I watched the 1948 movie version of “Oliver Twist.” Oliver is an orphan, raised in an English workhouse which, essentially, requires slavery for food and shelter; then Oliver is sold, at about eight years old, to an undertaker as an apprentice, where he is also treated cruelly.
He runs away and gets taken up by a gang of street boys bossed by the unsavory adult criminal Fagin, who teaches the boys to thieve. Then, because Oliver gets hit in the face (by an adult) and mistakenly gets arres
ted, he comes to the attention of a caring gentleman, wo takes him to his home where Oliver is attended by a loving old woman housekeeper.
When Oliver awakens from his injury-induced stupor, in a clean, soft, bed, with the kind old woman attending to him, he suddenly throws his arms around her. What a profound relief it is, to the viewer, to see someone finally demonstrating empathy!
In real life, a child mistreated as was Oliver might not be able to respond to kindness. I recall the child I once worked with when I was a therapist, who would duck when his new foster parents approached his crib. In the years that I knew him, he could not respond to their loving gestures. Probably, as was not then known, his brain development had been affected by the cruelty he had experienced as a very young child.
We learn empathy by being shown empathy. And most of us are able to respond and then show empathy for others. Every child needs at least one person who is kind. In certain situations, a child’s parent might not be that person. Those of us who teach, who work with children and families might be in a position to be that crucial kind person who could make all the difference in a child’s life.
A trip to New England sparked my interest in the writings of Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909).
An early feminist, ecologist and architectural preservationist, Jewett wrote about the Maine country people she knew so well. Her best known story—really a novella—“The Country of the Pointed Firs”—is a series of portraits of the lives of ordinary people.
A woman named Joanna, heartbroken by a sweetheart, actually moves away from her little town to a small island off the coast to live in total seclusion for the rest of her life. The townspeople, while respecting her privacy, watch over her from a distance, and continue to care for her over the years by dropping off packages on her beach.
I felt sad for her pain, and touched by others’ unwavering concern for her. Jewett poses a “moral” for us from the story: “In the lives of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or day; we understand our fellows of the cell from whatever age of history they may belong.”
(This reflection by Cornelia on “Life in the Archives” was published in the newsletter of the Coordinating Council for Women in History in August, 2011)
I take my favorite place—a chair at the long wooden table that is closest to the tall windows—and wait. Soon a librarian rolls to my table a beige metal cart whose three shelves are loaded with boxes of my archived diaries—spiral-bound notebooks in which I have recorded, daily, much of the past thirty years of my life. I’ve traveled from my home in Chicago to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to visit my past.
I need to come more than once a year or I will never catch up, because I’m only up to 1996, and I keep writing them. Keeping a daily diary has long been a necessary habit for me—writing with a fountain pen on lined pages every morning, accompanieed by a cup, saucer, and thermos of tea on a battered tin tray. When I finish a year’s worth, I send the notebooks to the library, which, at my request, will not permit them to be read for many years. I offered them, along with my mother’s girlhood diaries, because I felt her story and mine matched the library’s interest in women’s personal papers. I was so pleased that the library wanted them.
This autumn I stay for four days, in a tiny room with shared baths at a guesthouse that is a fifteen-minute walk away across Harvard Yard. My room is just big enough for a single bed and a small desk. I feel cozy in it, like a puppy in its crate, and I, and the other guests—mostly solitary, purposeful-looking women—slip quietly in and out of our rooms, the baths, and the common breakfast area, the same way I slip in and out of the past in my days at the library. I sleep happy, for this while away, to be alone, silent, in my narrow bed by an open window, outside of which is a blazing orange maple, and I wake, stretch, to a day which is just for me, in which I will travel back in my life, to the years when, as a mother, I woke always into others’ needs.
In the library, hours pass; the sun fades and clouds move in. In my diaries I see how moods, upsets, and happinesses change, too, and then change again. I find a lot of entries that interest me personally; the few that might interest others, I transcribe into my laptop. Pressed between the pages of my spiral notebooks I find not only—yes, a flower—but also an admonition to myself that I’ve forgotten: “Keep your mouth shut and remember to think before you speak”; a visit to my son’s first, tidy, apartment, where he tells me sunset, when his cat sits and blinks in a single spot of light, is his favorite time of day; a phone call that brought news of the death of a friend in a car accident; a description of two silhouetted ducks at twilight on a mauve and turquoise bay in Wisconsin.
I read about how my daughter, at nine, described a woman as looking “like a mom—friendly but kind of tired out.” For that moment, I have my nine-year-old, careless of her hair, wearing her Smurf glasses, again within my arms. My cell phone vibrates and it is a text from that daughter, not nine, but, somehow, thirty-two, and in the time I am texting her back, I step out of my past into the present. When I return to reading, I find my mock obituary: “After a long battle with clutter, Spelman finally passed away in her sleep.”
By four o’clock, I’ve had enough for the day, and joke to the librarian, “Take the baby back to the nursery!” She smiles as she rolls the cart with my boxes of diaries back into the library office. I am remembering the two times a nurse rolled a cart to me with a newborn, wrapped in a flannel blanket, to be breastfed.
I pack up my things and leave the library for that day. I leave my past behind and walk home in my present, a grandmother now, stopping at a campus student center to buy a fruit cup and roll for my dinner, which I will eat, with tea, in the guest house common area, reading the newspaper. I will shower before the other guests return, and retreat to my room to lie in my pajamas, and read, to call my husband, and to listen to DeBussy on my iPhone. I am perfectly happy. Reading my own life has offered me perspective again, the same feeling I get when I walk along Lake Michigan and gaze out at the horizon. Reading about the dear, ordinary days—which Time strings together like beads to form a life—makes me remember to value each present day. Even though, of course, I will, once again, forget.
This poem was written in 1978, during the time of helping the boat people, by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (see “resources” for his books)
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply, every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on the small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his ‘debt of blood’ to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
At an interfaith service for peace at a time of war, I heard this beautiful song, which I wanted to share with those of you who visit this website. The song was written by Lloyd Stone in 1934, and is sung to the tune of “Finlandia.” It is from the New Century Hymnal, Copyright 1995 by The Pilgrim Press.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.