Reading Penny Richard’s entry about Blue Christmas gatherings reminded me of a time when I needed help finding my joy.
Many years ago, my husband was on strike with his union for six-months. We signed up for food stamps and sold furniture to pay the mortgage. Thoughts of Christmas presents were out of the question. Even though we had a tiny 900 square foot house, figuring out how to pay the utility bills kept us awake at night. Because he worked so little, we had to self-pay our health insurance out of threadbare pockets. We had our first child. I had to have emergency surgery after our baby’s birth. I thought the worst had finally happened when our baby started having seizures.
Until then, my life was untested. I had a reasonably secure working class childhood. I had both my parents, a solid roof over my head, relative health, free public education, potable water, a neighborhood where I could stroll the streets at night, friends… In the grand scheme of things, this was small potatoes. Nevertheless, it was my biggest trial to date.
I felt overwhelmed. Then, things got a little worse…
Very unpleasant seepage began bubbling up from the bowels of the waste removal pipes. It oozed into our basement family room.
“Family room” is a generous description. It was a partially indoor-outdoor carpeted cinder block box, painted Harvest Gold, so popular in its day. We divided it into three small areas; my little stained glass studio, a combined laundry and guest bedroom (Oh, my poor guests.) and a music room. My husband’s saxophones, and other hand-held instruments were safe, but we just were not sure what would become of his precious B3 Hammond organ, amps and other electronic equipment standing in poo.
It happened on the gloomiest of gloomy days; no hint of the sun, just low hanging misty clouds. No green grasses, only brown. The trees reminded me of skeletons and the atmosphere matched my mood. As I sat near the window watching for the Rotor-Rooter guy, I started crying. It was an ugly cry; a runny-nosed, red-faced, woe-is-me, ugly motherfucker of a cry.
When he arrived, I pointed him to the basement, and resumed my cheerless teary perch at the window. Eventually, I heard him clanking things below me. My sense of decorum overcame my depressive fog and I ventured downstairs to offer him a drink and see what he was doing.
I plopped myself down on the last step and watched his backbreaking labor. Bending over a drain, he pushed a snake down, then up a little, then down more. He was a 40-50ish barrel-chested big-bellied fella with a kind face; though I had not seen his face since I let him in the house. No, I was staring straight at the butt-crack end of his body, bent over my sewer pipe.
I started the conversation. “So, what’s the problem?”
“Tree roots”, he grunted as he pushed the snake in deeper.
“Tree roots?” I said incredulously.
He pulled hard on the snake, ripping out the last of the blockage, “Yeah, roots” he said breathing heavily, as he braced himself against the wall.
“That’s just great,” I whined. “It’s the deadest time of the year. Nothing is growing and my tree roots decide to invade my sewer pipes. Great…just great…” my voice trailed off.
He straightened himself up, pulled off his gloves, and accepted my offering of iced tea. Yanking his pants up by the belt loops, he paused, then took a big drink. As he started packing up his tools he gave me what I thought, was my first horticulture lesson. It was so much more.
Now, I swear to you that every word you are about to read is absolutely true--without a hint of exaggeration. I wrote it all down after he left, so I would not forget it.
He said, “Now is when real growth happens. See, in the fall the sap runs down to the roots, and the leaves fall off the tree. It just looks dead in this inhospitable season. In fact, it has never been more alive. The sap is feeding the roots. They grow longer… deeper, making the tree more stable, strengthening it. In the spring the sap will run up the tree and new growth appears above ground. If the tree doesn’t grow at the roots in the winter, it dies.”
He looked straight into my puffy red eyes, smiled slightly, and said, “It’s like that for people too.” And with that, he finished packing his tools, handed me the glass, accepted my check, and was out the door.
I went back to my chair and suddenly the gloomy day looked a little brighter. My funk was lifting. Was it true, I wondered? Was I in a “winter phase;” would spring come again? I wondered if it was also true that, I was growing, getting stronger, making my foundation more firm because of my life circumstances. I wasn’t sure then, but now I know that, of course, it made me a stronger person.
I am not one of those people who believe, “God will only give you as much as you can bear.” There are times and places where people are dealt way too much to bear. But most of the time we can use adversity, darkness, danger, even despair to become more fully human and to recognize that it happens to others too. It can strengthen our understanding and relationships with oppressed people; if we open ourselves to it. Struggles for justice and equality are born out of circumstances like this.
Nor do I think I “entertained angels unaware.” I think the great whomever and her angels are far to busy to worry about my sewer. However, I do believe my rotor-rooter man, with all his humanity, looked up from his drudgery and stepped outside himself, just for me. He saw a young inexperienced mother who, in the midst of her first real crisis, needed support and a different perspective on her hard times.
Now that was a Holiday Miracle.
Peace on Earth, Goodwill To You All.