the same sentence – in a recent, reflective article in The New Yorker. Letting go of an old manual typewriter was particularly problematic for Patchett, as it was for me. She had several more of these treasures than I, and solved the problem by keeping two that had maximum meaning and giving another to a delighted eight-year-old. I solved mine by giving Pearl the Pert Pink Portable to my daughter, in whose family room it is respectfully, somewhat regally, displayed. Although Pearl will live forever in my heart for getting me through college and launched into my literary career, she is undoubtedly happier on display in a room of constant socialization than on my dark closet shelf. (Patchett noted the tendency to anthropomorphize our treasures.)

Back to the issue of departing souls and remaining Stuff. “I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death,” Patchett writes. “They didn’t protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I’d accumulated.”

Pearl the Pert Pink Portable

Disposing of the shiny trinkets, along with the ancient documents and the favorite jeans from the 1980s and the shelf of folded paper bags – there’s an unwritten law about getting rid of paper bags that came bearing bottles of wine or small gifts? – and even beloved manual typewriters is a liberating act. If the disposer has begun to realize that he or she may, in fact, die some day, it is liberating to the extreme. With every drawer-cleaning comes lightness.

I may die? Worse things have happened. At least no one will have to curse my ghost while clearing out this junky drawer.

When my beloved mother-in-law died I remember flying to Detroit with a sense of dread about dealing with her house and the trappings of 93 years. My husband was her sole survivor. But nobody had had to tell Isabel Johns to downsize. We would find in a drawer one carefully folded, tissue-wrapped sweater. In a closet, perhaps several dresses and two pairs of shoes. In the pantry, the barest minimum of canned goods and a broom clipped to the door. There were no mysterious piles of documents and receipts, no dusty boxes of unidentified photos, no collections of sermons written by her Methodist preacher husband of fifty-plus years – worthy though a few of the hundreds might have been. In lieu of Stuff, Isabel left only the enduring memories of a life well lived. And a lightness in the afterglow.

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com

The Beauty of Storytelling

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

 “There is no greater agony,” wrote Maya Angelou, “than bearing an untold story inside you.” Over the past, agonizing year, more than a few of us tackled our inner agony by telling our stories. Not for fame or fortune, just for the joy of telling that untold story. 

Everybody has a story. This is an argument for storytelling, along with a few suggestions about how to tell your own.

I have just finished (you might have figured something like this was coming) a collection of stories for my children and grandchildren, thanks to the help and persistence of an interesting website called StoryWorth.com. This is a totally unpaid plug. Other sites may also be great, among them StoryCatcher, StoryCorps, Ancestry and MyHeritage.com; I just happen to have landed with StoryWorth and haven’t tried the others. Consider this anecdotal – but enthusiastic.

My enterprising daughter purchased – with my advance consent (an important detail) – a StoryWorth account for me over a year ago; that’s how long I’ve been working on this project. In the end there is now a collection of stories – as close to a family history as this family will come – about their parents and grandparents. But it is also about great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, far-flung cousins; cities and towns; quirks and foibles that inhabit the past. I would have given all my worldly goods for someone to StoryWorth my own grandparents.

How to start? The value of enrolling in a program of some sort is that the storyteller gets both guidance and a constant nudge. StoryWorth sent a weekly question such as ‘What were your grandparents like?’ or ‘How did you get your first job?’ or ‘What did you read as a child?’ When I later realized I could write my own questions I invited my children to submit their own. Surprise, they didn’t send any softballs. How about ‘What was the biggest challenge you faced growing up?’ ‘How did you handle it?’ But questions and nudges help get stories told; the challenges thing is in my collection.

Stories need not be just for families. Every cause you support, every job you’ve done or place you’ve lived weaves itself into history, just as all of us become a part of history in the process of passing through. And history is nothing but a collection of stories.

Storytelling also may just be good for the soul; what’s good for the story might be balm for the teller.

Among young people, storytelling is the great introductory ploy. It’s the way high school students break the ice, the way nonprofits build community among their supporters; in my MFA program (University of San Francisco, Class of 2000) we spent the summer session writing an autobiographical narrative – telling our stories – that launched us, both individually and as a community of writers, into the semi-rarefied atmosphere of graduate study.

In senior communities, encouraging people to tell their stories is increasingly seen as a way to bring meaning – and joy – into often lonely lives. For those not inclined to type their stories there is a growing supply of voice recorder apps, and there is the old-fashioned tape recorder which can record stories that then can be digitized. So it seems one is never too old (and seldom too young) to benefit from telling one’s story.  

Today looks like a good time to start.

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