He stands on the corner of 18th and Champa almost every day, bundled against the downtown winter air with a puffy coat, Bronco’s beanie, and wool scarf. He leans on his cane, clutches his stock of free magazines he’s attempting to off-load, and cheerily chirps “Good morning” to the crowds of people streaming past him. His spot is the perfect point to catch the foot traffic pouring from the light rail station, headed into the Starbuck’s, or across the street to the office buildings. Most who pass by don’t acknowledge him. Their faces are stern and strained, hurrying to their respective places. He is undeterred by their hardness. His cheeks are rosy, and his smile unwavering. He keeps giving all his greeting, even though very few stop to return the favor.
I’m one of the latter. I pass this gentleman on my way to my usual Starbuck’s location. I’ve just come off the bus, walked a cold block, and am usually thinking about what is waiting for me at the office. I am lost in thought, absorbed in me. The last thing I feel like doing is acknowledging a stranger with a “Good morning.”
I don’t want to say, ‘hi.’
I don’t want to engage.
I want to stay wrapped up in my world – my mind, my thoughts, my interests.
Yet, there he is. His effervescent personality practically bursts out behind his white beard. He doesn’t even try to give me a magazine. He just nods his head and says, “Good morning.”
Lately, I’ve been begrudgingly nodding back and saying, “Good morning.” I’m certainly not chipper or gregarious, but the farmer’s blood in me, thanks to my Grandpa Raymond, cries out, “If someone waves at you, you wave back.”
The guy on the corner is opening me up. Little by little, cracking open the armor I put on every day when I go out into the world.
When I was younger, I remember my mom admonishing me to not talk to strangers. I became very good at navigating crowds without making eye contact, moving through rooms without being seen, and avoiding any place where there would be people I didn’t know. The simple warning to be on the lookout for people with bad intentions morphed itself into a lack of trust towards most people.
I lost my vulnerability.
As I grew older, it seemed to me, the world grew scarier. My first encounter with a form of terrorism was the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing. I watched the TV footage of the collapsed building and the injured people. For weeks afterward, in my nightly prayers, I prayed that our house wouldn’t also be bombed.
My walls went up a little more.
As time wore on, I continued to let myself believe the world was bad. The CNN reports haunted me. The evil world depicted in the Bible traumatized me. So I hid myself away from everything – jobs, people, experiences, emotions. I thought that this would keep me safe and would ensure that nothing bad would ever happen. I thought I would be secure in my faith, as I lived without engagement with people or places.
Then, in 2006, my grandpa Raymond passed away. At his funeral, the line of people extended around the funeral home. The viewing lasted several hours as person after person approached my grandma to tell of how he had touched their lives, made a difference, or just held a conversation with them.
My grandpa was very good at saying, “Good morning.”
The impact he had on people was powerful.
He didn’t do it by living in a bubble. He did it by existing in a community, caring about people, and taking actions to help them.
That’s what I wanted to do. I was spurred into action. I left the safe nest I had been lounging in, and began to forage my way in the world. To my surprise, in my first baby steps outward, I found love and grace and friendship and community. I got to know people in all their wild wonder. I got to work hard and earn a living and give back by volunteering. Gradually, the walls started to fall. All I had known was the bad, the ugly, the hateful. But the world is also immeasurably beautiful, profoundly loving, and accepting.
In the Hallmark film, “Sarah, Plain, and Tall”, the widower Jacob has closed himself off from his family and his community. He writes for a mail-order bride, and gets a highly opinionated, free-spirited woman named Sarah. At one moment in the movie, Jacob is arguing with Sarah over a problem with his daughter.
He yells at Sarah, “I don’t need this.”
Sarah, eyes blazing, hair askance, barks out to him, “That’s your problem, Jacob, you don’t need.”
A huge factor in vulnerability is recognizing our need for each other. The family around us. The friends in our life. The co-workers we like and dislike. The cashier at the store. The man on the street corner. We are inextricably linked as human beings, made from the dust of the stars. We must battle the fear and the shame that hides us from each other.
In my journey, I’ve opened myself up to my family, my friends, and my job. Sometimes, it’s hurt to be open and honest with others. Other times, it’s been deeply rewarding and connecting. Some of the best moments of my life have been the late night conversations with my husband, or my sis-in-law, or my girlfriends, as we have explored thoughts and shared ideas. And some of best growth I’ve experienced has been through tough work assignments and volunteering in my community. The thought pops into my head often, “I can’t believe I waited so long to do this.”
It’s so good.
But yes, I’m still working on feeling comfortable with strangers.
Rafael, my son, doesn’t have this issue at all. Recently, we took a trip to Oklahoma. We parked our Jeep at an outer parking lot at the airport and rode the shuttle bus to the terminal. Upon boarding the bus and taking a seat, Rafael immediately began to chat with the group of people around us. An elderly couple, an African American lady, a middle-aged lady. He told them all his name, where he lived, where he was going, and who he was seeing. He was completely uninhibited.
My instinct was to tell him to be quiet. To not talk with strangers. To be careful. To not bother people. But I didn’t. The smiles on the faces of the people on the bus told me I’d made the right decision. They were happy to chat with the chubby-cheeked, giggling boy. We all felt the connection, drawn in by the innocence of a child.
As I approach this New Year, I’ve jotted down a few goals I want to achieve, like writing a book and running a marathon.
Yet, the part of 2018 that I want to matter the most are the relationships I foster. I want to reach the end of this year, having engaged with the world from a place of honesty, integrity, and hope. I want to listen more and speak less. I want to sustain friendships and maybe create new ones. I want to live, as Brene Brown would put it, with a “strong back, soft front, and wild heart.” I want to live with peace. In myself and in the world.
When I close my curtains at the end of the day, and the neighbor’s lights are still glowing against the velvet night, shining onto my backyard, I feel connected to them. They are there, each night, a part of the community I’m raising my son in.
I hope my light brings them a little comfort, as much as their light brings to me.
And tomorrow, I’m going to say, “Good morning,” with a little more zest that I ever have before.