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.”