“I can invest because I’m rich!”
That is what I said to a new friend here in Saudi Arabia the other day. No, I have not had a financial windfall. I am still limping along like most everybody else. We were talking about the other teachers and which ones we think might be good friends. It’s an annual exercise for those of us who live contract-to-contract in one country or another… or another… or another. You have to choose your new friends quickly, and you’d better be good at it too because some of these people are weird.
The youngest teachers here are in their mid-thirties, most of us a decade or two older. We have all lived long enough to accumulate some baggage, develop some quirks, and be content with our bad habits. Some are running away from something, others trying to find something, or make some money, or all of the above. It’s a tough crowd if you’re looking for friends.
My new friend and I had eliminated almost all the other teachers as potential friends when we mentioned… I’ll call her Jane. For whatever reason Jane presents as cold, detached, and imposing. When we went around and introduced ourselves at the beginning of the semester – another despicable ritual of expat life – Jane said, and I can quote it because I remember it, “I am as mean as you’ve heard I am.”
As it happened, though… Or, in Bible language, It came to pass that Jane, who is also my next-door neighbor, took sick. Being a helpful American like I am, I cooked a pot of chicken soup and I took it right over to Jane and I kept on feeding her until she was back on her feet.
In a surprise move, though, after she had recovered, Jane returned the favour with a bowl of Chicken Masala, and she lingered for a chat. She smiled broadly. She was relaxed, funny, smart. She showed compassion for others, demonstrated insight. It was as if she were trying to undermine every assumption I’d so quickly made. Jane will still not acknowledge me at work but, privately, we chat. We might even become friends. Later. Jane likes to have the ball in her court. But, like most of us, she is not at all who people think she is.
I explained some of this to my new friend, the one I was talking to in the first place. She said that she understands about how sometimes people act tough to either hide their pain or protect themselves. “But,” she said, “I don’t want to invest in someone who might turn on me.” And that is when I realized how very rich I am.
“I can invest,” I said, “because I am rich!”
It’s not what we usually think of when we think of wealth, I know. We usually think of money. And, let’s face it, most of us are not rich. Most of us are worried. Several times a week we are treated to one economist or another speculating that a recession is on the way, maybe something worse. Earnings may fall. The economy may tank. We are all doing the best we can. We are working, saving, investing, hoping. But, one wrong move and, let’s face it, any of us could take a financial tumble right along with the rest of the economy. This ain’t Davos, after all, and most of us are not billionaires.
I learned about this other kind of wealth from an older and well-respected woman in Texas. She is also crazy. I am using crazy in the lay-sense of the word, though I suspect that a professional wouldn’t have trouble coming up with a diagnosis. The woman lacks judgment. You never know what she’s going to say or what kind of trouble she is going to make. She used to carry a pistol in her purse, and might still. One time, on a trip to the ladies room, she took it out and showed it to me to prove that she really could shoot someone. I talked her out of it. “I’ll just point it at them,” she suggested as a compromise. I talked her out of that too and we all went home early. After that, I forbade the gun. I am telling you, she is as nutty as a Snickers Bar. And, she is trouble.
One time, this has been years ago now, a small group of us were planning to see a play downtown. It was going to be a big girls night out, and this woman wanted to go along. Someone objected. I didn’t blame them, but I can afford to invest, remember. “We can do this,” I told her, “We have enough love… between the rest of us, we have enough.” And that is how I learned about the wealth of friendship, loyalty, taking care of one another. That short conversation flipped a switch for me and I suddenly knew that when you have love in your life it builds up reserves which allow you to invest, even to make risky investments, because you don’t need the return.
That conversation, just a slip of a vignette, has stayed with me all these years because it caused me to realize that I always have enough. Not enough for a super yacht, but enough of what matters.
There are a lot of traditions surrounding Candlemas, the day when Christians bless the candles for the coming year. Candlemas was yesterday, in case it slipped by you. Candlemas has a great history as a major festival, and it goes back to at least the 4th century. Sadly, it’s not very popular anymore. It was actually a pagan festival marking the mid-point of winter and Christianity confiscated it. We Christians get accused of appropriating a lot of things. People like to say that some of our biggest festivals weren’t original to us, and they are usually wrong. But, this time we’re guilty. Like good syncretists, we added to and amplified Candlemas until there was something for everyone. Some people think you can even predict the weather according to the weather on Candlemas Day. Others believe that if the wax drips to one side or the other you might have prosperity or experience a death in the family. It is the absolute deadline for removing Christmas decorations, you know, if you missed 12th night which is the traditional deadline. For mainline Christians, it is the day that Jesus was presented at the temple, though it is unclear why they even took Jesus to the Temple. That was not a thing in the ancient near east, though it makes a good story. In France Candlemas is yet another occasion to make crepes. And, of course, we bless the candles.
There are so many traditions and customs surrounding Candlemas that you can almost make up your own, and here’s mine. I light a candle. Only one. I don’t bless my candles or parade around with them, but I light one. The candle puts out a small light, you can’t really see by it because it’s a small thing. But in the darkness with my one candle I think about the small things. For me, it has been the very little things, small as a single candle, that have made all the difference.
I have been blessed by thousands of tiny acts of kindness, and you probably have been too. Candlemas is a great time to think on those things and be grateful. It’s also a time to consider what little things we might do for others. As Christians, we like to paint with a broad brush: Jesus saved the whole world, absolutely everybody is loved by God, all means all, that’s what we say… and that’s all true. Another truth is that a tiny rudder can turn a mighty ship.
I am not going to preach great sermons, cure a disease, or negotiate any kind of peace plan. That is not the kind of life I have. But I can be kind. I can invest in unlikely relationships because I have known the friendship of God and, one at a time, in the smallest ways imaginable, I can extend it to others. I can’t think of any act, done in love, that would be too small. Whether you have one little candle or go to a cathedral that blazes with them, remember that you have enough light for what is in front of you, you have enough love, you can invest because you are rich!
Linda McMillan is rich!
On a personal note, I will be taking a short break from The Café. I appreciate my colleagues who will fill-in for me. I am so grateful to you who read the essays. I’ll be back in June. Inshalla, as they say.