Friday, December 24, 2010

People Together

I've been out and about some yesterday and today, running some errands and getting a few more things done before Christmas.  Not surprisingly, there are a lot of people around, much traffic, clogged store aisles, and a clear sense of some holiday-related stress.  As I walked from place to place, I saw some serious-looking expressions that appeared rather irritable or unfriendly.  It reminded me of why I don't much care for running errands and getting a few final things done in the day or two before Christmas.

Then I unintentionally smiled at someone.  It was more habit than anything, acknowledging her presence as we neared each other's space.  She appeared startled, and I had the impression that she flinched.  Just a moment later, though, she recovered and appeared pleased.  She smiled back with a beautiful and friendly smile which seemed to take more permanent residence on her face.  It was like the expression had returned to its rightful home.

I was startled by the interaction, too, and particularly by the strength of her response.  As I continued on my day's path, I looked around more and wondered about the other people I saw.  What are they making final preparations for on this day?  What will they be doing tomorrow, and what significance does this holiday hold for them?  How much stress were they feeling?  How much joy?

I kept thinking of the lady with the sudden smile, and I smiled again at the memory.  I was surprised once more when someone else nearby responded, another day-brightening expression.  Interesting!  Two in a row is clearly a trend, and by this time I could not resist actually testing it out -- make eye contact, smile, observe, walk, repeat. And you know what?  I discovered a bunch of friendly people.  These were not just obligatory social smiles; the vast majority appeared quite genuine.

Unexpectedly, these two days of pre-Christmas errands have been a gift -- an opportunity to connect, even in just a very small way, with people around me, to step beyond just being in close proximity with other people and to be relational human beings together.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Is This?

This is the white elephant gift we brought home recently.  At first glance, it appears to be a barn-holding Santa riding a cow nailed to a wagon.

On the other hand, consider the possible symbolism.  Santa reminds us of Christmas and brings a barn.  Jesus was born in a barn-like place, so this could be like Santa bringing the real message of Christmas.  He is riding on a cow, which is a pretty lowly animal, not a magnificent stallion other spectacular beast.  Not only is it lowly, but it is unusual, too, suggesting that God works in ways we do not expect.  Finally, this humble cow is on a wheeled cart, which could arguably be tugged in God’s direction rather than following that which comes naturally to the beast.  Perhaps there is some powerful Christmas symbolism here.

Or maybe, just maybe, I’m making that all up to justify its existence or to make a point.  We do that sometimes – massage/manipulate reality to fit our own preconceived notions and/or desires.

Sometimes what looks like a barn-holding Santa riding a cow nailed to a wagon is really just a barn-holding Santa riding a cow nailed to a wagon.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Space in Between, Part IX

I woke this morning in Ontario, Oregon, and drove to the Boise airport.  That area had snow left over from a recent storm.  It had started melting off but not so much that the roads had become quite dry.  It was foggy out, too, and the temperature was just below freezing.  It was certainly daytime, but the day felt dim and murky.

In a Fog

We traveled a little more slowly than usual and I arrived safely in Boise.  The airport routine is familiar enough to do without much thought.  It all went smoothly enough that I was able to get some work done at the gate and on the plane before we took off.  As is my custom, I put my tasks aside so I could pay attention as the plane took off and gained altitude.  Then, within just a minute or two after we'd left the ground, the plane rose above the fog which had given the world around me a dim, grey feel.  The sunlight streamed through the window, inviting me to savor those moments.

Above the Fog

Not much had changed in the world below, but the change in my perspective made all the difference.  What had felt dim and murky was now beautiful.  I am grateful for new perspectives.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

How We Are

I sat in the vet's waiting room with Sirius one day and engaged in friendly conversation with a lady sitting nearby. The content of the conversation wasn't particularly memorable, just typical of two people passing the time. What I do remember is that her husband had taken the dog in while she waited, and he came out carrying their dog's body covered with a blanket. She burst into tears as soon as the door opened. He was quieter, though clearly grieving, and the two of them left quickly. Their purpose that day had been to have their pet put to sleep, and I'd had no idea.

It was years ago, but that otherwise-nonmemorable conversation with an unknown lady in the vet's office sticks with me.  That was a difficult day for her, and I did not realize until after our conversation. It reminds me that I often do not know the struggles of those around me, and I want to leave a little extra room for grace.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
(often attributed to Plato)

That vet-office memory was triggered after a recent interaction in a parking lot with a man who is familiar to me, but whom I don't know beyond nodding acquaintance. "How are you?" he asked as we neared each other on the sidewalk. "Doing well," I said, "and you?" "Good." He smiled, I smiled, and we continued our separate ways, not slowing or stopping. It was a nice, civilized, and completely meaningless interaction.

Again, I don't know this guy, and a friendly "How are you?" in passing is pretty much the same as a silent nod of greeting, a polite "hello" rather than an invitation to deeply personal assessment of one's life in that moment. But as I continued walking, I was particularly aware that I had no idea what this fellow's life was like, and our culturally established patterns of interaction won't change that a bit.

What bothers me here isn't so much the lack of depth in a brief encounter with a nodding acquaintance, but rather the conviction that such lack is also present with others, with people I see regularly and consider friends. I don't want to live like that, each putting on masks rather than being authentic with each other.

And so I will sometimes ask, "How are you?" in part because that is a culturally conditioned greeting. But though it is sometimes interpreted simply as a form of "hello," my intent is to make it a genuine question, seeking to better know those with whom I interact.