Sunday, April 15, 2007

His Eye Is on the Sparrow

I was living in New York City as a first-time grad student in the fall of 2000. It was a discouraging semester, and times only got tougher as the weeks went on. On the way back to my apartment one afternoon, I decided to pop into a sandwich shop for a takeout lunch. I can’t remember now why I (ever) chose that place. It consisted of the counter and a narrow galley space with an exit at either end, it was always raucous and jam-packed with people pushing their way toward the counter and then to the exit, and I always emerged from it feeling annoyed and disheveled, like I’d just survived a skirmish. It was close to my apartment, though, and on some days, maybe that was enough.

That afternoon, after minutes of being pushed and shoved to the middle of the shop where the counter was, I was suddenly stopped by a huge black man in a business suit. He was built like a linebacker and was easily 6’8”. How I hadn’t noticed him in this crush of people was beyond me. I’m 5’2," and to be approached by anyone in this city of strangers was so unexpected, I could only stare.

Not put off by my mute staring, The Linebacker in a Business Suit bent his head down toward me and smiled. ”I just want to tell you it’ll be okay.”


He kept smiling and nodded as if to acknowledge that he understood my startled and rude response to him. “I know things are hard right now,” he told me, “but it’s going to be okay.”

Before I could reply, I got jostled by the hordes of students packed around me. When I looked up—maybe two seconds later--he was gone. The man who had been standing at least a foot above the head of even the next-tallest person in this tiny space was nowhere to be seen. That familiar tingly feeling that always marks these kinds of moments for me was already setting in, but I maneuvered myself enough to turn around and look for him anyway. When the place was that crowded, even a paper-thin man would have had to push his way through the mobs of students and book bags-thrown-over-shoulders for a full minute before finally reaching one of the two doors at either end of the shop. The man was just gone.

When I got back to my apartment and shared the story with my roommate, she shivered and crowed, “You have the weirdest experiences!” And I do, I suppose, but I had walked away from The Lunch-Hour Skirmish Sandwich Shop that afternoon believing all the more something I’ve really needed to hold on to ever since: The Universe is aware of Little Old Me and is sending me a sign here. I believe in holding on to hope, I don’t think we’re ever alone or unloved, no matter how lonely or unlovable we may feel, and I trust that the Universe is always somehow aware of us as we plod our way through it. It's going to be okay.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Book of Good Things

Before she graduated from the university we were both attending in December of 1998, my friend Marylou gifted me with a personalized blank book. It stayed in its place on one of my apartment’s bookshelves for a few months before I decided on its purpose: The fabric-covered book would be my Book of Good Things. I would record in it every night those things that made me laugh, that made me feel comforted, that brought me joy, that showed me I was loved, and that renewed my faith in the world for another day. From the moment I decided to start the book, I found myself approaching my life—and the people and events in it—more optimistically: Of course today will be filled with goodness--because I have to come up with The List tonight!  Determination to look for the good made finding it much easier. 
I quickly learned that a great day was made great by “little” things, those moments that before would have been forgotten or that would have become vague memory blobs along the lines of “I enjoyed college” or “I love my family and friends.” As every student of creative writings knows, “Show, don’t tell.” So I soon saw the significance of documenting details: Funny lines from phone conversations, scenes from movies I wanted to remember, the look on someone’s face during a conversation or a moment of shared silence, the way a certain hug felt, songs and scents that would forever remind me of that day, what came in the mail, what a friend said when we ran into each other between classes. . . . Such small things, but by nightfall they became big enough to make me see that it had been a pretty good day.  On some level, I knew all these things before I started the Book of Good Things, but of course, you don’t really learn something until it’s changed you in some way. One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the wise and wonderful film critic Roger Ebert: “They used to tell us in writing class that if we wanted to know what a story was really about, we should look for what changed between the beginning and the end.” In that regard, my college-era Book of Good Things is the story of how I learned to see. Writing it helped me figure out what mattered.
And the things that make for good days haven’t really changed much for me since childhood, I know now. Give me someone to love and someone who loves me, a comfy corner to sit in, fresh air, good music and good books, pen and paper to write with, something to think about, something to laugh over, and something good to eat. It doesn’t take much to make me happy. The trick is seeing it. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Concurring with Wordsworth

Daffodils could challenge Daisies as The Girls Next Door of the flower world. They know they're not flashy and that people will never ooh and ahh over them as they do with the Roses and the other more exotic beauties out there-- Daffodils have a perfect star of petals few people even notice, thank you--but they're secure in themselves anyway. Consider them a Litmus test of sorts, perhaps: Is their color "just yellow" or “sunshine on a stem"? They are voluptuous and girly with their curved trumpets and rings of frills, but also sturdy and surprisingly strong: How can such slender and nondescript stalks hold up such spectacular blooms? Quicksilver girls, Daffodils' moods change with each flutter of the wind, sometimes shy and reserved, with trumpets bowed and bobbing toward the ground, other times standing tall and in!-your!-face! with their gold stars looking at you head-on, and then wallflowers again, huddled up against each other as if deep in conversation and only half-hoping you're not paying them too much attention. And the scent! Like my favorite “perfume,” Just-Stepped-Out-of-the-Shower-Clean, Daffodils smell indescribably good. Like springtime. Or soil. Fresh air and fresh starts. They simply make me happy.