A short tale of Road Complaints, Compassion, and Good People

toll gate threeI came of age in the Pacific Northwest.  However, I learned to drive in Massachusetts.  Here, you need to be constantly attentive and a little pushy just to keep your spot on the road.  Folks cut you off, switch lanes without warning, and generally act like they are completely entitled to the entire highway.  Around here, we yell at the windshield, “What?  You think you OWN the highway??”

That is actually a defining trait of the Massachusetts driver- bitching out loud about the other drivers on the road.  If you watch closely as you travel, you can see people’s mouths working soundlessly behind their windshields as they drive.  Sometimes they are singing but, more often than not, they are berating some other driver who just did something stupid.

A couple days ago, I was in my truck, heading down a four lane road to the gas station when I came up on a car that was coming to a stop with its hazards on.  Two people got out and started walking in the direction of the nearby church.  As a native driver, I started my dialog about “who the hell parks on the road like that?  Doesn’t the church have a parking lot?  Somebody is going to hit them and won’t that be a mess.  What were they thinking?  Andover drivers…”

As I blew past them, it belatedly dawned on me that they were most likely out of gas.  Well.  A little embarrassed about my tirade and a little to far beyond to stop and offer a ride, I continued on to the gas station.  While the attendant was filling my tank, I stepped into the office to ask the manager Dan if they had a loaner gas can.  I told him that I had passed a car on the road that looked like it was out of gas and figured I could give them a hand.

“Kinda like a Boy Scout thing?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I guess so,” I replied.

“OK.  No deposit on the can but you need to bring it back yourself.”

So, with both truck and gas can full, I pulled out of the lot and headed back toward the car.  The two folks, a father and son, were almost to the gas station, so I pulled over and asked them if their car was out of gas.  Surprised, they confirmed that was indeed the case.

“Hop in!  I’ve got some gas in the back of my truck for you.”

With Jose and Javi in the truck, I got us back to their car.  On the way, Jose kept asking if he could pay me back or “make me whole” as he put it.  I declined thinking that a couple minutes of my time and $4.00 of gas was just the sort of thing we should be able to do for our neighbors.  As a Boy Scout (I actually was in Scouts when I was a kid), we were told to “do a good turn daily” which meant to do at least one thing to help others every day.  This felt like my good turn for the day.

Fueled up, I led them back to the station to return the gas can and to make sure their car didn’t misbehave like some do after running out of fuel.  Jose insisted that I wait five minutes so he could run to the bank next door and get some cash to pay me back.  I sighed with a smile and agreed.  He returned just a few minutes later with a smile of his own.  “I know you didn’t expect anything in return but please allow me to ‘pay it forward’ today.  Merry Christmas.”  He discretely handed me some folded bills.  I looked down to see five $20 bills in my hand!  I looked up in surprise and he waved as he was walking away.

“Merry Christmas” he repeated.

I am sure there are a number of ways to relate to this story but I chose to see it as one small connection with another human being.  Even if it was just for a couple minutes, we both reached out to trust another and found, not the danger and demons we all fear, but kindness and compassion from the heart of a neighbor.

Merry Christmas indeed.



stand up eight

The Buddhist quote I posted a couple weeks ago had been rolling around in my head for several days prior and it really speaks to the perseverance and determination needed to make changes in our outlook on life, the way our families and communities operate,  and how we choose to inhabit this world.

We can all think of examples of where people have made a difference through conscious action- equal rights, marriage rights, the right to make a decent wage for a days work, etc.  These fights all took time to develop public support and to change deeply-held opinions.  Some were decades-long struggles that were won through commitment to a vision of how to make our society a better place for all of us.

cigarette buttThis same sort of dedication needs to be applied if we wish to make improvements and changes in our own lives because we will face similar difficulties with social pressures as well as our own deeply-rooted habits.  Ever try to quit smoking?  It is not as simple as just not lighting up.  The habit is woven into the fabric of your day and it takes time to remove that particular strand.  There will no doubt be days where you miss a thread.  But if you keep working at it, it is indeed possible to change your life.

Those days, where strands are missed, are the ones where doubt creeps in.  Where we begin to question our motives.  When we are perhaps unable to see the vision that was so clear just yesterday.  Fall down seven times, stand up eight speaks not just to determination but to trust as well.  If you can reaffirm that you set yourself on this mission for good reasons, then standing up, facing down your doubt, and retracing that missed strand of bad habit is your only next step.

Strength isn’t the absence of weakness, it is acting in spite of it.  It is believing in the face of doubt.  Rather than giving up and trying something easier, we keep to our decision and work around the difficulties.

I think that we may be in for a few years of difficulty in the United States.  Our misguided culture has elected a governing body that does not have our best interests in mind and there will be unpleasant repercussions from that action.  In light of that, we need more than ever to create stronger communities and take better care of ourselves.

  • We need to not buy into the politics of division and negativity that tear us apart.
  • We need to not follow every shiny new trend created to distract us.
  • We need to shed unnecessary expenses and some of the daily luxuries that have made us soft and weak as a people.
  • We need to want less and live a more economically realistic life because our outsized needs are forcing us into debt and ruining our lives.
  • We need to regain a sense of compassion and understanding for our fellow human beings- this is not a weakness, it is the source of a community’s strength.

In effect, we need to retrain ourselves to be a self-sufficient and confident nation that has the strength to wrest power out of the hands of corporations and big money interests and give it back to those that matter- you and me.

This won’t be done through outright battle with the entrenched powers.  We won’t win.  I believe the way to take our country back is by changing our own habits and helping others to do the same.  If we control our own lives, it is much less likely that we will allow others to control us.

Veteran’s Day and the Peace Corps

While this post may seem a little off-topic for this blog, I felt it important to post today because I believe that service to others is a necessary part of building community and that, by helping others, we can also help ourselves.

Commemorative Art by Shepard Fairey

50th Anniversary Commemorative Print by Shepard Fairey

Every year on this 11th day of the 11th month we celebrate Veteran’s Day here in the United States.  Since my friend Brian returned from his tour of service with the Peace Corps, I also feel compelled to offer my thanks to him and the others like him that have given 27 months of their lives to our country.  They have volunteered to be sent to towns and small villages around the world, often without much support, to help foster a sense of community and understanding between disparate peoples and cultures.  This can be dangerous at times and while they do not send volunteers into active war zones, these passionate young people often find themselves in unstable areas with far fewer resources than they have had previously- “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

It has become somewhat of an expected thing around our house, that I get a little defensive about the lack of attention given to Peace Corps volunteers.  I am proud of Brian for doing what he did and would hope that he and the others like him would get just a small nod for their sacrifices.  There are many ways to serve our country.  The current and retired members of the Armed Forces are given their due respect on Veterans Day.  Why is it that we don’t have a day to honor those that quietly sacrifice for their nation through the Peace Corps?

Well, in looking into this, I found that there is an annual event called Peace Corps Week that is celebrated internally at the agency.  On peacecorps.gov, it is explained that,

“Each year, Peace Corps celebrates Peace Corps Week to commemorate President Kennedy’s establishment of the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. During this annual event, the Peace Corps community celebrates all the ways that Peace Corps makes a difference at home and abroad and renews its commitment to service.

This reaffirmation of service is a way to restate that while the way might be difficult, the need to give of one’s self for the betterment of all is still valuable and necessary.  If we, as a national community could find the strength to push for March 1st to be Peace Corps Day everywhere, we would honor not only those men and women that join and serve, but the idea of service to others is a very human and very necessary way to build communities and trust between cultures.

If you want to learn more about what the Peace Corps does, there is a great press release of the then Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet speaking at the National Press Club about the relevance of the Corps into the 21st century.  I found this to be really informative and her passion for this program was obvious.

So, while I graciously offer my thanks and respect to the current and past members of the US Armed Forces, I am also grateful for those who “serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries,” and look forward to, one day, being able to join the rest of our nation in thanking them every March 1st.