“It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away”
~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer – The Invitation ~
There is the adage, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ which I try to ascribe to. Sometimes the stories have been good, some have been bad and others have been profound. One of the most profound stories that I have ever come into contact with, lies with three beggars, who passed my way about a decade ago. Two of them were male and one was female, and little did I realise that my decision to give them something to eat would lead to me being the recipient of something far greater instead.
Our exchange in conversation led to them sharing about themselves and their life journeys. The striking thing was that they didn’t have a “woe is me” and a “woe is my life” approach. Granted, they started off by sharing about how one of the men had been attacked on the previous night, and that it had resulted with him being kicked in the groin. I remember the woman encouraging him to show me and I responded by frantically trying to dissuade him from doing so. I did not need to look at “the boys,” especially on the sidewalk in front of passersby! Could you imagine?! Fortunately, he respected my wishes.
It turned out that one of the men (the one that had been attacked on the previous evening) was in a relationship with the woman. They became friends with the second man at some point, which culminated with their decision to take him under their wing and allow him to be a part of their ‘family’. Their story was contrary to how one would envisage such a story to be. More than anything else, theirs was a tale that spoke about appreciation, loyalty and it especially spoke about love.
The woman (at this point I am going to call her Grace, a name befitting her spirit) was enraptured by being presented with two listening ears. The more that she spoke, the more that her inner beauty broke through her veil of leathery skin, frazzled hair and stench. She bore an elegance and charm that was captivating. I hung on her every word to the point of not realising that I had seated myself on the edge of the sidewalk.
She could have told me that her man (I will call him John) was a failure. But Grace didn’t. She could have spoken about how life had dealt her with a flimsy set of cards, but she didn’t. She could have wallowed in self pity, but she didn’t. What Grace did talk about was her pride and appreciation of John. She shared about how he tried to protect and care for her. Grace spoke about how, much as she had nothing, she had everything that truly mattered to her. She expressed her gratitude for his companionship and love for her. She was happy and excited from being given the opportunity to share about her relationship with John, but what warmed my heart the most, was that it was more than obvious that in spite of being in a depressing and difficult environment, Grace didn’t just love John deeply but she was also deeply in love with him.
It was as if Grace stooped down, plunged her hands deeply into the bowels of her truth and drew out an unpolished diamond. She held it out for me to survey and bear witness to, and then right before my eyes, her words of hope (being held against a backdrop of a life of hopelessness) set about polishing this gem until it shone brilliantly and had irradiated her spirit.
Grace continues to humble me.
I am compelled to give the adage that I had opened with, an entirely new spin: “Take the time to read second-hand books.”
Let me point out that by saying, “second-hand,” in no way represents value, but rather it represents life experience. Grace teaches me that a tatty cover means nothing more than that the book has endured a lot, which indicates that the contents could possibly bear great worth, much beauty and many lessons.
Going through life is big people stuff. Sometimes you’re just out there in the jungle with a machete and nothing else, not even bug spray. There are scary noises of things waiting to eat you after nightfall, and all that you can do is to learn whatever survival skills you can, lest your lingering costs you. The harshness of life may tarnish our covers and make us second-hand books, but we can still decide to hold onto our stories and ensure that they unfold in line with our inner truths.
We all have stories to tell and I believe that the biggest gift that one human being can offer another is to say, “I see you – will you share your story with me?”
I have reflected on this experience on many occasions and I continue to walk away with new lessons that I have learned. I have written two poems with this encounter in mind. The first was written about a year after I had crossed paths with Grace, and it was published in the United Kingdom in an anthology of poetry, about a year thereafter. The second was written about three years afterwards and it came from the perspective of, “What if I had treated them as if they were beneath me, or attempted to brush them aside?” Because it truly would have been a huge loss on my part. I have decided to share the second of the two with you.
You come into my life
like a tourist
eagerly searching for scenes
through the camera
of your ignorance.
displayed for all to see
under the magnifying glass
of advice and self importance.
My dignity and worth
treated like a commodity to be bought –
you haggle over the price of my life
in search of a trophy
to boast about to your friends….
…at my expense!
You walk away
in search of something new.
frozen by disbelief.
I held out my hands to welcome you,
but you filled them with coins
and scalded my pride.