Thanksgiving day is the day we set aside for giving thanks. I think gratitude and acceptance are two of the most important attitudes for a happy life. I have a lot to be thankful for. A wonderful family, great friends, a wonderful 33 year career at Con Edison working with a terrific bunch of dedicated professionals, many whom I consider friends. I have my health and so much more. I’ve had the opportunity over these last weeks to meet some great people and make some new friends while visiting two countries that are so different from ours and so beautiful. I’ve also seen immense poverty and suffering. I don’t equate being poor to suffering and I’ve met many, many people on this trip who had very little and were very happy as far as I could tell. I’ve also met many people with a lot who seemed pretty miserable to me. Many of the folks I’ve met have had just the bare necessities for life. I’ve also seen people with less than the bare necessities. One of the things this trip has done for me is to renew my sense of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings in my life. I think the idea of Thanksgiving is wonderful, I would just suggest we remind ourselves more frequently than once a year to express our gratitude both quietly to ourselves as well as outwardly to others. Meister Eckhart said, “if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, that will be enough.”
I would like to talk about the flip side of this equation, being thankful not for what we have in our lives, but for what we can give in our lives. I’d like to tell three recent personal stories to convey this.
Story one- this story occurred way back in India during my first week there. My roommate was Paul (also from Connecticut, oddly enough) who mentioned in passing that he is on the board of an orphanage/school called Pumpkin House near the ashram where we were staying. Paul told me about the amazing work that Stella and her staff perform there. I learned that they bring in kids, starting from age 4, whose mothers are prostitutes. The institution is apparently well known and many women bring their kids to Stella for safe keeping and to give them a chance. Stella and her folks don’t have to go looking. As sad as this story could be, I would like to tell you about the wonders Stella and her staff perform. Several of us visited Pumpkin House and got a tour of the facilities, an explanation of what they do and how they do it, and much more! Pumpkin house currently has 110 kids ranging in age from 4 to 18. The kids live there, learn there, and receive wonderful care from the staff. These kids, who probably wouldn’t have a chance otherwise, are thriving in this environment. The kids read to us in English and recited the country’s national anthem. We saw them learning in the classroom and interacting with the staff as well as their classmates. The kids are given uniforms to wear during the school day, food in their tummy’s and, most importantly, care and attention. They know that they matter. The staff gives everything they have to these kids. All Miss Stella talks about are her kids. She is the principal and grandmother, but not the kind of pushover grandmother who spoils. These kids have rules to follow and they know Miss Stella means business. Her mission is to see these kids get a good education and ultimately a good job. For her, education is these kids’ ticket to a life where they can be productive members of society and create a better life for themselves. Stella looks at this as an opportunity to break the cycle of pain and suffering that has occurred over generations. She is right.
The highlight of our visit was when all 110 kids were brought together and put on an impromptu concert for us. They sang “Doe a Deer”, “I Have A Dream”, by Abba (a real tear jerker), and several others. But the highlight for me came with their encore. Vianny, a wonderful member of Miss Stella’s staff, who had been accompanying the kids with his guitar, asked if we knew the song, “The Wonder of You” but he couldn’t remember the artist. I immediately blurted out, Elvis Presley! I could not pass up this opportunity. I joined in with the kids and they were surprised I knew every word! Who would have ever thought that I would be hearing (and singing) Elvis in the middle of India?!
So we shook hands and waved good bye and thanked the staff and the kids for taking the time for us. I got back to the ashram and just knew what I had to do. I packed up my backpack with all the money I could spare and put my running shoes in as well. While talking to Vianny, there were two things I noticed about him. First, was his mild manner and his dedication to the kids. He had been nursing a herniated disk, but rose to play guitar for the kids. The second thing was he was about my height (which was very rare in India) and his feet were about the same size as mine. I had debated on whether to pack my running shoes, but couldn’t bear the thought of not running for the 6 weeks I’d be away, so I did. At that moment, I knew why I brought my running shoes. Anyway, I walked back down to Pumpkin House, presented the money to Miss Stella and the sneakers to Vianny. Vianny tried them on immediately and said he never had a more comfortable pair of shoes. I was so happy and knew that he would get so much better use of them, during these 6 weeks and beyond.
As I walked back to the ashram, I felt so good, so warm, so happy, and so grateful! I cried tears of joy and said a little prayer of thanks for that moment. I’ve been corresponding to the folks at Pumkin House ever since. If you are so inclined, feel free to check them out at the Pumpkin House web site. The India branch is Pumpkinhouse.in. If you can help in any way, they would be greatly appreciative and I can tell you first hand, that they are doing wonderful work.
Story two. A day or two ago, we travelled by car to a new town and on the way we stopped at a farmhouse for lunch. This had been pre-arranged and the family was expecting us. The family was so welcoming and wonderful. It was a young couple, I’d say about 35 or so and they had a little boy about 6 and a little 8 month baby boy. Mom had been carrying the baby on her back while preparing lunch with her husband. She put the baby down next to me with a little toy football. The baby and I played with the football and every time I caught it, he would crinkle his nose and laugh. We had a wonderful time! His older brother was curious, but very shy. He would poke his head in through the door and scope us out but then dash off when I waved at him. When we finished lunch, we said our good bye’s and thanks and I went out to the car and found a rubber ball I had been carrying for just such an occasion. I went back in and gave it to the boy. He was so thrilled to get the attention and have a new toy. I felt it was the least I could do for the graciousness this family showed us. Once again, I felt so blessed.
Story three. My guide, Chencho had asked me earlier in the trip if I would be interested in stopping by his in-laws’ home as we passed through their town on the way to our destination. Of course, I agreed! When we arrived, Chencho’s father in law came out to the car to meet us with a big smile. He led us into their farmhouse and we entered the second floor room where his family were sitting. This included his mother in law, his brother in law, his sister in law, their 4 year old little girl, and his father in law’s dad, who was a character. They welcomed us to their home. The first thing I noticed was how cold it was. Even though we were in the one room with heat (wood stove), I was so cold, I kept my jacket on. They gave us tea and a rice and butter snack served in a reused cookie tin. They offered us ara, Bhutanese wine, but I was good with the tea. They had so little but they offered what they had. Chencho and the family caught up and I had a conversation with his brother in law, the only family member who speaks English. After about 30 minutes, we had to be on our way, but I took a picture of the family before we left. Chencho’s mother in law invited me back on our return trip. I didn’t tell her this was a one way trip for me.
The next stop was a craft shop. As I was looking around, I met the young man who ran the shop for his family. His right leg dragged behind him and something seemed wrong with the right side of his body overall. I didn’t need anything and as you heard in an earlier post, I am concerned about the weight of my suitcases on the smaller planes I’m taking domestically. But an opportunity flashed in front of me at that moment. I would buy a rug for Chencho’s family for sitting in that cold farmhouse center room and I could give this young man with warm eyes a sale. I found a nice rug and handed it to Chencho to deliver to his family, with my thanks for their hospitality. I fought back tears in the back seat as we drove off. I was so thankful for this opportunity.
I was a bit reluctant to share these stories with you because I think the best good deeds are done in private. And just in case any of you are running to the phone to call the Pope on starting the process for sainthood, I want to say that over this same time frame, I’ve come across old women and children begging on the streets of India, looked them in the eye and told them no, just to give you a full picture. There is also no doubt in my mind that many of you have done a lot more than what transpired in these little stories. Miss Stella and her staff give their whole lives to their kids.
I wanted to share these stories to say that I feel blessed for being put in the situations, and once in these situations, being open to the possibilities. It felt so right. The folks in these stories warmed my heart, and I hope they warmed yours too.
It’s so easy to get sucked into the madness of the holiday season starting this Thursday. Even if we are not caught up with our own stuff, it is easy to be overwhelmed at what to do with all the suffering and madness in the world. It can soothe us to shut it all out and go about our business as if it wasn’t there. I’d like to suggest to try to be open to the opportunities that appear in your life and give what you can when they do. It doesn’t need to be world changing, because even a little rubber ball or a pair of sneakers can make someone’s day. You never know who’s life you can touch. Give what you can when the opportunity presents itself. You’ll be grateful you did.