He who does not see God in the next person he meets need look no further.”
I seem to be treading near the horizon between this material world and other ones a lot lately. A strange thing happened today as I was threading my way among the citizens and denizens of this dubious outpost of civilization. I was walking east along Pike Street in that dodgy section between Second and Third. I find it difficult to remain spiritually open in this particular quarter, as there always seems to be the potential for mayhem, perhaps an argument or even a shooting. It was here that police many years ago encircled a troubled black man who’d been brandishing a scimitar and finally knocked him to the pavement with water from a fire-hose.
So I always experience a temptation to harden myself as I pass through there, and the hardening changes not only my posture and my gait but I’m sure my face as well. I’m aware that even when I think I’m smiling bigly, like for pictures, I’m really only smiling a little, and that when I’m not smiling I actually look like I’m scowling. And maybe I am. Being aware of this unfortunate aspect of my visage, I make an effort as I stroll around to open myself up — not to ask for trouble, and not because I think I’m a superhero, but because I need that for my own soul. I am trying to become the kind of person I might admire, and I often know such persons by the fact that they are open and friendly and smiling. So I practice it when I think about it.
Years ago, even the people with clipboards asking for a moment of my time for a worthy cause made me fold up and wish I could disappear — I hated them. I still inwardly cringe every time I see one ahead of me on the sidewalk, or waiting for me at the other side of the crosswalk like someone guarding the far end of a rope bridge, but these days I am able to smile broadly as I approach them. I don’t necessarily shake the hand they proffer (the line “I’d shake your hand but I don’t want to” from The New Adventures of Old Christine always comes to mind), but I always say hi and I don’t feel trapped, and that’s because my outlook toward people has changed toward the positive over recent years.
But that balance between the self-preservation instinct and spiritual openness is difficult to maintain in the wacky parts of town. So it seems now somehow fitting or predestined or ironic (or something) that I saw a young woman in a thick coat and the big soft boots of the current fashion approaching me earnestly at an angle across the sidewalk. Her diagonal trajectory caused people behind her and in front of her to adjust their own bearings suddenly, though she didn’t seem to notice or care.
“Excuse me!” she said quickly.
I stopped and raised my eye-brows, trying to look open, even though I felt very much closed and protective of myself. My collar was up against the cold and my hands were in my coat pockets and because I had forgotten to smile purposefully I probably looked irritated.
Her right eye wandered a little and was slightly closed. She held some coins pinched in the fingers of both her hands and was clacking them together. She seemed to be waiting for me to answer, but I had not yet fully opened myself. My stopping and regarding someone is my signal that they have a short moment to engage my empathy, but I don’t waste words on the street. I waited for her to state her business. She seemed confused that I didn’t speak.
“You’re beautiful,” she blurted. She said this in a quick slur, barely moving her lips, so that I wasn’t even sure that that’s what she said. She clicked the coins, looked away slightly. I suddenly understood that she was completely overwhelmed by the world, and had no idea how to go about getting what she needed from anyone.
I leaned forward then, hoping to assure her that she could at least continue, could make her request. I expected she was going to ask for money, and I regretted that I didn’t have a dollar ready. I sometimes keep a dollar loose in my pocket so that I don’t have to fish out my wallet out on the sidewalk when the spirit moves me to give. But she didn’t ask for money.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“I just wanted to see if you’d stop,” she reported, again in a kind of tight-lipped slur. She shifted position on her feet and looking away again. “You’re beautiful.”
I have an idea of about how beautiful I am on the typical scale of Western civ for my age category. This didn’t seem to be about that. The phrase repeated sounded strange, as if she were not saying it of me, but more as a hope for herself, a hope that it may be true of herself and that someone would say it to her. It sounded like something she said often, like a phrase she worried over.
“Well…thanks,” I said. I wanted to say “You’re beautiful too,” which was just the truth. But I was so taken aback that I only managed to add, “You too”, a lame non-sentence, a fragment without verb or object.
If she heard me it had no visible effect on her. Her attention seemed to be drifting, or rather, she didn’t seem to know what to do with my own attention now that she had it. I smiled as broadly as I dared then, and feeling suddenly vulnerable I turned away and proceeded in the direction I’d been going. I thought of how we desire to be told these truths by the people who matter to us — our parents and partners and friends — and how, failing that, a person might seek that connection and affirmation anywhere, anonymously even, and how even in a relatively open moment I was not able to receive such a gift without fear and confusion. It was a pretty simple idea she communicated, a clear statement, and yet I wasn’t able to fully return the blessing just then, just there, and it sent me tumbling down the sidewalk wondering what could possibly be wrong with her.