I was 19 and in training at the YES Discipleship Center in Philadelphia. Twenty-four of us were preparing to head out in teams to France, Grenada, Guatemala, and Mexico. It was a rigorous program, scheduled to the hilt with day and evening classes. Household chores were required of us daily. Weekday afternoons might find us tutoring at the women’s prison or running an after school club; Saturday mornings we’d be rehearsing songs and skits. The in-between moments were for homework and physical exercise. Those three months were tailored to shape the whole person and fit us for life abroad. We took ourselves terribly seriously.
Charlotte was a staff member, our senior by a slim margin of years. She looked after us as a mother, and with quiet competence kept our household on Woodbine Avenue humming. She received a small stipend for her labor of love and lived a spare lifestyle. But Charlotte was also something of an epicure. Not much made her more ecstatic than chocolate chip cheesecake, or “C cubed” as she and my teammate Randi gleefully referred to it. She would speak wistfully of the feta cheese omelettes at the Med Sea, our neighborhood’s Greek diner where the female staff would breakfast once a month.
I didn’t get it. Why moon over tasty treats when we were on our way to saving the world? Intent on simplifying life through a self-imposed asceticism (and a heavy dose of self-righteousness), I didn’t want to be sidetracked. Yes, I was an insufferable 19-year-old, but hopefully mostly inside my head.
Years passed, and I moved to Japan after graduating from college. In a fog of homesickness, craving comfort in any form, I began to take note of little things. I loved the feel of the warm towels handed to me when seated in a restaurant. The cushiony seat and chilled tea offered to me while I waited for a watch battery to be changed were delightful. The local Denny’s actually had more than a few non-greasy items on its menu. And nothing was more fun than a karaoke “box”: a private, room-service-included lounge kitted out with machines that had backing vocals, echo effects, and key change capabilities. All of it was like an elixir. And I began to accept that the word “pleasure” didn’t necessarily have to be paired with “guilty.”
People choose to celebrate the little things to dispel the doldrums. Or maybe they create beauty where everything else is dull. I took my boys to to the city Coal Mining and Fossil Museum yesterday. They had been there previously with their grandparents and wanted to show me their favorite parts. As we entered a guide emerged from a desk with three pamphlets in hand. She held them out to me and explained the layout of the facility. We followed the direction of her outstretched arm and began on our way as she resumed her seat behind the desk. “What a boring job…poor girl,” I thought, pitying her in spite of myself.
The path through the museum deposited us back at her desk. Minori and Rei spotted a basket placed there, full of tiny paper cranes. A small sign read, “Please take one.” Next to the basket were two origami dinosaurs, each about a foot in length. The boys grabbed the dinosaurs, claiming them before I could speak. I asked them to put them back down and choose a crane. But the guide insisted that the dinosaurs were ours for the taking. I was unsure but decided to indulge her kindness. The boys were thrilled.
After a stop at the restroom we circled back to get some drinks and take our leave. Upon walking once more past the desk I noticed the guide had taken a seat near the basket. Her head was bowed in concentration, and she had a rainbow’s worth of delicately flowered origami papers fanned in front of her. She was replenishing her stock of souvenirs for the next round of kid customers.
I’m so glad there are people like Charlotte and this young woman in the world. And my friend Nichole, a cancer survivor, who asked our waiter at Caruso’s that time we went for dessert, “Is the chocolate cake moist? Because life is too short to eat dry cake. Or burn smelly candles. Same thing.” Precisely. I get it now, I really do.