Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Return of the Magic Door

For ten years I lived in a house where, on any given day, the doorbell might ring and present an interesting scenario. Our neighborhood was located near a busy street with a lot of foot traffic. Our house was not far from a light rail station. On many an occasion, something I could never have predicted sought me out through my front door.

A friend of mine joked that I must have a magic door because the only people that ever visited her house were people trying to sell things. To offer a sample of the varied situations that ended up at my door: I once had a woman in active labor ring the doorbell. Another time a man seeking a blanket taught me more about the human decency we all possess than an entire childhood attending church did. A lost monk once sought direction. More than one lost pet found my front porch, and found its way home by being glimpsed through that door. Those are only a few of the situations that came into my life, over the course of a decade. The ways in which life came to my door and sought me out were many and varied for the simple reason that I was there to answer the ring of a doorbell, or glimpse a shadow on the porch.

In the suburbs the only time the doorbell rings is when something we have requested comes to call. Certainly when neighbors came by to introduce themselves, the doorbell rang. Visitors, friends came to call, but mostly pizzas, UPS packages and the occasional lawn service were the only things that found the front porch. We don't even use the front door, we mainly enter through the door in the garage. There's a swing on our front porch I've never even sat upon, and the two wicker chairs that decorate it were left by the previous owner. I missed my magic door.

I spent a lot of the summer fretting about two things: Health care and a soap opera taking place at my husband's work. Health care reform has taken a beating, and I've already done everything I can to participate. Now I just watch with an increasingly sore heart. The soap opera resolved itself with no harm done to us, but my view of basic human decency took a bit of a beating in more ways than one.

This is a planned community, in fact, this is a planned city. All of it is centered around the idea of a planned community. There are rec centers galore, paid for by a group of homeowners associations. The entire city is a homeowners association, I'm not joking either, I moved to a suburb with a lot of planning and approval committees. It's a strange, but tidy life where the doorbell never unexpectedly rings.

When I moved here I searched for a charity within the city to see if there was anything I could volunteer to do. In an entirely planned city it turns out that there isn't much need. Feeling a little let down, I wasn't sure what to do. This is an enclave of privilege, and whereas I'm very grateful for my life, I actually don't relate well to people who appear to be strangers to hardship. Appearances have always been deceiving though, and I'm old enough to know that.

In this house we have a large formal living room which is still almost entirely empty, and will remain so until I decide what kind of furniture to buy for it. Not exactly a heavy burden to bear, is it? We bought this house primarily because we wanted the pool.

I was standing in my living room, for no reason whatsoever beyond having paused there, when I saw a brown paper bag on my front porch. One with a white sheet of paper stapled to it. I knew what that signaled, someone was collecting for a food bank. I've always liked food banks. Direct impact charities are wonderful. If you buy a can of beans for a food bank, that very same can of beans will end up in the hands of someone who needs it. Direct impact. No sitting back and waiting, or watching for anything.

But it wasn't the average food drive run by the Boy Scouts, which was what I had assumed. It was from one of my neighbors, a man I'd never met, but who at some point during that morning had walked up on to my front porch and placed it there. He was collecting for a food drive run by his church, but he volunteered for the organization in downtown Denver also.

My son was nearby when I picked up that bag, and the attached paper listed the goals of the church's food drive, but also mentioned that the food pantry of the Denver charity was empty. Empty underlined twice.

My son went to the store with me, pushing a separate cart to make it easier to buy for our household, and the food bank separately. The haul exceeded the limitations of the brown paper bag, so I needed to contact my neighbor to arrange a time to drop off the food. Then it turned out that help was needed in sorting it. Then it turned out that volunteers were sorely needed at the downtown facility. What the heck, right? I had the time.

On Tuesday the public health care option took a terrible blow. Insurance reform seems the best we can hope for now, and whereas that is something, it won't address the needs of many. Having access to health care being tied so firmly to an individual's job is precarious, to say the least. Particularly in times of a recession, when the shelves of food banks end up empty for a reason. As that story broke, I was busy thinking about grouping protein sources, and thinking it would be helpful to people to have a list of what items aren't particularly helpful to donate. All the Hamburger Helper in the world doesn't mean much if a person can't buy the hamburger to put in it, after all.

Reading opinions on health care had made me wonder how it was that so many had come to care only about their own, personal concerns, but my front porch led me back to the knowledge that regardless of views on the role of government, people often do care very much.

There's nothing magical about the door, is there? That's what you probably want to tell me. My neighbor left those bags on everyone's front porch. Nothing mystical going on there.

You're right, of course. Only my very nice neighbor isn't a very practical man, in some respects. You see, there is one other thing about this community you should know, we're on high ground and the wind coming down off the foothills is intense. He hadn't put the bag underneath the welcome mat, or the box for our milk delivery. He hadn't secured it in the door either. He'd laid it politely on top of the welcome mat, and because he works at home during the day, he'd hadn't thought of how many people would not be home during those hours, and set them out early. Most blew away as mine was trying to do when I caught sight of it.

Nothing to that other than good timing. Again, you're right, of course.

But I do find it interesting that the charity I searched for when we moved here was a food bank. Anyone who knows me, knows I have a soft spot for food banks. When I do someone a favor, and they say they owe me one? I tell them to give a couple of cans of food to a food bank and we'll call it even.

I'm willing to accept that there is nothing magical about my front door, even though it saved me from fretting myself into a state of despair. Wondering what will become of our nation if we cannot learn to care about, and for each other would have likely plunged me into dark thoughts on Tuesday had it not been for a paper bag, and a well timed glance out of a window.

Nothing magical, but a stroke of luck, to be sure. At least in the timing, and I submit to you that there may have been magic in that timing. After all, after a summer of fretting my faith in people was beginning to be lost. On Tuesday five Democrats were key to voting down the public option. That public option was the best hope of many. Hope was lost in one area, and I was busy thinking about how to group foods for a food bank thanks to some good timing, and the return of my magic door.


The Bug said...

I think it was magic too! I get so frustrated by how people just don't care about their neighbors.

We found out today that the home we're renting used to be the home of two little brown boys who still come to play with the boys next door. Someone across the street called the cops on the family for some reason & they got kicked out of the house. I think they might live in a shelter now. It breaks my heart. Of course, I don't know what the grownups were up to, but these boys deserve a home. Sigh.

Kathryn said...

I love the thought of you in a house with a magical door where folks simply KNEW that your door was the one to go to!

It reminds me of a short story (an old one) i read long ago of a mama who always fed the "tramps" that went thru the area. It was said that the hobos had some marking system that let others know which house to go to. You'd love that story. I'd be happy to send it to you, if you want.

I'm sorry we're apparently on the opposite side of the health care issue, because i think we both care very much about people & what happens to them.

You know, i don't think it is your door at all. I think it is your magical heart that draw folks near to you. You are precious! Thank you for sharing. :)

Pauline said...

Despite my head shaking post about humankind, because of your post I will donate a second round of canned goods to my local food pantry. I so like the idea of a magic door that I've expanded it to include those doors we open when we read blogs such as yours. Thanks for reminding me that I have to be the kind of person I'd like to meet.

DUTA said...

That's very noble of you to wish to be involved in volunteering and charity deeds.

Where I live, parallel to the vast charity activity going on, there's also an anti- charity movement. The members of this movement claim that the Government should see to it that there are no needy people by dividing better the country's resources among the people, and not by promoting charity.

PhilipH said...

I get the feeling that you are just a little bit 'lost' in your new house and area.

I'm probably wrong (usually am!) but there you go.

There's nothing 'magic' about your door Alane. There's much magic in the way you express your concerns about others. It spells 'caring'.

Land of shimp said...

The Bug, I always tell myself that no matter what we see around us, something wonderful is happening right now. Whether or not we are witness to it, kindness exists, it just tends to get less press.

I agree, who knows what the grownups were up to, and how hard it might have been to have that activity present in a neighborhood? Still, the fact remains that kids end up being the victims of their parents' poor choices. Everyone deserves a roof over their heads, but particularly kids.

Kathryn, that's a funny thought, isn't it? What I meant was that I was at home, whereas my neighbors were not (I guess, I'm not sure). I've always wondered, how many doorbells did that monk ring before he rang my door? Or that man who needed a blanket on a bitterly cold day?

I will never know for sure whether I was the first or the one hundredth door, or even if I was the first to open a door. I wasn't the only person at home during the day in the neighborhood though, and I do know that no one else had wandering monks on the average Tuesday. So, as goofy as it seems, I always thought maybe our little house, on a corner lot, just sent out vibes.

What is it when enough unusual occurrences happen to suggest a pattern? Is it just random chaos? I don't know. Some things are defined, and some things it seems better to accept. "Well, I don't fully understand that, but I'm okay with that concept."

We are on separate sides, Kathryn, but I did NOT mean to suggest that everyone who disagrees with me fails to care about other people, at all. I think some very, very caring people have a completely different view of governance, and the government but that in no way dismisses their innate compassion.

I was speaking specifically of the kind of comments we've all seen, "I don't want my tax dollars going to pay for some lazy jerk's health care..." that kind of stuff.

It sometimes seems as if people have a defense mechanism within them. If someone is in a bad spot in life, people convince themselves that the person in question must inherently deserve it.

The problem I've seen is that people who were so against a public option were addressing their own concern. "I'm happy with my doctor." "I have great insurance, and don't want that to change." which is fully understandable. It's just that a public option was never about taking that away from anyone. It was about adding a system for those people without options. It wasn't about forcing anyone into a system they didn't want.

A broader public option would have given people who desperately needed it a safety net. An access to health care they don't have.

I really dislike talking about a public option in the past tense because there is a dire need for many that will likely not be properly addressed. I know the fear was that it would change the nature of the insurance industry and have a ripple effect.

I can understand the fear. I'm just sorry that fear looks like it will end up holding such sway in what is really a situation that has at its foundation the sore need of many.

But I do know that you are a good and caring person. I have no quarrel with you, and understand your views, and why you hold them :-)

I'd love to see that short story. I think you left me your email address once, I'll go and find it, and shoot one off to you later. Thanks for the offer, I do appreciate it!

Land of shimp said...

Pauline, hurray! Thank you for donating again! That means a tremendous amount to me, and it will mean more than you can ever know to the people who receive those donations.

Was it Gandhi who said, "Be the change you wish to see reflected in the world"? I believe it was. I've always loved that concept.

I think what people need to remember is that even if it is in small ways, or tiny instances, each act counts. That being wholly anything isn't really possible for anyone, but that we can only do the best we can do in any given moment.

We're all capable of being selfish and unkind, I know I am, boy do I ever know that about myself. However, that in no way negates the efforts people do make to be kind, and people do make them. Again, we might not bear witness to them, but they exist.

So even when I meet someone who seems a pure jerk, the possibility exists that out of my sight, away from my knowledge of them, there is likely something I might find admirable about them.

The possibility of decency, or making a different decision given a different chance is a really compelling thought when it comes to other people, and even ourselves.

I also really like the concept of blogs being doorways into unexpected things. What a great image, thank you for it.

DUTA, you are always so exceptionally kind in what you say. I really hope you know that about yourself. That your kindness shows through so much. There's not much that I'd consider noble about me, but I would hope that I occasionally achieve nobility, if that makes any sense.

The role of government in need is always hotly debated. I think, in part, because the desire to help each other does exist in the people around us. Isn't it a lovely thought that in the right circumstances we can all of us be a bit noble? Charities do give us the opportunity to show that.

Land of shimp said...

Philip, you're not wrong at all. Although, in this case I think I'd describe myself of being a bit wary in my new surroundings. Unsure.

Long ago I lived for a time in a very wealthy town, attached to an Ivy League university. Very chi-chi. To put it mildly, the problems I saw there were extremely complex and tied to the basic concepts of happiness and unhappiness. Free from worry about things like keeping the electric lights running, people found new and spectacularly screwy ways to complicate their lives.

If we do not have adversity in our lives, it seems part of human nature to create it.

So I look around at these people that have so much, and am stunned to realize that I am, essentially, one of those people. My husband and I are very cautious people when it comes to our financial security, so it's good that we married each other, isn't it?

But you know, a funny thing happened the other day. Since my husband and I are both cautious, one of the things I keep an eye on are real estate trends in the area. It's important to closely monitor investments, and all that. As I was looking through real estate listings in the area, I saw a notice of foreclosure two blocks over, here in the land of privilege.

Out for a walk, I passed by that house, and as I stood outside for a moment, it hit me how very frightened those poor people must have been in there, as their life started to fall apart around them. The fact that it went all the way to foreclosure, instead of getting something like a short-sale approved means they hung on as long as they humanly could.

I'm not expressing this well, but I was struck by the fact that fear must have played such a huge part in that. Surrounded by people going to and fro on golf carts, as their life became so stressful. It must have been bizarre, but also just so very human.

It does make me a little bit, what...uneasy? To be surrounded by people with so much, but at the end of the day we're all just people.

I'm sure I'll get used to it here :-) When I first met with the man who left the donation bag and expressed an interest in volunteering at the actual food bank he did caution me, "It's a rough area down there, and you'd be dealing with a lot of very working class people."

That's part of what I mean about it just feeling different. It was such a funny thought that he thought he needed to put that forth as a warning. "This isn't one of those charities where you dress up and go to fundraisers, this is very hands on." It took a moment to realize that this man, this very nice man, had looked at me and thought I was the sort of person who might find that off-putting.

It is funny to think how others see us...but it does help in remembering how to view others too, doesn't it?

Amy said...

Alane, You write the most thought provoking posts! I agree with Kathryn, it's your kind heart that is magic. We rarely have anyone come to the front door who isn't invited, mostly because we're in the country. A few years ago, on a wintry night, Jim and I were watching tv and a man came bursting through the (unlocked) front door and said, "Your house is on fire!" And then he disappeared! We madly trained the hoses on the roof after calling 911. We basically put the fire out before the engines arrived. We later found out it was our neighbor, who had recently moved in, who saw the fire in a reflection of his sliding glass door. He also happened to be the chief of our volunteer fire dept. A great way to meet the neighbors! We were so grateful we gifted him a dinner at a nice restaurant and we've been watching out for each other's homes ever since.

I used to serve on a monthly basis at the homeless shelter here. I'd encourage you not to be afraid. My experience proved to me that by and large the poor and hungry are grateful for those of us "privileged" folks who take the time (and money) to help out. I've always believed that charity starts at home (ie local) - but thank you for the reminder re the need right now. The Salvation Army just advertised a need for their food bank.

The health care debate has been upsetting for me too - my goal now is to research options in an effort to keep abreast and then to stay healthy!

PhilipH said...

Alane: I don't know too much about magic doors but I am so glad I managed to knock on your door via a laptop and blogger.

You're a deep thinking lady and I appreciate your postings and comments whenever I hit on them.

I seldom, if ever, discuss religion; I am a lapsed Church of England chap. I love old churches for their wondrous architecture and the peace that seems to dwell in every church.

The Salvation Army is the one 'religious' group that I support whenever I can. They do so much practical good 24/7. They help the homeless; they help find lost relatives and loved ones. They are the do-gooders that I go along with.

Forty or more years ago I was very ill. I was whipped into hospital in Beneden, Kent, whilst my wife and kids lived in Hingham, Norfolk. I'd left what I hoped was enough money for my wife to manage on (we lived virtually hand to mouth then).

I was in hospital for over a month and during that time my wife was worried sick and she was hard up! I was the breadwinner, she was a mother and housewife.

Anyway, a Sally Army chap knocked on her door one afternoon, asking if she could spare anything for those in need etc. She burst into tears!

The chap was now very upset and asked what the trouble was. Was he to blame? Anyway, Pat told him about my illness, the long distance between us and the fact she was struggling to feed the kids!

Two hours later he returned with a lady colleague and had a box full of food and stuff. It was manna from heaven for her.

I don't want to go into how and why Pat was in such a sad plight other than that I handled all the finances and had been too ill to plan anything prior to being taken into this specialist hospital.

The Sally Army, as we call them, is my top charitable organisation and will always be so.

Derik said...

It always feels good to help others. I'm glad you found an unfulfilled niche in your community.

Land of shimp said...

Amy, my goodness, that must have been positively surreal!! Having anyone fling themselves into your home would be startling, but delivering that news and then disappearing? Oh, wow. What a way to meet the neighbors, indeed! Thank the universe for him though.

Actually, I'm not afraid. I'm very comfortable around people from blue collar backgrounds, and homeless people also. They might not be as polished, but they are people with the same concerns we all have. Mostly I was surprised that my neighbor thought I looked like the sort of person who generally only breathe rarefied air. When I told my husband, he laughed and told me that in case I didn't know? I actually don't look all that tough.

It made me realize that when I look around me and think, "I'll bet these people are only comfortable with XYZ..." that I'm as likely to be wrong, as I am right. My neighbor looked at me and thought I was the sort of person who did "dress up and go to fundraiser" charities. Appearances being deceiving, and all that. It was an interesting lesson, and something I need to keep in mind.

Philip, I'm not much for discussing religion, or matters of faith, either. I do think that there are certain situations where we form an attachment to an organization for a variety of reasons.

You were helped in a time when your family needed it a great deal, and that situation could (and does) happen to anyone. I'm so glad you have that story, it's wonderful isn't it? "When I really needed help, help found my family." The Salvation Army does great work, and I love that the volunteer, upon finding people who needed some momentary help, provided that. Walking the talk, and all that.

I'm so glad to have found your blog also. You see a lot of beauty in the world around you, and take the time to share it. It's lovely.

Land of shimp said...

Derik, it does feel good. It's a win-win situation. People are helped, but the people doing the helping end up feeling good also. It's a situation where everyone gets something out of it.

Yesterday I stood outside the grocery store for a couple of hours, as part of this food drive. Yup, I was one of those people accosting people as they went in. Offering them a bag to put some non-perishable food items in.

The response was huge. Maybe a third of people took that bag, and the donations starting piling up like crazy. It's actually not something I'm super comfortable doing, but I'm good at it, and I just sort of stowed my comfort level, and personal leanings to go for it. I figured that for two hours, I could step outside my comfort zone.

Some people would ward us off, and that's understandable. Lots of people were really happy to get involved, stand and chat on their way out. It gave their day a lift, too. They got to go home feeling like they did something good that day, and they did. They completely earned that feeling.

A lot of people would greet me with a smile, but there was this one man who, as I greeted him, put up his hand on the side of his face, refusing to make contact. He thought I was selling something, I guess. Again, understandable. The very next person, just two steps behind him, stopped, listened and took the bag.

When I turned back to our table to get another bag, the guy who had just brushed me off was right there.

"You collecting for a food bank?"
"Yes, we are."
"Give me a bag."

That was the full extent of our exchange. He must have heard me explaining to the person behind him, and came back. This was one terse dude, but when he came out he had an Arizona Green Tea in one hand, and that bag, full to the brim. He handed it to me and barely cracked a smile as I thank him, quite warmly.

People do get to feel good about themselves, as well they should. They had just taken their personal time, and their personal money to reach out and help people they will likely never meet face-to-face. That they got a little lift to their day, and felt like they had done something good is a bonus, but they should feel good. They had just put in effort to help make a life that little bit better.

That guy who tersely took the bag, and accepted thanks with just the barest of smiles had also, evidently on a shopping trip to buy one drink, stopped, took the time to buy a bunch of stuff, and went on his way.

What really struck me, given this man's very brusque manner, was that he is likely somebody's "work jerk". A guy with a manner that suggests an inability to really relate to, or talk to people warmly. I mean, there's a reason I was asked to do that job, I can talk to a rock, I'm friendly, and kind of funny. If you're picking people to talk to pure strangers, I can see why I drew that job.

That man was gruff, but he stopped took his personal time, and again, money and did something purely good with it. His manner upon leaving was only slightly more friendly than his manner when he brushed me off.

What an amazing thing. Somewhere there is someone who knows this guy, and they think they know everything there is to know about him. There was a guy who really didn't want other people to detect that beneath the gruff exterior was a caring heart.

I'm going to try not to forget that guy. Almost everyone else who contributed took the moment to be warmly thanked, and left feeling better about the world around them, and their place in it.

Land of shimp said...

That guy presented as someone who probably isn't that fun to deal with in most environments. He really didn't wear his niceness, and decency for anyone to see. It was just there. He had a New Jersey accent (I've lived in NJ, that guy was from North Jersey), he probably intimidates the hell out a lot of folks.

Hell, I'm not easy to intimidate but everything about him said, "You really don't want to mess with me." Everything but the thing he actually did.

People can absolutely break your heart, and make you think there's little hope for the world around us. That guy broke my heart in the best way because he was the opposite of that. Sometimes there's a lot of caring in people who don't look, or present themselves as being so.

PhilipH said...

Your last two comments were so telling Alane. Your description and interpretation of the guy who just went in for green tea and then came out with a full bag of stuff to give to you was well told in the extreme.

You're some lady, and that's a fact. I was right to elevate you to the peerage as Lady Alane, Countess of Shimp. You fit the bill entirely.

Amy said...

I, too, just read your last two comments, Alane, and I'll second Philip H's nomination for your "ladyship" - to me that is the definition of a real lady - one, like you, who "stows" her comfort level and carries on doing what she feels is the "right" thing to do for all the "right" reasons. Bravo!!!

Land of shimp said...

Philip and Amy, thank you both so much, sincerely. I hope that is true, at least more often than it is false! I know on the days that something breaks and I proceed to swear at it like a sailor on leave, I'm decidedly less ladylike.

Thank you, really. I'm just about to go do my hair and report back for "prepare to possibly be rejected by strangers" duty, and whereas I'm glad to do it, you both just made it that much easier.

You know the old saying, "If it quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck..." Well, sometimes life asks you to walk like a duck, even when you feel like a chicken.

You really helped me gird up my loins and say, "I've got another two hours in me this after noon where I can quack."

Jo said...

The one thing I do miss since I moved into my treehouse is a doorbell. There is something exciting about the sound of a doorbell.

I am the volunteer coordinator where I work for the Vancouver Food Bank. It is a wonderful feeling to know that the goods that people donate are going to go directly to the people who need them the most. We have to food bank drives, one at Christmas, and one called Christmas in July. So I understand your satisfaction in donating to them.

I was so sorry to hear that five Democrats voted against the public option. In my humble opinion, your President should have been paying them a visit, and giving them a stern talking-to, instead of jetting off to Copenhagen. But, oh, well, I guess folks have their priorities.

Land of shimp said...

I should have known you'd be involved in food banks too, Jo :-)

n my humble opinion, your President should have been paying them a visit, and giving them a stern talking-to, instead of jetting off to Copenhagen. But, oh, well, I guess folks have their priorities.

Well, I do know how you feel about Obama, but he fought tooth and nail, Jo. He was not originally scheduled to take that trip, and he did so only after the Senate vote, after the five Democrats did their dirty deed.

Sad but true, there was nothing a visit could have done at that point. Obama had spent the previous months rallying party support.

He did take the trip to try and garner the Olympics in a last minute bid to try and wipe the egg from his face that the five had thrown there. So you aren't entirely wrong, Obama was spinning his image as fast as he could. It didn't work.

Ah well, just as with the food bank, sometimes you can only do what you can do and learn to be content with that, I guess :-)

I was telling some friends elsewhere online that we made a game out of checking expiration dates, and the person with the oldest can, or boxed good won bragging right. A lot of people clean out their pantries to donate, and that's fine, but it does mean checking expiration dates is important.

The winner was a can of tomatoes that had expired in 1991....until we found a box of Jell-o 1-2-3!! It was in perfect, new condition, but that stuff hasn't even been manufactured since the late 80s!

Holy Jurassic Jell-o, Batman!

Kathryn said...

Loved your email & will reply soon, but wanted you to know i've nominated you for "Kreativ Blogger" should you be interested. :)