Photo Credit: Yankee Magazine. Mount Monadnock is a beautiful mountain that I have a lot of personal history with. Very, very bad field trips. I’d love to, some day, hike it with maybe one or two other people, and make it to the summit peacefully and leisurely. Some day…
Every Columbus Day weekend, there is a celebration of food in the Nation’s Capital. People from around the city and surrounding region descend onto Federal Triangle to sample food from the best restaurants in the city, tasting samples from food from every corner of the culinary experience. The air is crisp with the fullness of autumn, filled with smoke and spices. The crowds are eager, hungry, and happy—excited to be spending an autumn weekend out, especially as Congress, the Supreme Court, and other entities are fully back into the swing of work. It is a time to celebrate one of the great connecting forces of a powerfully divided city.
My sister and I, seeing The District as a playground, always looked forward to the Taste of D.C. because it meant that we got to help out our mother “behind the scenes” and feel important. My mother worked for the leading local television station at the time, and that television had a promotional tent in the middle of the festivities. The station’s famous talent sat at the front of the tent, signing autographs and chatting up fans, while the rest of us were in the back making swag bags. My sister and I would create a little assembly line and crank out bags in little time while my mother was out doing organizational and boss-like things. We were happy to be out, happy to feel important, and happy to be rewarded for our hard work afterwards.
Tickets were the currency at the Taste of D.C. at the time. People would buy a packet of tickets and those tickets would be exchanged for any food you could imagine. Depending on what you got, a meal could range from 8 to 10 tickets easily. Being young and perpetually hungry, mom would always get a lot of tickets, and my sister and I would follow our noses to our craving du jour. Stuffed, happy, and feet aching, it wouldn’t take long for us to signal our readiness to go home.
On our way to the Metro station, my mother would always randomly stop and look around. She would stop us on a visible corner and instruct us to stay put. We’d obey, and watch our her walk up to a homeless man or woman, handing them a slab of extra tickets—enough for at least a meal, probably two or three, and good for the duration of the festival—and explaining to them how they worked and where to go. She’d then return to us, face straight, not saying anything, and steer us toward the Metro station. She never talked about the how or why… she never commented on her gesture.
The gravity of mom’s gentle compassion would bury itself deep inside of me, a memory that would plant seeds of urgency. I’m from the suburbs, yes, but D.C. is my city. How could we, its citizens, celebrate food, drink and harvest in front of those who were hungry? Were there more people like mom who would be brave enough to approach and share?
In the time when childhood had passed but adulthood had not yet begun, I skipped classes to drive down to McPherson Square to have lunch with my father. The major union where Father worked at the time had a building directly across the street from Lafayette Square, and just a street beyond that was the White House. Father and I strolled through the park, looking for a quiet bench to speak about the two wars we were fighting, and the upcoming presidential election that my father said we were going to lose. People around us walked hurriedly or looked upon the White House with wonder.
There were other people in the park, too. As Washingtonians, Father and I had learned how to politely acknowledge the homeless who lived in the city without giving them too much attention and the homeless had figured out a way to be seen and yet unseen, heard and yet unheard. There was a decorum, you see, an expectation from everyone involved. One of the men of the park stepped out of the boundaries of etiquette that afternoon–walking around, muttering, and sometimes breaking into a tirade. While he garnered attention, most of the people in the park tuned him out, Father and I included. But as our conversation continued, the gentleman became more belligerent and loud, making some people uncomfortable. Father took up a defensive stance, preparing to settle the man down (“In a three-piece suit, Father? Really? Don’t be ridiculous.”). But the man had come to the conclusion of his tirade:
“GOD DAMN I HATE BEING POOR!”
Having tired himself out, the man shuffled back to his small bit of belongings, sat down to stare at the grass and mumble.
My father smirked and chortled. “There is a way to fix that for yourself, brother.”
My father is not an awful man. In some ways, he was right: A person in poverty has options for leaving it, should he be able to choose to seek them. That “be able to” is important, though, and I don’t know if Father would agree with that at the time. The space where he is coming from is significantly different than the space where my mother is coming from. I don’t know which way is right, I just know which way I agree with more.
Where does compassion come from? Can it be taught and learned? Can it be exemplified and amplified? Is it something that you are born with and nurtured through careful stewardship and care? Can you lose it? Is religion the only sphere in which compassion can and should be discussed? Can we, as a society, create a culture of compassion?
When I think about these two memories, I think about seeds. Little seeds hold so much potential and energy, they require so much to sprout and blossom, and then when they do produce, they transform into something significantly different than how they began. I’ve spent little time working directly with the homeless, and yet these two memories stand out as important calls to action in my life. They say “you are uncomfortable with inequality. You notice it and you want to help. What are you going to do about it?”
I chose to pick a source of the problem rather than fight the problem head on. I learned quickly that my passions did not call for me to help that man directly, but rather to work on preventing another person from having to walk in that man’s shoes. When I studied education in undergrad and graduate school, I made sure to focus specifically on children who live in poverty (rural and urban). I dedicated my mind to learning how to uplift through a curriculum for justice, a strong relationship with my students, and an unwavering sense of responsibility for each of their futures. All wrapped up in an understanding of who my students were, where they were living, what their challenges were and their potential outcome if I failed them through my own complacency or incompetence. I lived to serve. I live to serve.
The call to serve is an important one. I think that we all hear it in some shape or form. Many of us seek the more glamorous pathways that bring power and potential fortune. What I’ve learned over the years, though, is that for every person in front of camera, there are some 20 significantly smarter people behind the scenes who are doing all of the good and hard work. Beyond them are the silent workers–the ones who are committing big and small acts of sincere compassion and service on a daily basis. Often for nothing more than a Thank You, which they often times do not get.
I am in awe of the people who choose to get up every morning and change the world one person at a time. I honor the people who choose a little corner of the world, claim it as their responsibility, and work hard to turn it into a better place by any means necessary. I tried, every day of my teaching career, to inspire more young people to do just that. My homework assignment every year was to “go in peace and serve your world.”
I don’t know what memories my sons will have of me. Will I be brave enough to approach a homeless man or woman with an opportunity for a hot meal? Will I invite a stranger in need into my home? Bring food to an elderly neighbor during a snow storm? Will I have the opportunity to make an important impression on my sons? Will they remember me for my quiet moments of compassion?
Will your children remember you for such things?
Will my former students do their homework in your neighborhood some day?
We don’t choose our mountains to move. Our mountains choose us. They raise before us as we walk through life, growing louder and larger, looming over us, daring us to try to move them. Some of us are lucky enough that we are able to do what we are passionate about in life. Even if the work is difficult, endless, and seemingly thankless, to work on a passion brings a satisfaction like nothing on this earth. For those of us who answer the call to serve, our work isn’t always tangible, easy or even fun, but its importance is no less acute. From the needed stop sign at the dangerous intersection to the legislation for universal preschool to lonely watch in a foreign land.: All service is important.
Having these two sons, I hear the call to serve more strongly than ever before. This flight to the suburbs for good schools has made me feel incredibly guilty. Have I really abandoned my principles simply because I’ve had children? Have I abandoned my community for the sake of giving my sons the best that I can provide? Who, at this point, is more important in my life? You’d think that answer would be quite obvious (it is, it really is), and yet it tugs at me all the time. I suppose I wonder out loud from time to time if my sons, simply by virtue of the class of their birth, will be just fine in this world without my constant stewardship. Should I share my greatest resources–my time, my energy, my training–with my sons exclusively, or should I share them with my greater community in service? Can you be a good middle-class mother and a good, productive and contributing citizen?
I’m coming back from vacation on Monday. There will be sand in everything I own, I’ll have a task list three miles long, I’ll have babies who are off schedule, and I’ll have a car that will need to be washed. I’ll have so many stories that I’ll want to tell you, hopefully of joy, possibly about a house. All the while, though, I’ll be thinking about my community. The community that I consider home in Maryland, the community that I found in Boston, and the community that I have actively chosen and sought in the more affluent Boston suburbs. I’ll be thinking about what service looked like when I was a young idealist and what it must look like now as a suburban mother.
And I’ll be thinking about this blog. What inspired it, what it has become, and what it has the potential to be. I’m learning, with every single post, about the power of words.
This weekend, I wish for you a moment of service. Big or small, I hope that you’ll do something unselfishly for another person. I wish you a moment of appreciation for someone you know who serves in some capacity. I wish you a tranquil moment in front of a sunrise or a sunset. I wish you a good hot meal, a warm (or cool) place to stay, a roof over your head and a clean bed to rest in.
I’m so looking forward to getting back to you on Monday. Thank you, as always, for reading my silly little digital words.