The Path of Selfish Giving & Meditative Techniques: Part 5 to What is Service? What is Generosity?

Photo by Felipe Hadler

Photo by Felipe Hadler

Last week, my daughter and I continued our service exploration, and I had the opportunity to contribute to some national organization about which I previously knew nothing.

Like many women enlisted as a bridesmaid, I had a champagne pink formal from a wedding, with 6-inch heels to match, hanging in my baby’s closet. I was never wearing any of that again. I googled, “prom dress donations to girls” and discovered Becca’s Closet. Plenty of girls gaga over pink would love this one-shouldered satin dress with Vince Camuto heels. I also let my friends and family members know that I would deliver dresses, accessories, and jewelry. I picked up dresses and jewelry (Days 15 & 17). My husband even picked up some dresses when I lost my car keys. And that was the biggest lesson Zoe learned from those prom dresses, keep giving and asking for help because many people will help you to give. Then I showed her the photographs of girls in dresses, and she asked, “When can I get a pair of high heels?”
Uh, yeah, lesson learned :-/

Cue the discussion about selfish giving. “I participate in it all of the time,” I admit to her. “It’s kind of the easiest type of giving for a lot of people because you get something in return and you know that you’re getting it.” I explained that I enjoy supporting the arts because I so often receive a performance or free tickets to something for giving to theater, dance, and music companies. I also explained that many of those programs receive less and less federal funding, so sponsoring the arts ensures that artists have jobs. It goes beyond that, but it’s difficult to retain a 7-year old’s attention about federal funding and such for more than 7 minutes (if that).

So, I explained by example that her Dad and I were going to a benefit concert (Day 18), and while it benefitted Nashville-area veterans and at-risk children, I wanted to go because I would get the opportunity to see some of my favorite musicians (Brendan Benson & Jack White) play music at one of my favorite venues (Ryman Auditorium). Totally selfish giving.

And in that moment of selfishness, I learned about the David Lynch Foundation and transcendental meditation.

What Brendan Benson said about transcendental meditation during the concert: “I believe it’s addressing the source. I believe If you can achieve inner peace, you can achieve outer peace.”

For one summer ten years ago, I taught literature to high school students who were planning to become first-generation college students. They were participating in a university-preparatory program. At first, we didn’t connect at all, and then I just followed my gut, took a major leap, and had them practice a meditative technique in order to try to convey the concept of symbolism to them. I had practiced meditative techniques for about five years, and I was a grad student who had been teaching writing in a developmental writing course. I teetered on the edge, waiting, when they opened their eyes. Would they call me crazy? Were they asleep? Amazingly, it worked, and they wouldn’t shut up about symbols and meaning, metaphor, hyperbole…you name it–they did get the concept. I began to teach a variety of meditative techniques in connection with literature. Every day we met, the students asked me if we would be meditating. I was in shock. They read, they wrote, they arrived early. I’ve never taught that way again, but I always knew something exceptional happened in those classes that I’ve never been able to recreate by other traditional classroom means. While I haven’t been trained in transcendental meditation yet, I do know that the practice of meditation changed my life.

The David Lynch Foundation puts transcendental meditative programs into public school as well as working with the Wounded Warrior Program and many local organizations. Meditation in schools and helping veterans–that gave me a greater feeling than rockin out at the Ryman.

And don’t read my stuff anymore right now, read theirs, read about transcendental meditation and the David Lynch Foundation.

From the David Lynch Foundation website:
Operation Warrior Wellness:
building resilience and healing the
hidden wounds of war
The nightmare of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Over half a million U.S. troops deployed since 2001 suffer from PTSD. Yet less than 20% will receive adequate care due to lack of effective treatments, fear of stigma or insufficient government resources. Half of those with PTSD won’t receive any care at all.
Left untreated, PTSD cripples functioning and places veterans at great risk for violent and self-destructive behavior, including:
Alcoholism or drug abuse
Severe depression, anxiety or emotional numbness
Family and employment problems
Suicide—today, more than 6,500 vets die by suicide every year
Creating resilient warriors
Operation Warrior Wellness (OWW), a division of the David Lynch Foundation, offers the Transcendental Meditation-based Resilient Warrior Program, a simple, easy-to-learn, evidence-based approach to relieving symptoms of PTSD and major depression and developing greater resilience to stress.
Since its initial launch in 2010, the OWW initiative has partnered with leading veterans service organizations, Army and Marine bases and VA medical centers across the country to deliver the Resilient Warrior Program to veterans, active-duty personnel and military families in need. The initiative also partners with military colleges to create a new generation of more resilient officers.
Evidence-based relief from the epidemic of mental injury
The TM-based Resilient Warrior Program has been extensively researched by over 340 peer-reviewed studies, including over $26 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to study the program’s effectiveness for reducing heart disease. Key findings include:
40-55% reduction in symptoms of PTSD and depression
42% decrease in insomnia
30% improvement in satisfaction with quality of life
25% reduction in plasma cortisol levels
Decreased high blood pressure–on par with first-line antihypertensives
47% reduced risk of cardiovascular-related mortality
View references for these findings

Positive & Negative Responses to What is Service? What is Generosity?: Part 4

My daughter’s approach to service has been both positive (“what are we doing for service today?”) and negative (“do we have to drop it off today? I want to play on the computer.”). She has these responses to most activities, even those she loves like gymnastics.

She has learned that many of our activities involve organizing. Some days, organizing and transporting are the service. I’ll spare you the daily details of organizing, sorting, and drop-off for local non-profits and shelters that help families and children (Days 10-14).

Zoe has learned how many people must cooperate to get donation items, drive the donations to the pick-up person, drop off at the non-profit, some of which are in undisclosed locations in order to protect the women & children in the shelter. That was a complex lesson to communicate–that some families need protection from people in their own family who would harm them. She was ready for this knowledge and asked the questions, but she continues to question why people need to hide from their family members.

A wonderful positive gift happened to show Zoe how much people value it when someone does a good deed for them. After her failed cookie delivery to our neighbor, Zoe wanted to take her cookies the next day. I baked apple buttermilk muffin cakes, just in case those chocolate chip cookies weren’t the best, and Zoe marched to our neighbor’s house with the goods. She thanked Zoe, who skipped proudly back to our house. The next day, after making a pick-up of donated items from a local church, we arrived at home to find a Christmas bag hanging from our front door knob. Our neighbor left Zoe (&Silvie) some Christmas treats with a card that said, “An unexpected gift is the most precious.”

Zoe was thrilled. She said, “sometimes if you do something nice for someone, they can do something nice back for you, but they don’t have to. It’s not good to do something just cause you think you’ll get something. That’s not the best way at all. It causes trouble.”
Made me laugh. “What kind of trouble?” I asked.
“Thinking you’ll get something and then waiting around for it. Just waiting and waiting–that’s not a good feeling and will make some people mad at the other people. Like if they don’t get what you were thinking.”
“Good for you to learn that now,” I said. “You know it took me much longer to learn that–”
She cut me off, “Okay, I get it. Can I play a computer game now?”

Even though I know she’s only going through the motions at times, I am as well. We have our positive days and we have others when we have to force ourselves to fulfill obligations. Thankfully, we’ve enjoyed more positive giving than the tiredness that sometimes controls us.

Next week, we’re connecting with some national non-profits, so I’ll blog about those next.

What’s your approach to service in your community? Do you involve your family? If so, what are your positive experiences? And, how do you get through the negative days?

A Child’s Joy for Skates, Pizza, & Cookies: Part 3 to What is Service? What is Generosity?

image“Roller skate! Wheeee!” Words I hear often. Day 6, I decided to implement an initial phase for several projects because many require planning and coordinating with other organizations and people. Zo cleaned out her clothes and toys, making donation piles. We went to the mall and picked out an angel from the tree. Zo chose a girl her age who wanted roller skates.

We began shopping for the roller skater’s clothes, and Zo needed pants since she had outgrown all of them. (Already, I noticed the timing was working out in magical ways.) In the first store, a woman asked if Zo liked a pair of pants and explained that she, too, was shopping for her angel and the girl wore the same size. Zo shriveled her nose at the pants the woman had chosen. “Good thing I asked you,” she laughed. I wasn’t satisfied with the store and suggested another to Zo. We continued to shop and bumped into the woman again along the way, and Zo helped her choose a couple of shirts for her angel. We said goodbye again, and decided to finish some Christmas shopping. After a round of receipts with survey offers, we circled back to finish at the same store and met the same woman as she tried on a jacket–“finished shopping for my angel and decided to give myself a little gift, too,” she said. We laughed. “Merry Christmas,” I told her, waving goodbye in disbelief that I had enjoyed the shopping experience (usually, one of my least favorite things, & I didn’t have anxiety, or feel like I needed to run out of there–it was a holiday miracle!). Imagining the roller skater in her new kicks was the perfect motivation.
“Let’s go already!” Day 7, Zo woke up and asked if we were still going to serve food that evening. She asked all day. She made us crazy until we threatened not to go. (Wait, we realized that punishment wouldn’t work if we wanted to encourage generosity.) On the way to serve food to the homeless at a local church, the trees were heavy with ice and sparkled in just the right light. The sky was becoming grayer and it absorbed the outline of the ice. Photos were difficult to take. Zo tried to take them in the car–blurry trees, pavement in motion, reflections of her frustrated face on the window.

I was concerned about the forecasts for an ice storm, another round, that evening and early morning. I coached myself to find joy. Find inner joy and, without being shrill, emit that with soft, helpful energy.
Making up beds at the church, Zo and I took one room of small, wooden-framed, twin beds, low to the ground. A group of teens made up beds in an adjoining room. As we spread on clean, white sheets, pillowcases, and comforters, I thought about blessing the future sleepers with good dreams, safety, and warmth. On a cold night such as that, (or, any night) I wouldn’t want to consider sleeping on the street, under a bridge, on a bench, slumped against a tree, in an abandoned home or car. Zo placed care packages of body care products on each of the beds. Though it didn’t turn out to be much of an ice storm, it was cold enough to keep the trees frozen in a slick bubble layer, & that’s too cold to lie down outside to rest.

In the kitchen, preparing meals, talking to Boy Scouts, packing lunches, frying okra, moving out of the way, saying thank you, laughing, bowing my head, eating with everyone–all of it contained a lighthearted ease. The people serving food emitted it–kindness–all of them, and that will make anyone joyful. Their bowls overflowed with homemade foods they had prepared to share.
My Dad and I stood by the ovens and heated slices of carry-out pizza. We didn’t think much about the pizza since there was so much local food prepared in family kitchens and delivered while still hot. We placed the pizza in the boxes and covered them with foil, then a woman wheeled them to the end of the line. The pizza was an afterthought, and my Dad even wondered aloud, why the pizza? The homeless men arrived from Nashville. The Boy Scouts, Zo, and other people served all the homemade foods and filled the plates, but the men saved space for or placed the pizza on top. They commented on the pizza more than anything else. Several asked if they could return for seconds. It caused me to realize the value of carry-out pizza to someone living on the street. When these men are served in shelters and church kitchens, I’m sure it’s often homestyle foods. The pizza is different– the buttery garlic bread-tomato-pepperoni-onion-sausage-oregano scent drifting along every corner, down almost every city block, and you need $5 or $10 to get one.
I love pizza–barbecue chicken is my favorite.

Days 8 & 9, when plans aren’t what you’d expect, the point is that you tried. This was the lesson Zo was getting on Sunday, when the “ice storm” changed our original plans. We decided to deliver our wrapped gifts to the mall for the roller skater angel. When the office doors were locked, Zo said, “Great,” sarcastically, “change of plans again. I guess she won’t get her presents.”
I encouraged her to visit other stores with me, and we found a security guard who let us in the office to drop off the gift.
“Kind of surprised that worked out after a day like today,” she said.
“That’s a little negative, considering…” I looked at her.
“I know, I get it. I have more than that girl,” she said.
“Wow. I was going to say, considering we got our Christmas tree today.”
“Oh yeah, that, too,” she said smiling.

Another childhood joy–cookies! Day 9, she tried. She baked chocolate chip cookies for our neighbor who is elderly and recently had surgery. Zo bundled up in her coat and ran to deliver them. I watched and shivered in the cold. When our neighbor never opened the door, Zo shouted, “Can I leave them on the porch?”
“Too cold. They’ll freeze. Maybe she’ll be there tomorrow.” I waved her back over to our house.
“At least I tried,” she declared when she came inside.

What is Service? What is Generosity? Part 2: Maintaining Optimism

Photo by Makio Kusahara

Photo by Makio Kusahara

Our family has continued our daily service and conversations about generosity. I have learned as much about my own biases as I have about the gifts of selfless work to the homeless, abused, addicted, broken, and other people who need help all around us.

Honestly, I wondered if I would be able to find enough activities to fill the 31 days of December. Ironically, I know that it’s possible to fill every moment of a lifetime in service to others. So, where did this gap in my reality come from? I can answer it easily, with one word–privilege. I grew up in a blue collar, middle class family. My great-grandparents were a combination of sharecroppers, moonshiners, midwives, and farmers, and I was a first-generation college graduate. I had routes to jobs and knowledge. I learned fast about how to learn more and gain access, so I have been privileged in that way. My life has improved in a positive direction. My ability to actually see abuse, addiction, homelessness, and poverty was moving through the car windows, always traveling in another direction. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a brat–I should say that I’ve participated in organizations that help others. I have volunteered for blood donations, canned good drives, cookie-baking benefits, walks, runs, anointing my dying relatives, a mission trip to Mexico and more in my life. I worked for years as a volunteer for a women’s magazine that focused on arts-based activism in the lives of women. I interviewed many activist women authors and artists. I’ve been to rehab centers and shelters to visit family members.

It’s just this: Zoe’s questions have taken me *closer while helping people in situations I have always wanted to avoid as realities in my own life, and that’s different.

Day 4, a friend posted a request to Facebook for someone to make a pick-up from a grocery store and deliver the food to a local organization that provides meals to the homeless. I volunteered. When I arrived at the food kitchen, the doors were locked and people sat on the floors in the foyer area, waiting for food. People lingered outside, waiting for the doors to unlock. They looked tired. Most of their clothes lacked color, and were layers of faded grays and browns and blacks. I looked at one of the men seated in front of me who looked to be about my age. I just blurted out, “I need to deliver the food. Do you know where I take it?”
“Excuse me,” he said gently, looking at the woman who had been talking to him. I hadn’t even noticed, but talked right over her.
“I’m sorry,” I said to her. “That was rude of me. I’m late and have never made the delivery before.”
She waved her hand at me and said, “It’s okay,” as she lowered her eyes to the floor.
“It’s not really,” I mumbled almost silently. The man told me where to go, and I left, saying, “thank you,” with the realization that I was quite surprised to see so many people waiting…in this town. Books and articles were written about other volunteer organizations in other places. Interviews with groups working in Rwanda and co-operatives in Laos. What did I expect about my community now, in the present? I questioned myself. As I helped unload the food, I was humbled by knowing all those hungry bellies were waiting. I had to get over my life and continue. I felt terrible and grateful. It was an overwhelming combination. When I confessed the way I interrupted the woman and overlooked her in my task, my husband just said, “You know some people make a choice to be homeless and reach out to people living on the streets.” Yes, I knew that, but I have never met someone who made that sacrifice.

The next day (Day 5), I attended the holiday dinner for the Women’s National Book Association’s Nashville chapter. Back in November, before Zoe and I started this exploration in service and generosity, I signed up for the dinner when I knew that Reverend Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene House and Thistle Farms, would speak about her book, Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling. Rev. Stevens told us that most of the women in the program were first raped between the ages of 7 and 11. I shuddered to think about girls my daughter’s age as victims of sexual violence. I thought about her classmates and friends while Rev. Stevens talked about how the girls grow up on the streets of Nashville in violence and abuse. They struggle with PTSD and shame. Magdalene House provides women who have lived through prostitution, addiction, and abuse with safe, free housing and so much more. Thistle Farms provides employment to many of those same women who find safety at Magdalene House. Thistle Farms creates health care products made from plants. They create their own oil infusions, paper, candles, lotions, body washes, lip balms, and more. There’s even an oil that works as a mosquito repellent, and it smells delightful.

I returned home that evening with some of their products so that Zoe could try them (and because it’s not possible to walk away from their lavender body butter). I told Zoe that the women of Magdalene House lived on the street. They came to the house because they were living in scary situations with unkind people, and the women needed friendship and love. I told her that they collect and buy flowers and oils and make products at their business in Nashville. She rubbed on some lotion, said, “ahhh, smells good.”
I told her that flowers, by their fragrance and oils and other qualities, can help heal people. We’ve worn crowns of clover together, and she has pressed my spit-saturated tobacco into her bee sting and cried with the same mixture of wonder and suffering, and gratitude for the understanding of both, that Stevens so eloquently expresses in her book…so, Zoe understood about the power of plants.

I cannot overstate the beauty of Rev. Stevens’s vision and book. She is close to nature and loves the clover and the thistle as much as anyone who finds sanctuary in the forests and fields. Her passages about Mr. Price and his wisdom of old-time remedies and healing lore remind me of time spent with my grandparents and those wise healers throughout my life. Her message is realistic and hopeful. While listening to her and now reading her book, I feel anchored by her awareness of the trauma and tragedy of life in combination with her deliberate goal of spreading healing, optimism, and love throughout the world.

About Thistle Farms: “Thistle Farms products are handmade by survivors of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets. The women create natural body care products as kind to the earth as they are to the body. All proceeds benefit Thistle Farms and its two-year residential program, Magdalene.

“Considered a weed, thistles grow on the streets where the women of Thistle Farms walked. But thistles have a deep tap root that can shoot through concrete and survive drought. In spite of their prickly appearance, their soft purple center makes the thistle a gorgeous flower.”