This heartwarmer is one that I’ve actually experienced three times so far on my adventure. Each took place in a completely different state, under somewhat different circumstances.
1) Oregon (Salem): Just a few minutes from where I was staying for the month, I had parked my car on the side of a small, windy road and ventured out to do some picture taking. After realizing that the road was far too narrow and that there wasn’t enough room for me to walk comfortably, I headed back to my car. On my way, I saw a car drive by and take a U-turn toward me. When the car reached me, the unassuming, middle-aged, male driver rolled down his window and asked if I needed to use his phone. He said that he had seen my car on the side of the road, thought maybe it had broken down, and wondered if I needed help. After informing him that all was well and that I was just trying to take a walk on what turned out to be a very narrow road, he smiled and requested that I be careful getting back to my car.
2) Idaho (driving from Boise to Hailey): Again, I was lured by the beauty of the countryside to park alongside the road and to step out to snap pictures. This, in an area completely lacking any human presence at the moment…just the simple comforts of towering mountains and deep valleys. And only the howling wind in my ears and the crackling pebbles beneath my toes to break the silence. As I walked back to my car, I heard an approaching truck gradually slow as it made its way toward my side. When I looked over, I saw a gristly, bearded old man tenderly inquire from the driver-side seat: “Is everything ok?” After hearing my positive response and seeing my appreciative smile, he waved and sped away toward Boise.
3) Montana (Missoula): I’d noticed that the tap water in both Idaho and Montana gave me a stomach ache when I drank it, so I’d gotten used to buying gallons of drinking water at the market. One sunny day, I walked about 20 minutes to the local store to buy a couple gallons to bring home. Walking back, nicely balanced with the handle of each one gallon jug wrapped tightly underneath by fingers, I enjoyed thinking of the pure sips that would quench my thirst upon my arrival. Just one block from home, I was approached by a woman in an SUV, with a baby-in-a-car-seat/backseat-driver smiling sweetly at me. Instead of just asking if I was okay, this woman offered to drive me home the rest of the way (having no idea, of course, just how long the “rest of the way” actually was). As I was just steps from home, I graciously declined and wished her and her little one a wonderful day.
People can be kind. Strangers can be giving. Humanity can be beautiful. And simple. And sweet.
And in response, we can be complicated. Mistrusting. And hard.
How we arrive in these situations, what we know of as “normal” and what parts of ourselves we bring into these experiences, can so taint what we see and how we react.
In each of these instances, I froze upon realizing that the approaching cars were slowing. Panic jumped in, my heart leapt, and my mind raced.
How do I get away? Where do I flee? How do I fight back?
And why? Why did I allow myself to be here, like this?
I am, so vulnerable. I am, at risk. I am, all alone.
Until I heard their offerings of kindness and confirmed the truth in their words. And my brain started to rearrange the facts into a new picture of reality.
And the fear began to subside.
The presence started to appear.
And the trust became acceptable.
I write these words, now, from a city of 78,000. Where we march with heads down, proceed at safe distances, and do our best to avoid contact of any kind. Where the noises drown out sound. Where we can’t sense the air around us, don’t hear the ground below. Where we smash each other’s windows. Where we scream into the wind as we walk.
I recently watched a talk given by a photographer doing work in very small, remote villages. She noted that in these places, stopping to offer help for roadside travelers was the norm.
What if we expected kindness, regardless of context? What if warm gestures and offers of help were standard? What if every time we “walked down the road,” someone stopped to make sure we were okay?
What if every day our hearts were warmed by strangers? How would we begin to see the world differently? How would first impressions change?
I am, so vulnerable. I am, at risk. I am, not alone.
And my heart, is warmed.