Try a Little Tenderness

It’s not just sentimental

She has her grief and care

But the soft words, they are spoken so gentle

It makes it easier to bear…

~”Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding

bracesWhen I was a little girl, I went to school in an old building with polished hardwood floors and desks that bolted to the floor.  There was a child in the class who had contracted Polio as a baby. One of her legs, weakened and deformed by the disease, was in a heavy metal brace.  One day, as she rushed to get to her seat, she slipped on the waxed floor and fell hard, bumping her head on the metal desk leg.  As she lay crying, the teacher said something I will never forget.

“That’s what you get for running.”

I was six years old and it was the first time I remember hearing an adult say something pointedly unkind.  It puzzled and upset me, and to this day, when I remember the incident, something in my stomach turns and I feel cold and uneasy.  In the shadows of my memory, I still see that little girl crumpled in a heap on the unforgiving floor, tears rolling down her cheeks.  I want to cry with her.

I was reminded of that story when saying my morning prayers this week.  Of all the Christ-like qualities that I wish to grow in my daily walk, kindness is number one.

I’m not sure when we turned the corner, but it seems that our culture has decided that our freedom of speech supersedes kindness.  Facebook is full of insulting and demeaning posts.  Everyone is free game, from political and church leaders, to athletes and pundits.  Cyber bullying has become our youth’s great American pastime.  Parents scream at coaches and teachers.  Members of Westboro Baptist Church hurl horridly hurtful insults during funerals.  Teenagers play “Knockout”- targeting an unsuspecting stranger, sneaking up on them and punching them so hard they crumple into an unconscious heap.  The media displays stories of celebrities’ struggles with abuse and mental illnesses as if they are Academy awards.  And the stars of “reality” television programs resemble coiled cobras, wildly spitting venomous insults at one another in an attempt to rise to the top of the writhing heap.

It seems to me that we are so determined to stake our claim in life that we often neglect to remember that with each step we affect other people.  Every rung in the proverbial ladder of life gives us the opportunity to change the day of another person, simply by the way we treat him.  And it is not always what we say, but how we say it that makes the difference.

Here’s an example.  The week before Christmas, I ran to the local Target store to buyflat-tire wrapping paper and ribbon.  I was still recovering from back surgery, and walking was painful and slow, but I managed to make my purchase and return to my car.  When I started the engine, I realized there was a long queue of cars snaked across the parking lot, slowly making their way along the path to the only exit.  I maneuvered my car into line with the rest and hummed along to Christmas carols on the radio while inching my car forward with the rest of the exiting shoppers.  I was stopped in front of the store when a woman who was crossing in front of me scowled and thrusting a finger toward my front tire, yelled, “You’d better get some air in there!”

The car queue was too long.  I couldn’t stop to investigate so I gingerly drove home, praying that the tire would carry me to my parking lot. But long after I returned to my warm apartment, my stomach was still in a knot. I knew the woman at Target was doing me a favor by letting me know there was a problem with my tire, but I felt accosted by the aggressiveness of her communication.  Her message, though an act of responsibility, was totally devoid of one precious ingredient.  Kindness.

Lest I appear to be above all this, let me be the first to point out that kindness does not always come easily to me.  I can be a master of maliciousness.  A sultan of sarcasm. The baroness of bluntness. The czarina of… you get the point.  But here’s the thing; the more I pray about this, the more aware I become.  And the more I stop before I speak, think about the other person, and amend my delivery.  And funny thing- my relationships are better.  People around me smile more.  I feel much more at peace.  I sleep more soundly.kindness

So the moral of the story is, if we want our world- the world we will give over to our children and our grandchildren- to be a better place, perhaps we need to try a little tenderness.  Can’t hurt.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

tempNew England, like much of the country, is deep in the clutches of winter.

I woke at four Friday morning to find the furnace had stopped working sometime during the night. The thermostat in the living room- the warmest room in my apartment- read a frosty 45 degrees (Fahrenheit.) The temperature outside was a mere 1. After several attempts, I was able to get the furnace started and when I left for work it was still chugging away. Crisis averted.

Later, I told my daughter Abby about the furnace. She said it reminded her of times we lost power when she was a child.

I remembered one of those times. We had a power failure one snowy February evening. While the children huddled under blankets in the living room, I braved the snow to heat canned soup over a propane burner on the front stoop. We supped by candle light and then Abby and Elizabeth entertained us by reading “Hamlet” aloud, each creating a different voice for each character. We snuggled together laughed until the lights came on. It is one of my favorite memories.

Another year, when the children were much younger, we lost power early in the first day of a huge ice storm. Abby and Gabriel had fevers, so I bundled them into bed and told them to stay there. With Elizabeth in tow, I emptied the refrigerator and buried the food in the snow on our deck, then turned the faucets to a slow trickle to keep the pipes from freezing. But as the hours passed, the house became dark and cold as a tomb. When my friend Sue called to see how we were faring, I told her we were without electricity. She quickly arranged for us to stay with her parents, who hadn’t been affected by the power failure. I joyfully herded the kids into the car, and skidded to their nearby home, where they greeted us with warm smiles and warmer hugs. Our communication was limited- they spoke mostly French. We spoke only English. But hospitality crosses all cultural barriers. We were given the whole lower level of their home- living room with two fold-out couches, TV, kitchenette, bath and bedroom. We remained there for five days, until the power to our townhouse was restored. It took several hours before the townhouse was warm enough to bring the kids home, and the ice coating the power lines and trees didn’t thaw for a week. But the warmth of the Lacroix family burns in my heart still and I will never forget their generosity.

During our most recent snow storm,  I reluctantly bundled up to take the trash to the dumpster across my apartment house parking lot. It was 6 degrees and the wind swirled snow in every direction- certainly not a night for a winter stroll. The storm raged like a banshee as I trudged through the snow, and I hunched my shoulders and bowed my head against the wind.

As I walked, I noticed how dry and granular the snow was. Under the streetlights it sparkled and shone and the earth seemed suddenly covered in diamonds. I stood enchanted by the dumpster forgetting about the wind and the cold.  “How often we miss out on beauty like this because we are blinded by our discomfort,” I thought, and I took a longer and slower route back to the warmth of my apartment.

jan 2014It’s funny how the worst of circumstances can provoke the best responses. After last night’s storm, there is brilliant sunshine that sparkles against alabaster roof tops. In much the same way, many cold nights filled with icy winds and frigid darkness, have brought memories that melt my heart and fill me with the warm embers of yesterday.
Tonight promises temperatures well below zero, and while I hope my furnace holds up under the strain, if it dies again, I’m sure we will find a way to stay warm. And who knows- maybe a whole new set of memories will be born.

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