Not so very long ago, a friend told me a story about a year she spent working in Egypt—long, long ago. On her way to work every day, there was one particularly, almost impossible, intersection which she had to cross on foot.
The intersection was so busy, with at least six lanes of traffic crossing in each direction, that there was a police officer dedicated to directing traffic there.
Each day the officer did his job of moving traffic along in a very efficient manner. Yet, if the officer recognized a very dear friend among the mishmash of cars, bicycles or pedestrians, all traffic would be called to a halt, while he leisurely asked after that person’s day, well-being and family, catching up on the most important social news.
In concluding her tale, my friend said, with a deep sigh of longing, “If only we could transplant that one aspect of Egyptian culture into our own, things would be so much better here. As it is, we barely have the time of day for one another.”
“You live with that every day?” I ask in disbelief.
“Pretty much,” the man facing me acknowledges quietly.
Having bumped into a peripheral acquaintance, whom I know to be both reticent and kindly, we happen upon the conversational topic of “head noise,” while discussing the practice of formal meditation.
“Head noise” is the background soundtrack running like an accompanying bassline to our lives which many of us experience during mental downtime.
The soundbites for our individual soundtrack are often a jumble of statements or words from pivotal situations we have experienced with parents, extended family, guardians, peers or mentors. If we are fortunate enough to have had supportive people and circumstances around us, during our formative years, a positive internal soundtrack may actually function as part of a healthy support system, while we venture through life and, most especially, when we encounter difficult situations. Positive “head noise,” if you will, can actually function as the internal voice of encouragement which causes us to persevere in the face of adversity, while sustaining us.
Yet, many of us are challenged to proceed with our daily routines with a less-than-optimal soundtrack as a backdrop to our lives. Some of us are even working to swim upstream against a wholly unsupportive or abusive set of sentences and words, which are constantly trying to bleed through—even while we may be living what appear to be extraordinary lives with an externally charmed set of circumstances.
“How do you manage to behave in manner so contrary to what is going on in your head?” I finally ask the man with whom I have been talking.
“Well,” the man replies thoughtfully “I figure, why harm someone else? I know these words are my parents’ words and that they have done enough harm to me already. I know where these sentences are from. Why should I visit these painful words—my pain—on someone else?”
“Do you ever get any relief from this soundtrack?” I ask him out of compassion.
“No, not really,” he responds matter-of-factly.
It is late in the day. It is time to go.
We say a few closing words to one another, and I leave with a new conception of the word “hero.”
At a Toastmaster’s meeting one night, before the gathering’s formal opening, I overhear a member from India describing how some people in Phoenix, Arizona spray their large citrus trees to keep them from producing fruit. With the pitch and volume of his voice rising, he emphatically announces his closing questions and statements to the group.
“How can people do this—so selfishly? Keep a fruit tree from bearing its fruit? It is unnatural. Don’t they realize the number of people who are literally starving in the world—in Phoenix even? These trees are meant to bear fruit not to be grown as mere decorations. People should be collecting this fruit and donating it to food shelters!”
“The luxury of excess,” I think to myself, while remembering with gratitude the number of bulging bags of fresh lemons I have received recently as gifts.
One of my adult, yoga students has a sister living in Phoenix, who is periodically overwhelmed by the sheer volume of fruit her citrus trees produce. Yet, this Phoenix-based woman finds a way to distribute the bounty from her trees among grateful family members and friends, who—when they feel overwhelmed—expand the circle of generosity to include an even broader group of grateful people, some of whom live several hours away.
“Excess” is meant to be cultivated, and then it is meant to be shared liberally and freely. When “too much” is redistributed generously, it becomes “bounty” which is a wonderful circumstance indeed.
“How could someone steal a coat from a church? And, in this weather? Isn’t a church considered holy space?” Slava asks.
The recently emigrated, Jewish couple I have been tutoring in English, along with my husband, sit across from us as we drink tea together. Teatime is our post-lesson ritual, where the greatest amount of cultural information is passed among us—in Russian and without the impediment of faulty or halting English.
As the cold, dry snow of a bitter, early February falls outside of the window, I consider how best to respond.
“Well,” I begin, “First of all, the church is a large, wealthy urban church in the heart of a metropolitan downtown. The neighborhood around the church is economically depressed. Thus, it is possible that the coat was stolen by a stranger merely walking through the building that day and not a member of the church itself.”
“Yes,” Slava counters, “but it was a very expensive coat, a very good coat.”
“The fact that it was an expensive coat would make it all the more desirable to a stranger passing through the church,” I explain.
Slava shakes his head in disbelief. Having come from Moscow, the idea of stealing another person’s winter coat is akin to the concept of stealing a person’s only means of transportation, or horse (a crime punishable by death) in the old American West. No coat in northern Russia, no horse in the American West–either way you are stranded. Still, Slava is having a hard time wrapping his head around what has happened.
Truth is that winters here are almost as brutal as they are in parts of Russia, with temperatures reaching -20, -30 or, more rarely, -40 degrees Fahrenheit. In Soviet Russia, a good winter coat is absolutely necessary for survival, highly personal, expensive and a carefully maintained investment, which lasts many years. A good, Russian winter coat is often handed down through one’s family.
I continue explaining, “Things are not equal here—economically. Sometimes people who face moderate to severe economic disadvantage ‘help themselves’ to other people’s belongings. People who engage in such acts of theft might reason that a wealthier person can afford another coat, after they take a short drive in their comfortably heated car, whereas they themselves have to take public transportation and actually need such a coat to function. But, I am only guessing. I do not know the exact circumstances surrounding the theft of the coat.”
“But, it was a church,” Slava intones.
“Yes. It was a church. Ideally, this would be considered sacred space. But, not everyone is spiritually respectful or even ‘religious;’ thus, sometimes pain, greed, anger or desparation override a person’s sense of what is sacred.
“What makes a space sacred?” I continue. “It is how we behave as a community, in a specific location, that renders a space sacred—not the physical structure.”
“Let me tell you, if you ever do an interview with the XX Times Sunday Magazine Features Editor, watch yourself–what you say. They will take your words and twist them.
“There’s a little tip for you.”
The visiting artist I am transporting has offered me this kindness, as we near the close of our two-hour drive together. Yet, for most of our trip, the main topic of conversation has been child-rearing.
The artist is a woman in her early forties. She has experienced a sudden and tremendous commercial success in the art world, while attempting to manage with a toddler at home. I am just thirty and a student, with a child who is a few years older than this woman’s daughter.
Thus, despite the difference in our linear ages and the enormous gap in our professional situations, it is I, who has been listening compassionately, while I dutifully attempt to hand out sage advice on parenting an active toddler.
The advice-ffirmations go something like this. “Yes, taking an adult, personal time-out in the bathroom is a perfectly sound idea…to regain composure before re-approaching your toddler. That way no one gets hurt.”
Some time, during our two-hour tenure in the car, I realize we–as individuals–actually enjoy a variety of ages, stages and experience.
There is the most obvious age, which is linear. It may be calculated mathematically: current year minus birth year equals your age.
Then, we have our “physical-shape” age. We would need a trip to a medical specialist to check the health of our telomeres to determine where we sit on this age scale.
On the drive, the situation with the artist, where a “younger” parent is able to give advice to an “older” parent because the child/ren of the younger parent is/are actually older than the child/ren of the older parent, comes to light.
Also, there is the issue of experiential age, which has a variety of facets (personal, professional, educational, etc.). Have you been around the block? Once? Twice? Thrice? Jimi Hendrix comes to mind.
And, we cannot fail to mention the impact that an upbeat, sunny disposition has on how old we feel or appear to be to others.
Finally, there is the concept of The Old Soul, where linear age and telomeres account for very little, and what really matters is how a soul brings its wisdom lessons to bear on the situations and circumstances of a given moment in Time.
Pause. Consider. Contemplate. Are you experienced?
The question, “How old are you?” may deserve a radically different answer than your would-be, engraved-in-granite linear age. The next time that question arises, you may find yourself wanting to give an answer reflecting the notion you carry of yourself deep within your heart.
Standing at the bottom of the Public Library’s flight of stairs to its back entrance, I wait my turn to ascend, as a tall, lean and distinguished man of African-American descent descends–one stair at a time.
There is a sense that time is infinite when you run on God’s time. And, I am running on God’s time today.
Having reached the bottom of the stairs, the gentleman comments to me, in way of apology, “I feel like an old man today with this limp.”
Catching his eye, underneath the baseball cap he is wearing over a neatly pressed set of bluejeans and an immaculately clean t-shirt, I volley, “That is one sexy limp.”
Chuckling, he replies, “Thank you for that. That sure makes me feel good.”
Over my shoulder, I respond, “You have a good day, sir.”
Still ruminating on our exchange as I climb the stairs to the doorway, I hear him comment on his walk to his vehicle, “Mmmm, hmmm. You sure did make me feel good.”
As the door to the Library closes behind me, I consider how much goodwill our short exchange has generated, through the mere statement of a readily observable truth. What that man does not know is just how much his kind words of gratitude have helped me, frosting the basic cake of my otherwise ordinary day.
As for the rest of my errands, I think I will be wearing frosting-sprinkles in my hair. So, if I seem a little more sparkly today, it is because of these kind words from a complete stranger.