(Photo by: Matt Altstiel)
A few weeks ago I gave a talk at Potluck 7.0. Great fun with a really smart group of people.
I write stories about my life, things I see in order to figure out, how to be a good person, and I hope, a better parent for my kids. I titled this piece, Walk on By.
I am 22, on a bus – the 147 – with a backpack slung over one arm, a sleeping back tucked under the other. My body shifts automatically with the city’s uneven streets as my mind drifts elsewhere…
“It’s too soon to move in together.”
“But we were practically living together at school.”
“Nadine, If I do, my mom will know.”
“And what would be so wrong with that?!”
Our argument is escalating into dangerous territory, and though I don’t want to know the answer, the question still comes tumbling from my mouth.
“Do you even want to be with me?”
Her eyes look away, and I instantly regret what I have asked. I should have kept the question tucked away with all of the other insecurities that have plagued this relationship over the past year.
“You know I do, but…”
Whatever her next words are, I don’t hear them. I grab my bags, and walk out her front door. Have fun explaining that fight to your mom, who was no doubt listening from her upstairs bedroom.
I dig through my pockets for a Kleenex, and, finding none, launch into a series of not-so-discrete sniffles. The people around me shift uncomfortably, drawing into themselves as my emotions threaten to spill out. I will myself not to let those tears fall, the ones that are pooling in my eyes. I mean, God, how embarrassing, crying on the bus. But as other riders pass me in the aisle, one bump, then another, my tears are set free…the first landing on my cheek, the next on my backpack strap.
After that I lose count.
I feel a light touch on my hand, followed by gentle pressure.
“Are you alright?”
I am 33, young urban professional, waiting to cross at the corner of Fairbanks and Ohio. A disheveled man holds a crumpled piece of paper out of to passersby. In their rush to grab something to eat in that 45-minute window for lunch, they surge around him, focused, indifferent.
I make the mistake of meeting his eyes. They are watery…pleading.
“Por favor…” he begins.
I shake my head. “Sorry,” I mumble as I walk past.
“Por favor…” he says to a woman behind me.
She stops, squints to read the paper. “Northwestern Hospital?”
“Oh. You’re really close. Just walk 2 blocks – “ But her voice trails off as he starts sobbing.
“Are you alright?”
I am 41, one of the oldest parents in the parking lot as I pick my 6-year-old up from school. While other kids his age stroll coolly to meet their parents, Nick still lets out a WHOOP of joy, and races towards me with his arms outstretched.
But today, his eyes are red, streaming with tears.
“Sweetie, what happened?”
From his backpack, he produces his pride and joy from the weekend – a solid hour of concentration in our basement to put together Jay’s Storm Fighter from Lego’s Ninjago series.
Well, he shows me what’s left of it.
“I dropped it, and I can’t find all of the pieces.” His wails escalate into anguished screams as we walk towards the car.
His classmate, Henry, walking in front of us, turns around, trying to catch Nick’s eye
“Are you alright?”
But before Nick can answer, Henry’s father shushes him, tugging him back to his side.
“Just keep walking.” Henry looks back at Nick, then at his father, drops his head, and falls in step beside him.
It’s simpler, I think, to just keep walking? We see a stranger crying and we are embarrassed by their vulnerability, the rawness of their emotion. We fear that whatever the cause of distress in their lives, it might infect our own, that we could be drawn into that circle of misery, even called upon to help.
So we walk on by.
The thing is, we’re not asked to solve every problem. But we can bear witness to their pain. When tears appear, the spirit is near. This is the spirit of the world, the spiritus mundi that connects us all, speaking to us, and quite often through us.
I am almost 43, standing in a room of strangers, thanking each one of you for being here.
For taking a moment to listen.