Living in this World

Thursday, January 11, 2007

#51 Blowing on Coals

When I was a little girl, I loved reading stories about the old days in this country. They always made me appreciate basic things I took for granted-like heat and warmth and light. In a world without matches, keeping the fire going was so important. In more than one of these stories, a child in a family whose fire had gone out had the job of getting a shovelful of coals from the neighbors. I could feel the urgency of the mission, the sense of responsibility, as a child carefully guarded the glowing coals, on a trip through a snowy night, bringing warmth and light and energy back to a home grown cold and dark.
The stories of banking the fire at night are less dramatic, but in a way more compelling. To conserve on wood, they would cover the fire, reducing the flow of air, so that it would burn very slowly through the night. In the morning it might seem dead, but when some hardy early riser uncovered the coals and blew and blew, some of those coals would begin to glow. With enough blowing, they grew hot enough to set a bit of tinder alight-and the fire was once again alive, ready to provide heat and light.
This blowing on coals evokes mystery and magic. It is an act of faith and of power. We don't have the power to create life where there is none, yet we can uncover the heart of something that seemed cold and literally breathe it back into life. Sometimes it takes the littlest puff, sometimes just one good hard blow. Other times, ash blows in your eyes, you get red in the face, and you wonder if your lungs are going to burst. But what a glow of satisfaction when that first little flame jumps out!
There is something about coals that calls to me. They are so warm, so ready. I've been wondering if that's part of what we're in this world to do-to have an eye out for the places around us where no fire is visible, but the coals still have life-and to be willing to blow. We can help ease away the overlay of uncaring, the dead covering of fear and discouragement. We can breath out our hope, love and confidence in that person or that situation. We can get in close, breathe deep, and give it our all. What would happen in this world if all those banked fires-in hearts and programs and communities-could burst into open flame?
Of course there are times when the fire has gone all the way out, when we left it too long or something unexpected happened and there is no life left in the coals. That's the time to put on a warm coat, get out the shovel, and give thanks that we have neighbors.


#50 Inconvenience, thanks and connection

After the driver's door on our old car got banged in an accident, it didn't always latch. There was a trick that involved moving a part with a screwdriver while holding the handle just so, but this time it wasn't working. It was freezing cold outside, with a strong wind. Fingers were getting numb in the struggle to unjam the part. We were two hours from home and worst case scenarios were running through my mind. I wondered who else might be caught with inadequate shelter out in that cold. When the door finally closed and latched, it was like a miracle. The warmth was like gold. For days afterward whenever any car door shut without difficulty I felt a rush of thankfulness.
I was reminded of our struggle with printers. The old one had gotten increasingly cranky, announcing that it was "out of paper" more and more often, till we finally gave it up in despair. Having made the decision to invest in a new printer, it was a rude shock to discover that nothing on the market would speak to our old system. After another round of research, and increasingly desperate phone calls , we finally located a compatible second-hand printer. A friend brought it over, it wheezed and clanked-and printed! We didn't mind the noise-at this point a printer that actually worked was almost too good to be true.
Well, it must have been on its best behavior that day. It continued to wheeze and clank, but it also ate up great mouthfuls of paper, started printing halfway down the page, and more often than not sent out crumpled sheets and great wavering lines of smudgy print.
Slowly we learned its tricks. If you fed it just one sheet at a time, if you reached in your hand and guided each one out gently so that it touched nothing on its way out, and if you were lucky-you got a clean page with crisp straight black lines of print, running from top to bottom. It was a miracle! Though not ideal, this was more convenient than buying printer service at a copy store, way better than typing, much more professional than handwriting, and infinitely easier than mastering movable type or chiseling a message out on stone.
Then there was the time the car wasn't available and my destination was off my well-traveled public transit paths. I was forced to take a strange bus on an unfamiliar route. Leaving extra early just in case, waiting outside in the nippy air, checking the schedule again and again, fretting over the timing of the return trip, locked into an unforgiving schedule-I wasn't used to any of this. I thought of all the people for whom this inconvenience was part of their daily reality, and came away with a sense of awe at how it's sometimes possible to simply get in a car when you want to and go to just where you want to go. It's like a miracle.
I think of the ingenuity of people over all the years who have found ways to hold things together and make them work because there were no other options. I think of people who don't have cars or computers. Whenever something doesn't work right, or isn't convenient, whenever I have to struggle, somewhere in that experience is a blessed opportunity for thankfulness and for connection.


#49 Mending the World

Our world is torn and broken. Many parts of it are not working. There are great tears and gashes, holes and frayed edges. What it needs is mending. And in general that’s something we’re not very good at. Ours is not a culture of mending. Somewhere along the line we got confused and started believing that if something is broken or torn we should throw it out and get a new one. We are not helped in this by a system that is focused on consumption rather than quality—that produces things with an intentionally short life so that it can sell us more.

But we can’t throw out the world. It’s been around for quite a while, and it’s worth saving. Besides, it’s the only one we have. So—we have to learn to mend.

This is not a hardship. Not long ago, I had the privilege of helping a young woman mend a favorite dress. A small hole had made it unwearable. We found a place around a seam in the hem where we could cut out a tiny bit of fabric and sew it back up to leave no trace. Then, with the tiniest of stitches, she sewed that bit of fabric over the hole. It took quite a while, but when it was done her beloved dress was restored, and we’d had an evening together to cherish.

To mend something well, you have to understand how it’s put together. How do the seams work in a dress? What is the process of knitting that will allow me to repair a long unraveling? It can be hard when, in order to fix something, you have to take a first step that makes it worse. I don’t mind disassembling things; if I just pay attention I have a fair amount of confidence that I can get them back together. But with my wobbly dining room chairs I needed the support of a more experienced friend to know that, before they could be solidly reglued, I had to knock the joints completely apart. Once I had good access to all those pegs and holes, it was easy to know what to do.

I think we just need to practice, knowing that it’s time well spent—practice sewing buttons back on (and snipping them off the shirts that are beyond repair, so we’ll have some extras in time of need); practice taping torn books or maps; practice gluing broken parts together.

Sometimes there’s skill involved—putting new cloth underneath a frayed part to give it strength, then stitching to make them one; whittling a replacement part till it fits just right; creating a tidy woven patch in the heel of a sock. It can help to have the right tools. You need materials—bits of wood, cloth, yarn. But mostly it just requires patience. Mending takes time.

Then there is the relationship that get broken or torn or frayed around the edges. The impulse to just throw it out and get a new one can be strong. But we can practice mending here as well—acknowledging our part, listening from the heart, saying we’re sorry, not giving up on ourselves or the other person, putting in the time to be in contact.

What if we thought of mending as a critical activity in our quest for a truly livable world? Then every time we sewed a button, every time we apologized, or repaired something rather than throwing it out, we could remember that we are building the skills, muscles and attitudes that are needed make our world whole.