Along for the Ride

Ennobling obligations. Last minute urgency. A need, a willingness to help, a call. Two people on opposite ends of a political spectrum. Three others, politics unknown.

As I often acknowledge, words aren’t going to be enough. What I’ll be attempting is a description of a set of circumstances, an outcome, and its meaning, without flights of existential fancy or spiritual overreach. Wish me well.

Following two days of knocking on mostly unanswered doors, my brother wanted to participate in an effort to drive voters to their polling places. First the app was down. It came up but no one came up. Then all the opportunities were in Fort Worth. Things were looking grim. Finally, a woman and my brother connected. Her father wanted to vote but needed to find his ID. After some discussion, they decided to talk later when the potential voter was ready to go. Hours later, with no response, my brother decided we could shop after driving by some polling places, just to see what was happening.

On the way, the woman called and asked if my brother could come ahead and get her father. Instead of going back to get his car, I offered to help. It was a good decision.

When we arrived, we wondered about two cars in the driveway. Were we really needed? Soon enough, we had answers. Jean wanted to vote, his wife didn’t know why, and his daughter had to leave. Oh, and he was in a wheelchair. Whoa. We thought we could manage. Jean couldn’t walk but he did stand well enough to get into the car with tender help from my brother. I encouraged his wife Marie to come along, even though she’d voted already. She was glad to, still so appreciative we were there to take her husband. One more enriching element: Jean is a naturalized citizen, originally from Africa.

An aside: In Texas, if you’re over 70, an expired ID will work. And if you cannot come into the polling place, someone will bring the ballot out to your car. That worked well, so Jean and Marie stayed in the car while my brother and I stepped out to allow them privacy. It didn’t take long, and we were on our way to their house. I fetched the wheelchair, my brother carefully placed Jean in it, and all was completed amid “thank you’s” too numerous to count. Grateful for the ride, so thankful, blessings upon blessings on our heads. Near tears, we felt a sense of joy and accomplishment; we also knew it probably meant more to us to have helped this particular man than it did for him to get a ride with some strangers.

Those are the facts, the data. What was the feeling? Harder to describe: We were willing and able to help, enthusiastic, eager even. Cheerful, grateful, humble, dutiful—Jean used the phrase “completing my civic obligation.” Marie and the daughter were equally pleased and excited about this bit of service. It felt good, really good.

No one—no one—said a word about how we voted, how Marie voted, how Jean voted. It didn’t matter. The ennobling act of performing what is, yes, a duty united us.

We think we know what the word “vote” means, of course. There’s a race. There are winners and losers after a process that invites and even encourages acrimony. Of course, we’ve forgotten to look closer, to remember what we’re doing.

Voting is more than choosing. That duty, that right, is also an obligation. Jean was correct to use that word. When we vote, we are pledging and promising support. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, your vote is “a vow, wish, promise to a god, solemn pledge, dedication.” Think of votive candles, lit in some churches to signify a prayer.

One helping another make that promise, regardless of the recipient of the choice, approaches, then, the sacred act of participating in this system of ours, the best the world has ever known, for all its participants’ failures in leadership, lapses in justice,  mistakes and missteps.

Here, finally, is the guiding metaphor: The ride. Taking Jean meant so much because he couldn’t have done it without us. To go along for the ride—to participate in his journey—ennobled us in a way nothing else could do. It’s why his choice of candidate doesn’t matter, nor ours.

We often talk about the “ship of state” but perhaps another image is better: the grand mechanism of our governing system needs those governed to participate, to learn about the candidates, the issues, the problems, the solutions. Not to follow blindly. Not to scream like spoiled children but to reason like educated, committed adults. Disagreements are inevitable. Suspicions should arise if there aren’t any. Helping someone get on this ride, well, it’s a great thing. I wish you could have been there. I hope you have felt a hundredth of what we did when you voted. It’s not the cliché that you can’t complain if you don’t vote. If you’re not along for the ride, you’ve missed more than you can imagine.

By the Numbers

A brief “by the numbers” begins, of course, with one. Back when I could understand the lyrics of songs (understand in the sense of hear, not comprehend), we had Three Dog Night and “One” and its inexplicable “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” Beware: The melody causes an earworm. The One Ring to Rule Them All creates havoc in The Lord of the Rings, what with the constant and evil desires trying to get and keep it. Finally, we have the Unified Field Theory, the one comprehensive explanation of the universe. Another name is ToE, or Theory of Everything. Blessedly, there isn’t such a thing, and its lack gives me hope that more can be done in science, and everything else.

If one is serious and lonely, two seems amusing, if cynical. An old joke goes like this: There are two kinds of people in the world—people who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don’t. This set of illustrations is newer and funnier. My favorite of this subset comes from an old friend who years ago taught us that there are two kinds of skylights, those that leak and those that don’t leak yet. A certain Zen comes with these examples of twoness. Because we know that Zen is a school of Buddhism, we associate it also with calmness; however, the PIE root means “to see, look.” Observation, then, leads to wisdom and peace, if you can avoid sarcasm.

Three is a profound number. A triangle, the most stable shape, forms the basis for much construction. The iconic Sydney Opera House uses spherical triangles in its unique design, the mathematics of which challenged the builders until they were peeling an orange one day. I have two sets of three things that form not a physical but a mental basis: three motivations and three parts of being. A friend who is much more comfortable with her wisdom than most stated that only three things motivate us: fear, duty, and love. This contrasts with many other models, of course, including the famous Maslow’s pyramid which began with five needs that prompt action (physiological, safety, love, esteem, self-actualization) but that was expanded several times. It’s been my experience that fear motivates only briefly. After a disaster, we plan to make changes but often fail to follow through once the adrenaline abates. Duty gets us through most days. We go to work, school, the gym, because we have to even if we often love the results of what we are doing. Zig Ziglar said, “Duty makes us do things well, but love makes us do them beautifully.” Ideally, we can do most things with love, but that takes more than motivation. On one hand, I believe people only do what they want to do, regardless of what someone else asks them to do (look up passive-aggression); on the other, what relief and joy come when I can do something out of love.

The next set of three has to do with our beings. We are creatures with bodies, minds, and spirits. Religion explains, but these days other means can do so as well. Regardless, all three need nourishment. An apple a day, learning something new each day—each in its way betters our lives. John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker poet and abolitionist, famously encouraged the selling of our second loaf of bread and using the proceeds “to buy hyacinths for the soul.” Bread is wonderful, perhaps too much so fresh out of the oven with a bit of butter, but the transcendent scent of a hyacinth, its rich color and shape, and the simplicity of its culture on our windowsill do much for our hungry souls. Another sort of nourishment—an act of service to another—likewise feeds our souls and can alleviate even our physical pain. I’ve seen it done.

Yes, there are more numbers, but I see that their inclusion would take too much time and space. Another post perhaps…4 to ∞.

Pyracantha

The three motivators: fear, duty, love. If we take these honestly, much of what we do is likely out of duty. Such was my attendance at the funeral of the husband of an acquaintance years ago. The service itself was brief, and I knew only a few of the people present. The bishop spoke of the man and his role as a father. I felt detached and preoccupied. Indeed, I felt rather self-righteous at being there at all, one of the corollaries of acting from duty perhaps. But stay with me.

The procession of cars, with others pulling to the side of the road, was moving, and I felt more engaged. As we turned the corner into the cemetery, I caught my breath. A huge row of pyracantha bushes, in full berry, stretched for half a mile against the white brick wall. Cascades of the bright orange berries arched from the tiny, deep green leaves. I began to weep.

Suddenly, pyracantha meant “Daddy,” and he was gone. (I think many women in Texas call their fathers that well into adulthood.) At the house where I lived from the time I was 8 until I left for college at 18, and where the family lived until my father died eight years later, a large pyracantha bush grew near one corner, to the right of the driveway. For decoration, it conveniently brought forth berries in time for Thanksgiving. It was often my job to gather in the berries for a modest table arrangement. Not that we had a lovely centerpiece: some mounds of berries and leaves in melamine saucers didn’t make much of a statement. Although melamine has made a resurgence with great color and style, ours were pale and faded, never pretty, just cheap.

The berries were poisonous, my father always reminded me. Of course, I took his word for that. Many years later I learned that with a quick wash, the berries can be made into jelly. Somehow, my father’s knowledge about the danger was comforting, for by this I understood that he cared if I came to harm. (He also prized a poisonous wild green called poke sallet, which grows in my yard some years. I have never eaten it as an adult although I do know how to prepare it.) We never played with the berries, never considered smushing them or throwing them against each other or the house. If Daddy valued something, it became almost sacred, or forbidden. Tradition held sway, for he loved what he loved and we all knew what that meant.

At the cemetery, for the dedication of the grave, I felt renewed in empathy for this family, sorry that I’d forgotten our unspoken kinship. My tears were real, for them as well as for myself. My father had expertise in the yard, as well as a difficult life inside the house. He did his best to protect us from more than poisonous plants, most often from ourselves. Grief for his loss was never so poignant as at that funeral to which duty brought me, at which love taught me.