Today felt good. I think. I’m not sure. I either interacted with the world in a deeply engaged way or I’m developing nervous tics to handle stress. Or both.
Butter and I dropped Peanut at school and went for a walk in the rain. I felt sunshine through the thin, grey, stacked clouds that snotted on us all day. Butter clung to me in the backpack, randomly snuggly today in ways that Almost Four resists in its developmental Need to Be Independent and Competent and Separate.
I liked it.
We wandered through the throngs of difference in downtown Berkeley—old and young, punk and granola, homeless and wealthy, tidy and filthy. I bought my little guy a bagel and a homeless woman some orange juice. I helped my Butterbean understand when he pointed out a man’s brightly colored, patchwork pocketed pants that no, those weren’t dirty and old pants, those are art. The young man wearing those carefully-crafted and well-worn pants (and the shirt with the large hole and the many face piercings and the giant chip on his shoulder) smiled at me and thanked me. I explained quietly to Butter that we can always talk later about what we see, but that talking about how somebody looks isn’t polite because it might make them feel bad even if we’re just curious. Then the impeccably-groomed college student getting Butter his bagel asked if I was aware that I had a small child on my back and I made them both laugh by trying to look behind me, asking, “Where?! Where?!” with great concern.
I carried my little carbohydrate fiend past a police barricade because I never saw it, focused instead on humanity today, making eye contact and noticing how simultaneously disjointed and alive the city felt. A stocky man with a small face moved into my path and gently gestured, “stop, head back, cross, and go around” as he told me softly that the street was closed and he’d prefer that I please head back to an intersection and cross. I barely noticed his neon yellow vest and police uniform but I clearly saw his shiny apple cheeks and his wide brown eyes. I spun around and headed back, passing the barricade I’d missed. A few feet away from the barrier an unshaven man dressed all in black slumped into a corner and ran his hand through his unwashed grey hair as he said to me, “dead person.”
I looked at him and he looked at his fingernails.
And I thought about that choice of words. Not “body.” Person. I thought about that reality and the half a block of thick public concrete and red curbs and parking meters and tall, caged trees blocked off for private police use. I noticed that the homeless were clustered in groups of four on every corner for blocks in both directions. This might have been a suicide or a homicide but was likely the routine expiration of a homeless neighbor from exposure or malnutrition or unresolved medical issues.
And they were aware—the police and the acquaintances. And I was now vaguely aware, but not really. And my preschooler was not aware. That’s true of much of life, isn’t it, that there’s a spectrum of connection and awareness. The circle of those you know and the wider circle of those you know less well overlap the circles of awareness borne of age and experience. Exposed lives versus sheltered lives versus young lives? That’s not the right way to define awareness. Because we know a homeless family with two small children. Do their kids know all the things these homeless adults do? Probably not. Are they witness to the street version of life or the child version of life or something in between?
My friend’s impending death won’t attract yellow police tape or the private use of a public space or gawking passersby. But his friends are gathered, too, communing. Huddled in support, not on street corners and not out of curiosity.
Today was a process of going, not unlike other days. Movement, journey, development. The day progressed and everything with a heartbeat did, too, whether the breathing and blinking felt like progress or not. And for some reason my progress today involved connection. Looking into eyes, gently touching arms as I passed, smiling. And asking questions. I stopped to ask the work crew what their truck was called (never seen a drilling rig with a mud rotor and never knew soil samples were taken this way). I asked the Goodwill clerk why they don’t sell baby gates to keep kittens out of handi-accessible bathrooms and whether she had enough help keeping the store as nice as she does (liability, and no, but she’s glad I noticed how hard she works). I asked the security guard outside Bank of America if there was actually any threat to BofA or if they were still making a statement about the lengthy Occupy Wall Street protests (not allowed to talk about security issues but have a nice day). I asked my back-bound lump of Butter what he thought about the varied art we saw in store windows.
I talked to my son who was still patiently snuggling me and his bagel, four miles into the walk, about the typewriter store and the traffic patterns and the balloon animals we were going to make when we got home.
Maybe constant verbal patter is my shield. Maybe what keeps me from noticing the dead persons and dying persons is nervous chatter. Perhaps I’m particularly engaged today because I’m anxious.
But what’s there to be anxious about? Death and homelessness and illness and loneliness and the thin threads that keep us from becoming unrecognizable to ourselves?
Well, that’s just silly. Why should that make me nervous?
Allow me to leave you with today’s soothing balloon giraffes.
If those freakishly disproportionate bubble creatures don’t fix existential panic, I don’t know what will.