Oh the Humanity

I looked not unlike a Weeble Wobble, sort of egg-shaped like one of those plastic toys that according to the manufacturer, “wobble but don't fall down.” I was nearing the end of my pregnancy and on my way home after a long day at work. My feet hurt, my legs were swollen, my ankles nonexistent. I was crabby, exhausted, resentful to still be working and not at all looking forward to coming home to two needy, exhaustively chatty kids and one husband who probably had not picked up the house, started homework or saved some dinner for me. My car had become the setting for a very large personal pity party and I was headed home with a boulder-size chip on my shoulder.

I slowed my car to a stop at the red light and that's when I saw him. He had amazingly clear blue eyes and as they met mine, his face broke out into the widest, most friendly smile I had seen for days. His hand went up and he waved wildly at me hunkering his head down a little in my direction so I knew it was for me. I couldn't help it, I forgot my building tirade and I smiled and waved back. It was one of those odd simple moments where I am reminded of my humanity.

He must have been in his late thirties or early forties but he looked closer to seventy. I don't know if the drink had done it, meth or the other cornucopia of drugs that can drag a person to the depths. Maybe it was mental illness or a combination of all of them. His skin was thick and leathery and tanned to the color of a saddle from his days outdoors. His pants were too long and too big, cinched around his thin waist with a belt. His long hair was greasy and pulled back in a ponytail. I saw his shopping cart parked next to a pair of defunct pay phones, well within his sight protecting what were no doubt his only possessions.

I started crying as the light changed to green and I continued home. Maybe it was the hormones, maybe it was the humanity. I don't mean to say that just because a person smiles, he or she is happy but in my mind I considered that if he could smile, why couldn't I. I contemplated that long ago, he was someone's baby boy with big clear blue eyes, small chubby fingers and a host of needs and wants. I remembered that nearly all of us start there, perfect, unsullied, a blank canvas. Then we are written on and sometimes scribbled and scratched and crumpled up and thrown away. It is just a matter of luck and circumstance that some of us can rebound while others of us spiral further and further down.

I considered my pretty house, healthy children, caring husband, my warm bed with clean soft sheets, my hot shower, my warm and satisfying meals, my children's hugs, my safety net. Yes it may seem like a pretty obvious a-ha moment or a little Lifetime but that day, that short, probably three minute light shifted my paradigm. Gratitude is a funny thing, it comes and goes, I am reminded at least weekly of the constant need to refocus, be grateful, be kind. These small reminders are gifts, small pokes and pinches to pull us back to the reality of how good most of us have it, how much better a hand fate has dealt us. I don't mean that personal responsibility doesn't have a hand in it but how many of us could be that person were it not for the resources of health care, mental health, recovery, family not willing to let us sink, kind friends and partners who perhaps filled the gaps and holes childhood left behind or a simple, clawing tenacity to not be left behind.

One of my most recent personal goals has been to do more of the things that I intend to. I think intent is a powerful thing but action even more so. A few months back, a neighbor of ours lost a seventeen year old son. My husband and I went back and forth trying to think of something we could do for them. We don't know them at all, we've never even introduced ourselves but we wanted to make a gesture, to do something that would perhaps ease even just a moment or show that they were in our thoughts. Should we bring dinner? I thought they really don't know us well enough where they would just eat something we brought over. Then we thought maybe some muffins and fruit and things that would be good to have on hand when people stop by. Death so frequently brings company. Then I thought, muffins? Fucking muffins? Why do I think that me bringing over a basket of muffins will do anything to make anything better for this family. What did we end up doing? Nothing. I couldn't think of something appropriate, something I was sure would be taken the right way and seen as a kindness and not an intrusion. I was ashamed that I had really intended to do something and I didn't, because it was just easier not to.

So I have been on a mission of making my actions match my intentions. Which brings me to my blue eyed fellow human. I literally see him in that same spot every time I leave work for home, I don't know how I never noticed him before. Ever since that day that he gave me that gift of gratitude, I have intended to pull in the parking lot near where he waves and panhandles. I've wanted to tell him that he made a bad day better, that he touched something in me, that he spared my family from my anger and hostility that day.

I used to be judgemental and self-righteous about giving people money I knew would be used to buy alcohol and drugs but now I think, who am I to tell this person what they need or don't need to get through the day. In addition to verbalizing my thanks, I wanted to give him some money. In part because I have attachments to money and in my fledgling study of Buddhism, one of the goals is to release your attachment to things. Mind you not get rid of all money, but loosen one's attachment to it.

I most certainly have attachments to money, which means I worry, mostly needlessly about having enough. It makes me stingy because I think, what if my children need this someday, what if I want something and I don't have enough money, what if my husband loses his job again or my shop goes down the tubes. Still none of this is real and my mantra, which I have to remind myself of frequently, is 'I have everything I need, I always have enough'. I had just worked and had cash in my pocket. I also wanted to make his day the way he made mine, maybe he could find a cheap room for the night, take a hot shower, sleep in a warm bed, sleep safely.

I have intended to do this for about twenty months, that's over six hundred and twenty days of intending to do something. This past Saturday, I finally did it.

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Rassles said... April 7, 2009 at 8:19 PM  

That was just gorgeous, FF.

SSG said... April 8, 2009 at 1:18 AM  

I love the way you write, and I love you have the courage to do these things. I think the sooner we can be humble and not worry what others think of us the better, but it takes time to reach a place where that's possible. Well done and good luck in accomplishing all you want.

Mrs. Case said... April 8, 2009 at 9:32 AM  

In regards to your neighbors who lost their son...even though time has passed I IMPLORE you to continue on with your gesture. In the beginning when someone exeperiences a loss, the people and gestures are plentiful. That quickly fades away. I am sure they'd appreciate the gesture, regardless of its nature. And there ain't no shame in muffins.

Anonymous said... April 8, 2009 at 3:54 PM  

Random stranger passing through. Your entries are beautifully written with an underlying sense of principle and hope. Please keep on writing - your words tend to inspire.

Anonymous said... April 8, 2009 at 9:32 PM  

Oh man, I've been paralyzed, in the exact same way, so many times. Everyone else seems to know what to do, what to say, even where to stand, for christ's sakes. Not me.

I am proud of you.

Mrs. Booms said... April 9, 2009 at 11:19 AM  

My father-in-law has only not been homeless for about a year now.

He lived on the streets and in homeless camps.

He begged change off of people to buy cigarettes.

One time, when he was still homeless, he came to visit us. He asked my husband to take him to go buy cigarettes.

The look on my husband's face as he told me about his dad digging out his handful of begged change to pay for them is something I'll never soon forget.

When I look at that man's grandson, I just beg with everything in me that it can't, won't happen.

The Numismatist said... April 9, 2009 at 2:46 PM  

Ahh, the Buddhist in you is coming out! Happy Hanamatsuri!

Captain Steve said... April 10, 2009 at 9:01 AM  

Good on ya, dude! I love it when things like this happen.

baronessvonb said... April 10, 2009 at 12:44 PM  

This was all the beauty of writing at its very best - well done!

I have a friend with no pause button on her intent - she thinks, she acts. Every time I have a WWPD situation and act, it always turns out to be a transcendental moment.

Keep being yourself, FF - a shining example to us all.

abcboston said... April 10, 2009 at 3:25 PM  

I'm proud of you, too. I thought it'd be weird to say this, but prayingtodarwin already beat me to it.

Sometimes it takes so much courage to reach out--and this entry is such an inspiration. I'm really touched, and glad I bumped into your blog--was it from Dooce?--so long ago.

Bluestreak said... April 11, 2009 at 11:49 AM  

Geez, I just love ya.

Gypsy said... April 14, 2009 at 11:03 AM  

I need to read things like this, especially now. Thank you. And thanks again for being that guy for me, for brightening my day.

Arizaphale said... April 15, 2009 at 6:08 PM  

I was brought up with 'don't give them money it only encourages them...' but in recent years I have decided that if I've got it to give...then I give. Like it says in that 'song'* "he will only spend it on alcohol or drugs, but then again, that's what I'm going to spend it on!"
Great post.

*'Underpants on the Inside' or something....

ddputz said... May 5, 2009 at 3:47 PM  

What an inspiring post. I can empathize with you about having the best intentions that never come to fruition. So many times I want to do something, to say something, but am afraid of not saying or doing the "right" thing.

Love your posts - keep writing!

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