Sunday, January 25, 2015

city sign of peace

In the city, the sign of peace is a distant wave.
We do not shake one an-others' hands.
We do not touch one another.
We cordially signal a nod,
and say politely: "Peace be with you."
We are removed, parted from one another, a sanitary distance.

One rather mild December day, I had the urge to walk Madison Avenue back home. I couldn't really explain it, except that it wasn't I was loath to take the subway, and even when I thought about walking in that direction, my feet seemed to hesitate of their own accord. There was a prickle inside of them that said: Stop. Not that way. Bargaining with this bizarre instinct that told me to walk fifty blocks, I told myself: I'll walk, and if a bus comes, I'll take the bus. Somewhere deep in the center of my brain, I knew that I absolutely would not take the bus, and I would simply walk, but I couldn't explain why this was a reasonable course of action, so my sensible self compromised with this instinct that itched inside my feet.
After about twenty blocks, in which I had been securely ensconced in my own head the entire time (walking is the best because you can create dialogue, prepare for imagined scenarios, work through arguments, solve problems, and just think), I saw an elderly woman walking toward me.
She was carrying a grocery bag on either arm.
Suddenly, she fell.
This woman fell flat on her face.
She must have lost her footing or tripped on an uneven piece of sidewalk, or goodness knows what, but all of a sudden, a human who had been standing upright was flat on her face in front of me on the sidewalk.
It was the first moment of my life I had been the one who had to respond to something so urgent, not because of any specific tie or relationship I had with the person in front of me, but simply by virtue of me being the one human there. Simply my presence on the scene vested me with the duty to respond, and quickly.
My heart pounding, I ran the few yards that separated me from this woman. I whipped out my little dumb-phone and called 911.
The woman was struggling to stand up, but not speaking.
I knelt down on the sidewalk next to her, and, while I was trying to relay to the paramedics exactly what had happened: "Well, she just fell." she moved her head onto my lap.

[I always feel that 911 dispatchers never have a great enough sense of emergency. It's probably because they are trained to counter-act your urgent panic with calm and reason. They ask all sorts of details about who you are and who the person is and exactly what body part is bleeding, and you're like: I don't know! It's an emergency! Adrenaline surging through my body! Can't think! Must act! Which is why I ought to thank God daily for unflappable emergency dispatchers.]

I sat there, on the phone with paramedics, with a woman's head bleeding onto my magenta pants.
A sweet, elderly Methodist couple on their way to Church stopped and stood with me until I got off the phone.
We helped the woman, who was struggling to stand, stand up. We gave her a tissue for her bleeding lip. And then, she started walking home. So we walked with her, tried to communicate that the EMTs were on their way, and if she could just wait a minute, they'd probably want to make sure she was okay. The paramedics arrived, and had to chase her down the street, as she had made up her mind to go home and couldn't be stopped.
So the sweet Methodist couple and I walked with her to her building, and informed the doorman that she had fallen, and he said he would call her daughter, and we left.

They went off to church, and I went home, and the strange intimacy of the moment faded into the cold night.

I stepped off the sidewalk, into the crosswalk, and thought of my feet. How they steer me, and--so far--have not thrown me off balance, or have buckled underneath me.
As I thought of the woman whose head had lain in my lap, I suddenly thought of Shakina.
She was thrown into my memory with a sudden lurch, like when your foot hits a piece of uneven sidewalk, and you jerk forward, suspended between recovery and falling.
I thought of Shakina: of walking with her down the stairs, of how she would throw herself at you, laughing, grinning, and giggling with a joyful mischief, and expect you to support her. That was the game, and Shakina played the game of "throw my entire weight at you," because she trusted that you would support her.
Sometimes, she would lose her balance on the stairs. Sometimes she would lose her balance due to the enthusiasm that wracked her body. Sometimes she would lose her balance, because Manju had snuck up behind her and pinched her.
At a time like that, she would look up at you, as your arms shot out to catch her, to pull Manju away, or your hands moved to steady her body, shaking with energy, and she would holler at you, with eyes that reproachfully said: How did you let that happen?
I thought of all the times I held Shakina's hands as she walked, and I thought of the woman whose arm I held to lift her up off the ground.
They seemed to be the same person.

In Kolkata, we bowed to one another.
There was no contact between hands;
but we seemed to be intertwined--
your spirit in mine, and my soul in yours.
The veil that kept us cordoned off 
was sundered.
And in your eyes, I saw you say:
"Christ be in you."

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