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Soon after the news from Nice popped up on my newsfeed an old friend wandered into our shop. Last I’d seen her she had told me that her partner of 16 years had died after a long battle with cancer. She was leaving town, then, and I wasn’t sure if or when I’d see her again. Now here she was, grieving, in need of a friend to talk to. I closed my computer and for the next hour and a half, except when briefly interrupted to help another customer, I spent the time talking… actually, mostly listening.
The other day another woman was standing outside our shop looking lost. I went out and asked what was wrong. “I can’t remember where I parked my car.” I told her that it happens to all of us. “I just lost my husband and ever since he…. My brain just doesn’t work right anymore.”
Most people would walk by my friend and this other woman and not notice that something terrible had happened to them.
Soon after I had hugged my friend for the third time, after she left and before I started locking up, I looked at my newsfeed again. The carnage in Nice, graphically on display, someone kneeling next to a body covered by a tarp, blood pooled on the street.
Then I noticed that a fire had broken out near the Eiffel Tower. A coordinated attack?
As my husband and I drove home last evening and as we listened to the news this morning, we talked about what we could possibly do in the face of this terror, anger, grief, numbness, fear. Derrick, almost always wise in whatever he says, except for when he’s telling me how to do something on the computer (in which case I believe he is always wrong), wondered if there was something somebody could have done to have stopped the man who committed this atrocity. In Derrick’s training supporting people with AIDS, Derrick had learned that when people were ready to commit suicide, they came to a certain level of peace with that decision. “I could kill myself right now, or I could have a bowl of cereal.” And if the right person said the right thing at the right moment, the person who had decided to end his life could end up eating a bowl of cereal, and live another day, and another.
A few years ago at a fundraiser we’d listened to the story of a transgender woman, who, before beginning to accept herself and work her way towards transition, had decided to kill herself by jumping in front of a train. She stood on the platform at the station, ready, when she glanced up and saw a man looking at her from the opposite platform. He looked straight into her eyes, and she felt like he was trying to connect with her, to ask her what she was doing. The train roared into the station, and then left, and she was still standing there and she looked across the platform to the other side where he’d been standing, and he was gone. She walked home. All he did was look at her and she lived.
During a workshop on being a social justice activist trainer a group of us were standing on the corner of 16th and Market Street in San Francisco. I had just stood on a soap box for five minutes, telling those who passed by that I was announcing my run for President of the United States. My platform was that I wanted America to stop selling arms, “After all, people… human body parts shouldn’t be sold for profit.” Yep, I can be a smartass. As I stepped off the box, I saw a woman and man walking by having a heated conversation, which soon turned to yelling. My cohorts and I watched as the man became angrier and it appeared as though he was going to hit her. I walked over and stood between them, looked at him, and said “Hi. Are you OK? Is there anything I can do to help.” He said “No, I’m… sorry.” Teary, he looked at the woman he’d been yelling at and said “I’m sorry.” She said thanks and they walked away.
This afternoon, as I walked our dog past the church office at the end of our street, the pastor noticed me through his office door and came out to say hello. We’d said casual hellos a few times in the past, and I had written him a note about a project a girl in our church was working on and he’d responded to that note via email, but today he really wanted to talk. He asked about our business and how it was going, how long we’d been here now. He truly connected with me, talking about our mutual experience with the construction that has been going on in our neighborhood and the impact it has had on our nerves. And he let our dog Holly climb all over him, and she gave him a big doggy kiss as a reward. That made both of us smile.
I needed a chance to smile today.
When I got back to the shop after my walk I started to write this post. A group of kids wandered in, huge smiles, big hellos, they’d been in our shop many times. They headed to the back of the shop where most of our games and puzzles are out for folks to play with. I started to write again when one of the kids came up and asked if I could help him with one of the games. When I said yes, he beamed at me, a huge smile. “I tell all my friends about this store! I’ve been here a million times and every time I have so much fun.” I hung out with the kids for a while until their parents came in from the restaurant next door. We talked, really talked, about how their lives were going. I listened. It was really nice. Soon they had to head out and literally had to drag their kids out the door, with the boy loudly proclaiming as he left that he was in charge of quality assurance in our shop and everything was great.
84 people mowed down and killed by a man driving a truck in Nice last night, many of them children, and a hundred others horribly wounded.
What can you do?
All around us there are people who are grieving, people ready to commit suicide, ready to kill other people, people who are suffering… There are also lots of people who are really happy, who, with a little attention, can make us happy too.
So, if you’re feeling like I was last evening and at times today, wondering what you can do, I can offer a few suggestions.
Look up. Look across the platform. Look outside. Ask someone “How are you?” and really mean that you truly want to know. Smile at someone. Listen to someone, really listen. Go beyond the routine greeting and take a few extra moments to get to know a little bit more about that person who passes by every day. If a kid asks for help or wants you to play a game with her, say yes!
Don’t just stand there, do something, say something. Be present for someone. Be present.
You may never know the impact one kind word can have on someone else and on you. And, if you feel like it, go have that bowl of cereal.