This past week, I watched real-time TV images of devastation. Houses and businesses and lives and dreams, decimated. All the while, in awe of the absolute power and unpredictability of nature.
And it hits me that we are, every single one of us, one storm away from wreckage. No matter how prepared. We are at the mercy. And in that place, invited to humility.
I’m reading The Good Neighbor; The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. And take comfort by something his mother would tell him during times of disaster. “Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping.”
You see, it is in our humility that we find the strength and the power to take care of one another.
Bob works as a pediatric nurse with terminally ill children. One of his “patients,” is a little girl named Emily. Emily loved playing with Bob when he visited her room. She felt safe and they become fast friends. Occasionally, Emily would talk about the time when “Chucky Lee” was “going to come.” Bob assumed she was speaking of a friend, or family member. So, one day he asked her.
Emily told Bob, “Chucky Lee comes to see me sometimes.” And then paused and added, “Chucky Lee is death. Someday Chucky Lee will come and take me away.”
Bob knew that Emily needed to personify death into a character she could understand. It made perfect sense.
“Are you frightened?” he asked.
“Yes, very much. Mostly he comes at night.”
Bob was moved by her clarity and innocence. And he wanted to protect her, to shield her from such sorrow. “At night, when you feel Chucky Lee coming, is there anything you can do to feel better?”
“Oh, yes,” Emily replied brightly, “You have to sing Jingle Bells and other love songs!”
After that Bob asked specifically about her nights.
“Well,” she told him, using a conspiratorial whisper, “Last night, I had to sing Jingle Bells three times, very, very loud.”
Indeed Emily. Very, very loud…
We can all learn from Emily.
Although, to be honest, I’d rather a life exempt from the visits of Chucky Lee. Whether it is heartache, fragility, vulnerability, breakability, weakness or disillusionment. Each of them, in their own way, a small death.
I recently talked to a friend. As paramedics worked over the body of a young man dying from an overdose, my friend held the young man’s 21-year-old friend tightly, as he sobbed in her arms, hyperventilating. She didn’t know quite what to say, but whispered over and over, “breathe with me, breathe in the spirit, and breathe out the junk.” She told me, “I cleaned up the blood-stained carpet left by the paramedics. It was my prayer of servitude I guess. It is an unusual feeling, cleaning up the blood of someone who is dying, but there is a profound sense of devotion to what is sacred here. It’s not just about the bloody and messy, but about the fragility of life, and how life doesn’t unfold neatly and how I have so much to learn in trusting that truth.”
Yes. It is in our humility that we find the strength and the power to take care of one another.
Here’s the deal:
Sometimes we need to hold someone tight, even if we don’t know what to say.
Sometimes we need to let ourselves be held tightly, even if we don’t believe what is whispered in our ear.
Sometimes we need to walk the dog, fill the bird-feeders, talk with a friend, or find a meal for a storm victim.
Sometimes we must be very still, for an afternoon, and use our stillness as a prayer, a silent song to the heavens.
And sometimes, we need to sing Jingle Bells and other love songs very, very loud.
Not that music always has its intended result. Several years ago Zach and I are tooling down a Vashon country road, Matisyahu’s One Day blasting (what is heartfelt music, if not loud?), and me singing along with unabashed gusto.
“Dad,” Zach says, “Shhhh. You know these feel good songs, the ones where you can almost taste the sadness? Well, the way I listen to them is to become like an Indian doing mediation. And Dad, when you sing along, you mess up my mantra.”
Ohhhh. Okay. Thank you son. I know I can’t carry a tune. I just never knew I could mess up someone’s mantra.
I do know what he means though. About the almost taste the sadness part. Music has a power that enables it to find its way into the crevices of our soul.
So, where do we find and spill the music of healing and redemption? Music that gives hope to people around us.
Small headlines, even about big quandaries, more often than not, escape our notice. I wish it were not so. But we live in a world where bombardment wins our attention. Gratefully, I saw this. “Puerto Rican volunteers from San Juan are serving Hurricane victims in North Carolina, a unique story called Operation Pay It Forward.” Yes, I am smiling. Yes, it does my heart good. Yes, these are stories that keep my hope alive.
Notice the verbs. Serve. Pay (engaged, all in).
The group is called, appropriately, Operation Blessing. Their why? The delegation knows all too well how it feels to be left reeling after a hurricane. So, let’s be clear. Just because our music of kindness is under the radar (or not even sung in tune) doesn’t mean it doesn’t change the world.
Pete Seeger believed in the power of music. It was his “weapon,” and he sang and lived his life in support of peace, and of international disarmament, and of civil rights, and of environmental causes. And he paid a price for his beliefs, and for his music. In protesting war, members of his singing group, The Weavers, were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In The Power of Song, the documentary about Seeger’s life, he talks openly about death threats he received. One man in particular, followed Seeger’s concerts, making his intentions clear. Pete’s wife Toshi finally suggested that Pete simply talk with the man. On one occasion, before a concert, back stage, the stalker and Pete spent time in a room alone.
“What happened?” Seeger was asked.
“Well, we talked. And then we sang together… Where have all the flowers gone? And then we cried together. And then the man told me, ‘Thank you. I now feel clean.'” (I added the Seeger video below.)
I get too easily cynical. And I will admit that some part of me doesn’t want to believe stories that have peaceful endings.
But in my heart I know that only light can push the darkness away.
Light. And very, very loud renditions of love songs.
We can do that. From sanctuary, we make a difference. In our humility, we can make choices to be Operation Blessing. So, this week, let us pay it forward, singing jingle bells with fellow travelers, who need a hand to hold.
This year, here on Vashon Island, our leaves have given us a magical Midwestern Autumn, with clear days and crisp blue skies. A tree palate of mustard golds and yellows, flushed and ruddy reds, from Bloodgood Maple to Liquidambar styraciflua (sweet gum). Lord have mercy, it is good.
Quotes for your week…
Music can change the world
because it can change people.
This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.
The motto emblazoned on Pete Seeger’s banjo
Note: Chucky Lee story adapted from Wayne Muller’s book, How then shall we live?
POEMS AND PRAYERS
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.
We are all great rivers flowing to their end.
Swirling inside us is the silt of ages and creatures and lands
and rain that has fallen for millions of years.
All this makes us cloudy with mud,
unable to see God.
As we struggle for clarity and the open sky,
the Lord keeps saying the same thing:
Come to me now and be blessed,
Hafiz (1320 – 1389)