Seating for Five

We have a hummingbird feeder hanging from the eave of our covered porch. It is red, of course, since that is the color supposed to draw hummingbirds. At its base, it is wide, with five yellow sunflowers, and at the center of each is the hole from which the birds can draw out the sugar water.

We have a great deal of hummingbird activity. They are always zooming by, zipping through the air, often just over our heads. What is highly amusing, though, is that only one is ever feeding at a time. A single hummingbird always ferociously guards the feeder, chasing away any other interlopers. So it is a game of tag, of seek and chase. One approaches, then the one at the feeder dives after, and they both soar away, one in mad pursuit of the other.

Sabrina tells me that at her last house, feeling sorry for one hummingbird who always was chased away, she hung a second feeder up, about 15 feet away. Then the dominant bird simply guarded both, hovering in the air at center point, flitting back and forth to make sure no one could get to either feeder on her watch.

So tell me – why does the hummingbird feeder have seating for five? Are there hummingbirds somewhere in the world who are better at sharing their food, allowing company to sit down at the dinner table? Do some other hummingbirds have an altruistic streak, that seems to be lacking in the ones in Alexander Valley? Or were the designers of this hummingbird feeder uninformed of hummingbird behavior? Or, perhaps, the designers were optimistic, thinking if they made the feeder for five, they could cajole the birds into learning how to share?

I watch them and think, “Silly birds! We always refill the feeder. There is plenty for everyone.”

But – am I not guilty of that same behavior, in other circumstances? Holding on tight to what I have, afraid to give to others, afraid there won’t be enough left over for me? In my case, the object I hold on tightest to is time. I am fearful to commit to things because I don’t want to lose my alone time, my flexibility, my “freedom.” So I hesitate. I am less than generous when it comes to offering a helping hand. Because I think there won’t be enough left for me.

Silly bird.


Practicing Generosity in the Check-Out Line

Waiting in line, whether at the grocery store, the bank, or the DMV, is a great way to observe humanity at its worst and at its best.

For too many of us, those “line moments” are keeping us from the next thing on our list – the doctor’s appointment, picking up the kids from school, getting to work on time, meeting a date. It is an enforced time of surrender to powers greater than ourselves. Have you ever noticed? When we’re in a hurry, no matter how good we think we are at choosing the fastest line, , invariably the line we’re in turns out to be the slowest.

I try to avoid putting myself into the position where I only have five minutes to accomplish a task that involves a line. This means going to the bank at the end of the day, instead of trying to squeeze it in between three other errands on the way to work. Or making the big trip to the grocery store on my days off, when there’s no where else I have to be any time soon.

When I don’t have that time crunch, it is much easier to be a good line person. I can wait patiently while the elderly woman in front of me empties her entire purse looking for her check book. I can feel sympathy instead of annoyance for the young mother with three kids who’s holding up a queue of people because the clerk is processing her WIC certificates. I can strike up a conversation with the person behind me, when I notice that we both picked up Ben & Jerry’s, instead of tapping my foot while the cashier replaces the register tape. I can connect with people, instead of separating myself into my own little world of building fury.

As a general rule, I am courteous and friendly with tellers and cashiers, servers and clerks. Part of it is my upbringing; part of it is intentional practice. While a piece of this is, of course, wanting to respect the other people that I come into contact with throughout the day, I must also admit that it serves me well. Most of the time, I get better service when I treat the person on the other side of the counter as a human being instead of a functionary.

I also truly enjoy getting to know the many people in my life. It feels good when the bank teller knows my name and gives me a smile. I am pleasantly amused when a server remembers that I don’t like mushrooms on my salad. I like the small talk, and the commiserations over the rainy weather, and the eye contact. It is a way of building community.

But, like everyone else, I have my moments of impatience. Especially when I’m caught up in myself, some crisis or stress or worry, I can become one of the “bad” line people, one of those surly, curt, unpleasant people that makes whoever’s waiting on me grimace when I step up for my turn. When it happens, it isn’t pretty.

Usually I catch myself in the middle, sometimes soon enough to save myself. I’m able to apologize, start fresh. But occasionally, the whole thing goes from bad to worse, and then it’s only when I’m home alone with some space to think that I realize I’ve completely misbehaved.

Many years ago, I heard a comedian do a routine on waiting in line. He was talking about waiting and waiting, forever. And then that magic moment, when you’re “next.” He spoke of it with giddiness, excitement. When he was “next,” he said, he became magnanimous. The impatience was gone. In fact, he would even turn to the person behind him and say, “No, please, go ahead.” It was not only about being gracious – it was about prolonging that anticipatory feeling, that sense of everything almost coming to fruition. The beauty of being “next.”

Frequently, when I am standing in line, and feeling a bit impatient, I remember that comedian. Every time, it makes me smile. And often, it opens me up just enough to practice generosity instead of stinginess. It reminds me how good giving can feel.


Do I Have to Share My Ice Cream?

I’ve been listening to Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You on CDs in my car. It’s a four-disc set, and I find myself listening to each CD at least twice, because there’s just so much to take in.

Last night she was talking about the paramitas, and different ways of practicing each of them. When Chodron was discussing dana paramita, generosity, she said one of her students decided to give something away when she realized she didn’t want to part with it. It got me pondering, long and hard. I like to think of myself as a generous person. But the more I reflected on it last night, the stingier I felt.

A big issue for me is food. I simply hate having to share my food. When I decide I am going to indulge in my favorite decadence, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, I eat the whole pint in one sitting. I began wondering, what would happen if a friend, or my partner, said, “Oh, can I have some ice cream, too?” I would feel absolutely frantic. No! This is MY pint of ice cream!

I have fooled myself for a long time about this by saying that it wasn’t really ungenerous, because I was perfectly willing to buy another pint of ice cream for my friend. I had no trouble with the thought of making it my treat; I would gladly buy ice cream for a whole party, and not feel a bit put out. See, I’m generous!

But that doesn’t change at all the way I feel about the pint I set aside for myself. That one I clutch onto desperately. No one else can have any. Not even one spoonful.

I think I understand where this grasping comes from. I was the oldest of six children growing up, and now there are nine siblings all together. My immediate family has always been a brood, a crowd, a sprawling mess of human activity. Our portions were meted out evenly at dinner, with just enough for everyone. I never went without, but I also never was able to indulge myself. This will sound silly, but I didn’t even have my own underwear. The three oldest girls were all close enough in size, that we shared. Whoever folded the laundry got first dibs on the best pairs.

Listening to Chodron, I realized that this scarcity model is still playing out in my life, so many years later. I like things to be “just mine” – my own scissors, my own home office, my own books on my own bookshelves…and my own pint of ice cream. I have camouflaged this greediness with financial largess, gladly buying presents for people, meals at restaurants, miscellaneous this’n’that things for my partner….without having to actually share anything, except money.

So I have decided to start stretching myself a little bit, starting out with that most simple thing, the food I eat. I am going to try to share something whenever the opportunity arises – a bite from my plate at a restaurant, a slice of my apple, half of my dessert. And it doesn’t count to buy two – I have to give from that portion which was meant for me.

Even the ice cream.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved