When I first saw her walking down the street, I confess I wanted to ignore her. She was wailing, flailing her hands, and muttering jumbled words I couldn’t make out. On a cloudless 65 degree day, she was walking down the street in a long wool coat, baggy pants, and worn sneakers. The wailing grew louder, and I put on my helmet, fiddling with my bike lock, ready to leave the cafe I just got done dining in. My friends had all left, and my bike lock was stuck. Annoyed at the lock, then annoyed at myself for thinking my dad’s high school U-lock would still work in 2014, I finally got the lock undone and pulled my bike away from the street sign. The woman was walking down the street toward me, and I was coming toward her direction to go down the road that would take me home. I planned on smiling at her and looking her in the eye to say, “Hello,” expecting I might get asked for money. It’s happened plenty of times before, so my thought was not unfounded. But instead something else happened.
Our eyes stopped glancing toward each other, because our ears heard something. We both turned our eyes toward music we noticed coming from the cafe’s outdoor speakers.
Jump On It, Sir Mix A Lot’s 1996 hit, was coming from the speakers for all passers-by to hear. She began to laugh. I began to laugh. She started dancing, moving her hips then pausing them at the precise time when the “dun-na-na-na-nah-nah-nahs” came on, laughing with her whole mouth. I couldn’t help myself. I slid right next to her just in time for the part where you turn around, swinging your arm over your head as though you’re waving around a lasso. Her infectious joy caught onto me, and the two of us—she in her long winter coat, and me wearing a neon shirt and bike helmet— danced like two fools intoxicated by the music and the warm sunshine that sang of spring’s soon-to-be debut.
We kept dancing, and I was grateful they played the extended remix version instead of the regular, as to get every minute in with my new dancing partner. Alas the song drew to a close, and we finished facing the sun, arms extended, our smiles and laughs communicating to one another, as if to say, “Gee, that was fun!”
I asked her for her name. “Terryn,” she replied. “I’m Melissa,” I replied back. She began to walk the other way, and started laughing at a car driving in reverse. I guess she expected it to go forward in drive, and the sight of it going the other direction was enough to set her off laughing. As I turned the corner to head home, she went back to talking to herself. But I was so grateful we got to dance together, if only for those few moments, in lucid clarity.
A colleague I work with was recently telling me about a training she went to in which attendees were required to go out in the community wearing headphones that played a recording of voices talking in various tones to mimic what people with schizophrenia go through. Instructed not to take the headphones off and not to adjust the volume, she and her friends in the training had to complete tasks around the community— find the nearest bathroom, ask someone on the street for directions, etc. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she shared. “For the life of me, I couldn’t concentrate, and I felt crazy inside not being able to shut off the noises we were hearing. It gave me compassion. We really have no idea what it’s like,” she reflected.
I thought back to my colleague’s comment as this woman was walking down the street, back to talking to herself, and tried to put myself in her shoes. While I don’t know for sure that she had schizophrenia, I thought about what it would be like if it happened to me. How powerless or misunderstood I might feel. Maybe, I’d just want to love everybody I’d meet so fervently, but for the life of me, my words, thoughts, and behaviors wouldn’t be able to follow through. The woman I danced with, though, had a beautiful lucid moment, as though she was trying to love like that.
It reminds me of my favorite poem by Mark Nepo called “Life in the Tank.” In it, he describes an experience in which a child filled a bathtub for his fish to swim in while he cleaned their fish tank. Though the fish had the entire tub in which to play, they stayed huddled together in a corner, as though they never left the tank, when all surrounding them in every direction was fresh water to explore. Muses Nepo,
“Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs were unacceptable and that certain jobs were out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous.”
I wonder if the same can be said for our interactions with people. How many of us were told what people were “safe,” what people to avoid, who to talk to, and who to not even make eye contact with? Many of us were cautiously told “don’t talk to strangers” by someone who loved us with the best of intentions.
But is that the best we can do out there, in the real world? What soul-to-soul conversations have we missed because we were following the “don’t-talk-to-strangers” framework? What divine spark have we missed out on; what song did we miss dancing to, what high five did we not exchange because of the “life in the tank” mentality?
Caution has its merit, and so does instinct and prudence. Our hearts can’t be given away to everyone and anyone. But I wonder if our hearts are more malleable than we think. I wonder if we are meant to escape from the constricting layers that tell us to “just keep walking,” as if to keep every part of ourselves intact, not risking the opportunity for community and connectedness?
All of these things I ponder as I bike home after my interaction with my dancing stranger friend. The news in most cities- Baltimore, no exception- often shout of violence and try to covertly scare citizens into never coming outside, or to go outside- if you must- but don’t you dare come out of your shell of self-protection. My heart breaks over stories of innocent people victimized by violence for no apparent reason, other than the cliche “they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But maybe it’s time we start daring ourselves just a little bit more to believe in the possibility that we might be “at a great place at a great time.” That now is the perfect time to start dancing to the music- the music that may or may not even be audible. To be a little foolish. To invite someone new into conversation with dignity and sincerity. Yes. I’ll bike through these streets with both circumspect acuity and a posture of openness- open and ready to sing, dance, or high-five when laughter is our gain and excessive guardedness our loss.
I was in the front seat of my friend’s car earlier today, wrapped up in one of those conversations where you don’t realize that you’ve been sitting there, in the dark, car in park, for an hour, together contemplating all of the idiosyncrasies of life. We mused about our relationships and the “come close, stay faraway” phenomenon that some people find themselves regrettably emulating at some point in their lives. Maybe you know that I’m talking about. That dynamic where you’re close with someone, and long to be even closer. So you let them in. And it’s beautiful. But there’s a part of you that’s scared, so scared, so you send “step back” signals.
I think there’s this component of our humanness that desperately craves closeness, intimacy, to be known, loved, and accepted, and for everything to be alright— even amazing, like waving your hands in the air, screaming, hair blown back by velocity on amusement park rides— that crashes into the part of ourselves that fights pain, fights changes, fights hurt and loss and namely, wants to protect ourselves from everything and anything scary, unknown, and potentially pain-inducing.
Have you ever witnessed that “come close, stay faraway” factor?
Bruce Springsteen ponders it in “Secret Garden.”
She’ll lead you down a path
There’ll be tenderness in the air
She’ll let you come just far enough
So you know she’s really there
She’ll look at you and smile
And her eyes will say
She’s got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Where everything you need
Will always stay
A million miles away.
Similarly, Goo Goo Dolls begs for the soul of another to open the door of their heart with love in “Let Love In:”
You’re the only one I ever believed in
The answer that could never be found
The moment you decided to let love in
Now I’m banging on the door of an angel
The end of fear is where we begin
The moment we decided to let love in.
U2 seemed to have similar sentiments in their 1993 hit “Stay (Faraway, So Close).” Bono created the song for the movie “Faraway, So Close,” sharing that “the film was about angels who want to be human and who want to be on Earth. But to do so they have to become mortal. That was a great image to play with – the impossibility of wanting something like this, and then the cost of having it.”1 I mirror that with the “stay close, don’t get too close” theme of love costing something: crossing into the unknown and in doing so, facing your own vulnerability. And that’s a scary thing.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
I think we’re all a little bit scared of letting one another in. Into all those little cracks and crevices of our soul that are properly seated in the classroom, hands clasped, praying not be called upon. Don’t get me wrong, boundaries have merit. We can’t let everything, or everyone, into our souls. Some influences aren’t the ones we need to grow. Some things in this world will defile and break down our souls. Like a peephole on a door, it’s healthy to choose your influences and who you will surround yourself with.
I just wonder about the times in which we pushed something or someone out when we should have brought them in.
I wonder how many times we missed out on love- any love- agape, romantic, friendship- because we were too scared of having our heart opened, exposed, fully letting in the light of another.
I wonder how many conversations we’ve accumulated in which we settled for safe by responding to “how are you?” with trite replies of “good” when every part of us knows we’re not good. So we quickly progress to stale topics, like the weather, all the while depriving our souls of deepness and wonder and intimacy.
I wonder how many of us will reach some ripe old age with questions about our families left unanswered because we were too afraid to ask about the skeletons in our closets or the dirty laundry or the elephants in the room or the mess that feels too knotty until, in our bravest moments, we gather the courage to unknot the tangles to realize that when we put the pieces back together again, it can be even more beautiful than when we first started.
So our souls fight to trust Him/Her and we take a chance here, go for a risk there, holding God’s hand, perhaps, I wonder, content with splashing around in the baby pool because even with swimmies, we’re too scared to try the big pool and so we’re splashing and getting our toes wet, all the while hearing the joyful, playful shouts of friends or strangers dunking each other in the big pool, diving and doing handstands and checking out the ocean… and while every thing in our soul shouts, “you’re big enough,” “you’re brave enough,” “go play,” “go try,” “there’s room out there for you too,” we resist it and lament in our kiddie pools, smiling when the jets pour in just a little more water for our ankles to become wet.
What are we so afraid of? Of getting hurt? Of getting let down? Sometimes, for me at least, yes. But what makes me think my feeble “stop sign” hand is what will protect me from the precarious position of human life and emotion? I’m beginning, more and more, to think that every time I hold out my hand to guard, to protect, to control the outcome or not get hurt or not experience pain or change, or actively contribute to my growth moving from the known into the unknown, I have to start to wonder if I’m doing more harm than good. Do we want to look back on life and realize that all of our guarded moments never actually protected us at all? Can we accept that living with your heart on your sleeve may get you hurt, but it’s the only way to truly live, to truly feel, to truly heal, to truly “be real” with another human being?
I know we’ve tasted the opposite, too. You know that soul-to-soul connection with that friend, with that lover, with that mentor? Where it’s you and them and the two of you realize there’s so much more going on here than we can fathom. And that by opening ourselves up to the truth, our questions, the things we’ve been wondering, we are greeted not in word or whisper but by a taste of the soul, as if our hearts are whispering to each other, “See, isn’t this beautiful?”
I had one of those connections the other day with my dad. We were biking and I was talking to him about stuff from childhood, asking questions I never thought to ask, and learning things I never knew about our family. This is the beautiful connection that happens when we cross over and enter into each other’s stories, but not the finished part, rather the unexpurgated story that’s raw and real and human.
I don’t know what all this letting love in and being vulnerable stuff looks like, and I’m tempted to cast this whole thing off as being overly emotional as I once again stay up too late, writing this, pondering life and spirituality and the rings upon rings of circled skin that compose my fingerprint. But I think we’re onto something. Onto something with the whole letting-love-in-thing… starting with letting God’s love in and as that takes a hold of our heart over and over again, like the daily tide washing over the shore, we’ll discover the beauty and the holy ground that’s only possible when we, too, recognize that
the only way to see again
is to let love in.
Have you ever found yourself in the “Stay Away, Come Close” phenomenon? What was that experience like? How do these experiences intertwine spiritually, emotionally, in our relationships, in our friendships?