25 December 2009

Christmas And A Hanai Family

It's hard to believe that Christmas Day is almost over. I slept late: As rewarding and enlightening as working in the soup kitchen was, it left me tired. I didn't do any heavy lifting, but I did have to bend and otherwise move around a bit. I guess it's going to be a while before I have all, or anywhere near, my former strength.

Plus, I could feel the tiredness and downtrodden-ness of the people there. I was describing it to my mother, when I remarked, "I can only imagine how they deal with it every day. I'd probably be crying all the time."

"That's what they probably do," my mother said. "Or they just get used to it."

I'm not so sure I'd want to simply "get used to it." Yes, there is suffering in this world: In fact, Buddhists and others say that life is suffering. I guess getting used to the fact that there is suffering, and that you and other people will suffer, is one thing. But to "get used to" suffering, or witnessing the suffering of others is something else. And I certainly want to get used to despair. Nor would I want anyone else to do that.

Still, I plan to volunteer again at that soup kitchen. It's not that I feel any duty or obligation to do so. And I know better than to use charitable acts as atonement for past misdeeds. Something like that works only when there is perfect reciporicity: in other words, when one good balances out one evil. Life is much more complicated than that.

To revert to a cliche, I simply feel good about the work I did yesterday. I don't mean that in a self-congratulatory way. Rather, I feel good in the way one feels after doing something very basic and necessary for someone else and knowing that the person valued it. Plus, it is emotionally satisfying for me to feed someone, and to share a meal with that person. (And I did those things for more than one person!) Maybe it has something to do with my Italian heritage: In that culture, you simply can't separate eating and relationships. My mother and grandmother always offered something to eat for anyone who came to their homes. And, after I moved out, it seemed that the first thing my mother wanted to do when I came to her house was to feed me.

Millie's like that, too. That's why it has always felt so natural for me to spend holidays with her and her family, or simply to go to her house. Now I am in tears: I have experienced their generosity and love, again. I hope that that woman I talked with yesterday, and all the other people I saw at the soup kitchen, will have something like that. What's sad is that some of them have never had it, while others lost it, by whatever means.

If there's something in this world to which everyone has a right, that just may be it. Privilege is getting it both from your biological family (or, at least, one or some members of it) and from your hanai family. (Thanks to Keori of Pam's House Blend for allowing me to learn of that Hawaiian tradition.)