Monday, March 20, 2017

Pride of Lonership

“I’m in the grocery story now, Henry. Need anything while I’m here? . . . It isn’t any trouble. I wouldn’t have offered, otherwise. . .You worry too much, old man. I’ll drop it off on my way home.” Dylan regretted his choice of words immediately because it gave Henry the opportunity to remind him that it wasn’t exactly on the way home.
              “You’re right, Henry. You’re almost a quarter mile off my direct route home – that’s half a mile round trip. Not to mention that I’m going out of pocket to the tune of four dollars for nearly five minutes before you insist on reimbursing me for the milk. Oh, don’t forget the arduous journey I’m going to have to make from the car to your door with it. Sometimes I think the price of this friendship is too high. Maybe I need to get a different friend.”
              Dylan listened to Henry chuckle on the other end of the line. He was happy that his sarcasm was never lost on Henry. “Hey, I gotta run.. I see Brother Whitman’s wife. Sarah, right? . . . We suspended him last month. Maybe I can find out what’s going on. Have a Sherpa ready for when I get there. Milk is heavy, you know. . . Later.” He dismissed the call and slid his iPhone into his jacket.
              Sarah turned left at the end of the aisle, so Dylan spun his cart around and made two quick rights so he could accidentally-on-purpose bump into her in the next aisle. She seemed a little out of sorts as he approached. Her hair was disheveled and her hoodie was stained, probably having been dribbled on by one of the twins currently sleeping peacefully in the front of her cart. Her face was pallid, and the circles under her eyes seemed a little darker than he had remembered.  She was gently adding baby food and diapers to the cart, being careful not to wake the kids, as he called her name in a loud whisper.
              “Oh, Dylan. H-h-hey,” she stammered, reddening slightly. She fidgeted with the diapers, pushing them around the cart, paying a little too much attention to where each bag lay. Dylan saw immediately that it was all an effort to try and cover up the Last Chance stickers on the meat and the Day-Old labels on many of the other goods that filled her cart.
              “The kids are adorable. They’re growing so fast,” he said quickly, hoping to alleviate some of the awkwardness that his presence was apparently causing.
              “Yeah, it’s hard to believe they’re already eight months old,” she said forcing a feeble smile.
              “Listen, I have been trying to get in touch with Carl. He never paid his Lodge dues, and they suspended him last month. I know how much he loves Lodge. I can swing by and get a check sometime. You know, save him the trip to Lodge.”
              She began twirling the string of her hoodie around her finger. “He must have just forgotten,” she said, avoiding Dylan’s eyes. “Don’t come over though. I mean, he’s been busy. He’s working like crazy these days. I’ll let him know you asked, though.” The more she talked, the tighter she twirled the drawstring, to the point that the end of her finger was turning blue.
Dylan stood silently for a beat. Carl was anything but forgetful. Something was off, he was sure of that much. “That looks a little tight,” he said, pointing at her finger.
“Oops. Bad habit,” she replied. Adding, “Well, I better get out of here before these two wake up and start crying. I’ll tell Carl to call you.”
“He better,” Dylan said as they both got on their way.
Dylan finished his shopping and headed toward the check-out lines. The cashier was nearly through with Sara’s order when Dylan began placing his items on the belt a few lanes to her right. The layout was such that she had her back to him and was unaware that he was nearby. He watched the twins shift slightly and hoped for her sake that they could stay asleep for just a few more minutes.
“Your card was declined,” he heard her cashier say, louder than necessary.
“Can you try again,” she pleaded sotto voce. He could tell from her motions that she was strangling her index finger again.
A few seconds later, the cashier confirmed that it was still declined.
“Can I just give you cash for the baby food and diapers?” she asked weakly. She rummaged in her purse and came out with a few crumpled bills and coins which she thrust hurriedly to the cashier. She pushed the cart toward the door, trying a little too hard to be slow and deliberate. She was nearly running as the automatic doors parted and allowed her to escape to the parking lot.
Dylan was trying to make sense of it. Sure, twins must be expensive, but Carl is a good salesman, and Sarah just said he was working a lot. They had a modest house, two older cars, and nothing in their life screamed extravagance, so he doubted they were over-extended. He made a decision.
“Excuse me,” he said to the cashier, “can you finish ringing this up and hold it to the side for a few minutes? I have a couple of things I forgot. I’ll be right back.”
He made his way over to Sarah’s cashier. She was unbagging all the groceries that Sarah had left behind. “Can I get that cart from you?”
“This? It’s all the stuff some lady just left behind. Didn’t have the money for it. It’s mostly death row.”
Dylan shot her a puzzled look.
“That’s what we call all the last chance stuff. If someone doesn’t buy it, it’s off to the dumpster.”
“Clever. I’ll put it all back for you. You know, give it a pardon. I don’t mind.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, pushing the cart toward him. “Dead ham walking,” she deadpanned as he spun the cart around.
Dylan made his second full circuit of the store that hour, swapping each clearance item with a fresh replacement. When he was finished swapping all the old for new – as well as adding a few extras – he went back to where he and Sarah had just talked and loaded the cart with diapers, formula, and baby wipes.
“A couple of things?” the cashier smirked when he returned. “It looks like you forgot more than you remembered in the first order.”
“Something like that,” he smiled.

Not wanting to let the first warm day of the year go to waste, Henry was busy clearing the winter debris from his tulip beds when Dylan pulled up. They stood there in the crisp spring air as Dylan recounted what had just happened.
“Beats me,” Henry said when the story was finished. “It always seemed like he had his act together. Are you stopping over there now?”
“Yeah. I want to drop these groceries before Carl gets home. I know he’ll give me grief. Actually, I’m hoping I can just put them on the porch and get out unnoticed.”
“You’re probably right. Most people would rather suffer silently and alone rather than admit they could use help. You know what I call that?” he asked. “Pride of Lonership.” He waited a beat before repeating it, beaming at his clever turn of phrase.
“Nice one, I may use that,” Dylan responded.
“Feel free. You’re one of a kind, you know that?” Henry said. “They say your generation is self-absorbed. I sure don’t see it in you.” He began fishing in his pocket for his wallet.
“I had some pretty good role models, including the guy who is about to try – unsuccessfully, I might add – to hand me twenty dollars for the four dollars’ worth of milk I just brought him.”
Henry flushed a little as he put his hand back in his pocket. “I am certain that I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now get out of here Mr. Know-it-all.”
“Fine. Love to Eva,” he said as he got back in his car.

Both of the Whitmans’ cars were in the driveway when Dylan pulled in. Great, he thought, so much for anonymity.
It took him four trips to transfer all the groceries to the porch. He had arranged them in a long sweeping arc, being careful to allow enough room for the storm door to swing open. Before he could knock, Carl opened the door wearing a baseball cap with the square and compasses on it. He was thin. Too thin. His sunken cheeks and ashen complexion made him appear utterly defeated. He didn’t notice the bags of food and baby supplies at Dylan’s feet.
“I guess I shouldn’t be wearing this, huh?” he said, referring to the baseball cap which he snugged down a little tighter. Dylan could barely see his eyes. “Sarah told me she ran into you. You may as well come in. I probably owe you an explanation.” He opened the door and noticed the bounty laid out on the porch.
              “Yeah, there were a few things that Sarah forgot. I figured I’d bring them by,” Dylan said with a laugh intended to lighten the situation.
              “I don’t know what to say.”
              “I don’t need you to say anything. I need you to help me bring this all in. It took me four trips,” Dylan answered.
              Sarah appeared behind her husband. “Dylan, you didn’t need to do this.”
              “I know, but I lost the receipt so you may as well take it,” he quipped.
              “Listen,” she said, looking at the ground. “I . . . should have told you the truth today.” She started twisting the drawstring of the hoodie around her finger again. “I just figured it was Carl’s story to tell, not mine.”
“No worries,” Dylan replied. “At all.”
 “How about if we get this stuff into the kitchen, then you and Carl can come back out and talk. I can go play with the kiddos and give you some privacy.” She picked up several bags and headed to the kitchen.
              Carl led Dylan back out to the front porch and gestured him into one of the rocking chairs. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat before beginning. “I, um . . .” He cleared his throat again. “I lost my job. They decided they don’t need salesmen anymore. They’re transitioning to internet sales.”
              “That stinks. I’m sure something will come along quickly,” Dylan reassured him.
              “I thought that too – six months ago.”
              “Six months?! You haven’t worked in six months? And you have eight-month-old twins? Why didn’t you say something?”
              “What was I supposed to say?” asked Carl. His chin was quivering. He drew a deep breath trying to compose himself. “What? That I couldn’t provide for my family? That I was a terrible father and husband?” Tears began to pool in the corners of his eyes, and he pulled his hat even lower. “I can’t do that.”
              “Carl,” Dylan said. “We’ve known each other since we were kids. We played volleyball together. We joined the Masons together. You didn’t need to say any of those things. They aren’t true. You just needed to say ‘help.’ Say that, and your friends and brothers would have done whatever it took to get you through.”
              “Former Brothers,” Carl corrected him as he wiped a tear from his cheek.
              “Let me handle that. You’ll be back in at Monday’s meeting.”
              “I can’t take charity from the Lodge. I’ll figure it out.”
              “There’s nothing to figure out. And it’s not charity,” he said. Do you remember when we built the wheelchair ramp for Brother Bowers? Or put the roof on Brother Frank’s widow’s house?”        
              “Of course. What’s your point?”
              “We – you and I, and every other Mason who has passed through the Lodge – promised to help each other when necessary. That’s what those projects were. But we can’t help if we don’t know who needs it. There’s no dishonor in losing your job. It doesn’t make you less of a man. It shouldn’t bring you shame. And you shouldn’t go it alone – a wise friend called that Pride of Lonership. The Lodge always has its hand extended to lift you when you fall. It’s up to you to reach out and take it.”
              “Sounds like something Henry would say. Maybe he’s right. I probably am too proud. Stubborn even. I’ve hardly been able to look at Sarah.” He started sobbing. “I wanted her to be proud of me, you know. It’s my job to take care of her, and I’ve failed. I’ve been doing odd jobs – shoveling driveways, handyman work – all winter long just to make a couple of bucks. What kind of husband am I?”
              “Look at me,” Dylan ordered. “You’re the best kind of husband, and the best kind of father because you’re doing everything you can. Sarah isn’t ashamed of you, she knows this is temporary. She loves you. That’s why she protected you earlier today.”
              “You’re too good to me, Dyl,” Carl said. He blew out a long breath. “I . . . I need help – short-term help. What do I do?”
              “You just did it. You asked,” he replied. “Make sure you have a shirt pressed on Monday morning. I know I can get you something in my department. We’re expanding and haven’t even advertised yet.”
              “How? I thought it was hard to get in there.”
              “It can be. But I have lunch with the CEO a couple of days a month. Just the two of us.”
              “Seriously? How’d that happen?”
              “Long story. The short version is that I accidentally sat at his table on my first day because I was nervous and he had the only friendly face in the room. Now we eat together when it works out. Weird, huh?”
              “A little. I don’t know what to say, Dylan.”
              “Just say you’ll be ready to start on Monday when I call you. And promise me that you’ll be back to Lodge Monday night. Your brothers miss you.”
              Carl took off his hat and ran his hands through his hair. He sat up straight, met Dylan’s eyes. “Thank you. . .Brother,” was all he could manage through the tears.
              “Not necessary,” he replied as he rose to go. “Listen, there’s one more thing you can do for me,” he added.
              “One of those grocery bags has a couple of juicy ribeyes and a bottle of wine in it. Grill those up for you and Sarah tonight. Tell her you love her and that it’s going to be okay.”
              Carl engulfed him in a long, tight hug before walking Dylan to his car.
              “They say that pride comes before the fall,” Carl said. “Mine came after the fall. I was too proud to get help. I am an idiot.”
              No, you’re not. You’re human. Now go start the grill,” Dylan said before he drove off.
              Carl stood and watched as Dylan’s car made its way back to the road. Sarah came out and took him by the hand.
              “Is everything okay?” she asked.
              “It will be,” he said, taking her in his arms. “It definitely will be.”

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Election

              Dylan was speechless. He sat in the station of the Senior Warden, unsure of whether he should scream, laugh, or try to wake himself from this terrible dream. He glanced to his right and caught Henry’s eye. He seemed shocked, too.

              Fine, he thought. If the Lodge wants to elect the Junior Warden ahead of me, they can have him. He sure isn’t getting my help.

              Henry could see the disappointment on Dylan’s face. The tellers were still tidying up from the ballot, so he took advantage of the distraction and approached Dylan.

              “Smile. Be gracious and accept the Senior Warden’s chair again when the election continues,” he whispered.

              “Are you kidding me? I’m done. They can have him,” Dylan hissed back.

              “Trust me. Stay where you are. The Lodge needs you, just not right now. Chin up. Be classy, and we’ll talk after the meeting,” he concluded with a pat on the shoulder before he returned to his chair.

              After the meeting, Henry took a seat in the corner of the fellowship hall at what he considered a safe distance from the rest of the brethren. When Dylan entered, Henry held two cups of coffee in the air as a signal to join him, which Dylan did.

              “If he thinks for one second that I’m helping him, he’s lost his mind,” Dylan spat. “In fact, I’m going to do everything I can to make it miserable for him. Did you hear him? A Mardi Gras party? Yeah, right. Oh, and a night at the theater? Gimme a break. He’s going to bankrupt the Lodge. And for what? No one is going to come.”

              Henry said nothing.

              “Oh, I have so many ideas,” he said, imitating the Worshipful Master elect. “I’m going to do this, that, and the other. Ha!”

              Henry said nothing.

              “He wants to invite the families of all the Past Masters. Are you kidding me? How are we paying for that?”

              Henry said nothing.

              “Yeah, and more money to grow the charity fund. Dream on.”

              “Remind you of anyone?” Henry asked with his eyebrow raised.

              “What? Who? Not me.”

              “Yes, you. Let me remind you how we met. You were that kid who wanted to change strawberry night.”

              “Yeah, but. . .”

              “Don’t interrupt me. You wanted surf and turf,” Henry continued. “And what did I say?”

              “You objected. Strenuously. You insisted that it was strawberry night. But that’s not the same. I’m . . .”

              “Quiet. I haven’t finished. You’re so quick to talk. I wish you were quicker to listen,” Henry joked.

              He was used to Henry’s snark - loved it, actually. Dylan rolled his eyes, but didn’t open his mouth.

              “You wanted surf and turf. I grumbled, but I gave in. Do you know why? Don’t answer, that was rhetorical,” he added quickly, smiling. “Because you were eager and I could see you believed in it. Not only that, but we never know what will work until we try it. Your surf and turf idea was one of the best. Eva still talks about that night, and if I had been a stubborn fool and tried to undermine you, it never would have happened. Understand?”

              Dylan was silent.

              “That was a real question. You can talk now,” Henry said, taking another sip of his coffee.

              “I don’t think they are quite the same, but I see your point,” Dylan admitted. “The bigger problem for me is that I deserved to be Worshipful Master. It was my turn.”

              “There’s no such thing as your turn, at least not in the sense of it being your God-given right,” Henry said. “It’s your turn when you have the most votes, or no one opposes you. I voted for you. I’m disappointed that you didn’t win. If I’m honest though, I think you’re only going to get better the longer you’re involved. Maybe this extra year as Senior Warden will make you an even stronger Master.”

              “Still, I did a lot of work,” Dylan said.

              “You did. And none of it will go to waste. Your plans will keep. They will get better if you pay close attention to the things that work and the things that don’t this coming year. Learn from his mistakes, but also learn from his successes. You want to know my philosophy?” Henry asked.

              “Isn’t that what you’ve been yammering at me for the last ten minutes?” Dylan quipped back with a grin.

              “No matter what your current or past rank, your biggest achievement, or your strongest opinion regarding the Fraternity, you owe your complete loyalty to those in charge. Whether it’s the Master, District Deputy, the Grand Master, or the Commander-in-Chief, your duty as a Mason is to help make his vision a success. You don’t have to like everything, you don’t have to understand everything, but it’s your responsibility to carry it out to the best of your ability.

              “Cathedrals had one set of plans,” he continued. Dylan could see that Henry was on his soapbox and knew better than to interrupt. He also sensed he was learning something profound. “One set. Not a set for the laborers to gripe about, another for the quarrymen to debate, and yet another for the artificers to question. Chartres would look more like something from an Escher print if that were the case. One set of plans - drawn by the Master and followed by all. That’s how Masons should work.”

              Dylan was speechless. He knew Henry was right. He just stared at Henry and the fire in his eyes.

              “That’s it,” Henry said. “Here endeth the sermon.”

              “I never thought of it that way. And your one hundred percent right. I’ll be right back,” Dylan said. “I’m going to go offer to head up the Mardi Gras committee.”

              Henry simply smiled.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Citius, Altius, Fortius

The 2016 Olympics have just concluded. Stories of triumph, of overcoming great adversity, of facing down seemingly insurmountable odds are still fresh in your memory. So too, unfortunately, are be the stories of tragedy, of near misses, of heartbreak, and of greatness not achieved.

As I watched the opening ceremonies and the first few days of competition, I began to wonder what our Fraternity would be like if we took it as seriously as Olympians take their respective sports.

For starters, the title of this piece – Citius, Altius, Fortius – is the Olympic motto. Translated from the Latin, it means Faster, Higher, Stronger. While that doesn’t specifically apply to us, we could steal from their superlative script and go with something that applies more directly. I’m too close to my deadline to translate it into Latin, but I would suggest something in the way of Wiser, Stronger, More Beautiful.

You’re probably asking yourself, Aren’t those just the three pillars of Freemasonry that he stole? If you did indeed just ask yourself that question, first, stop talking to yourself before people start wondering if you’re all there. Secondly, good catch. Those are the three pillars, but I didn’t steal them. They’re Masonic and this is a Masonic essay. There was no real need to come up with something catchy, shiny, and new when a perfectly good thing was right there for me to use. And in the final analysis, is there really anything that is truly new? Despite all of our protestations that “we’ve never done it like that before,” you can be nearly certain that somewhere, someone has done it precisely that way before. But I digress.

Back to our potential motto. To stand out among peers, an athlete must constantly strive to improve – trimming seconds, adding feet, improving dexterity. They would constantly reach for faster, higher, and stronger.

If Masons were Olympians, we would not just seek to get through all the degrees. We would push ourselves until we could do them to near perfection. We wouldn’t be content with just the words in the Degrees either. We would be compelled to look deeper and apply them to ourselves. We would make ourselves wiser.

We wouldn’t offer boring (or worse yet, not offer any) programs at our meetings and grumble about poor attendance. We would work hard to give our brothers a reason to come out and support the Lodge. Fine meals and interesting programs will nearly always yield high attendance. Nor would we ever suspend our brothers without making personal contact with them. We would make personal contact to let them know we care and we are there to help them. We would make ourselves stronger.

Olympic Masons wouldn’t be content to watch their buildings crumble around them either. They wouldn’t wring their hands as they tried to figure out why the Lodge can’t thrive, much less survive, on the paltry fifty dollars in dues that they pay each year. They would recognize that the sacred space that is the Lodge room deserves adornments and enhancements from time to time. They would understand that the physical appearance of the Lodge not only attracts members to the doors, but makes them want to come back. If we apply a little bit of creativity and solicited the help of the membership, every Lodge could be made into a space that people would want to come to. We would make ourselves more beautiful.

An enriching Lodge experience is the right and privilege of every Mason. If we each set a goal of constant personal improvement, and we hold each other accountable, that experience is within our reach. It will take effort, time, and sacrifice, but that will pay off when the Master and Wardens ascend their podiums and look out over a beautiful room filled with the wisest men who know in their hearts what it means to be a Brother. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mind the Gap

The phrase Mind the Gap or some derivation of it is in use on light rail and subway systems throughout the world. It serves as a quick and concise reminder to travelers that they should heed the space between the train platform and the railcar they are entering or leaving. Hence, if one fails to pay attention to where he is going, or forgets to mind the gap, bad things could happen.
For too long, Freemasonry has forgotten to mind a gap of its own – the generation gap.  We like to think of Freemasonry as this timeless, changeless, transcendent institution. While that may be so of her core values and fundamental lessons, it certainly cannot be said of her meetings and social functions. Just as the Freemasonry of the 1700s bears little resemblance to our present practice, so too will the Freemasonry of tomorrow wear a face much different from the one we see today.
So what, precisely, is required to mind the gap? How do we connect with – and then keep – today’s young men? First we must examine how and why they came to have an interest in Freemasonry. Next, we need to ask what it is they hope to get from membership? Then we have one more step. No, that step is not to look at them and sternly inform them that this is the way we have always done it and this is the way we will always continue to do it. The last step is to adapt our sometimes pathologically inflexible Lodges to the wants and needs of the men we wish to attract. Let me say that again. We must adapt our sometimes pathologically inflexible Lodges to the wants and needs of the men we wish to attract. Heresy, right? But what about strawberry night? We’ve done that for 50 years and it used to be crowded. Sure, it used to be. Is it now? If not, it should at least be considered for the chopping block.
Whence come the young? If you’re over 50, there’s a good chance that you were attracted to Freemasonry because you knew and admired a man who was a Mason. Maybe it was your father, your boss, someone from your church, or a well-known member of your community. You knew very little about what to expect from the ceremonies, and you knew even less about what any of our symbols meant. All of the men (or at least the majority of them) were men you respected. You joined because you wanted to be like (or at least keep company with) the men you respected.
Mind the Gap, Brethren!
Today’s young man knows more about Freemasonry before he joins than some of our current members. He has gained knowledge of the ritual, symbolism and history of the Craft, as well as those of other esoteric bodies via the internet. He has seen television shows and movies that (usually) portray us as shapers of history. While he may know a few Masons, they probably were not his reason for joining.
He comes to us not from other Masons, not from his father’s insistence that he join, and not out of admiration of people that he knows and admires. He is attracted to the mystique of this institution that has worked behind the scenes in the birth of nations and battles for freedom, and captivated the minds of the great thinkers of the past. Freemasonry holds for him the key to unlocking his own inner philosopher or freedom fighter.
So, what come they here to do? Again, if you are part of the over 50 crowd, you might have joined because many of your work colleagues belonged. Perhaps you thought of it as an excellent networking opportunity. You may have been motivated by the idea that they were visible in the community at a time when community meant a whole lot more than the three street, all cul-de-sac subdivision that you lived in. Your Masonry involved marching in parades, attending church services as a Lodge, working with large and thriving youth groups, organizing community festivals and the like. But those things don’t really exist anymore – certainly not in the way they did years ago. They are relics of a time when most families had one car, bought their meat from the butcher, their bread from the bakery and tacitly accepted the sad fact that they couldn’t buy fresh asparagus at Christmas time.
Mind the gap, Brethren!
While the young man who is seeking admission today might not mind marching in a parade, that isn’t why he sought us out. His primary focus will never be flipping pancakes or peddling raffle tickets. Don’t misunderstand me. Those things aren’t bad. Working behind the scenes at the community breakfast gives him a chance to know his Brothers better, and selling tickets makes him feel he has a vested interest in the Lodge’s future. If that’s all you give him, though, he will soon be one of the few who “get his Degrees and never return,” and you will be left scratching your head.
Today’s young man joined to gain insight into the meaning of his life, to perfect the better side of his nature, and to give back to his fellow travelers. Do we give that to them? Do we listen to what they want, or do we tell them that they should want what we offer?Here Are we even willing to change to keep them?
I refuse to believe that Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire or Mozart rushed home from a busy day of diplomacy, philosophizing or composing, changed into a fresh ruffled shirt and knickers so they could to get to Lodge to hear the reading of the minutes, pay the bills and learn about income tax preparation, retirement planning or fly fishing.
In an age where most young men know each other only by avatars and screen names, and the closest thing they get to human interaction is a poke or a retweet, we have a tremendous opportunity. We can take them by the hand (literally), raise them up and say, “See. There is something bigger and more important than yourself and the tiny virtual universe contained in your iPhone,” or we can stubbornly cling to the Freemasonry of the past and wring our hands as they walk out the door, disillusioned and unfulfilled.
So what do we do? Start by asking what would Lodge need to be like to convince your child or grandchild to join? What would we need to give them in the Lodge to make them miss their child’s soccer practice or a night at home? I suspect it would be something Masonic – something they couldn’t get anywhere else. It could be something as simple as having an open discussion about the ancient charges. Spend fifteen minutes dissecting exactly what it is we are charged to do in the opening, closing, or the degrees. You could download one of the Grand Master’s PowerPoints, show a quality YouTube video on Masonry, or engage a speaker.
Next, we need to educate them. I’m talking now of Masonic education. In order to make young men into Masons, we need to teach them Masonry. Encourage them to use the education portal. You can even use it with them. We have the Master Builder program for new Masons, and now we have the Master Pillar program for the more seasoned among us.
Lastly, we need to value them. By that, I do not mean that we approach them following their Master Mason’s Degree and ask them if they want to be Junior Warden next year. We simply need to get the new members involved – to make them feel valued and necessary. And we need to do it in a way that works for them. If they are excited about floor work, make a spot. If they want to try a fundraiser that you’ve never done, let them chair it. Play on their strengths, their interests, and their abilities. If you do that, they’ll come back because they have purpose.
We don’t exist in a vacuum. As timeless as our teachings may be, we need to adapt them to the actual time we are in. The Lodges that do that the best will succeed. The ones that do not will struggle. The future isn’t bleak, Modern Vitruvians, it is just different.
Mind the Gap!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Unexpected Gift

It was still dark when the alarm went off, and it took me a few minutes to orient myself. Getting up at 5 am on Christmas Eve wasn’t my first choice, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Henry had been relegated to full-time caregiver since Eva’s Thanksgiving Day surgery, and I thought that he would appreciate someone clearing the three to six inches of snow that had been forecast overnight. He would definitely appreciate it, but as was his custom, he would complain that I had better things to do than shovel an old man’s driveway on Christmas Eve.
     I threw the covers off and quickly pulled on my thermal underwear and some thick wool socks before I glanced out the window to see how much snow we had actually gotten. I’ve never trusted the weathermen. I figured a forecast of three to six could mean anything between nothing and a foot. I’d love a job where I could be that wrong and still be paid.
     It was difficult to gauge precisely from my 6th-floor apartment, but it appeared that we had gotten closer to a foot. From here, the cars appeared as larger, whiter, and more bulbous versions of themselves. The snow that clung to them in every direction told me two things. First, that it would be heavy and wet. Secondly, that the extra money I laid out every month leasing an indoor parking space was well spent.
     Despite the bad road conditions, I arrived in front of Henry’s house before the sun was above the horizon. The snow was still falling in fat flakes nearly the size of golf balls, and in the predawn light, the entire landscape seemed to be painted in shades of blue-gray.
     I had expected to be the first one out with a shovel in hand, but I was wrong. The brittle scraping of metal against concrete, muffled by the deep snow, echoed from several houses on the street. Early risers with places to be on Christmas Eve, I figured. There was even someone clearing Mrs. Roman’s walkway.
     Marie Roman was Henry’s next door neighbor. She was in her mid-nineties and had been a widow for about a decade or so. Her sons both lived out of town, so she would occasionally ask Henry to help her out with little tasks around the house, which he did without complaint. In exchange, she would deliver homemade grape leaves, baklava, or pita bread. “The food of my people,” she would tell him. It was during one of these deliveries that I first met her earlier in the year.
     “Dylan, this is Mrs. Roman,” Henry said to me after he had relieved her of a large tray of food.
     “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Roman. I’m Dylan,” I replied, offering my hand.
     “Oh my, this is Dylan? What a handsome young man. Henry has told me all about you,” she said, completely ignoring my hand and opting instead for a big hug. “Please, call me Marie,” she added.
     “As you wish, Mrs. Roman.”
     “Stop it, you! It’s Marie, or I won’t answer.” She punctuated it by putting her hands on her hips and turning her nose into the air.
     “As you wish, Marie.” She reminded me a lot of my own grandmother, and I liked her instantly. In fact, after that brief encounter, I felt like I had known her for years.
     I waved at the figure on her front stoop. He was dressed in bulky overalls, a thick, knit cap pulled down over his eyebrows, and a scarf pulled up to meet it. I assumed it was either one of her sons, visiting for Christmas or a landscaper that she paid to do the work. He returned my wave and went right back to work on the walkway.
     Following his lead, I picked up my own shovel and began the daunting task of clearing Henry’s driveway. To take my mind off of the work, I entered into a secret race with the mystery man at Marie’s house. He had a distinct advantage in that her one-car garage faced the street, and as such, the driveway was short and narrow. Henry, on the other hand, had a corner lot, with a long, wide driveway that ran nearly the depth of the property.
     I pushed through the thick snow, occasionally comparing my progress with that of the bundled-up man at Marie’s. I noticed that he was going considerably slower than me. It had to be her son, I finally decided, as a landscaper would have been faster, and likely would have used a plow, or at the very least, a snow blower.
     I had two passes left to complete Henry’s driveway. My opponent had just finished Mrs. Roman’s driveway, and thrust his shovel into the snow bank in triumph. It’s probably more likely that he simply finished his task and set the shovel down since only I knew we were racing, but it certainly felt like a taunt. I returned, defeated, to the last of my job. My back was toward Mrs. Roman’s so I was startled when I heard the gibe from behind me. “Is that all the faster you can go?” What was even more surprising was that it was Henry.
     “What the. . .Why are you out here? This snow is way too heavy for you, and besides, shouldn’t you be taking care of Eva?’
     The wet snow fell away from the wool scarf as he pulled it down to reply. “Eva’s fine inside. I think she gets a little tired of me doting on her, so I figured, I’d clear Marie’s driveway to give her a break.”
     “But Henry, you’re 83! You shouldn’t be out here shoveling your own driveway, much less someone else’s.”
     “I didn’t shovel my own, you did,” he quipped.
     “You know what I mean.”
     “I do, but Marie’s ninety-something. I’m certainly not going to let her go out there and do it herself. You know me better than that.”

     I had no comeback. I certainly did know him better than that. As if she had waited for the lull in the conversation, Marie opened the front door and shouted to us. “You two boys must be exhausted and freezing. Come inside for a minute. I made you some hot chocolate.”
     Henry looked at me. “You go ahead. I’m going to run in and let Eva know where we are going so she doesn’t worry. I’m right behind you.”
     I shook myself clear of as much snow as possible before I went inside. I was greeted by the aroma of hot chocolate, and some sort of dessert either still in, or fresh from the oven. Exactly what dessert it might be was being masked by the vague scent of mothballs. A patchwork of carpet runners led the way through the high traffic areas of the house. I wondered at first if she had just laid the there to protect the floors from me, but the wear patterns made it evident that they were a permanent part of the d├ęcor. It was quiet except for the slow march of the Regulator clock keeping time on the living room wall.
     “Let’s go sit in the kitchen,” she said, leading me toward the back of the house. “I just baked some nut horns as well. I hope you’re hungry.”
     “Do you think I’d be foolish enough to turn down anything you made by hand.”
     She handed me a large mug of hot chocolate. The steam rose from it in waves, and the two big marshmallows on top had already began to melt. I cupped my hands around the mug in an effort to get my circulation to return.
     “I can’t thank you enough for clearing my driveway. My boys wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she said. “They’re getting up there.”
     I laughed out loud without meaning to. “I’d love to take credit, Marie, but Henry did every inch of it.”
     “I’m going to kill him. He knows better than that!”
     “No argument here,” I said. “I pretty much told him the same thing just before you invited us in.”
     “I want to give you this,” she said, sliding a beautifully wrapped package across the table.
     “What is it,” I asked.
     “It’s a gift, silly.”
     “I know that,” I said. “But I told you I wasn’t the one who did your driveway. I can’t accept it. You should give it to Henry.”
     “It’s not Henry’s gift. It’s yours. Please, just open it.”
     “Okay, but I didn’t get you anything.” I unwrapped the package to find an exquisite china pedestal bowl. I know next to nothing about china, but I could tell it was a fine piece – delicate and rimmed with gold.
     “It’s Lenox,” she said. “It’s actually a fruit bowl – I think they’re called compotes or something like that – but my husband used to keep it in his armoire and lay his rings and watch in it at night. I want you to have it.”
     “It’s gorgeous, Marie. I really don’t deserve it. I wasn’t expecting anything.” I figured it was useless to remind her again that I wasn’t even the one that did the shoveling, so I didn’t.
     “I know you weren’t expecting anything. Sometimes, unexpected gifts are the best kind.”
     “I suppose that’s true,” I said. She was truly a delightful woman to be around. “Since you’re giving me something so sentimental, do you mind if I ask you about your husband?”
     “He’s one of my favorite subjects. What would you like to know, dear?”
     She proceeded to tell me about how they met. It was during the war. He had stayed home on a medical deferment. It was love at first sight – for both of them. She told me about her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They were her world, and it came through both in her words and in her eyes as she talked of them.
     “I can’t believe he’s been gone for almost fifteen years. I miss him every single day,” she said. I detected a little quiver in her voice as I reached for another cookie. “I don’t want to get all philosophical, but why is God keeping me around?”
     “These nut horns,” I answered quickly, trying to lighten the mood a little.
     “I’m glad you like them, but I’m serious, Dylan. The kids are grown. Heck, their kids are grown. There’s nothing I can do except be a burden. Why is God keeping me alive instead of letting me go be with my husband? I’m a nobody. I swear that I’m only here because I’m so insignificant that even God forgot about me.”
     I was caught off guard. How was I supposed to respond to that? I didn’t know her all that well. In fact, this was the first one-on-one conversation we had ever had. But as I said, she was the kind of person you felt you knew intimately after five minutes together. “Well, Marie, I think God wants us to be happy, so he puts sweet, kind, joyful people in our paths all the time. You’re one of those people. Henry and Eva swear they’ve never seen you in a bad mood. And you make me smile every time I see your face. Maybe that’s why God keeps you around. To be a joy to others.”
     “I don’t know if I buy that, but thank you for cheering up an old lady.” She smiled a wrinkled smile, and she was beautiful. “You ought to run along. You have better things to do on Christmas Eve than talk to me.”
     “If there’s something better than this, I haven’t experienced it yet, my dear,” I said as we both rose from the table. She hugged me for a long time – a deep grandma hug – before she let me leave.
     “Thank you so much for the gift,” I said. “I know just where I’m going to put it.”
     “Thank you, Dylan.”
     Henry was just about to knock on her door as I opened it to leave. He apologized to Marie for being so long and asked for a rain check. As we walked to my car, I told him about our talk and showed him the bowl. “She is one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met. I just don’t understand why she gave me such an expensive gift,” I concluded.
     “Maybe she feels like she’s repaying you for an even more expensive gift,” to which I gave him a puzzled look. “You’re a smart guy. Figure it out.”
     “Challenge accepted,” I replied. “Give Eva my love, and tell her I’ll stop and see you both after church tomorrow.”
     “Will do,” he said, hugging me. “Merry Christmas, Dylan. Oh, and thanks for shoveling. It was a huge help,” he added with a wink.

     On the morning of December 27th, Henry called me with the news that Marie had passed away. Henry had found her in her bed. He had gone over to check on her when her son couldn’t reach her on the telephone. I was silent as he told the story. I hardly knew her, but I felt the pain of her loss as if she were someone who had been a part of my life for a long time.

     “When you get a chance, I want you to come over,” Henry said. “I have something I need to show you.”
     “What is it? Can I stop by after work?”
     “That’d be fine. I’ll just show you when you get here.”
     I made the drive from my office thinking about Marie – her white, wispy hair, the wrinkles that added so much character to her olive skin. I wondered what it would have been like to live through the Depression, World War II, and all of life’s hardships and still manage to smile every day. What a lady.
     When I got to Henry’s, he poured us each a glass of scotch before sliding a small, leather-bound book across the table. The thick, brown cover was embossed with a rose, and the year 2015. A pink ribbon protruded from the pages near the back.
     As I reached for it, Henry asked, “Have you figured it out?”
     It took me a second to figure out what he was asking. “You mean what Marie was repaying me for?”
     “Yes, that.”
     “Well, she loves you and Eva. I think that she was thanking me for helping you.” My voice involuntarily trailed up at the end, making it more of a question than a statement. Henry waited silently for me to continue so I did. “Maybe she was thanking me for spending some time with her too. I know we didn’t talk long, but it was a good conversation.”
     “Not bad. You’re on the right track. Maybe you’re wiser than I give you credit for,” he teased, using his head to gesture me toward the book. “Read it from the ribbon until the end.”
     Her penmanship was exquisite – round, flowing cursive written with a fountain pen. Her last three entries were as follows:
December 24th
It looks like we’re going to have a white Christmas! I can’t believe the snow we got – almost a foot. But I woke up to a clean driveway thanks to Henry! How sweet. I also had the most enjoyable conversation with Henry’s friend, Dylan. What a wonderful young man. I gave him John’s jewelry bowl today. It was hard to part with it, but he deserved it. He’s so kind. Just like John. We talked for a long time (maybe longer than I should have kept him on Christmas Eve) and he wasn’t in a hurry to go. He talked to me – not with me or at me, but actually to me. He made me feel like I mattered for the first time in a long time and he said I bring people joy. That conversation was an early Christmas gift. I am blessed.
December 25th
Christmas was wonderful! Both of the kids and even some of the grandkids were here for dinner. They showered this old woman with gifts. I got a lovely sweater set, new perfume, and best of all, they cleaned up after dinner. I love my family. I wish they could have stayed longer. Henry, Eva, and Dylan stopped by to wish me a Merry Christmas. Too sweet.
December 26th
I’m in bed early tonight. I wasn’t feeling well – probably the excitement of the holiday. I keep thinking about what Dylan said, and how he made me feel. I feel awful for saying it, but it was honestly the best gift I got this year. After all these years, he made me see that I actually might matter. Tomorrow, I’m going to write him and tell him so. I need to thank him for giving this woman such an unexpected gift.

With tears in my eyes, I closed the book. Sometimes unexpected gifts are the best kind, I thought. Requiescat in Pace, Marie.