I started writing these thoughts as an entry for a Thanksgiving season “giving back” essay contest my MFA program was hosting, but when I missed the deadline (over dread of rejection) I decided to make it mine.
Last month my girlfriend Brooke passed a few nights holed up in a Katmandu apartment, praying and fist pumping against injustice, ticking down the niggling hours her husband spent in Nepal brothels with prostitutes the age of my 9th grade daughter. He and two men from an organization called Tiny Hands* were there to gather evidence via interviews—and used condoms, when they could got their hands on them, yes-you-read-that-right—for local authorities to use in the prosecution of sex trafficking perpetrators. Brooke and Jeff are taking a year away from their real jobs as social worker and physical therapist to travel the world writing and photographing for a social justice travel magazine—first to Rwanda, then Cambodia, Nepal, Vegas and Cuba.
Kind of kicks the shit out of the cans of creamed corn and kidney beans I plunked into a grocery bag and placed on my front porch for a local church to pick up for their food drive a few Sundays ago.
And then some little girl featured on Christian radio, Gracie, just five years old, knocks me down. She got it in her mind after watching Cinderella or some such shoe-related fairytale that she wanted to collect 67 pairs of shoes for children whose parents can’t afford them. She handily exceeded her goal to the tune of 80 pairs to donate to this organization that exists to shod “orphan souls” around the world.
Kind of makes my one shoebox a year stuffed with underwear and crayons for Samaritans Purse to send as Christmas gifts to kids across the ocean look anemic, flaccid, half-hearted.
The same week I heard the shoe story on the radio, I stopped by Menards for supplies for a thesis-avoiding DIY project restoring a couple dated bookshelves, one for my son’s extensive book-and-stuff collection and one for my office. On my way out carrying a bag stuffed with multiple, unnecessary cans of paint and primers in various colors, I passed a cashier dragging a Volkswagen-sized box labeled “Wrapped New Toys.” Customers invited to donate new toys to kids in need took me back ten years: When my kids were little, the week before Christmas I’d have scan the toy room for toys they no longer played with, intending to teach them the value of sharing (and, conveniently, to make room in the clutter for their new booty due the 25th). We’d wipe down discarded cars, Barbies, dinosaurs, books and building blocks, wrap them in festive paper and bows, and haul them down Christmas Eve night and leave them outside the front door of the Hispanic church. That was fun. It now strikes me as presumptuous, and maybe even a little condescending. Our hearts were in the right place, but I’m sure it was more fun for us to play Santa than for the church secretary to be burdened with schlepping the heavy box inside (or to the dumpster, because how on earth would the gifts be disbursed or trusted to be safe?).
In an interview I read a few years back, Tom Hanks (or, I don’t know, maybe it was Billy Crystal) said the key to a strong marriage is to out-give each other, to out-generous your spouse. If every person in town would apply this principle to his or her sphere of influence—the gas station attendant beleaguered by lottery customers, the downsized mid-level management guy slinging fries since the banks ruined the economy, or even the neighbor across the street who never wants to wave back at you—what kind of sweetness would it lend to our lives? What kind of heaven on earth would we create if we out-gave the people who get under our skin and those we love, or those we love who get under our skin?
Which makes me think about the idea of applying the Out-Give-Your-Spouse thing to the greater world, but in reverse. As in, not giving back the garbage dumped into the laps of our experience. A Twitter acquaintance recently posted, “I wonder if Saab comes in a doesn’t-tailgate-me model,” to which I replied, “BMWs too.” What is it with import drivers, like the BMW that always seems to tailgate me down my own street on its way to its more affluent cul de sac?? I suppose they feel they’re entitled because, well, they have created a world in which they are. They’ve worked for it. It chaps my hide, hard, to be tailgated in my Toyota minivan by a shiny, spendy import (Mercedes drivers seem to show more consideration, however), but then I find myself doing the same thing to the timid Ford Focus driver creeping through the roundabouts that clog my city’s avenues. I growl from behind the tan vinyl wheel of my middle class vehicle, and snark, “C’mooon, man, drive!” I try not to cuss. I don’t even notice that I’m trailing closely, and for me it has nothing to do with entitlement but everything to do with impatience and bad manners. My own. And then I notice the silver headed driver and feel guilt pelt my stomach. And I think, B, how bout not giving back once in awhile?
So this week, three weeks from Thanksgiving, my Nepal sex traffic fighting friend and her husband are headed to Vegas for their next mission: helping and reporting on Cupcake Girls, an organization that shows God’s love by offering cupcakes (and other services, including medical, financial, dental assistance) to women who work in strip clubs and leaving tracts and judgment for other so-called Christians. Her blog post about the Cupcake Girls pricks me with a question: What will I be doing to show God’s love during the three weeks they’re in and out of seedy joints? In between dipping in and out of O’Malias for dinner stuffs, buying presents, painting furniture, obsessing over dust and décor in my home, and baking pumpkin pies, maybe I can look for small ways to give back and NOT to give back.
I’m just not in a position in the current stage of my life to afford, in time or money, the grand gestures. But that doesn’t take me off the hook to invoke a little heaven on earth, to give back blessings—of friendship, kindness, hospitality, generosity—with which my family and I have been embarrassingly showered. Even without the freedom to donate weeks and months of time or loads of money, it is possible to open my eyes to ways in which I can out-give my family and people in my community. Brainstorm:
GIVING BACK IDEAS
- Bake a loaf of spice bread and walk over to the widow across the street.
- Make a little extra soup and take it to the nutty neighbors in ill health, the ones with the frequent visits from cop cars and fire trucks.
- Place a smile in my voice with an incompetent customer service person on the other end of my phone call.
- Offer a kind word to a bag boy.
- And how easy is it to throw into the shopping cart cans of veggies or bags of beans when you see “10 for $10” and drop it all off at a food bank or the Methodist church on the corner? (All Methodist churches have food banks, don’t you know.)
NOT GIVING BACK IDEAS
- Choose to rag a little less on my kids for their messy bathroom and comment a little more often on all they do to make me proud, appreciating a little more the ways in which they lighten our home with youthful abandon.
- Instead of, “Your room is out of control,” say to my creative daughter, “The fact that you’ve spent so many hours practicing guitar really shows in the quality of your playing, Grace. You sound amazing.”
- Or instead of saying to Mr. Bates, “Would you please squeeze out the wet sponge instead of leaving it in the bottom of the sink to rot?” try, “Honey, I feel really grateful to have a partner who is so helpful in the kitchen. I’m aware not many husbands pick up a dish sponge let alone use one on dirty pans.”
- Pray for the guy in the BMW riding my back bumper.
- You know. That sort of thing.
All in all, a long, meandering way of saying: Give back good stuff to the extras and main characters in your life story; harness and trash the bad stuff and negativity doled out or spoken into your life, which you might be leaching out without realizing it.
*Click for more information on Tiny Hands International.
To read the social justice travel magazine for which friend Brooke reports and photographs, click World Next Door.