Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Front Porch Solution

It’s Saturday morning, cool, bright and beautiful. It’s going to be hot later, but right now the front doors are open wide and I’m sitting in the doorway on a bentwood rocker, laptop humming, when two women walk by on the street below.

The pretty blonde, the younger one, doesn’t see me. The brunette, older and not pretty from this distance, does. She’s wearing a goofy, Auntie Em straw hat and just before they pass behind the big pin oak that dominates the front yard, she glances up and spots me.

When they get past the oak and the Japanese maple, the view will be unobstructed and I will have a choice to make. I can give her a neighborly wave, or I can pretend  I’m busy.

The person I used to be – and sometimes still am – scanned people quickly to decide who was important and who was not. Was this someone I knew? Someone I should know? Someone I can ignore?

In a sense, this moment is a throwaway, like so many others. I’ve never seen the woman before, and most likely I’ll never see her again. And if I do, I could ignore her then, too, because already I know that we are from different bandwidths on the human spectrum. She is of no importance to me.

What’s more, as they emerge from behind the gnarled oak and the graceful, purplish red screen of maple leaves, I see that she’s wearing one of those “I (heart) …” T-shirts.

I don’t know what she (hearts), and I don’t care any more than I care whether you’ve been to the Salty Dog Saloon or Cancun or run the Bay-to-Breakers wearing only Crocs and gardening gloves. Identity-by-T-shirt, in my worldview, is weak.

On appearance, style and gravitas, then, I am free to ignore the woman.

But as she turns her head and looks in my direction, I smile and give her a little wave. She smiles and waves back.

And I think: thank God. If I want to live in a world where there is light and life in the highest and best sense, then it’s up to me to do something about it.  I had been ruminating deeply on two recent setbacks – one personal, one professional – and taking stock of my situation.

I’ve been trying to re-invent myself for seven years now, and the results are indifferent at best and depressing at three in the morning. Many people I know would be out on the ledge by now; they’ve told me as much. There are times when I am fretful and anxious, traits that go back as far as my tendency to judge and dismiss my fellow beings.

Indeed, I had been indulging in the kind of terminal seriousness that ultimately killed my parents when I saw the woman in the street. In conventional terms, it was a throwaway moment — a moment that meant nothing or everything, a moment balanced on the beholder’s awareness.

The years have taught me that that woman and I have far more in common than we have differences, no matter how unalike we may seem, no matter that we don’t know each other, no matter what kind of hat she’s wearing. It has taken much longer, but I’m also aware now that the quality of my life depends not only on big decisions, but also on  small, seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life. 

There is a Japanese technique called kaizen which means making tiny, continuous improvements. Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters used to have a saying “You’re either on the bus or off the bus,” which meant you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.

In the past I might have ignored the woman, unaware that refusing to connect with another is a subtle form of punishment that affects us both. But by acknowledging her, I affirm something good and kind, and a sense of community. It may never go beyond those few shared seconds, but it is such goodness that makes this a better world, here and now.

No matter what else is going on, those are choices I can make every day, even sitting on the front porch.

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