I’m reading This I Believe, a book of short essays from eighty famous and ordinary people who write about a core personal belief. For example, the poet Joy Harpo believes in the sun as a relative that illuminates our path on earth. Elvia Bautista believe that everyone deserves flowers on their grave. Norman Corwin believes in common courtesy. Newt Gingrich believes that the world is inherently a very dangerous place and that things that are now very good can go bad very quickly. And so on. The book is based on the NPR series of the same name that began in 1951, ended 50 years later and was revived recently.
The editors encourage you to write your own “I believe…” essay so Old Monk is giving it a try.
This I Believe
A few months ago, one of “my boys” visited me. He was one of 20 neighborhood kids that I organized into a work, study and play group when I moved in with my dad, now deceased, about 15 years ago. At that time, the block where my dad lived, the one I grew up in, was one of the worst in the city for drugs and crime and neglect. The children earned money to spend at the neighborhood store for cleaning a patch of the block each day—picking up litter, sweeping, raking leaves. They also got the special dollars for reading books that I selected, doing homework and extra school work. We had summer school sessions in my garage and went on a lot of field trips together. It was two magical years of my life. Anyway, when I opened the front door, there stood J, now in his early 20s. He gave me a big hug and said, “I was just passing by Sister Kownacki and wanted to see if you still lived here and say ‘hi.’”
He also wanted to thank me for “saving his life.” “I have two children now, Sister Kownacki, and I want to be a good father.” “That’s wonderful, J,” I said. “What are you doing with yourself?” “I ain’t gonna lie to you Sister Kownacki. I’m into drugs.” I didn’t know how to react. Should I express anger, disapproval, call the cops. But this was my dear J and he had come to visit. So all I said was, “Are you satisfied with that choice, J,” He said he wasn’t happy with himself but felt trapped because he had a prison record and no high school diploma.
We talked a bit about his brothers and sisters—one painful story after another--and eventually I sputtered some words about trying to get out of the drug business for the sake of his children. He promised he was going to try, but I don’t have much hope there. What got me, though, was that he kept telling me how I saved his life and he’d be eternally grateful. Given his tragic life story so far, I couldn’t figure out what I had done for him that was so important. It sounded like I was a complete failure. So I finally asked him, “Why do you say I saved your life, J? What did I do?” He looked at me wistfully and said, “You cared. It’s so rare, Sister Kownacki, that someone care about you, really care about you, for no reason at all.”
And then D came by a few week later, another of the neighborhood alum. “I just sat and cried last night, Sister Kownacki….I wish I was little again and could come here every day after school….Those was the best time of my life. The street are awful, Sister Kownacki…I have no one to talk to except you….No one care about me except you, Sister Kownacki.”. D is trying his best to fight the pressure of the streets and miracles do happen, but…. Once again, I put him on a bus to go back to his father in Tennessee knowing he will return to Erie again in Spring. He has no GED. He has a baby girl in Buffalo and when the mother brought her here for a visit this summer we had to supply food and clothing. “I love you, Sister Kownacki,” he said when we hugged goodbye at the bus station.
Though those these two boys don’t look like their lives will ever be the focus of a Hallmark movie, I believe they got it right. My interaction with those 20 children for that brief a time was not meant to “save” them in the expected way: high school diplomas for all, college degrees for some, decent jobs, no crime, no drugs, happy families…. That would be the epitome of pride and a pitiful reason to get to know another person. We can’t “save” anyone, but we can care about them because….well, that’s what we’re here for. Being human is about filling your treasure box with genuine relationships. I will always care about those children and I know they hold a tender and meaningful memory of our time together, passing shadows though we be.
I go back to the insightful comment by J, “You know it’s a rare thing, Sister Kownacki, that somebody care for you, really care for you, for no reason at all.” This I believe in.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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