Saturday, January 28, 2012

Small Lives. Big Lessons.

One of my best friends posted this on Facebook last week:

One of my students: "Teacher, what is the meaning of life?"
Me (quite puzzled) : " I don't really think life has any meaning..."
The student: " Well, Siri from my I-Phone told me the same"
So this makes us two...

This reminded me that I have not asked myself this question in a really, really long time. Ever since John Lennon told me that “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”, I stopped making plans!

In the past couple of years, I have to say that I have just enjoyed what the moment brought, and I have mourned over what the moment took away. I virtually made no plans, and I sort of drifted. I just am, and pay attention. And that’s about how far it goes, lately.

In one of Al Pacino’s biographical books, he says that he got a lot more out of life when he stopped wishing for it. And I can say the same about my life lately! I put the comings and goings of every day happenings in someone else’s care, and I take what I am given as it comes. There is so much freedom in it. And so much peace. Took me about 34 years to get it, and I still try to steer, stubbornly, but I am learning to let go, and just float. And things have been rewarding, to say the least.

I have also piqued my ears more to what’s happening around me. I try to understand more of how my fellow humans spend their lives. I am learning so much from them, from just being mindful and attentive. And this is, to me, life, lately: just noticing how a day can be filled, by me or others, and learning about how to string 24 hours over and over and over again. Whatever fills every second of those hours, every day, cyclically, is what I have called life.

I noticed a conversation at the bookstore about a year ago and it stopped my day in the tracks, and made me so viscerally aware of the human beauty. I typically don’t think very highly of my species, in general. I talk a lot about the smallishness and pettiness of all around me – but there are rarely episodes that I notice that take my breath away in wonderment.

So, I was, as I have said, at the bookstore one day, and waiting for my turn in line to pay. The gentleman before me was Hispanic and in his, maybe, late 50’s. White hair and mustache and all, he approached the cashier, in broken English, and asked whether his books have come. She asked him the name. He said “Jesus” (you know, as in Spanish). She checked, and found them. Four books. She was starting to ring him up. He protested: “No, no! No money today! Payday tomorrow. Jesus (pointing to himself) come tomorrow and pick up books”. She smiled and, confused, said: “But, they are YOUR books. And they are right here. Today!”. He said: “Yes, my books”. (pointing to his chest). “But tomorrow. Pay day, tomorrow. Books today. Ok! Thank you. Please keep.” – and he left, waiving at her, and assuring her that he will be back “tomorrow”.

I smiled and knew what he was thinking: you see, in small cultures, we don’t believe in credit cards. He has no money today. He will have “real” money tomorrow and will come back for his books. He just wanted to make sure the shipment came in, as promised. There was no iota of Western instant gratification whatsoever in someone who probably didn’t “grow up this way”. I related to him, from an earlier stage of my life, when, I, too, didn’t believe in “plastic”. It was like coming home to see that, for me.

But things were going to get even more interesting. It was my turn. I approached the cashier who was still smiling. She said: “He is our best customer. He is SO polite. He always orders books online and picks them up here. He always orders two copies of each. One in English and one in Spanish. Same book – two languages. I guess that’s how he learns.”

I was breathless! In the world of Rosetta Stone, books on tape and computer software, people still buy books (you know: like in paper and ink!) and learn a new language from comparing the two – the old fashioned way. And at 50 something, when you’re old and gray, you still want to learn. You still wait, feverishly, for that paycheck at the end of the month, to buy, not food, not clothes on your back, but books, to learn. Flashbacks of “The Reader” went through my head. And of me, in college, when I’d rather spend my scholarship on books and cd’s than clothes and shoes.

I felt so humble. So small. And so grateful to witness this. In this world where everything seems so shallow and so ephemeral every day, there is something deeper than what my mind can fathom. I will remember this story, of learning, and waiting, and reading, and life for as long as I live.

Another day, I went to lunch by myself. Another gentleman, also older, was, again, in front of me. The hostess wanted to seat him, in the almost empty restaurant. She asked him (and his lady friend) to pick a spot, as they were many open. He confidently stepped in one of the dining rooms, and then stopped. He turned towards the hostess and said: “Oh, never mind. My table is taken.” – and pointed towards the table that, I guess, he always, occupies. The hostess said: “The one right next to it is open, Sir. Would you like that one?” He motioned his hands in denial: “No, no! We will wait”. And sat down in the waiting area, as the people at “his table” were JUST starting to order.

I thought: wow! In this ever rushed world, where we think emails are too slow anymore, there is someone that has nowhere to be, nowhere to rush to. He is content to just wait, for “his” table, at “his” usual diner. Flashbacks of “Something’s Gotta Give” went through my head this time. And I smiled, pleased to see that patience is not dead, after all.

Slices of life, like these, go before my eyes daily. And make me contemplate my own. And, more importantly, make me slow down and smell the books, and the coffee at some regular, small town, diner. I don’t have a regular table. Not even a regular restaurant. I am not learning a new language. But I bow my head to people who do, and keep this world alive, different, and deep. People who give this world, and life, in general, meaning.

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