The Kindness of Strangers

We woke to a snowstorm this morning in central Maine. I could hardly wait to get out in it and walk. It was snowing hard and accumulating fast, coming down in heavy, wet flakes. I headed to work midmorning, maneuvering out of the driveway with some difficulty. The ground was already well saturated before this storm.

Getting out of the driveway is the hardest part of winter driving here. I’ve been amazed at how well the roads are taken care of in Maine, much better than the rural roads and streets in Colorado. Still, winter driving is winter driving, and I gave myself plenty of time.

I quickly discovered the paved road was every bit as treacherous and without traction as the driveway. There was a heavy coating of slush and no sign of sanding or plowing. If I went over 30 miles an hour I lost traction and I almost couldn’t climb the steepest hill on the way into town. I turned on my audiobook, sipped my travel mug of tea, and settled down for a slow and careful commute, wondering why the road crews seemed to be ignoring the dangerous conditions.

I started down a gently sloping hill with a shallow curve. One minute I was driving and the next I was floating. I was alone on the road. Nothing happened. I hadn’t accelerated or braked or jerked the wheel. I just started slipping across a thin layer of slush between the tires and the pavement, and I knew I wasn’t going to make the curve. I kept my feet off the pedals and tried to steer into the skid, but the tires might as well have been glass slippers, for all the traction they had.

I was very lucky. The side of the road was thickly edged with woody shrubs like alder and willow. I didn’t hit a pole, tree or fence, and I wasn’t going fast. I also didn’t land in water, a real danger here in Maine. I recognized the weightless feeling in the pit of my stomach and knew I was helpless, a victim of momentum. All I could do was sit tight and wait for the car to stop. I wasn’t at all scared. I had a seatbelt on and I was only coasting.

I’m going to be late for work, I thought, resigned.

The brush and bushes caught me neatly. I turned off the audiobook and engine, turned on the hazard lights, gathered up my keys, wallet and travel mug of tea — not a drop had spilled — and set out for the nearest house.

I was greeted by the baying of several dogs, the alarm calls of a pair of geese and a woman about my own age with very blue eyes. I explained, said I didn’t have a cell phone, and asked if I could call for help.

She was extremely kind. The dogs were contained somewhere while I waited. The geese eyed me balefully. When I stepped inside, the house was warm and a stove glowing. It was a typical farmhouse kitchen, cluttered, friendly, comfortable, filled with plants. She handed me her cell phone, introduced herself as Sarah, and asked if I was hurt. I reassured her I was perfectly unharmed, called my partner and called work. I was about to call AAA when she offered to pull me out with her tractor.

I dithered. I have a horror of being a burden or needing help. Why should this woman leave her cozy kitchen and go out into the snow and slush to pull a stranger out of the ditch? She told me to stop apologizing and pointed out that AAA would likely take a long time to respond, given the local conditions. We both wore heavy mud/snow/rain boots. She flung on an old yellow slicker and fired up the tractor.

The tractor couldn’t get any traction, either. It churned up mounds of mud and grass, but the chain wasn’t long enough to allow it to pull from the pavement, and she came close to sliding sideways into the ditch, just as I had done.

At this point we’d both been lying on the slushy, muddy ground hooking up chains, the snow was coming down in wet clots, and the narrow rural road we were on was extremely hazardous. Sarah took the tractor back and returned with “Tank.” Tank is an old-fashioned heavy farm truck, painted in camo and looking indestructible.

Tank couldn’t pull me out, either.

During all this, everyone who went by stopped to ask if we needed help.

The snow turned to heavy rain.

We went back to the house and I called AAA.

I wanted to wait for the tow truck in the car, but Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. We could see the car from her kitchen window. We were both wet and muddy to the skin. We sat at the kitchen table and talked about our sons (her two and my two) and what we’d done with our lives so far. Every car that went by mine either slowed or stopped. We were so worried that someone else would go off the road or my mishap would cause another accident, we put a note on the car window saying Nobody hurt. Waiting for tow truck.

About an hour later a big tow truck pulled up. I thanked Sarah from the bottom of my heart, put my sodden coat back on and went out into the pouring rain. There were two young guys in the truck. They considered the problem, walking around the car in their heavy boots and the bulky waterproof gear all the working men seem to wear here. They decided the only way to get me out was to pull me sideways back onto the road. I was shivering by that time. I got in the driver’s seat, rolled down the window (I could hardly have been wetter), and prepared to follow directions.

While they were working the road was effectively blocked. A big pickup truck came along, pulled into the center of the road behind the tow truck, and turned on his hazards.

They pulled this way and that. I went from neutral to park and back again. I braked when they told me to. The rain ran down my face and neck and under my coat and other clothing. Branches scraped across the car. The winch whined. Mud and slush churned. A few vehicles waited patiently. We finally got two tires on the road. They got behind me and told me to accelerate nice and slow. I did so, they pushed, and the tires found the pavement again.

I thanked them wholeheartedly. I waved to the kind and patient human being who blocked traffic and kept us all safe.

This morning in Maine there have been many, many accidents, including a flipped-over school bus, snowplows off the road, jackknifed trucks and people like me sliding into ditches, power poles and other cars. There have been cancellations, delays and detours. We are warned of flooding. This afternoon and tonight we expect freezing rain. The storm is not over, but my adventures for the day are. I crept back home three hours after I left it, shivering, wet and exhausted, and promptly got stuck in the driveway.

How do we thank the strangers who brush against our lives and lend a helping hand? I’ve never known. A simple thank you seems so wholly inadequate. Still, what else can I say? What about all those anonymous strangers who help in ways we never know about, or come and go so quickly we don’t even see their faces? As an old first responder, I know how essential traffic control is, but I don’t know if the driver who shielded us and stopped traffic was a man or woman. I suspect everyone’s plans were disrupted this morning, but people slowed and stopped to make sure the driver of the car in the ditch was not injured or needing help. Treacherous roads, blinding snow and then rain, a dark November day, and ordinary men and women willing to assist in spite of it, willing to leave their warm firesides and kitchens, willing to climb out of their dry, cozy vehicles, willing to do what they could for a stranger.

These are the darkest times I’ve seen in America in my lifetime, but this morning my faith in humanity was renewed. A series of strangers helped me when I was in need, and because of them I’m back home, safe, dry and warm. I’m grateful. I also know that all over the world people are practicing small acts of kindness all the time, ordinary people going about their business in neighborhoods, communities and at work. This post is for them.

Thank you for checking to make sure a stranded driver is okay. Thank you for answering a stranger’s knock at your door. Thank you for offering a cell phone or other means of communication to someone who is stuck without the ability to call for help. Thank you for helping direct or block traffic so further accidents don’t occur. Thank you for being patient when an accident holds you up. Thank you to all those first responders, tow truck drivers, utility company workers and the other hundreds of thousands who are there with tow chains, chainsaws, shovels and tractors when the unexpected happens. You might be doing your job, but thank you anyway for your smiles, your kindness, your expertise, your willingness to contribute, your difficult and often risky work, and your humanity.

My hope lies in all of us who do what we can in our little corner of the world. The simple, humble kindness of strangers may, in the end, save us.

Needing the kindness of strangers. My daily crime.

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

The Humble Body

The pool where I work is part of a rehabilitation center, which is part of the local hospital. There are actually two pools. One is a lap pool of about 82 degrees. The other is a large therapy pool, nearly as big as the 4-lane 25-yard lap pool. The therapy pool is about 92 degrees. The pool patrons are a mix of the public, hospital staff and rehab patients.

As a lifeguard, I spend hours in an elevated chair watching people in the water and moving around on the deck. It delights me that I’m paid for doing what I naturally do in the world, which is to people watch. In an environment with a consistent air temperature over 80 degrees with more than 50% humidity, all of us — staff, patrons and patients — are necessarily without our usual armor of clothing, make-up and jewelry. We are physically revealed to one another to an unusual degree in a public place.

I’m struck every day by the humility of flesh, the wonder and complexity of our physical being; the almost painful innocence of small children with their rounded, unselfconscious forms; the incredible and paradoxical endurance, resilience and fragility of the human body, and the inexorable truths our unconcealed bodies reveal.

I’m touched by the everyday, patient, humble courage of people whose bodies are ill, injured and aging. I watch people participate in classes: Water walking, water aerobics, arthritis and fibromyalgia in the therapy pool, and swim lessons. I watch couples and families, caregivers and their charges, school groups and special needs groups. People come to lose weight, to rehabilitate after a stroke or cardiac event, to increase their strength and endurance, to recover from surgery or injury. People also come to socialize, to play, and to be inspired and motivated by staff, classes, music and one another.

Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash

Some folks swim laps. Others water walk and go through exercise routines with buoys, kickboards and weights. They come out of the locker rooms with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Some need help getting in and out of the pool, or even down to the pool from the parking lot.

For the most part, people who make use of the facility are patient, pleasant and good-natured. Watching them, I wonder at their resilience. What must it be like to be so bent one can only see the floor? How does one cope when the only ambulation possible is to creep along with a walker? The joy and laughter of a wheel-chair bound young person with contorted and twisted limbs like sticks when she’s carried into the therapy pool make me weep.

There’s really no place to hide in the world, at least from ourselves. We all live in a body, and many of us struggle with loving them, including me. We spend an amazing amount of time, money, anguish and effort in disguising our perceived physical defects from the eyes of the world. We tell ourselves nobody can see our shame. No one can see how unlovely or imperfect we really are. No one will ever know.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

But we know, and our shame and self-loathing poison our lives.

I wonder, as I sit in the chair, what is it about the people who use the pool that enables them to risk physical authenticity? Do they love and accept themselves as they are? If so, how have they developed that ability? Are they unconcerned with what others think of them? Are they like me, and simply resigned to their physical reality, feeling that the benefits of using the pool are more important than hiding their appearance, but privately ashamed and embarrassed?

In thinking about this, I realize my own relationship with my body is complicated. On the one hand, I feel affection, loyalty and gratitude. I’ve never aspired to beauty, whatever beauty is. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see a picture of myself, which is not often, as I hate having my picture taken and avoid it whenever possible. I think I cringe because I wish I could protect that vulnerable woman from the eyes and criticism of others. I cringe because my deepest and most private shame is that my physical envelope contains some hidden foulness that makes me unworthy of physical affection and contact. I’m not talking about sex. Sexual attraction and desire are a whole different conversation. I’ve been good enough for sex, but not good enough for consistent loving, nurturing touch. Not good enough to hold.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I love the water so much is that it touches me.

The shame I feel around this is corrosive and chronic. It’s my intention that it also remain entirely invisible to any onlooker. The pain of this hidden vulnerability of mine enlarges the way I observe others in their bodies. It seems to me we must all have some degree of skin hunger that’s more or less satisfied, depending on our situation. We must all feel some degree of physical isolation and alienation at some point in our lives. Surely every body I see is worthy of care, of love, of touch and nurture, in spite of skin tags, scars, cellulite, bulges and sags, hair distribution or absence, aging, injury and disability, too many or too few pounds.

As I sit on the lifeguard stand, counting heads and scanning the pools, I keep coming back to courage. Courage and humility. The willingness to be seen without the comfort and concealment of clothing. The willingness to be physically authentic and vulnerable. Not a story of courage that will ever be made into a movie, but a kind of daily, humble heroism that touches and inspires me.

Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

As an observer, it’s effortful to discard childish judgements like “ugly” and “beautiful.” It’s hard not to apply an internalized rating system. I’m tainted by Hollywood, by digitally altered images and by my own private romantic fantasies. Somewhere underneath all the limitations imposed by that conditioning and brainwashing, I glimpse a vast compassionate wisdom that encompasses all of us. Life, after all, is beautiful and miraculous. Doing what we can to care for and accept the body we have is an act of courage and strength. Allowing ourselves to be seen and vulnerable takes humility and heroism.

I wonder, somewhat uneasily, if we are no longer able to grasp the beauty inherent in our physical forms. We seem determined to approach the planet’s body, our own and the bodies of others as commodities and resources to plunder, manipulate and then discard when they become boring, worn-out, ill or (at least to our eyes) ugly. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to appreciate and value everybody in every unique, individual body. Maybe our culture is so injured all we can do now is hate, judge and criticize not only ourselves but others.

Perhaps we’re determined to tear ourselves apart and nothing will stop us.

In the meantime, however, I live in a body, just as you do, and we all have a deeply private and largely invisible relationship with our structure of flesh, blood and bone. My choice is to remain present with the wonder and complexity of the human body, yours, mine and theirs. My choice is to enlarge my compassion and observation until I touch that edge of wisdom that acknowledges beauty and worth in all of physical life, be it human, tree or creature.

Reverence instead of destruction. My daily crime.

Photo by Khoa Pham on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Late Harvest

What does it mean to make a home? I wonder if it means something different to everyone, or if we have a common vision.

All my adult life homemaking has been a top priority, not so much for myself, but for others. Creating home has been my labor of love and one of my greatest contributions to relationship. Few things give me as much satisfaction as establishing a place of peace, beauty, security and clean, well-ordered efficiency in which to relax, play, share life and be intimate. In the past I didn’t count the cost in emotional labor, physical labor, time or energy. I didn’t expect reciprocity. I only wanted to be allowed to make the offering of a home.

It never occurred to me the enormous gift of creating a home would be largely invisible and mostly unappreciated.

My disillusionment was gradual. I realized one day that cleaning the bathroom meant nothing to those I was sharing it with. It gave me a lot of satisfaction, but was rarely even noticed by others. That was the first time I grasped that I wasn’t going to get thanked or validated for cleaning. If I wanted to clean, I needed to make sure I was doing it for myself and have no expectations that anyone else would pay attention.

I was on my own with the cleaning thing.

I was also on my own in evaluating a new home for ease of maintenance and housekeeping as well as suitability for pets and kids. I was the one who thought about clotheslines and their proximity to laundry facilities; flooring in entryways, bathrooms and kitchens; and outside and inside wood storage for the woodstove. I was the one who thought about how to deal with trash and recycling and where to put the litter box and store the dog food.

Not every woman is a natural homemaker. I think many perform as such because nobody else will and the culture expects it of them. I’ve always loved that kind of work, even knowing it’s unpaid and undervalued in the larger world. I assumed, in my innocence, that homemaking was an investment in a healthy and happy family, and that was the only payback I needed.

Photo by Mar Newhall on Unsplash

The thing about being young is that we can’t imagine how decades of unappreciated and invisible work and support grind us down and polish a thick shell of cynicism. It turns out I did want some degree of appreciation and acknowledgement from my family for making a home. I couldn’t pull off the perfect wife/mother/housekeeping role with a clean white apron and endlessly abundant nurture, energy, patience, organization and efficiency with no return. I especially couldn’t do it while working outside the home, going to school and single parenting.

Fulfilling cultural expectations turned out not to be very fulfilling, after all.

Eventually I found myself alone. Children grown and gone, a file folder labeled ‘Divorce’, and freedom to make a home solely for myself at last. Complete and total control. Bliss! I had a wonderful time giving myself exactly the kind of home I’d always dreamed of. All my efforts were on my own behalf. I didn’t care what anyone else thought and I didn’t need anyone to appreciate the home I made for myself. Housekeeping was uncomplicated, easy and filled with joy.

I concluded that homemaking wasn’t, after all, a gift, a talent or an adequate offering. It didn’t translate as a declaration of love, support and commitment. My loved ones didn’t value my contribution. It was a meaningless use of my time and energy and put me in the vulnerable position of looking for validation and appreciation from others.

I felt like a fool, and it made me bitter. I promised myself that never again would I try to make a home for anyone but myself.

I never imagined, even as a teenager, that anyone would make a home for me. I wasn’t that naïve!

Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash

Here in the tarnished and somber season of late fall and lengthening nights an amazing thing has happened.

I noticed it when I began coming home in the dark after work. My partner leaves lights on for me so I can easily negotiate backing into the driveway and navigate the steep cellar stairs. When I open the door at the top of the steps and enter the kitchen, the dishes are done. The house is warm and the wood stove glowing in the living room. The cat is fed. The kitchen smells of beef stew, chicken soup or baking.

Home. My home, but this time not created solely by me for someone else. This home is a collaboration, and it’s incomplete without me. I’m not invisible. My presence has worth. After all these years, all the meals and baking, all the housework and candles and welcoming lights in windows, the clean clothes, the fresh beds, the cared-for animals, the countless cords of wood for various stoves, all that invisible and unnoticed love, I’m reaping a late harvest.

Someone makes a home for me now, and waits for me to return, not to maintain it but to be part of it.

At the end of my workday, I’m actually at the end of my workday. I don’t have to unload the car, fumble my way into a dark house, turn on lights, get the woodstove going, make a meal, take care of pets and/or kids and/or adults, shut curtains and lock doors. My partner doesn’t meet me at the door with roses, wine and sweet talk. He gives me far more enduring and authentic gifts of a place and relationship to come home to. I discover those offerings are every bit as worthy as I imagined when I was a newly-married 21-year-old. All my work over the years was real. It was valuable. It was loving and important. It was a beautiful contribution. The fact that no one noticed or appreciated the home I made for them did not, after all, define the value of my intention.

I suppose it’s just one of life’s little ironies that now, at this late date when I’ve completely given up expectations and fantasies that others will perceive homemaking as an expression of love worthy of acknowledgement, someone in my life finally gives back to me what I’ve given in such abundance to others.

It’s a late harvest, but well worth the wait.

Being welcomed home. My daily crime.

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted