all of the selves we Have ever been
When we enter a new year, we embrace a fresh start.
We resolve to change. We will become healthier, thinner, richer, better organized, better educated, and better read. We will quit smoking and quit complaining. We will be positive, motivated, and successful.
We have high hopes as we wait for the ball to drop and the fireworks to light up the sky. We are high on wishful thinking: the New Year’s Eve sparkle will rub off on our ordinary lives and make us new too. We will enter the salon and the wrinkles will magically disappear. The pounds will melt away as we enter the workout studio. On that fresh first day of the year we convince ourselves that the terrain will be smooth, the trip will be easy. We can do it!
About two weeks into the journey, we realize that our traveling companions are holding us back. We should never have brought our old selves into the shiny new year. We drop the ball. Game over. No celebratory fireworks.
We spend a lot of time and money on packaging. Sexy sells. When it doesn’t, we elevate ourselves by drawing attention to what is wrong with the other guy. After the last few soul-crushing years, I am wiped out. I know others are as well. I have nothing left for whipping up smoothies or for boxing with myself on the latest home workout mirror. It is a 9-1-1 emergency. A mass casualty situation.
And so, in 2022, I resolve to focus less on the vessel and more on the divine spark within—my own and that of others too. This year, I am making only one resolution: Fan the flames!
As we have opportunity, let us do good to all.
- Galatians 6:10
I am a woman on a mission. I am looking for a few good men. Well, not just men. I am looking for good people of any sort.
Two stories have taken up residence in my head launching me on this mission. The first story is about Edmund Burke, a respected member of the British Parliament in the 18th century. The words, all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, have frequently been attributed to Burke. While those exact words have not survived fact checking, in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), Burke is recorded as saying: When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
The second story on my mind is the Bible’s tale of the destruction of Sodom. The Lord tells Abraham that the city will be destroyed due to wickedness. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lives there with his family. Abraham beseeches the Lord to consider saving the city if fifty righteous men can be found. The Lord agrees, but Abraham continues to negotiate. They settle on a final number, and the Lord says, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
We all know how the story ends: the city burns, everything is destroyed. Lot escapes, but his wife disobeys God’s instructions. She looks back as she flees and turns into a pillar of salt.
It has been impossible to escape the daily news in 2021. Dare I look back? The year began with a pandemic threatening our health, weather events threatening our planet, and angry politicians threatening our democracy. People have remained uneasy and some have given voice to a fear that we are approaching the end of times.
I am not a prepper. I have no fortified bunker. I do not stockpile nonperishable foods or practice survival skills, but I do want to be ready. If the Lord offers me a deal, I want to have list so that I can name names. In a country of 334 million people, I pray I can find fifty good ones.
So far, I’ve got Ed, the homeless gentleman I wrote about on November 16th. A week later, I encountered a nameless and faceless truck driver, but I jotted down his license plate number. God will know the driver by his deeds. I encountered the truck driver as I headed out of Columbus via Interstate 71 North. The urban traffic was heavy and aggressive, moving much faster than the legal limit. My entire body was brittle with tension as I held my breath and I merged from the city ramp onto the highway. Traffic continued to whiz past me even though I was going the maximum posted speed. Feeling anxious and looking forward to getting beyond the city limits, I tucked myself in behind a Wooster Motor Ways truck. Remarkably, the driver maintained the speed limit and slowed for vehicles merging into the heavy traffic. I felt a rush of relief in finding this personal escort, a guardian angel. I followed the semi out of town and through the countryside. We traveled a good sixty miles together before parting ways at the Route 30 exit. While it is a small thing to obey the traffic laws and show consideration to other drivers, it is not without significance. Maybe God will see it as a test of character, a measure of goodness.
Then on November 29th, I met Ahmal. After several days of cold, rain, sleet, and snow flurries, the sun came up. By mid-afternoon the thermostat registered a sunny 42 degrees, and I headed outside for a walk. A half a block from home, I saw two obstacles blocking the narrow path ahead. One item appeared to be a bulging gym bag about three feet wide. Bright orange extension cords poked out from the top. Next to the bag was a Shop-Vac. As I came closer, I saw a man standing on the curb studying his smartphone. “Do you know where West Fifth Avenue is,” he asked.
“It’s about a half a block straight ahead.” The man looked so relieved, I thought he might cry.
“That’s good. That’s good,” he said as he picked up his things.
“I’m headed that way. I’ll walk with you.” The man refused to let me carry a thing even as sweat poured from his scalp and dripped onto his shoulders.
A few steps in, the man sat the items down in an attempt to re-adjust his load. At that point, I insisted, “hand me the Shop-Vac.” As we made our way to the bus stop, the man told me his story. He had gotten a ride to a local business to detail a food truck. The splattered grease stain that covered his white tea shirt corroborated the story. He told me that he had loaned his rent money to a family member with the promise that the money would be repaid by the time the rent came due. The borrower had not repaid the loan. With just two days remaining, this desperate but determined man was taking every odd job he could find to meet the first-of-the-month deadline. He told me how he had lost his regular job doing yardwork and landscaping when the weather turned cold. Perhaps there was more to the story, but I would not look for fault in a man willing to work this hard to pay his rent on time after sacrificing for a loved one. Slowing down, the man squinted and looked ahead, “I don’t see it. I don’t see no bus stop!”
Feeling his exhaustion, I encouraged him to keep going. “The sign is hidden by the trees. We’re almost there.”
We took a few more steps. “I see it! I see it now! I got about a two hours bus ride to get home and change so I can get to my next job.”
As I set the Shop-Vac down on the sidewalk next to the bus stop sign, the man asked me my name. “Lilli,” I said.”
“I’m Ahmal,” and he threw his arms open wide, embracing me with the gratitude of a man whose life had been saved.
I felt entirely unworthy and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the sun and the mild temperature that propelled me onto the bike path and into his arms, for the strength to share the mental load and to carry his Shop-Vac to the bus stop. And because I was fortunate, my rent was paid.
In this time when everything is askew and the headlines warn of more doom and gloom to come--the end of democracy, the end of decency, the end of the earth, I am buckling down on my mission to find fifty good people. I add Ahmal to the list.
The holiday season is a good time to embark on this exercise. In the Christian tradition, Christmas marks the birth of a savior. It is a story of hope, a season of second chances. For Christians, that is not fake news, it is the Good News. But good does not triumph easily. Because it comes into the world quietly and with humility, it risks being overlooked and demeaned. Sometimes there is no room for it at the inn. But a light shines upon goodness for those who seek it. Wise men travel far to find it.
In the secular tradition, Christmas is about a jolly old man who sees us when we’re sleeping. He knows when we’re awake. He keeps track of our deeds with his own list of who is naughty and who is nice. He checks his list not once but twice. The nice are rewarded on Christmas morning.
I had the good fortune of being born in the post-war era, a time of growth, abundance, and opportunity. I never questioned that I lived anywhere but in the greatest country on earth. Despite our history and our difficulties, I always believed that we would keep growing, and that, in the end, good would triumph in this homeland. The past few years have challenged my beliefs and sense of national identity. COVID has rattled the nerves of everyone on the planet and arrived at a time when democracy was already under grave threat all around the world. News of the day can make it hard to keep believing.
But it is Christmas. Whether you celebrate in the Christian tradition or the secular, Christmas is an important reminder of hope, a message that God, or the Something Greater, does not give up on us. Goodness matters and good can be found in surprising places. Mankind is an imperfect lot, but also an unfinished one. There is still time.
May goodness find you this Christmas. Prepare to name names.
With democracy crumbling all around the world,
I went looking for some happier news that I could sink my teeth into.
I landed on something big! Today, December 8, 2021, is National Brownie Day. I am not talking here about apprentice Girl Scouts; I am talking about the chewy delicious food that made it hip to be square.
Of course, controversy swirls even in a world of just desserts. Who is the actual inventor of the brownie? Is it the socialite Bertha Palmer, wife of the Palmer House Hotel owner? Some say that in 1893 she instructed her hotel chef to come up with a small cake that would fit in a boxed lunch. The Palmer House brownie contained walnuts and apricot glaze. The invention stuck to Bertha’s hips and to the Palmer House Hotel menu. A few years later, in 1904, some real housewives in Maine claimed the title of inventor with their recipe for the Bangor Brownie. Who knows? But by 1907 the brownie appeared for the first time in a cookbook, and the recipe gained wider circulation. Since then, Americans have consumed brownies in numbers that make the Build Back Better budget look measly.
During the pandemic, I came across a simple brownie recipe that is my family’s new favorite comfort food. Given the length of the pandemic, I have made it many times. These brownies are delicious warm and even better a few minutes out of the freezer. The recipe calls for chocolate chips, and we have tried them all: mint, peanut butter, and various types of chocolate. Our favorite is the Ghirardelli Premium Baking 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips. (Sorry, Hershey’s!) Feel free to experiment. Remember that you're not alone if you prefer nutless--60% of people do.
One Bowl Brownies (courtesy of Hershey’s) Makes 16 brownies.
1 ¼ cups sugar
½ cup melted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup Hershey’s Cocoa
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup chocolate chips
Should the news leave you in a mood to stir things up, grab a bowl and a hand mixer. Take to the streets with an armful of brownies. Savor the wonders of this American invention and the reminder that we are still capable of creating good things that last. (With or without the nuts.)