Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Intervening in the Lives of Goats

Intervening in the lives of goats

By Heidi Shott

Fifteen years ago this week five friends enjoyed a picnic on the west coast of Ireland just north of Galway. We had ham and cheese, good bread and a tube of spicy mustard perfect for a cutlery-free, wayside lunch. I suspect there were cookies and cherries and probably pickles. We ate perched on a jumble of rocks – not unlike the coast of Maine – high above that side of the Atlantic. It was a wonderful lunch, full of happy banter. It was the kind of lunch I would have remembered years later even if what happened next hadn’t happened.

After lunch, my friend Denise and I decided to pick our way along the rocks. We hadn’t gone far before we heard the insistent, unmistakable bleat of goats. We walked toward the sound and looked over a precipitous edge. Twenty feet below three goats – two grownups and a kid – balanced on a narrow ledge. Bleating, panting and standing amid clumps of goat poop, these were not happy goats. The drop facing the sea was much greater than the 20 feet above.

Oh dear. A goat crisis.

Denise, a physician, is used to fixing things and immediately started to make suggestions about how to effect a rescue. We tossed a few implausible ideas around but after a moment we yelled, “Scott!” My husband, the best kind of troubleshooter, ambled over with our other companions, Chris and Mo, whose turn it was to pack up the lunch things.

“They’re goats. They’ll figure it out. That’s what goats do,” he said dismissively. “They leap up and down rocks and ledges.”

“But they look hot and panicky,” I moaned.

“There’s a lot of goat shit down there and they appear to be dehydrated,” said Denise. “They’ve been stuck down there a long time.” She looked around to a couple of cottages a quarter-mile in either direction along the coast. “Maybe we should tell a farmer.”

Scott howled and his native West Virginian accent suddenly shifted to Irish: “Now, Jimmy, do you remember the time when we were kids and the daft Americans stopped by to inquire as to the welfare of the goats?” He looked at Denise and me. “They’ll be telling that story 50 years from now.”

After another ten minutes of heated goat debate, we conceded defeat and piled into our rental car. We stopped for the night in Galway where, at the modern Cathedral, I looked around for my friends before dropping an Irish punt into a tin and lighting three candles for the you-know-whats.

The goat affair wasn’t the first time I’d been tempted to intervene in matters outside my sphere of responsibility. About four years earlier, just a few weeks before we moved to Maine from West Virginia, I sat down in a colleague’s office at the newspaper and told him that there was something I thought he should know. I thought he should know that there were rumors floating around town that he was having an affair with a church secretary. I said I knew the rumors would be hurtful to his wife and daughter. I admired this man.

“I don’t know how these things get started,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I appreciate you telling me, but there’s nothing to it.” He deftly shifted the conversation to some loose ends with a story I was working on. He walked me back to the stairs.

“You did what?” Scott asked me when I told him I’d talked to Keith. “It’s not your place to intervene.” Months later we learned that Keith and the church lady had run off to North Carolina. It hadn’t lasted. After a month he slouched back to his wife.

Despite my acute embarrassment, I wondered if I still hadn’t done the right and caring thing by talking to him. I had intervened with a good heart and loving intentions. But feeling burned, I also decided to never put myself in that position again. I’d mind my own business in the future. Later, when it came to the goats, I didn’t insist on intervening and it’s haunted me ever since. My good friend Denise knows this and every few years, after we’ve had a few glasses of wine, she’ll lean back in her chair, look to the ceiling, and muse, “I wonder what happened to those goats?”

I was pondering this fine line between saint and busybody one morning last week while driving Colin, one of my 13 year-old twin sons, to school. For someone who considers himself an agnostic with deistic leanings, Colin has an awful lot of questions about religion. We’d been cruising along in pleasurable silence when Colin asked me to buy him a copy of the Koran. “I need to know more about Islam,” he said.

“You need to know more about Christianity,” I countered. By the time we crossed the bridge over Great Salt Bay, we’d moved onto the central theme of Christianity. As in, “So, Mom, what is it?”

Easily nailed! “Matthew chapter 20-something: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” (I realized, however, such imprecision would not impress my high school Bible quiz team coach.)

“So if you do those two you’ll automatically keep the ten commandments?” Colin asked as we turned into his school’s driveway. “They sort of take care of all the wrong things you might otherwise do?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I said, the ever-deficient carpool theologian.

But as he leaned his head in the rear passenger door to grab his backpack, he delivered the zinger: “Well, I don’t need to be a Christian to love my neighbor.” And then with a cluck of his tongue – our schoolyard signal that means ‘I love you but I don’t want to say it in front of the whole world’ – he turned and was gone.

He’s right, of course. Some of the most wonderful, selfless, appropriate interveners I know would not characterize themselves as Christian.

The problem is that I’m not one of them. I’m not at all selfless but I am a Christian. After all these years of trying to live this stuff, I am yet to figure out where the line should be drawn between loving involvement and benign indifference to the people I walk this world among.

Amid the ridiculous busyness of two jobs, two kids, two school boards, many friends, one house, one garden and one husband who is lobbying to host a lobster feed for 60 people on the fourth of July – amid all this – I can’t quite figure out whom to love first or in whose life I should intervene.

Jesus commands me to love my neighbor, which, according to the wristband I’m wearing, means everybody in the whole wide world. It also means enforcing a consistent computer policy with Colin. It also means visiting my 84 year-old mom more than once a year and supporting my brother in his care of her. It also means checking in more regularly with my friend who’s going through a hard divorce. It also means making time to go to town with my sons to choose goodies to send to the four children of our friend Alex who are living on their own in Ghana while he works to support them in England. It means everything in between.

In this world where it’s possible to know so much about so many, how can we possibly manage to do what Jesus asks?

In the Galway Cathedral, I lighted three candles and prayed for the goats. If we’d jumped down onto the ledge to try to hoist them up, we would have failed and irredeemably soiled our shoes. If we’d gone to the nearest cottage to report the goat situation, we would have been the worst sort of tourists. So I prayed, dropped a coin in the box – such good work as had been prepared for me to walk in. That was June 1992. Four years before I’d sat trembling in a chair just before I told a good and kind man something I thought he needed to know, something I thought no one else would tell him.

Last Christmas morning, I opened a package from Denise. In recent years we’ve tried to scale back on the gift-giving and have taken to donating to good causes in our families’ names. Inside the box was a card with the Heifer Project logo. “In honor of the Shott Family: Three Goats.” Below, in her hand, I read, “They’re not Irish goats, but I did the best I could.”

Heifer International