It was pretty this morning. Unseasonably warm where we live. A single-day break between near constant showers.
I took our dog down the yard to check out the creek, which had risen so high a few times over the past few weeks the banks are now littered with garbage. I turned back toward the house, intending to go grab a few trash bags, but my foot came down on an unopened pine cone. It rolled under my foot in a way that nearly caused me to fall.
Our house is surrounded by pines, so collecting their cones is a constant. We use them as fire-starters in the pit we have by our creek. In the spring, gathering cones can be almost fun. By late summer, it’s become a back-breaking burden, all that bending and stooping and getting stabbed by prickly cones.
This morning, though, I hadn’t been planning on anything much when I bent to retrieve that first cone — the one that nearly caused me to fall — and chucked it toward the pit, where it landed perfectly in the very center.
Encouraged, I picked up another and pitched it at the ring. In it went! Before long I was five for five, and then nine for 10. But the farther I moved from the pit, the less impressive my skill. There wasn’t a single three-pointer, though many bounced off the rim.
It was wonderfully mindless. Sun on my back. Birds chirping. The sound of water rushing over the rocks. Cone after cone dropping into the ring, despite my lifelong absence of athletic abilities.
Yet, pleasant as it was, a dark thought dropped without warning into my head.
“What if this is the last time I do this?” I thought. “What if these are the last pine cones I gather?”
What followed was an odd wave of emotions, my head reeling from fear while my achy back quietly weighed the relief the other might mean.
I’ve been reading and watching too much news. I have immersed myself in it until my head was swimming with fatalistic thoughts. I can be something of a catastrophizer; yet, at the very same time, I am a chronic optimist. My two sides have been at war. Pollyanna Doomsayer.
When times get dark — as they are right now — I try to remind myself of something one of my favorite people of all time, Mister Rogers, once said.
“When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
The first few times I encountered the quote, I assumed it was a tool for parents — a means of helping to distract children upset over what they heard on the news. “Here’s a way to make this into something of a game.”
Mister Rogers’ quote seemed to suggest a “Where’s Waldo?” kind of thing, except instead of looking for a guy in a red and white sweater, they’d be searching for helpers. They’re always there — rushing into burning buildings, braving floodwaters, dodging bullets — all to assist some stranger. With every new nightmare in the news come stories of those who race in to help out.
Find the helpers. Look for the helpers.
With this line of thinking fresh in my head, I went back inside our house and found Don packing our refrigerator with ice. It had been faltering before but had chosen this moment to gasp its last.
Since it could be days before we got a repairman (if we could find one willing to come out at all), I went on NextDoor.com to see if any neighbors might be selling a used fridge, something we could pick up quickly and on the cheap so our food wouldn’t spoil.
What I found instead was the most surprising distraction, especially considering so much news about retail craziness, fighting in the aisles over Charmin and Dasani and the like.
“If anyone is still having a hard time finding toilet paper right now,” wrote Melissa D., “my husband and I could spare a few rolls.”
Then came Kokila R.: “ I will gladly run an errand or two, and if anyone is sick and needs food delivered. I can make vegan, vegetarian meals. Have a stock of rice, oats, beans, spices, whole wheat flour, and vegetables.”
“I bought some bleach yesterday,” wrote Aurora S., “so if anyone would like me to sanitize their bathrooms and/or kitchens, please let me know.”
So many others were chiming in with what they could offer their neighbors that a sign-up sheet was created. In a matter of hours, 79 people had volunteered to run errands, cut lawns, walk dogs, pick up medications, deliver food, cook meals — on and on it went.
There’s no denying we’re in for some incredibly tough times ahead, and the changes we face both now and on the other side can be terrifying to consider. But when my thoughts start to drift down that dark road again, I’ll try to look for the helpers.
Focus on the helpers.
Be one of the helpers.
For as long as I can.