One morning back in August my goddog, Ortiz, and I were walking through the local park, just as we do every day. This time, however, camped out along the side of a low hill was a small group of modern-day hippies. They were talking and laughing and when I passed they called out a greeting to me which I returned.
The next morning, they were there again. Once more we exchanged greetings and this time -- me at the top of the small incline and they at the bottom -- we engaged in a little bit of chitty-chat. They were originally from New Orleans, if memory serves me, and hitchhiking around the country. They were happy in that young, carefree, (possibly/probably stoned) sort of way and their smiles were contagious. One of them introduced himself. His name was Ash. He was young enough to be my son and was unbathed, unkempt, and somewhat spacey. But he was friendly and kind and excited about life. I liked him almost instantly.
They were still there the next day. And the next. Each time we nattered across the grassy bank; and each time Ash smiled and radiated and said silly and drifty but friendly and kind things. They'd announced they were leaving that afternoon, but the following morning there they'd be. On the fifth morning, Ash spread wide his arms in the glistening dawn light and asked if he could join me for the rest of my walk. The park is divided into two parts by a bridge. We were on the wooded side. I was headed toward the river side. I told him I'd circle back and get him.
I never did.
A bit of background: I'm recovering from a head injury and some brain injury as well. It's been a slow and arduous healing journey. To the unknowing eye, I seem fine. And in many ways, I am quite healthy now. But I still face quite a few challenges. Walking Ortiz each morning is actually one of them. Simple exchanges of pleasantries are another, as so much concentration is required.
So the thought of carrying on a half hour conversation with a stranger, especially such a vivacious one, felt beyond what I could handle. He seemed like a lovely, lighthearted guy -- the perfect balance to my serious, often intense nature. The companionship probably would have done me some good. In fact, I wanted to walk with him. But I couldn't. I was afraid. Afraid I wouldn't be able to follow the flow of our chat. Afraid that the injury would take me over in some way. And afraid that I'd let him down. Without the small incline to separate us, when he met me up close and personal, I was afraid that I wouldn't be at all the sort of person he expected me to be.
As I walked along the river with Ortiz, I felt sad. I assumed in some small way Ash would feel rejected, when in fact it was myself I was rejecting -- my ongoing struggle to make peace with my current imperfections. I wanted to explain this to him, but, of course, that would require crossing back over the bridge.
As I mulled this over I was reminded of two things. The first was something my teacher, Gelek Rimpoche, has said on numerous occasions. All of us are seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering. But sometimes our path toward happiness and avoidance of suffering crosses with another person's path toward happiness and avoidance of suffering and there's a disturbance. We take the other person's actions as "anti-us," but really, most of the time, it has nothing to do with us. The other person is simply trying to be happy and not suffer, and their focus isn't actually on us at all, it's on themselves. In other words: Don't take things so personally.
The other story involves a friend of mine who many, many years ago ran into the sister of her high school sweetheart. She still had a tender spot for this guy and was delighted when the sister took her number and said she'd pass it along to him. For weeks afterward, every time the phone rang her heart thumped with excitement, but it was never him. Then she slipped into an odd depression. He'd once meant the world to her; hadn't she too meant the world to him? After beating herself up in every way possible, the phone rang and it was him. Before asking her out to dinner he apologized for the delay in ringing her. "I was suffering from a debilitating skin disease," he said, "and I didn't want you to see me like that."
Yet even with these insights, I still couldn't cross the bridge.
The next morning I promised myself that if Ash was still game, I would walk with him. It doesn't matter if I lose the path of the conversation, I promised myself. It doesn't matter if I'm not funny or fascinating or the way he wants me to be. All that matters is that I allow a person into my life just as it is now -- not the future perfected life, but this flawed and sometimes scary one that's happening right this very minute. And rather than fright, I relaxed into these thoughts and even picked up the pace. But when Ortiz and I arrived, the bottom of the hill was empty.
We trudged down the slope to their spot; Ortiz sniffed the still flattened grass while I vowed to remember this moment. Firstly, because I missed out on some potentially wonderful company. And secondly, and perhaps most importantly, so that the next time someone didn't say to me what I wanted them to say or do for me what I wanted them to do and walk with me when I invited them along, I would consider that their actions might not have a thing to do with me at all, they might simply be recovering from their version of a head injury.