In this last week before my sixty-sixth birthday, I started something new: I became a Lyft driver.
The idea came from my cousin who does so herself in Texas. We were catching up and talking about ways to make a little cash and she suggested I look into the service. She went on to tell me several stories of people she had chauffeured and the stories they had to tell and that was enough to make me jump through the hoops on the app so I could start driving.
Before anyone ever got in my car I was grateful I had signed up because a couple of days after Lyft notified me that my driver’s license was set to expire on my birthday. Instead of driving that afternoon, I renewed my license.
Here in the bustling micropolis that is Guilford, Lyft drivers are not in high demand. I knew I would need to be closer to New Haven. I got my chance today when someone in town put out word on social media that they needed a ride to and from the hospital for some treatment, so I volunteered to drive them in (for free) and then set out to use the time in between to see how this whole DIY taxi thing works.
The way the app works is pretty cool. An alert came with a request and an indication of how far I was from the person who needed a ride. I clicked to say I was on my way and the app switched to a map that gave me specific (and accurate) turn by turn directions. When I got to the location, I clicked a button that said arrived and the person came out of their building and got in the car. Then I moved a slider to start the trip and the map gave me everything I needed to get them to their destination. When I dropped them off, I had one last slider to confirm I was finished and the next ride popped up.
My first passenger went from New Haven to Wallingford, a town to the north. He had some sort of package he was delivering and was on the phone with the woman who was expecting both he and his cargo the whole way. When he got out of the car, I drove a few blocks and picked up a woman who was going from Wallingford to Meriden, another town on the outskirts of New Haven, but a little farther east. She was a little more conversant, but was also captivated by her screen. Then I got a prompt to pick up a girl at her high school and drive her home.
By this time, I had been driving about forty-five minutes, following the map on the screen in my CRV and wandering through parts of greater New Haven I had never seen. Because I was paying attention to each turn, I had no larger sense of where I was other than a town name, and I wasn’t always sure of that. I was simply going from here to there–and only because someone else needed to make the trip. About that time I received word that the person I had driven in for treatment was going to spend the night at the hospital for observation. Since I was on the other side of the city from Guilford, I decided to take a couple of more passengers.
My next to last ride was a woman who worked in New Haven and lived in Hamden. When I got to the address, she was standing outside the building with a walker. She might have been in her thirties. She got in the car and I put the walker in the back and we began the twenty minute ride to her apartment. She was just getting off work and was ready to chat more than my other passengers. The reason for her needing both a ride and a walker was she had fallen asleep driving to work four months earlier and had hit a tree. She totaled her car and broke a number of bones. She was still recuperating. Her job had been in maintenance, but since she was unable to as mobile as that position required she had moved to a desk job. She didn’t like it, she said, but was glad for the work.
I was struck by the tone with which she talked about what had happened to her. She was not despairing, neither was she deflective. I heard hope in her voice. Maybe part of that was we passed a restaurant I recognized and complimented and she asked if they had good wings because she loved wings, which led to the rest of the ride being about how to make crispy wings. It’s hard to be hopeless when you’re talking about chicken wings.
I dropped her off and picked up one more person: a man who lived in the next apartment building and took him back to New Haven, though I didn’t realize which direction I was heading. The streets were small, the trees–even without leaves–were thick, and the fog was heavy. About three turns before we reached his destination, I realized I was on the way home. He got out of the car, I turned off the app, and I drove myself back to Guilford.
Years ago, I wrote a poem called “Spokane” where I imagined a family in Washington who lived happy and fulfilled lives that did not require me. One of the middle stanzas says,
they are finding their dreams building their lives breaking their hearts living out their days without knowing me and they are not the only ones
Today, I got to drive into the middle of other lives and help them get where they needed to go. Though my name showed up in the app, my contribution was to drive. I had no real lines to speak of. They are not required to remember me. I was, as they say, an extra in the story of their lives, and they in mine. How amazing that for even a moment we had the chance to need each other.
One of the realities of my life is I am not hard to overhear.
I would love to say my hearing loss is primarily to blame, but I have talked loudly all of my life. I have a booming voice, as they say. As my hearing loss has become profound (the official word), I have even less of a sense of the sound I am releasing into the world and have had to learn to judge it by the way my throat feels rather than how I sound to myself, but that means I have to pay attention to how my throat feels and often, when I am engaged by conversation, my attention is aimed elsewhere.
This morning I drove to Plainfield, Connecticut to meet my friend Christy at the Day Breaks Diner. Neither of us had been there before, but it was about halfway between Guilford and Westford, Massachusetts where Christy lives.
We have known each other a long time. I was youth minister at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas when Christy became my intern to work with TCU students while she was in seminary, circa 1986. When Ginger and moved to Boston, Christy came up several times, both by herself and with church groups. She ended up moving to Boston and then falling in love and getting married. We have seen each other through many chapters of life. Since Ginger and I moved back to New England, Christy and I have met for breakfast a number of times (previously at Danny’s Depot Diner in Moosup, but they were closed today), but the pandemic broke our schedule. Today it resumed.
Day Breaks is everything you want in a breakfast joint: a horseshoe counter, booths that were installed about the time Christy and I met, servers that offer both kindness and little bit of attitude, and really good food. We sat in a booth by the front window, the last in a line of four. I didn’t notice the man who sat in the booth next to us, though I was facing him. Christy and I were talking baseball, which is one of our favorite subjects–particularly the Red Sox, who are in the middle of an uncertain offseason because of some key players who are free agents. As I was lamenting the possible, perhaps even probable loss of Xander Boegarts, the volume of my voice must issued an unintentional invitation to the man, who was eating by himself, because he joined right in, offering his opinion on free agency, the general demise of pro sports, and the danger of NIL (name, image, and likeness) in college athletics.
He talked for a couple of minutes and, I must say, he made a lot of sense. It was as though he had a speech he had been dying to make and had not yet had the opportunity. My ability to talk to a whole room gave him an opening. It felt a little invasive, but then I felt a sense of warmth that we were sitting in a diner having a conversation across booths, even booths divided by plexiglass screens. After a bit, he apologized for interrupting and went back to his breakfast. Christy and I went back to our conversation–with me trying to talk less loudly–and moved on from baseball to catching up on our lives, part of which was my telling her that I may be starting another bridge interim after the first of the year at a church on the other side of New Haven.
That word must have traveled as well because when he stood up to leave he said, “I’m UCC, too,” and smiled as though he might be taking a good memory of the morning with him.
Christy and I sat at the Daybreaks for a couple of hours until our lives called us both back home. We talked to each other, the server, and the man in the next booth. It was good to be with my friend, to lean into stories we have shared for decades, to tighten the bonds, to make the effort to get to one another. And it was good to add another story to the stack of those that make up our friendship, a story of someone who needed to be heard and thought that the guy who talked to loud because he doesn’t hear well must have wanted to listen.
As he was talking, I could see the smile on Christy’s face–that may be my favorite memory of the morning. She was not mocking him. What I saw in her eyes was amusement, even joy–a kind of I-can’t-believe-I-get-to-be-here-for-this kind of look. I hope the expression on my face communicated the same thing.
I would love to tell you I remember who gave me this recipe. As you can see from the photograph, it has been around a long time and, based on the “this one” written and circled, it replaced one I had used previously. It has also erased the memory of the former recipe.
For all of the time I have baked this bread, I only recently noticed it is actually (and, I must say, unintentionally) vegan. Instead of eggs and butter, it uses vegetable shortening, pumpkin pureé, and Guinness (I think that is why I gravitated to this recipe). No animals were harmed in the making of this bread. Pumpkins, however . . .
One other note: the recipe does not use a whole can of Guinness, which means the remainder is left for the baker, regardless of the time of day.
2/3 cup vegetable shortening (preferably not Crisco), room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 can (15.5 oz) pumpkin
2/3 cup Guinness (or other dark beer)
1/4 cup molasses
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
Preheat the oven to 350°.
In a stand mixer using the blade attachment, cream the shortening and the sugars. They will not fluff up like butter, but let it run for a while. Add the pumpkin, Guinness, and molasses and again let the mixer run until everything is mixed well.
While it is running, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices in a separate bowl and whisk to make sure they are combined well. Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and mix until they form a consistent batter.
Prepare your loaf pans with oil and flour. This recipe will make two 9-inch loaves or six smaller ones. The larger loaves bake for an hour; the smaller ones for 25-30 minutes. Test the middle with a toothpick to make sure they are done. Let them rest on a cooling rack until they are cool enough to handle before you take them out of the loaf pans.
I have no idea how long Guilford has hosted a tree lighting on the Green, but we have managed to be there with several hundred of our closest neighbors for all but one of the seven Christmases we have been in town, the one exception being 2020. You remember 2020.
Our first year was also the first year for the tree that was being lighted because the one that had been used grew to big for the Parks and Rec folks to string the lights. The young one had been growing for several years as an understudy and finally came of age. Seven years later, it is a teenage tree that stands sixteen or eighteen feet tall, I would guess. Over the past week, the workers have strung the lights on the tree and put up a temporary wooden fence around it, along with a couple of lighted reindeer. Yesterday they moved the trailer that opens into a stage into place, and tonight the Green filled up with people, and beyond those surrounding the stage were people on the sidewalks and in the stores and cafés that had stayed open late.
The weather appeared to understand the importance of the evening, offering a clear, crisp night that began about five o’clock, thanks to the short days of the season. About 5:45 the festivities began, which always include performances from local dance classes and choirs, local musicians, and a word from our First Selectman, which is another way of saying Town Mayor, all of it designed to make the five seconds it takes to flip the light switch turn into an hour long event. I felt like I was in the cast of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
We were far enough from the stage to be out of reach of the sound system, surrounded by people who had brought their children and their dogs, though both seemed like poor decisions to me based on the barks and minor meltdowns. Even so, most of the kids were happy to run around with their glory-sticks, and most of the dogs content to peddle for affection from any passer-by. Meanwhile the choirs sang on in pantomime to most of the crowd and a good time was had by pretty much everyone.
We were getting close to seven before Santa showed up to lead us in the countdown–5,4,3,2,1–and the lights went out on the stage and came up on the tree. We all cheered and started walking to our cars and houses. We had done what we came to do and had had fun doing it.
Even before the pandemic, before most all of us developed a longing for most any reason to be around people, the Green has filled up on this night. It is a night full of activity. High school students line the sidewalks with luminaria, the high school choir and orchestra perform their holiday concert in our church for two nights (and four performances). But the night is known for the tree lighting. That is why we gather. And our little town is not alone.
Why do we do that?
Please hear my question in a tone of wonder. On a night when I was not particularly feeling the season, I walked home in wonder that we, as humans, are built to need each other, to think up reasons to be together.
to be known, to feel safe to be honest and unafraid to leave the past, run into hope to find together we are not alone
I need you you need me. this is why we gather this is why we gather to remember why we matter this is why we gather
to share our story, silence the noise to hear the wisdom in the tremble of a voice to carry healing for all the scars to know we’re more than our broken hearts
I need you you need me. this is why we gather this is why we gather to remember why we matter this is why we gather
This is why we gather: to remember why we matter. People practiced and performed songs and dances, vendors packed shopping carts full of gloves-sticks and light sabres, the Boy Scouts sold hot dogs and hot chocolate to raise money to send care packages to soldiers, the men at St. George’s Catholic Church sold soup and pretzels, the strollers on the sidewalks crowded out the Goldens and Labradoodles, and children chased each other in the darkness–all of it so someone could flip a switch and light the tree.
It was a lot of work for a moment that mattered, but moments that matter always take a lot of work, even when we don’t realize it. We live for these moments, again, even when we don’t realize it, because they help us remember why we matter. Why WE matter.
I need you. You need me. So say the Labradors, the little ones, and the lights on the town tree.
In December of 1983 I was working as a chaplain at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. My roommate, Bruce Reece, owned the condo we shared in North Dallas–well, then it was North Dallas; now it is almost downtown. Bruce traveled a lot with his work and that December was no exception. What was exceptional was the weather. In the evening of December 18 the temperature dropped below freezing and stayed that way until the afternoon of December 30. In between those dates, five Arctic cold fronts hit the region.
It was cold.
Some time a week or so before Christmas, the weather took a turn that meant that those of us at the hospital stayed there for several shifts. My extended stay coincided with Bruce’s travel, so when I finally got home after being at the hospital for three days, I came into an empty apartment and when I stepped on the carpet it squished. The living room had about an inch of water from a broken pipe. We had dripped our faucets, but the people in the adjacent condo had not and their pipe burst into our place, or so it was explained to a person by the management company, who also said they would be by the following day to pull up the carpet and we would need to take down our Christmas tree.
I was handling everything as best I could until he said the tree had to come down. Christmas that year, for me, meant working a half day on Christmas Eve, flying to Houston to see my parents, and then flying back Christmas night to work on the 26th. Bruce’s holiday was about as joyous and we had worked hard to celebrate the season together in a way that gave us both hope. I couldn’t imagine losing the tree.
I was exhausted, and I knew Bruce would be in that night around 1 a.m., so I showered and got ready for bed and then stretched out on the couch so I could explain what had happened. As Bruce tells it (I was too sleepy to remember), as he opened the door and stepped on the carpet, I raised up and said, “The pipes broke from the other people’s place and they are coming to pull up the carpet tomorrow and we have to take down the tree.” Then I fell back asleep and he went on to bed.
The next morning, I had to be back at work, so I was up and gone before he woke up. He had already sent word that he was taking a day off to deal with the mess in the house. I went through my day trying to prepare myself to go home to a concrete floor and no Christmas tree.
This time, Bruce greeted me when I opened the door. He was sitting on the couch where I had been sleeping. The carpet was gone, exposing the concrete slab, but the furniture was still there, as was the Christmas tree, still lighted and decorated.
I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember I began to cry.
“After I saw the look on your face last night,” Bruce said, “I knew we had to keep the tree. I spent the whole morning right here as they were pulling up the carpet, reminding them what was at stake. There was no way I was going to lose that tree.”
It was another two weeks before the freeze finally let up, and a couple of weeks after that before we got new carpet, and through it all that tree held its place and we got to Christmas, mostly because my friend did what good friends do.
Life is hard, I know, and all of us have broken pipes of some sort that are flooding our lives. I also know not everyone reading this celebrates Christmas, but we are all trying to figure out how to keep going. I don’t need to wrap it up more than that; it just seemed like a good time to tell this story.
in the small town where
we lived before this one
one of the houses on
our way home filled
their yard with
things Santa snowmen
reindeer to name a few
each was filled with
air and light and made
their corner lot
the beacon of the
when they turned off
the power and all
the figures fell flat
on the lawn leaving
what looked like
a Christmas massacre
until darkness came and
they filled with air and light
again as though they were
inhaling the night
and exhaling the dawn
a better image than
imagining they had
fallen over because they
were as tired as we felt
some days driving home
and wondering what
it would take to stay
inflated all the time
maybe it wasn’t a
massacre after all
but a kindness
a way of saying
we’ll get through this
One of the essays I read this morning was a short reflection written by the poet Pablo Neruda who recalled standing in the back yard of his house when he noticed a hole in the wooden fence. When he moved closer to investigate, a boy’s hand reached through from the other side and handed him a small white sheep. He never saw the boy again. Neruda said he kept the sheep for many years until it was lost, and then he never passed a toy shop without hoping to find another one. Then he wrote,
pablo I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses–that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.
Such is the power of kindness. It widens out the boundaries, expands our comfort zones, illuminates the connections between us. Neruda’s story reminded me of one of my favorite poems: “Zen of Tipping” by Jan Beatty
My friend Lou used to walk up to strangers and tip them—no, really— he’d cruise the South Side, pick out the businessman on his way to lunch, the slacker hanging by the Beehive, the young girl walking her dog, and he’d go up, pull out a dollar and say, Here’s a tip for you.
I think you’re doing a really
good job today. Then Lou would walk away as the tipee stood in mystified silence. Sometimes he would cut it short with, Keep up the fine work. People thought Lou was weird, but he wasn’t. He didn’t have much, worked as a waiter. I don’t know why he did it. But I know it wasn’t about the magnanimous gesture, an easy way to feel important, it wasn’t interrupting the impenetrable edge of the individual—you’d have to ask Lou—maybe it was about being awake, hand-to-hand sweetness, a chain of kindnesses, or fun—the tenderness we forget in each other.
I know the poem doesn’t contain any sheep or children, but I found resonance between the boy offering his sheep and Lou tipping random strangers: both found ways to be kind, to communicate connection through rather ordinary acts. And neither Lou nor the boy were the ones telling others what they did.