Monday, December 12, 2011

The Alchemy of Human Touch

                Years ago, when I was twenty, and travelling in January from San Francisco to Boston, I found Myself standing alongside a highway outside of Cleveland, trying to hitch a ride. San Francisco had been warm, and Boston was home, and the detour to visit my brother, an inspiration that grew out of realizing how close to him my travels had brought me.

                I wasn’t prepared, either mentally or in the way I was dressed, for the assault of an Ohio winter. It may have been only an hour or so that I stood there that afternoon, but it took less time than that for my optimistic certainty of a ride to drain away, along with my body heat and my faith in humankind.

                You face a sea of cars coming your way, and at first you feel like the celebrity at a party, looking for the girl to dance with. There might be a timid rejection or two, but you almost feel that the choice is yours – only to decide who to ask. Someone will surely stop soon – who will it be? But after an hour, no longer able to feel anything but the numbing crush of cold in your fingers and toes, and the slush now oozing into your shoes, socks and pant legs, the shivering in your body threatening to dislodge purpose and memory, you want to give up. I wanted to give up – but give up and do what? Go where?

                And finally, a car stopped.

                It was a station wagon, with a couple in the front seat: man and woman, thirty something, white, working class. Regular people. He was driving. And I must’ve been a sight, because during my entire time in their car – which was less than thirty minutes – the woman was turned toward me, comforting and caring for me.

                I was cold enough that warming up was painful, and cold enough that I didn’t care about the impression I was making. I'd enjoyed telling people about my adventures in San Francisco, and that I was on my way back to Harvard. I wanted strangers to see me as a bright, adventurous young man, overflowing with life, insights and ideas. But in that station wagon that day, slowly making its way north out of Cleveland, I cared nothing for all that. And I was glad to be seen for the cold, lost, pitiful puppy that I was.

                Which brings me to what I’m writing about here, which is the magic of kindness, the lasting impression that generosity can make.

                This couple fussed over me. They found me a towel to dry myself with, and turned up the heat in the car. I think that if I hadn’t insisted, they’d not have let me out of their sight that night. But as it was, we weren’t headed in the same direction. They had a route change coming up shortly. So, while he drove, and we all talked, she took care of me, like a big sister reluctantly preparing to send a younger brother into danger. They’d stopped for food a short while before picking me up, and still had a half full bucket of fried chicken, which they began feeding to me. I learned that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and can’t remember another detail about them.

                When they had to pull over to let me out, they insisted that I take the rest of the chicken, and they gave me a bible – as a gift for my future well-being, and five dollars. I was a different person exiting their car than I was climbing in. I had the chicken to munch on, the five bucks – a lot back then. And it didn't feel so cold anymore. Their caring had somehow ended my waiting for that night.

                I was serene, facing the stream of traffic again, catching glimpses of one driver, then another, the faces flowing by. How many years later did it occur to me that they – that couple – stood as a fleeting moment in the eternity of my life, like a shooting star, here once, but somehow transformed into a lasting presence.

                We touch and move one another in such surprising and unexpected ways, we human beings.

                Years later, I stopped on another highway to pick up a young, lesbian couple, on my way home to Seattle from Olympia, Washington. It was cold that night too, and learning that they had no place to go, I invited them to stay with me and my girlfriend. One of them woke the next morning with a slight fever, so they spent two days convalescing in our home, huddled together in our spare bedroom. I wonder if the memory stays with them as it does with me.

                How many times I’ve  been surprised, looking back at an initial encounter with a group of people – colleagues at a new job, fellows in a classroom, or in a dorm at university, neighbours along a street – at who would make a lasting impression, at who would change my life.

                I met Sari a year and a half ago outside a shop where my bike was being worked on. I’d overheard her conversation with one of the staff, and learned that she was an artist, and I introduced myself.  She responded in the way that old friends describe being reconnected – as though we were resuming a well established acquaintance, honoring a connection that needed nothing to support it but our being there in that moment. During our chat, Sari suggested – no, insisted – that I go home and begin a blog, that very night. As it was, it was two weeks before I executed the order, but it changed my relationship to writing, shifted my experience of being a writer, and how it places me in the world.

                I emailed Sari the night I began this blog, and when I didn’t hear back, thought she’d simply passed it over. But last week - a year and a half later - that return email finally arrived. My message had been lost in her server all that time. And she’d found it. And over the last few days...has she read every single post? She's been commenting, and messaging back and forth with me, making fresh suggestions about developing my art. She planted a seed, and has now circled back to nourish again what she planted, this fascinating stranger outside a bike shop.

                I believe in these invisible tendrils that connect us, stranger to stranger, sister to brother, spirit to spirit. I think it’s part of the magic of being alive – that we work in surprising and unanticipated ways on one another’s chemistry, we tinker in one another’s souls, we make bridges for one another across chasms of the impossible. We transform one another with glancing touches.

                Almost ten years ago, I was in Yonge-Eglinton Centre, shopping for a bottle of wine. I can’t say for sure whether the feeling or the glance came first, but I became aware of a woman standing nearby, shopping for wine herself.

                What is it, that energy that suddenly enters a space, that sizzles behind a look, that stirs inside of a space and moves you, for no clear reason or logic than its own? It was there that day, in that wine section of an LCBO. And I did nothing about it. What to do? A stranger. An attractive stranger, but that, if anything, made it less possible to do or say anything. An energy, that’s all.

                So she left the store. I left the store, going the other way. I realized though, that I was turned around, so reversed myself. There she was, up ahead. I watched her, still feeling that energy, that something that doesn’t really mean anything. Nothing clear, that is. Attraction? Hormones? Can’t respond to every hormone rush, can you?

                And so I began the walk down the ramp into the subway. She, I noticed, was turning into the grocery store. In a moment, she’d be gone, like a parting that happens with strangers a thousand times a day. But in the moment before she’d have disappeared from sight, she turns her head and darts a look over her shoulder. From her eyes to mine. I stop, I turn, I follow.

                Now I’m walking straight ahead into the eyes of a stranger. And who is she? And what does she have to do with my life and the path I’m on? And how will she respond? But now it’s time to do something.

                “I felt that I should speak to you,” I said, or something like that.

                And Ponczka’s first ever spoken word to me was a simple, smilingly delivered, No. Then she laughed. And I must’ve smiled back at her. And we’ve been smiling at one another ever since, now together more than a dozen years.

                Cars streaming along a highway, a stranger outside a shop, rogue energies binding us in mystery. Moments that come and go, not to be recognized from a distance, but suddenly there, ripe and rich and transforming.


  1. Oh, little puppy dog wandering about, needs food & warmth & love & attention...Has grown up to be the Saint Bernard who rescues others on that cold snowy mountain...I am proud of you for your brave writings here on this blog Obsidian Blooms, such a true name for a blog...Let others see the good you do, as you bring fortification to our lonely & difficult homeless, who often have not even the skills to know how to be thankful...We are warriors of goodness, who in the details of our moments, fight misery & meanness with tiny acts of grace...Here we see another knighted, may others join in doing good deeds...

    1. So beautifully expressed, Sari. Thank you...again.