A Pinecone, a Feather, and a Button

IMG_5230

I’ve been thinking about gifts a lot lately, mainly because of some of the books I’ve been reading. We’ve all been told that a gift doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be meaningful and that it should reflect something important to the recipient, not the giver. Just thinking about this last phrase makes me feel a little uncomfortable. One Christmas, I gave my daughter Elizabeth a cool denim jacket with brown cording around the pockets. Taught to be gracious and grateful, she said, “Thanks Mama” before refolding it and placing it between the sheets of green tissue paper.

“You don’t like it?” I asked.”It’s so unique.”

“Yes, it is.” After a moment, “And it’s so you.”

“What does that mean?” knowing full well what it meant.

But I digress. Let’s just say that the following week, she took it back to TJ Maxx, one of our favorite shopping establishments, and exchanged it for something more Elizabeth and less Jayne.

In three of the books I’ve read lately, the characters gave meaningful gifts that showed care and thoughtfulness, and none of them cost a dime:

  • In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Liesel regularly picks  up small gifts on her trips to and from school and brings them back to Max, a Jew hiding in the basement. A feather, a pinecone, and a button are a few of her offerings. Since he can’t see even a smidgen of daylight, Max is especially appreciative of Liesel’s thoughtful gifts.
  • In The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant, Cornelius leaves little presents for Judy Rhine, and later in his life, he leaves nature’s gifts for Oliver Small’s two young sons. Both Judy Rhine and the Smalls family reciprocate Cornelius’s generosity by nursing and caring for him.
  • While listening to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on some recent travels, I realized that the father was constantly giving gifts to his young son. A cold can of Coca Cola, a can of peaches, some mushrooms, and “the fire” are but a few of these gifts, and in this situation the love that this man feels for the boy is so obvious that it’s just about heartbreaking. How can love be heartbreaking? Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.

Reading about these instances of gift giving in literature inspired me to be more mindful of the gifts all around me and to be giving, especially with things without a price tag. At our writing group the other night, one of the members brought me some delicate pale pink flowers from her yard. As I sat in the back seat of my daughter’s van the other afternoon, instead of getting impatient at the slowness of the traffic, I looked out of the window and enjoyed the scene to my right, the marsh (see above picture). Then I looked at Colton, the 4-year-old who wanted me to read a book about numbers and farm animals to him. I glanced at the front of the van and could see the tops of my daughters’ heads and catch snippets of their conversation, another gift.

Now that I’m more conscious of the power of gifts, I’m making more of an effort to give them. Sometimes it might be something I purchase that looks like the person and not like me. Sometimes it might be something from nature, and other times it could be a service, something I can do to help another person. My husband is really good at this and is always (yes, always) doing something for someone else. Back to me and what I can and will do, I can give more of my time and energy.

Today, not next week or some vague future date, I’m going to improve my gift giving. Yesterday I picked up some unique shells from the beach and have already given one away. Later in the day, I bought a birthday gift for a friend. Tomorrow, I’m going to make a call that will set the ball in motion for some volunteer work.

What about you? What gifts have you received that are particularly meaningful? And perhaps more importantly, what have you given?

Feed the Lambs

IMG_3462If you read Saturday’s post, then you know that I spoke on becoming a more Christian Christian in church yesterday. As always, I had gathered more material than could possibly be covered in my allotted 15 minutes, but since I’m pretty good at condensing and paring down, I stayed within my time limit. Though a bit nervous, as I sat on the stand and looked at the faces of those in the congregation, a feeling of peace came over me, and I knew that things would be fine.  

Yesterday, I stayed close to Robert D. Hales’ address found in the November 2012 Ensign. To me, the overall theme of his address was “Feed My Sheep.” If you want to be a follower of Christ, then feed His sheep. While I gave a few examples of how to feed the lambs, this morning I remembered several examples of showing love, compassion, and caring among the the people I’m fortunate to know. With some modification, I’m lifting all of these from Eve’s Sisters http://tinyurl.com/agsyetr.

Here’s a scenario shared by Valerie. She and her husband and small child were shopping in Target when they saw a young couple with a baby. She sensed that they were struggling with deciding what to buy with their limited funds. How could they make the proverbial dollar stretch? Compassionate and caring, Valerie sent up a silent prayer to her Heavenly Father asking that He help this young couple.

She walked on by, and after a few seconds, her little girl asked, “Where’s Dad?” They turned around and spotted him. Wallet open, he was giving cash to the couple. A lump in her throat, Valerie thought of how she had prayed, but her husband had acted. I’m certainly not dissing Valerie, one of the most loving people I know. I used her example to illustrate that at any given time there are people around us who need our help. We just need to be more mindful.

I once slipped a few dollars and a note into an envelope and gave it to a student with instructions to have her eyebrows waxed, something she had indicated a desire to have done. She sent me an email saying no one had ever done anything like that for her before and that she sat in the car and cried when she read my note. That saddened me. Why hasn’t anyone done anything like that for this lovely young woman before? Why don’t I do things of this nature more often?

What we do doesn’t have to be of huge magnitude. If we all perform small acts of service in our own little spheres, I think Christ would be happy. Here are some things that crossed my mind this morning:

  • Lib is the consummate baker, and she regularly bakes her special lemon pound cakes and delivers them to people  to welcome them to the community.
  • My sister Ann, a math teacher, regularly tutors church members and family free of charge.
  • The mother of my daughter’s former obstetrician knits hats for newborns. 
  • Several women of my acquaintance keep a stash of all occasion cards that they send to people who might need a    little encouragement.

We’re all different and should do whatever we can without feeling guilty about what we can’t do. Can you send a card? Can you find the time to just sit and listen to one of your children, a parent, or a friend? Can you pay someone a compliment? I think it was Mark Twain who said he could live for two weeks on a good compliment. How hard is that to do??

Only if You Promise Not to Squander

A incident that occurred yesterday afternoon later prompted so much insight that I’d have to call it a revelation.

A incident that occurred yesterday afternoon later prompted so much insight that I’d have to call it a revelation.

In Columbia, I was at an exit near Fort Jackson and Forest Drive. I was about the fourth car in line, and as I sat waiting for the light to change I noticed a young man with a sign. Based on his attire, woebegone expression, and overall appearance, I didn’t have to read his sign to know that he was asking for money or food. The woman in the car in front of me rolled down her window and handed him some money.

Should I or shouldn’t I? Scrounging through my pocketbook, I found two whole dollars. What a huge amount! So I rolled my window down too, and he came over and got the money. He was very appreciative and said, “God bless you, Ma’am.”I wasn’t feeling particularly pious, but I did have a fleeting thought about the “when you have done it unto the least of these….” scripture. I gave him the money because he needed it and I had it. What he did with it is his business.

I went on to Hobby Lobby on a fruitless search for buttons and then to Sam’s for some goodies like grapes and bread. In Sam’s, I also browsed around taking in the selection of clothes and books while putting together some ideas for Christmas gifts. How could I not do so when I saw the Christmas décor? As always, I felt a bit whelmed at the huge selection of stuff lining the aisles. I was also struck by the juxtaposition of the haves and the have nots in our country and thought of the young man at the exit.

That’s when it hit me, the insight about the man at the exit. I’ve heard and read comments about how a person shouldn’t give money to the homeless or needy. Buying them a meal or giving them an article of clothing is a good idea, but giving them money is foolish (according to my reading and listening). After all, you never know what “these people” are going to do with it. They could buy alcohol or drugs! Do you really want to contribute to that???

Drum roll please. Here’s the revelation (at last) I got yesterday. Every single person walking the earth has got some talent, gift, or aptitude that is going to waste. People let their fear of failure, rejection, or ridicule keep them from developing and using their God-given gifts. In other words, they squander them. Question: What if God decided not to give any of us any gifts because He thought we might not use them the way He wants us to?

Whether it’s material wealth or a talent of some sort, it’s a gift from Him to you. You might say, “I have this wealth because I worked like the dickens. God didn’t give it to me.” But who gave you the energy and ability to work?? Do you see what I’m getting at? If you’ve been given an aptitude for singing, dancing, golfing, drawing, writing, telling jokes, nursing, constructing, leading, organizing, selling, or anything else and you aren’t using it, then to me you’re just like the person who takes monetary gifts and uses them to buy alcohol and drugs.

I’m just glad my Creator is more generous than we are. I’m glad He doesn’t withhold our gifts unless we promise not to squander them.

Denver and Mr. Ron

In my lesson on charity this morning, I included a reference to a recent novel chosen by my book club, Same Kind of Different as Me, and I decided to review the book here. This is actually a revised version of a review I posted at Amazon.com a couple of weeks ago. Truthfully, it took two years and two attempts before I was hooked by this book. When my son-in-law Charlie gave it to me and described it as “wonderful,” I began reading it right away. I stuck it out for two nights, but I couldn’t get into it for some reason.

“Where did the author come up with such a character as Denver?” I wondered. Could anyone have such a poor and miserable life? I knew that poverty, homelessness, and prejudice were serious issues in our society, but I just didn’t want to be reminded of it right before falling asleep. Plus, the dialect annoyed me. Did the author really have to make people from the South sound so illiterate and backwards? Then Ron entered the picture, and while I thought the accounts of life in the 1960s were pretty interesting, I began to get irritated with this character too. Was the reader supposed to believe that someone would wear matching plaid shirts and shorts, black knee socks, and brogans to a college football game in the 1960’s?

When my book club chose it for our March selection, I picked it up again. “Surely there’s something redeeming about this book for so many people to love it,” I thought. I downloaded it on my Kindle and listened to it on the way to and from work. It wasn’t long before I got involved in the lives of these two men, Denver and Ron, wondering when their lives would intersect. Living parallel lives in different parts of the country, their experiences couldn’t have been more different. One was an illiterate black man who, tired of being poor in Louisiana, hopped on a train and ended up homeless in Fort Worth. The other was a white millionaire, a college grad who seemed to live a charmed existence. Married to Miss Debbie, he was a successful art dealer.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that the book was true…not based on truth, but absolutely true and told by the men who lived the stories. I’ll leave it up to you to read where and when and how their friendship began and grew. I’ll just say that the millionaire who set out to be a do-gooder philanthropist and the former sharecropper who later had a front row seat at a presidential inauguration were forever transformed by their shared experiences. Interestingly, the one who set out to give ended up being on the receiving end. He broadened my thinking too; because of Denver, I’m using Micah 6:8 as yet another guide for living my life.

As the book progresses, Denver and Ron take turns telling their life stories and their individual perceptions of the events described in the book. Each of them shares scenes so descriptive that the reader can see them and feel their essence. Whether Rocky Top, rural Louisiana, the “hood,” or the homeless shelter is being described, they all seem real. Denver’s visions of spirits, occasional scripture references, and pithy words of wisdom are as thought provoking and interesting as Ron’s big art deals and spiritual transformation.

The person who served as a catalyst for the book was Miss Debbie. Denver and Ron loved her, and so will you. Even as I type this, I’m wondering if I can persuade my husband to go to Fort Worth during Spring Break. There are some people I want to meet there…and an art gallery I want to visit.

To Give or Not to Give

What’s the right thing to do when you see a homeless person holding a sign asking for money or food?

Myrtle Beach has a shadow side. I’m not talking about the vacationers who like to party hearty or the golfers who go a little crazy when they get away from home. I’m not even talking about the “gentleman’s clubs” or adult entertainment establishments in the area. I’m talking about the homeless people I’ve seen here on the coast. Maybe they aren’t actually homeless. Maybe they’re just down on their luck. Maybe I’m too quick to slap that homeless label on someone because he looks dirty and is holding a sign saying he needs money and food.

The other afternoon my husband and I were sitting at a busy intersection waiting for the light to change when I saw a handsome young man holding such a sign. His countenance was somber and sad, and his clothing was dark and stained, quite unlike the light colored, touristy attire of the people I’d seen all day. Fumbling quickly through my purse before the light changed, I found five dollars and beckoned him over.  When I saw his teeth, I knew my hunch was right.

“He’ll never make it before the light changes,” my husband said. “He’s going to get stuck in the middle of the road.”

I ignored the warning as the young man approached the car. I gave him the money and hoped he’d buy a burger and fries with it. He thanked me and then disappeared between the lines of vehicles.

“How do you know he’ll buy food with that? Look, he’s already leaving his spot beside the road.” Otis commented.

“So? Maybe he’s going to get some food. And if not, then so be it. You can’t give someone something and then dictate what he does with it.”

The topic has come up a few times during the last few days. I’ve heard people say they’d gladly buy someone a burger or chicken combo but they’d never give them money. Why? Because the person might buy booze or drugs with it. But what if the person wants a pizza or a couple of tacos instead? Does your generosity apply only if you and only you get to decide on what the disadvantaged person eats?

I took one look at that sad young man and knew it wasn’t for me to judge him or his state of neediness. He could have been my sweet boy…or yours. And you know, it was only five bucks! We’d just paid twice that amount for each of us at Abuelo’s.

So I’m interested in your opinions. Should you give money with stipulations, or should you only give food? To take it a step farther, should there be strings attached to monetary gifts?