Ask for Help

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch


He is six. He is the spitting image of his paternal uncle as a child. I suspect he regularly experiences nuclear explosions in his blood for the amount of energy he gives off. The boy bounces, runs, climbs, and speaks at an excessively high volume. Everything he does is done intensely. He feels everything. He expresses everything.

So when he asks for something, it is not enough to merely ask. He must plea. Calls and requests come pouring out of his little mouth and little lips with a cry and a whine. It is as if he thinks, believes with all his heart, the thing he longs for will never come because we said, “wait.”

When he asks, he either has already begun to believe it will not happen or he demands with complete assurance his need will be met. If I have forgotten his request because I am elbow-deep in unpacking another large U-haul moving box, he does not suspect it will be forgotten forever. He is convinced.

A good friend grew to trust me and rely on me in college. His car battery died in Modesto near the junior college. I was at home, twenty minutes away. When he called and asked for help, I inquired, “did you ask anyone walking by if they have jumper cables?” The thought had not occurred to him. You see, growing up, for him, there was no one to ask for help. He learned to rely on himself. Every man for himself, they taught him.

Ask my father a question. If he does not know the answer, his first inclination is not to “Google” it, as mine would be. He will begin to generate a list of friends he knows who might know the answer. He grew up in a world of community, of neighbors, of solidarity.

Some days it feels like that world is slipping away from us. Who can I ask for help? Friends live far away. Schedules are full. Families are small. Weekdays are filled with children. Weekends are filled with family times…or sports…or trips.

One generation raised another with the individualistic belief: I should do it myself. It I cannot, I should hire someone who can. We used to ask friends to help us move thinking they would reciprocate and we could one day help them. They never asked. They did it themselves. Or they hired movers.

What do we expect when we ask for help. Are we convinced the answer will be no? “He is probably too busy…she’s got too much on her plate…”

What lies beneath those excuses we put into the mouths and hearts of others? Do we believe people would help us if they could? Do we believe we are worth helping?

We reached out during this move; we asked for help. A church in our community responded with more generosity than we ever could have imagined. It was a church we do not even belong to. We did nothing to earn it. We cannot repay it. Yet they gave freely.

Because we asked.

Acts of kindness are not meant to be random, my professor said. They are deliberately done for those in need, whether we know them or not. It is right to give more to those we love, with whom we have a relationship.

Relationships begin in the smallest, most intimate circles: a spouse, a family, one’s closest friends. Then the circles grow to include a neighborhood, a church community, a civic organization, a town. When they grow so large, we know little about those in the circle, but they are still ours. They still have value. We are still bonded in the relationships of community.

I want my son to see that although the world is not the same as it was generations ago, relationships still matter. He can ask for help. There will be an answer.

Living Life in Paradox

Previously published at the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

Bright red strawberries alongside burnt pizza crust. Using the hospital tray, I meticulously cut strawberries into fourths to be drowned in Yoplait vanilla yogurt. Trash lines the people-flooded street we cross to enter the Orpheum Theater, tickets in hand, for a remarkable musical. The table beside my son’s medical pole holds unlooked for flowers.

Choosing to live life means living life in paradox, because life is hard.

If you are really living life, you have relationships and with relationships come the blood, sweat and tears that make life hard. Sure other things make life hard: loneliness and isolation, poor health. Those things are harder to bear without relationships; it all comes back to relationships. We ache for relationships. Relationships keep us in a paradox.

A paradox is a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities. Life is a paradox.

Living life fully means feeling life fully in its wonderfully joyous excitement; calm tender quietude; and draining, nagging suffering. Living life fully means taking events, as they are, not wasting time wishing they were something else. Describe it for it what it is, terrible or exhilarating, but save your wishes.

Plenty of aspects of life requires us to find the middle ground between two extremes. In medio stat viritus, the saying goes, in the middle stands virtue. The best and happiest way will be in the middle ground. This does not apply when it comes to mood. Perhaps we would enjoy never wavering emotion. Some seem disposed to it; others force it upon themselves because the natural swing of life’s rhythm proves too difficult to tolerate. They prefer to know what to expect.

That is where we miss out. Imagine an opera-singer singing half-heartedly, a quarterback playing so-so, a dancer lagging behind the beat; a parent who visits only once in a while. Life is meant to be lived fully, freely, and fruitfully.

Fully means holding nothing back. Whatever one does, doing it sincerely, with one’s energy and resources, prudently applied. I may need to conserve energy today knowing tomorrow will be a hard day. Instead of doing tasks lightly today, I intentionally choose light tasks.

Freely means recognizing oneself as an agent of free will, making a conscious choice about one’s activities (when possible) and reactions. I do this better when I am in a habit of reflecting a little bit each day, starting the morning by running through my mind the plans of the day, thinking ahead of what I want the day to be like and preparing myself for days when I know the unexpected ought to be expected. Thus, I maintain in control, at least of my feelings, when anything could happen.

Fruitfully means doing my best to bring good out of a situation. This may be a lesson learned after observing my behavior and reaction during suffering, something to put in my notebook to better handle the next run around. It may be an immediate good, by choosing to create some art or craft, or a boon to a relationship by letting my six-year-old give me a ballet lesson. Perhaps it is putting the phone, world wide web, and text notifications aside to focus deeply on the production I am about to see, the conversation I am about to have.

Fully, freely, fruitfully. It is the life advice that will apply to any moment, whether the pendulum will swing this way or that.

The paradox of life is not meant to be observed only. The tension that comes from shifting our gears between tragedy and comedy is the motivating force to make us flexible and adept at living life, to grow stronger, to find peace. We do not become stronger by “white-knuckling it” through our trials, by tamping our excitement in great life moments, or by avoiding relationships that require sacrifice on our part (I say sacrifice, not abuse). Whether the moment requires us to push through hard times or actively find a way out, the strength lies in leaning into the workout it does on our heart. I may not know what it looks like on the other side, but I can get through this. It can be worked for good.

I might have actually liked Frozen…

Have you seen this song “Life’s Too Short” which was created but then cut from the movie Frozen? There were many paths considered for the plot of the movie Frozen. This was cut as the story was developed. Please watch it and read on.

I think I would have really liked Frozen if they had gone in this direction. If you follow this blog, you know I’m not a fan of the movie. Here are the reasons why “Life’s Too Short,” a song full of deep and complex ideas and interpersonal dynamism, made such an impression on me.

Reason 1: I think this song demonstrates what strained sibling relationships are like.

Good movies/stories show insight into relationships no matter how fantastic the setting. Poor story telling either doesn’t go deep enough or makes caricatures of those relationships and the people in them. Is it realistic that Anna and Elsa should not know each other at all, spend six, eight or ten years separated by a door, unwilling to play, even after their parents who separated them died? Is it realistic that Elsa should be crowned queen after being locked up in this way?

It is more realistic that they would know each other, have some relationship, albeit is a very strained one. There is the desire for a relationship but an inability to quite connect because they don’t fully know or accept a part of who Elsa is. So as it is, is it really a happy ending the way the movie goes? They still don’t know each other but they’ve finally become aware and acted on their love for each other. Then what? I think the next step would more likely be what this song portrays. Just as I dislike movies where we spend one and half to two hours waiting for people to date, I disliked this movie. The real drama happens when relationships start.

Reason 2: If a person decides to take the “screw you, this is my who I really am” approach to things, there are some very real and painful consequences for everyone involved.

Elsa left her responsibilities as queen on her coronation day. In the song she will be only happy if Anna joins her in her new life. She won’t back to a life of hiding. It’s Anna’s mistake to think the only way Elsa can return is through hiding (wearing the gloves) but it’s the mistake of Elsa to think the only other alternative is to leave entirely. This dichotomy hurts people. The interaction reveals assumptions and expectations. Elsa’s choices and Anna’s ultimatum (which is really just a lack of understanding) damages relationships.

Number 3: Good stories commit to who their characters are, for good and ill and allow consequences to their faults/virtues to develop.

If we consider the musical Into the Woods (I have not seen the film, I am referencing the musical), the Baker’s Wife is basically a good person, but she has utilitarian beliefs (willing to lie to get the cow because have a child is a greater good than a boy’s friendship with a cow). That utilitarian belief leads to her dismissal of her unfaithfulness towards her husband with the prince as just a moment in the woods. There are consequences for her perspective.

Frozen does not commit to its characters. Elsa let’s go of all she has known, she’s a liberated person and there are no personal consequences that move the viewer. Personally, I believe Disney did not want to make her a real villain, even for a little while (reconciliation could still be the ending, sprinkling in conversion), because of the marketing opportunities to having two new princesses.

With this song, Elsa becomes the villain because she prioritizes her freedom over everything else, without regard to what or who she left behind. It’s implicit in the story as it is, but you have to search for it. By and large, she is treated as good and and as a victim without negative emotional weight to her choices.

Good stories have complicated people, good and bad, which is like life. This plot direction would have made the favorite song, “Let it Go,” a deeply complex song, sung from Elsa’s perspective but ultimately shown to have disastrous consequences when seen from a broader perspective. “Life’s Too Short” causes us to feel more for Anna when juxtaposed against Elsa, although it still succeeds in making us feel the hurt of both sisters. It makes that goal of the movie more successful by casting a little more judgment on their choices.

Number 5: Lastly, from where do we take our identity?

Who am I? Does my value come from my athleticism? What happens if I get injured, lose a leg, or my ability to run because of a heart condition? Who am I then? Sometimes when a person has been told to hide who they are for so long, they ruminate on that feature and it becomes a defining characteristic. I’m an artist! I’m a lesbian! I’m a Democrat! But these are features of our personality and parts of our life, very important features and important parts, but parts nonetheless. Our wholeness and value come from something permanent and lasting, from being made in the image of God as human beings. Seen in this framework, we can negotiate the rest, make it work, see where it fits.

Have you ever seen the stop animation film, Santa Claus is Coming to Town? You can still have the misunderstood villain by having a real villain who experiences a conversion. Sure, it’s simplified here, but the concept is important. It’s a concept mostly lost in modern storytelling.

I’m not saying Elsa should put on the gloves. But a resolution of this crisis might show that she repents of her choices to abandon everything, return and work through both her feelings of rejection (while others learn to accept who she is) and also learn to use and adapt her powers to her frame of life. It has less an “us against them” feeling and more “us against ourselves” which is something the greatest dramas in history portray.