I’m known to leave a song on repeat for a day or two. Several weeks ago it was Faith In Strangers, which has been a repeater in the past.
My most recent listen reminded me of the handful of times I’ve put my faith in certain types of people that I don’t know—those who can see.
I see, but I am rarely seen.
It’s unfortunate, yet comes with the territory of my particular existence (more on that some other time). I see people for who they truly are, and not only do I see the truth, but I do so with compassion and very little harsh judgement.
You’d think I carry around a little sign that says “you are accepted here,” the way some people come to me, but I don’t, and yet they always know it anyway. It draws them to me like any trite saying you can think of—like a moth to a flame, like white on rice.
People tell me things they wouldn’t be inclined to tell most and they’re not always sure why.
I get unburdened on frequently, which is usually met with my genuine interest and concern, but sometimes people just need me in close physical proximity, say, next to them sitting on a bench or just in the other room, while they silently suffer to themselves and I empathetically contend with it on their behalf.
This happens with family and friends, of course, but more often than not it occurs with complete strangers.
I like strangers. They are untethered to my past and therefore are more likely to accept me at face value, in the present. Of course everyone projects their ideas and beliefs onto others, but not as insidiously as those you already “know.”
Encounters with strangers invite new experiences, new conversations, and new knowledge, liberating you from the old song and dance you do with the people with whom you are already familiar, those with whom you recreate and re-experience what has already happened, ad infinitum.
Strangers in need can be enjoyable and fascinating, yes, but they can also be cruel—like the homeless-appearing Chinese man in San Francisco who threw a carton of fried rice after me, where it landed at the heels of my feet. Or the woman who hobbled after me down Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn, mumbling obscenities to herself about my supposed superiority complex. Or the man in Manhattan who looked me dead in the eyes as he assaulted my now ex-husband because he was white and I am black.
As anyone probably would be, I was disturbed by these unprompted, random acts of aggression, and each sat darkly with me for quite some time, but deep down I knew that these people were after what we’re all after in one way or another—love.
So I guess you could call me some sort of vigilante Jesus, destined to walk around wrestling with other people’s demons, called to be this place of refuge for others when they feel vulnerable, wrong, and afraid. But thankfully, unlike Jesus, I’ve learned that martyrdom is not the most successful way to assume this position. With age and experience I have learned that being something like a mirror, offering no saving but instead the truth that could potentially lead to it, is much more helpful to others and much less taxing on my soul.
Not only do I take on this role for others, but I do so for myself too. It rarely occurs to me to ask for help, to seek comfort, or to expect acknowledgement from other people. This may make me sound strong, and don’t get me wrong, I am strong, very much so, but for complete transparency, I must also credit this to the abandonment and neglect of my parents which taught me, no, forced me, to fend for myself.
People save me too, though, every so often, and they’re usually strangers that I meet only once (and never again) while in transit.
It always brings to mind one of the few Bible verses I don’t cringe at:
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)
These particular strangers always appear when I am in crisis, at a crossroads between what I have and what I’m afraid to want, between where I am and where I need to go. They are catalyzers that seemingly appear out of nowhere to disrupt my thinking and incite me to take action.
Sometimes these strangers do feel like heavenly beings, and our encounters, unreal. Really, though, I’ve come to see them as projections or extensions of myself, messengers of my very own bidding sent to tell me what I can’t or don’t want to hear.
I’ve had so many instances of this, that I now write them down on my calendar. One encounter occurred while I was living in New York.
Anytime my ex-husband and I fought, I’d leave the apartment and wander around alone for hours and hours. If we fought the night before, I’d wake up early the next morning to do so.
Sometimes I’d trek down to Coney Island, or go lay in the grass and fall asleep in Prospect Park, and sometimes I’d go to the Rose Reading Room until it closed, but most times I’d walk and walk for hours until I was too exhausted to care anymore.
This particular day I got on the train with no destination in mind. I made transfers without thinking and somehow ended up at Central Park. I walked around until I found the perfect hill to provide me with some privacy but that would soon be invaded.
I sat down and took out my journal to write, but felt too dejected to jot down more than a page or two. Moments later, someone started walking towards me, and having very little energy for other people’s shit, I internally screamed for them to go away but they didn’t.
It happened to be a slight little man, probably in his 70s, who looked very much like Gabor Mate. I assumed he was crazy and avoided eye contact (though not for long).
He looked at my notebook sitting next to me on the ground and told me to read him something. There was no greeting, no hello or anything. Just, read to me.
I told him no – that it wasn’t a book of poems or anything creative – that it was personal, but he didn’t seem to care or find that a viable excuse.
Turns out Zohan was a painter.
He took out his phone and showed me his paintings, portraits of doctors and various business people, and I in turn showed him some of mine. He was a question-asker, a rare breed, as most people go on and on about themselves, and a lot of the conversation revolved around why I didn’t want to go home.
No matter what subject we hit upon, Zohan always returned to my notebook and the reading of it, and I continued to evade his demand. But he was relentless and in time I gave in.
I figured that if I was going to give in, I may as well crash and burn. So not only did I read from my journal, but I decided to read what I’d written right before he’d shown up.
I wasn’t too many sentences in before I was in tears, and I knew then and there that the seed had been planted for the making of a very difficult choice.
By the time Zohan and I had parted ways, I had worked up the nerve to go home, and I did so feeling less alone and greatly supported by something invisible.