Sit down and watch the world.
Yes, there. See that empty patch of
grass? Fold your legs beneath you, lean
your weight back on your palms, and pay
A woman named Lois
writes a letter from prison, reminding me
to "stop and smell the roses."
Weve heard the advice countless
times before, but it means something more
when coming from behind bars. From where
she sits, my day of mundane tasks is a
wealth of color and story and noise. For
today, for Lois, I will do my best to
escape my own thought life and fleshly
walls, and really see the world around me
in all its beauty, grief, and
interconnectedness. I will try to pay
attention to the little things.
Every day, I pass
hundreds of people and forget that behind
every face is a life story. I walk right
by tiny wondersa child talking to a
lollipop, a ladybug on a fence post, a
textured cloud, a funny-looking dog.
I read the paper, jump
on the subway, buy a pair of jeans, visit
a prison, and neglect to see the
troubling fibers that connect them: The
woman arrested on the news will spend
years of her life in prison, working for
a pittance, making the jeans I might buy
someday (note: the Thirteenth Amendment
to the Constitution outlaws slavery
"except as punishment for
crime"). An Iraqi man in Fallujah
dies wearing those same jeans, while the
money spent on missiles and jails is not
subsidizing the public transportation
system I take to work. And I will pay
more for my transpass next month.
wake?" asks Reverend Parris in
Arthur Millers The Crucible.
"Will you open your eyes?"
I like waiting at the Nineteenth
Street trolley stop. Its a small,
quiet station, down one flight of stairs
from the busy city overhead. Theres
not much to look at but the four sets of
tracks and the dark, steel beams that
stand between them. The tracks closest to
me are for trolleys. Just beyond those
lie tracks for the subway trains, which
dont stop here; they only pass
through. I sit on a bench and
half-heartedly open a magazine.
Then, it comes. I hear
the subtle roar building to my left,
growing louder and louder as it nears,
until I almost cover my ears and cower
against the wall. The train roars past,
metal wheels against metal tracks, all
the wind and noise echoing through the
long tunnels and against beams and walls.
It is a frightening and awesome
experience. My hair tussles in the
artificial wind. Trash jumps around on
the tracks. For those few brief moments,
I feel like Im 12, riding my first
roller coaster. Then it is gone.
My freshman year of
college, I took the Myers-Briggs
personality test. Four
lettersINFPand the computer
printed eight pages about me
I still remember one section of the
printout because it resonates so well
with me. INFPs, it said, vacillate
between two primary desires. Some days,
we are monks. We dig up our insides like
gardens. We sit by ourselves on the porch
and write. We leave parties early to be
alone. Other days, we are explorers. We
create new projects, foster new ideas. We
busy ourselves with hard work. We want to
change the world.
I am monk and explorer.
At times I have tried to chart this: I
mark my calendar with Ms and Es and look
for patterns. E. B. White writes, "I
arise in the morning torn between a
desire to improve (or save) the world and
a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world.
This makes it hard to plan the day."
But both sides of my
personality have a downfall. They are
both self-absorbed. Whether Im busy
with self-reflection or with work, I can
easily forget to look around me.
The news this morning
was enough to make me set all reading
aside and spend my train ride in prayer.
I still believeand hope with my
whole beingthat the arc of the
universe really does bend toward justice,
as Martin Luther King observed in 1967;
that all war and terror, all lynchings,
beatings, and sexual abuse, all
starvation, illness, and injustice, are
really aberrations from the way of
But days like this make
me doubtful. After a week of reports
about tortured Iraqi prisoners, the media
turns our heads, hoping to re-enrage us
with pictures of Al-Qaidas
beheading of a man from West Chester, as
though this gruesome tragedy will somehow
justify our violent occupation. How long
will we take an eye for an eye?
Meanwhile, a high
school senior hangs himself in a school
auditorium, the twenty-fourth
Philadelphia public school student to die
this year. And a woman I first met in a
local prison is "back on the
street" less than one month after
her release. Because society has given
her so few options, prostitution seems
the best way up. I have heard that six
months in a cell are enough to cause
I find myself hungrier now than
ever for those small moments of wonder
that I would otherwise fail to notice.
Hopeful moments dont erase the
terror of the world, but they do creep
into it, like tree roots into a boulder,
creating tiny, life-filled cracks.
My coworker Will
discovers the small packet of "Dairy
Fresh" he pulls from our
refrigerator is, in fact, non-dairy
creamer. We smile. The stress in the
office eases one notch.
My cousin gets a bonus
at work and decides to spend part of it
on me: I get tulips delivered to my door
after days of rainy weather.
A friend of mine tells
me a story: A wonderful man we knew died
unexpectedly Tuesday night in a hospital
bed. On Wednesday morning, Josh went to
workstanding on South Street,
inviting passersby to give money to
support his organization.
A young woman
approached him. "How are you
today?" he asked her.
"To be honest,
Im kind of sad."
"Im kind of
sad too," he replied.
"Really? Why are
because a friend of mine died last
night." He looked at her. "Why
are you sad?"
because my boyfriend doesnt love me
And right there on
South Street, two complete strangers
decided to give each other a hug. They
stood in the middle of the sidewalk,
holding each other, for a good minute.
Later, she returned with a flower
("I thought you could use
this") and walked on. He never even
asked her name.
I wonder if all the
world could be like this: Engaged enough
to notice and share our grief, selfless
enough to comfort each other. I need
these stories, lest I forget that good
and love still exist in the world.
I want to live deeply.
I want to embrace my days rather than
watch them march by unnoticed. In her
poem "When Death Comes," Mary
Oliver writes, "When its over,
I want to say: all my life / I was a
bride married to amazement. / I was the
bridegroom, taking the world into my
Like Oliver, at the end
of the day, "I dont want to
end up simply having visited this
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, works for The
Other Side magazine
(www.theotherside.org) and is discovering
glass bottles and fence posts as she digs
up her backyard to plant grass. She can
be reached at email@example.com.