“Good Morning” Update: Two Categories of People

Yesterday I had two people completely ignore me when I said “Good morning” to them. The most reasonable excuse is that neither heard me, but I was having one of those days when I wanted to respond by getting right in their faces and saying, “I’m having a bad day, too! Get over yourself!”

I didn’t, of course. Instead, I went into Starbucks and greeted a custodian, who offered a smile and a friendly response. She seemed delighted that I had stopped and asked her how she was instead of just breezing by her on my way to the bathroom.

Most of the time, regardless of whom we greet, a “Good morning” elicits a response of some shape or form, even if it is just a smile. And, in my experience, a “How are you?” (if an answer is waited for patiently) elicits a “Fine” at the very least, and often–very often–a reciprocal query about my well-being or day.

But getting ignored yesterday morning got me to thinking, and as is typical of me, I’ve begun to theorize about it.

Here’s a generalization that I think holds true for us as average Americans:

There are two categories of people that we ignore on a regular basis. The first is people like us. The second is people not like us.

One of the purposes of the “Good morning” exercise is to break us out of the habit of ignoring people, regardless of which category they fall into.

Here’s something interesting. In my experience so far, the people I am most likely not to receive a response from are from that first category of people–those like me.

And the people with whom I am most likely to have an extended conversation as a result of my greeting are those unlike me.

Consider this example.

This morning I encountered a uniformed worker of some sort in the library bathroom. I couldn’t tell if she was a custodial worker or a security guard, but I think security of some kind. Regardless, she would fall into the category of “those unlike me.” Remember that I am someone who gets paid to go to school. I get paid to do research and chat with people about stuff they’ve written. I pick and choose my freelance projects, and I feel fortunate to have the amount of work I want to do, when I want to do it. Most of the time I complain about this situation, but let’s just say, I am nearly as spoiled as they come.

This woman, I would venture a guess, does not have these privileges I complain about.

When she came into the bathroom, I was thinking solely about myself, how fluffy my hair looked this morning, to be precise, and I wasn’t in much of a mood to be friendly. But I thought a “good morning” would suffice to fulfill my obligation to a stranger in close proximity to myself, and what was the chance I’d get much more than a quick response? Well, what is the chance?

“I’m SO EXCITED!” was not the expected response. (She held out the word “excited” in a sing-songy way, the sort of way I do it when I am really excited.)

I paused and looked at her. For real? Or was she pulling my chain like the airport security guy, and when I questioned her, she would just say, “No, not really.”

Nope, she actually looked excited. I thought it was sincere. So I said, “Really? Why?”

“I’m leaving for vacation tomorrow! I can’t wait! And I only work a half-day today! I can hardly focus on my work!” (Let me emphasize that the exclamation points do not do justice to how excited this woman was about her upcoming vacation.)

She had apparently only come into the bathroom to wash her hands, so she was already headed back to the door by this time. When I said goodbye to her and wished her a good trip, I was genuinely delighted for her, this woman unlike me.

And yet, of course, like me.

Because that’s the moral of this story.

“Good Morning”: Story #1

A few days ago, as I was about to enter the library stairwell at the University where I work, I saw a short, stout, white-haired, grumpy-looking woman leaning on a cane. (I include “grumpy-looking” as an adjective because it is important to the story.)

Now, in general, you should know something about me: I often say hello to strangers. Part of the reason I do this is, quite frankly, because I realize that my instinct is just the opposite–to avoid saying hello to strangers. Based on what I see all around me, I am pretty sure it’s the instinct of most folks these days. I blame it, in part, on the fear-mongering of the mass media, those folks who think it’s more important to make us fear our neighbors, especially the less fortune ones, than reach out to them. I could rant about this for quite some time, but I will refrain. My point is that I recognize my own anxiety regarding strangers and am working to combat it by reaching out in the most basic of ways–saying “Hello.”

Or, in the case of the grumpy-looking woman, “Good morning.”

When I did, she turned and looked at me and her entire demeanor changed. Her eyes lit up, she stood up a little higher, she smiled, and then she echoed my greeting: “Good morning.” Continue reading

Ode to the (Nondigital) Archive

I found myself in need of information this week that–gasp!–could not be found electronically or in a normal kind of library. I had to head over to the University Archive on our campus, housed in a place called Special Collections. (I capitalize those words to suggest the appropriate amount of awe I had for the place, having never been there.)

I was on the hunt for course catalogs, course descriptions, and (hopefully) old syllabi from the general education curriculum in the 1940s at the University of Kentucky, especially communications classes, and especially in reference to the Army Specialized Training Program. WHEW. Welcome to the life of a research assistant.

So I headed over to Special Collections. And once we figured out that the somewhat-hard-of-hearing, elderly man assisting me had misunderstood and thought the whole time I was talking to him that I was looking for horse catalogs, rather than course catalogs, it was a pretty simple process. As I was working, he also dug out some old departmental files for me to look through.

I claimed my space at a big wooden table bedecked with old-fashioned lamps and carved signs forbidding the use of “ink or ballpoint pens.” Then I buckled down.

There was something pretty darn awesome about just being in that place. Being there. Hunched over a book that hadn’t been opened in decades rather than hunched over my computer. I mean, really, if you’re going to get bad posture anyway, this is the way to do it. That is not to say that I don’t love digital archives, too. (In fact, I love to flip through the 1912 issue of Poetry magazine, found here. Technology is amazing, I can’t deny it.)

But there’s something about paging through mimeographed interdepartmental notes from the 1920s, or opening a 1930s program from a Shakespeare production, or reading news clippings about Robert Frost’s visit to campus. And there are random, amusing things, too. Someone had clipped a newspaper article with the title “Wife of Dean Beats Off Man with Umbrella.” That was certainly worth putting in an archive, wouldn’t you say?

One of the best items I found, though, was the 1951 inaugural issue of The Green Pen, a booklet put out by the student-run English Club of “the best freshmen writing” of the year.

Some of the writing could have been lifted out of things being written this year in freshmen comp. One essay began like this: “It is a sad but true fact that democracy is a decreasing reality in our American way of life.”

Yes, that was written in 1951.

Just like now, back then students were worried about both their local communities and the national conversations, they were worried about religion (or the lack thereof) among their generation, about whether the University should have an honor code, about American life, and about war (though, granted, in the 1950s some of the students writing about war had actually served in WWII).

But here’s why I loved being there, in that stuffy research room, reading through those files: it was a good reminder that we’re in the same place.

I see how this revelation could be discouraging to some folks, as in, are you kidding me? We haven’t made any progress in sixty years? They were writing about that back then? How depressing.

But as I read through these student essays, I found it encouraging. Encouraging. As in, the world is not falling apart.

It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

Even when it seems like it.

Where Is “Home”? Does It Matter? (the gardening version)

I was asked to lead a discussion about new monasticism in Sunday school class last week, and it was for a class I’d never visited. As they went around the circle to introduce themselves to me, I discovered that many of these folks had been members of our church since before I was  born. I am not exaggerating. Every single member of the class was at least a grandparent twice over, to help you get some perspective on the demographic. There’s irony here, I think, in that I was leading a discussion about new monasticism, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about.

As I’ve struggled to generate community here in my little town, and I think “generate” is the best verb for it because it has often felt as if I were trying to make something out of nothing, I’ve learned that in the past I have taken for granted a lot of things:

  1. The other two places I lived since leaving “home” were both havens for transient people because of the nature of academic settings.
  2. When you’re all transient, you all have a “home” base to go back to. You tend to leave at the important moments, rather than stay.
  3. Relationships can be generated really quickly in those settings because you’re all without a “home” the majority of the time. And
  4. you don’t have to plant your roots, even as you build community, because you always know you have roots somewhere else.

This, quite frankly, sets up unrealistic expectations. Community beyond “Hey, I like you, let’s be friends” doesn’t happen overnight in the real world. Or in one year. Or two. Or three. Sometimes maybe not even twenty. (See my dad’s comment on my earlier post about this topic.)

It’s like gardening. (One of my friends likes gardening metaphors, so this is for him.) Last fall, my husband built some cold frames for us, and we somewhat idealistically believed we’d have lettuce and spinach through the winter and onions and cabbage in early spring. We didn’t plant them as early as we should have, and the natural world did not cooperate when we got long-lasting frigid temperatures in December. (Even with the sun, the temperatures in our cold frames weren’t getting above freezing.) Then came the snow. And more snow. And more snow.

But this week it got warm. At first, we ignored the cold frames, didn’t even open them, like you’re supposed to during the day so you don’t bake your plants. The lettuce had gotten slimey back in the winter, which I would assume is not very promising, though I’m no green thumb. But then on Wednesday I opened them. It was pretty steamy in there. Thursday was a busy day, and it wasn’t until Friday that I went out to investigate again. I walked over to cold frame #1. Miraculously, the spinach survived. Yeah but, I thought, it’s hardier than lettuce. So I walked over to cold frame #2. Weird. The lettuce didn’t look so bad either. I squatted down to take a closer peek. It was kind of crisp, so I tore off a leaf of it and tasted it, prepared for it to be bitter. It wasn’t. It tasted like baby lettuce.

It won’t be a big harvest, but we’ll get something.

You see, I’m learning a lot about community here, and the main thing I’m learning is that I don’t need to “generate” it. I need to live it. I won’t always see what’s happening under the surface. I don’t know what I’m planting, what winter’s going to be like, and what the leaves might taste like come spring, but that doesn’t mean something’s not growing.

Oh yeah, and deciding a little late in the season to start a garden is not an excuse not to plant at all.

So back to that Sunday school class: these folks had roots, deep roots, roots deeper than my entire life. My entire life.

I’ve only been here three years.

Community, Mourning, & Food: Let Them Eat Pie

For the second time in less than two months, J & I found ourselves this week surrounded by family in mourning. We drove to Western Pennsylvania and gathered with family from far away and from close by. We mourned, yes, but we also celebrated; cried, but also laughed; we hugged, and we remembered, and we ate.

Did we ever eat.

On Wednesday evening, the day we arrived, so did a vat of potato salad like I had never seen. At least ten pounds of potatoes lost their lives and quite a few onions, too–after seven of us ate it for dinner, along with a delivered meatloaf, only 1/5 of the salad had disappeared.

Two full dinners arrived on Thursday, and by Thursday evening, we had more loaves of bread on the counter than people in the house. We had soup and beef stew, cole slaw and salad, lemon cake and raspberry bars. And every time we turned around, more food arrived: breakfast food, dinner food, desserts, desserts, desserts. By late Thursday night, an aunt joked that nobody had stopped by in awhile, and within a few minutes the doorbell rang. Breakfast casserole and muffins!

In days like this, we know what community is.

Grandma had lived in the same town for her near-ninety years. She and Grandpa went to the same church for the sixty-one years they were married. They raised their kids here, and many of their grandkids. This is the community J has known his whole life. And for the last ten years, it is a community that has welcomed me in, too.

One of my favorite moments of the last week came on Thursday afternoon. Some of us had been outside in the cold looking at a renovation project, and when we stumbled inside, we found that three pies had been delivered: a cherry rhubarb, a coconut cream, and a blackberry-blueberry combination. As the pies were pulled from their baskets, we realized that they were still warm.

Grandpa was sitting at the table in the kitchen, and we were all standing or sitting around him, marveling at the pie excellence in front of us.

And then the patriarch requested a piece of pie.

Right now.

Before dinner.

And so the pies were cut, first just the cherry rhubarb. Then the coconut cream. Then the berry. It became clear that if we wanted to eat pie, we’d better grab it while we could.

That is the image of community I will carry with me in the coming months: Grandpa, requesting pie in the middle of the afternoon, and the rest of the family surrounding him, happy to oblige.

Coffee, Conversations, & Solving the World’s Problems

I have a friend who is truly amazing. She roasts her own coffee and it is beautiful. We tried yesterday to roast our own coffee and it was not beautiful. It looked nothing like hers. I also imagine that it tastes nothing like hers.

Unfortunately, my home-roasted coffee beans were intended to be gifts, so before I risked giving them away, I decided that we better taste test. J does not drink coffee, so I offered to take one for the team and try a mug from each of the batches (regular and decaf).

As I was brewing the first pot this morning, our friend Daniel, who is a temporary housemate, woke up and came into the kitchen. Lucky for me, Daniel drinks his coffee black.

Unfortunately for him, this coffee was not black. It was brown. And not a very dark brown.

*sigh*

Still, Daniel gave me props for it, though I had my doubts. As I got the second pot ready, Daniel prepared his breakfast, and we headed into the dining room table to sit and drink our less-than-black coffee while pot number two brewed.

Daniel & I sat and we talked. We ate and we talked. We drank coffee and we talked. We talked about being frustrated with our inability to care about everything in the world, and change everything in the world, and make a difference with everything we see that is messed up with the world. And we talked about the difficulties of knowing things aren’t right but not being able to visualize a solution. We talked about the call to be a Christian and how difficult it is. We talked about “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s” not being an excuse to live our lives the way we want to live them. We talked about the “lesser of two evils” as not being a solution when it comes to voting. I talked about an article I’d recently read about the history of agriculture in Haiti; Daniel talked about his first-hand experience with mountain-top removal and fishing in polluted waters in eastern Kentucky where he grew up. We pulled out the laptop to look up the ‘Better World Shopper‘ website to see where Fallmart ranked (grade: F) and to look up Kroger Corporation to see if it’s on par with Fallmart (those are the only two grocery options in our little town).

All of this over one cup of coffee.

By the time the second pot was brewed, our trusty housemate Adam had gotten out of bed and meandered into the kitchen. He got to try the decaf roast, which was thankfully a bit darker and masquerading as a satisfactory cup of coffee. I told Adam that we’d been sitting and solving all of the world’s problems while he slept.

Solving the world’s problems.

Well, maybe not.

But some days I don’t wonder if a little dose of community in the morning really could solve the world’s problems.

And even now, most of the time, I’m surprised to find community right there at the dining room table, as if it was just waiting for me.

Maybe it is.

A Gingko Bath

When you Google “gingko biloba,” most web sites that pop up in search engines have to do with an herbal supplement that supposedly enhances one’s memory. But if you click on the Wikipedia link that is sure to pop up at the top of your search results, you’ll learn about a beautiful Chinese tree that is often planted in cities and towns because of its resistance to pollution. (See, I am such a font of knowledge on these things, and I didn’t even learn that from Wikipedia.) Male gingko trees are particularly swell; the female variety, well, its fruit smells like rotting meat (so not so swell).

Gingkos turn a striking yellow color in the fall, and they appear to “shimmer” in the least breeze (for a variety of reasons, including the way that the little stems join the branches at 90 degree angles–see? a font of knowledge). Another feature of the gingko tree is that it loses its leaves really quickly, often in a single day, all of them. In fact, last fall, a few small gingkos near us lost their leaves on a particularly windy day, and you could see the exact line of leaves coming out from each tree, as if they’d fallen within a few hours.

Gingko leaves have a memorable “biloba” shape, and often look like butterfly wings. I’m told that these leaves are rather unique among tree leaves because they are waxy on both sides–that means that neither side is rough to the touch. So as opposed to the scratchiness you feel when you go and jump into a regular pile of leaves, with gingkos, it’s all smoothness, even on sensitive skin.

But what has this to do with community? That’s a great question.

I’ve gotten to know a small group of women in my town who are all creative writers of some sort, at least on the side. We gather monthly and share our writing. We give one another feedback, we encourage one another, we appreciate one another’s quirks (there are many!), and we laugh a lot. Last year, one woman in my group, a former elementary school science teacher, wrote a poem about a gingko tree. In particular, the poem was about a tradition she had with her students of going outside the day that the gingko dropped its leaves and taking a gingko bath. It sounded like a fascinating concept–something sacramental, I’d say–but I promptly forgot about it.

Then last week, my writing group got an e-mail from the poet-science-teacher announcing that the gingkos were turning colors and about to drop their leaves. Stay tuned for a gingko bath announcement, we were instructed. Sure enough. A few days later: tomorrow, 4 pm, meet at the elementary school.

And we did.

The leaves had already been gathered into a pile for us by unknowing students, so we spread them out and hollowed out a place in the middle. Here’s how a gingko bath works: someone lies down in the middle of the leaves, and everyone else covers that person up, like you’re at the beach and getting buried in the sand. You feel a cool weight as the leaves pile up around you, and you feel their smoothness on your forehead and on your cheeks. Then, keeping your arms at your side, you wiggle your fingers out of the leaves so two others can grab your hands. You relax your back and neck, and you get pulled up slowly into the sitting position, feeling the gingko leaves slide off of your skin.

Sounds weird, right?

Well, it is.

But it’s also, well, relaxing. Redemptive. Sacramental.

And just plain cool.

And what makes it extra cool is that I have this strange little community who can gather near an elementary school playground and not feel odd about playing in the leaves. (I’m the youngest, and our ages span a few decades, so we’re a rather diverse group.) Yes, it’s community. A group of odd ducks, as we’ve often called ourselves, but community nonetheless.