The Safety of Strangers

I heard her before I saw her. Well, not her, actually. I heard the dull scraping of the bin she pulled, tethered to her slight waist by a thick black strap. She carried  worn, faded bags over each arm and a purple backpack so full that the top zipper gaped open like the mouth of a toddler around too much of a favored food. She leaned forward as she walked, pressing into the wind, like someone still a long way from their destination on an exhausting journey.

So I smiled. Not because that’s at all how I was feeling. But because a homeless man once told my husband that what he misses most is being seen. That what he longs for more than a home, or his job back, or a warm bath, is for people to look him in the eyes and maybe smile instead of avoiding his gaze. So, I sat there, in my minivan, wishing I could give her a ride, or lessen her burden, or let her know that she’s not maybe as all alone as she might feel. But my daughter was with me, so my desire to alter my course for the afternoon was at a tug-of-war with my social services trainings, reminding me of how often mental illness holds the hand of homelessness. And  I am too careful a Mommy to risk anything happening to my sweet girl.

All those feelings, helplessness at a crossroad, while she was actually entering the crosswalk, to literally cross the road. So I gave her what seemed like a corny, inept, intelligible offering. I arranged my face into my best I-see-you expression, looked her in the eyes, and smiled. The woman held my gaze before smiling back at me. Then she nodded her head towards me, like we were in agreement, or in on something, together. Something in her expression opened, and kept opening, until her whole face was in on the smile.

I am not foolish or optimistic enough to actually believe that my crooked smile or our 30-second encounter was enough. But it was what I had in that moment, and she graciously accepted it and reciprocated it.

My daughter, sitting on the seat behind me, noticed. It led to a great conversation as we continued our errands. It just can’t stop there. Words are too often buckets so full of holes they no longer hold any water.

The truth is, we are all in this together. Even if we ignore the other passengers on this elevator called life- they are there. And we need each other. Someone once said that life is so hard that none of us make it out alive. What if we use the little bit of time we have here to actually live, together?

We all are, at least I am, carrying more than we can bear on our own. Our bags look different and what fill them varies- but they scrape the same. They tether us to the past and make us slower in our pursuit of the future. I didn’t actually do anything to help her load be lighter. But maybe she didn’t feel alone as she walked to wherever she was going.

People have done that for me. People have probably done that for you. I hope that I am raising children who will come alongside others and help them, wherever they are at. Heck, I hope I am becoming that kind of person. I know that we can become a people who see each other and are truly seen by each other. Maybe, just maybe, that starts by refusing to look the other way.

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