What’s a Mother to do? The Days After Mother’s Day

Happy belated Mother’s Day one and all!  Because even if we have not given birth, we are all some kind of mother (put the accent where you will), we are all mother’s of invention.

I recently read a blog by a friend of mine, and she got me thinking about this question: What would YOU do to save your son or daughter in a moment when he or she might be putting herself/himself in harms way?

Far too many of our sons and daughters are subject to random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty.  There are not enough random acts of kindness nor senseless acts of beauty to balance the scales of any act of violence or cruelty and there have been far too many acts of violence and cruelty of late. My friend Rosi is right when she says we need to change the social structures. We need to build families, churches, governments, workplaces, media, social welfare systems that foster human dignity, growth and potential, that enable people to empower themselves. And I think we also, concurrently, need to change hearts, minds and actions on the interpersonal, ordinary day level so that the building of those new social structures is conceived in love, dignity and compassion.  And, I think Mother’s Love is just a fine foundation upon which to build all of that.

Here is the blog that spurred my thinking. It comes to us from

CHARLEENALDERFER familygram’s blog https://charleenalderfer.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/whats-a-mother-to-do/.

She posted it on May 6, 2015. I thought it would be appropriate to share it today, the day after Mother’s Day.

Thank You Charleen!


A tall, young black male enters the frame.  He wears a hoodie and jeans and carries the ubiquitous backpack.  He turns occasionally and looks back toward the camera.  In the background is a large gathering of people.  He seems to be headed in their direction. Suddenly, a woman dressed in yellow appears in the frame.  She is moving quickly in the direction of the young man.  While clearly older than he is, she is both matronly and attractive.  Intuitively, one knows she is his mother.  As she closes the distance between them, he continues at his same pace still turning to look toward her.  When she is close enough, she grabs his hoodie and he pulls away.  It is evident that he does not want to do what she is asking.  He reaches out and she grabs his arm with one hand and with other hits him on the head.  Now, we think, he will pull free and run.  But he does not run,.  He continues to resist.  The tug of war goes on and then, slowly, he goes with her.

This street in Baltimore has been in the news for the last few weeks.  It has been the scene of protests, both peaceful a violent. This young man was going to join the protestors in a setting which had turned toward violence. His mother saw him while watching the activity on TV.  She acted on her emotion and her instinct and ran after him to bring him home.  “Violence breeds violence” has been another kind criticism.  Hitting him just perpetuates violence. As a family therapist, I believe this is true if it is persistent and becomes a way of life.  We don’t know if this is the case for this mother and son.

If that were my son, I would do whatever it takes to get him.  My first thought would be that he might become Freddie Gray –   arrested and fatally injured in a police van.  My next thought would be to get him away from angry protesters who could convince him to join them.  I would want him home and safe.  What would a mother do to make that happen?  A slap on the side of the head got his attention.  The truth is that he didn’t resist that much.  He didn’t fight back, he didn’t try to run and he didn’t hit his mother. He could have done any of those things; he could even have pushed her down.  he was bigger, stronger, younger. Instead, he went with her.  Think about it.  What you do to save your son in that moment?


Thinking about money & suspending purchases

A little ago I was driving along the New Jersey Parkway and I came to one of the inevitable toll booths. So, I got my money out, rolled down my window, pulled up and reached out to hand the toll collector the money. She grinned at me, shook her head and said that the person in the car in front of me had already paid my toll. I was kind of mildly stunned. I mean you hear about people doing that kind of thing, but it doesn’t happen to me! So I drove off surprised and smiling. I smiled most of that day and into the next. Then, of course having strong and deep Catholic roots, I woke up and thought, “You damn fool! You should have paid for the car behind you! You should have kept the joy rolling. Damn what a dolt I can be!” And my overdeveloped Catholic guilt crept in and threatened to trash the glow I still had from the gift. And so I resolved to pay it forward the next time I’m on the parkway – and I even put a note in my car in the coin box to remind myself!

Then I remembered a day when I was driving along route 57 in New Jersey on my way to a graduate class at Marywood College in Scranton, PA. There in this small little town that I drove through every week were some guys alongside the road holding white plastic buckets and taking up a collection. Now, I don’t know about you, but where I come from the local volunteer fire departments do this once or twice a year. So I dug down deep into my pocket and pulled out a quarter (this was in the 1970’s and I was a graduate students, so that was big money for me) and I plunked my money into the man’s bucket. As I dropped the quarter into the bucket, I saw the KKK patch on his shirt. UGH. What had I done! I had just given money to a hate group, a hate group that I very much hated. UGH. Double UGH. I felt angry with myself. I felt deceived. I felt like I wanted to, needed to, take a shower. But I kept on driving, went to class, came home, and wrote a check for $5.00 to the United Negro College Fund (remember it was still the 1970’s and I was still a graduate student, so this was really, really big money). I figured this was one time when Martin Luther and his protest against the Roman Catholic practice of buying indulgences could be set aside.

Then I remembered a group in a gay bar that organized a fund raiser concurrent with a picketing event by Fred Phelps and some of his people from the Westboro Baptist Church. Fred Phelps and his people were our carrying their virulent anti-gay signs, demonstrating against something or other as they were wont to do. The group in the bar got people to pledge money, so much per quarter hour that Phelps and his people demonstrated, kind of like you do for people who are participating in a benefit walk, only in this case all of the money raised would go to a local pro-gay advocacy group. So, there was this beautiful ironic paradox – the longer Phelps and his people demonstrated against gay folks, the more the local gay group would benefit! Nice.


And then today I was surfing the internet and I found this story about some people who walked into a coffee shop, and as they were standing in line, they heard the folks ahead of them order five coffees, two for them, and three suspend.  As they waited in the line, a few orders later a small group of women ordered eight coffees, one for each of them, and four suspended.

When the new comers placed their order, they asked the barista what ‘suspended’ coffee was. The barista chuckled and asked if there coffee was for there or to go. They said they would be drinking the coffee there. The barista said, “ok, take a table close to the counter and watch.” So they did.

The new folks took a table that was near the counter and had a view of the stream behind the café. They enjoyed their coffees and some conversation for a while. People came, placed their orders, some sat and drank their coffee, some took their coffee to go, quite a few place orders that included suspended coffee, and occasionally a suspended sandwich or soup.

Then just as they were about to leave, wondering what they were supposed to be waiting for, a man dressed in shabby clothes who looked like he could be homeless came in and asked, “do you have a suspended coffee?”

And it dawned on the two visitors, people paid in advance for a coffee or sandwich or bowl of soup that they intended to be held in reserve for someone who could not afford a warm beverage or a meal. Nice.

It is not a solution. Maybe it is not even a step in the right direction. It surely does not address any of the systemic, structural problems that cause and perpetuate poverty. But it does give some comfort and nurturance to individuals in the moment. And that is both necessary and nice too.

Four little stories about money and what we do with it, about what we can do with it. How we spend our money can make a difference, it can bring unexpected joy to someone, it can advance justice, and it can bring comfort. Or not. Think before you spend. Frivolous spending can be a good thing if you do it in the right way, at the right time. Planful, intentional spending can be a very good thing, if you do it in the right way, at the right time. And I don’t know when there is a wrong time to invest in a good cause (as long as you have paid the bills and have purchased enough food to stay healthy and enough books to keep your brain alive).

On human interdependence and breathing

Since the failed grand jury decision in Ferguson I have been wanting to write something meaningful here about that. Then the Staten Island grand jury failed to find any cause to indict, and I even more wanted to write something meaningful. But what? what could I say? Eric Garner could not breathe, and I could not find words to write.  Then I cam across this meditation by Jan Willis, and so I share it with you in recognition of our deep interdependence, because breathing is a most basic human right.

Why We Can’t Breathe BY JAN WILLIS 

Lions Roar DECEMBER 7, 2014


We can’t breathe!

In Buddhist meditation, our breathing is essential. Anapana, meditation on the breath, was the Buddha’s first meditation instruction and the basis for all further meditative endeavors. Breathing is not only life-sustaining and calming; it is a foremost teaching aid. Breathing, we sense immediately our necessary connection to what is other than ourselves. Without the exchange of air —inner and outer–we would die. We are not independent. We are dependent.

We are interdependent. We are connected with one another. We breathe the same air. That air is neither black nor white. We share the life-force of all.

If one of us cannot breathe, none of us can breathe fully and deeply and we no longer experience our connection with one another.

If Eric Garner cannot breathe, then we cannot breathe. If Michael Brown no longer breathes, we cannot breathe. If Tamir Rice does not breathe, we cannot breathe.

Something is mightily broken. A hard rock of sadness and pain rolls itself up in our hearts and we cannot breathe. We must do something—swiftly and non-violently–to right the moral compass. Because, at this moment, none of us can breathe.


The Identity of Mullah Nasser-E-Din and the Jar

 Once upon a time many of the souls in Afghanistan enjoyed the peace and joy of village life. Mullah Nasser-E-Din was a well known wise man throughout the villages, and is the central character in many tales of wisdom throughout Afghanistan, Israel and Turkey.

It is said that one day Mullah Nasser-E-Din went to the public baths. As he strolled through the bath, he thought to himself that it indeed would be lovely to dip into the waters and take off a few layers of sand and dirt. So, in he went and he washed himself from head to toe. As he emerged all clean and refreshed, he noticed that all the bathers were lying on the floor having a bit of a mid-day nap, rending the ceiling and the sky with their snores. He said to himself: “How good it would be to fall into a sweet sleep!” But he thought, what could he do so as not to be exchanged for a neighbor? What if someone stole his identity while he was sleeping. (Here we have a fabulous example of the prescience of Mullah Nasser-E-Din – he knew to worry about identity theft even then!) He took a jar, put his identity into it and fastened it to his waist, and fell asleep.

In the meantime one of the sleepers woke up and saw the jar fastened to Nasser-E-Din’s waist. He coveted the jar, took it, and fastened it to his own waist. After a short time, Nasser-E-Din arose and saw that the jar was not there. He looked around, and lo! There it was, fastened to the waist of someone else. He woke him up and said, “My friend, if I am I, where it the jar? But if you are me, who am I?”


When I first found this folk tale from Afghanistan in Josepha Sherman’s book of World Folklore, , I was completely taken with it. Then I reread it and didn’t get it at all. Then I read it again and thought about all of the ‘things’ that I have that I just wouldn’t really be me without (books came to mind first) and so then I think I got it again. Of course we don’t put our identities in a jar, but oh, do we ever tie them up in other things – possessions, relationships, work … and this little story was a nice reminder for me to just let it go, let it go, let it go …

The Good Woman and Huldukona: an echoing yes to life and to love

Once, or maybe twice, in that time when things we dream really do happen there was a woman in Iceland who trusted her dreams, she was a good woman. She was a hard working peasant woman, married to an average kind of hard working man. There was nothing much remarkable about their lives. They lived each day as best they could. They worked hard. They had little, but they had enough. Life was not easy for them, but it was their life and they made the best of it. To look at them you would find nothing very remarkable. And yet if you stood with them for a while you would feel a depth, a resonance, a rootedness.

One night as this good woman slept, she dreamt that the elfwoman Huldukona came to her. In the dream, Huldukona asked her to put two quarts of milk a day in a bowl, and to set it in a corner behind a cupboard. Huldukona asked the woman to do this every day for one month. Huldukona explained that she needed the milk for her child, the child of her heart and hearth. The good woman was moved by compassion and promised elfwoman that she would do this.

In the morning when she woke, the good woman remembered her promise, and put the milk in a bowl in the place Huldukona had pointed out. The good woman did this even though she and her husband had only enough to get by. Every day for one month the good woman put out the bowl of milk. And each day when she returned the bowl was empty. The good woman was faithful to her promise and continued her gift faithfully each day.

At the end of the month, Huldukona again visited the good woman in her dreams. Huldukona thanked the good woman for her kindness, and asked her to accept the belt she would find in her bed in the morning when she rose from her sleep. Huldukona then dis-appeared.

In the morning, when the good woman rose from her sleep she found a stunning hand wrought silver belt, more beautiful than anything she had ever seen, the gift of the grateful elfwoman.


When we think of heroes the first image that comes to mind is likely to be that of a warrior – a strong burly man engaged in a physical struggle of muscle and violence. But, today I am inviting you to think again. This good woman was a hero, maybe a new transformative kind of hero. She trusted her dream and her vision. She was willing to give from her heart to nurture a life. She believed in what was asked of her. She said yes to life and to love. What could be more heroic? And yes, in the fable she was richly rewarded in the end for her generosity, but I think that may well be beside the point. The point for me is that she said yes to life and to love … in a small unremarkable way, but in a way that made all the difference for those to whom she responded. And that made all the difference to them.

So, today in some small way, let us each wake up and say yes to life and to love, with a small act of kindness and generosity giving just a bit more than we might have first thought we were able, because after all, kindness and generosity are an echoing yes to life and to love.

On Finding Joy

 As a young social worker, I was taught about schizophrenogenic mothers, mothers who were responsible for their children’s schizophrenia. In the day it was the norm to hold mothers accountable (actually to blame them) for all of the mental dis-ease that befell their children and families. Perhaps it is in that spirit that I share this apocryphal story about everyone’s and no one’s in particular mother. . .

There indeed was a mother who was known throughout the neighborhood for her quest for perfection. She spent her life bemoaning the circumstances of her life. Nothing was ever quite good enough, nothing satisfied her.

Life went on in the village. Days came, and days went. People got up, went to work. They laughed, they cried. They did all the things that people do in the days of their lives.

One grace filled summer day the sun burst through the fog that had risen from the ground after the nights storm had ended. A rainbow hovered over the mountains, and the sun spread sparkling light over the gardens and fields in a blaze of glorious color and light. It was one of those moments that took your breath away and left you inspired with the beauty and grandeur of your town and our world. It was an “ahh moment” if there ever was one.

Surely even that mother would see the beauty and joy of life in this!

Father Poplowski called out to the mother, “my daughter is this not a most glorious day?”

And the mother replied, “Well it may be Father, but will it last?”

Well, of course not. Nothing lasts forever. The sweetness, the joy is in the moment – perhaps made even sweeter in the knowledge of its evanescent ephemeral nature. Nothing lasts forever, Nothing ever could. And, yet somewhere in our youth or childhood, we must have found something good. And so, let us re-claim the lost innocence of youth and childhood. Let us learn and remember to take our joy, our happiness, our hope were we can find them, where we can create them.


In Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan Chittister reminds us of the sunflower – that beautiful plant which even in shadow turns its head towards the sun. Chittister christens the sunflower the patron saint of those in despair. She offers us this guidance from the people of New Zealond: Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows always fall behind you.


Today, this day, let us all make the effort. Let us enjoy beauty where it finds us, let us embody the sunflower and each turn our face to the sun!

What would you wish for?

 From http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/112250/jewish/Two-Bagels.htm by Tuvia Bolton

 On the morning after Napoleon had won one of his most important battles, he summoned the commanders of his various legions to a pompous ceremony in his war-room to reward their bravery in battle.

The commander of the Bavarian troops stepped forward, fell to one knee before his king and declared: “I ask for autonomy for Bavaria!

“So it shall be!” proclaimed the Emperor to the ministers and officials surrounding the scene. “Autonomy for Bavaria!”

The Slovakian general then stepped forward, fell to his knee and similarly declared, “Liberty for Slovakia!”

“Liberty it shall be!” shouted Bonaparte.

And so it was with the Arabian and the Ukrainian generals. “By G-d, autonomy and statehood for Arabia, and for the Ukrainians!” Napoleon announced.

Finally, the chief of the Jewish legion stepped forward. “And what of you, my loyal friend?” Napoleon asked. “What reward do you ask for your bravery?”

“I would like a cup of hot coffee with milk and no sugar, two bagels with cream cheese, and some lox on the side.”

Without hesitation, Napoleon sent one of his officers to bring the Jew’s order, saluted all those present, and left the room. Meanwhile, the breakfast arrived, and the Jewish general washed his hands for bread, sat down, and began eating while the other generals gaped in amazement.

“You fool!” one of them blurted out. “Why did you make such a stupid request? You could have asked for a nation, riches and power! Why did you waste your wish on a couple of bagels?”

The Jew stopped eating for a moment, looked up at them with a smile and replied: “At least I got what I asked for.”

so, what would YOU wish for? 

I remember a time, about a thousand years ago, being in church and the priest read a bible story, where the angel of G-d asked some men what they wished for. The first ones asked for trifling things: money, power, fame. It was clear from the story that those were the wrong answers. Then the last one asked for wisdom. And wonder fo wonders, clearly that was the better answer, even the best answer! And so I adopted that as my answer, my goal for much of my life. Now, sitting here with 60 some years to look back on, I don’t regret my choice at all. And, (it’s always both and for me), and, I think the answer is really love and wisdom — and maybe they are not so very different.  And, a bagel would be kind of nice too!!

so, what would you wish for??

It’s not always easy to work out the meaning of work

Back at the Cloister of the good Sisters of Mary Magdalene, the glow of postulantcy is beginning to tarnish for our bright eyed Sister Beatrix. She has just completed a novena to her patron saint, the beloved Beatrix Potter, but alas, Sister Beatrix continues to suffer the frustration of feeling put upon to do too much work.

Indeed, each day the good Sister Beatrix sets out to weed the extensive beds of vegetables and flowers that feed the bodies and spirits of the cloistered nuns as well as the homeless families in a nearby shelter. Each day Mother Magdalene watches the elegant poetry of Sister Beatrix’s movements as she moves along the rows of plants pulling and gathering the weeds, and then carrying them off to the mulch plies. And, Mother Magdalene also notices the frustration growing on Sister Beatrix’s face each day. To watch the young sister’s action is to see poetry in motion. To observe her countenance is to feel the growing length of the hard rows she must hoe.

One day, Mother Magdalene calls Sister Beatrix into her office. Mother Magdalene proposes to Sister Beatrix that instead of sweating and toiling in the gardens, each day she will come to the cloister infirmary where Sister Honora is recuperating. Sister Honora who is 90 some years old is essentially blind and quite deaf, but she remains devout in her spiritual practices when her health allows. As she is the only sister in the infirmary at the moment, she is also a bit lonely. Mother Magdalene proposes to Sister Beatrix that she spend a few hours in the infirmary each day, demonstrating to Sister Honora the movements of pulling, gathering and mulching the weeds. The infirmary is air conditioned, so Sister Beatrix enthusiastically jumps at the offer.

The very next day, during the cloister work period, Sister Beatrix goes to the infirmary, and begins her now ritualized movements of pulling weeds, gathering them, and then hauling the imaginary weeds off to an area she envisions as a mulch pile. The relief that she feels is immense! The infirmary is air conditioned. Imaginary weeds weigh nothing. The rows are as short as she chooses. It is an easy row to hoe, a sweet deal indeed!

Sister Bridget’s euphoria continues for a week or so. And then a sense of listlessness begins to creep up on her, overshadowing her new found joy with a feeling of being becalmed in shallow waters. What is she doing? Sister Honora sleeps through her visits. And even when she is awake, Sister Honora hardly notices her. What is the point of this, really? At least when she was outside in the heat, she was accomplishing something, she was engaged in the muddy substance of reality, making a difference in her world, helping to feed the Sisters in some small way. And then Sister Beatrix started to laugh. She got it! When she was in the gardens, she was doing something, something that mattered, something she could put her heart and soul into. When she was walking through the motions in the infirmary, she was merely walking through the motions. . . and so, Sister Beatrix requested an interview with Mother Magdalene, and requested her old job back, and she returned to weeding the gardens having found the heart in her path.

May the rows that we hoe be just challenging enough to keep us focused and engaged. May we all find work with meaning and purpose. May we all find and follow a path with heart!

The Three Sisters and Their Husbands, Three Brothers

Since time before mind women have had to survive by wit and will. This is a fun story that I found in the book “Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales” edited by Kathleen Ragan. Ragan credits Jeremiah Curtin the author of “Tales of Fairies and the Ghost World.” Clearly it is an old Irish tale – a bit longer than most that I post here, but worth the read for sure. If you don’t have time for the full five pages, jump to the end for the last few paragraphs! They are my favorite part for sure.

 As the story goes, in the county Cork, a mile and a half from Fermoy, there lived three brothers. The three lived in one house for some years and never thought of marrying. On a certain day theywent to a fair in the town of Fermoy. There was a platform on the fair ground for dancing and a fiddler on the platform to give music to the dancers. Three sisters from the neighbourhood, handsome girls, lively and full of jokes, made over to the three brothers and asked would they dance. The youngest and middle brother wouldn’t think of dancing, but the eldest said, “We mustn’t refuse; it wouldn’t be good manners.” The three brothers danced with the girls, and after the dance took them to a public-house for refreshments.

After a white the second brother spoke up and said, “Here are three sisters, good wives for three brothers; why shouldn’t we marry? Let the eldest brother of us take the eldest sister; I will take the second; the youngest brother can have the youngest sister.”

It was settled then and there that the three couples were satisfied if the girls’ parents were. Next day the brothers went to the girls’ parents and got their consent. In a week’s time they were married.

Each of the three brothers had a good farm, and each went now to live on his own place. They lived well and happily for about ten years, when one market-day the eldest sister came to the second and asked her to go to Fermoy with her.

In those days women used to carry baskets made of willow twigs, in which they took eggs and butter to market. The second sister said she hadn’t thought of going, but she would go, and they would ask the youngest sister for her company.

All three started off, each with a basket of eggs. After they had their eggs sold in the market they lingered about for some time looking at people, as is usual with farmers’ wives. In the evening, when thinking of home, they dropped into a public-house to have a drop of drink before going. The public-house was full of people, chatting, talking, and drinking. The three sisters did not like to be seen at the bar, so they went to a room up stairs, and the eldest called for three pints of porter, which was brought without delay.

It is common for a farmer or his wife who has a ten-shilling piece or a pound, and does not wish to break it, to say, “I will pay the next time I come to town”; so the eldest sister said now. The second sister called for three pints, and then the third followed her example.

‘Tis said that women are very noisy when they’ve taken a glass or two, but whether that is true or not, these three were noisy, and their talk was so loud that Lord Fermoy, who was above in a room finishing some business with the keeper of the public-house, could not hear a thing for their chat, so he sent the landlord to tell the women to leave the room. The landlord went, and finding that they had not paid their reckoning yet, told them it was time they were paying their reckoning and moving towards home.

One of the sisters looked up and said, “The man above* will pay all. He is good for the reckoning.”

The man of the house, thinking that it was Lord Fermoy she was speaking of, was satisfied, and went up stairs.

“Have they gone?” asked Lord Fermoy.

“They have not, and they say that you will pay the reckoning.”

“Why should I pay when I don’t know them? We’ll go down and see who they are and what they mean.”

The two went down, and Lord Fermoy saw that they were tenants of his; he knew them quite well, for they lived near his own castle. He liked the sisters, they were so sharp-witted.

“I’ll pay the reckoning, and do you bring each of these women a glass of punch,” said he to the man of the house.

The punch was brought without delay.

“Here is a half sovereign for each of you,” said Lord Fermoy. “Now go home, and meet me in this place a week from to-day. Whichever one of you during that time makes the biggest fool of her husband will get ten pounds in gold and ten years rent free.”

“We’ll do our best,” said the sisters.

Each woman of them was anxious, of course, to do the best she could. They parted at the door of the public-house, each going her own way, and each thinking of what could be done to win the ten pounds and ten years’ rent.

It had happened that the eldest sister’s husband became very phthisicky and sickly a couple of years after his marriage and fell into a decline. On the way home the wife made up her mind what to do. She bought pipes, tobacco, candles, and other articles needed at a wake. She was in no hurry home, so ’twas late enough when she came to the house. When she looked in at the window she saw her husband sitting by the fire with his hand on his chin and the children asleep around him. A pot of potatoes, boiled and strained, was waiting for her.

She opened the door. The husband looked at her and asked, “Why are you so late?”

“Why are you off the table, and where are the sheets that were over you?” asked she as if in a fright; “or the shirt that I put on you? I left you laid out on the table.”

“Sure I am not dead at all. I know very well when you started to go to the market, I wasn’t dead then, and I didn’t die since you left the house.”

Then she began to abuse him, and said that all his friends were coming to the wake, and he had no right to be off the table tormenting and abusing herself and the children, and went on in such a way that at last he believed himself dead and asked her in God’s name to give him a smoke and he would go up again on the table and never come down till he was carried from it.

She gave him the pipe, but didn’t let him smoke long. Then she made him ready, put him on the table, and spread a sheet over him. Now two poles were stretched overhead above the body and sheets hung over and down on the sides, as is customary. She put beads between his two thumbs and a Prayer-book in his hands. “You are not to open your eyes,” said she, “no matter what comes or happens.” She unlocked the door then and raised a terrible wailing over the corpse. A woman living opposite heard the wailing, and said to her husband:

“Oh, it is Jack that is dead, and it is a shame for you not to go to him.”

“I was with him this evening,” said the husband, “and what could kill him since?”

The wife hurried over to Jack’s house, found the corpse in it, and began to cry. Soon there was a crowd gathered, and all crying.

The second sister going past to her own home by a short cut, heard the keening and lamenting. “This is my sister’s trick to get the £10 and ten years’ rent,” thought she, and began to wail also. When inside she pinched the dead man, and pulled at him to know would he stir; but it was no use, he never stirred.

The second sister went home then, and she was very late. Her husband was a strong, able-bodied man, and when she wasn’t there to milk the cows he walked up and down the path watching for her, and he very angry. At last he milked the cows himself, drove them out, and then sat down in the house. When the wife came he jumped up and asked, “What kept you out till this hour? ‘Twas fitter for you to be at home long ago than to be strolling about, and the Lord knows where you were.”

“How could I be here, when I stopped at the wake where you ought to be?”

“What wake?”

“Your brother’s wake. Jack is dead, poor man.”

“What the devil was to kill Jack? Sure I saw him this evening, and he’s not dead.”

He wouldn’t believe, and to convince him she said, “Come to the field and you’ll see the lights, and maybe you’ll hear the keening.”

She took him over the ditch into the field, and seeing the lights he said, “Sure my poor brother is dead!” and began to cry.

“Didn’t I tell you, you stump of a fool, that your brother was dead, and why don’t you go to his wake and go in morning? A respectable person goes in mourning for a relative and gets credit for it ever after.”

“What is mourning?” asked the husband.

“Tis well I know,” said she, “what mourning is, for didn’t my mother teach me, and I will show you.”

She brought him to the house and told him to throw off all his clothes and put on a pair of tight-fitting black knee breeches. He did so; she took a wet brush then, and reaching it up in the chimney, got plenty of soot and blacked him all over from head to foot, and he naked except the black breeches. When she had him well blackened she put a black stick in his hand. “Now,” said she, “go to the wake, and what you are doing will be a credit to the family for seven generations.”

He started off wailing and crying. Whenever a wake house is full, benches and seats are put outside, men and women sit on these benches till some of those inside go home, then those outside go in. It is common also for boys to go to wakes and get pipes and tobacco, for every one gets a pipe, from a child of three to old men and women. Some of the boys at Jack’s wake, after getting their pipes and tobacco, ran off to the field to smoke, where their parents couldn’t see them. Seeing the black man coming, the boys dropped their pipes and ran back to the wake house, screaming to the people who were sitting outside that the devil was coming to carry the corpse with him. One of the men who stood near was sharper-sighted than others, and looking in the direction pointed out, said:

“Sure the devil is coming! And people thought that Jack was a fine, decent man, but now it turns out that he was different. I’ll not be waiting here!” He took himself off as fast as his legs could carry him, and others after him.

Soon the report went into the wake house, and the corpse heard that the devil was coming to take him, but for all that he hadn’t courage to stir. A man put his head out of the house, and, seeing the black man, screamed, “I declare to God that the devil is coming!” With that he ran off, and his wife hurried after him.

That moment everybody crowded so much to get out of the house that they fell one over another, screeching and screaming. The woman of the house ran away with the others. The dead man was left alone. He opened one eye right away, and seeing the last woman hurrying off he said:

“I declare to the Lord I’ll not stay here and wait for the devil to take me!” With that he sprang from the table, and wrapped the sheet round his body, and away with him then as fast as ever his legs could carry him.

His brother, the black man, saw him springing through the door, and, thinking it was Death that had lifted his brother and was running away with him to deprive the corpse of wake and Christian burial, he ran after him to save him. When the corpse screamed the black man screamed, and so they ran, and the people in terror fell into holes and ditches, trying to escape from Death and the devil.

The third sister was later than the other two in coming home from Fermoy. She knew her husband was a great sleeper, and she could do anything with him when he was drowsy. She looked into the house through a window that opened on hinges. She saw him sitting by the fire asleep; the children were sleeping near him. A pot of potatoes was standing by the fire. She knew that she could get in at the window if she took off some of her clothes. She did so and crawled in. The husband had long hair. She cut the hair off close to his head, threw it in the fire and burned it; then she went out through the window, and, taking a large stone, pounded on the door and roused her husband at last. He opened the door, began to scold her for being out so late, and blamed her greatly.

“Tis a shame for you,” said he. “The children are sleeping on the floor, and the potatoes boiled for the last five hours.”

“Bad luck to you, you fool!” said the woman. “Who are you to be ordering me? Isn’t it enough for my own husband to be doing that?”

“Are you out of your mind or drunk that you don’t know me?” said the man. “Sure, I am your husband.”

“Indeed you are not,” said she.

“And why not?”

“Because you are not; you don’t look like him. My husband has fine long, curly hair. Not so with you; you look like a shorn wether.”

He put his hands to his head, and, finding no hair on it, cried out, “I declare to the Lord that I am your husband, but I must have lost my hair while shearing the sheep this evening. I’m your husband.”

“Be off out of this!” screamed the woman. “When my husband comes he’ll not leave you long in the house, if you are here before him.”

In those days the people used bog pine for torches and lighting fires. The man, having a bundle of bog pine cut in pieces, took some fire and went towards the field, where he’d been shearing sheep. He went out to know could he find his hair and convince the wife. When he reached the right place he set fire to a couple of pine sticks, and they made a fine blaze. He went on his knees and was searching for the hair. He searched the four corners of the field, crawling hither and over, but if he did not a lock of hair could he find. He went next to the middle of the field, dropped on his knees, and began to crawl around to know could he find his hair. While doing this he heard a terrible noise of men, and they running towards him, puffing and panting. Who were they but the dead man and the devil? The dead man was losing his breath and was making for the first light before him. He was in such terror that he didn’t see how near he was to the light, and tumbled over the man who was searching for his hair.

“Oh, God help me!” cried the corpse. “I’m done for now!”

Hearing his brother’s voice, the black man, who was there, recognised him. The man looking for the hair rose up, and seeing his brothers, knew them; then each told the others everything, and they saw right away that the whole affair was planned by their wives.

The husbands went home well fooled, shame-faced, and angry. On the following day the women went to get the prize. When the whole story was told it was a great question who was to have the money. Lord Fermoy could not settle it himself, and called a council of the gentry to decide, but they could not decide who was the cleverest woman. What the council agreed on was this: To make up a purse of sixty pounds, and give twenty pounds and twenty years’ rent to each of the three, if they all solved the problem that would be put to them. If two solved it they would get thirty pounds apiece and thirty years’ rent; if only one, she would get the whole purse of sixty pounds and rent free for sixty years.

“This is the riddle,” said the council to the sisters: “There are four rooms in a row here; this is the first one. We will put a pile of apples in the fourth room; there will be a man of us in the third, second, and first room. You are to go to the fourth room, take as many apples as you like, and when you come to the third room you are to give the man in it half of what apples you’ll bring, and half an apple without cuffing it. When you come to the second room you are to do the same with what apples you will have left. In the first room you will do the same as in the third and second. Now we will go to put the apples in the fourth room, and we’ll give each of you one hour to work out the problem.”

“It’s the devil to give half an apple without cutting it,” said the elder sister.

When the men had gone the youngest sister said, “I can do it and I can get the sixty pounds, but as we are three sisters I’ll be liberal and divide with you. I’ll go first, and let each come an hour after the other. Each will take fifteen apples, and when she comes to the man in the third room she will ask him how much is one-half of fifteen; he will say seven and a half. She will give him eight apples then and say: “This is half of what I have and half an apple uncut for you.” With the seven apples she will go to the second room and ask the man there what is one-half of seven; he wilt say three and a half. She will give him four apples and say, “Here are three apples and a half and the half of an uncut apple for you.” With three apples left she will go to the man in the first room and ask what is the half of three. He will answer, “One and a half.” “Here are two apples for you,” she will say then; “one apple and a half and the half of an uncut apple.”

The eldest and second sister did as the youngest told them. Each received twenty pounds and twenty years’ rent.

E. B. White and Hope

E. B. White is quite a wonderful author. As I troll the web I keep discovering bit and pieces of the literary gems he has so graciously strewn across our world. One of my most favoritest E. B White quotes shares this observation:  “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Then today I was reading the BrainPickings newsletter and came across this letter that White wrote to a man in response to the letter the man had sent to him expressing the gentleman’s distress at the human condition. White’s letter can be found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) – a wonderful collection of letters based on Shaun Usher’s labor-of-love website.

 White’s letter, penned on March 30, 1973, when he was 74, endures as a spectacular celebration of the human spirit:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society – things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.


E. B. White

 And reading this reminded me hope easy it can be to fall into frustration at the sometimes excruciatingly slow progress in building a world of fairness, respect and compassion, of how many valleys there are along with the peaks of success. What a wonderful testament E. B. White gives us to celebrate human hope and resilience.

 So today, this day, let us all go out into our world and be a source of hope, a source of compassion for at least a few minutes of our day. And if you can’t quite manage that, then at least smile broadly to someone you don’t know. You will either bless their day with an unexpected gift of joy, or set them to wondering what you are up to!