I always enjoy telling stories where my own flawed humanity is dragged out into the light.
I hope you do as well.
I’m having one of those moments right now.
A delectable moment of irony.
A moment when a mirror is held up to you – and while you thought you had your “Ohm Shanti” house in order – that you (with a whiff of smug superiority) – “get it” – it turns out – you have a steep learning curve to climb.
I am on the Amtrak Acela going from Boston to NYC for a whirlwind few days of work. I sat down and put on my Air buds to listen to a lecture I have been wanting to hear for the longest time – but because “I’m so busy in my busy life” I haven’t been able to. I put on my sunglasses – and a deliberately “neutral” face – not “mean” but not “friendly” – all international symbols for “please don’t sit with me – but if you do sit with me – if you MUST sit with me…don’t engage. Slide into your seat and let’s pretend neither one of us exists.”
I settle in and start my lecture.
I am content.
And then, on this sold out train, at the very first stop, a man with all the disheveled earmarks of homelessness starts to sit down next to me – with his possessions in two garbage bags. Literally. He is rifling through two giant, black construction garbage bags looking for his ticket. He’s chaotic and noisy and twitchy and muttering as he settles down.
And then it hits me.
That smell…. that smell you’ve smelled on the subway in a non-air conditioned car in August, or the phantom whiff you get walking down the streets of New York or in rest rooms in Central Park. All the smells that rise up in the bodies of people who can’t attend to themselves – and no one else is attending to them either.
He – reeks – and – it’s aggressive. He smells – like someone who hasn’t had access to showers – or toilets -for a very long time. I start to panic. My head starts spinning. I discreetly try to move seats. I am looking around desperately.
Too late. None available.
I talked to a conductor. Nothing they can do.
An unbelievably angry monologue starts running through my brain. I’m wondering how in the world I will get through the 4 1/2 hour trip ahead.
I’m angry at Amtrak.
I’m angry at the man.
I’m angry at myself for not leaving earlier.
I’m angry at the plastic bag that appears to be leaking something near my shoe.
I Am Angry.
My senses are overwhelmed… The lecture continues to play on my ear buds – but I am so freaked out I am barely aware of it. I stopped paying attention to it as soon as it started.
Until – God steps in – and makes me aware – actually aware – that the lecture I have been listening to, or that I was supposed to be listening to, the lecture I have been yearning to play for the longest time in my “very busy life” – the lecture I was so desperate to get to – is a lecture on “Loving Kindness” by Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield.
Yes “Loving Kindness”… has been trying to enter brain space that is currently being occupied by my temper tantrum.
Cognitive dissonance in bold face.
I am acutely aware now of the disconnect between what I said I needed to hear – the lecture on Loving Kindness – and what it actually means when you apply it to the real life sitting next to you.
The man motions for me to take off my ear buds.
And he apologizes to me…
He apologizes to me because he said knows he smells. I could see the shame on his face. He wouldn’t look at me but he was softly and haltingly telling me that he lives on the streets and can’t wash. That he hasn’t been well – and that his daughter got him a ticket to go to her in Washington. And that’s where he’s heading now.
And my heart breaks.
I told him it was okay…. sometimes, I said, we all smell.
What I wanted to say, was in that moment, nobody, it turned out, smelled worse than me.
Nothing makes me happier than being clobbered over the head with irony.
“Loving Kindness” indeed.
Life is – delicious – in how it reminds us – if we are paying attention – that people are fragile and complicated – and – oh my – I have a long way to go in my evolution. A long way to go…
But I am here for it.
…Time to restart the lecture.