Learning a New Language
Learning a New Language

Learning a New Language

A Christmas Mini-Retreat

by Mary Meeds

If you read CNN’s 20 things to look forward to in 2020, published on January 2, 2020, you may have noticed an unintentional prophecy in the first paragraph. “…the year 2020 will probably be like any other year: Full of confusing and depressing events that will make you wish Earth had some sort of eject button.”

(accessed December 9, 2020, 2020: 20 things to look forward to this year – CNN)

In light of what transpired during the year, this seems like an understatement. Yes, 2020 was confusing and depressing, but certainly not like any other year! Like it or not, people trudged into the unforeseen days of 2020, assembling jigsaw puzzles, making masks, buying puppies, going to virtual meetings as well as trekking into the great outdoors, and . . . complaining.

In 2020, I learned a new language.

The first lesson arrived on an April day, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when my husband, Jerome, and I received a purple envelope in the mail. Anonymous. Simply a purple-flowered card with LOVE written on the front and $60 cash. That card still sits front and center on my dresser. We were bewildered and grateful, and although I did not know it, this was my first lesson in a new language. The language of kindness.

The second lesson emerged in early summer when it became clear the pandemic would not be a short event. Dunrovin Retreat Center lost almost all of its rental groups in spring and summer. We determinedly switched to an Opportunity Time philosophy, making time for facilities and landscape projects. Staff transitioned to new tasks. When Mary, Dunrovin’s part-time cook, received a furlough notice from her full-time job, she immediately volunteered her time at Dunrovin. With considerable managerial experience, Mary rolled up her sleeves and supervised a small group of chatty teenage girls during our summer’s Polish Up And Clean Every Corner. I saw kindness in action.

A third lesson occurred in September when I complimented my friend, twice. I liked her hat. Soon she sent an Amazon link and messaged, “I plan to order a hat for you. Which color do you want?” I love the hat. It is so cozy. Unexpected kindness.

During autumn, I contemplated my approaching 60th birthday.  It sounded so old to me. Not really, but sort of. Turning over a new decade made me ponder the purpose of life. Although I always wanted my life to be about education and knowledge, I realized something important. More than anything else, when I stand before the Lord, I want to look like Him.

My birthday landed during the pandemic and political chaos, soaring racial tension, massive wildfires, and tremendous social stress. The world seemed more spiteful than ever. An idea sprung into my mind. I wanted to use the purple-enveloped gift as a springboard into sixty days of kindness leading up to my 60th birthday. I wanted to be intentional about raising the level of love in the world.

The 60 Days sputtered into about 50 Days, with a few more sprinkled in after my birthday. I learned that kindness wears many faces; helping with highway cleanup, giving out bananas on a bus, stocking books in little free libraries, offering a Kleenex. Simple acts of love are enough.

It was a fruitful endeavor but harder than expected. One thing I realized is how difficult it is to be kind when someone’s needs fall outside of my plans for the day. I sighed, ‘How long does it take to become fluent in a new language?’

Joanne Huist Smith wrote a moving memoir about the power of kindness after she lost her husband shortly before Christmas in 1999. In The 13th Gift, Joanne wrote:

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How do you thank someone for supporting your children through the worst Christmas of their lives? … I know true friends surround us. The kindness shown to our family humbles me. I drop spare change in the Salvation Army kettle every Christmas, but I’ve never really gone out of my way to help anyone. I’m not a bad person: I just never thought about what it means to be good. Is it really giving if it comes easy? I don’t think so anymore.

(Harmony Books, New York, page 122)

During the dark mornings of Advent, I wrestled with Joanne’s question, ‘Is it really giving if it comes easy?’ If I give out of my wealth or comfort, is it truly kindness? My mind wandered to Mary’s ‘yes’ to the Archangel Gabriel; was this assent easy for Mary? Was it easy for Joseph to travel with his pregnant wife on a donkey to Bethlehem? Did only one innkeeper have the ability to offer unexpected kindness to Mary and Joseph?

On a cold day in early December, I understood another lesson. A woman standing on the corner of Target held a sign that read, ‘homeless but not hopeless.’ I ran into the store and bought coffee from Starbucks and a Target gift card. When I approached the woman, I asked if she wanted a hug. With masked faces turned away from each other, we hugged. She cried and spoke softly, ‘I am struggling to hang on to my sobriety today.’ I prayed, ‘Lord, turn the page to the next chapter of life.’ She whispered, ‘I know Jesus.’ I prayed more people would support Megan with kindness.

While continuing my grocery shopping afterward, I looked in my cart. It was filled with Hershey’s chocolate kisses, strawberries, peppermint bark and peppermint extract. Frivolous items. The lesson I understood was that selfish motives ignited my kindness for Megan. Fear, really. I thought, what if I were she?

However, it is not me, and I am grateful. As I strolled on, a lump formed in my throat. Why am I so blessed? I was humbled and pray for grace to let my blessings be freely turned outward as signs of God’s love in the world. Lord, help me learn this new language!

Checking errands off my list, I drove past Megan‘s corner again. Then I worried. What if she spent the Target gift card only on dog food? (‘My family,’ she had called them. The way the dogs barked at me, they were also her protectors.) What if Megan spent it on coffee or anything else I considered less than worthy of my awesome gift? Perhaps she has some responsibility to use my small gift well, but I recall the gift God gave us in Jesus. For God sent His Son into the world, knowing Jesus would be tortured and hung in a shameful crucifixion. How do I use the gifts God has freely given me? This was a Christmas moment.

I finally moved on, moving Megan out of my thoughts, but the language lesson nags me. How can I be kind every day? I wish to emulate Saint Elizabeth of Hungary who gave her fortune as a queen to feed the poor. I wish to imitate St. John Baptist De La Salle who used his family‘s inheritance to help the poor. I long to make a difference in this world full of hatred and division. I desire to promote a good that is stronger than evil.

One more language lesson occurred during a recent homily by Fr. Mike Schmitz (paraphrased), ‘When the entire story of history, of all time, is written, everything will be known and understood – God’s role in the whole story and my role in the entire story – at the Last Judgment, we shall know the ultimate meaning of the entire work of creation.  We will see that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustice committed by His creatures. His love will triumph and His love is stronger than death. God is the author but I am a co-author of the story of history.’

Ah…my language of kindness is being written in a book!

And this book of my life is co-authoring history. Aesop said (circa 500 BC), ‘No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.’ I believe it. Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine.’

Mary Meeds is an employee of Dunrovin Retreat Center, married to Executive Director Jerome Meeds. Another favorite saying is a quote by Roger Rosenblatt, ‘Be kind for everyone you meet carries a great burden.’ If you need space for quiet, rest, or contemplation, consider reserving your space at Dunrovin.