Sometimes Love Wears a Turkey Suit

Yesterday morning I got up early. It was a Saturday and as much as I can, I enjoy sleeping in a little on Saturdays. But I had a few things to do before I headed over to the high school to do my shift helping “direct people” to pick up the wreaths and other holiday greens they ordered for a school fundraiser.

It was a big morning in our little community — the high school football team was playing in the state semi-finals. The temperature had dropped 40 degrees in the last 24 hours. The wind was brisk. People were extra friendly — they didn’t want to talk about the election either because they are just plain exhausted from it or they didn’t want to risk getting in yet another “I just can’t understand” discussion if they had voted the other way.

When I got to the parking lot behind the school, Ed (a neighbor of mine whom I’d met five years ago when our kids were in the same Destination Imagination group) had his volunteer crew ready to go. The early shift had done their part; in a masterful logistics exercise Ed had organized them to number each of the parking spaces with chalk and carefully lay out a copy of each order (protected in ziploc bag) along with the centerpieces and wreaths and evergreen swags people had ordered. The numbered spaces stretched from one end of the parking lot to the other and back again. I wish I took a picture. It was not just a parking lot. It was an organized act of care. A dozen sleepy high school kids were ready to load the cars as they pulled up. An equal number of parents were there with clipboards, each assigned to a post somewhere in the parking lot. I spotted my friend Jodi, who seems to somehow always volunteer and always know what to do when the rest of us arrive, and headed in her direction.

We spent the next two hours greeting people. They came to that parking lot on this busy Saturday morning for many reasons. Seems the football team had a team breakfast. A lot of people were looking for a parking place while they went to help with the heaters on the field (I’m not actually sure what that meant but they had quite a crew). Towards the end, people started arriving to set up or run the concession stand. Sprinkled amongst them were the people we were looking for — the ones who’d purchased the holiday greens. Jodi and I smiled that once again we had showed up to help at an event that was “over-volunteered.” She had the clipboard under control and she is really organized. I figured she didn’t need any help. So, I kind of made up my own job, running from the clipboard people to the numbered space where that specific order for that specific car was to be picked up. I helped load if the sleepy high school students were busy at another space. I smiled at the other volunteers who were there trying to keep warm. We probably could have done the tasks with about 20% of the people who were there. But it really didn’t matter. That’s not why we were there.

I finished my shift and headed to the grocery store to stop for some vegetables to roast for dinner. On this first really cold day after a really, really unseasonably warm fall in the midwest, it seemed like roasting something would be comforting.

I pulled into my second very busy parking lot of the morning, this one not nearly as organized. No Ed. I got out of the car and heard the sound of bells ringing. That time of year already, I thought? Yup, when the red Starbucks cups come out it’s a sure sign that the Salvation Army bell ringers will be out in force. I dug around in my pocket for some change and located a dingy scrunched up dollar bill and put it in the kettle on the way in. There were four high school-ish aged looking boys standing around the kettle, mostly talking to each other. But when I shoved the dollar in the nearly full kettle (that was encouraging) they all — each one of the four — looked right at me and thanked me.

When I got in the store it was chaos. The Saturday before Thanksgiving, the day of the high school football play-offs, and the other grocery store in town had closed a couple years ago, so this one, poorly laid out and not that pleasant to visit (you see, I love a good grocery store and my life has never been the same since they closed the one I loved), always seems like a bit of frenetic, flourescent mess. To make it worse, there was constant chatter on the PA system. They kept saying “gobble, gobble.”

That’s when I spotted the woman in the turkey suit. She as wandering past the ends of the checkout counters, seeming to stop at each of them. I watched her for a little while and when she came toward me I realized she had on a badge. Seems she worked there. I think she was one of the managers. Then she turned around and headed back to the far end of the register line.

Off I went to the vegetable aisle, in search of something to roast. I tried to tune out the noise and the people. but I did catch a manager’s voice over the PA system in between the “gobble, gobble.” She said that if you made a donation to the local food pantry the clerk would say “gobble, gobble” over the PA system. Or, you could say it. She seemed to chuckle at this. Or, she said, you could let your kids do it. She sounded a little more serious then. Good marketing, I thought.

Got my vegetables, headed out of the store and walked past the boys with the bells. There were only two there now. I wondered where the others went but figured these were the hardy souls. That’s when I started to put it all together. I stopped and was as surprised as they were when I heard myself saying, “I’m writing a story about volunteers in our community who make a difference, can I take your picture?” Well, sure, they said, but then one said, “too bad our two other friends went to get hot chocolate and aren’t here. But they’ll be back. They do a lot.”

Salvation Army Bell Ringers. Photo credit: J. Melvin

When I got home, my husband was lying on the couch watching a football game. He didn’t feel like standing out in the cold yesterday. He is coming down with a cold. But he left early this morning for a church meeting. He has a big job with our church right now and he has spent more hours in that community than I can count. But then again, he would. You see, he believes that if we all take care of ourselves, we don’t litter, and we lend a hand to someone in need, things would be pretty good and we could stop a lot of the arguing.

It is becoming more and more clear to me that the the best way to “do something” right now is if we engage. In whatever way we can. In ways we already know. At the risk of stating the obvious, it does indeed take a village. But the village is fractured right now. The only way we rebuild and fortify is to engage. You don’t have to march in the streets. You can gently do the community-minded things you already do. And maybe just a little more.

I am glad I live in a place where people have lots of chances to volunteer and when they do, they are safe and they meet new people and they have conversations they might not otherwise have had. These moments of positive connection, even at the frustrating times when too many people are scheduled and you leave feeling like you didn’t really do anything, are what make communities. These people — hundreds of them in this one small town on this particular morning — all left their houses and went out to help. Maybe it was to help the football team. Or the marching band. Or the food pantry. Or the Salvation Army. Each and every one was an act of love.

When a note comes around saying some organization needs some volunteers, I don’t think, “gee, I want to sign up to do an act of love today.” Nope, I look at my schedule, think about what I like to do, think about the last time I took a shift and I either sign up or I don’t. It’s pretty simple. But then again, I live in a place where the unwritten rule is that you help out if you can. Helping out is an act of love.

These acts of love build our communities. These communities are the very fabric of our democracy. Our democracy allows us to act, protected by a list of freedoms from speech to religion to press. So when we see these freedoms threatened, we should be afraid. But we should also rise up. For some of us it means booking a ticket to Washington on January 20th. But for many of us, it might just mean one more volunteer shift that has nothing to do with politics.

Isn’t America all that?

This is the problem we face right now, and it is also the solution. If our newly elected “leaders” are telling us they don’t believe in civil rights for all, that they don’t believe in equal protection under the law, and that they see a different view of this country than I do, then so be it. I don’t for one second think that most of the people who voted for the president-elect-who-lost-the-popular-vote are in favor of infringing on other people’s civil rights. And I do think it’s patriotic to speak up in a respectful, strong, civilized way, even if your venue is a Broadway stage. But it is in these moments of community that maybe we will come to understand that underlying problem of whatever it is so bad that it made enough people vote for a guy who insults nearly every group you can think of.

It’s still too much for me to take on right now. But I can show up in the high school parking lot for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. After all, Ed is there. He will make sure I know what I’m doing. Jodi is there. She will show me how to do it. They will keep me safe.

We need this now more than ever. I can’t count the number of people who are looking for a way to stop the freight train of fear that is coming at them. They (well, we, really) are afraid for their (our) children and their (our) communities. But today, in my community, they (we) did something about it. For some people the thought of calling a Congressman is just too overwhelming. Or it seems like a waste of time because you know they won’t listen (mine definitely doesn’t seem to). The hundreds of people who were helping something local are speaking up for what is great in this country — the freedom to engage, to speak up, to go wherever you want and do what you want.

So, if you’re not sure what to do, there’s a really simple way to start. Every time you volunteer, every time you step out, you are raising your voice. Think about what you’re good at. Grab a friend. Ask a neighbor. Look at your school PTA website and see if they need some help. If you live near me, just ask Jodi — she always seems to know or is always already signed up to help. You don’t have to call a Congressman (although right now it would be great if you did). You can do whatever feels right to you. It can be as simple as ringing a bell. As long as you do something for someone else, you’ve started. Acts of love.

Sometimes you gobble into a microphone. Sometimes you hold a clipboard.

Sometimes you don a turkey suit.