Living with loneliness.

miriam_profileThis post might be a bit long, because I realized as I processed this a bit this week, that loneliness has been my traveling companion for quite a few years. It hasn’t always been the same, but it has been there. And I think it is that loneliness that inspires me to help people find their village. Because I long so much for one of my own. I’ve found it sometimes. And that knowledge of what it is like makes me long for it all the time.

Several years ago I lived in a large fairly new house with a very large back yard. My kids were about 9, 4 and 3. I was attempting to homeschool my oldest while also keeping two very active little boys occupied. I was feeding my family, hoping for a clean house, and also running a business. My days were full, but the people I interacted with all day long were my children. It took me awhile to realize that I was lonely. That what I was longing for was a community of people to live life with. People that weren’t all children begging me to meet their never ending needs all day long. I longed to do housework alongside someone else. I wanted to have adult conversations that went beyond the niceties. I wished for friends who would come into my messy life and be a part of it.

I wasn’t without friends, but it was becoming very clear to me that the American culture did not easily make room for deep and meaningful relationships. People just didn’t have time to step out of their own lives and into other people’s very often. Once I realized what I was longing for, I was able to see that it was something worth longing for. I believe people do live more fulfilled and contented lives when they have people that they are sharing them with.

During most of my mothering career I did participate in a mother’s group that helped to meet that need. There was one year that my small group within that group became to me a community unlike any I had ever known. It only happened once in that perfect “I can’t believe these people are all my friends” sort of way, but those friends I made then were a big part of my life. They were my village.

Shortly after that time, John and I moved out into the country, into an old farmhouse that someone was willing to rent to us. We were surrounded by land, which we loved. We started pursuing some of the things I had always longed to do. John built me a chicken coop and I mail ordered a box of fuzzy little chicks. We bought two perfectly adorable miniature goats and John and I worked together to fence in a portion of the field for them. I loved that house. I loved the things we were dreaming about. But it was even more lonely. It took nearly half an hour to get into town, so I didn’t go that often, saving my trips to consolidate my time.

But it was also in that house that for possibly the first time in my life I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking with my husband. It was during that time of our life that we started looking at the possibility of real adventures. We talked about mission work, and we started looking at possibilities, and then chose Germany as our desired destination. Life was purposeful and exciting and we were working together to make our dreams reality. My husband and I were making our own little village of sorts.

We moved back into town into a little tiny rental because we needed to be closer to meet with people and raise financial support. My contribution to our support raising endeavors felt very real and appreciated. We met with people several times a week and shared deep conversations. We realized how sad it was that it wasn’t until we were leaving that we actually had our first real conversations with friends that we’d had for years. It was a hard, weird, and exciting time. But it wasn’t particularly lonely.

Eventually the long awaited day of our flight came. We finished up packing all the possessions we hadn’t sold into our bags and headed across the ocean. I think I expected Germany to be lonely. I was 20 weeks pregnant, and not assigned to any specific job in the mission. I was leaving behind friends that I’d had for years. I was leaving behind a church I’d attended since I was a kid. There were definitely lonely times, but they were often interrupted by the unexpected kindness of a community that welcomed us with open arms. Like when I got the flu shortly after arriving and someone brought me soup and muffins and someone else took my son to and from kindergarten. And when I was in the hospital wishing my mom and family were there to help welcome our newborn son and we were visited by new friends who showed they truly cared.

And a few months into our stay I found a group of friends who are still the people that I tell everything to. A group of moms who all found themselves in very similar circumstances and all clung together sharing life and real deep conversations. I had found my village again and I was happy. We moved away from Germany a short while later as did many in that group then and in subsequent years. We find ourselves all over the place now, but we are still an online village. It isn’t the same, but it is something that I am thankful I have.

Ironically, my husband was entering a very lonely period in his life. He hadn’t realized how much he would miss the friends he’d made in recent years. How much he’d miss the interactions and their supportive conversations. He and I were growing even closer as I learned to be more honest and open with him, and as we learned to rely on each other for the community we needed. But I did not realize at the time the depth of the depression he had entered, the hopelessness he often felt, the weight of the questions he was asking.

When we came back to Arkansas I entered a period of loneliness that I wasn’t quite prepared for. I was returning to a place that was supposed to be home to me. I had friends and family there. But it wasn’t like everyone had left a Miriam sized hole waiting for me to step back into it. I felt like I had to force my way back into relationships. I know it wasn’t that people were purposefully leaving me out, but it didn’t feel as effortless as I had hoped. I was a different person who was starting to believe very differently than I had before, and it was hard to find where I fit into people’s lives. I was also very wary, waiting to see how each person would react to the new things I was learning and changing my mind on. Even if they accepted me and respected me in the midst of disagreement, it was hard to acknowledge that the majority of my friends did disagree with me. My therapist told me when I talked to her about my loneliness that self-discovery really is a very lonely process and that only when I was more sure of who I was would I be able to step into relationships in that real way again. It helped to know that some of that loneliness was to be expected, but it was still hard.

There were hurts during that time as well. Because of my changing perspective on LGBTQ issues, I was asked to step down from leadership in the mothering group that had been so life-giving to me before. And that still hurts. Even now, I get tears in my eyes thinking about it. A group of women I respected, who had respected and valued me, now looked at me differently. A church I had grown up in and felt at home with had rejected me. I felt that I was suddenly not trusted, not respected, and not valued. Some of the women in that group have made it clear to me since then that they do not feel that way, but my emotional reaction to what happened made it very hard to find community where I once had.

My family, thankfully, welcomed me back easily, but my relationship with them was a bit more distant as I allowed myself to question all the assumptions I was raised with and found myself moving down a different faith path than the one they were on. Self-discovery meant recognizing that I am not my family and they are not me and learning to be ok with that.

We also left the church we had known since childhood, which was understandably very hard. I realized very quickly how much of my socialization happened in church. We were attending a church I loved. In fact more than ever I loved being at church for the service, but I felt a bit like a stranger in the midst of these people who were so new to me. Despite being an extrovert, I have learned that I do not start conversations easily. Start a conversation with me and with very little encouragement I will reveal my deepest soul secrets, but expect me to initiate and you will hear very little from me. Plus, I feel like mothering littles on a Sunday morning greatly restricts your ability to interact with adults. And so I felt that my relationship building was very slow. It was happening, but it was also happening in what we knew was probably a short term stay in Arkansas, which meant always questioning whether friendship was worth pursuing for such a short time.

I did have a little village there though. There was a small group we met with weekly for a time. People who were also looking for friends to truly live with. And my husband and I entered what I consider the best part of our married life thus far. We were closer, more honest, open and vulnerable with each, than we ever had been. And as a result we truly enjoyed each other’s company. We still dreamt, though the dreams were all over the place, so the plans were fuzzy and incomplete.

Eventually, we left Arkansas to go to Virginia. I was supportive of my husband’s desire to pursue an MDiv and possibly ordination. I believed in him and so supported our move even in the midst of uncertainty of how I fit into all of it. I didn’t want to lose myself after having finally found it. Ironically what met us here in Virginia was a life seemingly all set up and ready for me and the kids, and disappointment, disillusionment, and depression for my husband. We had moved for him and everyone was thriving except for him. I had no idea what we were supposed to do now.

About halfway through our first year here he received a diagnosis of major depression, and suddenly a lot of the last few years made a lot more sense to me. The diagnosis was good because now we can focus on treatment. But it was hard too, because ever since that moment I think I have struggled to see my husband as something separate from the depression. Every conversation, every interaction seems to be tainted by it. The happy, unbelievable, and unexpected almost honeymoon period of the year before has been replaced by a constant internal swing in me between deep raw emotion and terrible numbness. I’ve learned to live in the present. I’ve learned to be strong. But I am sometimes very sad, and my loneliness right now not only has to do with the fact that I have very little energy to put into finding a village here, but also because I feel like I’m living a life parallel to my husband, but not WITH. Loving work, hobbies, children, life while my husband just survives beside me. It is the oddest juxtaposition I’ve ever experienced. To be so joyful in my daily life, while simultaneously feeling deep sadness at the fact that my husband is not able to share in that joy. He supports me in it, but he doesn’t feel it for himself.

And so loneliness is becoming a close friend these days. I do still believe that a village can be found everywhere, no matter what the circumstances. But sometimes it does take finding, and I’m not always sure I have the energy to pursue it. I sometimes wish it would just find me.

The gift of mystery.

kidswarmemorialIt’s interesting how much of my parenting is shaped by my experiences as a child. I struggled a lot with doubt, questions, and guilt as a child. I wanted to know the truth and rest in it, but was frustrated that my mind did not always cooperate, that I was plagued always by questions instead of certainty. It took a long time for me to accept the questions as part of my experience. And it took even longer for me to see the value of uncertainty. And because I never want my children to feel guilty for asking questions, I tend to encourage those questions.

Even before my recent faith shift away from evangelicalism towards a more progressive form of Christianity, I didn’t like to answer my kids questions with too much certainty. For one thing, I recognized that I am never sure enough myself to give them a definitive answer and for another thing, I wanted them to be ok with knowing that there were multiple answers to any one question. So when asked about science, faith, and life, I would often answer them with: “Well, some people believe a, others think b, and I tend to agree most with c.”

As I become more and more comfortable with my own questions, I have been able to be even more relaxed about theirs. I think when Elise was young, there were definitely some questions I felt that she needed a very clear answer to. If she asked about God or Jesus or salvation, then I was definitely going to give her the black and white answer I believed was necessary for salvation, even while at the same time feeling anxious over my own lack of certainty. Since my understanding of salvation has completely moved away from assertion of facts, I no longer mind allowing uncertainty in even those things that I once considered the essentials of faith.

Kids have a lot of questions, even while accepting the oddest things as truth. But Elise has always been incredibly tied to reality. She hates uncertainty and even in the course of imaginative play always wanted to know where the line of reality was. It frustrated her to no end a few years ago when Will was convinced that his stuffed animals were alive. He would not admit that he was just pretending, but stubbornly resisted her every attempt to teach him the truth. She would get so angry about this that she would try to bring me into the argument. “Mom!” she would say, “Will you please tell him that stuffed animals are NOT alive!” And I would never step in. This was more about Elise than it was about Will. I truly didn’t care if he believed his animals were real. Possibly, deep down, he knew they weren’t, but liked to rile up Elise. But I wanted Elise to be ok with letting go of control over the minds of those around her. I wanted her to be ok with uncertainty.

As the kids have gotten older, the dynamics have changed. Both Will and Seth love to believe the impossible. Or pretend that they do. I can’t always tell where the line is in their play, and that is ok. They like to live on the edge of mystery. But they don’t always like to allow the other to be comfortable there. Sibling dynamics are such that there will be teasing surrounding each one’s chosen fantasy. Will also likes to try to convince Seth of fantastical creatures’ existence because Seth so wants to believe, even when his logical side tells him this probably isn’t true. You can hear the struggle in his voice as he argues back. “That isn’t real, Will! Is it?”

The other day Will was giving Seth a hard time about Santa Claus. Seth has tried to believe in Santa Claus for years, even though we have never really “done” Santa Claus in our house. This has actually been one of those areas where my child has taught me to let go of controlling what another person believes, and now I only really step in when the naughty or nice part comes up, but that I addressed in another blog post. (If you read that blog post you’ll probably notice my lack of an emphasis on mystery in celebration. I have definitely evolved since then.)

But back to the conversation of a few weeks ago. Will asked, partly in seriousness, and partly to annoy his brother, who was sitting next to him: “Why do people believe in things that aren’t true, like Santa Claus?” “That’s a good question, Will,” I answered resorting to my tried and true parenting tactic of answering a question with a question. “Why do YOU think that people believe in things?” “Because they’re dumb?” Will answered (actually I can’t remember his exact reply, but this is most likely what he was thinking even if he didn’t say it out loud.)

Wanting to encourage Will towards self-reflection rather than attack, we brought up one of Will’s favorite fantasies. Against all evidence and in the face of opposition all around him, Will believes in dragons. So of course we brought that up. And in comparing Santa Claus and dragons (who knew those would ever come up in the same conversation?) we were able to actually ask some meaningful questions about the nature of belief.

sethtreeI don’t know if that conversation was marinating in my kids’ heads at all over the next few weeks, but I think maybe it was. Because on the way home from church a few days ago Seth asked a very serious question: “Why do people believe in God? I mean you can’t see him, we don’t know if he’s actually real. He might be or he might not be. It’s a mystery.” And rather than going into panic mode, wondering about the state of my child’s soul, I merely said: “Yep, life is full of mystery.”

This is happily ever after.

ceremonyI remember once a very long time ago, looking over at John and asking him if we would always be as in love and happy as we felt right then. We weren’t married yet. I think we were engaged. For us there was never much difference between dating and engaged. We started our relationship both knowing where we wanted it to go. Or thinking we knew. In my mind, the ultimate dream was getting married. But in that moment of questioning I glimpsed the life that was beyond that beautiful wedding I envisioned. A life I hoped to live with this young man beside me.

Looking back on our first years of marriage, it almost feels like a dream. Life was, in many ways, shallow. I didn’t see it then. I struggled with the same things all newlyweds struggle with. And I struggled with the responsibilities of a household. We married young, neither of us had learned to really live yet. I felt myself consumed with household chores, meal planning, and eventually motherhood. I struggled almost constantly with a feeling of unfulfillment. I was trying so hard to be the wife and mother that I thought I was supposed to be.

And I hurt. I hurt because the breathless feeling that I used to feel about my husband seemed to be slipping away. The love notes he used to slip into my backpack disappeared. Sometimes the plans he had dreamed changed and I felt like he was breaking a promise to me. I didn’t understand how his mind worked, how he had to explore and dream and look at all the options. I retreated to spending lots of time with my family. It was there that I felt truly myself. I wasn’t mom or wife. I was just Miriam. When I interacted with John I would often slip into a pretend version of myself. Apparently even my voice would change, this was pointed out to me by my sister when she would hear me answer the phone when John would call. But I didn’t know how to do it differently. He didn’t understand the all-consuming task of motherhood and I didn’t understand the stresses of his work or really what made him tick. I think that the transition to parenthood was just as much of a shock to him as it was to me, but we didn’t really talk about it.

John watched me slip away from him. He says now that he felt he was losing me to the caricature of “preschool mom.” And ironically, I was striving really hard to fill that role. I was trying so hard to be “that woman.” The one who had dinner on the table and a clean house when her husband came home from work. The one who was always available sexually for her husband even when she really didn’t feel like it. The one who suffered silently when she just needed her husband to say how much he appreciated her and all that she did. The one who submitted alway, obeyed often, and settled for a life that was valuable because of who her husband was. And constantly I felt like I was failing.

It wasn’t bad. We had plenty of happy moments. Sometimes I opened up and was honest to my husband and cried the tears of pain that needed to be cried and he comforted me. Often we dreamed together and made plans. I started to learn more of who he was, but I think I neglected to learn more of who I was. I tried so hard to be someone I thought I was supposed to be, that I lost sight of the woman that I was. John and I had been best friends before we got married. Looking back now, I think we knew each other the least during those first few years of marriage. It was as if marriage destroyed our friendship and it has taken us a long time to begin to build that back.

Over the last few years I have been on a journey to discover myself. I have stopped trying to be someone else, and instead am exploring how to be myself. I began to truly see myself as someone existing completely separate from my husband, someone who has the choice every day to decide my journey, someone who has the right to speak up, someone who can be honest when I am not that person I thought I was supposed to be. And it was when I began to see myself that way that I began to be a better friend to my husband. We cannot truly love someone if we do not love ourselves. Love seems so much more powerful to me these days. Instead of feeling breathless in John’s presence, I feel full of breath. Fully alive.

I told him yesterday that life is not roses and daisies. It still hurts, a lot. Sometimes even more than it did when I was trying to ignore the pain. But it is real, I am real. If I could go back and answer that question I asked so long ago: “Will we always be as in love as we are right now?” I would say this: “No. Thankfully no. We will be more. But it won’t feel like it does right now. It will be deeper. So much deeper. This relationship will take more from you than you know you have. And it will give to you more than you could ever imagine. One day you will look back and realize that this is real life. Not a fairy tale. And you will be grateful for the pain and joy and dreams and tears and struggle. Because you will love, truly love this man. And when you wonder if it is possible to love him any more than you do right now, you will hope that you have enough life left to find out.”

How must we then live?

image11 years ago, I woke to find my infant daughter Emma not breathing. It took awhile to accept that she was gone. I did cpr, John called 911. The paramedics worked on her in the ambulance. The doctors worked on her in the hospital. But there was no sign of life, no response to our urgent attempts to breathe life back into her little body. And so we let her go, once we knew she had already gone, we let her go.

One thing that was excruciatingly hard to accept was the fact that I wasn’t there with her, holding her in my arms as she passed from this life into the next. The pain of this part of the story came back up for me again just last month. My grandma passed away on January 2. She was in the hospital, and my grandpa was there, but he was sleeping at the end. grandmaHe feels so bad that he wasn’t holding her hand. And as he shared his pain at not being able to be there for her, I remembered that I shared in that pain. Even while knowing how hard it will be to let go, I think it is natural to have the desire to be as close as possible to our loved ones when they approach death’s dark door.

But we can’t go through that door for them or even with them if it isn’t our time. Even had I been holding Emma’s body in my arms, there would have been a point where her spirit would have left me, where she would have had to go on alone. Death is a door we walk through alone.

All of us will reach that point. Life is temporary. But until that moment we live and we don’t live alone. I feel like traditional Christianity often puts an emphasis on our life after death. That it is at the end of our life that we truly begin life anew. But lately I find that I want to focus more on the life that we have been given now. Every day we awake with the gift of breath in our bodies is a day that we have been given to live.

This morning as I reflected on Emma’s death, remembering that day with an oddly comforting sense of nostalgia, I wondered what I will feel when I reach the end of my life. When I look back on the days, months, years of my life, what do I hope to see? What is it that I want to be able to say? And I think, that when I reach death’s door, I want to pause and look back to see all the relationships both in my past and present and say: “I have loved well, and thus, I have truly lived.”

Wind.

This morning, shortly after I woke, I heard the wind. The house is surrounded by it. It rushes around the corners, whistles through any metal it finds till it vibrates and sings, and pushes the cold in through every little crack it can find. Walking to preschool this morning left Dietrich with hair that stood on end and an attitude of disgust. “I not like that!” was his reaction after finally reaching the protection of his school.

Everything is being pushed around by the wind. Most stand their ground, even if they obviously don’t like it, like the little squirrel I can see out the window, trying to determine how far out on the branch he can walk without being blown off. But not everything can withstand the wind. A large evergreen tree, though apparently healthy, lies wounded on the ground. It gave in to the wind gusts sometime in the night, falling with a heavy crack that Will described this morning.

Some days I feel like I’m trying to function while being pushed around by the wind, just like the little squirrel, his tail bent over backwards, his little claws clinging to the branch. This morning was one of those days. Mondays are my day off, my weekend, set aside for self-care, whatever that may look like in any particular week. This Monday in particular felt extra special because it’s the day after my birthday. My birthday was spent throwing Elise an elaborate mystery birthday party, which I enjoyed, but also was a huge gift of my time and mental energy. So today was supposed to be a day just for me. I woke this morning with pain, pain I’ve been having in my neck since Saturday morning. Something is out of place and even though the subsequent days haven’t been as bad as the first morning, it is still annoying. Plus I seem to have come down with yet another cold, right after finally recovering from the last one. When I went to wake kids up for school, I remembered that Will won’t be going to school. Yet again he will be staying home for a sick day, this time for possible pink eye. I guess a doctor appointment will be on the schedule today. There is a lot of anger, frustration, and stress surrounding this one little thing because it brings up the fact that we are still waiting to hear back about our health care application for the kids.

My morning was spent making phone calls, searching for paperwork I couldn’t find, and generally feeling sorry for myself. And once I start dealing with the frustration of one thing, it feels like every other single thing that lives on the list of to dos in my head starts calling out for attention. I suddenly feel like there is no possible way that everything that needs to be done will ever get done. Why in the world did I think that I can rest today? I need to do that, and this, and that other thing. And while I’m at it, I might as well just give up on ever having time off again. If I were really doing all that I were supposed to do I would be working from morning till night every single day. Yes, I know, crazy, but that’s what happens when I start to feel emotional and stressed. The uncontrollable circumstances felt like the wind, blowing me about, changing the course of my day. Yet, I don’t want to be like the tree that was taken down by the wind. If I’m going to survive this windy day, I need to stop letting my attitude be controlled by the circumstances and choose to approach this day the way I want to. Despite the fact that I now have two doctor appointments interrupting my day, one for Will’s eye, and one for my neck, and despite the fact that my day will not be spent alone as I had originally hoped, I still have the ability to make this day my own. I need to stop expecting Monday to fit into the dreams I have for it, and instead live my Mondays with a spirit of Sabbath no matter what the day’s schedule brings. Because the truth is that as parents, life rarely follows the plans that we have made. My choice is not whether or not there will be twists and turns in my path, but how I choose to walk them. Today I am choosing to walk them with my head held high, attempting an attitude of gratitude and a spirit of loving sacrifice. I admit that at times today there will be, as there have already been, tears in my eyes and a pang of self pity in my heart, but even while recognizing those feelings I am choosing not to let those rule my day. I may look a little bedraggled by the wind, but I will not fall. And just like the little squirrel who realized his limitations and turned around, returning to the safety of the tree trunk, I will make space for self-care in this day too.

Waiting.

Last Advent, I gave myself a blog challenge. I attempted to find beauty in the everyday and share it all with you in pictures. It was a good practice for me. I find that being intentional about something in our daily lives encourages reflection, processing, and really just thinking. Things that get kind of lost in the busyness of everyday life.

With that in mind, I have been wondering how to approach this Advent season. I want to be intentional with my life and Advent seems like a good time to start working towards that, even if it is just in little ways.

img_4678My thoughts Sunday as we walked to church across our color-filled campus, enjoying the sunshine and breeze even despite the cold chill in the air, were on waiting. Not just waiting, but how to wait well. How do we wait in anticipation, rather than boredom? How do we welcome the holy into our everyday lives so that we live in the present while also working towards the future?

The homily Sunday echoed a lot of my thoughts, pointing out the importance of preparing ourselves for Jesus now, welcoming him into our lives now. We can’t just wait for some future time, the kingdom of God is here, now, present within and among us. That is what I want to focus on this Advent, the balance of living intentionally in the present while also looking towards the future.

I hope to share some of my processing and thoughts with you here in the blog. Please share your comments as well as you discover the holy in your every day, the beautiful in the commonplace, the tension in the waiting, or anything else that you find causes you to think this year.

“See me.” Lessons from a toddler.

seemeEven though Dietrich is not the most verbally adept 3 year old, he often surprises me with his correct usage of pronouns and plurals.  But obviously he is 3, so some of his phrases, though logical, are not actually grammatically correct. One such phrase: “See me.”

That phrase has really stuck in my head lately. The correct phrase would be: “Look at me.” But how often do we look with our eyes, and fail to actually see. And it started me thinking. How do we see people, truly see them. Not just what they look like, the clothes they wear, the things they do, but really see the person.

Even in my closest relationships I tend to look at people through the lense of self-interest. For example, if John does something because he is stressed, my first mental response is to think about how his stress affects my day, instead of first recognizing his struggle, his needs, his sorrow, his passions, etc. When my children misbehave, I immediately think about how their actions reflect on my parenting abilities and what people around me must be thinking about me, instead of noticing why they are upset or confused or looking for attention, etc. I’m not saying I think we should all unselfishly try to meet everyone’s needs while ignoring our own. But I do think it would be good to get out of our own head enough to recognize the humanity in the person next to us.

If it is so hard to see those that we live near, those we share lives, history, and love with, is it actually impossible to “see” strangers for who they are? What would it look like to go about my day and actually see the people around me?

A few weeks ago I got off work and had time to kill before the bus came, so as I often do, I started walking down the street towards the metro, planning on catching the bus at a later stop. I had almost reached the end of my walk, when a man stumbled across the street in front of me and disappeared into the drive of a hotel. It was like a blip in the normal smooth traffic of people and cars. No one else seemed to notice even though this man walked as if he were falling.

As I passed the hotel drive, I glanced into the covered space, wondering if I would be able to see him still. He was there, but not walking. Instead he was lying on his back with his head on the curb, feet stuck out into the driveway. I kept walking, but then I stopped. This wasn’t normal. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, if he was just drunk, or if there was something else going on, but I couldn’t just leave him there. I turned around and entered the driveway and walked up to the man on the ground.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Are you ok?” He groaned and sat up, but there was blood on his head. I repeated my question and the man assured me that he was fine, even though his confusion and his body language told me otherwise. “You don’t look ok,” I said. “Can I get you some help?” He said he had fallen down, and then asked me if he looked like he had hurt himself. I told him about the blood on his head and that I thought it would be best if we called an ambulance to make sure he was ok. Thankfully at that point a man who had been standing a little ways away in the designated smoking area came over and asked if he could go in and ask the hotel to call for help. I agreed and I stayed with the gentleman. The hotel called for help, the man who had stepped in stayed and waited with me. This man had actually seen the older gentleman enter the drive and stumble into one of the brick pillars, which is why his head was bleeding and how he ended up on the ground. While we talked, the injured man sat cross-legged on the ground between us and kept wiping blood away from his sweaty forehead. He repeated himself often, and didn’t seem terribly coherent, so I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Later I wondered if it had been really rude to talk about him as if he weren’t there.

It didn’t take long before an ambulance pulled up and the paramedics entered the drive. The first one knelt down and addressed the injured man by name, asking him what had happened. The man said: “I fell down.” And the paramedic’s answer made it clear that this had happened before. The witness gave his report and we were allowed to leave. I walked away, but felt so uneasy. I actually turned back around after getting a few yards down the road, returned to the ambulance where they had already loaded up the man in the back and mentioned to one of the paramedics that I had seen this man before he hit his head and his behavior was not normal. “Yes,” he replied. “We pick him up all the time. My partner just picked him up yesterday actually.” There was nothing more I could do, but as I walked away I felt sad. Here is a man who is picked up by ambulance so often that the paramedics know him by name. Yet, nothing is changed for him. I “helped” him today by stopping and making sure he got help, but I didn’t truly change anything for him. It was all so incredibly sad.

I came home, my brain in a muddle, wondering if there was anything to do that could actually help someone like that. I talked it over with John, who has passionate views about the social systems in our country and who immediately began lamenting the fact that our systems are failing, and this is just one of many symptoms. And I agree. Work does need to be done to change big picture things. John’s good at thinking big picture. But his response didn’t totally satisfy me either. It is sometimes easy to help one person and satisfy our conscience enough that we can ignore the big issues that we should be contributing effort to solve. But if we completely focus on the big picture, we lose sight of what makes up the big picture — individual people. And that is just as wrong. Even though it felt like I was the only one who actually saw that man when he walked past me that day, I know I didn’t truly see him. I know nothing about him other than what I experienced during those few minutes with him. I don’t even remember his name. I didn’t touch him. I didn’t even stay truly present with him while I was there. But maybe I saw him just a little more clearly than I sometimes do. Our lives touched for just an instance and the disparity between them caught me off guard.

I really don’t know how to “see” people. But I think it requires listening and presence. Those are two gifts I have the ability to give to anyone. I may not have the means to change their circumstances, but I can offer them these two things. I’m not good at it. I often respond in selfishness instead of in the kindness of listening and presence. But I hope to practice this more, to continue to train myself to see.

“See me,” Dietrich says. Next time he says this to me, I will get down on my knees, look him in the eyes and say “Yes, I do see you.”