As the children round-about again, you can see the change coming; heads raise, mouths slowly open to a grin, hands raise in a wave, and the air is filled with "Hi, Billy! Hi Suzie! Hold on tight!" And as Billy and Suzie are spun away, the smiles fade, gazes drop, and hands resume counting what is left in the wallet. Missed it? Don't worry, it will be repeated twenty more times in the next two minutes, before the tobacco-chewing operator stops the carousel.
I have been smiling and waving for nineteen years. That isn't a complaint - but it isn't a cheer, either. Standing in eighty-five degree direct sunlight with this lily-white Polish complexion isn't easy. As others slowly bronze in the sun I have a more abrupt progression: from snow white to scalded to extra-crispy.
Amusement rides lose their appeal somewhere between maturity and nausea. A few years ago I tried to re-live my youth on the "Tilt-A-Whirl". It was a perennial favorite for my brothers and I, spinning and turning children like a giant mix master until one or two invariably lost their cotton candy and cola. My spin down memory lane was a disaster. It took ten minutes just to be able to walk without falling. And that giant fried onion we ate kept coming up for a look around...not pretty. Never again.
And so it goes; parents gather 'round the amusements, smiling and waving, in a venue that lost its magic for them personally many years before. Just like our parents did. Just like our children will. It can't be escaped or avoided, for children are attracted to fairs and carnivals like mosquitoes to a zapper. Accept and move on.
At a recent trip to our county fair my eldest daughter, the trendy collegiate, was observant for a moment between cell texts and noticed that I only smiled and waved when the children were in sight. She seemed a bit surprised, so I took that moment to relate an important life lesson: No, it is not fun to watch a child go around in circles sixty thousand times. Nonetheless the job of a parent is to make sure that no matter how excruciating that one last ride on the teacups may be, the smile on our faces is as bright and cheerful as the very first. It's a rule.
Lest I sound like the crabby old father I may be, let me counter the above with the notion that, for the most part, I do like trips to amusement parks, carnivals and fairs. I love to eat fried food, enjoy spending obscene amounts of money to get a dollar-store plush item, and absolutely do not consider any visit complete unless I am taking home a sickly goldfish. Our yearly trips to the county fair are a highlight of the summer for the whole family. Being in a family of eleven, many of the activities are not the cup of tea of each member, but that doesn't matter. If little Teresa thinks that the choo-choo is the most wonderful ride in the park, well, doggone it, we all do, too. That's what love does. It pulls us beyond ourselves, our own wants and needs, and makes the wants and needs of those we love more important than our own. That's why we smile and wave.
Yesterday my son, Jacob, graduated from our little elementary school at St. Luke's. He was the valedictorian. Okay, there were only two of them in his class, but I always wanted a valedictorian in the family. Don't ruin the moment. Anyway, part of the celebration was a video with pictures of the two boys from earliest childhood to the present. It was carefully crafted by their teacher, who did a beautiful job. The music to the pictures was perfect. As I watched, I admit to shedding a few tears. He has grown so much in the last thirteen years, and as he moves on to high school he'll face so many exciting challenges. We received a copy of the video as a gift, and I assure you, it will be watched often in the coming days.
As the video ended yesterday, I felt a little bit like a kid on the carousel. As I looked around the room, everyone was smiling, congratulating, and wishing us well. Everyone was so gracious and kind, and hugs were the rule. I knew darn well that video, six songs long, must have been tough to sit through for some of them. It was a long, warm night. For the parents and students, it seemed to go by to quickly, but for everyone else...well, because they love us, they smiled and waved. It was awesome.
That's what we do for one another, sometimes without even thinking. I see it every day at the Mission when David listens patiently to the jumbled thoughts of a mentally ill resident when he has hundreds of tasks to complete by noon. Or when Eddy helps a member of the community move to a new apartment with cheer and joy for the fourth time this year. Or when Molly smiles and welcomes every face, no matter what its expression, as she scoops macaroni and cheese on their plates in the dining room. I see it at work when Mary gives loving attention to a frightened, confused old woman who can't remember why she is in the emergency room. Or when Sharon listens attentively to the concerns of her co-workers even though her own plate is full, too. Or when Doni drops in with little gifts for someones birthday, even though she struggles with her own pain. Little gifts of friendship. Little gifts of service. Little gifts of love.
Life is full of discomforts, annoyances, and irritations. So what. Somebody, somewhere needs you to smile and wave. Go ahead, try it. The amazing thing is, when we do it, all those discomforts, annoyances and irritations melt away when we share the joys of those around us. Jesus said it best when He spoke of His role, "For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many"(Mk 10:45). By putting the needs, joys, sorrows, and dreams of others before our own, we follow in His footsteps. For it is in serving one another that we learn to love.