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.