Thanks to our friend Hollie Stotter, we know how to break down an overlarge task into doable chunks. She calls it “cleaning house one shelf at a time,” focusing on one small section rather than looking at the entire, overwhelming task at hand.
The mantra also applies to how so many of us feel about the all-encompassing hopelessness that is daily life for victims of natural or manmade disasters, of war and turmoil.
We must help. We don’t know how. No matter how much we give, how much we do, it won’t be enough, given the vastness of the unspeakable horror. There’s so much need, so much pain, so little we can accomplish from so far away. Our frustration, though immense, doesn’t hold a candle to the agony of the victims.
Many have died without the dignity they deserve. Many more have become tragic poster children for the calamity of unintended consequences.
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We want to do more than donate money — the bare minimum and absolute necessity. But what can we do?
Then I heard Hollie in the background of my mind. “One shelf at a time, Kathe.”
I flashed back to my childhood, to strange visitors in our house who didn’t speak much English and didn’t bring any suitcases. They were refugees from the Hungarian war, and my mother welcomed them into our home, despite being a divorced mother on her own with a young daughter.
Risky? Perhaps. Worth the risk? She thought so.
For the time our guests were with us — which from a child’s vantage point seemed to be forever — we fed them, cried with them and gave them a warm bed (mine). We tried teaching them English as we took a stab at learning Hungarian (neither attempt was very successful). We found them clothing and, eventually, a more permanent place to stay.
Our sacrifices were tiny. We had barely enough hot water for so many showers in our home’s only bathroom. Feeding extra folks for that long stretched our budget to the terminal Kraft mac-and-cheese level.
While they were there, Mom and I slept together, which was a hoot — ever tried to share a bed with five dachshunds and a flailing sleeper whose arm is in a cast?
In the midst of it all, we learned so much and had a really good time getting to know our new friends-for-a-while.
I remember the Hungarian matriarch staunchly teaching us how to make a proper goulash. It wasn’t Rachel Ray by any means, but we giggled and laughed together, then shared a really good meal.
Best of all, we could see and touch these people we were trying to help, good folks who needed so much, so suddenly, through no fault of their own.
It felt so good to lend a hand, to watch as one family escaped the horror, giving them a safe resting spot from which they could catch their breath, deal with their losses and adjust to their new life and homeland. In the end, we had made a difference to some polite, needy strangers, people we never saw again despite trying to keep track of them after they moved away from our area of New York.
No, Mom and I certainly didn’t end the war, cold or otherwise. We didn’t rescue a village nor save a life. But I know now that she and I did something really important, no matter how insignificant it seemed in the grand scheme of things.
I’m prouder than ever of my mother, because I know the chance she took to help “one shelf at a time.”
Now, as an adult, I understand better how tiny acts of kindness can become a flood of compassion. Donated bars of soap, new socks and cans of food can help turn a giant tide of hopelessness for those in need. My money and your money and his money pooled together can help another family rent an apartment, feed a child, pay for medicine and make a difference.
We can do this, too, shelf by shelf, one family at a time.
We should not rest until each displaced person has a safe home and life. We should not sleep easily until each child and family has clean clothes and enough food. Every one of us should do as much as we can, and then do some more.
Let’s make goulash together, people maybe it, too, will turn into a nourishing stone soup for the soul.
I know whatever we can do won’t be enough. But by God, it’s far better to do it one shelf at a time than to do nothing at all.
This column appeared first in The Cambrian on Aug. 23, 2004, after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.