Together in the World

All human beings are connected—every one of us, from the saint to the terrorist, from the billionaire to the family living in a refugee camp. When untainted by the infinite distortions we humans apply in their name, our religions remind us of our bonds to one another. We share responsibility for the wellbeing of all those with whom our lives intersect, directly and indirectly. Little that we do is without consequence for others.

All creation, in fact, vibrates in harmony, and when a nightingale sings in Rome, the effect is felt in every heart, wherever we may be. While the influence of our thoughts and actions is strongest on those closest to us physically or on those closest to us emotionally and spiritually, we humans cannot help but touch one another.

We are tangibly connected, much as the starlings in an enormous flock are connected and know simultaneously when to change direction. Evidence of our literal ties is available if we don’t close our minds to the possibility. It’s not unusual for close friends and relatives to experience telepathy, with one voicing what the other has just been thinking. When someone rises to speak and breaks the silence of a Quaker Meeting for Worship, the ministry will frequently prove to be on the same subject that other individuals have been pondering silently. A person we have not heard from recently may suddenly come to mind, not long before he or she calls us unexpectedly. Entering a new place or meeting someone new, we may sense the positive or negative qualities of the surrounding energy or aura. Sometimes a dream or an image appearing during meditation will reveal something happening or soon to happen to a loved one or even to strangers.

In March 2011, on the night of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, my mother and I were restless and couldn’t sleep; were we sensing the turmoil and suffering on the other side of the Earth even before we heard the news? On the way to work on the morning of September 11, 2001, I felt upset for no clear reason, so much so that I almost turned around and went back home. In the office that morning, I couldn’t concentrate and found myself crying. I tried meditating but, in my mind’s eye, kept seeing a bicycle and car colliding; perhaps that is how my mind translated the morning’s reality into its own imagery. In the scene, I attempted to separate the bicycle and car, but they collided again, and then again. I gave up meditating and turned to the Internet, where I learned about the attacks. The Twin Towers had already collapsed.

Given the intertwining of our lives, how can we do better by our fellow human beings, locally and around the world? First we can recognize that what we do locally can have repercussions globally, much as a wave travels across the ocean. With this knowledge, we can do our best to love. And what is love? Love is valuing one another—all others. Love is seeing that of God in all people, even if their Inner Light is buried under hatred and evil acts. Love is respecting the Earth, whose bounty human beings have diminished through selfishness, ignorance, and neglect. Love is wanting the best for every human soul—not the biggest car, house, and salary but the best in individual growth and the expression of that soul’s unique excellence and experiences. Love is seeing that each individual is a part of the whole and, as the poet John Donne said, one person’s loss diminishes us all.

Love complements direct intervention on behalf of those who suffer. We must individually and in partnership feed the hungry, nurture the lonely, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. But if we are not in a position to assist directly to feed, clothe, comfort, and heal, we are nevertheless helping the whole world if we practice kindness and love others genuinely and fully, if we speak up for what is right, encourage through the means available to us, lend a hand whenever we can, and find a way to do our work—whether in the home or through paid employment—in such a way that we lighten life’s spiritual and mental burdens for our loved ones and colleagues and give to society through our efforts.

The contribution does not need to feel profound, but it does need to be on the beneficial side of the ledger. If we are manufacturing weapons, why are we doing so? If our business is poisoning the land, why are we in this business? Perhaps we are, in fact, making a contribution to humankind, but we must be able to articulate it and not be kidding ourselves. It is not that all workers in less-than-exciting jobs should rush to the want ads to find more obviously meaningful employment. Instead, in most cases, we can find and develop the potential to serve within the job we have. If our work is harmful to ourselves and others, we must leave it as soon as we can without genuine risk to ourselves and our loved ones depending on us for their care and support. In our avocations, if we write, sing, paint, act, coach sports, teach literacy classes, run community fundraisers, host a book group, knit, garden—wherever our talents and interests take us without harming ourselves or others—we are exercising God’s gift of these talents and interests, and we can serve others and spread love and encouragement through them.

If you love and I love and we reach those around us so that their love grows and is shared, we will change the world. Love is shared in many ways—writing a poem, encouraging a friend, speaking up kindly but firmly in the face of unkindness and injustice, refusing to go along with behavior and attitudes that harm, building a soup kitchen, teaching children to read, creating music and art. All of these can be an expression of love if they are done with a reverence for and full sense of the unity of humanity and creation. Each of these can help to change the world. We change the world through our way of being, as well as our way of doing. Love is the answer, whatever form it takes.

Because we are connected directly and indirectly, love will spread when we love and show love. In turn, those we touch may love more deeply and therefore spread greater love. And with a thousand who love and then a million, and with all those who are touched in turn, love can become a mighty force, catching fire around the world like smoldering kindling in a hot wind, like a beneficial virus spread from person to person, from traveler to traveler, until a worldwide epidemic is declared. This is the way the human race will move forward. Those who love also seek and find a way to help those around them, to cooperate for the common good, to overcome poverty, to move past corrupt governments and past the forces of Nature that we humans have corrupted through our actions and choices.

Another way we can help those near and far is to be informed. We can learn, for instance, how the gems and the gold in our jewelry were mined. Were the conditions safe, the pay fair, and the mines free from child labor? Who picked the coffee beans and cocoa beans for our beverages and sweets, and how are these workers treated? Who sewed the seams in our clothes; who lost work and who gained work as a result, and what were the situations for all concerned?

And how are others living their lives? In my comfortable home and with my ample food and safe environment, can I rightly ignore the poverty, hunger, and other threats that at this moment endanger millions of children and adults? The last time I was in Philadelphia on a cold winter day, a homeless man was sleeping on a grate to try to capture a little bit of warmth. Can I justifiably ignore him as I settle in under my warm covers? And can I ignore the child whose parents sold her into subjugation because they could not afford to raise her? What about the families fleeing genocide and those whose lives are devastated by wars and other violence? Whether they live next door or across the globe, these are our neighbors. These men, women, and children are an extension of ourselves, as we are of them.

Too much suffering elicits only backs turned and perhaps a few prayers of thanksgiving that the plight of so many strangers is not our own. But the suffering of the man, woman, or child halfway around the world is our own suffering, too, and when we ignore him or her, we ignore part of ourselves. And so it is with the angry men and women who harm their neighbors or those perceived to be the enemy. That anger is our anger, and we must learn to quench our own if we are to stem the flow of hatred and violence in the world. Lasting change will come one person at a time, and another, and another, and another.

The message is not to lie down and let the winds of hatred or war flatten us and others around us as a tornado pulls out trees by their roots so they cannot recover. But self-defense must never drift over the line into offense, and self-defense must increasingly be without weapons and any trappings of war. If a people—if the world’s people—can learn truly to cooperate with one another, rather than competing in a mad rush for power and success however they are defined, humankind will be able to stanch evil even before it gains a foothold because we will deny those who practice it the following they need to advance. And as we act, we will act out of love, caring, and concern, knowing our own hate and revenge feed that of others.

So many ways of being are possible. There is not one right way but are infinite right ways along the path of caring and kindness. Each such way amplifies love in the world, helping to spread it where it might not have gone before. From here on throughout our years, let each of us light the lamp and show the way according to our map and journey.

Namaste

A Belated Happy Mother’s Day, Dear Mother

Next week, at an interfaith Mother’s Day (belated) service being held in the community where I live, I’ll have the pleasure of talking about my mother.  Here’s what I plan to say:

My parents—Doris Lynn Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek—and I were a team.  I am an only child who never married or had children.  All my life, whether we lived in the same home or several states apart, my parents and I were almost a single individual, forever present in one another’s heart, always seeking to come together to complete the whole.  If a misunderstanding arose, it was a temporary indisposition within our indivisible being.  In honor of Mother’s Day just passed, I would like to tell you about my mother.

Many of you knew her.  Today I want to recall a little about what my mother gave through the beautiful example of her life.  I was infinitely blessed to be her daughter.  She was an ideal mother.  (I was not, however, always an ideal daughter.)  I have, I hope, learned some from my faults and regrets, and I have learned what I aspire to be: as much like my mother—like both my parents, in fact—as I can possibly become.  I still have a ways to go!

I would like my recollections to bring to mind experiences of your own, ways a parent, child, or spouse, another relative, a friend, or even a stranger has touched your life.  And I hope you will think about how much the gifts of love and nurturing that you have given—and simply your wonderful ways of being—continue to matter.  I want to show how much what may seem like the little things can change a life—and, by extension, help to change the world.

On May 4, 2007, I was with my mother as she received the key to her Maris Grove apartment.  How touched I was to see her name plate on the door and then to enter my dear little mother’s new home, her first alone.  We had lost my father almost three years earlier.  I came to visit my mother at Maris Grove nearly every day after work and then moved in with her four years later.  I will likely live in our apartment for the rest of my time, but it will continue to be hers in my heart—her doll house, as she once called it.  Now, sitting at the little table where we ate, I crave to ask, “Mother, for breakfast, would you like one egg or two?”  Almost everything in the apartment carries history that I love and tells me I am not alone.

When I see the piano my father gave my mother, I am grateful for my mother’s love of music, which my father shared and which my parents passed along to me, giving me lifelong joy.  Mother also played the saxophone in her college marching band and sang solos, and in ensembles, beginning in her childhood.  My father said she had the most beautiful soprano voice he had ever heard, and I agree with his assessment.  We three often sang together at the piano, and my mother and I played piano and flute duets when I was young.  At Christmastime, neighbors came to sing carols around the piano while my mother, playing by ear, accompanied us.  Throughout the years I loved to hear my mother’s spirited rendition of the “Maple Leaf Rag” and other Scott Joplin tunes.

My mother was a talented actress who starred in community, high-school, and college performances and directed community and school plays.  In more recent years, she enjoyed theater courses at the University of Delaware’s Academy of Lifelong Learning.  As her memoir, called Paint Lick, shows, she was likewise a skilled storyteller; in her 90s she could still recreate conversations from her girlhood, including accurately doing the voices.

For those of you who did not get to meet my mother, as well as for those who knew her, I’d like to share an excerpt from my mother’s 2009 Maris Grove Follies monologue; my mother was 92 then.  The monologue is “Housecleaning,” by Arthur Strimling; it describes a system for avoiding housecleaning in favor of more pleasurable activities.

Mother was delightfully sociable and delighted in company.  Even in the last months of her life, she wanted us to have neighbors come to tea or visit on our patio.  My mother loved and valued her friends and community, from Maris Grove back through her girlhood village, tiny Paint Lick, Kentucky.  In her memoir, my mother writes, “We neighbors were almost like a single family. . . . And I was a child who had an appreciation for family and friends and for all the things that happened in our lives.”

The joy that my mother—both my parents—gave me in my early years has bathed my life with comforting love that endured even during the years when I struggled to get my feet under me.  The embracing love continues to hold me now.  I can’t imagine any young child feeling happier than I was.  My mother invented games for long, rainy afternoons and read me stories and poetry—about Reddy Fox and Old Granny Fox and about the elephant whose trunk got tangled in the telephone.  When I was very small, Mother let me take out pots and pans and items such as little salt and pepper shakers so I could line them all up on the kitchen floor in what I thought of as a parade.  I was thrilled to be doing such a fun and daring thing.

On my birthdays, beginning when I turned two, she invited children from the neighborhood and baked pretty cakes decorated with gumdrops.  She drove away the big boys who scared me, took walks with me, had the courage to let me swing upside down between the swing set and the jungle gym Daddy had built for me, made Ovaltine when I couldn’t sleep, drove my friends and me to ballet, bathed my foot in baking soda when I stepped on a bee, didn’t mind when I took my child-sized doll—Suzie—swimming in the wading pool, and held my hand when we shopped together in Wanamaker’s.  I wish I could hold that dear little hand right now.

I remember walking with Mother in Hearns grocery store in Fairfax, north of Wilmington, when I was four.  We were in the far aisle near the frozen foods, and I looked up at her and thought, “My mother is so pretty; I’ll never be able to be that pretty.”  And her beauty was complete; it included, as Daddy said, everything she did and everything she was.

Just as I knew at four that I could never live up to my mother’s beauty, I have known all my life that she was filled with beautiful qualities to which I can only aspire.  She was dainty and refined, yet she was also strong in the very best sense.  She lived with integrity and, above all, was the essence of kindness and caring.

In addition to her music and acting, she drew delightful pictures of whimsical characters, danced gracefully, along with my father took numerous courses in Adlerian psychology, baked the best bread anyone ever ate, encouraged others through her teaching and the parent study groups she led, and could host a crowd for dinner with skill, warmth, and grace.  When I heard her speak in our Quaker Meeting for Worship, I knew I was hearing wisdom informed by love, by the infinite love in her heart, by the love I feel from her still.

One of her Meeting messages stressed that Jesus told us to be kind to one another.  And my mother was universally kind.  I recall a visit my parents and I made to my cousin Shirley, who then had a far-advanced illness and was in a care facility.  A frail woman who was clearly lost and distressed wandered into Shirley’s room.  I’ll never forget my mother’s putting her arm around this woman, reassuring her, and guiding her to someone who could help.  This gesture reflected the kindness my mother radiated throughout her life.  She gave unconditional love, and her last words to me were, “I love you.”

My mother kept her enthusiasm and spirit of adventure.  At Maris Grove, she was an early member of the Players, took Janet Ellwood’s memoir-writing class three times, including twice with me, co-founded the Writers’ Group with me, and aspired to learn to play pool, although time got in the way of her reaching that goal.  One of the Maris Grove Thru the Lens television episodes was my mother’s account of her first year of teaching, in a rural two-room school.

My mother and I had wonderful fun together, from my first year to her last.  When we were together at Maris Grove, she often asked, “What are we going to do for fun today?” or “What do we have interesting on the schedule?”  “Let’s take a walk,” she frequently suggested, or “Maybe we can eat on the patio tonight.”  In 2006 and 2011, we drove to New York City to attend Lincoln Center concerts by Andrea Bocelli.  We loved our humbler pleasures, too: shopping trips to Whole Foods, joint games of solitaire, our breakfasts at the little dining table in our apartment, summer afternoons on our patio, and of course the clubs to which we belonged.  At an informal Maris Grove concert and then at a friend’s wedding, we danced a brief cha-cha.  We sang “You Are My Sunshine” on the way to supper.  We loved window shopping in catalogs, visiting with neighbors, riding in the community bus—while holding hands—phoning our relatives, hugging, and simply soaking in the pleasure of each other’s company.

Throughout her almost 97 years, my mother continued to be fully engaged with the present and to anticipate the future with optimism.  She read extensively on alternative and complementary medicine, seeking ways to improve her own health and that of those she loved.  In her early 90s, when my mother was suffering from multiple bleeding ulcers, her doctor and other medical people who saw her condition did not expect her to survive.  She herself fully expected both to survive and to recover her health, and she succeeded in doing so for almost five years.

On Labor Day in 1999, my parents and I shopped at a craft fair held at Winterthur, north of Wilmington.  My mother and I bought the silver and glass necklaces that were among our favorite jewelry from then on.  I still wear one of these necklaces more days than not.  For an afternoon meal, we drove a few miles up Kennett Pike to the Mendenhall Inn.  When we returned to Winterthur, we parked in the lot nearest the visitor center and took a jitney to the area where the Delaware Symphony would be performing that evening.  Fireworks followed the concert, and the rising full Moon outshone the bursting colors.  When it was time to return to our car, we realized the jitney was no longer running, and everyone else in the throng had parked on a nearby field.  The three of us walked down the long road to our car together, holding hands in the moonlight.  Now every night when I talk to my parents and say my prayers, I revisit that walk in my memory.

And when I take my nighttime walks along the Maris Grove hallways, I talk and sing to Mother and Daddy, pause by benches my sweet mama and I once shared, and look out from the bridges at the night sky.  Sometimes I extend my arms and hug my dear ones, hoping they are with me.  I believe they are.  And I believe everyone you have most loved—parent, child, other relative, or friend—is with you.  And every gift of love you have given to your dear ones continues to bless them, wherever they are, now and forever.