"from the day we arrive on the planet
and blinking, step into the sun
there's more to see than can ever be seen
more to do than can ever be done…"
- Elton John/Tim Rice
"The Circle of Life"
I originally wrote this post in 2007 -- about an experience our family had it 2000. But the current economic climate of wage disparity and income inequality had brought it back into focus for me. When the chasm between wealth and poverty becomes so wide that we cease to see the humanity of the "other" - because we are looking at it from such a great distance - we have lost spiritual perspective. This experience -- which happened almost 18 years ago -- was a wakeup call for me then, and it continues to inform my sense of where we all fit -- in the body of humankind.
At the time of this experience, we were living on a very modest budget while renovating a large home we had purchased in a "fire sale," And although our neighborhood was somewhat affluent, what may have looked like expendable toys to someone who thought we could easily replace them, were actually carefully budgeted purchases.
When we expect those who live on the edge of poverty to be willing to be away from their own families on Christmas Day, so that we can have our cup of designer coffee, we have lost our way as neighbors. When the poor cease to see that the tricycles in the driveway of a large house are the toys of children -- the distance between us has become too great. This moral chasm is dehumanizing. And when we dehumanize one another, we can justify decisions that are cruel and inhumane. We must close the gap. I believe that The Golden Rule -- doing unto others as we would have them do unto us -- is our only hope. Not just doing unto those who are like us, as we would have them do unto us. But all others. Here is our story:
It was early December in 2000 and we were grateful for a patch of warmer than usual weather just prior to the holidays. Emma and Clara were active, busy, rambunctious three-year-olds and a recent purchase of new tricycles had given us a playtime option they loved. Racing around the back driveway or tearing up the front sidewalk caused an explosion of happy giggles from them like bursts of water from a summer fountain in the park.
Buying the tricycles had been a financial stretch for us, but a sale at Target, coupled with our urgent need for finding appropriate gross motor activities for two little monkeys who never stopped moving, quickly shifted the purchase from want to necessity.
The girls awoke each morning with one major goal -- get outside and ride their new red "bikes." But as often happens in a family of five, one child's needs supersede another's, and everyone has to cooperate with a plan that might not fulfill their hopes for the day's schedule. This particular day, our older daughter's itinerary had to come first. We were in the throes of pre-Nutcracker rehearsals and, cast as Clara, she was in the studio rehearsing, more than she was eating and sleeping -- combined.
Piled into the Jeep that morning we were accompanied by the echoing strains of "I want to ride my bike, I want to ride my bike" -- in stereo. I dropped our older daughter off at the dance studio, stopped by the grocery store, and then picked up the twins' babysitter so I could work for a few hours while she watched them ride their tricycles around the block. When we pulled into the back driveway, I immediately noticed that something was missing -- the tricycles. I was sure they had been in the driveway before we left. Now they were gone.
At first I thought that perhaps their dad had scooted them into the backyard, or put them in the garage. However, a quick - but thorough - search made it clear that the tricycles were no longer on the premises. The girls' creative babysitter quickly turned the girls' attention towards a messy, and therefore thrilling, art project while I assessed the situation.
The trikes were gone. Period.
I was devastated. We had stretched our budget to the limits that month to buy them in the first place. Replacing them was going to be hard -- even if the sale was still underway. Of course I was already praying to see that we could not be separated from anything that was truly ours, but more critical to my spiritual poise were the feelings of helplessness, violation, and despair I felt. We lived in a very sweet neighborhood bordering the grounds of the university. It was anchored by a wonderful park with a lake, and ducks, and a playground. I felt so safe there, and I trusted that my children could play without harm.
And, to be honest, I was angry.
As I vacillated between praying to feel a sense of peace and wanting to let loose my tears of frustration, the question kept coming to me, "Who steals tricycles from the driveway of a home?"
My prayers for inner peace finally overcame the angry tears. I sat still, poised, waiting for inspiration that would help me make sense of this all. Again, the frustrated question came.
"Who steals tricycles from the driveway of a home?"
"So much for the parting of the clouds," I thought. But then the question came again, "Who steals tricycles?" I actually listened and engaged. Within a moment or two, my heart broke open -- wide with mercy.
"Oh my goodness," I thought. "Only someone with small children or grandchildren would ever want -- or need -- to steal two shiny new tricycles just before Christmas."
That was when I remembered hearing a Sunday morning pundit, speaking about neighbor-on-neighbor urban violence. He said, "Desperate measures are nothing but a measure of someone's desperation."
Anyone whose experience has made them feel hopeless enough to stop and steal two itty-bitty shiny red tricycles out of another person's driveway, must be feeling very desperate indeed. And not only might they be feeling the bleakness of their own hardship, but they must have children or grandchildren, siblings, nieces, and nephews they were caring for.
In an instant, my prayer changed from one of "take away my anger and let me find peace," to "how can I be an instrument of change and healing in my community -- a place where someone was feeling so desperate that they would steal toddler-sized tricycles?"
The more I prayed, the more my heart burst with ideas for how we, as a family, could participate in some way toward making a difference during the Christmas season for children whose parents may have needs so looming, that the simple traditions we enjoyed were, for them, way beyond even our modest holiday budget .
Because our holiday plans that year were being driven by our daughter's ballet rehearsals in The Nutcracker, it was a natural first step for me to think about how we could roll out that years' performances to a larger audience. Perhaps there were those in our community who might not have the means to purchase tickets. And although my husband and I were not poised to write a check for a block of tickets, I knew we could draw on an abundance of practical spiritual ideas. What we did have was a community of dance parents who shared our desire for social advocacy and a fathomless love for the arts. These were the things we had all chosen to invest in for our own children's future. Why couldn't we share our abundant love for the arts with other children?
Throughout the rest of December we were overwhelmed by the number of amazing, fresh ideas that God laid at the doorstep of our hearts for how we could share our holiday bounty -- of dance, beauty, art, inspiration, and music with others. However, one opportunity unfolded immediately -- and it continues to fill my heart with gratitude.
So, back to the tricycles.
After the girls were settled in the kitchen with Julia and their messy art project, I headed to my "office" at the local Border's bookstore café near our home. Since I was often there for appointments with clients, I had become quite close to the managers and employees. That morning as I sat at my favorite table praying for answers, Heather, the store's events manager, approached. She'd noticed me staring into the middles distance somewhere between where I sat and the snow-covered mountains looming in the west, and playfully asked what I was daydreaming about.
I told her, "A way to bring The Nutcracker to children whose parents can't afford tickets." Then I went on to tell her about my morning and the tricycles.
Within the span of ten minutes, we had our first gift to the community all wrapped up with shiny paper and satin ribbons. We would bring The Nutcracker to Borders bookstore on the busiest Saturday of the holiday season and perform scenes throughout the store. I called the Director of the ballet, and she agreed that this would be a perfect opportunity to share The Nutcracker with children who may not be able to otherwise attend, promote the performances, and give the dancers another dress rehearsal. It was done.
Throughout the month, opportunities to share what we had with others quite literally fell into my lap. For me, a "once upon a time" very poor little girl, it was as if I had been given the greatest gift imaginable -- to be able to give back. The gift I received in return was priceless -- a new perspective that didn't put me on either side of an economic chasm -- privilege or poverty. I realized that I had the tools - and the heart - to build bridges of compassion and humanity.
I stopped seeing desperate parents, children, teens -- or desperate measures. Instead I saw families eager to care for one another's needs. I saw mothers willing to bake and serve cookies at a bookstore rather than be out shopping for their own children at the mall. I saw -- through grateful tears -- children wide-eyed with wonder as the strains of Tchaikovsky's "dum-dum-da-dum-dum-dum" ushered in E.T.A. Hoffmann's story of a girl, a toy, some sweets and a dream. I saw children so fully satisfied by the beauty of it all that hunger was forgotten -- for a moment at least.
That was one of my favorite Christmases of all times. As I sit here writing, I realize that I can't, for the life of me, remember how or when we replaced the girls tricycles. Somehow it happened, but it simply escapes me today -- in the light of what we discovered about ourselves and our neighbors.
When we see someone resorting to desperate measures, we can either feel angry, hopeless, vulnerable and frustrated ourselves, or we can look for ways to bridge the chasm between desperation and innocence, with practical prayer-based solutions that break through despair with the light of hope and kindness.
The answers to Virginia Tech, Columbine, 911, and Darfur do not lie solely in the portfolios of Senators, on the maps of Generals, in the promises of presidential hopefuls, or the hands of prison guards. They lie in the most accessible place on earth -- the heart.
"It's the circle of Life
and it moves us all
through despair and hope
through faith and love
Till we find our place
on the path unwinding
in the circle,
the circle of Life."
There is more to do, but it can be done...