Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 10: It Takes a Village ... and a Soup Pot

by Zinta Aistars

Tossing socks and towels into the washing machine, rinsing dishes and stacking them in the dishwasher, scratching Jig behind her old cat ear in passing, it occurs to me that I am very much behaving as if I am right at home. And I am—at home in someone else’s house. Into my second week of house sitting, I’ve received interesting items of news to contemplate:

1. The home owner has purchased a cooking pan in Sarajevo.

2. My daughter’s car requires a new electrical system to run, and my helping to get her back on the road will effectively wipe out the last of my “dream stash” that was to pave my road north.

3. Said home owner has cheerily offered to toss in the piano at no cost if I wish to buy the house.

Cleaning machines whirring away in their cleaning duties, I stir a pot of soup on the stove. I love soup. Toss in whatever, and it just gets better. I rummage through my groceries and find a lush green patch of kale and a box of red quinoa. I chop up the kale and toss it in. I shake out some red quinoa from the box into the simmering pot. I still have some frozen peas in the freezer, too.

Laundry done, dried and folded; dishes dry and put away; soup in belly, I settle into the corner of the couch and watch the dance of bright flames in the wood stove in the living room. I don’t have to wait long—my daughter calls for our weekly Monday night chat.

Excitement is palpable in her voice. A job offer is taking shape. No small potatoes. My girl is somewhere in the midst of a career change. Her master’s is in social work, but for many reasons, she has now switched to real estate, completing classes and passing the test for her license over the summer. Madness? In this housing market? Maybe, but what following of bliss isn’t?

My favorite author, Annie Dillard, is quoted as saying: “If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be too cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

I’ll confess: my cynicism by now about love affairs and some friendships has won upperhand. Even as I encourage others to take those thrilling cliff leaps, even as I still believe in that occasional moment of brilliance in the human condition gone deliciously mad, I have for some time now chosen to expend my energies in other pursuits. Setting aside some dreams, throwing others on the funeral pyre, I’d chosen one last dream to pursue. Those who read my blog on a regular basis will have already read about my grieving that last dream—to live in a remote cabin far north in wilderness.

I hear myself encouraging my daughter to follow her bliss (nod to Joseph Campbell) and to know that I am behind her. All the way. Dream with your heart, dream big, work hard, I tell her, and I will be the village offering support if you should need it.

I have never known anyone who works harder than my girl. I stand in awe. If now and then life trips her up, as in the form of a faulty electrical system that effectively leaves her stranded in her work to show housing to clients, well, by golly, I will toss whatever fuel I have left on the pyre and give her a step up.

Isn’t that what family is all about?

When I wrote about my last dream waning, receding into the fog, I received many compassionate notes and calls and e-mails, from strangers as well as from friends. I was moved by the response. Goodness knows I hesitated in posting about my moment of weakness. Grown woman blubbering like a child, I hardly felt at my strongest and best. I hesitated, but then I thought about the writer’s journey I’d begun. If I was going to write about the high points, I should just as faithfully write about the lows. I respect my readers, whoever they might be, and I believe they sense authenticity. I had to be honest about my struggle.

One response, however, questioned whether I was right to support an adult child when life sent her on a spin. Wasn’t my parenting done at age 18?

When I drove back to Kalamazoo this past Saturday to help my father transport his paintings for an upcoming art exhibit, was I enabling my elderly parent, bent and in chronic pain from four back surgeries, to rely on me instead of himself? Lord, I hope so. I want him to know that I am here for him, as he so many times has been for me, just as I want my daughter—and my son—to know that I will always be here for them. If my helping my elderly parent is a show of respect, which it is, then how is my helping my adult children anything less? Both have earned my respect, my admiration, and my love.

There were times that I, too, fell to my knees during adulthood. Divorce, poverty, health emergencies when I had no health insurance … there were many critical moments that I ran out of strength and resources on my own. My village—my family, my friends, even my colleagues—gathered in a protective circle around me and helped me stand again. I am forever grateful.

There was the time that I had started a new job with an anorexic salary, a young and single mom with two small children, and I was too new on the job to have yet earned any paid time off. My doctor said the surgery couldn’t wait. There was suspicion of a malignancy. The surgery would be major enough that I was to miss work for six weeks, but I would receive no pay. I reeled at the news. Meanwhile, my brand new colleagues, all of whom were virtual strangers to me, passed the hat and collected enough to pay my rent for one month.

I will never forget.

There was the time I lost a job because an accident had so damaged my eye that I had to wear a bandage across half of my face for weeks. When the surgeon spoke of corneal transplant, I shrugged, said no. I had no health insurance. I had no income. My job then was temporary and they let me go because my bandaged appearance wasn’t suitable for front desk work. As a temp, they had no obligaton to me. A friend showed up at my door, pushed me aside when I opened it, and brought in bag after bag of groceries.

I will never forget.

There was the time I returned from living overseas after making a heartrending decision about where I was needed most. My marriage in one country … my children in the other. I made a decision that broke my heart but that I would never regret. Becoming a parent means making sacrifices. May we never have to choose between those we love, but when pressed to the wall, my children will always, always win out. I returned to the United States with no money, no housing, no vehicle, no job, no belongings. I had to start my life over from nothing and build it up again. My parents opened their door to me and to my children. We lived with them for a month while I found work, found an apartment, bought a clunker to get us around.

I will never forget.

I could list such times that my Village stood me back on my feet until the day runs dark, and another, and the year turns into another. Every day, I experience random kindness from strangers. Every day, I remember the blessing of family, my parents, my sister, my children. Every day, I think of my friends, those who have held true through thick and thin.

Whenever possible, I try to be that stranger. I try to be that blessing. I try to be that friend.

We all get a turn.

We all have in us untapped reserves of strength, courage and kindness. When we receive these gifts from others, I believe with all my heart that we are given a blessing that we are meant to pass along, not clutch to our own chests.

I grieve a lost dream. Even as I wonder what will take its place. A house with a piano? The house awaiting me back in Kalamazoo? A quiet place far up north that somehow, in some mysterious way, is still meant for me and awaits my finding the right path? If I can’t get there on my own, perhaps a village will point me in the right direction with its beacon of enduring light.

While I am waiting to figure that one out, I do what I can to pass the blessing along. And trust, just trust, that when I teeter back on my heels, something, someone, will catch me before I fall. We all fall. That Chinese proverb stands beside Annie Dillard’s quote—it’s not how many times we fall. It’s how many times we get back up.

In a time when so many families are breaking apart, when collecting more “stuff” seems to have greater importance than the concept of sharing, when being “tough” is understood as being hardened and without emotion rather than being tough enough to cry, when social networking has connected us to so many even while leaving us isolated in our own little lives … I wonder: What happened to the Village?

As for me, as much as I enjoy a life of quiet solitude, I know my Village is out there. Just beyond the edge of the night, in the shadows and ready to step out of them at moment’s notice. I, too, am part of a Village, and ready to step through the shadows when needed. My Village, and being part of one, gives me the courage to find a new dream.

I always did love the Fable of Stone Soup, about a pot of water three hungry men were boiling in the middle of a village. They had nothing but three stones out of which to make soup. The villagers came around, and they were all poor, too. But each villager had a little something to contribute. Each one tossed something in, a carrot, a chunk of meat, a bit of potato, a wedge of cabbage, a dash of salt, until the water turned to a delicious soup that fed the entire village.

I am thinking about buying a new cooking pan, or maybe a big soup pot. I will have to trust that I will find the right home where I can use it, and that the soup I boil in it will be delicious and nutritious. I would like to invite my Village to dinner. A little dinner music would be nice, too.


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