Zebra-crossing Namaste.

I was driving along today – in a bit of a hurry to make it on time to a meeting – and I arrived at a zebra-crossing about a heartbeat before a pedestrian. I could have kept going, and it would have saved me a bit of time – I really was cutting it fine to get there at the appointed hour. But I stopped, because I like to think (most of the time) that I’m a courteous driver, and I let the lady walk through.

She was an interesting-looking lady – long grey hair hanging down either side of her face; baggy, once-stately clothes; a string shopping bag hanging off one elbow and a ratty beige plastic-y raincoat clutched under one arm against the possibility inherent in a cloudless sky. She could have been equally at home in a darkened hovel surrounded by tens of cats, or sleeping rough in a doorway, or behind a university lecture-hall podium. And she moved slowly, walking as though in pain, or contemplating the bitumen beneath her feet. Potentially late, and already flustered, I was mindful of the fact that I could have quite legally driven through before she reached the road’s edge.

Just as she got to the middle of the zebra-crossing, at what could most kindly be called a solemn pace, she stopped, and turned deliberately to face me. String bag hanging from one elbow, and raincoat clamped beneath the other, she placed her hands together and ceremoniously bowed to me in thanks.

It made my day. When I waved to acknowledge her, I was grinning. I was still smiling as I started driving again, and when I arrived at my meeting my heart was just a little lighter.

My spiritual director – an amazing Sister of St Joseph who I’m privileged to consider a friend – often farewells me with the word “Namaste” – in Hinduism it means bowing to the Divine in each other, celebrating and honouring the Sacred which dwells in each of us. I have no idea what motivated the zebra crossing lady to bow to me – other, of course, than in thanks – but in that gesture I was reminded of Namaste. In taking that moment – a bow rather than a quick thoughtless wave – she acknowledged me as a fellow human being. Whether she knew it or not, she acknowledged the Divine in me. And I was reminded of the Divine in her; I was reminded of the Divine in all creatures.

Not bad for a ten-second zebra-crossing encounter.

Namaste.

The mysterious mower and human kindness.

It ended up being a fairly late night last night, and a fairly early morning this morning, and a fairly big day. I’m pretty tired, and I’m sitting here on my lounge listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and drinking beer and looking forward to the fact that tomorrow’s Friday, and sometimes four hundred-odd words seems a lot to write for this blog. According to the document on my computer entitled Blog topic plan, October, I should be writing something specific – but I’m tired, and drinking beer, and ready for an early night and a weekend.

So I’ll write about something else instead.

I got home just after six, tired and hungry and ready for my day to end and my evening to begin. When I pulled into my driveway, I discovered that there was a man in my backyard, mowing my lawn in the evening sunshine.

My first thought was to worry that I’d inadvertantly asked Andrew the Mowing Guy to come and attend to the admittedly rapidly growing lawn, in which case I’d very quickly have to find the money that such a job usually costs. My second thought was to worry that Andrew the Mowing Guy had simply taken it upon himself to cut my grass, in the knowledge that I’d very quickly produce the money that such a job costs. My third thought was that Andrew the Mowing Guy sounded younger than this man looked.

It turned out that the mysterious mower was my next-door neighbour, whom I’ve met only once, when his wife’s shirt blew off their clothesline and over the fence into my yard. He’d been about to mow his grass, he told me, when he noticed that mine needed cutting too. So he’d popped over to cut it.

There’s something quite stunning about human kindness. I actually found myself getting teary. For no reason other than to be nice (he wouldn’t even accept a cup of tea or coffee, let alone a beer, and he brushed off my overwhelmed thanks), my neighbour cut my grass, just because it needed doing. Just because that’s what neighbours do for each other. Just because he’s a gentleman, and a good guy. And when he’d finished, he just walked off, without even giving me a chance to stammer my thanks again. My hunch is that if I’d not caught him in the act, I would have got home to neat grass and not a trace of evidence as to who to thank.

Sometimes the darkness of human nature seems to defeat me: we live in a world where refugee camps are bombed, where torture and death are a searing reality in the lives of so many, where cruelty is such an everyday reality it often goes unnoticed. But we also live in a world where people still look out for each other, still extend a hand of friendship or assistance just because we happen to have humanity in common, where neighbours mow each other’s lawns just to be nice.

Not a bad world to live in, really.

Laughter in a Holden Commodore.

One of the very mixed blessings about now living a way out of town is the drive home. It’s brilliant unwinding time; I can think, I can listen to music, I can plan what needs to be done. Sometimes, I find poems or Haiku or story ideas formulating themselves in my head; at other times I simply delight in the beauty of the countryside I’m driving through.

Sometimes, though, the drive can be an absolute pain. I can take as long to drive the eleven kilometres to the outskirts of Newcastle as I do to drive the remaining twenty-five kilometres home. Sometimes it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic and I don’t get out of second gear – although of course city dwellers will, I’m sure, challenge me on my country-driver categorisation of a traffic jam. Either way, it’s the part of the drive I often find tedious.

Today I was chaffing at the bit, just slightly. It hasn’t been the easiest two days at work, and I was tired and wanting to be at home. I was a bit grumpy and I’d almost been run off the road by an idiot in a four-wheel drive who I’m sure was a nice guy just having a bad (driving) day, and it was starting to seem quite unreasonable that all these other selfish people wanted to use the same road as I did when I just wanted to get home quickly.

Until, stuck at one of the most protracted red lights on my drive home, I noticed the couple in the car behind me. A young couple, in a beat-up Holden Commodore. I don’t know what had been going on previously – I’d glanced in my rear-vision mirror to see them talking, pointing out to each other interesting things out of the windows. This time when I glanced back, the man was laughing – helplessly, leaning back in his seat, head thrown back, laughing with complete abandon. The woman had a look of half-amusement, half-indignation on her face and I took it that he was laughing at her; this was confirmed when she threw out a hand and gave him a good-natured shove, flattening him against the passenger-side window. He kept laughing, and she managed to maintain dignified composure for a heartbeat more before conceding defeat; she too started to laugh, and they shared that humour until the light went green and I had to send my attention back to the road in front of me. As I did, I was smiling.

That was all: nothing spectacular, no epiphanies, no psuedo-profound thought; nothing other than two people who like each other enough to laugh at each other, a joking shove absorbed in good humour and not the cause of violent retaliation, and human love in a Holden Commodore.

I’m glad I saw it. And I hope that those two have many more years of disinhibited laughter, mock indignation and joking shoves. The world’s a bit brighter because of it.

Untouchables, and WWJD.

I work in mental health, with some of the most disadvantaged, vulnerable, vilified and misrepresented people in the country. People living in poverty, simply because they have a mental illness; people who face judgement and persecution, so subtly that it goes unnoticed even by them. “The mentally ill? Aren’t they dangerous?” – if I’d a dollar for every time I was asked that question I wouldn’t need to work at all. Nut jobs, freaks, crazies: the woman you don’t make eye contact with because she’s muttering and gesticulating to herself in the supermarket; the man whose gaze you don’t meet when you think he’s drunk at ten o’clock in the morning, because he hasn’t touched a drop in years but his meds make him slur his words. Maligned, misunderstood. Untouchables. People. Souls.

My boss and I were sharing a quiet moment of despair today, and she said to me, “How do you touch the untouchable?” It was a good question and I love that her questions make me think, but this time I didn’t need to think: I had the answer, and I heard the conviction in my own voice.

How do we touch the untouchable? By making eye contact. By smiling. By listening, and really hearing, and allowing what we hear to touch us. By sharing moments of simple humanity. By showing up when you say you will, doing what you say you’ll do. By showing courtesy and respect. By refusing to be fearful of what you don’t understand. By acknowledging that some people – most people – are fighting a battle you can’t see, and to which you’ll probably never be privy; and by honouring the privilege of being let in to the deep fears and darknesses which dwell at the heart of each of us. By letting the very presence of these people on the planet change us.

I’m not usually one to ask the What Would Jesus Do? question, because I think it’s bandied around and used to justify actions that I’m tolerably certain Jesus would never have taken. But in this case I have to ask it. How did the itinerant, ritually unclean, rebel teacher from a dusty backwater of the Roman Empire – the same rabbi who showed us what it is to be of God, who carried our darkness and drew death into the very being of the Creator – touch the untouchable?

He did it by acknowledging them. By holding out a hand, by allowing them to reach out to the hem of his garment without pulling away. By meeting their eyes and refusing to allow litigious ideas of cleanliness to pull him back. By holding hope, and roaring out the reality that each person he touched – each person he still touches – is a shining fragment of the Divine.

How did he touch the untouchable? Simply: by touching them. How do we touch the untouchable? Exactly the same way.

The difficult beauty of an acknowledgements page

So I wrote a book, and part of writing it was to draw up an acknowledgements page. It turns out that writing acknowledgements is harder than writing the book itself.

It’s not that it’s hard to come up with people to thank – I’m overwhelmed by the people in my life who have contributed to who I am, to my wellbeing, to my sanctity, to the fact that I can put one foot in front of another each day. People who have contributed to my writing, my knowledge, my skills; to my very existence on this planet: to the fact that I didn’t step off the edge of the world when life was too dark to see any hope, to the fact that I’ve come through the darkest times in living with post-traumatic stress disorder without unravelling completely.

No – coming up with people to whom I am deeply grateful was easy. What was hard was getting my acknowledgements page down from four-odd-thousand words to a document small enough to be slotted into a book.

That was bloody near impossible.

But I did it, and I’m sitting uneasily with the knowledge that in acknowledging some people, I’m missing out on acknowledging others, even as I’m rejoicing in the opportunity to say the public thanks that I otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have the chance to say.

And I feel like I should write more acknowledgements pages. Not for publication, but because the very act of listing names reminded me of how utterly blessed I am. How profoundly life-giving it is to be surrounded, and to have been surrounded my whole life, by people who nurture me, who love me, and who show me the love of God, who are God and love and light and life itself to me. People who probably have no idea of what an impact they have had upon me, but to whom I owe everything.

If I write a thousand books, I can never write an acknowledgement page which expresses the depth of gratitude I feel.

But it’s almost worth writing a thousand books, to have the opportunity for it.

~

Also, last night’s post was my three-hundredth. Yay.

Me me me, and me too.

I often – normally – find myself writing about myself: that I need to learn to slow down, that self-care or spirituality or creativity falls off the radar first. And maybe that’s a reflection of being self-obsessive: it’s all about me, me, me – I am a soprano, after all.

I guess, though, what I’m actually writing about is us. Of course, I’m aware of the arrogance in claiming my own experience as being relevant to others; but I’m also aware that others’ experience is relevant to me. That we’re all in this together, and that so often, the experience that one person struggles with is in fact the experience that another carries, quietly and alone.

We all struggle, in this busy world, to retain a sense of self. We all struggle with the fact that it’s the important stuff that falls off the radar first; we all struggle at times to keep our equinaminity in the face of the demands of the world; to retain a sense of who and what we are.

I once read that “me too” is the most comforting phrase you can say to a person, because it’s saying, “you are not alone”. It’s saying, to quote Laurie King, “I might not be where you are, but I’ve been right next door” – or it’s saying, “Yep, I’ve been down that hole, and it might not feel like it right now, but there is a way out”. It’s saying, “you’re not the only one”. It’s saying that we have a shared experience. We are not alone.

I know I’m not the only one who struggles. I’m not the only one who loses sight of what being a human being is about, who comes from the open quietness of retreat into the busy roar of the real world and clings helplessly to the fragments of peace that I only last week held easily.

I’m not the only one, and I know that because in writing about myself, I’m actually writing about us. I’m writing about the commonality of experience. I’m writing about human connection, and whatever the opposite is of lonely: that’s what this is about.

Me too, world. Me too.

 

 

Looking out for the spark.

About a thousand years ago, I received a letter from a dear friend (shamefully, I haven’t written back – it’s not a reflection on how deeply I value the friendship, just a reflection on my terrible correspondence skills). She had read this blog, and she said to me that her favourite posts were the ones about human connection. Reminders of what unites us – small, incidental moments in the day, unconsequential points of connection and of mutuality that are often overlooked, but that remind us that we are not alone. Or that, if we are alone, we are alone together.

I was surprised when I read this because it made me realise just how deeply I value those moments of human connection as well, and even though I read that quite some time ago, I found myself thinking of it recently, about those small connections with those who have nothing to do with me: the individuals I come into contact with and who then vanish from my life: the man in Office Works who, in trying to sell me a light globe for my new desk lamp, managed to shatter it in a wonderfully clumsy two-handed fumble, and who then stood there and simply laughed with me. The woman who was also watching the native mynah bird trying to walk along the footpath carrying a stick almost double its own body-lengh, who met my eyes and smiled. The man staring with soft-eyed wonder at the baby in the pram on the bus, who looked up at me and in open-faced awe allowed me to see the depth of love he had for this small everyday miracle. The big scary tough dude with a beanie on his head and skull-and-rose tatts down both arms walking a galumphing sausage dog, who couldn’t quite conceal his fondness for the ridiculous animal under all his gruff dismissal of “walking the girlfriend’s idiot dog”.

Small moments, nothing moments, and yet they’re moments that mean everything: moments that mean we’re all human, we all share a world of joy and pain and amusement and the flumphing movements of sausage dogs, comical no matter what language you speak. And so I find myself looking out for these moments of connection: keeping an eye out, maintaining mindfulness, searching for those gentle points where two souls spark brightly against each other before moving off again on their own individual trajectories.

After that moment of spark, nothing’s really different. A complete stranger doesn’t make that much impact, my life doesn’t change from one point of connection to another. Except that the world is slightly warmer, and slightly softer, and slightly less hard. And I am slightly less alone, and there’s normally a smile on my face.