Our encounters felt particularly meaningful to me since I’d been a perpetual outsider during most of my early life. My family moved on the average of every year and a half when I was a child, and I frequently faced the dilemma of how to get into the good graces of girls who’d already formed their neighborhood cliques and sorted out their popularity quotients. With each move, my working class parents struggled to haul themselves up the socio-economic ladder without losing their souls. My autodidact father was a plumber who came home from work in a uniform smelling of pipe grease, sweat, and far worse. My humanitarian mother waited tables at a series of Googie coffee shops, and it pained me to watch her submerge her swollen, calloused feet in Epsom salts each night, knowing that the next day she’d be on those aching feet all over again serving cherry Cokes to girls with manicured hands while her own were chipped and dry. I was too aware of my parents’ sacrifices for our family’s flourishing to tell them the cost to my own insecure self of those frequent moves: the loneliness, the disorientation, the desperate hunger for a sense of belonging.
A friend once remarked that we each need to know both our specialness and our utter ordinariness. The sense of belonging can confer both, which has to be why so many of us gravitate toward finding affiliation – with religions, political parties, nations, neighborhoods. It’s been no accident to me that, after all my parents’ gypsy upheavals, I’ve clung to the house I live in for nearly thirty years, treasuring beyond all proportion knowing my next door neighbors' names, how they’re faring in this lousy economy, how they’ll be spending the holidays. The genuine happiness they expressed when I told them my novel The History of My Body would be released this October warmed me down to my toes.
But the state of our world is fast teaching us that we identify too closely with our own narrow neck of the woods – and, even worse, demonize those at some other end – at our peril. Geneticists have determined that we all share a most recent common ancestress dubbed the Mitochondrial Eve, who probably lived in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. In a previous post, I mentioned the Hindu myth of Indra’s Web, an exquisite visual metaphor for the way in which we mirror each other as we ourselves shine. The wisdom of science and spiritual tradition, the evolution of the world wide web, the indisputable evidence of the impact of human activity on global climate change argue that we are linked, that we belong, not just to a common great-great-great-and-greater grandmother, but to a Mother Planet that needs our consciousness of Her as our true neighborhood if our species is to survive.
But if we all share a common ancestry, why is it that we’re drawn more to some members of our human family than to others? Sometimes I'll cross paths with an unfamiliar figure on the sidewalk, and we'll treat each other as invisible. On the very same day, I can come into contact with someone new and realize we're experiencing a mutual lifting of the spirit, a genuine curiosity, a stirring of the imagination that is acknowledged by a quick verbal exchange, a smile, a mischievous or tender glint in the eye.
In her song Vigil, Jane Siberry sings to her dying mother:
“Do you ever think we'll meet again?
How will I ever know it's you?
Maybe it will be the love that I'll feel
When I look into a stranger's eyes.”
Beyond our shared derivation from Mitochondrial Eve, perhaps the gardener and I were close relatives in some past life, but I’m leaning more toward it being that chemical je ne sais quoi that magnetically draws us toward another soul. While we may never fully understand that kind of pull, I’m pretty sure that, for the magic to occur, both parties have to be open to the promise of something new. Not just friendly, not necessarily even loving, but open. In my last post, I wrote about the thing I have for birds. The one thing that stands out most about our winged friends is their freedom to explore open space, to dance with unseen currents of air, to loosen the tight reins of gravity. They carry for us the image of what is not yet, what is possible.
The wonderful Jungian writer Robert A. Johnson has spoken of a custom he learned about during his frequent trips to India in which you can approach any stranger on the street and ask, “Will you be the incarnation of God for me?” If the person accepts, you can go home, set up a shrine, and worship the ineffable in that person’s image. While that may be an impossibly intimate and open-ended way to relate to one another from the vantage point of our western consciousness, we might inexplicably find a stranger acting as a mirror for the mind-bending experience of being here on this traveling planet, mute with unknowing, intensely alive. I may not have known where the gardener at the end of the block was born, whether he lived with family or on his own, what he did on his down time. But I sensed with all my being that he was open, as I was, to the mystery…and that the two of us found ourselves worshipping that mystery - in a shy, impish sort of way - in our weekly encounters.
Sadly, my gardening friend has disappeared. When I near the end of the block now on Wednesday mornings, I see only a walkway to a graceful Spanish house lined with sturdy rose bushes and a thick lawn as evidence that his capable brown hands once lifted the rim of a jaunty cap at my approach. But he is not gone from my world. I have stowed him - as my novel’s protagonist Fleur does with those she’s lost - in the hole in my heart, the empty space I knew so well as a child, the one that is getting crowded these days as love, loss, remembrance, and the implausible miracle of hope continue to accumulate inside me.