Since last fall, I have spent most weekday mornings in the cafe section of a Whole Foods store near my 4-year-old son’s preschool, writing or reading while he’s in school. This is his last week at this school before starting PreK at a new school in a different neighborhood. That makes it my last week working in this setting on a regular basis. The cast of characters I have met there these many months includes two individuals, fellow “regulars,” who have given me a lot to think about. (Okay, I do a fair amount of staring. But that’s what makes me a noticer, and being a noticer is part of what makes me a writer. Right?)
First, there’s a gentleman who works somewhere in the neighborhood. He routinely comes in around mid-morning, buys a pastry with a pint of whole milk, and eats it in the cafe area. He likes to say hello. When we were still in the phase of simply nodding a greeting at one another, I thought he was Middle Eastern. Then one time, he stopped to talk to me, and spoke Spanish. Ah, so not Middle Eastern, then–things aren’t always as they seem. In hindsight, I thought that time that he’d gotten a little too close for my comfort zone when he talked to me. You could say that was a red flag.
Second, there’s the woman with the crossing guard vest. From where I sit at a bar-type space on a second-story mezzanine overlooking the store, I see people in the aisles, browsing and shopping. One day, months ago, I saw a blond woman wearing a crossing guard vest much like this one.
I thought, aw, must be a mom who just finished volunteering at drop-off at her child’s school–how nice! The woman bought her food, brought it up to the cafe area, and sat down just a few feet away from me. She got out one or two electronic devices, got on her phone, and proceeded to get into an argument with someone. Loudly. Even though I had my earphones in, I could see her gesturing pretty angrily, and she was being loud enough that I couldn’t help looking up from time to time. One time when I looked, she held her hand up to my face, the way I’ve seen celebrities do with paparazzi, and started waving it and blocking her face from my sight. She was saying things I couldn’t quite hear over my music, but she definitely wasn’t keen on me looking at her. I did one of those deals where you look over your shoulder to make sure the person is “talking” to you, you know? She definitely meant me. It startled me. I did my best to look away apologetically, while also feeling the burn of being unjustly scolded. I wasn’t the one making a scene! The image I’d created of her then shifted to, mom who just finished volunteering at her kid’s school, and who is likely going through a very bitter divorce. Her belligerence was jarring, but I decided to try compassion–we’ve all had rough times. A few minutes later, she’d turned her anger on different folks sitting near us, at which time I took her attack on me a bit less personally.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic (not Middle Eastern) man who likes to say hello to me continues to get a little too close each time. A few times, he has sneaked up behind me, and touched me in the middle of my back. It causes me to jump in my seat. I reeeeally don’t like that. Exchanging a few hellos doesn’t mean a person gets to touch me–maybe that’s just me–and certainly not in that way.Thank goodness the perch where I sit allows me to see who’s coming most of the time. I’ve recently taken to looking over my shoulder when he is paying for his food and approaching the cafe. Now I don’t even remove my earphones to say hello. I simply nod my head and mouth the word hola. Because boundaries. Yeah, back off, amigo.
The poor “angry” woman has continued to be a regular as well. She is impossible to miss, on account of the bright yellow vest, which she never removes. I’ve joked to myself–in moments when my kindness instinct is low–that she must even sleep in that vest. She makes her way up and down the aisles, confronting and berating strangers left and right. Is she a volunteer mom? I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve also realized, after seeing the way she’s laid into other people, that holding her hand up to my face the way she did that time was letting me off easy. In fact, she’s never bothered with me again, but of course, I’ve gotten good at avoiding eye contact. And she continues to be on her phone often, having some kind of agitated discussion with someone on the other end of the line …
A few Saturdays ago, I was at Washington’s Union Station, waiting to board a train to New York City
. I bought a bagel and coffee at Au Bon Pain for breakfast, and hurried to my gate. As I passed the Au Bon Pain window, something caught my eye. Bright, neon yellow … The woman in the vest! She was sitting in a chair, surrounded by several bags very full of things (they did not look like the luggage of a typical traveler…), looking disheveled. Sleeping, in her vest. It stopped me in my tracks, took my breath away, broke my heart. She’s homeless?!
But she shops at Whole Foods! Her hair looks well groomed! She sits with an ipad (or is it a laptop?) and talks on her cell phone for hours, and they always seem like very important conversations!
Nothing–nothing–is as it seems.You want to know what I think? I think we are all a little bit crazy. I think there is a “crazy” continuum, and we’re all on it. And just like there are functional alcoholics and addicts of different types, most of us are simply functional crazies.
|From the beloved Disney movie Up. (Quotesandmovies.com)
In fact, most of the time I revel in my quirks. I mean, normal is boring, right? Who wants to be normal?And then, I remember my post partum depression four years ago. That wasn’t quirky. In fact, it put me much further along the continuum than I care to admit. And so do moments of anxiety and irrational fears, both of which are exacerbated by me being the type of mom who fiercely embraces worrying like it’s a measure of the caring. I know that worrying doesn’t equal caring. But hey, I only remember to know it on good days. Mercifully, good days far outnumber the not-so-awesome ones. But then I have lousy ones, too. And you know what those teach me? Patience, with myself and with others. Tolerance. Fewer instances of such self-absorption that I believe my woes are somehow more unique than someone else’s. Because I remember that everyone else struggles, too. Everyone experiences loneliness, fear, feelings of inadequacy.I talk about my depression all the time now, as though to prove that I am one hundred percent over it. The truth? Even four years later, I feel ashamed of it; even though I know better, I feel as though it was something I did wrong. That is the terrible power of the stigma.I think that the line separating me from someone who’s gone over the deep end is not only very thin and blurry, but it also moves all the damn time. There but for the grace of God go I–there but for the grace of God goes any one of us.
As sobering as the above statistic is, I wonder how many studies take mental health into account in this reality. I haven’t done any research, but I suspect that a lot of people–people we know–are not just one paycheck away, but possibly one deeply traumatic experience away from reaching a devastating point of emotional instability that is very difficult to come back from. One tragic illness or loss, and there’s no telling who could easily snap from functional to dysfunctional.
I’ve continued to see the woman in the vest–always in her vest–at Whole Foods after I saw her sleeping in the train station. She’s looked well put together, doesn’t have a bunch of ambiguously-homeless-looking bags with her, and is walking the aisles, shopping and confronting as she goes. So, is she homeless? No idea.
I do know she’s troubled. I’ve been troubled, too. Everyone has. So who are we to judge anyone
, no matter how worse off they seem compared to us? It’s all an illusion.These days, I find myself in a bit of a(n internal) tizzy over my little boy starting a new school next month, and the sadness over saying goodbye to his first preschool and a teacher he loves. I know it’s only PreK, but it will be the first time that he’s in school all day, five days a week. And it feels a little bit as though he might as well be moving out of the house. I mean, it seems like only yesterday I found out I was pregnant! I look at him and still see my baby! Have I raised him properly enough to “release” him to the world on a full-time schedule? Without our afternoon quiet time, will I still get to cuddle with him? Oh God–PANIC
–is this The End of the Cuddling?!See? This is me being over anxious. I bet some of you will think, “Tsk-tsk, the kid probably picks up on her anxiety; she shouldn’t feel this way!” That’s fine. I’m okay at not externalizing it when he’s around. And I would
go insane right this minute if I had to control every damn thought I have, lest my child pick up on some of the bad ones. The best I can do is be aware and keep trying. Humor helps, too.
Change is a big deal, man, and an anxiety factor for many of us. I tend to experience many of life’s milestones through the filter of very, very raw emotion. And I believe firmly that this can be a great strength, not just a weakness. (As I bragged told about in a previous blog post, I was taught this personally at a workshop with none other than Alanis Morissette!) The good news is, for all my griping and over-analyzing, I rarely stay stuck. Common sense, growth; they win most of the times. Thank God(dess).
So I’m not at my strongest right now. So what? I’ve been worse. I’ve also seen worse. Being hung up on the past … ? Geesh! Yes, I’ve seen much worse. See what else I just did there? I judged. Am I exempt from the impulse to judge? Pfft, hell no. And because I’m pretty much taking everyone else down with me in this blog post, I’m going to venture to say that neither are you. Listen, we can’t all be Wayne freaking Dyer.
I embrace my crazy self. I work through my anxieties with exercise, meditation and prayer, healthy eating, gratitude, love. I’ve been in therapy, and could be again one day. And did I mention humor? I try to educate my judgmental self. The good news about moments of weakness is they afford me the sort of compassion that keeps my judgy side in check. But make no mistake about it. If the the gentleman in question at Whole Foods manages to sneak up on me and touch my back again, I am not going to hesitate to channel the troubled mystery woman in the vest and let him have it, thus, in the course of one action, enforcing an important boundary with one individual while eliminating the illusion of separation from another. And the thin blurry line is on the move once again. I think that’s kind of interesting, don’t you?