Saturday, December 09, 2006


Inspired by your kind comments on the prospect of my bell-ringing for the Salvation Army, I decided to write a follow-up.

But first, a caveat: Do not get spoiled, dear friends in the blogosphere. In the last couple of days, I've been inspired to do more writing here than has recently been the case. I can't promise I'll keep it up.

I did the deed. I did the Salvation Army bell-ringing stint from 4:00 to 6:00 this evening. I can't say I had any deep insights. But it wasn't as bad an experience as I feared it might be.

Let me say the physical act of bell-ringing is a challenge that I had not anticipated. I'm accustomed to hearing that clatter of bells as I walk in and out of stores, but I never gave it much thought. Well … two observations: First, after about 15 minutes I thought my arm/hand was going to fall off. Then I spent about an hour finding a way to do it that felt comfortable. It's hard to find a tone and rhythm that you can sustain for two hours. The bells are cheap and schlocky. As a good Episcopalian, dissonance is just not acceptable. So I probably spent the first half-hour trying to find a cadence, sound, and volume that was acceptable to me. The single note of that cheap bell was grating. I happened to stick my hand into the pocket of the little apron they provide and discovered – lo and behold – there was a second, smaller bell. (Apparently, they equip each station for a pair of ringers – thus, two bells.) So I found a way to grip them together in one hand, and the two different notes were more pleasing to me. Second, the rhythm is a challenge. As some of my more ethnic friends can attest, I'm about the whitest woman around. I don't have much sense of rhythm. But I finally found a rhythm that didn't sound like the clang of a fire truck rushing out on a 9-1-1 call. So the 2nd hour wasn't as difficult as the 1st – and it went faster.

And some of you kind folks have asked how my wrist and hand bore up. It was ok. Hard 'til I could find a comfortable position and rhythm. But easy thereafter.

I expected to spend those two hours in invisibility and anonymity. I'm with Caminante who replied to my previous post: I don't look at the bell-ringers. If they're posted at one entrance, I go out the other entrance. If they're at the single entrance, I don't look at them.

And I had some good testimony on that score. Real Live Preacher blogs here about his experience as a bell-ringer. [Hat-tip to Suzer for directing me to that entry. I read his blog pretty often, but had missed that one.] He wrote:

A lot of things go through your mind when you stand in front of a store ringing a bell. First, the people-watching is amazing. Unless they plan to drop something in the can, people do not want to make eye contact with the Salvation Army guy. So you're free to watch and stare as much as you want. You're invisible. . . .

And last, I must say that the Salvation Army bell ringer is not a real human being in anyone's mind. There's the pot and the sound of the bell and you, standing there like a cartoon character. The feeling of being a part of the scenery was so profound that when my shift was over and I walked into the Wal-Mart to buy a coke, it felt strange being allowed to walk among the people.

Figuring I would be both invisible and bored, I had armed myself in advance. I took my current "book on CD" and a WalkMan, figuring I could tuck the WalkMan in my pocket, earbuds in my ears, and just go into my zone. And I had alerted some friends I might call them on my cell phone [also with ear-bud] for companionship during that long time.

I didn't get a chance to enjoy any of that entertainment or distraction. I was too busy. People did meet my eye. A solid majority of them greeted me with a word or a nod – whether or not they dropped anything into the red bucket. What's up with that?? I thought I was supposed to be anonymous and invisible!

I have a theory about that. [Hey! I have a theory about everything!! – not that any of my little theories is worth the price of admission.] This little town has just now topped 40,000 in its population. I'm used to living in cities. Cities have a certain anonymity about them; you seldom encounter folks you know in the grocery store, restaurant, etc. But in this little town, you do. In fact, during my two hours on duty, I encountered 5 people or families I knew from work, church, or other connections – most of whom, of course, stopped and visited with me. Maybe in a town of this size, you do look people in the eye, because there's a very good chance you'll know them.

This makes me think again about my Blogger profile and my attitude toward this place. Ever since moving here in 1998, I have said I felt like a "stranger in a strange land." That is certainly true in many aspects. There's much about the culture here that is foreign to me. I'm a southerner in my bones; these folks are Midwesterners; and there's definitely a difference. And I loathe, hate, and despite the weather here; I miss the warmer climates where I have lived. I decry the paucity of civilized restaurants and the limitations of the grocery stores here. I'm frustrated that my county always votes for the most conservative candidates and votes on the conservative side of any ballot initiative. But today made me aware how much I appreciate the individuals I know here and the value of being in a place small enough that you actually can feel like you're part of the community. That was a humbling and important experience for me.

As I worked this stint, one other thing struck me. I had taken my audiobook on CD, Walkman, and cell phone so that I could distract myself if need be. "Make the time pass," as I put it to myself. As I said, I never pulled them out of my bag. Here's the deal: There was a period where I was tempted to hook up to them and tune out of what little was happening on my bell-ringing stint. But I've recently become aware that there are spiritual issues about "being present" in whatever I am doing, and that these are issues I need to attend to. So I left my electronic distractions in the bag, determined to be present to whatever might appear before me. Not much did. But I'm glad I made that decision. At least I got to practice a bit of spiritual discipline in being present and not just distracting myself or wool-gathering.

Last observation: I really am not ready to celebrate Christmas. We Episcopalians and Romans are in Advent. It was grating to hear that I should say "Merry Christmas" to folks who plunked money into the red bucket. It is not Christmas yet!! It is Advent. It is Advent, where we wait in hopeful anticipation. So I wore my big purple sweatshirt as my sign of the proper season. It occurred to me that instead of "Merry Christmas," I should say, "A blessed Advent to you." I'll confess, though, I didn't have the nerve to do it. My big purple sweatshirt had to do its own talking.


Blogger Roberta Grey said...

I can totally relate to your "stranger in a strange land" feelings. Coming from LA we had an incredible culture shock the first year or two, but we too discovered that we like living in the biggest "small town" we have ever been in. I still chafe when Ron smiles, waves and says hello to perfect strangers, but he is in his zone and who knows where the networking will take a person here where it is so important to "be Local". Glad we got to see you both yesterday and today. Not that you are not far away ever in thought. Take care of yourself.

12/10/2006 2:04 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

BTW -- white, southern is "ethnic" --- we are all ethnic.

12/10/2006 4:51 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Touche', Ann. You're right. Even my boring white Southern trash heritage is "ethnic" in some sense, I suppose .... It's just boring!

12/12/2006 1:25 AM  
Anonymous sharecropper said...

Being present can be one of the hardest things we do, but it's easier in a small town. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

12/13/2006 7:35 AM  

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