Compassion: desire to relieve the distress of another

We are in the deep freezer again, with quite a few days of frigid temperatures predicted. Like I mentioned before, I am grateful for every piping hot drink, for my coat with omni-heat technology in the lining, for the radiating warmth in the leather seats in our vehicle, for the down comforter on the bed instead of a sleeping bag on the concrete.  After googling “how to live in your car” out of curiosity, I scrolled through the tips with rather horrified fascination.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, I just read a book by John Grisham titled The Street Lawyer. The story follows the ruthless climb of a brilliant young lawyer, Michael Brock, who has lost touch with his conscience in the pursuit of money and partnership in his firm. He is rudely jolted to reality in a violent encounter with a homeless man who had been evicted without notice by the firm’s real estate division. Mr. Brock starts to research homelessness, volunteering time at soup kitchens and shelters. In a short time he decides to ditch the high-power job to be a voice for the homeless community in Washington, D.C. His work gives him the satisfaction of seeing a shred of dignity restored to the least of the people. This book has less intrigue and more heart than any of the other legal thrillers I have read by Grisham. I can’t shake the story.

I think about my life, about the two sets of parents, the seven siblings or in-laws who would open their homes to stand between us and destitution, the whole community at church who would share with us until there was nothing left. It seems so far removed from us, like it could never happen. It seems so unfair; I can’t not care.

Without a Net is the personal story of Michelle Kennedy, raised in a middle class home, college educated, who finds herself where she never thought she would be: without a home, living in a car with three little children. When I read this a few years ago, the impossible suddenly seemed plausible. Homelessness is not just for junkies in the cities. It happens on all levels. I don’t know why these stories grip me so strongly. I wish I could just feel pity and forget about them.

What, you may ask, are you suggesting that we do? For starters, I am calling us all to gratitude. True thankfulness demands a response, a sharing with others in any way we can instead of merely pitying them. Long ago crowds of people asked John the Baptist what they should do to live rightly. The first thing he said was, “If anyone has more than one coat, he should give the extra away.” I think the point is sacrifice of stuff, time, money, effort.

Today the ladies at our church got together to make colorful comforters out of fabric scraps. I stayed home to school my crew, but I have confidence that those blankets will keep shivering people warm, and that it counts just as if they were Jesus. Pity would say, “I am sorry your teeth are chattering and your nose is running.” Compassion hands over a blanket and says, “Here, come in out of the cold. You can have my handkerchief.”

Years ago a group from our church went to Pittsburg for street ministry. One of the men met Homeless John and offered him a place to live. The rest of us thought he was a bit crazy. To our utter disbelief, John rode along home with us, out to the country where everything was strange and scary. As far as I recall, he was honest and respectful, happy for a chance to have a roof over his head. I am sure that the man who took him under his wing will have rewards in heaven the same as if he had sheltered Jesus.

Most times when we see someone with a sign asking for help, it is only change they expect. What if we put in the 20 dollars of grocery money that would have bought cheese and ice cream? What if we didn’t look away in embarrassment from the eyes that are already downcast and the lives already downtrodden, but instead asked them sincerely how they are doing and what they need? What if we actually saw them as deserving so much more than shame and condescension?

I just heard about a condition called “compassion fatigue”.  Apparently it affects those who work constantly with victims of tragedy. I do believe that the vast majority of us are more likely to have compassion deficit. Maybe if we are aware, if we read their stories, if we see through the eyes of a most Compassionate Savior, then when the opportunity comes to change the space someone lives in we will do it instead of simply feeling pity and walking on.

Be Kind to Everything and Don’t Say “Stupid”

Nap time. It is so restful when the time comes to settle down quietly after a strenuous morning of striving to be nice to  each other despite… everything. That includes the slow start in school, with a wrestling match that abruptly vanished without a trace as soon as my feet hit the staircase to go down to the schoolroom.  By the time I hit the bottom step, the boys were busily pulling out math books. It also includes juggling Learning to Read, spelling word lists, grammar quizzes, and laundry for a few hours, secure in the knowledge that the two smallest ones were sweetly playing babies in their room.  Later I discovered that in the course of the morning  they were also skinning a cucumber and feasting on it in the top bunk bed; they were peeling oranges in the living room; they were eating a lot of sliced lunchmeat and graham crackers. For some reason, they still ate salad like starved bunnies with a ranch dressing love affair at lunchtime. One would think there has been naught but bread and water for days if one didn’t distinctly recall feeding them quite often and well.

So yes, naptime: when all efforts of goodness and mischief are suspended for a while. It is my favorite time of day every day when I lie beside my two year old until she falls asleep. Much of the day I am too distracted to listen closely to the piping little voice that is Addy, but at naptime she unwinds by saying every thought that enters her little head until suddenly she conks, just like that. I get much amusement out of her chatter. There are only seconds between each of these bits of  confidences.

I like dogs, mama. Do you like dogs?”


Little dogs. Not big dogs. Do you like big dogs?


We just like little dogs, right, Mama?

I have lots of excuses, Mama.

I’m sorry.  I’m a little tired in the bed.

Mmmhmm. Me too.

Lollipops are sour, Mama.

But we don’t have any lollipops, do we, Mama?


Maybe I could have some candy when I wake up?

That would be fun.

We don’t have any candy, do we, Mama?

Do you like candy?

You shouldn’t snip yourself. You might get hurt.

And then you would cry. You would cry for a bandaid.

Do you know where the bandaids are, Mama?


When I have a bleeding owie, I cry for a bandaid.

And then I need a Mama.

If I eat too much toothpaste, I might get sick.

Then I would have to go to the doctor. And pump my belly out.

Yeah. Now shhhh.

(Quiet little whisper) I can talk, Mama.

No kidding.

The Bible says be kind to everything. And don’t hit.

And be kind and don’t say “stupid”.

We like little dogs. But we don’t have a dog.

We just have cats.


And a rabbit at Jakes.

But no dogs, Mama.

Am I your baby, Mama?


Be quiet now.

I love you, Mama.

I love you, too. But no more talking.

Okay, Mama.


Guest Post from my Son

Gregory wrote this during our deep freeze weather. This is a child who has been known to weep over a one-sentence journal entry, so I was a bit surprised at the rapidly scratching pencil. When I read his story, I remembered what he shared with me just a few days ago. “Mama, if I daydream all day long for about 3 weeks, do you know what happens?” Of course, I knew some things that happen, like a very exasperated mother trying to get his attention, but actually, I didn’t know. “Well, if I do enough daydreaming, I don’t dream at night! It’s like I used up all the dreams!” It does make sense, doesn’t it? I give you his story, titled:

The Polar Regoin

I knew it would be a very unusual day. When I woke up and felt how cold the floor was. I walked over and opened the door and saw before my astoinished eyes a……… penguin demolishing an icicle!!!

I heard a growl. And looked over and locked eyes with a polar bear! My first thought was (I knew my dad had got lost wen we moved!) fortunately I had a baseball bat at my side!

To bad he didn’t have time to tell his fellow bears about the strange thing on two legs with a stick that he swung on him nearly nocking his head off! (I did nock his head off!)

I guessed the bat was going 90 miles an hour.

Then I woke up! To bad.

If You are Fortunate Enough to Have a Door

Whenever we have unusually severe winter weather, I think about my friend of 15 years ago. I lie awake remembering her and how invisible and worthless she felt. I recall how shocked I was when she told me what it was like to have no home for seven years. I am haunted by the thought of having no door between myself and the world at large, no windows to close against the elements. I remember her describing finding a bridge to sleep under when there was no money for a room and no man interested in buying her a room. She was aging, no longer so pretty, her teeth rotting out from the crack, her hair ragged and brittle, the look of a woman unloved.

There in the brilliantly lit prison visiting room, hot in summer and winter alike, she told me that the fourteenth arrest was rather a pleasant change, what with the regular meals and a bed to sleep in, the drugs just as available as outside. It was a better place to be pregnant for sure. The guard sitting outside the delivery room, the utter lack of compassion during a very difficult birth, the stripping away of her little companion, these things pained her excruciatingly. She fed her 1 week old baby a bottle of formula while her own milk dripped down the orange prison jumpsuit. The regrets shadowed her life and made her cry as she handed her beautiful baby girl back to me at the end of the first visit.

I grieved over the little girl who was raised in pleasant middle-class circumstances, the beloved only daughter with five big brothers, her father in the police force. I was sad when she said the drugs started in the junior year at high school, bad choices followed by awful choices in the need to support a habit. I felt so helpless to do anything except cherish her child for her. And when she got out, I prayed that she would find strength to say no, to stay in her therapy, to live a different life, become fit to be a mother. Three times there was the cycle of in and out to the streets and then in again. “Never again,” she would declare. “I have been clean for 54 days now. I am so sorry I messed up.”

There was no address except the prison. Her family had long given up on her, closed their doors on the disappointment that was Sue. The letters went back and forth, and once a month there was a visit. The chaplain would call and tell us if she wasn’t there. The intervals on the street were usually very short. And then all my letters were sent back, stamped “return to sender”. Just like that, she was gone, the homeless girl with the sad, sad life didn’t even have a prison address anymore. I had no way of finding her, but I am grateful that she shared her story with me, the naive, unbelievably blessed and sheltered girl who lived four hours away from the big city. It still haunts me on the bitter cold nights. I lie wakeful under the warmth of the covers and I pray for her and all the others  who have no homes. Sue, you can never be invisible to me again.


Why I Need Coffee Today

This morning I stirred a bit and mumbled a good bye when Gabe left for work at 5:15. It may have been a little while before I got up and thought about the day. This is what I thought, “I need coffee. Nice and strong. Coffee.” I have a percolator just like this, and I really like it because it fits into my cupboard, thus saving valuable counter space. When I picked up the stem thingy that holds up the cup for the grounds, I discovered that the spring thingy that keeps the cup at just the right level so that the hot water runs over the grounds and not straight down the sides was missing. Wait, what did I just explain? Oh, yes, the spring was missing, which causes the end-result of coffee to be weak and sorry.

So there was nothing for it but to ask the children, one of whom was already awake and said she saw Gregory playing with it. Here is what I did. I woke Gregory and he said, “No, it was Rita, and she was playing with it when she was making stuff with clay and all I did was put it back on the counter.” I kneaded the clay, but didn’t find the missing part. Rita was still pretty sleepy, but she insisted that she had no idea where the spring went. I gave up on their dubious trail of breadcrumbs and brewed without the spring. It was weak and sorry. When Alex emerged for breakfast, he remembered having played with the spring last night before we went to church. I assured him that he would be spending some time looking for it before school.

Everybody ate their eggs and toast like the chipper little devouring chickies that they are. All except me, since you may recall that I am on a diet that says toast is bad. Coffee, yes, toast, no. And then Alex did find the spring and he also gathered the dirty laundry, of which there was a considerable amount, what with church twice yesterday. There were also a number of perfectly clean things that got chucked into the girls’ hamper when someone zealously cleaned up their room.

We started school with me checking the last three days’ worth of assignments and especially tests. I discovered that my 6th grade boy totally did not get the chapter in History on the government with its three main branches and numerous obscure sub-branches, therefore bombing the test. I feel really bad about this because I had planned to tutor him on it before he does the test, since he had also bombed the quiz, but I forgot and what’s more: I never really understood it myself. DVD school does not fix all problems, that is for sure. There was also the little matter of skipped stuff in math lessons for both boys, necessitating penalties and a pep talk.

The wind is not in my sails this morning, so I am at a dead-calm, sitting in the water, writing. I have encountered 2 little clay snakes placed in strategic locations by my second boy and I have not even blinked, much less screamed. This is his idea of a joke, but it isn’t working on a half-asleep mom with only weak coffee. I am on the third load of laundry, resolutely plowing through the loads, grateful for a dryer on this damp and raw day.

Eventually I will deal with the watery tea party that the little girls set up on the sofa while I was busy checking tests and feeling bad. We will likely be sitting on towels for a few days. I will put away the dishes that they cleared out of the dishwasher and I will supervise a major clean-up of all areas, but especially the places where I like to walk. Tripping does tend to hamper progress and frustrate productivity, I have found. In due course I will fix my bed and figure out lunch and dinner.

Probably what I will do next is go fix the children mochas with the weak coffee and I will put whipped cream on top. They will think it is amazing and give me lots of compliments. I may just feel a gust of airy ambition flowing toward me; the sails are starting to flap.

Anybody else need coffee today?

Discrepancies, Hilarious or Otherwise

Last week when I was at the library, I had a sudden desire to read about the Mason/Dixon line and the Underground Railroad. A search of the computer files brought up a book in historical fiction and I was fascinated to find that the story is set locally. Today I was reading the first chapter, where the little boy catches his first catfish and his friend shows him how to scale it and fry it in a cast iron frying pan. Huh? Wha?.. I thought everybody knew catfish have no scales and now I don’t want to read any more of the story because I am so disappointed that the author did that to his readers and I am totally disenchanted because of his probable lack of research concerning the Mason/Dixon line as well. Unforgiving? Maybe, but really, all I can think is “catfish scales” when I want to read.

This sensitivity to discrepancies in writing may stem from a story I once wrote for a literature class, in which I, the main character, was driving home after dark and the headlights got dimmer and dimmer as the battery died. Oh the prayers and teen drama as I crested the last hill and drove into our lane in the quite inadequate starlight. All the guys in the class grinned knowingly and explained with maddening superiority that it would have been an alternator problem. Lesson learned. One should do one’s homework. Which also means one should not attempt a novel about the Amish if one has never been Amish, because an arranged marriage with a young and handsome bishop will be the tip-off that one truly does not understand one’s subject.

In other news, I have been sorting and rearranging and stroking my fabric stash. I decided to go through both totes and cupboards, do a thorough job. This way I know what I have, which may possibly be a slap on the wrist the next time I see a lovely piece I can’t resist. Or maybe not. I found record of a few dismal failures that I had tucked out of sight when they happened. It is very difficult for me to simply discard an article of clothing I worked on that just cannot seem to leave the ground, but today I was firm. A casual onlooker would have wondered why it was such a big deal when I chucked out the rust colored skirt with the fall leaves, the slippery one that hung crooked at the hem and was too big at the waist. There was my wedding tablecloth in one of the totes, as well as a curtain that never stood right on the rod. I found a skirt that simply needed the hooks and eyes refastened and a dress with a split zipper, which I replaced. Also a dress with one panel in the skirt taken out the wrong way, so that the sheen on that panel is different. I still don’t know what to do with it, since there isn’t enough fabric to replace it, and it’s such a pretty color. Then there was the Woolrich jumper of green plaid that I bought to repurpose into boys’ pajama pants, which Alex promptly did today. There were scraps from blankets I made for nieces and nephews, as well as some lovely Peter Rabbit flannel to make a nightie for my little girl.  I totally eliminated one tote, sorted out another for cutting into quilt squares for the ladies’ sewing day at church. The cleanse was both inspirational and cathartic. 🙂 And I wished for my sister so I could ask her why in the world does she think I ever thought this strange paisley swirl was pretty fabric?

It is really, really cold outside, and I have inflicted upon myself a diet in which it seems that all comfort food is verboten. Stinks, really. And please, nobody say anything about Skinny Chocolate. Off to eat my spinach salad…