Sunday, April 25, 2021

To Be of Use

Yesterday was a watershed day in the slow creep toward normalcy. For the first time in 13 months, I shook hands with a stranger! And then another! I gathered with 20 vaccinated people outside without masks and then 10 of us later went inside and talked for another two hours. I talked to people I had just met. Amazing!!


The occasion was the 70thbirthday of a friend (Marlene) who my wife and I have known for 47 years. We gathered in a lovely greenbelt in Davis where she lives and after an hour or so of meeting her various friends individually, I took charge, got us all in a circle and orchestrated a simple formal way to mark the occasion. Go around one by one, introduce ourselves and tell where we’re from and tell the story of how we first met Marlene. Before the party, Marlene was in her attention-deflecting mode and while she agreed to the circle idea when I spontaneously proposed it, she kept emphasizing “right to pass.” Which thankfully, no one took. Why would they? They were there because they cared for her and were delighted to reach back into their history together and share their stories. And after each person spoke, Marlene said something to the group about the unique qualities of each person that she so deeply appreciated. It was so simple and so right for the occasion. 


But without me there, it wouldn’t have happened. People in general are not well-trained in the practice of gathering beyond the “make sure there’s lots to eat and drink,” but these little formal moments can make them much more memorable and remind us all that we are worthy of celebration and we often need these informally formal ways of reminding us and connecting us. 


And that’s what I do. My instinct for it given exercise with 45 years of creating, sustaining and leading school ceremonies, with the “teach like it’s music” forms of the workshops I give with enticing beginnings, connected middles and satisfying endings, all of which can make a room of strangers feel happily connected within the first ten minutes, with each and every class I’ve ever taught with children. And these skills spilling over into officiating weddings, funerals, birthday parties, Christmas caroling, neighborhood sings and yet more. I’ve figured out simple ways to make even Zoom feel more warm and intimate, from the opening Chat introductions to the closing unmute and say goodbye. 


None of this is boasting, simply naming the unusual blend of skills that allows me to be of use in a given occasion. Some will bring the casseroles, others see whose drinks need re-filling, some will circulate and put people together, some will stay late to wash the dishes. Each finds their own way to contribute according to their particular skills and personalities and this just happens to be mine. And what a joy it was for me to get to exercise it live (not Zoomed) after a year with so few opportunities. 


Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use” ends with these lines:


Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know that they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.


The pandemic has many of us feeling like Hopi vases in a museum, but yesterday this pitcher of water was carried and poured, this person returned to his work that feels real. And after the circle of appreciation as over and people began cleaning up and saying goodbyes, a smaller group continued on to someone's nearby house. 


There I got into several intriguing conversations, ranging from our total ignorance of Vice-Presidents in our history to my little independent study about Frank Sinatra only to discover that Marlene’s Dad sold him a car, her mother played Mah Jong with his fourth wife and her son-in-law’s dentist grandfather worked on his teeth. Amazing! 


And then two other guys and I started telling jokes and I was in heaven! We mostly knew the same ones, but it was the kind of connection I’ve had before with a few people (mostly men) where one finishes a joke which immediately helps another recall a related one and on it goes. And on it went for about 25 minutes! We’d think we were done and I was standing up with keys in hand and then Boom! “So a guy walks into a bar…” and off we went for another five minutes. Fun, fun, fun!!!


I’ve often wondered what it would be like to get back to the kind of occasions we took for granted and the first answer is “Wonderful!” May it continue!



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