Sun Kissed Stranger

“I cannot do all the good that the world needs.  But the world needs all the good that I can do.”–Jana Stanfield

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I was walking into a local coffee shop as I typically do nearly every Saturday morning.  It was one of those delightful early spring mornings overflowing with abundant sunshine that enlivened the brisk air.  New green grass stretched through the manicured town patches after its long winter hibernation while newly formed flowering buds and blossoms bobbed and bobbled to the rhythm of the breeze.  

Inhaling, I slowed my typical hasty pace and felt a smile forming in response to all the sensory overload.  Absorbing the glow of my surroundings, I noticed a few people, in spite of the morning chill, sitting on benches, faces tilted towards the luminescence.  Visages, unknown to me, radiating with the joy of appreciation after dreary days of darkness.

On the right side sat a young woman most likely around the age of my daughter–early to mid twenties.  Short, flaxen hair, tucked neatly behind her ears, her face wiped clean of any makeup except for lipstick, the shade of spring tulips.  Tall and curvy, she wore a lavender spaghetti strap shirt that struck me as a bit underdressed for the morning crispness, but what did I know–I am nearly always cold. Chin thrust high, eyes shut, a close-lipped smile across her face.  She seemed happy, content, and at ease.  How lovely, I thought, as I walked past her and on into the coffee shop.

It was only when I walked out of the coffee shop that I noticed what lay at the youthful feet of the woman.  There was an overstuffed worn backpack with a rather faded and worn water bottle inserted into one side of the bag that she heaved it upward in one practiced swoop.  Then, with much effort, she picked up another bag and what appeared to be some sort of walking stick.

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“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”–Camille Pissarro

Was she a hiker?  Maybe, but she was wearing a spaghetti strap shirt, which didn’t strike me as hiking apparel for this time of year.  Besides, if she was a hiker, why would she be in-town?  I tried to put the pieces together and kept coming up short.  As I neared my car, I looked across the street, and I watched her begin to amble away from the community patio, moving westward, the opposite direction of where I would be traveling. Her shuffle and bent back stabbed at my heart.  Then, as I took one last glance at her, with the sun on her bare shoulders, she paused, straightened her posture, tucked stray strands of hair behind her ears, threw back her shoulders, and determinedly continued moving on.

 Who was she?  What was her story?  Where was she headed?  Why was she walking around with a backpack, much less alone?  Was she okay?  Did she have family and friends who loved her?  On and on my mind spun with the worry of a mother.  

Then, it occurred to me that I hadn’t truly seen her entire circumstance until she was walking away, and yet I did nothing.  I could have bought her a cup of coffee, a breakfast sandwich, a bottle of water, a piece of fruit, or something, yet I took no action.  Why hadn’t I been more observant?  Why hadn’t I taken time to check on her?  I felt an onslaught of self-criticism and disappointment.

My imagination was certainly getting the best of me.  There could have been numerous valid reasons for her carrying such a heavy load.  She could have been traveling solo, visiting random places off the beaten path.  Perhaps she was a university student heading home for the weekend, but why would she have a walking stick?  Maybe she was training to hike a big trail, such as the Appalachian Trail.  On the flip side, however, there were as many unfortunate circumstances that could have caused her to be so overburdened. I could not then, and still haven’t, been able to shake this young woman’s image.

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“Love calls us to look upon anyone and say: You are a part of me I do not yet know.”–Valarie Kaur

Since that encounter, I have often thought about this unknown female.  I have asked myself repeatedly why I didn’t pay closer attention upon first seeing her as well as wonder why I can’t forget her image. What lesson was I to glean from this chance sighting?  Then I read an essay in which the author’s main point seemed to say that it is the very people about whom we wonder that fosters our capacity for compassion, empathy, greater understanding, and sometimes even prompts us to take action for others for whom we see as different within our community and/or the world.  She (the author) suggested that by “seeing others as part of us we do not yet know,” we can begin to stop the cycle of separateness.

While the author’s vision was/is highly aspirational, it nonetheless was/is a catalyst for personal reflection.  Reflecting upon my own actions, I’d like to think I am open-minded and compassionate; however, there are still multiple ways in which I have failed to see others as part of me, to share another’s pain, grief, or dared to understand their seemingly self-absorptions.  In fact, some of my most vociferous and worst behaviors often occur while driving.  However, I have also been known to be guilty of a condescending look, a sarcastic thought, or even in my ability to look the other way.  While I can soften the blow and claim that I am a human being, having a human moment, it doesn’t make my actions in those moments any better, and it also doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work on eliminating, or at the very least, reducing them.

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“Perspective is the way we see things when we look at them from a certain distance and it allows us to appreciate their true value.”–Rafael E. Pino

My lesson to learn, at least as I presently reflect upon it, is a reminder of what I know to be true as an educator.  Every person starts as a child of someone–a symbol of hope and promise for the future.  Each child is part of a family, whether known or not, a being of a community, and a citizen of the world–the same as which we all began.  While I will never know the story of the unknown young lady, she is a part of the same humanity as me.

If the human collective could be thought of as one large web, my life would only be one of the hydrogen or oxygen atoms forming a drop of dew on one strand glistening in the early morning light alongside all of the other droplets.  If each orb of dew were a family, each uncrossed part of strand were a community, the full length of each individual strand would be a county, and the entire web would be the world, the resiliency of the web’s ability to support all of  dew drops on the strands, as well as to sustain life, depends on the integrity of each strand.  The strength of the web’s silk depends upon the bonding of various atoms to form the proteins forming the web in the first place.  If one part of the web is damaged, it must quickly be rebuilt, or the entire web will cease to exist.  To take this analogy one step further, those atoms making up the dew drops at the top of the web may perceive the green tips of grass, while those at the bottom may only discern the brown of dirt–and yet, no matter their view of the world, they all belong to the same web.

I pray that my thoughts and actions more regularly reflect the fact that every person is part of the same web of life as me.  When my brain deems someone as “another,” may I begin to habitually remember with each encounter that they are part of me that I may not yet know, and their existence matters.  I would do well to see the world from their position on the web. While it is overwhelming to think of repairing the entire web of the world, I can begin to repair, foster, and reshape my thinking and interactions within my own communities. I may not be perfect in my efforts, as the story of the young woman illustrates, but with each shortcoming, I can likewise use it as a reminder to try again.

As seen on Instagram at MyLife ( Formally Stop, Breathe, Think)

Let’s Walk in Another’s Shoes

“Walk a little in my shoes; see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel, then maybe you will understand why I am the way I am.”–Jerose

“If God sends us on strong paths, we are provided strong shoes.”–Corrie ten Boom

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Two emails found at the end of a full Saturday.  A day in which I tried to balance the needs of others and the mundane chores of life we all face.  The fading sunlight kissed the western sky with a melon-colored glow that felt warm on my neck as I completed the last little task for a dear one.  By the time I made it home, the dust remained in writable levels on all of my furniture, but I had managed to somehow be of small service to loved ones. After a quick shower, I started dinner.  It was already full-on dark, but I felt a good-kind of tiredness swathe me like a robe.  

In the kitchen, I scurried about like a mouse being chased by a cat throwing together a gluten-free pizza for myself, and salads for John, my husband, and me.  Our daughter was with friends for the evening, and John had already purchased a pizza for himself as he doesn’t require a gluten-free option.  Pouring myself a glass of golden wine, I sipped slowly as I relaxed in the rhythm and routine of the kitchen, my life-long source of comfort and creativity.   John would be back home soon, so could we eat, share conversation, and watch a bit of college football.  

An hour or so after dinner, John walked over to a neighbor’s house to visit with a couple of buddies.  I remained home, relaxing in the quiet.  What made me decide to do it, I don’t know, but I picked up my phone and began scrolling through emails.  I immediately began deleting all the junk and buy-me emails that so many companies send once they get your email address, and was about to close the app . . .

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Wait, what? Who is this person?  Is this spam?  Hmmm . . .  Should I even click it open?  It seems real enough though.  Huh?  Oh my goodness!  Wow!

My heart began to race and pound as if I were running from a knife-wielding maniac in one of those B-level slasher movies. Instead, however, I was mentally attempting to run away from the words of an email sent by a person with a name that I did not recognize, but this person sure did seem to think he or she knew me.  While there was nothing life-threatening in the email, the unknown sender certainly meant for his or her words to cut, and I was definitely feeling the intended slashes.

Instead of closing the email app, I clicked over to my work email.  WHY????  Scrolling through, I began to make mental notes of things to complete tomorrow afternoon and delete spam.  That was when I ran across yet another negative note from a different person.  Why did I open my email?  Why didn’t I just leave the phone alone and focus solely on the book I had planned on reading or continue watching the football game?  Why did I pick up that blasted phone?

Immediately, I was reminded of a documentary that both a friend and my dad had recommended entitled, The Social Dilemma.  John and I had watched most of it.  While some of the acting and storyline felt a tad over-dramaticized, the gist of the documentary was not lost on us.  The internet, computers, and smartphones were all created, originally, to be used as tools–streamlining information, improving efficiency, easing communication, and so forth.  However, as competition and the market grew, the tech companies began to figure out ways to create consumer-driven platforms designed to be addictive, track behavior, and target ads/influence.   By picking up my phone without thinking and mindlessly scrolling through email, I had fallen prey to the attraction of the screen as this documentary pointed out. 

Ugh, I had allowed my phone to control me. There was positively no need to pick up the phone in order to relax.  Now, I was far from a relaxed mental state!  So, what did I do?  What any normal person would do, of course, reread both emails again!  After a second reading, the words of the emails still struck the same negative chord, and I thankfully decided it was time to put away the phone and focus my attention elsewhere.  

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In the wake of those two emails, I fell asleep that night pondering why people make assumptions, especially negative assumptions, about others?  Which then begged the question, why do I?  After all, I can’t be self-righteous and not include my own behavior.  As with so many big picture questions, I had to offer it up to Divine Providence and keep my heart and mind open to answer.  It came later in the form of a novel for youth. 

As I was reading a book my 6th grade students are currently reading, an elderly male character offers a long stick to a character who is a boy with severe anger issues.  The elder asks the boy to break off the left side of the stick, and the boy does this.  The man responds that the left side is still there, and he asks the boy to break it off.  

This is again repeated until the exasperated youth finally says, “This is stupid.  There will always be a left side.”  

The older man retorts, “There will always be a left and right side to life.”  The gentleman went on to explain that the young man will always have his anger and something for which to be angry, but likewise there will always be something for which to be happy or thankful.  The choice was his, focus on the left side or the right of the stick–the choice was his every day and every moment.

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Clearly, the writers of those letters were angry.  Both had made assumptions and implications about my life or my behavior that were viewed through their own personal lens without spending a day, much less a week, walking in my shoes.  Additionally, I had initially done the same thing–passing judgement on the senders of those emails.  

However, in the light of a new day, I chose to focus on the right side of the stick.  The first email, I decided not to answer because there was no sense in trying to defend my life and choices in a singular email to a person who doesn’t know me, much less live my life.  If the person needs to have someone with which to focus his or her anger, I can be that left side of the stick for this unknown reader.   I did, however, take time to respond thoughtfully and truthfully to the second, work-related email as I thought it was merely a misunderstanding. 

Bottom line, I don’t live in the shoes of the senders of the email.  I don’t know what life experiences have framed their thinking, much less what had happened within their life on the day they sent their emails.  Perhaps they were simply having a bad day and only able to see the left side of the stick when they chose to write to me.  I get it.  I’ve been there, and if I am to be fully honest, I have focused on the left side of the stick quite often in my own life.  

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Just as screens have practically hardwired us to seek out their company with great frequency, humans also seem to be hardwired from an early age to seek out and focus on the negative.  It takes work, effort, and energy to focus on the positive, to feel gratitude, and to feel happy just as it takes focused choices to put down, or step away, from screens.

 I can’t always choose the path my shoes walk, as life is often full of curvy roads and unexpected hills and valleys, but I can choose to take care of my shoes, aka, my life, and regularly remind myself that there are, indeed, two sides to a stick.  Thus, when I find myself focusing on the fact I can’t break off one side of the stick, I can choose to redirect my thoughts to focus on the other side, trusting that, when others try to cloud my way, I’ll put my faith in the fact that the shoes God gave me will lead me to the light.

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