My inspiration: old hamsters and lame goldfish.

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Whenever we go to a pet store, we look at all the critters. Because we have owned various hamsters over the years, we spend a little extra time looking at them. Most of them are just weeks old, adorable little fur pom-poms either snoozing in their nest or tumbling about. However, there is always at least one adult hamster who is housed alone (because hamsters become increasingly territorial as they grow). This one, we know, will not be chosen by anyone. Hamsters have such short lives that no one wants to take one on if it’s not a baby. Prospective pet owners know an adult hamster is a big-eyed fluffy heartache-in-waiting. At this point in our pet store perambulation, it is inevitable that one or the other of my daughters will say “I wish we could take that one home – nobody else will, so he’s going to die here without anyone to love him”. This has always tugged at my heart strings, but I move us all along quickly rather than go any further down that path. Who wants another pet funeral?

Every year, Lent receives heavy consideration from Fiona and Bridget. They follow the common tradition of giving up something they love – candy or chocolate, usually, although one year it was watching “Spongebob Squarepants”. The purpose of going without something you want throughout Lent is to lessen the power of what tempts you – to examine its impact on your life, to learn how to deny yourself frivolous pleasures in order to focus on worthier pursuits. To that end, I try to encourage them to add things as well as giving up things – to consider what they can give to or do for others. This year, Bridget said wistfully “I wish we could adopt an old hamster – to give him a home, and treats, and love”. My first instinct was to say no again. To point out that there are so many much bigger, more important problems in the world. To ask what difference it would make. But I didn’t. Because I’m trying to be more open, to see the world through unjaded eyes. Because I have started to believe that we are all called in different directions by compassion, by love. And that if we all followed our callings, however small, the world would start to look different. Softer. Kinder. More beautiful.

Derek of San Antonio, Texas, is a believer, too. When faced with a disabled fish (the fish has a bladder disorder that keeps it from holding itself upright, meaning it was stuck at the bottom of the tank all the time), he did not shrug and say “this is stupid – it’s just a fish”. He did not say “flush it” (which, I must admit, is probably what I would have said). No, he came up with a system of airline tubing and styrofoam to help the fish swim – a sort of wheelchair for the fish. Now the fish swims all over the tank, like it was meant to do.

And now Gerry the hamster (Gerry is short for “geriatric”) has a forever home – however short forever may turn out to be for a hamster of indeterminate age. Gerry’s a lovely little thing, with a gentle disposition and an insatiable appetite for pistachios, and I’m glad we took a chance on him.

Many times over the past few years, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the tide of deep sadness and desperate need relentlessly rolling in. Wave after wave of hopeless cases and terrible stories. What can we do? Communities that have been destroyed by a natural disaster or a terrorist attack need roads cleared and hospitals rebuilt and people saved and patched up and fed and sheltered – but we can only buy gas for one rescue vehicle or provide a week’s worth of meals for one family. Thousands are dying of preventable diseases, but we can only pay for treatment for a handful of patients. The earth is poisoned, scorched and overheating, but we can only turn off the lights and taps in our own home and reduce our trash by a bag every two weeks. People in our own neighbourhood don’t have enough to eat, but all we can do is toss a few cans in the bin on our way out of the grocery store. Sometimes it feels like our contribution is so small that it’s hardly worth giving, and we start to lose faith in it. Sometimes it feels like there is so much need that the little things – like elderly hamsters and wobbly goldfish – don’t even get a second look.

This may seem like a tall order, but I want to rid myself of that soul-crushing apathy, and I want everyone else to do that, too. Years ago, in Sunday School, we used to sing a little song called “Jesus Bids Us Shine”. I remember, in particular, the lines “in this world of darkness / we must shine / you in your small corner / and I in mine”. The song isn’t about banishing the darkness or saving the world. It is about giving what little we can, when we can, to improve our own little piece of the cosmic puzzle. And, whatever your position on Jesus and Sunday School, you can’t argue against that. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something – and if it alleviates the suffering of any creature, big or small, human or animal, it’s worth it. Let’s not become overwhelmed by our own smallness. Let’s push back against despair, and watch how drops of water become an ocean.

Farewell, Facebook! (For a little while, anyway ….)

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Yes, I know – it’s been months since my last post. Christmas has been celebrated and packed away, January and February have been endured with varying amounts of grace. I don’t know why my blog has remained untouched by me all this time. Emotional ups and downs, the need to simplify life in order to keep up with it, plain old laziness …. ? I struggled to express all this to my lovely cousin, Charlene, over dinner together recently (delicious food and a thoroughly enjoyable experience at Khao Thai in the market). She’s been a great source of encouragement and enthusiasm for BethBlog, and she mentioned that she still checks in from time to time in the hopes that I will have written something new. A glance at my stats reveals that she’s not the only one. My appreciation to all who keep coming back – and my apologies for the prolonged cyber-silence. One factor in my writer’s block that I discussed that evening with Charlene is the avalanche of information that buries me regularly. There are many days when I feel like I’m being smothered by it – strangled by it – drowned in it. Bad news, good news, fake news. Quizzes, videos, how-tos, recipes, memes. And those ads …. I don’t want to put my girls in private school, rent a beach house in Jamaica, or enhance my sex life. I’d love to buy new dresses and shoes, but not online – and not right now. Where’s it all coming from? Facebook. I’ve been using Facebook for ten years now – I started using it when it was small. My, how it’s grown! What started as a handful of friends and private jokes has become dozens of voices all talking at once, and the resulting babel is grating and exhausting.

Whenever someone complains about internet content, there’s always a snappy, sanctimonious beauty ready to chime in with “if you don’t like it, don’t look”. I’m taking their advice, and leaving Facebook for Lent. As soon as the idea surfaced, I was excited about it. Imagine all that free time! All that peace! An internal clutter-bust! It will be like a long, soothing shower for my soul …. Facebook doesn’t make me a better person. It doesn’t improve my impact on the world. In fact, it makes me dislike people and the world more. Lent is an opportunity to examine our habits and hooks, and assess their impact on our lives. Why not see how leaving Facebook could help me?

Yesterday, though, doubts emerged. There are some family members and friends I only communicate with via Facebook. How am I going to know what’s going on in their lives? How will I know what they’re doing, or what their children look like now? How will they know any of that about me? My beautiful niece and nephew are growing fast – I’m sure I’ll miss some milestones and adorable photos.  I can’t remember the last time I received a party invitation through anything other than Facebook. What if there are lots of awesome parties and events going on and I don’t know about them? My primary form of communication with some people is Facebook. What if I lose touch with them because I’m no longer on Facebook? Sometimes, I see funny memes and videos on Facebook. Sometimes, Facebook tells me what’s going on before I find out from any other source. People on Facebook are all incredibly eager to express how a given death or split or news piece affects them, and that alerts me to the event in question. Facebook gives me ideas, meal plans, exercise regimes, decorating and parenting tips, movie reviews, conversation fodder. And then there’s me, the person I’ve become since using Facebook …. My first thought about quitting Facebook was “how many likes and comments will I get when I say I’m not Facebooking anymore” – and then I realized that I wouldn’t know because I won’t be checking. Can I have thoughts and experiences without sharing them with an instant audience of over a hundred? Can I take pictures without sharing them digitally – just take them like I used to, for the pleasure of capturing a moment? Can I cook or bake or eat someone else’s cooking or baking without taking a picture and uploading it to Facebook with a witty comment? Can I grow a plant without documenting its progress online? Ryan’s birthday’s coming up. So is my friend, Blue’s. Can I send them birthday greetings without fêting them on Facebook – would it look strange not to send them a public shout-out? On March 28, my father will have been gone for fifteen years. It seems strange to let that go by without saying anything on Facebook. Can I go back to the life I used to live, one without an audience? One in which what I did was for me and the people around me, and nobody else? We’ll see ….

I have a feeling I’ll come back to Facebook. It might even creep into my life, little by little, just like it did before – and have me in its thrall in a matter of days. But, for this small slice of time, I’m just me. In my world. Watched by nobody but the people who are actually there. Enjoying the silence …. (I know – awesome song!) Sure, I’ll miss some things. But I have a feeling I won’t miss them as much as I think I will.