Thanks to my son, Elijah, for the beautiful new website! He’s taught me everything I know and then some.
My commitment to giving away 100 hundreds in 2011 is starting to sink in. I am thinking of it as a self-imposed estate tax, and that feels right for now.
I’ve mentioned the book Rambam’s Ladder by Julie Salamon, as well as some of my own thoughts about Rambam’s Ladder of Charity. I love Salamon’s little book, which asks many of the same questions about giving that have been on my mind. What’s all the fuss about giving anonymously? Is it okay for the giver to benefit from the giving? How much to give? Is it ever enough?
Salamon’s book isn’t prescriptive or preachy, and her conclusions ring true to me. I agree with her that generosity and giving are an antidote to a lot of what is wrong in the world today, and that there is something profound about telling a stranger, “Your troubles matter to me.”
We’ve been in Vancouver, BC for the past few days. Yesterday Louise and I celebrated 25 years together! It’s a lifetime and I am unspeakably grateful. It’s lovely to have a change of scenery in which to enjoy some of our favorite activities: reading, walking and eating.
Vancouver also turns out to be a premiere shopping destination; the streets are filled with swarms of people dressed in fur coats and carrying bags and bundles. I’m not kidding about the swarms; there is a crowd of people on every corner waiting for the light to change. The weather has been very crisp and cold. UGGS and other boots are all the rage, which, as a serious shoe aficionado, I find absolutely fascinating. I have to make sure not to walk into a pole while looking at everyone’s feet.
Hidden among the shoppers at many corners you can also spy a person with a sign, or an out-held hat or cup. “Spare change? Can you spare some change?” is the common refrain. Along the way, I seem to have embraced a rule about not giving away C-notes to panhandlers, although I’ve broken that rule at least twice (Carrie, Lauren).
This morning (Monday) I went out for a walk and headed away from the main shopping area toward Chinatown. As I passed Tim Horton’s I saw a beautiful big dog sitting outside. No leash, the dog was gazing longingly through the window. I was curious and opened the door to poke my head in. A woman standing at the cash register was gesturing wordlessly at the dog. “Is your dog friendly?” I asked, leaning in. “Yes, too friendly!” she laughed.
I went back out and talked with the dog until the woman appeared, carrying a coffee and a little brown bag. She was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and smiled at me as she came through the door. She reached into the bag and then she held something out for the dog.
“Does he eat donuts?” I asked. “It’s not a donut,” she corrected. “It’s a whole grain raspberry muffin. He deserves a treat, right? For being so good?” She had a warm, endearing smile and met my gaze with clear green eyes.
The woman and dog turned to walk down the street and I followed along. I asked the dog’s name and she said it was Teddy, then told me, “Everyone loves Teddy. He’s the neighborhood dog.”
“You probably think it’s strange that I’m following you,” I offered. “No way,” she said, with a smile.
We walked down the block to a little plaza, where she perched herself on a low wall. I introduced myself and we started to talk. The woman was startlingly unguarded, and I commented on this. She nodded. “I feel like I have to be open to the world and to people – receptive, you know?”
I told her I understood and thought about Rambam and the power of connection. The woman said she believed in being nice to everyone, and said that you never know what effect a kindness can have, especially when it’s unexpected. “We all have a duty to take care of each other, that’s what I believe,” she said.
“I’m Christina, by the way.” She reached out to shake my hand, again fixing me with her steady green eyes. Three Asian women came up to ask her directions and she patiently explained how to find their destination. She lit a cigarette (“do you mind?”) and, shortly thereafter, a rather disheveled man came up and politely asked her for a smoke and a light. “Of course!” she replied. The guy seemed captivated by Christina and shifted from one foot to the other. “I like your… boots, ” he offered, then shyly disappeared.
Another man came up, ostensibly to pet the dog. Then another. Christina didn’t seem surprised by this at all. “You know,” I counseled, “They say they want to meet the dog, but they really want to talk to you. You’re beautiful – you know that, right?”
“No way!” she objected. “I don’t see myself that way.”
“Well, it’s true,” I insisted.
We talked and talked. I told Christina all about my Month of Hundreds (“No way!”) and she told me a little about herself. She shocked me when she said, “Sorry about my English. It’s not my first language.” HUNH? Her English was perfect, and she had a charming Canadian lilt. She said she was from Italy, and had come to Canada six years ago. She’s unemployed, having given up her job to take an extended trip home over the summer. She’s working on being a writer, and has a four-year old son.
It was cold out and I was getting ready to move along. “I’m not quite done with you,” I told Christina. “I want you to have this.” Before I could get the bill out of my pocket, she was protesting. Loudly.
“I’m not going to take it! I’m not taking that!” I held the C-note out and she stared at it, defiantly. “I’m not taking it,” she insisted.
“Just listen to me,” I heard myself say. “If you don’t need it for yourself, that’s fine. But I want you to use this to make your world a tiny bit better.” After a moment she reached for the bill and her eyes teared up. She put her arms out and gave me a big hug.
“I know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’m going to share it with Scruffy. He’s a homeless guy who hangs out there (pointing down the street), outside my building. He’s not using drugs or anything. He just needs a warm place to sleep. He’s never told any of us his real name, and he wants everyone to call him Scruffy.”
The photos don’t do this beautiful and open-hearted woman justice. She said I made her week (“no one will believe this!”), and I hope that’s true. She reaffirmed for me the magic in connecting with a stranger. And I’ll never forget those green eyes.
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