Each year at Christmas time, I look back over the year and its gifts. So often they come in the most unlikely of packages.
I feel so thankful this year that I'd like to share it with you in the spirit of the season.
"Judge not lest ye be judged." Just about everyone has heard those words, some in church, others in passing. It doesn't matter where or in what context, I don't think the words hit home until you've been humbled by their message.
That's what happened to me this year, courtesy of three very unlikely people.
First I'd like to tell you about Gloria Steinem. My father couldn't stand her. He's not alone. Many blame her for the breakdown of the American family.
Others idolize her. Many young women thank her.
I learned two things from Steinem a few weeks ago -- that it's not easy being an icon and that this woman is one class act.
My daughter and I had the opportunity to spend the day with Steinem and her team during a campaign bus tour in October. The group was hitting college campuses to campaign for Al Gore, the thrust being to show how Gore and Nader differ.
I confess I was braced for the worst -- a woman who would be most likely self-centered, someone who couldn't possibly live up to her image.
She's not for real, I thought. Nobody could be that all-encompassing.
While we learned alot about both candidates and about campaign tours that day, we learned something much more valuable. Steinem had bronchitis and was fighting to keep pneumonia at bay.
She felt bad. But at every stop, she greeted those adoring college students with a great deal of grace and warmth. She signed their pads, their posters, their napkins. She met with the young women who organized each rally, signing all their mementos and answering their questions, never letting on that she was extremely ill.
When it came time for Alexis to interview her for the Dallas High School newspaper, Steinem set aside 30 minutes to discuss the issues relevant to Polk County high school students.
Steinem didn't have the energy for this interview. But she put off a call from the San Francisco Chronicle for this Eye of the Dragon reporter.
She thoughtfully answered every question Alexis asked of her, and treated her with as much respect as she would have given Tom Brokaw.
We were treated no differently than a news team from a large urban newspaper and were shown every kindness. Most extraordinarily, Steinem and her group gave up their luxury tour bus so that Alexis and I could be dropped off in Salem, since they had to go straight to the Portland airport from Eugene.
You don't get the luxury of being human when you're an icon, but somehow Gloria Steinem manages it, and makes it look easy.
Then there's Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers, the mainstay for 30 years on PBS children's television that just recorded his final episode.
I used to make fun of Mr. R. As a child, I detested his personality, the way he talked to kids so slowly and kindly, so respectfully. I thought it was patronizing.
He's not for real, I said. Nobody is that darn nice.
My 5-year-old son has a different view. He bases many of his decisions on what Mr. Rogers would do. We helped him draw Mr. Rogers a picture and write a letter. We mailed it, expecting that would be that.
We were surprised when a package came for Sam. It was filled with gifts from The Neighborhood. There was a T-shirt, photos, Sam's favorite video he had mentioned in his letter, and a long, personal letter from Mr. Rogers for each of us in the family who had written, apologizing for his tardiness in responding.
My comments over the years came flooding back as I fingered the T-shirt and read Sam's letter. Mr. Rogers is for real. Maybe, perhaps, I let my own cynicism reject the reality of someone else's sincerety.
Now that's humbling.
Then there was Michele. I'd talked to her on the phone many times the past few years when she would call to put a notice in the paper about the goings on at the Commission on Children and Families.
She was far too cheery. She bugged me. She's not sincere, I thought. Nobody could be that nice, that "up" all the time. Mary Sunshine. No thanks.
I finally told Carole, her friend and co-worker, how Michele's sunny self got on my nerves. "You can't feel that way about Michele," she said. "She really is wonderful. We have to have lunch and you can spend some time with her in person and she how great she is."
Always one to trust Carole, I agreed. As we talked over our plates of Chinese food, I felt increasingly bad about my attitude. Here was this shining young woman who, it was clear, was very sincere. We agreed to start having lunch together on a regular basis.
Then word came a couple of months later that Michele Dickerson and her husband, Rob, had been killed in a small plane crash. As the stories about Michele flowed, I learned that she had, indeed, not always been sincere in that "up" attitude.
I had been right. But in my rush to judge, I had been wrong as well. Michele, it turns out, had suffered from severe diabetes all her life, and spent a year in a burn center as a teenager recovering from extremely painful injuries.
She rarely felt good, and resolved long ago that she would never let her problems or pain bring anyone else down. So yes, she did have a "false front."
We should all be so selfless.
Judge not lest ye be judged. Thanks for the message. And for my teachers.