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Rotary Thought Spot October 30, 2009: Simple Gestures, Simple Gifts

October 31st, 2009

“Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free,

‘Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.”

                    – Simple Gifts, Elder Joseph Brackett, 1797-1882

 “Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf’s a flower.”

                      -Albert Camus

Leaves have played a bigger part of my life than you might think. 

They bracket the best times of the year for me.  Each spring as a kid, I’d roller skate up and down our street, waiting for the leaf buds to appear in the trees like tightly curled hands. And by mid-May each year, when they just couldn’t contain their small foldedness any longer, they’d reach for the sun, fully outstretched.

Shortly after Labor Day, Joanie and I would start watching the leaves again. Joanie lived down the street from me and was in my class at school.   She was small and slender with a waist-long braid that bounced down her back.  She wore thick-soled red Mary Janes and hand-knit sweaters with wooden buttons. In our neighborhood of mostly large families with kids close in age, Joanie was the rare child growing up alone. 

She and I were leaf buddies.

Walking home from school we would point out the first strokes of color on the chestnuts and the oaks and make bets on which color the big maple tree would turn this year. We’d argue about the precise day when the colors would be best.  How about tomorrow?  No, those leaves aren’t completely red – we need to wait a few more days.  And when we agreed that the time was right, we’d race to Joanie’s house with fallen leaves skittering after us, tickling our legs and rustling like hundreds of mini crinolines.

Then we’d get to work collecting our perfect bouquet of leaves. We’d scour the trees of the city Common for our own unique variety of colors and shapes while the last remaining crickets bleated out their final songs.  I loved maple leaves  – glossy and showy on their topside, veiny and  skeletal on the underside, each more distinct than the one I’d just picked up.

Armed with our collections, we’d head back to Joanie’s house and pick out the 3 or 4 leaves we liked best. 

Joanie’s mother would hover warily as we eased each leaf into a waxed paper bag, placed a napkin over the bag and ironed it.

We’d reverently remove our pressed leaves, inhaling the smell of mellow, earthy fall and carefully lay them between the pages of our school books,  One of the nicest things about math homework in February is rediscovering a leaf the color of sunset nesting in the long division.

I longed for leaves during my time in Latin America, where I lived for three years after graduate school.  My first October seemed hollow without them scuttling down the sidewalks in a riot of yellow and orange and red.  By my second year I had learned not to yearn and appreciated the brilliance of constantly blooming bougainvillea.

Until the mail came one day in late October.

A padded envelope appeared in the usual pile of industry newsletters and inter-office envelopes.  International postal service was sporadic and mail sometimes took months to arrive, if at all.  Mail that actually reached me was always a cause for jubilation.

I opened the manhandled envelope and a handwritten note with four perfectly pressed leaves spilled out. The note from Joanie read, “the leaves are beautiful this year and I thought you might want some for your books.”  I reverently inhaled the scent of fall.

So simple and so genuine. 

I don’t know that I’ve ever appreciated a gift more thoughtful than Joanie’s offering of four autumn leaves.

Simple and genuine also describes our mission of service as Rotarians. Actions that seem small to us today can make lasting change in the lives of those we serve.  Like leaves spilling out of an envelope thousands of miles from where they first sprouted on trees, our service matters to others in ways we can only imagine.

I still make it a point to iron a leaf or two every fall, in honor of the friend who reminds me that making a difference in the lives of others doesn’t require great wealth or power. Or a grand gesture.  It only requires the simple, genuine gift from the heart.

 Ways to make Simple but Genuine Gestures

Simple Gifts in our Community

Our clubs all have projects that we do in our community. And sometimes it’s helpful to think of  additional, seemingly small actions we can take that can make a big difference. A recent article published in AARP magazine identified 19 easy and inexpensive ways to take action in our communities. Reaching out through CASA and taking the time to provide moral support to military personnel or their families are just two ways to take small and meaningful action.  For more ideas your club can adapt, read the article at http://www.aarpmagazine.org/people/cool_ways_to_give_back.html.

Simple Gifts in Our World

As Rotarians we have hundreds of ways to make simple gifts to our world.  It can be as easy as texting “Polio” to 90999 on our cell phones, to make a $5 contribution to Polio Plus – which buys 8 doses of polio vaccine.  Five dollars also buys a life-saving, anti-malarial mosquito net.  Check out the article, The Virtue of Small Change, on pages 36-41 in the November issue of Rotarian magazine.  Making a difference costs less than we think!