Thursday, October 13, 2016

Just not a joiner

I guess I’m just not a joiner.

One day about six years ago when I was living in my townhouse at the Binfords, an ecology canvasser came to my door, a tall, dark and accented young man seeking my assistance and support for his current project: getting Oregon to be the first state in the nation to ban the use of plastic bags. Ban plastic bags? Well, yes, they are strangling the planet and take literally forever to go back to the elements. I never like to stand in the doorway talking to a missionary through the screen, so I invited the young man in. He acquiesced with some trepidation.

I never did learn his name (unusual for me) but I did find out that his accent was British, and that he was the offspring of a Burmese mother and British father. I offered him a seat on the sofa and asked him if he’d like some refreshments, or if he needed to use the washroom, both of which offers he declined. As he informed me of his mission to save the planet starting with my state, I prodded him with questions, asking the five why’s.

I reminisced with him about my own youthful missions to save the planet, and what became of them, counter-cultural efforts with people’s food co-ops and the like. As a matter of fact, not a single one of them survived. Bringing our own containers to the food co-op meant that almost no bags or other containers had to be used, and the garbage we used to accumulate that couldn’t be worked back into the soil of our garden amounted in a week’s time to hardly fill a waste paper basket.

What happened to all that?
The world moved in and took over the movement, improved it and made it more profitable as well as trendy. After all, if you’re going to save the planet, you should at least do it in style. So, after all our work, my young friend has to start over at ground zero, and canvass for signatures on a petition to be forwarded to the halls of government, so that virtue can be legislated, or maybe, so that freedom to be bad can be eradicated. That’s one way to save us from ourselves.

Sitting with me in my front room, the young man looked around nervously as he tried to enlist me in his campaign. I offered my moral support, but I told him that there was a more urgent need that required my full attention. I tried to talk to him about Jesus, who is still the most active person alive in the world today, and about His divine ikonomía, which goes deeper than the symptoms of ecological crisis to their embarrassing source, humanity’s sin, and has provided the way out.

Now his eyes were open. He understood where he was. Now he knew why those mysterious pictures, the hanging oil lamps and the censer, and that ancient-looking scroll across the room hanging on the wall above the dining room table. This guy was a religious nut! But that only gave him another angle to try to get me to join his crusade. “I believe that saving one’s soul can be done while saving the planet, don’t you? And wouldn’t it be good for your soul to give me at least a small donation?”

I looked at him quizzically, trying not to have the “Aha!” look of a zen master who has just been enlightened by understanding a kōan. “Golly, I really don’t have any money in the house, I don’t think, and I don’t give to feel good. But here, if there’s anything you see in this room that you need or could use, please take it! Anything.” He looked around and grinned and then said, “Are you sure you don’t have anything, even a dollar, that I can have, so that I can show that we have your support? It’s really important.”

“Okay, wait here,” I responded, “there just might be a dollar in my wallet that I was saving for a candle offering at church tomorrow. If it’s there, you can have it!” And I jumped up and went upstairs to find my wallet. Fortunately, there was a dollar in my billfold.
I thought to myself, “he’s such a nice boy, I wonder what else I can give him to reward him for his efforts, something just for him, that he can’t record in his little book, or spend.” Then I looked over at a small stack of chongnings on my desk.

“Maybe he would like a thousand year old Chinese coin!” I said, quickly finding the best one in the stack, with beautiful Chinese calligraphy designed by the emperor Song Huizong himself, and applied to all coins cast in the year A.D. 1102. The piece was a large, “value-10” coin, round with a square hole in the middle. In today’s money, it would be worth about $10 or so, and was the price you had to pay to enter a bath house in 12th century China. I thought he might like that.

“Well, you’re in luck,” I said as I came down the stairs to where he was still sitting. “There was a dollar in my wallet, but I felt bad that you had nothing for yourself, so I thought you might like this,” I said as I handed him the big, brassy chongning. “This is a coin cast in the year 1102 during the Northern Song dynasty. It was worth about ten dollars back then. You could use it to get into the baths, or to purchase a very nice supper with meat and rice wine. The inscription was written by the emperor himself.”

The young man accepted the coin and smiled. “Even though I am Burmese, I am very interested in Chinese culture and history. Thank you! I really appreciate this!” Then he carefully put it away among his things, and tacked the dollar to his clipboard, and got up to leave. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a drink of water at least, or anything? I have ice fruit bars!” I didn’t want to let him pass my house without even a drink, but he refused. I thanked him for stopping by, wished him success, and made to shake his hand.

The look on his face was one of being startled. It were as if he had never shaken anyone’s hand before. I never let anyone go without at least a handshake. So he timidly extended his hand, and I took it in mine, first the modern way, and then I slipped my grip into the comrade’s handshake, which it seemed he was also unaware of. After a moment, he regained his composure and I walked him out, past a large batik map of Indonesia, a framed wayang, and another frame with photos of my Javanese son, Yudhie.

“Sorry I couldn’t do more to help you. I guess I’m just not a joiner,” I said as he passed out of my life for ever, and again I wished him success. Hopefully I planted good seed, though, that may sprout, grow and bear fruit. Hopefully he won’t forget his visit to Romanos’ house, and not just because of that old coin.

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