Thursday, March 17, 2011

Living is the state to which we are introduced at birth. It hosts a multitude of different aspects but all of those aspects include the gaining of experience of many separate sorts. The state of living will inevitably and eventually end in death but trite cliches such as “Life (add verb of your choice) then you die” are altogether avoiding and even deleting the part wherein one passes through many states from deepest depression to highest transcendence. Those in-between states are what make life so colorful and varied.

From the richness of art and creativity to the deepest depths of despair (although this has also been known to also produce art of lasting fame and transcendence) Life is a tapestry of creation and sometimes, destruction which, in its magnitude and variety will help to (quite possibly) determine the way by which we become known to others.

There are certain known mental states, extensively studied by many, which prohibit people from relating personally to the life in which they remain or become entrapped. These include psychoses, neuroses, and those states such as that in which I now exist called Anhedonia (mentioned elsewhere in this web log) but the majority of people will find a way to exist within a comfortable (even if occasionally quirky) and sufficiently functional manner that will allow them to live a life of modest fulfillment, reasonable happiness and occasionally even success as such may be measured by the society in which they live.

There are those, often described as over-achievers, that actively seek a greater amount of public acclaim (than might seem necessary to others) during the span of life's allotted years on this earth. Over achievers might want world power. Among them, some are those who might want to have a surplus of material goods or services. Some crave power over the lives of others in smaller ways and some only desire to be able to contribute to the lives of others in a fashion that increases the quality of life for those involved. Some few, more or less accidentally, as known by the recovery of relics pertaining to them, even attain the sort of immortality that comes of simply doing what those few what might have perceived as “only doing their job to the best of their ability" in hopes that overall some good might come of it. Some of these latter might have been pressured into “doing their job” because the situation in which they found themselves might be made somewhat easier and freed their time to be devoted to other endeavors.

An example of these latter might have been Hammurabi (King of Babylon circa 1750 BC) . The fortunate recovery of a stele upon which was incised a set code of laws to be applied more or less evenly to all inhabitants of his realm is often referred to as being the first known or certainly the most widely known by the modern world, as we know it presently, to be the first example of written, codified law: dating before the Hebrew “Ten Commandants” and addressing the need for the weak to be protected from being brutalized by the strong. Although the actual presence of the steles, many of which were apparently placed throughout the land although only one is known to exist presently, may have been lost temporarily but the codes of law established therein form the basis of many existing forums of law and precedence even now.Hammurabi also states on the body of the stele that his edict was given him by his god: A claim made by many since Hammurabi's time in hopes of lending legitimacy to delivered edicts. It’s quite possible that some few of these many might even have been possessed of the hope of helping civilization to become better mannered and easier to maintain rather than having a motive of simply gaining power by being associated with whatever gods or devils might be claimed in the subscript.

I could go on at great length with examples and named identities (Moses) but those I have named herein are only two of the people who found themselves in a position won, thrust upon them or inherited and rose thereby to exalted status. I’m interested in some similar people as defined in a previous paragraph but their experience is not directly related to those with whom I hope to populate this essay.

There are people now living who are also well known but the reason they are famous presently often has to do with less gilded circumstances than Hammurabi’s. The lists of past and present kings, queens and assorted nobility as well as notable generals of conquering hoards, legions and many other types of political power are not exactly endless but certainly longer than most of us will care to assay. There are, in any case, far fewer people on those lists than there are of what are often referred to as “the little people”.

The generals and political figures may have decided the tactics but without the legions, hoards or soldiers there would have been no conquest and so it goes. There are far more crosses adorning the fields of Flanders and elsewhere than there are known names to adorn them. The unnamed soldier is far more typical of the majority of mankind than are those in highly elevated circumstances. Expand the definition of the word soldier to include all those in ordinary daily life with no recognition other than that of their family, peers or close associates and you will find the vast majority of mankind listed, both past and present, therein.

On the other end of the human spectrum are the infamous. The very word “infamous” is enough to conjure names of people that others find to be extremely unpleasant, repugnant, evil or (insert descriptive adjective here) even if only locally and possibly some of those names may even be of fictional characters. Once again I chose not to expand upon those so noted as being atypical rather than mainstream.

Amongst those in the mainstream of humanity who have contributed immeasurably are many whom history will treat less kindly than those of whom I have already indicated.

It is of these aforementioned in which I often find interest. Some have claimed a space in literature, science, arts (both fine and common or craft) and eventually, because of contributions made coincidentally as part of their ordinary or day to day life rather than purposely. Among these we might find the name of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti. You might remember him. He painted the Sistine Chapel, carved the statue of “David” and other items less well known outside of art circles such as the “Tomb of the Medici”. He was gifted but of circumstances that could just as easily yielded someone of less capability. His fame came from diligent application of his talents gained through lengthy apprentice work, rather than high status, Amongst his peers, even he, being of high profile, is slightly higher in status than the people which I seek to expose. Those same people who would have done and often did continue to labor with only local recognition or often none at all are those whom I seek.

Mother Theresa lived willingly in poverty in keeping with her vows as a Catholic Nun. Of Albanian descent, she is well known but if I had mentioned Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu would you still have recognized the name? “Probably not” is my guess. She founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in 1950 out of a will and a vow to do good by helping those who often were unable to help themselves. Although by the 1970’s she had achieved international recognition for her humanitarian work she would have continued to do that to which she had set herself without it. Fame was not her goal. She cared for the dregs of humanity whom might have had no promise of help otherwise.

Many others who continue to do humanitarian works have never or might never achieve the kind of celebrity that Mother Theresa did. This does not and has not kept those others from going in harm’s way to help those who might not have found hope and help without intervention. “Doctors without Borders” is filled with such people, some of no small reputation amongst their own peers but, will we remember their names and give them recognition? Once again my own answer is “probably not”. Does this matter to many of these who willingly put their practices, lives and families on a figurative “hold” that they may continue doing their work amongst those considerably less blessed than they? My personal answer would be “Yes”. Of all these examples we might collectively ask “Why?” or “Why do they do this?”

Perhaps they feel a personal need to be of help and service to humanity and found that to be sufficient reason in and of itself, to contribute their time and lives, regardless of recognition or lack thereof. Is what they do noble? It might be called so but perhaps perceived nobility is insufficient reason to uproot their lives in order to do some good when so many others are not. They are among the little people of whom I wrote earlier in this essay. Guided by their personal mores, nobility is not uppermost in their minds and is, perhaps, not even on their personal checklist of why they do what they do.

I intend to go even further down the scale of recognition for the “little people” though. I want to talk about a very specific person who never even countenanced the idea of nobility as guiding her actions.

How many among my readers remember seeing the red kettles in front of businesses and prominently displayed in busy spots with passing foot traffic? Each of these is usually manned by a person who might be your next door neighbor, a friend, a businessman or tradesman. Sometimes, but less often, you might actually see a kettle being stewarded by an actual Salvation Army soldier in uniform. Almost all of the people you might see beside the kettles are volunteers. They took time from their lives to try to help those who might receive no help of any kind from other citizens.

The general public, when separated into individuals, is not known for initiative on its own although when bolstered by others also willing to follow an imperative the public, collectively, is able to do quite amazing things.

Another service that most readers are familiar with is the American Red Cross, most of whose workers on the scene of fires, floods and diverse disasters are all volunteers. They venture out in all types of weather and conditions, whatever they may be, with no more impetus than the idea that they might be able to help.

Have you, reader, ever met one of these volunteers? Do you remember their name? I do. When I was about 19, out of school and unemployed but having a commercial drivers license, I was asked to take the Dallas American Red Cross chapter’s mobile kitchen to Corpus Christie ahead of a hurricane so that it could be positioned to serve the populace after the hurricane passed.. I was there for about a week and in that time we passed out hundreds of sandwiches and other food stuffs to people who had no power and often no running water with which to prepare food. That was over 40 years ago and I happened to be in a position to help at that time.

I do know at least two other volunteers who devoted many years of service to the Dallas Chapter of the ARC simply because they could and wanted to. Many times these two would be called out to fires and other disasters to help with housing and providing help to those affected by the calamity by passing out housing vouchers for motels and hotels, food vouchers, coffee, blankets and other necessities needed to provide for those in need. Although they eventually received service pins from the Red Cross after years of service, it was not the award presented before a few other volunteers that spurred them into helping. It was simply the personal desire to be of service to their community.

Their story is repeated endlessly across the U.S. and around the world by others like themselves. Both of the volunteers I personally knew had a family to care for and jobs from which they might have been released from had their volunteerism interfered. Notwithstanding this condition they continued with their humanitarian endeavors for many years in unpaid service to organizations including the Cub Scouts of America and its brother organization, the Boy Scouts of America, and even after their family had left home they continued to present leadership training seminars for the C.S.A. and B.S.A. as well as teaching both primary and advanced First Aid classes to the community.

The person I will focus on had a special award created just for her service by the Circle 10 Council of the Boy Scouts of America. It was known as the “Silver Fawn” and only four were ever awarded, Three of those Silver Fawns were eventually exchanged for the equivalently prestigious “Silver Buffalo” in keeping with the then freshly coming idea of equality of the sexes. Prior to the creation of the “Silver Fawn”, the “Silver Buffalo” was awarded only to men notwithstanding that women had long played a significant part in the Scouting movement. The volunteer of which I speak refused to exchange her award. The occasion of this refusal was one of the rare times that she wasn’t seemingly embarrassed to be specially honored. She, later, was also honored with the “Judge Dee Brown Walker award for outstanding service to the Circle 10 Council of the Boy Scouts of America”. Only one and rarely 2 of these awards were awarded yearly and previously all had gone to male recipients. The Circle 10 Council represents the Dallas, Texas metropolitan area. Being so honored was an extremely prestigious recognition after considering how many were nominated yearly for this award. Hers, once again, was the first to go to a female recipient.

After the death of one of these two volunteers the other continued to work for and with charitable groups in her community including the Kiwanis International, The Toastmasters and the Southeast Dallas Chamber of Commerce. She helped with free dinners at Christmas and Thanksgiving, took part in SED C of C activities of all sorts and often took along her camera to record the activities. Many times she spent her own money to develop the film she shot at these activities. Her house is filled with honors and awards created especially for her. In 1999 she was recognized by the Eckerd’s pharmacy chain (now CVS) with a national award that identified her as “1 of 200” out of over 2000 nominees (she was unaware of being nominated by her local Eckerd’s store Manager and only became aware of the honor when she was contacted by Eckerd’s) and presented with a small silver plate suitably engraved with her achievement. Her response when being presented with her award was typical of her life and the prominence of awards in her activities. She was in her early 80’s at the time.

When handed the award in front of the other 199 honored volunteers, all chosen for outstanding service to their community, she was asked what she might do with her prestigious award. I was later to find her reply was “Well, I suppose I could serve cookies on it”. For her the recognition was in being able to help.

In her lifetime, in between her occupation as full time supervisor of the Arthur Andersen LLP Print shop (the title of Supervisor is misleading because until 25 years into her career she worked primarily alone.) she created countless numbers of flyers, reports, articles and other printed matter for use by the many organizations to which she had offered her volunteer services. Among these was a craft book for Cub Scouts full of projects, games and other entertainments. This booklet included drawings, skits, and ideas of interest to those involved in Cub Scout activities. She drew the illustrations and patterns, wrote the copy and spiral bound the finished product ready for use by the local Cub Scout Leaders. This book was to be eventually copied and translated into 14 languages around the world. She owned the copyright but never received a dime for any of the pirated books in copyright fees. Her response was again typical, “It doesn’t matter. I did it for the children anyway.”

Her charitable work began near the start of WW2 and there are documents of appreciation in her files from military commanding officers for the work done then. She worked with the USO during that time as well. The honors accrued throughout her life. They were small but she never doted upon them although she kept them; either packed away or filed in boxes in the closet. Through her work and in person she touched the lives of people around the world, people whom she never met but whose lives were enriched by her own life and selfless giving. She was one of the “little people” but with a big heart and hand for her world that continued almost to her death at the age of 92.

Her funeral was attended by a small group of people and family she had known well. Fewer than 20 of those whom she had touched in her life knew of her passing. Recognition is fleeting for most and she was no exception. Her legacy is in her life, well lived and busy throughout. In that respect such was the funeral of the other volunteer with whom she shared many things. She died peacefully in her sleep with relatives close by. Her body was worn out by life and unable to continue, having been in such glorious service as few might know or experience.

It has been said by many people over the span of hundreds of years in various languages and using a multitude of media that “At the end of all things we die alone” and so we do. It is the one thing that cannot be shared in the experience of living. If there is anything beyond the terminus of life we, the living, do not share in it except as onlookers. Hers was a quietly valiant life of doing what she believed in and helping as she was able, using her talents and life’s energy to accomplish her own goals of helping, serving and being useful to others. She did well.

“How did I come to know her?” you might ask. The answer is of the simplest kind for she was my mother. Mary Jane Stevens Eckstein passed in her sleep on December 2, 2010, a quiet end to a very busy life.