Because a life unexamined is lived without intention.
Saturday, May 12, 2012
A older gentleman changed my day today. All by himself. In about two minutes. It happened next to the banana table, across from the avocados. I was rummaging around for a nice green bunch as those are the household favorites, and a cart pulled alongside me. I glanced over; he was in his late 60's I'd say, a little gray but neat and tidy in that comforting way I remember my grandfather being. He was looking at me. I blush easily and so, looked down. He said, "You have such beautiful hair. My wife had hair like that....have a nice day." He smiled, I smiled back. "Thank you." Turning the corner just past the bakery, he was gone. I picked out cucumbers and tomatoes.
And kept smiling.
It wasn't a good day. Full of my own doubts and accusations, fears and worries. The skies were black and it was pouring which makes my bones feel as if they're being twisted inside my flesh. Additionally, my heart has been weary as of late. Grocery shopping on such days leaves much to be desired, but three boys under 13 make it necessary lest you find holes in the woodwork and missing carpeting.
It was just one sentence. And I was smiling.
I've read several things lately about poverty and need around the world. Commercials on tv with starving children and beaten dogs. Unexpected suicides haunt the headlines. Sometimes it seems the need is an ocean....how can we, how can anyone make a difference in an ocean?
After my years in Guatemala and Mexico, I went to Philadelphia. While my time spent within the walls of orphanages and health clinics was amazing; nothing--not even those months on a rope and stick cot, the legs sprayed with raid to keep the tarantulas off in the jungle--nothing prepared me for the culture shock I was to experience in Philly.
We lived in an old warehouse on Kensington Avenue. The bad part of Kensington, under the El. (elevated train) Rusted razor wire ran in spiky loops across the tops of our fences and walls. There were four locks of various natures on the front door, three on the back, and a wrought iron grid over every window. Two bullet holes in the paneling near the television seemed to watch us as we watched it.
'Daily Bread' was the name of our soup kitchen. Lines would stretch out for blocks when the temperature dropped close to zero. Lines of broken hearts and damaged souls. To prevent the arrogance that comes with mission/outreach work, (and if you doubt this, a few hours with many "do-gooders" who do not keep this in check, will convince you) once a week we were all required to dress in our grubbiest, sans lipstick and scent, and stand in line among those we normally served. Pick up a tray, a handful of silverware, eat whatever was served. We sat, side by side, with the shattered. Crammed onto benches, my thigh pressed against one wearing jeans that hadn't been washed in over a month....and I listened to the wearer tell me he used to be a banker. Had a wife and two girls. There was a holiday party at the office and someone had brought a crack pipe...three years later he was eating scrambled eggs and pickles next to me.
The depth of this sore, this cancer, was overwhelming. Sometimes I couldn't breathe for it. This was here, in my country. Blocks on end of devastated people...and above us, trains of suit-wearers, new heels and leather briefcases. Faces looking down...looking, but never seeing. I remember confronting many of my own preconceived notions; the idea that if they really WANTED out, these people just had to work harder to get out.
Juanita changed that.
Juanita was a whore. An ugly whore. She went for just $5. Can you imagine? That's how much a rock of crack cost two streets over. One night there was banging on our door. We had a rule about not opening it after a certain hour, but there was a desperation in this pounding. I saw it was her...she had a black eye. I made hot chocolate.
The rest of the house slept as Juanita and I ate mac and cheese, watched Wheel of Fortune reruns, and talked. Somewhere near dawn she told me how she became a prostitute. She had been sold to a man by her mother when she was seven, And then given drugs to manage the trauma. Juanita never had a choice or a chance. I pulled a blanket over her after she fell asleep on the couch and I wept. Never before had my blessed and protected life seemed so terribly unfair.
Juanita stayed on my couch often after that. Once when she was high I had to turn her away, but she came by the next afternoon with a donut for me and apologized. We sat on the curb, cold sunshine on our cheeks and powdered sugar on our fingers. I told her I was scheduled to leave the next day. She smiled. Do you know what she said? "Aww, Chantel, you such an angel I knowed I couldn't have you all to myself. You got other lives to touch." And she was happy I was moving on. I wept again, my tears icy in the wind.
She helped me pack my boxes into the truck. She smelled like strawberry lip gloss when I hugged her. Juanita waved like mad as we drove away, the bald spots on her head gleaming in the sun. I waved back; hoping, praying I made some kind of difference in her life.
I returned to life as I knew it. A paying job, dinners at Taco Bell. However, I lost many friends. Even the relationships within my family were different. For I was not the Chantel that everyone kissed goodbye and joked with about living out of two boxes for so long....no, that Chantel didn't ever come back. I did. Humbled and bruised, with very different eyes. I'd seen behind the curtain and lost Peter Pan for good. Juanita had come to live in my heart in his place.
Since then life hasn't fallen quite so neatly in the rows I'd planned. It's unfolded with more creases....sometimes holes I've vainly tried to patch. But those years in some of the darkest and most challenging places--they changed the mother I am. They changed my art and my voice, the colors I see. They altered the neighbor I've become, they laid the foundation for the daycare centers I ran. They shaped the wife and woman that types these words.
That is what kindness does. It doesn't necessarily dry up the ocean, but it permanently transforms the mind and soul of the giver. And every life they come into contact with after. Kindness isn't about curing the disease, but changing a day. One day can alter the course of a lifetime.
Or just make someone smile, as they pick out cucumbers.