I had coffee with Jimena and Byron Pareja yesterday. Jimena is the woman I work with in reaching immigrant families who need help.

I’d been looking for a carpenter to repair the outdoors stoop of wooden stairs behind my office where the boards were loose and rotting, and they both volunteered to do this. I’m prepared to pay, I told them; I’d already gone through 4 different carpenters who didn’t have the time to do the job. But no, they insisted on doing this free of charge as long as I covered materials. They came yesterday to take measurements.

It’s always been hard for me to accept gifts. I had the erroneous impression that to be truly independent, I had to meet all my needs and always, always pay.

“I don’t want people to do me any favors,” my mother would declare. She lived till 94 and needed lots of financial assistance, but refused to acknowledge this fact and insisted that she was covering everything.

My father was of similar mind. His was a fear that if he accepted a gift from someone, it trapped him in a relationship with that person, whereas money was straightforward. If he paid for something, no one could have any expectations or make any demands back.

So, they leave you with no expectations and no demands, and you’re free. But free for what? To do what?

The same earnest answers come up: Free to write. Free to create. Free to teach. Free to walk in the woods unhindered by a wristwatch or a telephone.

But is that what life wants from me? Thomas Merton wrote: “What is serious to men is often very trivial in the eyes of the universe. What might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what is most serious. If we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear the call and follow along in the mysterious, cosmic dance.”

Maybe a complex relationship is exactly what the universe wants for me. Maybe there’s a specific need I can fill, a yearning that will teach me more than any books I read or study. Not because I’m important or special but because I’m the right partner in this particular dance this minute.

Many years ago, I did ballroom dancing in New York City. My instructor, young and incredibly handsome, took me through tangos, only for me to once step on his feet hard. He winced, tried to bravely go on, but then paused for a moment’s rest.

“I’m so sorry,” I gasped. I knew that he often participated in competitions with gorgeous young dancers whom he could lift, twirl, and even slide on the floor before launching them back up on their feet, both as graceful as can be.

He put his arms out for us to dance again and I said self-consciously, “You should get a different partner.”

He laughed and said: “Right now you are the perfect partner.”

Where does the universe want me to go? What does it want me to do?

It was Bernie who got me off the habit of saying no to offers and gifts, reminding me again and again that giving and receiving was the basic stream of life, not unlike the bloodstream in our own bodies, and that if I kept on saying no I would be blocking this basic energy. I’ve gotten better, but even now I can see that often my first reflex is to say no. Instead, I pause, take a breath or two, or three or four, and say thank you.

Over coffee, Jimena asked me if we could cover some 16 families who didn’t get a special $75 allowance for winter coats, boots, gloves, and hats distributed by a local social service agency. To collect the allowance, they had to come in the hours of 12-2 pm, first come first served.

“But that’s when people work,” I said.

“That’s exactly what I told them,” Jimena said, getting excited. “Both parents work in the farms now and this is the last big month. In October their hours will be cut, and some won’t be able to work at all, and that’s when it starts getting very hard; the entire winter is hard because there isn’t work in the farms. But now they are working the maximum hours they can, they can’t just walk off the job to stand on line to get this money.”

In the end, she estimated that some 16 families on her list hadn’t gotten anything, and I told her I’d get Walmart cards for them in that amount to make up the difference.

So, I needed to get the stoop rebuilt. Byron offered, I finally said yes, he came here to take measurements, which provided the perfect opportunity to make them coffee and for Jimena to tell me about 16 families who need money to dress their children warmly for winter, and “Yes” came up again. What a dance!

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