The thing about ripples is that they happen all the time, invisibly, carrying our actions, our words, our art far beyond what we can see or even imagine.
This summer, sitting in my car at a red light, I witnessed something ordinary and beautiful. We were in the midst of a heat wave. For about a week, we’d had triple-digit temperatures, and though I wasn’t bothered – I love heat – all around me people were cranky, nerves were frayed. It was so palpable, the irritability and unease, that even I, lover of 100-degree days, had begun to wish for cooler weather.
So I was sitting at this red light and a woman began crossing the street. She was heavyset and though she wasn’t old, she had a walker with a basketful of bags on it. She leaned heavily onto the handles, walking slowly, as if each step represented a conscious decision, made over and over again, to continue moving forward. Her brow was furrowed and sweaty. She didn’t look at me or any of the drivers in the cars she passed but stared at the ground as it disappeared, inch by painstaking inch, beneath the wheels of her walker. I wondered if she’d make it all the way across before the light turned green.
Two lanes over from me, and two-thirds of the way across the walk, a pretty blonde woman in a giant, white SUV got out of her car. She ran to the woman in the cross walk, fell in step with her, handed her a bottle of water, smiling. The woman with the walker was almost to the curb when the blonde woman patted her back gently, then sprinted back to her giant SUV, closing her door just as the light turned green.
There were a lot of us stopped at the light that day. I’m certain I’m not the only person who has carried that moment inside me, and carried the kindness forward many times, since witnessing it.
In June, I read my friend Jill Salahub’s soulful interview with writing teacher and 27 Powers founder, Laurie Wagner. I loved the whole interview, but there was this one part of one answer that was life changing for me. (I know, that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. Sometimes the words you didn’t know you needed come out of nowhere, like the key to a lock you didn’t know was inside you.)
Here’s a portion of what she said when asked what self-compassion means to her:
Because I am imperfect, because I am flawed, I allow myself to make mistakes. I will bumble things and the wrong words will come out of my mouth. I will hurt you and I will hurt myself. But because my heart is good, I’ll know that I never meant to. And it’s this “never meant to” that enables me to forgive myself and to forgive you too. I believe in the words, “ I’m sorry.” What else is there to say?
I’ve never been very good at letting “sorry” be enough, especially with my husband. It’s been a thing between us from the beginning. He accepts my apologies, but when he says he’s sorry, I haven’t known how to stop being mad. It’s like I have all this steam built up and no release valve. Our arguments have often gone on longer than they needed to because I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t let “sorry” be enough.
Until I read Laurie Wagner’s words and suddenly “what else is there to say?” became my release valve. I’m not perfect, but I’m getting better all the time.
I never meant to. I’m sorry. What else is there to say?
About the time I was starting to get more dogged about my doodling (I’m not at all sure “dogged” is the best word here, but I love the idea of dogged doodling, so I’m leaving it), I stumbled across a post by Julia Fehrenbacher. Embedded in the post was a poem titled “How To Paint A Donkey.” It goes like this:
How to Paint a Donkey
By Naomi Shihab Nye
She said the head was too large,
the hooves too small.
I could clean my paintbrush
but I couldn’t get rid of that voice.
While they watched,
I crumpled him,
let his blue body stain my hand,
I cried when he hit the can.
She smiled. I could try again.
Maybe this is what I unfold in the dark,
deciding for the rest of my life,
that donkey was just the right size.
And then, amidst some beautiful words about what that poem meant to Julia, was Julia’s own painted donkey.
I fell madly in love with this little winged guy, and he’s become a symbol for me of the beauty (whimsy, delight, vibrancy) that we are capable of creating if we trade in our need to be perfect and right for a sense of play and exploration. He hangs on one of my walls now, a reminder of the kind of artist I want to be.