Tag Archives: talking to strangers

Talking to Strangers: Mormons

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I’m lying on my front porch, the sun is beating down on me and I’m sweating. It feels good. Like a certain popular creation story, I’ve been working for six days straight with late nights and early mornings. I’ve finally hit a resting point and I’m taking advantage of it. My eyes are closed and my mind begins to wander. I let it go – I think it’s healthy to put the noggin on auto-pilot from time to time.

While my brain slips away, I open my eyes and stare into the blue, cloudless sky, wondering if God is staring back at me – if his Great Eyes are boring directly into my soul right now, reading my thoughts and seeing me naked. And then my brain wanders a little more and I imagine the big blue sky being completely and entirely empty and Nobody staring at me. I imagine my wife and I sitting on the porch and God nowhere in sight. Nowhere in existence. Nowhere.

I start to slowly turn over these questions, rolling them like a cigarette over the fingers of my soul. Is it possible for me to be sitting here and for God to not exist? Is it possible that God does not exist? Is it possible that I’ve spent my life chasing an empty faith? Bigger yet, if as an individual, I am full of love and compassion and kindness, is God necessary?

Is God necessary? That is a really big question for someone of The Church Culture. To put it into perspective for anyone NOT of The Church Culture, it’s tantamount to a male with children saying, “Is my dong necessary? Sure, I use it from time to time and I certainly like it’s company. It gives me a certain feeling of who I am and I have a good time with it – makes me feel good about myself. I would even say that I have a pretty nice relationship with it, albeit kind of a secret one that I don’t fully indulge the rest of the world to. But do I need it? The way I need food or oxygen? COULD I get by if it suddenly fell off and rolled down the leg of my pants?”

That’s a very crude analogy but I stand by it and give it my stamp of approval.

That is, for most of us, our relationship to God. It’s quiet. It’s tucked away. We don’t expose it to people. We only use it when it’s necessary.. like when we’re really sick or need money we unzip the church and say a prayer.

As a Christian, faith is so frustrating. It’s frustrating for two reasons. The first is that the large majority of people who claim to have faith, don’t treat faith as faith. They treat faith as fact and those are two very different things. Your faith is, by it’s very definition, an act of trust in something that you cannot prove exists. People approach God in the same way that they approach Mount Rushmore – like they can get in their SUV and drive there – get their photo taken with it.

The second thing is that I don’t understand WHY faith is important. I don’t understand why the Great and Powerful God of the Universe and of All Things Everywhere doesn’t tear open the sky, reveal himself to all of us and say, “HERE I AM! I EXIST! NOW BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER ALWAYS AND FOREVER! I’LL BE BACK IN TWENTY YEARS TO REMIND YOUR KIDS!” and then the sky stitches back up and there is zero doubt about the existence of a celestial being that oversees our alien ant farm.

I stare back into that blue sky and now I’m thinking very clearly – my mind is no longer wandering – I’m thinking very intentionally to myself, “I have seen and felt the existence of God in one thousand small ways throughout my life. Little signs that could have been coincidence, things I’ve written off as well as things I’ve held onto. I’ve been very sick in my life and have felt the closeness of a divine being that I can’t explain. I believe in God. I have faith in God. But I’m always circling around it and poking at it and turning it over and trying to figure it out because… it isn’t tangible and I can’t prove it and it is a cause to wonder. But why does God have us dancing around with this faith issue? I don’t understand why it’s necessary to live my life in absolute blind belief. Maybe there’s a purpose I don’t understand. Maybe God keeps this from us for a reason… But I’m still going to ask and I don’t think there’s harm in asking so here we go!”

And then I pick up steam and really get on a roll.

“Why? Why? Why is this necessary? God, if you’re there, why aren’t you tearing open the sky and showing yourself to me? Why aren’t you making yourself known to us? Why aren’t you giving me a sign, something? Something that is more than the wind blowing or a bird chirping? Why does our relationship have to be like an affair – where I sneak away to talk to you and then you never call my house? If you’re real, I want to know it. I want to know that you’re real. I want to know that you’re looking at me and watching me and -“

I guess you could call this a prayer.

Jade cuts me off mid-thought.

She says, “Hey. Look who’s here.”

I sit up and glance over my shoulder.

Walking up my sidewalk are two Mormons. I lift my hand in the air in greeting and say, “You have got to be kidding me.”

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The guys are both nineteen years old and one of them is definitely a virgin. I don’t say that in a derogatory way because I believe that virginity is a shiny token that is very important… however, he did have this kind of gloss about him that made me think he’d never unsnapped a bra. The other one was the team leader but I suspect only because he was forced to be. It was clear that he didn’t like to hold the reins.

I offered them each a sparkling water and we sat on my porch for an hour and spoke. Mormon missionaries are truly fascinating creatures. Can you, Reader, imagine something that you’re so passionate about that you go door to door to share with strangers even though you know people cringe when they see you approach? Even though people run and hide in their bedroom closet when you step onto the front porch? Even when the doors slam and the porch lights go out, you keep going. Can you imagine having that kind of passion? For anything? I have a difficult time telling friends about a good book I’ve recently read.

We talk about a great number of things, spanning various topics. They tell me about how “disheartening and kind of humiliating” it is when people slam doors in their faces. Actually slam doors in their facesAH! Why do you have to do that to me? Give yourself human emotion? And such a strong one! You tell me that you can feel humiliated? All those times I’ve ran away and hid my children in the dryer to shield them from you. “But why, Daddy? Why must we be quiet?” Rory asks. “The Gestapo!” And then I slide the bookcase over the laundry room.

These guys are no longer just flat characters. They’re people. They’re humans. With their own stories. Their own faith. Their own lenses to view life.

I say to them…

“I was born into a middle class, white American Christian home – I’m about as super vanilla as you can imagine – so it’s not surprising that I’m a Christian. You’re born into a Mormon home so you’re Mormon. We’re products of our environments, right? Had any of us been born into an Islam nation, I would place a solid bet that our faith would be quite different. Now, I know you two don’t bet, so I’ll put enough down for all three of us. This is a sure fire thing and I’m taking it to the bank.

“My concern, guys, is this… Have I / you / we been raised up in a culture to believe a very specific thing and have we ever actually lifted our heads up to look around at anything else? I’m sitting here and talking to you today and I’m telling you that I don’t believe in the teachings of Joseph Smith but… I can’t say why. I don’t even know anything about him. And it concerns me that I’m so quick to put on blinders to something I know literally nothing about. The same can be said of my knowledge of all faiths. A couple of my friends are Jewish, I have a cousin who is a Muslim, and my best friend from high school actually joined a Hare Krishna commune where he dawns an orange robe everyday. I’m 110% certain that they are completely wrong in their beliefs and I am also 110% certain that I don’t know why I think that. And I hate that. I hate that I have such blinders on and I can’t seem to shake them off. What if I am being blinded by my culture and The Truth is just outside of my peripheral and I can’t see it because I am unwilling to look? WHAT IF the One True God isn’t the one that I subscribe to and WHAT IF the One True God is waiting for me directly outside my field of vision just waiting for me to shake off everything that man and culture has taught me and just look up.

“And so I’m sitting here right now talking to you two, not because I’m interested in the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith. I’m interested in The Truth. The Great Truth of The Universe. So here’s my question to you two… if a deity shows up to you one day – purple skinned woman with six arms and an elephants head – and she tells you that you need to leave your Mormon faith and come and follow her because she is Ultimate Truth and the god you’ve been following is built by man and completely imaginary – if that happened – if an actual Divine Celestial Entity came down and spoke to you and called you to a new religion… could you leave your faith? Could you leave behind the faith that has you so passionate that you knock on strangers doors? Could you leave it all if you knew it was built by man and was an imposter religion and that your belief was empty?

They both stare at me. One of them starts to say something about Joseph Smith so I put up my finger. “Why are you here?” I ask.

“On Earth?”

“No. At my house. There are a lot of houses on this street. Why are you here? Did you start at one end and work your way down?”

“We prayed about it.”

“You prayed about La Crescenta, California?”

“No. We parked down the street and we prayed and we felt The Spirit guide us to your house. Specifically this house.”

I take a drink of my now warm, now flat sparkling water and I say, “Here’s what’s happening to me right now, guys… I’m on a little bit of a Quest. I’ve been out looking for God and I want Truth. I’m not saying you have it and I’m not saying I’m interested in what you’ve got but I am saying I think knowledge is imperative to a successful quest and so I want to hear everything you have. Get out your pamphlets. Get out your book. Tell me everything you can.

They both dart to their backpacks and satchels with clumsy and nervous hands. Virgins.

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To wrap this up, there are no answers here. I didn’t have any hugely enlightening moment with two strangers and I’m not going to be knocking on your door to tell you about Joseph Smith. But I am looking for God. And while I look and while I pray and while I speak with people of all faiths and manner of upbringing, I want to be the best version of myself that I can be. I want to be kind and generous with my time, attention and resources. I want my family to know that I love them. I want my friends to know that I care. I want strangers to know that I will not slam doors in their faces. I believe that whoever and whatever God is, at the center of His / Her / Its being is Love. And more than anything, I want to strive for that heart.

Amen.

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Talking to Strangers: Gary

I’m standing in my kitchen preparing to feed my dog when I suddenly hear an intense, gut-wrenching wail emanate from outside.  The pitch and tone of this noise is so off balance, so absurdly wild that it’s hard to equate it to anything that is “everyday” without bastardizing and perverting it first.  It is whale music if said whale lived on the land and had first consumed a large quantity of oxycontin; sort of a very slow motion ooo-waaaahhh

It is a sound so haunting and unearthly that I assume whatever creature is making it is probably either in the throws of its death rattle or a raging frenzy fueled by pure blood lust.  It is the sound of a cat dying while giving birth.  it is the sound of a real life tree frog so amped up on Monster energy drinks that it’s genuinely trying to sing something by Limp Bizkit.  It is the sound of eternal despair.  Standing at my window, an image from The Princess Bride pops into my mind wherein the main character screams and his friend mentions that it reminds him of The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

This is The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

I set the dog’s food on the counter and approach my side door, peering out, past my driveway and over the tall hedge that separates my family from The Neighbors – the nameless entities that exist within such close proximity to me without actually affecting or intruding upon my bubble of influence.

There in his driveway is The Man, walking by himself, shoulders slouched, head down, feet dragging.  He walks down the concrete path, turns at the sidewalk and heads towards the grocery store; his body shaking and wrenching and racking with sobs.  I am compelled to immediately leave my house and grip him and ask, “What’s wrong?” because he looks to be in so much emotional pain that my heart, as a human, is hurting just watching him… but it feels strange to me and the task feels like a true challenge that I’m not sure I can take on.  I want to call out to him but I don’t know his name.  After seven years of living next to this man and his wife… I don’t know their names.  This fault is a personal short coming of my own and says more about me than it does about them.

I watch him disappear out of sight and then the opportunity is gone…

A physical description of the pair would look something like this…

The guy is tall and slim with uniquely distorted facial features.  He looks to be in his late 50s / early 60s.  Huge eyes behind bigger glasses; long scraggly hair that cascades down his skeletal face but the crown of his head is hopelessly bald; jutting chin with small mouth; thin arms, big hands; long legs that take tiny steps; he’s an odd pairing at every angle and, every time I’ve overheard him speak while sitting outside, I can’t help but imagine Goofy, that famous Disney character, after having smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the better half of a century.  His voice is bubbly and cartoonish while still maintaining a throaty quality, unexpectantly hitting the highest-highs and lowest-lows seemingly at random.

His wife is short and plump with long black hair and a featureless face.  I have probably glanced at her sideways 300 times and… I’m not even certain that I could pick her out of a line-up.  This, however, is not a short coming of her face.  This is a short coming of myself and my own awareness.

Everywhere the two go, they go together; always and forever the two are a pair.  In all the years that I’ve lived in this house, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen either of them one without the other.  And this is why, on this particular day, I knew something was up.  Something was strange.  Something was wrong.  Something somewhere was not right…

On this day, disappearing from my sight, the man was walking alone.

The next day my sister, her husband, my niece and my wife are all packing into our cars, rushing out of the house; we have hot plans to hit the zoo in about 25 minutes and we’ve got free tickets if we can be there by one o’clock.  A friend of ours is doing us a favor by meeting us there to get us in even though it’s during her children’s nap time and so she’ll have the kids in tow and it’s just, y’know, it’s rude to keep people waiting.  Time is ticking and the kids aren’t listening and they won’t get in their car seats and the sun is beating down on me and dangit I’ve forgotten my phone inside so I run back into the house to grab it.  When I walk out, the first thing I see is my sister and her family sitting inside their car, waiting for me.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.  The second thing I see is that my wife has successfully buckled in my children and is now sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.

The whole show – hurry, hurry – is on my – hurry, hurry – back.

The third and final thing I see is my skinny, nameless neighbor standing in his driveway staring at me through the hedge, his eyes peering out between broken shrubbery.  I nod but he doesn’t move.  I step off my porch and say, “Hey,” but he doesn’t respond.  Just those eyes… watching me, staring at me, unblinking, vacant.  I open my gate and begin to walk down my driveway, wondering if this guy is in some kind of drug induced hallucination (because he strikes me as the type who has them once in a while) and I’m trying to debate just how weird this is about to get…

He sidles a few steps to his left to a vantage point wherein I can see him a bit better.  He stares at me and cocks his head and I say, “Hi, there.  How are you doing today?” and he says, in that haunting, helium-high voice, in a tone that suggests he’s done nothing worse than burn the meatloaf, “Well, today I am not doing very well,” fiddles with his hands, looks at his knuckles, looks up at me with direct, piercing eye contact, “You see… my wife died yesterday,” and immediately I am hyper aware of my surroundings.  My sister is watching me.  My brother-in-law is watching me.  My wife is watching me.  This man is watching me.  I do not know his name.  I do not know his wife’s name.  He has been my neighbor for seven years and I do not know their names.  I want to hug this man and give him some comforting words but, first and foremost, I don’t believe there are any words that will help him without simply minimizing his tragedy.  Secondly, there is a hedge separating us.  I pick up a leaf and begin tearing it apart.  I say, “Your… what!?  What happened?” and then immediately wonder if that’s a socially acceptable thing to ask.

How does one respond appropriately?

Why is this man telling me this?  Who am I to him?

And then I realize that, outside of his wife, I am perhaps the closest thing to a human in his life.  I don’t talk to him but when I see him I lift up my hand in recognition.  When we run into each other at the grocery store down the street I nod, I smile.  I say hi.  I do nothing.  I don’t do enough.  But I wonder if I’ve somehow done more than anyone else.  I wonder if most people turn their backs on this guy with his unique features and strange voice and ratty clothes.  I wonder if I, even in my state of absolute minimal contact, am The Guy Next Door for him; a familiar face.

Someone.

My phone in my pocket is on silent but it buzzes.  The Family is wondering what I’m doing; chatting up Mr. Tall Glass of Water when we gotta be hitting the street.  They can’t hear anything.  They don’t know.  They just see Johnny having a quiet conversation with The Neighbor.

I am acutely aware of their waiting and watching.

He gathers himself up and says, “Well… we used to live in Denver.  When we moved to Los Angeles several years back, she developed asthma.  Two days ago she caught a cold.  Night before last it got worse.  I told her that we’d take her into the hospital in the morning if she was still ill.  Yesterday morning we woke up and she was having troubles breathing.  She sat up and I said I’d get her some tea.  When I got back to our bedroom she… she had died.  I tried giving her CPR.  I tried like hell.  I called the paramedics.  This was at 7:45 in the ay-em.  They came and tried to revive her.  They really did try their best.  They took her away and pronounced her dead at Kaiser at 8:16 but… that’s not true.  She was dead at 7:45.  She died here.  In our bed.”

And then he stares at the hedge and picks up a crisp leaf of his own and begins to destroy it, bit by bit.  I don’t say, “Are you alright?” because I’m sure he’s not.  I don’t say, “How are you doing?” because I’m sure he’s not doing well at all.  I don’t say, “Do you need anything?” because I think he just wants to talk to someone and have someone, anyone, listen to him.  I think the words don’t matter as much as the physical presence of a human, leaning in, nodding, making eye contact.  I think he’s a lonely man who was living with a lonely wife and they both took care of stray cats and now…

I look at him and hear his voice and realize that the sound I heard earlier were his true wails of grief; a man sobbing with unexpected loss and inconsolable grief.  It truly was The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

He says, “We always thought I’d die first.  I’ve had Stage 4 cancer for 15 years.  I’m 57.  We talked about what she’d do when I died but we never… we never talked about this… she was only 46.  She was healthy…”

The phone in my pocket buzzes and I’m certain it’s my family again, asking me what gives.  I ignore it and instead say, “I had cancer… I had Stage 4 cancer…” and he says, “You and me… we are both miracles,” and I nod because the idea makes me feel like there is magic living inside of me, as though I somehow cheated death and now everyday is a bonus I wasn’t supposed to receive.

He says, “I don’t want to keep you,” and I say, “Don’t – you’re not…” and, while I am always physically uncomfortable making people wait I just… this is obviously too important to walk away from.  He sees I mean it and I’m not leaving until he’s done talking and so he opens a floodgate and begins drowning me in a very personal history about how he used to be addicted to oxycontin but now he only strictly consumes methadone (which he “pack rats away”).  He tells me horror stories about oxycontin and about his struggle with drug addiction and how he couldn’t let it go.  He calls it a Merry-Go-Round from Hell that I couldn’t get off of

He shrugs, done with his story.  Done talking.  Done, maybe, with everything.  I stick out my hand and say, “I’ve lived next to you for so many years but we’ve never met.”  He grabs my hand tightly, in a firm man-handshake that I would not expect from his physical frame, and says, “I’m Gary,” and I say, “I’m Johnny.  What is your wife’s name?” and then a thought runs through my mind that tells me I should have said, “What was your wife’s name,” but I don’t bother correcting my macabre grammar.

He says, “Veronica,” and I say, “Beautiful.”  I say, “Gary, I don’t know what you’re going through but let me know if there’s anything I can do…” and he says, “There is nothing you can do for me.  I see your kids.  Hug them.  Enjoy every day.  Because it will be taken away…”

And then he turns and walks up the driveway.

Two days later I see him returning yet again from the grocery store (alone) with a bag of cat food while I’m sitting on my front porch.  I raise my hand in the air and shout, “Hi, Gary!” and he stops in his tracks, stares at me for a quick moment before averting his eyes, mumbling something under his breath and disappearing out of my sight.

Another two days pass and, as I’m pulling into my driveway I see a couple of Jehova Witnesses walking up to Gary’s house, towards his front door.  They knock but there is no answer so they turn and try their luck elsewhere.

Another 48 hours have slipped by and still I’ve neither seen nor heard any sign of life from The Tall Man that Lives Over the Hedge.

It’s now been five days since I’ve seen him and I’m beginning to wonder at what point I realistically need to walk over there and knock on his door because, honestly, all I can think about is his large stockpile of methadone.

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Talking to Strangers: Norma

The 405 freeway splits through Los Angeles like a bad scar, leading from The Valley, over the hill and into The City, finally ending somewhere further south.  It’s a terrible freeway and a horrible commute if you’re forced to take it; five lanes of 24 hour traffic jams.  You see that bumper sticker in front of you?  Get ready to read it 900 times.  The 15 mile drive I take on the 405 takes me just over an hour – two if it’s raining.  My gas pedal becomes obsolete and I do nothing but ride the break.  People always say, “Stay off the freeway if you’re driving a motorcycle!” and I always respond with, “Uh… the freeway at rush hour is probably the safest place you can be.  It’s a parking lot.”

The trick is this… well, there are a couple tricks.  The first is to not drive during rush hour, the second is to drive on the shoulder of the road, where it’s illegal, the third is to buy a helicopter but the fourth and most realistic option is to slap a baby in your back seat and take the car pool lane.

So my wife, she’s got an appointment on “the other side of the hill” and does just that; she snatches up Baby Bryce, buckles her into the mini-van and she’s suddenly gone and I have two kids with me and I’m so tired because I was up until 4am the previous night / morning working on a pet project and long gone are the days when I can sleep in until noon and so I decide to just turn on The Gumby Movie and lie down on the couch and shut my eyes but even that won’t work because Quinn is standing in front of me shouting, “DADDY, DON’T SLEEP!  YOU CAN’T SLEEP!  IT’S MORNING!” and she’s right… It is morning… and I can’t sleep… when a three year old is screaming into my eyeballs.

I sit up and rub my face and say, “You want breakfast?” and Quinn says, “I want cereal!” and Rory jumps, completely naked, from a chair, with his fists held in the air, nails a perfect landing and shouts, “I WANT…… TOAST!” and I say, “Let’s get dressed.  Let’s go get pancakes,” and they both say, “Pancakes?  PANCAKES!  OH-KAY!” and then we’re walking down the street together and then three blocks later we’re at a restaurant called The Hungry Fox – a place who’s tagline is “Happiness You Can Eat” – and then we’re sitting at a table and I’m ordering pancakes with Cool Whip and sausage and scrambled eggs and hash browns and coffee and orange juice and water and it’s just one meal and, yes, thank you, Waitress, I would like three plates.

Being Tuesday morning, the restaurant is nearly empty.  Quinn and Rory hop out of the booth and run a few aisles over to a fish tank to peruse its inhabitants.  “There’s a fish!  There’s his house!  There’s water!  There’s a rock!”  Everything is a majestic discovery.

The waitress, a woman sporting a simple name tag that says, “HUNGRY FOX” and then, beneath that, “NORMA” approaches my table wearing a large smile and carrying our food.  I’ve been coming to this diner for a while and, while all of the employees seem to be of an Asian persuasion with choppy English, Norma looks as though she’s entering her late 50s and is from somewhere in South America, deeper than Mexico.  Her English isn’t perfect but it’s close enough that it makes no difference.

She sets our pancakes on the table and my children scream, PAAAANCAAAAKES!” and come running.  Luckily, I’ve had the foresight to seat myself in the deepest, darkest corner of the restaurant, back in a place where we’ll be the least concern and bother to any of the other patrons.  Rory jumps into my lap and I say, “Don’t run in here,” and Norma says, “Let them run!  They are children!” and to Quinn I say, “Don’t scream in here,” and Norma says, “Let them scream!  They are children!” and then she pours me more coffee and Rory points at the Cool Whip and says, “I.  Don’t.  WANT.  THAT!” and I say, “Uh… that’s delicious and you DO want it.  Trust me,” but he persists and Norma says, “I will take it off for you,” and she picks up a fork, ready to scrape it away,” when I stop her and say, “It’s, uh, it’s okay.  I got it.”

Rory lifts up the fork I’ve used to scrape the Cool Whip off the pancake and he says, “I.  Want.  A.  NEW.  FORK!” and I say, “Hey… listen,” and Norma says, “Here you go, little one!  Brand new fork!” and then Rory, seeing that this woman is the weakest link, he says, “I.  WANT….” but I cut him short and twist his little body towards me and grab his cheeks and say, “You need to be less demanding.  Here’s some syrup.  Eat your pancakes,” and he sits down, picks up his fork and begins to eat.  He says, “This is good,” and I say, “Thank you,” and he says, “You’re welcome, Daddy.”

Norma refills the two sips of coffee I’ve taken and says, “Children, they are so wonderful.  I have four.  They are grown up now; the youngest is 24.  I am a grandma.  Four grandchildren,” and I ask her a few questions about her kids and I expect her to say, “Enjoy them… because they grow up so fast,” which is the Go-To Answer for all parents but instead she prophetically says, “Someday you will be an old man and you will be sitting in your house and your children will be gathered around you and their children will be gathered around them and they will all be looking at you and you will see your whole family and you will be so proud.”

The image in my mind is magnificent and I know that what she’s saying is true.  I’m by no means excited to get old but when I do finally crawl into that aged room, I want to make sure it’s furnished with all the things I’ve built over the past several decades.

She sets the coffee pot down on the table and, with very few words from me, continues speaking.

“I was married very young.  I was 22 and my husband was 17.  We were in love but… he has not always been faithful.  He has, well, floundered, I guess.  Listen, I’m no goodie-two-shoe and I been around but, he was around… he was always very good to his family, to his children.  He always made sure we were taken care of,” and I nod, not sure how to respond to her confession of infidelity.  She continues, “You wanna be happy in this life?  You gotta make the choice.  You can’t change someone.  You just say, I love you and I want to be with you and that is that.  I told him, you did what you did, I love you, I will stay.  And we’re still together.  So many people they get divorced.  Don’t get divorced.  It is such a yucky thing but… listen…”

And this is the part of the conversation that really stuck with me through the day; this is the part of the conversation that has had countless books written for countless audiences; this is the part of the conversation that affects every married or to-be-married person reading this.  Tune in.  Perk up those ears.  Here it comes.

She says, “People get married and they love each other.  They have a very beautiful marriage and they have kids and the kids are very beautiful and the parents love the kids and then five, ten, twenty years pass and the kids move away and now you live in a house with this person you don’t know.  You knew them twenty years ago but you’ve been living for your kids.  Now you have nothing in common,” and I nod, thinking of all my writing about kids and all Jade’s photos of our kids and all of our family time and how, specifically, beautiful I think it is and then she says, “Love your children.  Love your family.  It is wonderful.  But love your wife.  Otherwise you might be 45 years old and suddenly you’ve got divorce papers because neither of you know what you’re doing with each other anymore.”

This story from Norma really affected me and I want to throw it out into the masses and hope that it hits some of you the way it hit me.  I hope it rattles some of you the way it rattled me.  I hope that we never forget our spouses.  I hope we always prioritize them.  It’s very scary to think that safety in marriage is just an illusion.  I believe it’s when we think we’ve entered into that Safety Zone that things get careless and dangerous.  That’s when we stop paying attention.  That’s when things leave Co-Pilot and enter Auto-Pilot.

What can I do to prioritize my wife and my marriage and make sure that I don’t forget about them?  Or, more selfishly, what can I do to make sure my wife doesn’t forget about me?

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Talking to Strangers: Walter

More and more I’m amazed to find that each and every one of us is walking around in a world filled with broken, hurt and damaged people masquerading as the happy and healthy.  I used to work at a job downtown – this was a place I was at for five years – and it wasn’t until my fifth and final year that I discovered a multitude of tragedies happening all around me in the secret and quiet places of people’s lives.  A woman I knew had become her parent’s caregivers half a decade ago, both mom and dad  becoming too sick to take care of themselves.  A man I knew, nearly forty years old but looking not a day over thirty, was trying to take care of his mother’s cancer treatments and medical bills from across the country.  Another man had a father that lived in Seattle, in a nursing home.  He would visit him twice a month, flying from LA to Seattle.  Sadly, his father had dementia and rarely knew that he was there or, if he did acknowledge his presence, he didn’t understand it was his own son.  This is the mentality we live in; come to work, act like everything is alright, keep pushing on, keep your head down, do your paperwork, check in, check out, go home and deal with your problems there.

It concerned me that I’d been working around these people so long, side by side with them, and I’d never bothered to ask, “How are you?” or, “How are you doing?”  I mean, obviously I asked them that but it was more in the, “Please don’t get too deep with me, did you watch Breaking Bad last night,” type of way.

After all, what could I do for them?  Could I help them?  Do I have the cure for dementia?  For cancer?  No… but I can listen.  You can listen.  We can take ten minutes, fifteen minutes and listen to someone get all those terrible things off their chest; venting.  We can dig deeper than we have, we can push harder than we do, we can attempt to be the people who warm the room.

It’s sad to live in a world where everyone seems happy but inside is dull and gray.  It’s sad to know someone for five years and not know that they fly to Seattle twice a month to see their dad.  It’s sad to be so oblivious.  And it’s these thoughts that are traveling through my head as I’m walking down the street to the local grocery store last Easter when I run into a middle aged black man on the corner, waiting on the stoplight for the red hand to turn into a walk signal.

I have my headphones in and am using them to talk to my mother via my phone in my back pocket.  I approach the corner and the man turns to me, all teeth and dreadlocks and says, “My man!” and I say, “Uh… hi…” and quickly avert my eyes.  This was back before I was making a point to Talk to Strangers and this man was really jumping into my bubble and I just wanted to get to the store and back home.  My mom, on the phone, says, “What?  Hi!” and I say, “No, hang on,” and the man says, “You got it!  I’ll wait!  What’s up?” and I say, “I’m talking to-” and the man says, “Happy Easter!  Praise the Lord!  He has risen!  Do you love Jesus?” and I say, “I love Jesus.”

In my ear, like my conscience, a female voice says, “I love Jesus too,” then, confused, “What are we doing?”

I pull out one of my ear buds and the black man with the dreadlocks says, “What you listening to?!” and I say, “I’m uh, I’m not listening to anything.  I’m talking to my mom on the phone,” and he says, “Oh, man!  Here you are!  Talking to your mom on the phone – God Bless Her – and you’re just going where you’re going and, oh man!  I’m keeping you!  I’m keeping you!  You can say it,” and I feel suddenly so… I don’t know… blessed to be around this man.  He had such a force of goodness coming from him that I wanted to soak it in.  I wanted to hear him talk.  My mom and the grocery store had suddenly and quickly become obsolete.

I say, “You’re not keeping me,” and he says, “Listen, tell your momz, tell her you love her for me,” and I say, “Uh… okay… I will,” and he stares at me and we sit in silence and the red hand turns to a white man but neither of us takes a step off the curb.  He says, “You gots her on the phone, don’t you?” and I say, “Oh, yeah… yeah…” and I lift up the mouthpiece and I say, “Mom?” and she says, “Yes.  Are you back?  What’s happening?” and I say, “I love you.  I’m glad you’re my mom,” and she says, “Oh, well, thank you John Lowell.  I love you too,” and then I say, “Hang on.”

The man that is all smiles and dreadlocks and loud voice and happiness, the man that is bottled energy; the man that appears to me to be the most genuinely positively happiest man I’ve ever seen in my life; this man who I am beginning to speculate of actually being a real life angel because of the way his presence is making me feel, bubbly, giddy, drunk on life; he gets very sober and he puts his face in his hands and he looks up and his eyes are watery and he says, “I lost my mom three months ago.  My mom is dead.  There’s nothing worse than losing your mom.  You tell your old lady you love her every day…” and I say, “Yeah.  I’m sorry… I will…” and then the red hand turns to a white man again and I step off the curb and The Man follows along side me, that broken part of him hiding again, he’s replaced it with his Public Self.  He says, “Easter is a fan-TASTIC time of the year!  I just love it!  Jesus has RISEN.  Do you believe that?” and I say, “Yes, I do,” and now, standing on the opposite side of the street, cross traffic moving again, he says in a huge, boisterous voice, “You are wonderful!” and I can’t help but smile.  He’s the type of guy that, even if he were houseless, he wouldn’t be homeless.

Is this guy houseless?  Mentally unstable?  I simply can’t tell… but I’m smiling again, this madman brightening my day.

He raises both hands to the air, fingertips up, closes his eyes and seems to pull something in.  Then he opens his eyes and repeats himself, “You are wonderful!  You are a wonderful person,” and he’s not talking to himself, some bizarre mantra.  He’s talking directly to me and so I say, “Thank you,” and then I start to walk away, feeling like maybe I am a wonderful person; feeling like maybe this guy just unlocked all of my potential and set me free, feeling like– I’m halfway across the parking lot when he shouts at me again, somewhere near the top of his lungs.  People turn to look at him, then rotate on their necks to find me, the object that he’s pointing at.  He shouts, “BE.  WONDERFUL.  BEE.  WUN-DERFUL,” and the words simultaneously send warmth into my heart and a chill up my spine.  It was more than fortune cookie wisdom.  It was a command.

I get back on the phone with my mom and try to explain the incident that just took place but find that I can’t quite put my finger on this man.  I can’t quite explain him.  I can’t quite tell you what he was like, how happy he was, how pure everything seemed.  It was like the badness couldn’t touch him.

As I speak with my mother, I watch The Man walk down the sidewalk and begin to accost another individual who skates around him, eyes pointed at the ground, mumbling some excuses as to why he can’t talk… and I can’t help but wonder if that man just missed an opportunity to have his life changed by The Man with Dreadlocks.

Over the course of the following year I think about him often and his words regularly echo through my head.  “Be Wonderful.”  What does that mean?  How can I apply it?  Am I supposed to approach strangers to spread joy through madness?  Is Being Wonderful opening doors for people and buying meals for strangers?  Is it listening to those around you?  Is it trying to help?

I think the short answer… the shortest answer… is yes and no.  It’s not one thing.  It’s not, “Do this and you will Be Wonderful” instead it’s “Be Wonderful and all these things will be you.”  Side note: Being Wonderful is very different from Being Fabulous.

A year passes and I discover all of these things about people that I work with, the stuff talked about above, and I discover things about myself that I didn’t know.  I discover that I don’t engage with people; I don’t dig deeper with those around me.  I begin asking more questions, both to those in my inner circle along with complete strangers.  I want people to know that I’m listening to them.

My children grow, my new daughter is born, my mother arrives in town and I find myself walking down to the grocery store two nights ago to fetch some croissant rolls for a German dish we’d discovered online.  I purchase the rolls, make small talk with the busy cashier and, on my way home, ear buds in, Deliverance being read to me by a man with an impeccable Southern drawl, who do I see approaching me down the sidewalk but The Man.

I smile at the thought of talking to him again and I pull down my ear buds as he approaches me.  He says, “My man!” and I say, “Hey!” and he says, “You having a good day?  A good life?  You gotta let that all OUT INTO THE WORLD!  You gotta share it!  You can’t bottle it up inside of you!  You look like you’re bottling it all up!  LET IT OUT!  Tell me something GOOD!  Tell me something GREAT!” and I say, “I have a new daughter,” and he stumbles backwards and says, “GET OUT!” and I smile.  This man is more engaged with me in ten seconds than I have been since leaving his presence nearly a year ago.  I’m trying to take notes.

He says, “How old?” and I say, “One month,” and he says, “GET OUT!  And what is the little lady’s name?” and I say, “Bryce Allison,” and he says, “What-what-what-where-where did that name come from?  Is that a family name?” and I say, “Yeah… it’s my daughter’s name,” and he laughs and says, “There ya go!  Hey, I gotta hug you!” and he leans in and I embrace him and squeeze.  He says, “What’s your name?” and I say, “Johnny.  What is yours?” and he says, “I’m Walter.  Thanks for asking!” and I say, “Walter, I ran into you about a year ago and we spoke for a bit,” and he says, “Really?” and I say, “Yes.  We were on that corner,” and I point and I say, “You were so happy and you told me to Be Wonderful and it was great advice and you made such an impact on me that I’ve told a lot of people about you,” and he covers his eyes and sort of laughs but when he drops his hands, I see that they’re watering again.

He looks at me and says, “I forgot about meeting you.  I forget a lot.  It’s because I am a —” and then he looks at me, expecting me to fill in the blank.  He points to a juice bottle in his hand and shakes it and I know what he wants me to say.  He repeats himself, “Walter is a — it’s okay, you can say it,” and I just shake my head and shrug, playing stupid, so he finishes the thought for me, “Walter is… an alcoholic… that’s right,” and I grimace.  My angel just another person that I neglected.  Another person who’s so happy and shiny on the outside and broken and desperate on the inside.  Another person slipping through my fingers because I was so consumed with talking about me and my family and my stories.  Here’s a man I’ve met twice who seemed so happy that he didn’t even have problems… even after he told me his mother died I didn’t even ask how.  I didn’t even ask how he was.  I just said, “Sorry,” like some dopey twenty-five cent Hallmark knock-off card.

Walter says, “Listen, my man.  Next time you see me, you say ‘Hi’ even if I don’t remember you!” and I say, “Yeah, fer sher…” and then Walter turns and walks away, vanishing into the night and I turn and walk away, back towards my house, trying to decide how I can Be More Wonderful.

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Talking to Strangers: Pam

There are two forms of help you can offer a person.  The first is a kind that helps them; this might look like buying someone a meal, giving someone a ride, feeding someone’s dogs for them or volunteering at a food shelter.  Whether the act is big or small, it’s the kind of help that serves others.  It’s a selfless act that strictly affects them.  This is a good and healthy brand of interaction; giving of your time and energy and compassion and it’s a very difficult activity to take part in because most of us, myself included, are guilty of the second kind of helping…

The Helping Disease.

This is the kind of helping wherein I do something for a purpose or a reason and that purpose and that reason are never just to help.  There are one of two underlying motives in this type of help, both of them equally destructive.  The first is the You-Owe-Me mentality that comes along with helping, specifically, a friend or family member and I hate it when this sort of thinking creeps into my psyche.  “Oh, I’m taking So-and-So’s parents to the airport this morning?  Well, now they owe me big!”  or, “I lent this person my circular saw and it’s so expensive and now next time I need something…” Or, “Sure, I’ll baby sit your kids…” and then in the back of your mind you know you have an Ace up your sleeve for later.

I hate it.  I hate feeling like that and I hate rolling that first kind of Helping over into the mud and watching it transform into that second, gross kind of Helping.  It’s not healthy, it’s not selfless, it’s not good.  This second brand of Helping People is nothing more than Greed in Disguise and we’ve all been guilty of it.

It’s Helping Others only to Help Yourself.

Once in a great while, however, you’ll help someone for a third reason, and maybe this third reason is even just a little worse than the second one.  This third reason can’t be pinned down and it does a much better job of hiding because we’re able to slyly slip it into conversations while trying to make it look like something beautiful.  We say things like, “Oh, yeah… so I was mowing my grandmother’s lawn…” Or, “The other day I gave someone a fifty dollar tip on a forty dollar check.”

It’s this kind of Helping that quietly serves you and draws attention to you.  It’s the kind of Helping that one does and then holds onto like an expensive gem and waits for the perfect opportunity to alert those around them of their actions.  They want to be noticed and talked about and awarded for their kindness.

Worse than that they (or me) are not doing it to Help someone else, they’re (I’m) only doing it to Help themselves (myself).  It’s damaging and taints the whole process and the Heart of Helping.  It changes you and is a sickness; a cancer in the heart of generosity.  And it’s this third disease that is brought forth and put on display in today’s Talking To Strangers.

This morning I found myself sitting solo at a table outside a Jamba Juice.  Having just walked out of a chiropractor appointment, I was feeling loose as a goose and decided to treat myself to a fruity beverage, kick back in the morning sunshine and soak in the entertainment on my phone in the particular flavor of Plants vs. Zombies 2 (a free download, FYI) when suddenly, a raspy voice calls out to me, “‘Scuse me, sir?  You got any change you can spare fer some food?”

I want to help the homeless and the needy.  I really do.  Let me start by saying that.  It’s very Jesus-y and I like that.  I like being as Jesus-y as possible.  But… there’s this other part of me that says, “I want to help you… I just want to do it tomorrow… or at some other juncture in time when I’m not actually around…”  I want to help but helping the homeless is so… I don’t know… hands-on-interactive.

I want to give you food and help but I’m afraid that I will become trapped in some kind of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie scenario wherein our relationship will spiral out of control and soon you’ll be living on my couch and wearing my ties.

I hear a lot of people say, “I try my best!” and they are either, A.) not very good at trying or B.) clearly delusional because we don’t try our best.  We don’t do all we can do to help those around us.  We don’t, in fact, often try a fraction of our best.  The truth is, we try sometimes and only if it’s convenient for us.

My knee jerk reaction is for my martyr’s heart to leap into my throat at the sight of a person in need directly before quietly mumbling some half baked lie, looking away and heading for the nearest cover where I can work on hating myself for the rest of the day for being too much of a coward to stop what I’m doing to help.  It’s that Selfish Human Technique we’re all so good at.  Don’t pop my bubble!  The Bubble of Safety!  The Bubble of Separation!  I’ve spent many hours getting my bubble just the way I like it and I don’t need any strangers coming in here and messing things up.  Don’t.  Pop.  My.  Bubble.

But today, in this story, I try.  Because… the truth is, this story would actually be pretty boring if it started with, “A guy asked me for some money” and then immediately ended with me saying, “BEAT IT, NERD!”

That said… allow me to get back to the matter at hand.

I put down my phone and look over.  Hold eye contact.  Talk.

I say, “No,” and I say, “I don’t carry cash,” and, the truth is, these are both lies.  I have about sixty dollars made up of various denominations in my front, right pocket but I won’t be giving a dime to someone who clearly has a difficult time managing their finances.  Sidenote, I always try to look The Homeless in the eyes to let them know that I’m not afraid of them.  Not in a Knife-Fight sort of way but more in the I Understand That You Exist and I Want to Respectfully Acknowledge Your Presence sort of way.

The guy is slightly overweight and sitting in a wheel chair.  His hands are filthy but his socks are pearly white like they’d just been washed or recently purchased.  He has on black sweat pants and an Avengers superhero t-shirt that has been stuffed to make it intentionally look like he has breasts.  Above that is a rugged grey beard that he’d been growing for a while and on top of his head is a shoulder length woman’s wig with bangs.  He is a brunette.

I say, “I’ve got a credit card and I can buy you something from Noah’s Bagels if you’d like,” and he says, “Yeah, that would be nice,” and I say, “What do you want?  What sounds good?” and he says, “I don’t care,” and I say, with just a hint of playful humor in my voice, “You don’t care?  You don’t have a preference?  You don’t prefer something special?” because now I’m invested and I don’t just want to help this guy, I want to really help him.  Not like… help him get back on his feet or anything, I just really want him to have a spectacular breakfast.  I want him to walk away going, “I ASKED THE RIGHT GUY THIS MORNING!  WOO-HOO!  THAT BREAKFAST HIT THE SPOT!”  because this exchange is no longer about him.

It’s about me.

It’s that third type of helping that has just taken over; The Kind of Helping that is about me getting my jollies.  The kind that is about me feeling good about myself.  The kind that specifically says things like, “I don’t want to help you get back on your feet, I just want you to know you asked the right guy for breakfast this morning.”

The Selfish Helper.

Me.

I repeat my question and say, “Anything?  Anything at all?  Any special requests?” but he just says, “Nope.  Beggars can’t be choosers”.

I tell him I’ll be right back and, just before entering the bagel shop I’m struck by genius and turn around to say, “You want coffee?” and he says, “I can’t drink coffee,” and I think to myself, Man, this guy is really killing my Helper Buzz.  I’m having a hard time feeling good about myself with him being so polite about his needs.  LET ME HELP YOU!  LET ME BE YOUR 9:30AM BREAKFAST HERO!

I walk inside and tell the worker I need to order something healthy.  If the homeless guy can’t drink coffee, he’s obviously UNhealthy (fair reasoning)… so I’m going to get him the healthiest but still most delicious thing on the menu and when he opens it up he’s going to be like, “What a thoughtful person that bald fellow was!  Healthy and delicious!  I usually only get one or the other, what with being poor and all and my beggars-can’t-be-choosers life motto but here it is – delicious AND nutritious in a single sandwich!”

The worker points out some wheat bread selection that has mushrooms and Swiss cheese and asparagus on it.  It’s under their SMART CHOICE menu that’s been written on a chalk board in fancy cursive handwriting so you know it’s good.  I mean, you know it’s a Smart Choice if you’re ordering off of a menu specifically labeled Smart Choice.  I look around and briefly feel sorry for all the other frumpy ghouls dining off the Idiot’s Choice menu.  Dummies.

I toss on a lemonade flavored vitamin water thinking he’d love that; getting a refreshing drink – that’s been filled with vitamins no less! – when he didn’t even ask for one.  The clerk rings it up and… nine bucks.  That’s the cost of integrity.  I am a person with integrity and it was purchased for almost an entire ten dollar bill.  Now we’re talkin’.  Karma Payment Plan, baby.  This is coming around BIG TIME.  THIS IS WHAT GENEROSITY LOOKS LIKE!

I’m standing there and I just wish there were some way that all these people in the store could KNOW that I wasn’t actually going to eat this sandwich I’d just purchased off of the slightly more expensive Smart Choice menu.  I was going to leave and give it to a horribly crippled, transgender man in desperate need of my services.  How could I show them without actually SHOWING THEM?  How could I tell people that I’d helped someone (third brand of helping) without being too On-The-Nose about it?  How can I draw attention to myself without turning a spotlight on?  And then, like a cattle prod to the rectum, I knew… I’d go home and write a blog about it, disguising my selfish gloating in staccato bursts of pathetic, self examining humor.

I walk outside with a little bounce in my step and sit back at my table.  The guy stares at me like I’m trying to pull something over on him.  I don’t think he’s used to people taking a moment to “Give back to the community” as I like to call it.  I slowly and deliberately hand him his sandwich so he knows that I’m not afraid of his interaction.  His presence does not offend me.  I am in no rush to get back to Plants vs. Zombies 2.  I’m okay with being in proximity to him and his homeless aura.  To show him that I’m serious about the interesting moment that we’re sharing, I ask him a personal question.  I say, “Where do you live?” and he says, “Here. On the street.”

I say, “How long you been out here?” and he says, “Three months,” and I ask where he was before this and he tells me that he took an Amtrak from Missouri with a friend.  I say that I’ve never been on the Amtrak before and that it sounds like a fun adventure.  He tells me he’s probably going to leave after a few more months to go home.  I suppose even the homeless like to get a vacation in from time to time because working to stay alive is a full time job.

I ask him what his name is and he looks off towards the horizon.  He hesitates and his eyes seem to gloss over for a moment under that wig that may or may not have been purchased in a party store before he says, “Pam.”  I say, “You’ve got nice hair, Pam,” and he says, “Thank you.  I wish it were mine.”

And then he blurts out something about how he has to get going and I can almost see the awkward fear in his eyes.  Something in his voice is too familiar and then… yeah, he sounds like me trying to avoid someone.  He sounds like me mumbling up my half baked lies.  We had crossed over from the customary exchange of strangers and he wanted to say, “Don’t pop my bubble!”

I told him goodbye and watched him roll away, all alone, down the sidewalk.  I sat in my chair sipping my Mango Delight Smoothie and watched him eat his sandwich half a block away, all alone.

Made me feel good.

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Talking to Strangers: Linda

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I dropped out of High School for a semester during my Junior year.  I was already bombing each and every one of my classes with such hard F’s that even making a D- in anything was out of the question.  I observed the situation, analyzed my statistics, spoke to my Guidance Counselor, read my horoscope and decided to draw a line in the sand.  “Self,” I said to myself, “We’re going on a small sojourn.”

And I did.  For the following 4 months of school and 3 months of summer break I became, what some would call, a Lump.  I didn’t become a “Productive Member of Society”, I didn’t get a full time job and I didn’t move out of my parent’s basement.  Instead, I continued working at Subway during the night and, always the avid reader, spent my days at the lake with my face buried in a book.

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It was incredible and, I think, a very formative experience for my adult life.  I was given the opportunity wherein I had the chance to examine what I was supposed to be doing ie school in a cement building but instead got to exist in the lush outdoors.  Even today I have a hard time crawling into my office when I know that there are trees and lakes and trails to be seen and explored.  It often feels like we are living life backwards and the system that we’ve set up isn’t really working for most of us.

Anyway, I never had plans to NOT go back.  I always assumed that when the school year started again, I’d count my losses and start with a fresh slate.  Really give it the ol’ college try.  SO… September rolled around and I DID go back… but not to the local High School.  Instead, I enrolled in “an experimental program” called The Alternative School; a place with a terrible rap that is doing incredible things for wandering and lost youth.  This is the place where kids who, frankly, can’t get their shit together, go in a last ditch effort.  You bomb Alt School, you’re gone for good.  There is no Third Chance High.

The program provides an environment with smaller classroom sizes wherein kids like myself have their feet held to the fire by a small handful of mentors.  It’s thanks to this school that I was able to graduate high school, leave my hometown, go to college and pursue a career that I’m passionate about.  Did my grades at the Alt School accomplish this?  No.  But the teachers at the school helped me to see what my worth was.  It’s very easy for a teenager to get stuck in the mentality of “This is What I Am This is What I’ll Always Be” and it simply isn’t true.

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I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who helped alter my course fairly early in my adult life.  I understand, however, that this is not the case for everyone.  Case in point: Linda, a 50-something who is still attempting to recognize her full potential, which just goes to show you that, even though school is over, you’re never too old to learn…

I’m sitting at a Mongolian BBQ with my extended family; wife, mother-in-law, 2 brother-in-laws and a sister-in-law, my two children and my 7 week old nephew.  The baby has been good so far as baby’s are concerned; sort of just lying there and counting dots on the ceiling and making the occasional fart.  My children, on the other hand, are nearing The Breaking Point.  Every parent is familiar with this.  It happens at around the 45 minute mark when you’re eating out and nothing can stop it; no amount of stern looks or promises of punishments can help it.  Even those lousy crayons buddied with the water-ringed paper place mat stand zero probability of success.

See also: Ants in the Pants.

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They’re out of their seats, climbing under the table, pushing chairs around, rolling on the ground, covering their eyes and darting left and right, squealing and laughing.  They’re not “misbehaving” so much as they are just “being rowdy”.  A fine line.  Luckily, the restaurant is about to close and there’s only one other couple that’s just getting ready to wrap things up.  It’s 9:30pm, an hour past the children’s bedtime but, since it’s our last night in town and, due to a few other scheduling issues, we decided to make an exception on a late supper.

Our waitress approaches us with the check and says, “These are cute kids,” and we give our customary, “Thank you,” and she asks, “How old?” and we say, “Two and a half,” and she says, “Twins?” and, because our son is enormous and our daughter is dainty, she, like everyone, says, “REALLY!?” and we smile.  But this woman, Linda, doesn’t care about our children.  She is, after all, a stranger.  She doesn’t care about how old they are or how well rounded their vocabulary is or that they can count to 11, recite their ABCs frontwards and backwards, sing Twinkle Twinkle and play Moonlight Sonata on the French horn.  Linda, like so many unfortunate people with blogs, is just waiting for her turn to speak.  Linda, like so many strangers, just wants a turn to tell their story.  Linda, God bless her, begins throwing down her personal demons onto my plate right on top of my leftover noodles and spicy chicken.

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In one long, nearly uninterrupted spew of rhetoric, she tells a table of six complete strangers…

“I have a daughter.  This girl is a mess.  A mess!  A real mess.  From day one.  She’s 26 now but still acts like she’s 13.  Had a child when she was 16 years old, didn’t drop out of high school, they just wouldn’t let her in.  The High School got a restraining order on her.  From the police.  Girl loved to fight.  Just loved to fight.  She went to an alt school; what do you call those….alt schools, yeah.  She went there but they kicked her out.”

I take a sip of my water and wonder if it’s rude of me to ask questions; the topic being so intimate.  I decide to, instead, make a personal statement by confessing that I, too, went to an Alt School but– she talks right over me.  This goose is cooking and there’s no stopping her.

“Her son – my grandson – cutest fella.  Eight years old.  He’s so quiet and nice and just – hates his mother.  Can’t be around her so I took her to court and gained custody of the child.  Now the kid just lives with my husband and I – Grandma and Grandpa.  This is supposed to be The Golden Years of our lives but, well —

I knew the martyr statement was coming next.  The point of it all.  The thing she was getting at from her first breath.  Whatever she said next was supposed to lift me off my feet and make me see her in a different light.

She finishes with, “You do what you gotta do.”

As she’s staring at my son and saying, “Hello.  Hello.  Hello, how are you?  Hello,” I try to imagine what this kind woman must be like in the quiet moments of life when no one is watching.  What was her reaction to her 16 year old getting pregnant and kicked out of school?  Did she scream?  Shout?  Did she throw something and break a mirror?  Did she tell her daughter to get out of her house in a fit of rage?  I begin to wonder what sort of guidance she gave her daughter; did she give her guidance / advice / encouragement?  Was this woman a good parent?  Did the courts have the right to hand over a child to a person that already tried to raise a human and turned out a hotdog?  I’m not saying they’re wrong.  I’m just saying that I don’t know.

I wonder if this woman, Linda, looks at her grandson and sees a second chance for herself.  Some sort of redemption to her “previous life”.  Something that pushes her to sacrifice her “Golden Years” for the peace of knowing that she didn’t drop the ball completely… or at the very least, for the peace of knowing that she picked it up and tried again.

We pay for our meal and Linda walks us to the door, locking it behind us.  I turn around before I step off the curb and see her waving at my daughter.  I squeeze her hand and think that this is my chance.  I don’t want to have to take a redo.

keep-calm-and-don-t-drop-out

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