By Myself

No one, I don’t think, would ever mistake me for a recluse, a loner, a solitary wayfarer along the road of life.  I am, generally speaking, among the Hail fellow, well-met! sorts of people, one who enjoys lively conversations and adventures with friends and family.

But I must admit, there do come those times when I like to get off the well-trod path and retreat into a little world of my own.  It may be that you, too, enjoy doing the same thing, so mine may not be a completely unique peccadillo.

However, the things I prefer to do when I’m by myself may be different from what others choose.  For me, the top three include riding my bicycle, playing my harmonicas, and writing all manner of things—poetry and prose, articles, blogs, and books.

I got my first bike, brand-new, when I was ten years old—for forty dollars, of which my parents paid half.  Within a month, it was stolen!  I remember being outraged and heartbroken, both.  But the worst insult was learning that, if I wanted to replace it, I’d have to save up half the cost again.  Life seemed particularly unfair at that point.

I did it, though, and purchased an identical bike—maroon, coaster-brakes, a new lock.  During the next half-dozen years, until driving the family car became an option, riding my bike opened up new worlds for me.  I could ride forever, it seemed, miles further than I could ever have walked, in and out of places no larger vehicle could navigate.

That bike served as my horse when we were playing cowboys in the park; a motorcycle when we were playing drag-racers in the schoolyard (complete with stiff cardboard cut-outs clipped to the rear fork to make a loud, chattering noise as the spokes battered them); and a tow-truck to pull my cartload of newspapers on pre-dawn deliveries.  I loved my bicycle.

Different bikes over the years served me just as well, especially as a young father when one or the other of my wee daughters would ride in the seat attached behind me.  Up hills and down, my wife and I spent many hours cycling with our girls on their own bikes, well into their teenage years.

bike

Today, long into retirement, I still love to ride, mostly by myself now, able to go as slow or as fast as I like—or whatever my body dictates.  Lost in thought, I ride the roads, the trails, even cow-paths sometimes, marvelling at the changing surroundings, enjoying the peace and solitude.  It’s one of my favourite things to do by myself.

It’s the same when I play my harmonicas—my mouth organs, my harps.  I started playing when I was about the same age as when I got my first bike.  I remember asking Santa for a Hohner Marine Band, the small one, and was overjoyed to find it beside my stocking one Christmas morning.

I still have it, the very same one.  Some of the reeds are damaged, of course—that Christmas was about sixty-five years ago—but I’ll never let it go.  I still play recognizable songs on it (recognizable to me, at least), even if some of the notes are audible only to me.  Do you know O, Susanna?

Other harmonicas followed as time went on, all Hohners—a couple of which I still have.  They’re dented here and there, discoloured in spots, but the sound is almost as good as ever.  I spent many a frustrating hour trying to learn how to play a chromatic harmonica well, eventually resigning myself to an acceptance of mediocrity.  And I listened whenever I could to such giants of the instrument as Toots Thielemans, Little Walter, and Big Mama Thornton.

harmonicas

Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica.  I’ve done the very same thing many, many times—but not with Abe, and without the hemp.

I do it still today, usually when no one is home.  The music sounds as sweet to me while I’m playing as ever it did, but I’ve learned that, to the ears of others, it may not be quite as pleasurable.  And so, to spare them, playing the harmonica by myself is one of my favourite things to do.

The third, of course, is writing—an example of which you’re reading right now.  Writing is, almost by definition, a solitary endeavour, even selfish, thanks to its exclusion of others and the distractions they bring.  Ideas spring into my head at any time, anywhere, even in the dead of night.  On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve staggered to the keyboard in a pre-dawn darkness, so as not to lose the next brilliant idea.

Writing fiction is like playing God.  After something has been recorded in an early chapter, let us say, but then overtaken by a contrary (and better) idea in a later chapter, it is nothing to go back and erase the original draft, to revise the very history I’ve created.  I can change people’s names, their appearance, the things that happen to them, all at a whim.  It’s a form of omnipotence—albeit, very limited.

I usually write with music playing softly in my earbuds, almost always from the classical repertoire.  It serves to mask ambient noise from elsewhere in the house, focus my thoughts on the subject at hand, and free my imagination for long stretches at a time.  I wonder sometimes if Mozart might ever have envisioned this solitary writer listening to his symphonies and sonatas, creating a literary piece that has never existed before, just as he did with his music.

I know.  Probably not.

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But that doesn’t matter.  It’s the freedom and peace I enjoy, whether riding, making music, or writing.  I don’t believe I’d like being lonely; but I do appreciate having the opportunity to be alone now and then, able to engage in my favourite things.

By myself.

Always Will Be?

At a neighbourhood cocktail-party recently, I was doing my usual thing—wandering casually from group to group, wine glass in hand, smiling and nodding, overhearing and eavesdropping, trying not to engage directly— biding my time until it was time to go.

My wife, who works a room like the most polished politician, understands this about me, and seems not to worry about leaving me to my own devices.

party3

I was brought up short, however, when one fellow—an acquaintance more than a friend, but pleasant enough—pointed at me as I approached the small cluster of folks he was with.

“Here he is,” he said, “the guy I was just talking about.”  Draping one arm over my shoulders, he drew me into the circle.

“Oh, oh,” I joshed.  “This can’t be good.”  They were all smiling, though, so I raised my glass as I nodded hello.

“I was just telling everybody that I’m a regular reader of your blog,” the fellow said.  “Good stuff!  Really enjoy the articles.”

“Good, good,” I replied, nodding, waiting for the But

“But,” he said, “I’m curious about one thing.”

“And that is?” I asked, casting an eye to see if I could locate my wife.  This was exactly what I try to avoid.

He dropped his arm from my shoulder to reach for a canape on the tray being passed by one of our hosts.  Shoving it into his mouth, he said, “I don’t know how you can be such a Pollyanna optimist about things.  So much of your stuff is about the end of the world, about how we’re all going to die, about the mess we’re leaving for our kids.  And yet, you come across as confident that things are going to change.”

issuesI shifted slightly away so he couldn’t drop his arm on me again.  Everyone was still smiling, but expectantly now, wondering, I suppose, how I might respond.

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “we are going to die.  Nobody disputes that, right?  And I think we are making a mess of the planet, which may not affect us in the time we have left, but will surely have an impact on our kids and grandkids.  But you’re right, I don’t think it’s too late to do something about it.  Not quite yet.”

I gestured to the group, hoping to elicit a response.  “What do you guys think?”  A woman across from me opened her mouth, but not quickly enough.

“I don’t think anything we do makes one iota of difference to the planet,” my erstwhile friend said.  “You think blue boxes are going to solve the problem?  Most of that stuff ends up in landfills, so what’s the point?  You think changing your personal carbon footprint, whatever that means, is going to help the planet while billions of people in China and India are spewing pollution?  Please!”

We waited for him to go on.  “Here’s my theory,” he said.  “Every one of us was born into this world.” He paused for a swallow of his drink.  None of us could question his theory to that point.

“We didn’t make that world,” he continued.  “We got what we got.  Our parents called themselves the greatest generation.  They did the best they could with the world they inherited, and now we have to do the same.  Am I right?”

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“I don’t know,” I said, gesturing again to the group.  “What do you guys think?”

But the fellow was on a roll.  And I must concede, no one seemed inclined to step in.  He was compelling—even if (in my opinion, at least) a tad pompous.  I reminded myself that he was a loyal reader of this blog, and took another sip of wine.

“And we are doing the best we can,” he said.  “Nobody I know goes out and deliberately befouls the planet.  Hell, right in this neighbourhood we’ve got a group that’s adopted a stretch of county road so we can clean up the trash and litter.”

I couldn’t restrain myself.  “Where does the trash and litter come from?”

People’s eyes were shifting back and forth between us now, as if courtside.  And I don’t even like tennis.

“From idiots who don’t know any better,” he said.  “My point is that, for every ten of them, there’s only one of us who cares.  We’re outgunned.”

“What do you guys think?” I asked again, facing the group.

The same woman said, “I think there’s…”

“Excuse me, Marilyn,” the fellow interrupted.  “Sorry to butt in.  The thing is, no matter how many of us try to do the right thing, it’s not going to work.  There’s too many of them, the ones causing the problems.”

“Problems like the great plastic patch of trash in the Pacific?” I said.  “I’m told it’s larger than the state of Texas.”

trash-vortex

“Yeah, that’s a big one,” he said, waving his glass.

“Or the wildfires in California and Australia?” I said.  “Or the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising sea levels, the increase in global temperatures?  Problems like that?”

“All of those,” he said.  “You think we’re going to solve them in our lifetimes?”

“Maybe not in our lifetimes,” Marilyn said, quicker off the mark this time.  “But we could at least make a concerted effort.  Are you saying we should do nothing?”

“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying,” the fellow protested.  “I’m just saying we got what we got.  We didn’t ask for it, we just got it.  There’s five billion people on the planet, or whatever, and the planet can’t sustain that.  Not forever.  All we can do is what we can do.”

No one could dispute that last statement.  The question, though, is whether we will do what we can do.

“So, here’s the question then,” Marilyn persisted, on her own roll now.  “Will we do whatever we can do?  Or will we just bury our heads in the sand?”

The fellow’s wife, drawn by the sound of his voice, was at his elbow now, smiling brightly.  “George, there’s someone over here I want you to meet.”

He smiled down at her.  “Okay,” he said, “but let me say one last thing first.  Everybody knows we got problems, nobody’s arguing that.  My point is, there’s nothing we can do about them that’s going to make any difference to our kids and grandkids.  It’ll be up to them to deal with the world they live in, just like we had to.”

“So, you’re saying it is what it is?” I asked.

He nodded emphatically, setting his empty glass on a table.  “Exactly!  It is what it is!  Always has been, always will be.”  And with a cheery smile, he allowed himself to be escorted away by his wife.

“Always will be?” Marilyn said.  “I wonder.”

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As I nodded goodbyes and wandered off in search of my own wife, I wondered, too.  We know how it’s been; we know how it is right now.  Is this how it always will be?

What do you guys think?

I Haven’t the Time

I haven’t the time for anger or rancor,

Or grumbling, self-pity, or frown.

Though life may be slipping like candlewax dripping

‘Neath flame that is melting it down.

I can’t deign to hate it, to fight or debate it,

Death is what it is and that’s sure.

I know I must see it, for I cannot flee it,

It’s out there, so I must endure.

death

I haven’t the time to wish it were diff’rent,

For wishing just won’t make it so.

Yes, life can be strange, but nothing will change

Its seasons, its to and its fro.

We rise on the tide, and hope to abide

Its ebb, its washing-away.

For we get what we get, and death will not let

Us decide how long we will stay.

 

I haven’t the time to dwell on life’s finish,

‘Though I know it lurks, that’s certain.

When all has been said, I still look ahead

To life’s next opening curtain.

Adventures await through each unlatched gate

I encounter along the way.

The past is the past—so quickly it passed—

But it’s not where I want to stay.

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I haven’t the time for life’s yesterdays;

Too many tomorrows still call.

At each dawning morn, I feel I’m reborn,

Unburdened by death’s mournful thrall.

To life’s joyous strain, I sing the refrain

Of one who is freed from all fear.

Death’s voice is keening, but without meaning,

For I am immersed in life here.

 

I haven’t the time to worry and fret,

To waste whate’er days I have left.

I’m opening doors, I’m dancing ‘cross floors;

I don’t sit alone and bereft

Like people who cry, and moan, asking why

Their lives are so misery-filled.

I’m out and about with a joyful shout

That death’s spectre has not yet stilled.

 

I haven’t the time to wait at death’s door,

Afraid of its opening creak. 

Life’s not about shrouds and gathering clouds,

And the grim reaper’s dreadful shriek.

The very best way to keep death at bay

Is to live my life to the hilt.

So, I choose to spend my life ‘til the end

Pushing on—that’s how I am built.

hiker

I haven’t the time for anger or rancor,

Or grumbling, self-pity, or frown.

Life’s about living, getting and giving

Full measure before it winds down.

When that day is nigh, as ‘twill be by and by,

I hope it will be widely said,

That as man and boy, I strove for the joy

Of living until I was dead.

Two Resolutions

“Okay, you first.”

“Me?  Why me?”

“You don’t want to go first?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to.  It’s just that I’d like to have a say in deciding.”

“Okay, no problem.  You want me to go first?”

“You can if you want to.  Or, I will…whatever.”

“Jeez already, make up your mind.”

“My mind?  Why’s it me who has to make the decision?”

“You don’t.  But one of us does or we’ll never get through this.”

Silence.

“Okay then, you can decide.”

“You sure?  In that case, you go first, like I said in the beginning.”

“Yeah, because you don’t want to, right?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to.  I already told you that.  But one of us has to, and you told me to decide.  I chose you.  Why are you making such an argument out of this?”

Me?  How come it’s me who’s arguing?  Takes two to tango.”

arguing

“Okay, look, I’m not arguing.  All I’m doing is trying to get us started.  If you want me to go first, I will.  If you want me to go second, I will.  Just tell me what you want so we can get going on this.”

“Oh, so now I’m the one who’s holding us up?

“I didn’t say that.  But I need to know how you want this to go.  I’m ready to start, but you can go first if you want to.”

“Right, so it is me who has to make the decision!  Just like I thought!”

More silence.

“Okay, let me try again.  It’s not you who has to make the decision.  I said I’d decide who goes first because you said that’s what you wanted, and I chose you.  But, since you have a problem with going first, I will.”

“Who says I have a problem going first?”

“Well, apparently you do or you’d have started by now.  I’ve already suggested that three times.”

“Suggested?  Is that what you call it?  Telling me I have to go first, like I shouldn’t have a say in it?”

“Look, I’m not telling you to do anything, okay?  I’m inviting you to go first.  Or second, if that’s what you prefer.  Just make up your mind or we’ll be here all day.”

“And that’s my fault?  Seems to me you’re the one who’s trying to control everything.”

Prolonged silence this time.

“Look, for the last time, I don’t care who’s in control.  I just want us to get started on this, and obviously somebody has to go first.  Who do you want that to be?”

“You’re asking me to decide?”

“Yes…please!”

“Meaning you don’t want to.”

“Jeez Louise!  Okay, I’ll decide, and I’ll go first.”

“So, now you’ve changed your mind, right?  ‘Cause earlier, you said I could go first.”

“You want to go first?  Please, be my guest.”

“Your guest?  So now I need your permission to go first?”

More silence.  Gritted teeth this time.

“No, you don’t need my permission.”

“I mean, you’re not the boss of me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Okay.  So now that we got that settled, you can start.”

new year

“Yes!  Thank you!  Finally!  Here it is then, my New Year’s resolution.  I resolve in 2020 to be more patient with everyone I meet.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, that’s my first one.  I have some others, but now it’s your turn.”

“Why are we doing them one at a time?”

“It’s called sharing!  I share one of mine, then you share one of yours.”

“Yeah, I guess, but we could do your whole list, right?  Before we do mine?”

Silence again.  Hostile now.

“You don’t like that?  You’re determined we have to take turns?”

No reply.  The beginning of a snarl.

“Okay, already, I’ll read mine.  Sheesh!  You don’t have to be so grouchy!  Here it is, and I hope it makes you happy.  You ready?  I resolve to try very hard this year to be less argumentative.”

Open disbelief.

“How’m I doing so far?”

You’ll Never Know

The melody was as familiar as my mother’s cheek on mine, the words had long ago been committed to heart.  The singer was Aunt Marie, my mother’s older sister, her voice reedier now than in her youth, her pitch a trifle off.  But the emotion she felt shone through in every chord.

You’ll never know just how much I love you,

You’ll never know just how much I care…

You'll Never Know

The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of her marriage to Uncle Bob, and six of us were celebrating on the deck of my home overlooking the lake—my wife and I, my mother and father, and Marie and Bob.  She was standing by the railing, singing to him as he sat in the old, wicker rocking-chair.

They’d married in the summer of 1942, enjoying a three-day honeymoon in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before saying a tearful goodbye when he was shipped overseas to join his regiment.  It was three years before they saw each other again, when he returned home, battered but unbroken, a couple of weeks after V-E Day.

ve day

As my aunt sang on, her shoulder-length hair, salt and pepper now, fluffed and fell in the gentle breeze off the water.

…And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you,

Surely you know, for haven’t I told you so

A million or more times…

Within a month of returning home from Europe, Bob had gone off again, this time to the gold mines of Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario, where his degree in mining engineering had landed him a job.  Marie joined him three months later, leaving her job and family in Toronto, and they stayed in that booming gold-town for the next twenty-five years.

I spent almost every summer of my childhood with them, for they never had children of their own.  I thought of them as my second parents, certainly my favourite aunt and uncle, and to this day, the times I had with them rank among the most enjoyable of my life.

mile of gold

I used to hear them sing together after I’d been tucked into bed, she in a dusky alto, he in a clear tenor befitting his Irish heritage, and it was from them I developed my lifelong love of singing.

The last ten years of Bob’s career had brought them back to the city, working in the provincial Ministry of Mines.  Although they were closer, I saw them less often, having married and begun a family of my own.  But they remained as dear to me as ever.

Leaning against the railing by now, my aunt’s voice had begun to quaver, the sentiment of the song assailing her.

You went away and my heart went with you,

I speak your name in my every prayer…

Within a few years of their retirement, my uncle had gone away again—this time to fight a war he could not win against the pernicious onset of dementia.  But on that momentous day on the deck by the lake, he’d been with us for awhile—alert, engaged, and as happy as ever.  Inevitably, though, he’d drifted off, as was happening much more often by then, his eyebrows knitted quizzically above a thousand-yard-stare we could never penetrate.  He was a part of us still, yet apart from us irrevocably.

Alzheimer Dementia Brain Disease

My aunt had continued her song, voice choked with emotion.

If there is some other way to prove that I love you,

I swear I don’t know how…

And she stopped right there, unable to finish, tears welling, rolling slowly down her weathered cheeks.  None of us knew quite what to do, so we just sat there, watching her watch her husband, not a sound to be heard.

And then, the most touching thing happened.  Bob had slowly turned toward his wife, perhaps wondering why the song had been cut off.  Then, rising from the rocker, he’d shuffled over to stand in front of her.  As their eyes joined, he lifted her hands to his shoulders and placed his own on either side of her waist.

And softly, he sang the closing lines to her.

You’ll never know

If you don’t…know…now.

Bob died before the year was out, mercifully for him, sadly for us.  But I’ve never forgotten that song they shared on the day of their golden anniversary.

couple

And I believe they both knew in that moment how very much they were loved.

A Christmas Story

On a cold park bench, enveloped in stench,

Slumped a woman—haggard, old,

With long, straggly hair, face wrinkled with care,

Clothes ragged—shivering, cold.

As I passed her by, idly wondering why

She was there, and whence she came,

She disturbed my cheer as Christmas drew near.

A mystery—and a shame!

woman1

But one little lad approached her, quite sad,

Stood quietly by her side.

They spoke not a word—least not that I heard—

And the woman softly cried.

The boy bowed his head and something was said

Between them.  What could it be?

Then after a while, with a tearful smile,

She lifted the boy to her knee.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

He offered the hag a gift from the bag

He had purchased for his Mum.

A porcelain cup from which she could sup,

That had cost a tidy sum.

And from his worn purse a coin he disbursed

Into her scarred, bony hand.

It wasn’t too much, but oh, it was such

A gesture—humble, yet grand.

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So I stole away, embarrassed I’d say,

Compared to that little lad.

I hadn’t stopped there to show her some care;

He’d given her all he had.

When he left the crone on the bench alone,

Dark came to subdue the light.

The snow gently fell, I heard the church bell,

As day surrendered to night.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

At Christmas Morn’s dawn, the old hag was gone,

As quickly as she’d appeared.

I heaved a great sigh as I hurried by

To the church that I revered.

But on my way back…on the bench, a sack,

Tied gaily in Christmas wrap.

On the card, the name of the lad who came

To sit on the woman’s lap.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

He opened it up and pulled out the cup,

Ablaze now, silver and gold.

Reflecting the light, it blinded my sight—

My terror could not be told.

I fell to my knees, immediately seized

By shame for how I had erred,

Ignoring the crone, bereft and alone,

When my love I should have shared.

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Though it sounds absurd, in my head I heard

The Lord’s voice, loving but stern—

You have been measured; I am displeasured.

Now you must listen and learn.

In all of your town, just one boy I found

Who took time to pay Me heed.

He came to My aid, together we prayed

In My hour of greatest need.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

With sorrowful face, I asked for the grace

Of forgiveness, mercy, love.

His next words were clear, they rang in my ear,

Admonishing from above—

Take care how you treat the poor in the street,

They, too, are My children, you see,

And whate’er you do unto these wretched few,

You do it also to Me.

 

 

I’m Hungry!

“I’m hungry!”

That should be such an innocuous phrase, here in our land of plenty.  For me, it heralds a trip to the refrigerator, perhaps the snack cupboard, to address the niggling pangs between meals.

Mind you, a moment or two on the weigh scale would indicate I am certainly not going to perish imminently if I don’t satisfy the urge.  But I still complain, and I still nibble away.

scale

Sometimes, though, I wonder what it would be like if I lived in a currently-emerging country, maybe in sub-Saharan Africa.  What would the phrase mean to me in that case?  Could I blithely traipse to a snack cupboard, to a well-stocked fridge, to stanch the cravings?

Obviously not.  Were I there, I might not even have access to safe drinking water.  But unlike those poor unfortunates, I am blessed to live in a providential country, overflowing with nature’s bounty, where no one ever has to go hungry.

Except…except, that’s not really true.  People do go hungry, even here.

The United States is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet by almost any measure.  Among the thirty-four members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it ranks first in average household income, and leads the world in household spending.  The standard of living sits solidly in the top twenty countries.

However, the gap in household wealth from highest to lowest is larger today than it has ever been.  In 2018, American households held over $113 trillion in assets. If that amount were divided evenly across the population of 329 million, each person would have over $343,000.  But we don’t live in a co-op, and that is not going to happen.

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More than thirty-eight million Americans live in poverty, earning less than twenty-six thousand dollars a year.  The median annual income in America in 2018 was more than sixty-three thousand dollars, so there is a significant gap.  And of course, that number is a minimum.  Many families making much more are still considered low-income by most experts, and many have difficulty making ends meet.

Of the number living in poverty, thirty-seven million struggle with hunger daily, including thirteen million children.  When they say, “I’m hungry!”, it has real import.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this struggle means they have limited or uncertain access to enough food to support a healthy life.  Their families make choices between food and housing, between food and medical care, between food and utilities, between food and transportation.

Breakfast programs in numerous school districts provide relief to hundreds of thousands of children, except during holiday periods, of course.  And both government and community organizations also provide assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

food stamp

Still, the number of children crying, “I’m hungry!” hovers around thirteen million.

One of the reasons is the slow recovery for the poorer segment of the population from the economic crash of 2008.  This group was demonstrably the last one for which life improved after the economy began to rise.  Even when the wage-earners in the group found jobs, they were often paid only minimum-wage or slightly higher.

The Economic Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit group studying the impact of economic trends and policies on working people in the United States, found that between 2000 and 2015, wages for the bottom earners were flat or declined, and that the preponderance of gains occurred among the highest earners.

This is the time of year when I—comfortably ensconced in front of my television, nibbling on the snacks I fetched when I realized I was hungry—see heartwarming ads portraying people coming home for the holidays.  The snow is gently falling as they mount the porch steps to a house adorned with twinkling Christmas lights.  When the door is thrown open, they are engulfed in hugs and kisses from those already there, laughing and talking in front of an open, festive fire.  They are not among the lowest wage-earners.

Coming_Home_2017

Indeed, it is a scene right out of Norman Rockwell.

I never see ads out of Charles Dickens, however.  I never see anyone like the Cratchit family, huddled around a miserable hearth, trying like Tiny Tim to find cheer and joy in the season.  But they’re out there.

For me, and perhaps for you, “I’m hungry!” is such an innocuous phrase.  For others, it’s a desperate cry for help.

I wonder what else we can do.