Chicken Soup for My Soul

A year ago, my daughter Jenn suggested I submit a few of my blog posts to Chicken Soup for the Soul. I went to their website and found that they accepted entries in various categories. Without much hope, I submitted three stories about my dog Lucy.

In January, I must have also submitted the post, “The Spirit of Giving,” but truly don’t remember. I blame my lack of memory on the fact that I have a lot going on in January. First of all, I loathe the month: it’s dark, cold, and responsible for the death of the holiday season, which starts with Halloween and ends on New Year’s Day. Second, I’m extremely busy with my day job. The energy it takes to not hate January while fighting melancholy and working long hours leaves me little spare brain power.

Months went by. Spring miraculously returned to the Northern Hemisphere and morphed into summer. Life eased up and my January bitterness disappeared. In late July, I started receiving unsolicited emails from Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Ah ha! So that’s the deal. You submit something to this outfit and they put you on their junk mail list. Well I have a delete button and know how to use it. I deleted the email without reading it. A day or so later, I receive another. Delete! I wasn’t about to fall for their devious ploy.

A week later, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the caller ID number and didn’t answer it. An hour or so went by and I retrieved my messages.

“This is D’ette Corona from Chicken Soup for the Soul. I’ve been trying to reach you through email. A piece you submitted is a finalist for our Christmas edition.”

I now know what it feels like to be hit with a stun gun.

I called D’ette back and confessed my stupid assumptions. She was sweet and understanding. “When people don’t respond to emails, I always call.”

After I filled out the form, mailed it, and my blood pressure returned to normal, I re-read her email. I was considered a finalist, not a shoe-in. Oh well. I braced myself against disappointment.

A few weeks later, I received notice that “The Spirit of Giving” had been chosen for publication. I would receive $200 plus ten free copies. I had to review and approve their edited version where they took some liberties and changed the title, but hey this is Chicken Soup for the Soul! They sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Rewrite everything for all I care.chickensoup

I was given the chance to buy 20 more books at cost and of course I took it.

On the fourth of October, I opened the front door to let the cat in and found a large box on the porch. Inside were—yes, you know—copies of the book. I flipped through to find my piece listed as number four out of 101 entries. I read it aloud to my husband Gary who was nearly as thrilled as I was.

I now have 30 copies of a book I never thought I’d be published in, from an offer I dismissed as junk mail. I will give them away, then sit back and wait for the requests for movie rights to start pouring in, hopefully in that darkest of months—January.

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Sheila Struckmeyer

sheila5Sheila was raised on an organic farm in Fort Bragg and learned to make soaps, facial scrubs, and lip balms. She never imagined this knowledge would allow her to earn a living. As so often happens in life, one thing led to another and here she is—the owner of Bella Mia, a petite treasure tucked into the back room of Understuff on Main Street.

***

Born in 1976, Sheila grew up with a large extended family on the same property where her mother was raised. In addition to farming, her dad was a woodworker. “My family was self-sufficient. The attitude was if you want to do something, just do it. There were few limitations.”

Her mother had a passion for growing the unusual—like kohlrabi and currants. “In the early eighties these were novelties. Margaret Fox and Chris Kump (then owners of Café Beaujolais) were on the culinary edge and used uncommon ingredients in their dishes. Whenever I’d go on a delivery with my mom, Margaret would feed us something yummy.”

sheila7

The effervescent Sheila welcomes visitors to her beautiful store.

Sheila’s formal education was a mixture of private, public and home schooling. “For a while I went to a Hippie school where no outdoor shoes were allowed inside. We had to change into Chinese slippers, and call teachers by their first names.” As a teenager in the early nineties, she wanted to go to “normal” school and wear designer jeans. She went to Mendocino High for a year before enrolling herself in Fort Bragg High. “They asked, ‘Where are your parents?’ I said, ‘Why do they need to be here?’” She laughs. “I was taught to take charge of things on my own. I never asked them to come with me.”

After graduating from high school at age 16, Sheila drove to Washington State with a boyfriend and lived in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

Sixteen?

She laughs. “My parents felt if that’s what I wanted, I should do it.”

After a year, the boyfriend and island living lost their appeal. She drove back to Fort Bragg.

Alone? At seventeen? Before cell phones?

Sheila employs a local soap maker to create these fabulous bars.

She laughs. “I never felt unsafe. There were plenty of rest stops along Interstate 5 that were clean and well-lit at night. When I got tired, I’d pull into one and sleep in my car. At each stop, there was a group of women volunteers—I think they were nuns— who handed out cookies.”

After a year of waitressing, she worked for the Village Toy Store in Mendocino. “The owners, Bill and Susie Carr, changed my life. They encouraged me to have a career, taught me bookkeeping, and how to run a business. I started saving for retirement at the age of 18. I consider them family and we remain close.”

The toy store job sparked a love of working retail. After the Carr’s sold their business, Sheila worked for a number of stores. A job at Sallie Mac nudged her to open her own business. “She carried an exclusive line of skin care products from a French company that required all sales people to go through extensive training in order to present them properly. I learned a lot about how these are made and why certain ingredients are chosen.”

Sheila combined her knowledge of organic skin care products with that of aromatherapist friend Melanie Knox and made gifts for friends and family. They eventually expanded their operation to sell at craft fairs.

“Our first craft fair was the opening day of the 2008 Whale Festival—the one that had the worst weather ever on that Saturday morning. There was thunder, lightning, hail, and torrential rain. We set up in the Company Store and I worried we wouldn’t sell a thing. But we sold out in five hours and made $1,000. We were so excited.”

sheilaWhile traveling the craft fair circuit and working for her mother (who owned a nursery), Sheila contemplated opening a store. Her husband Michael wasn’t sure it could be successful. They’ve been married 10 years and come from very different backgrounds. “I have a sense of no limitations while he’s more conservative.”

They met at the Tip Top one night when she was the sober driver for a young friend’s twenty-first birthday. He lived in Sacramento, but his family had a house on the coast that he’d been visiting most of his life. “We dated for a year. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, exactly a year after we met, he proposed to me in the place we had our first kiss—his parents’ house on Todd’s Point.” He moved to Fort Bragg and works for North Coast Plumbing.

Drawing on the can-do spirit in which she was raised, Sheila spotted a “For Rent” sign on Laurel Street in 2012 and 15 days later opened Bella Mia.

In 2013 her mom was diagnosed with ALS and died two years later. Helping her mom through her illness and mourning her death took a tremendous emotional toll on Sheila. “Creativity and grieving don’t go hand in hand. I felt like I couldn’t make anything or go to my shop and make chit chat. I had lost my mom, so what else mattered? My lease was coming up in April of this year. I wanted to close the store. Hilary [White] had lost her father six months before my mom died and knew how I felt, but was concerned that I’d regret that decision. She had an empty room in the back of Understuff and convinced me to move in. I’m so grateful to her.”

sheila2Like other business owners, Sheila works long hours, but enjoys being her own boss. “If I decide to do something, I do it. I don’t have to discuss it with anybody.” She makes her products daily. My personal favorite is her Mendo Rain soap. Imagine standing on the Mendocino Headlands on a crisp, clear morning after a storm. Take a deep breath. Sheila has captured this pure, clean aroma in her liquid soap. (If you live out of the area and can’t get to the headlands, order it and you’ll see what I mean.)

“I like the creative process of making things. I can be focused and completely present in the task—Zen.” This Zen quality is manifested in her store—it feels harmonious and, even though well stocked, has a minimalist feeling, allowing for a relaxed shopping experience. She’s proud that most of her customers are locals.

Sheila hopes someday Fort Bragg’s economy returns to a balance between business and tourism—where businesses are created to help young people stay here. In the meantime, she continues to do what she can to add to the economy while generously sharing her joyful spirit.sheila3

The Reluctant Spartan – Part II

spartan5It was a cool gray morning at Giants Stadium by the Bay. I shivered not from the cold, but from utter terror as I watched Spartan participants run up to the very top deck of seats. I’m terrified of heights to the point where I start to hyperventilate. I could not do this. What was I doing here?

My brain ping-ponged for a solution. I stood behind my teammates, hiding my anxiety. Yvette had the logo “Bald Hill Cattle Company” printed on the back of her shirt. I did something I rarely do—asked for help. She agreed to stay directly in front of me while we traversed the stairs. I would focus on that logo, not on the vast distance between the elevation, the playing field, and the endless stretch of water beyond.

In that moment, I surrendered. I accepted that it was okay to be the laggard of the pack. Others could take the lead. I was content to follow.

spartan2It was time for Team Mendo to queue up. Bethany (who had finished her competitive race in under 40 minutes) announced she would run the course again with us. She had been the key force behind getting us to this place. She was going to see us through to the end. We walked around a corner to encounter our first obstacle—a four-foot fence to scale before we got in line.

I chuckled. Here we go.

Participants were released every minute or so in sets of 20. As each set waited, an emcee got the group jacked up by yelling, “WHO ARE YOU?” to which the group responded, “WE ARE SPARTANS!” My mind whispered, “I’m a scared little wieny.”

We were off and running down the lower deck of stadium stairs, into the basement to the Giants’ locker room where we were to perform 20 pushups. Halfway through my set I noticed the room smelled like years of embedded sweat. I found it funny that this place belonging to a major league baseball team smelled like any high school boys’ locker room.

The obstacles blur in my memory, but a few stand out. The first wall we encountered was eight feet tall. As I contemplated failure, Bethany rushed up and hunkered down with her fingers laced. “Put your foot in here,” she commanded. She boosted me up and I lurched over. Some obstacles later, we repeated the same move. Near the end was a six-foot wall. I turned to Bethany, like a child to her mother, and said, “Help me.” She said, “You can do it.” And by God I did—with a running leap I was up and over.

It was thrilling to accomplish obstacles I didn’t think I could do—like pick up a 50-pound concrete cylinder, carry it 20 feet, put it down, do five burpees, pick it up, carry it back, and do five more burpees. A shot of adrenaline propelled me onward where I got another shot and another until I was halfway through the race, shouting, “This is fun!” and meaning it.

My fear of heights was put to the test early. I kept my focus on Yvette’s “Bald Hill Cattle Company” logo and used a hand as a blinder to block out the scenery far below. Up to the top deck of seats and over, down and over, up and over again, I refused to let my gaze waiver, concentrating only on taking the next step. I nearly cried with relief when it was over.

spartanraceAbout ten obstacles later, we were told to pick up a 20-pound beanbag and go out to the stands. I’ll be damned if on the other side of the stadium—the side I hadn’t seen earlier—we didn’t have to repeat a mirror trek to the upper deck. By then I was a full on adrenaline junkie. I’d done it before, I could do it again. This time I didn’t have to rely on “Bald Hill Cattle Company.” Instead, it was “Hell yeah, bitch—I got this!”

Spartan rules dictate that when you fail an obstacle you must do 30 burpees. I only missed two—the rope climb and the spear throw. I didn’t even attempt the rope climb—in training for it, I’d hurt my back. I missed the spear throw by an inch.

The last obstacle was the monkey bars. I’d tried it a couple of times in training, barely able to hold myself stationary for more than a few seconds before feeling my arms were going to rip from my shoulder sockets. I headed toward the burpee area when Yvette said, “I’ll help you.” I jumped up and grabbed the first bar. She clutched my legs and literally carried me across. Between her and Bethany, our other two team mates also got across.

spartan8When it was Yvette’s turn, Bethany tried to assist. A Spartan monitor appeared, yelling, “You can’t help her.” Bethany said we were a team and we’d been helping each other all the way. He barked, “You can’t help her on this one.” Bethany countered, “We just helped three of our teammates with this one.” He stood firm.

In retrospect, we should have jumped him and beat the crap out of him. Instead, we watched as poor Yvette struggled halfway through before dropping. Disappointed, she prepared to do her burpees. The team told her to stand aside—we’d each do eight for her.

spartan7I rose from my final burpee and looked into the stands to find my son Harrison, daughter Laine, and her boyfriend Jeff smiling at me. (My husband Gary and daughter-in-law Kasi couldn’t be there.) I raised my arms and jumped up and down. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Our team ran through a series of punching bags to the finish line. We linked arms and crossed together. On the other side, our necks were draped with a ribbon holding the heaviest medal we’d ever received. We laughed and hugged and posed for pictures.

We are now part of that crazy cult called Spartans.spartan3

The Reluctant Spartan – Part I

I’ve never considered myself a competitive person—unless you count growing up with four siblings and competing for the attention of my overwhelmed parents. During my first five decades on the planet, I also never considered myself an athlete or remotely fond of physical activity.

earth dayOn Earth Day 1971, I was a junior in high school. My sister (a sophomore) and I decided to honor the day by walking instead of driving the five miles to school. We stopped for three cigarette breaks and once to smoke a joint. At the end of the day, we walked eight blocks, decided the trek home would be too arduous, and stuck out our thumbs to hitch a ride. Our Spanish teacher picked us up and gave a lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking until he deposited us on the curb outside our house. We crept to the backyard to enjoy a smoke before going inside.

I smoked off and on for the next 30 years, entertaining myself during the off years with Dance Aerobics in the eighties and walking my dogs in the nineties. At the age of 50, my teenage son needed me to sign consent for him to join a gym. Before I knew it, I’d also signed up. I’ll admit I fell for the sales pitch of the family discount, but also hoped that exercise classes might help shed the 15 pounds menopause had piled on and make me feel less like a sausage packed into my clothing.

photo(1)My friend Kathleen and I took classes, worked out on our own, and eventually, with a personal trainer. We grew stronger and, I dare say, a little cocky. Six years into this regimen, she suggested we do a triathlon. I agreed before I fully knew what it meant (or how to spell it)—a half-mile swim, 22-mile bike ride, and 5k run. We worked out six days a week, and created a motto: To finish is to win.

We finished.

This race taught me: (1) I’m more physically capable than I think I am; and (2) I will never do it again (the open water swim was terrifying). But the experience was a tipping point—it made me yearn to challenge my body and expand my capabilities.

I started entering local 5k races. The year I turned 60, I won first place in my age category in two races—not because I’m fast, but because I was either the only woman in that category or the few others were a lot older. The year I turned 61, I ran five races, motivated by the fact that my friend Sandy would turn 60 the next year and she’s much faster than I am. That would be my last year to collect ribbons and medals. (I got four.)

spartan1This past January, a group of fellow gym rats—Beth, Yvette, and Jan—invited me to join their Spartan team for the May race at AT&T Park. My personal trainer Bethany had done a number of these and always came back battered and bruised, but high on accomplishment. I watched a YouTube video and told the group, “What kind of crazy would do such a thing? I’m 62 years old for God’s sake. I work out four times a week and run 5k races. Leave me alone.”

They kept me on their email thread. A few weeks later, I asked Bethany if she thought, with proper training, I was capable of the challenge. “You could do it today,” she said.

I signed up.

Fear of failure and letting my teammates down became major motivators. I was two, eight, and thirteen years older than the other three members of my group. I pushed myself—strength training and running six times a week. I won’t lie, training wasn’t easy. For example, I’d never run more than 3.10 miles (5k) in my life. Each quarter mile beyond that was exhausting, but I kept at it until four, four and a half, and five miles wasn’t so bad. Six point two miles (10k) was—and still is—a bitch, but I know I can do it and I’ll do it again.

I grew stronger, but no matter how hard I trained, I was the slowest and weakest of the team. In many areas of my life, I’ve excelled or been at least average. It pissed me off that I’d slipped to the lower end of the bell curve. I tried to avoid bitterness and accept my weaknesses. I succeeded about a quarter of the time. Many days I wanted to quit, but kept going. It felt good to be part of a group working toward a common goal.

Panic-in-Needle-Park-WinnI had four months to obsess on the Spartan Race. Each time I thought about it, a bolt of fear struck my heart, ricochet down to my stomach, and left me feeling nauseated.

This held true until the morning of the race as my team and I watched young hard-bodied competitors rush through the course while we waited for our 9:30 start time. We’d arrived early to watch Bethany run the competitive race. (We weren’t considered competitors—we were “fun” runners.)

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK FOR PART IIspartan4

Bethany Brewer

bethany8Like all Warrior Princesses, Bethany came from humble beginnings. Growing up, she had little supervision, which allowed her to roam free, picking up habits hardly recommended for a child. As a teenager, she delved into a world of drug and alcohol abuse. On the outside, she was a swaggering party girl. On the inside, her soul was dying.

***

bethany7By the time she was a freshman in high school, she was plagued by a sense that she didn’t fit into this life. She left home, lived with a revolving door of friends, and only went to school a couple of hours a day. In her sophomore year, she transferred to Mendocino, hoping to do better.

She continued to fail.

“Teachers tried, but nobody knew what to do with me. By my senior year, I was told I wasn’t going to graduate unless I hustled. I went to Noyo High from eight to noon, took a journalism class at Fort Bragg High in the afternoon, and went to the adult school at night. I was able to graduate with my age group in 1998.”

bethany9Bethany immediately moved to Medford, Oregon to care for her ailing father and grandparents. “My dad died in October, my grandpa three weeks later, and my grandma in February. They were the last of my family on that side.” Those losses were devastating. She dealt with her grief in the only way she knew—using her inheritance to douse her feelings with alcohol, drugs and cavort with people who mooched off her.

Broke by 21, she returned to Fort Bragg and worked at Laurel Deli. By 24, she was married and moved to Yuma, Arizona. “I was a bartender at an Indian Casino and loved it. I learned how to stand up for and defend myself.” The marriage was tumultuous and broke up after four years. “I lived alone for the first time in my life. I really liked being independent and having responsibilities.”

bethany6In 2010, she learned her maternal grandmother had dementia. Bethany moved back to Fort Bragg to help care for her, and worked again at Laurel Deli. “I continued to party and be irresponsible. I eventually left Grandma’s house and isolated myself from my family. At one point, I lived in my truck for three months. I felt like I had a big hole”—she makes a circle with the fingers of both hands and places it over her heart—“that I tried to fill up with drugs, alcohol, and violence.”

Bethany’s mother had moved to Willits and encouraged her to live with her. “On November 3, 2012, I started detoxing on her couch. I was really sick, but managed to go to a twelve-step meeting every day. Everything seemed less, less, less. Little did I know my life would change to more, more, more.”

bethany5Two weeks later, her friend Amie McGee encouraged her to apply for work at the Mendocino Sports Club. Bethany didn’t feel strong enough to hold a job, and was relieved when it took a month before she was invited for an interview. In January 2013, she moved back to Fort Bragg and started working at the club. A trainer approached her and said, “There’s an athlete inside you and if you want to see her, I’ll train you.”

She worked out with him six days a week for six months. The gym owner gave her a personal trainer’s manual and encouraged her to study for the certification exam. On November 2, 2013, she passed the test.

The Warrior Princess was born.bethany1

Two and a half years later, her business has grown from five clients to 140. She continues to study and receive certifications. “I love the process of learning.”

***

Bethany spends a few hours a week at Noyo High School “just chillin’” with the kids. “By the time kids get to Noyo, a lot of people have given up on them. I want them to know they can be there and be someone of worth.” She shares the story of her stormy teenage years, her recovery, and hands out gym passes. It was through this outreach that she met a teenager who would have a major impact on her life.

“She called one night [in February 2015] to say she’d been locked out of her house. I let her spend the night on my sofa. Before I knew it, I had bunkbeds with Ninja Turtle sheets in my spare bedroom. I became the mother of a 15-year old kid.” The girl had quietly struggled with her gender identity most of her life. “I know what’s it’s like to feel alone,” Bethany said. “When she told me she wanted to dress like a boy, I took her to a thrift shop and bought her clothes.”

kellenWith the support of Bethany, the staff at Noyo, and a tribe of fairy Godmothers, the girl continued her journey, embracing her male identity. Her grades improved and in the fall of 2015, she enrolled in Fort Bragg High. By this time, the girly clothes had been discarded and a masculine name chosen. Life was not without its challenges (imagine being a transgender teen in a small town) but he thrived academically and socially.

It was difficult for Bethany to be an instant mother and tough for the kid to refrain from being a mildly rebellious teen. In January 2016, he moved in with his girlfriend’s family. He and Bethany maintain a close, heartwarming bond.

***

Bethany2The hole that once scarred Bethany’s soul has healed. “I’m so lucky to wake up every morning and spend the day doing what I love. My goal is to help people realize their strength. It’s payback for all that’s been given to me.”

Bethany’s most recent project is training people to participate in Spartan Races. Some, like me, start out believing we aren’t capable of such physical demands. Over time, the Warrior Princess shakes that doubt out, turning it around until, before we know it, we’re crossing the finish line and accepting medals.

Thank you, Warrior Princess for your willingness to grab hold of life, seek challenges and share your experiences. The lives you touch are forever changed for the better.bethany4bethany11

41 Days

At 9:30 last Saturday evening, I shut off the television and turned off lights before heading upstairs to bed. My husband Gary was already asleep. I heard a yowling outside that sounded familiar. It started at the sidewalk, gained momentum up the walkway, and came to a fevered pitch on the front porch. I looked out the door’s window and was convinced the nachos I’d eaten for dinner had been laced with peyote. Our cat Little Mister stood poised like a bullet ready for the door to open.

I yelled at Gary. “Little Mister’s home!”

“What?” he said in drowsy confusion.

Little Mister had been gone 41 days. I thought he was gone forever. Yet there he was howling at the door. I opened it and he ran halfway up the stairs before stopping. I stood, frozen, transported to an alternate universe where I was staring into the eyes of a pet that I’d given up for dead.

Water!

I ran to the kitchen, poured water into a bowl and raced upstairs. I lightly petted him as he took a few sips.

Food!

Store! Go to the store!

I wrestled a jacket over my pajamas. Wait! Marcia has a cat and it’ll take less time to get to her than to the store. I prayed she was still awake. She was, and met me outside her house with a sandwich bag full of cat food. I sped back home, filled a bowl with food and ran upstairs.

LMRECOVERY4I sat with Little Mister and petted him while he munched on the kibble. He looked at me and meowed. It was pathetic and weak. I picked him up and felt the literal interpretation of the phrase “bag of bones.” His eyes were bright, but his coat was disheveled and dull.

For weeks after he disappeared, I expected to hear his meow when I passed by the front door, to find him in the middle of my bed when I went upstairs. I missed him most at night, cuddling at my side.

I didn’t miss his 3:00am—every 3:00am—insistence upon being let outside. And I especially didn’t miss having to keep him and our dog Lucy separated because he hated her puppy energy.

LMRECOVERY3I got into bed, tried to relax and pretend everything was normal. Little Mister, as is his custom, sat on my chest, wedging himself between me and my book. For the first time in 41 days, I cried. “You poor, poor thing, I can’t imagine where you were and how you suffered. I’m so grateful you’re back.”

Weeks earlier, in the midst of the Christmas holidays, I’d resigned myself to his disappearance by thinking he’d been ill and wandered off to die. My tears were a mixture of compassion for his plight and guilt over having so easily dismissed him.

His return was a cosmic slap in the face, making me realize his is a life that matters. I took responsibility for nurturing that life when he came into our home eleven and a half years ago.

The next morning, I got up at six and Little Mister wanted to go outside. We had no litter box and I took this as a sign that he was well enough to return to his familiar routines. (I now realize that I was still in the throes of suspended reality.)

A few hours later, I called him, but he didn’t show up. I walked to the sidewalk and heard a faint meow coming from next door. I found him crouched behind a bush in the neighbor’s yard. It broke my heart to see him looking so helpless, unable to traverse the short distance home.

I picked him up and scolded myself for having let him outside. His ordeal had drained much of the life out of him. His eyes, bright at his return the night before, were dull. He ate a bit of food and I settled him on the bed.

Gary and I speculate what might have happened. On that rainy night of December 20, Little Mister must have sought shelter, perhaps in someone’s rarely used garage or shed, and got locked in. He must have had access to water and maybe some critters. His frantic yowls upon his return convinced me that after 41 days he’d gotten his first chance to escape.

LMRECOVERY2I’ve set up a litter box and will keep him inside. He’s been to the vet who discovered that he has the “reddest throat and biggest tonsils I’ve ever seen on a cat.” She gave him a little IV hydration boost, some antibiotics, and a shot of what she called “cat morphine” to ease the pain in his throat. “Cats tend to like opiates,” she said. Little Mister agrees.

I’m happy that Little Mister is back. I promise to do everything in my power to return him to his normal fatty, demanding, Lucy-hating self.

The Spirit of Giving

A few weeks ago, my friend—let’s call her Nell—said she felt guilty about throwing away donation plea letters that arrived in December. Throughout the year, she was generous to charities, but during the Christmas season her money was spent on gifts for family and friends. Still, she wished she could answer all the pleas.

She remembered a quote attributed to Jon Carroll. He allegedly said that if you want to give away money, go to the bank, take out as much cash as you can afford, and distribute it to people on the street.

5This appealed to Nell. Nearly every day, she saw homeless people and others in need. But she never paid much attention as she whizzed by in her car or, when walking, crossed the street to avoid them. She thought about her “Fiver Envelope.” Whenever she receives a five-dollar bill as change in a transaction, she saves it. After gathering a bunch, she uses them to treat herself to a massage or some other luxury. She decided to take the $100 she’d accumulated and give it away.

The prospect of approaching complete strangers scared her. She formulated a couple of rules: she would only interact with solitary people, no one in a group; and she would not interfere with those who looked mentally unbalanced.

PostOfficeShe found her first person one early cold morning at the post office. A dented maroon car stuffed with clothing pulled into a parking space, the back bumper tied with a rope on top. A weary woman with thick black curly hair struggled to get from the vehicle and up the post office steps.

Nell pulled a five from her wallet and folded it in half. When the woman entered the building, Nell asked, “May I give you something?”

The woman looked wary.

Nell held out the money.

The woman looked confused and asked, “Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.”

The woman took the money. “That’s it? For no other reason?”

Nell said, “Yes,” and wished her a Merry Christmas.

“Thank you so much.”

Nell felt happy, very happy.

The second was a young wispy woman wrapped in layers of clothing to stave off the cold rain. She was walking with a black pit bull that wore a padded doggie jacket. Nell pulled to the curb and got out of her car. “May I give you something?”

Again a wary look.

Nell held out a five.

The woman grinned, yet looked close to tears. “I’m so glad I turned around and started walking this way. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have met you.” She gave Nell a hug.

DSC02402The next day, Nell was walking to her car in the Purity parking lot. She noticed a heavy-set woman putting her baby in a car seat in the front of a yellow dented pickup.

As Nell held out her offering, the woman backed slightly away and adjusted her glasses. “I shouldn’t take it.”

Nell reached her hand out further. “Please, I want to give it to you.”

“Thank you. I really do need gas money.” She invited Nell to the live nativity scene produced by one of the local churches on Christmas Eve. She said her baby would play the role of Jesus. She blessed Nell as she walked away.

DSC02477A few days later, Nell saw a middle-aged blonde woman fishing through a public trash can. When she gave her five dollars, the woman beamed. “Thank you. It’s my birthday.”

Nell’s heart soared. “Happy birthday, my dear!”

Every time Nell gave away money, she felt immense joy. She was as grateful for the offering as the recipients were to receive. Most interactions were less than a minute, but during that time she was able to look a person in the eyes, touch his or her hand and, in a few instances, receive a hug. In those moments, she felt something she had never allowed herself to internalize—these are human beings just like her. They have feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams. Yet their daily lives are immeasurably more difficult than hers.

She felt compassion.

DSC02540Her last five was given to someone she sees frequently—a tall, lean man who sports a camo jacket and walks a dog with a matching bridle coat. He’s a loner, who appears to avoid others. It was shortly after the New Year and raining. She spotted him on the sidewalk. He was walking so fast that she pulled over a block ahead. She got out of the car with trepidation. He’d always seemed stoic and she wasn’t sure how he’d react to her approach.

“Hi,” she said.

He returned the greeting with a slight twinkle in his eyes.

“May I give you something?” She held out the folded bill.

“Are you serious?” he asked.

“Yes, please, I want to give it to you.”

He grinned. “Thank you.”

She had never been close to him. She looked at his face—really looked at it—and saw a kind man in his forties with well-sculpted features and dark brown eyes who somewhere along the line learned to keep to himself. She reached down and petted his dog, grateful that he had a companion.

“Happy New Year.” As the words left her mouth, she regretted them. They sounded hollow and trite.

“Happy New Year to you,” he said, leaving her with the gift of his smile.

 

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