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Friday, June 1, 2012

Should I Help? Should I Believe? From a Reader

Photo courtesy of Michael Ging.

In November, 2004, after my essay "Political Paralysis" appeared in the anthology "The Impossible Will Take a Little While," Isabel Zumel, a reader in Oakland, California, emailed me. I'd never met Isabel. I did not know her. Her email was beautiful. It vividly captured a moment when Isabel was presented with a choice: to help another human being, or not to help.

I kept Isabel's email. I wrote to her in 2012, after "Save Send Delete" came out. While "Political Paralysis" is my reply to the question, "Should I help?" "Save Send Delete" is my reply to the question, "Should I believe?"

Isabel wrote me back. As before, her email was her beautifully crafted answer to the central question of my writing. In this new, 2012 email, Isabel addressed the question, "Should I believe?" from the point of view of her six-year-old daughter.

Isabel has kindly granted me permission to post her emails on this blog. Below please find Isabel's email from November, 2004, addressing "Should I help?" and, below that, her email from 2012, addressing, "Should I believe?"

Isabel's email from 2004:


Date: Wed, 10 Nov 2004 15:11
From: "Isabel Zumel"
Subject: Thank you for your piece "Political Paralysis"

Dear Danusha,

Yesterday evening I left my office in a rush to make my commuter bus from San Francisco back home to Oakland. I was running a little late, but figured if I walked really briskly, I'd make it just in time for my bus.

As I was about to cross the street at a four way stop, I saw a driver frustratedly gesture as he waited impatiently for an older woman with a cane to cross the street. He screeched past her just as she made it to the sidewalk. I quickly crossed, passing the older woman, when I saw out of the corner of my eye that she wavered unsteadily and clutched a nearby parking meter to keep herself upright.

I stopped suddenly, turned around, and asked her if she was okay and if I could help her. She said she had been having difficulty walking since she had a heart attack and asked if I could walk her to the end of the block. I agreed and offered to carry the heavy plastic bag she was holding, filled with canned goods. She told me, "You're the first person to ever stop and ask me if I needed help. It's kind of indicative of our times, don't you think?"

I was stunned when she told me this and didn't know what to say. So I told her that actually, I was really in a hurry, but when I saw her I knew that making sure she was okay was far more important than getting to where I needed to be.

It turned out she lived for many decades a couple of blocks away from my office in the hilly North Beach neighborhood and that she was on her way to bring dinner to a friend who had been ill for a while and was living four blocks away at a residential hotel.

I ended up walking with her to the residential hotel. Her friend, a gentleman walking with a cane but cheerful nonetheless, met us out front. She motioned to me and told him she had found a nice neighborhood escort to walk over with her.

I scooted off quickly and we waved goodbye to each other as I ran across the street. I never actually got her name...and I ended up missing my bus my maybe half a minute! But while I waited for the next bus I came across your essay in the November issue of The Sun. It struck me not only because of the similarity of your experience walking home in the snow and meeting that one neighbor to stop for you, but also because what you wrote is what I've been feeling and coming to terms with over the last year --that our opportunities to make small differences shouldn't be discounted, and in fact should be viewed as unexpected blessings from which to learn. And that recognition (or lack of) shouldn't be the impetus (or discouragement) to act in the moment in a way that expresses our deepest and sincerest humanity.

Thank you for making yesterday extra meaningful and affirming for me! This is the first time I've ever written to an author, but I felt compelled to let you know how much your words and ideas touched me, and probably many others. Keep up the writing!

Best Regards,
Isabel Zumel
in Oakland, California


Here is Isabel's email from 2012, after I wrote to her to let her know about "Save Send Delete."


Hello Danusha - Yes, this is the same Isabel Zumel that sent you that email, now many years ago. I am so happy for the publication of your new book! I am intrigued by the themes described in your book. Interestingly, there's been a recent upsurge in spiritual thought in my life after a pretty long period of shunning organized religion, and it has been heavily inspired by my daughter.

I think the last time we exchanged emails I was single, living on my own, working in what is now a pretty prominent San Francisco non-profit. (I say prominent because the organization I worked for before has spawned a current generation of elected San Francisco leaders. It's been interesting watching from afar.) Now, I'm married and with a 6 year old daughter, living in Jackson, Wyoming. I'm Assistant Director of Teton County Library so I will be sure to put in a purchase suggestion to add your book to our collection :)

Lately, I've been meditating on the wisdom of children. It's really because of my daughter, Malaya (which in Tagalog, the Filipino language of my parents and husband, means "free"). I resisted the pressure to baptize her in the Catholic Church after she was born because I felt it was important for her to have some understanding of faith before she was baptized. Last year I started reading Bible stories to her. She has been completely fascinated and enthralled by the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection, which I think is kind of odd for a little girl. Last year, I was coaxed to return to church by a friend who is like a sister to me. We have been going and taking our children to the Episcopal Church. In the Episcopal Church my friend, her son, Malaya and I have found a spiritual community that feels like home.

A few weeks ago, Malaya started asking me about going to Hebrew School with a Jewish friend from school. I was a little bewildered why and she explained she wanted to learn Hebrew. I offered her Spanish lessons and Tagalog lessons, which in my mind were more logical since I speak and write pretty passable Spanish, she has a few Mexican "tias", and my husband is fluent in Tagalog.

She said to me as a bargain, "Mommy, I'll go to Spanish class on Mondays FOR YOU and I can STILL go to Hebrew class because it's on Thursdays at 4." I checked the Jewish Community's website and lo and behold, Hebrew classes were in fact on Thursdays at 4. She was so insistent that I contacted the Jewish Community. They welcomed her with open arms. She attended the last class of the school year last Thursday and sang in the children's choir at Shabbat last Friday. My husband and I were astonished that she seemed to know half of the songs after only one day of class. Last Sunday, she sang in the children's Episcopal choir and had a wonderful time. In her mind, there's no dissonance with being an active participant in both the Episcopal service and Shabbat.

For such a small community, there are actually two Jewish "groups." The Jackson Hole Jewish Community group, which offers Hebrew School, is primarily Reform. There is also a Chabad community. Our family is good friends with the Chabad Rabbi, his wife and daughters. We've celebrated Shabbat at their home several times.

I think that may be another reason Malaya wants to learn Hebrew, to, in her words, "be able to speak in a secret language" with the Rabbi's young daughters, who are her dear friends. As a result of Malaya starting Hebrew School, I've met a couple of the moms from the Jackson Hole Jewish Community and one of them expressed interest in meeting the Chabad Rabbi and his family. I was surprised that they hadn't met yet. It made me start to wonder, is it possible for a little girl who attends Episcopal Church to be a catalyst for bridging the Reform and the Chabad?

How naturally wise children are in friendship and uncomplicated human connection, and in seeing beyond boundaries that grown-ups believe are a struggle to overcome. And how much I am learning from my child when I turn down the volume on my adult sensibilities and listen humbly to her innocent and pure explanations of life. My husband and I are supporting her curiosity. And I am pausing on planning an Episcopal baptism. As strange as it may sound, I feel compelled to stay out of the way of my 6 year old's spiritual journey. It has already started to uniquely develop in a way that I couldn't even fathom. The "rational, responsible parent" in me questions if I should take control of the direction, but my heart tells me that if I do that I will stunt what is not meant to be shaped by human hands and will. Apologies for this long email, but after seeing the books you've written in the last several years I thought you'd appreciate this story.

Best wishes to you! Receiving your email made my day.
Photo courtesy Scott Liddell


  1. What a beautiful email, and what a wise and open-minded parent to allow her child to develop her own beliefs.