As I prepare for the New Year, I find myself combing through past posts, searching for poignant memories and lessons learned. Perhaps ironically, I am drawn to one of my earliest musings, a piece that details an encounter with a homeless woman temporarily living in a neighborhood park. Her image has become indelibly associated with the place, and I find myself thinking of her often.
Unsure what is befitting my 100th post, the final day of a fascinating year, and the beginning of unknown adventures to come, I re-offer Dorothy’s Gift, originally posted in December 2013.
Happy New Year everyone, and thank you for being part of my journey.- Mara
The moment of realization struck me like a lightning bolt. The woman sitting on this bench before me had been in this very spot for several days, maybe even weeks? I strained to remember when I had first noticed her, but couldn’t get past the weight in my throat as I acknowledged the obvious. She was sleeping there, on this bench, in this lovely little park right in the middle of my neighborhood.
My cherished early morning walk had come to a halt as I stood there looking at her trying not to be noticed. The impression was one of a mystical tree. Draped in a dark green cloak with a peaked hood and flowing sleeves, she sat with her head down, all angles pointing to and merging with the earth. Her legs were like thick tree trunks, completing the image of stillness, strength, nature.
Although I didn’t want to disturb her I knew that I had to acknowledge her presence and repent for the days that I had let slip by, lost in my own self. I resumed walking and prepared to initiate conversation, or at least some respectable gesture. As my steps approached her bench I uttered, “Good Morning,” and immediately regretted my words.
But a melodious voice echoed, “Good morning to you.” I stopped to pivot, beholding the rising of the hood, and the whitest most lovely set of teeth parting in a warm smile. In just a moment I took her all in- well kempt hair, healthy glowing skin, and a tiny diamond ring on clean and dainty fingers.
Despite my shock I continued conversation, confirming that she had been sleeping in the park, and inquiring about her safety and well-being. Her responses were light and reserved, hinting at circumstances and her decision to make the park her temporary home. She alluded to domestic and mental health issues, plans to move to a shelter in Carolina, and only mild concerns about the cooling temperatures and impending weather. She was clearly a woman with choices, a woman with a plan.
Feeling our conversation coming to a close I asked if there was anything I could bring her to make her stay more comfortable. She dismissed my gesture with an airy wave and insisted, convincingly, that she had everything she needed. I pressed on, determined to offer something of value. When she finally agreed to some left-over chicken and perhaps a light blanket, I turned and quickly ran home, assuring her that I would be right back but secretly scared that I would be too late.
When I got home I made a beeline for the kitchen, wrapping food items with care, and placing them in a still perfectly functional backpack from the previous school year. I sneaked up the stairs, trying not to draw my family’s attention as I frantically looked around, surveying the endless shelves and piles of stuff for worthy offerings. I grabbed a Smithsonian magazine and a book of crossword puzzles unused by my children at camp. And then I finally saw it, the perfect gift, making me giggle as I touched them one last time. I lovingly placed my most wonderfully cozy and warm pair of socks into the bag. They had been given to me by my husband, brought home from our family’s clothing store. Indulgently unnecessary, they were the perfect gift for someone who had everything and wanted of nothing. They were the perfect gift for my new friend Dorothy.
When I raced back to the park I was relieved to find Dorothy still on her bench, peaked hood down and re-rooted in the earth. I experienced a rush of gratitude as she lifted her head once more and returned my greetings. Like a child I described my offerings as I pulled each from the bag. Only mildly feigning interest, she accepted my gifts and thanked me by name, sealing the exquisite moment of connection that I continue to cherish today.
Some twenty-five years after my original read, I returned to Siddhartha looking for a trace of the teenager I had been, and perspective on the distance I’ve since come.
Admittedly, my reread began with some frustration. I wanted desperately to remember how I was first connected with the book. This contextual detail has become an important thread in my recent evolution. I have learned to embrace connections and the serendipity/fate that often catalyzes my most meaningful encounters. But despite my best efforts I have been unable to uncover the source of my initial interest. I suppose the question of how a 15-year old would stumble upon such a heady read will remain a mystery, at least until it is ready to be revealed.
Yet my connection with the book was immediately apparent. Its cadence and voice spoke to me in a way that was familiar and intimate. The story of a boy who is bright and curious, acknowledged for his academic gifts and promise, but rejects the easy path for a journey of personal growth and enlightenment. The resonance with my own childhood made me laugh out loud; curious and smart, certainly, with a leaning toward blatant insubordination.
Of course I had loved this book. The beginning of the story was affirming, giving me the validation and approval that I had so desperately craved. I was a precocious child who yearned for so much more – more experiences, more meaning, more truth. And although I did well by everyone’s standards, I felt trapped by the small town, small ideas, and compliance to conventional teachings and wisdom.
It was this insatiable version of me who leapt from the pages, urging me to rush forward, skipping over details devouring the big ideas, leaving me hungry for more. But as I sat rereading Siddhartha, pacifying my inner child, slowly reading aloud to appreciate the cadence and beauty of the prose, I found myself suddenly alone. Although the lessons of Siddhartha’s later years rang resoundingly clear and true, poignantly speaking to the adult I now was, the text had lost all familiarity. I was clearly reading it for the first time.
I laughed out loud as the realization hit me. As a teenager I had obviously skipped over the entire second half, racing toward the end, ready for my next read. I had gotten what I needed, what I had wanted from Siddhartha’s early years, and had dramatically declared the book to be pivotal to my growth and evolution.
To the current me, Siddhartha is clearly about the wisdom of humility, the insights that come from the rhythms of nature and the intimacy of touching souls. It’s about the riches of a life lived with honesty and simplicity, and about receiving the gifts that come when we are ready.
Although I cried when I came to the end of Siddhartha, it was not from sadness. Yes, I had enjoyed reconnecting with the youthful impatient version of me, but I was grateful for the sense of peace and reflection that enveloped my second reading. And this time rather than rushing through to get to the good parts, I instead found myself lingering on every page, hesitant for the book to come to an end.
*This post is part of an ongoing series associated with “The Big Reread”, posted on October 11th, 2014