I’ve grown so accustomed to keeping my head down, my soggy boots marching forward through lung-burning cold and exhaust fumes, trudging past cigarette smokers and hacking coughs from strangers, that I didn't see her. At least, I didn't see her at first glance. My back’s become a little more hunched over as I've clutched my light blue scarf firmly against my neck and assumed a walking fetal position to keep from shivering. The bags and coats I've carried have small children on the bus concerned I am homeless or, perhaps in addition, slightly deranged.
To give you some context, I work downtown and much of my time there is spent shuttling between city buses, parking lots, skyways and sidewalks. Being in the hustle and bustle can be fun, but it can also be overwhelming. My senses are constantly hit with sights and sounds and what feels like a billion and one conversations being had simultaneously by the people around me. To call myself sensitive is an understatement; I am probably one of those uber-sensitive people who SHOULD be able to read minds or do some Matilda shit, but unfortunately it just makes me susceptible to sensory overload a little easier than others. For me, it can be panic-inducing to walk through the city's droves of people, not to mention rage-inducing to be cat-called or degraded on the occasion I walk to my car in anything less than a hijab. (Men might never understand the vulnerability of having complete strangers approach you at any time and call you a list of patronizing names like baby or sweetie, tell you to smile, perk up, or all sorts of other overly-aggressive patriarchal expressions.) Needless to say, there's a lot going on. To combat the panic, the droves of people I hardly know, I keep my head down. From the office to the gym to the bus to my home, I keep my head down and go inside of myself and pretend I'm not where I am. I weave in and out of the herds of people not up to par with my standards for how-fast-one-walks downtown. If you’re selling me shit, if you’re trying to say something to me, I’m not only not having it, my senses can’t handle it.
When I briefly lived in Chicago at 18, I developed these skills. I learned how to ignore someone, to see past and through them. If you acknowledged every person who tried to engage with you, you couldn't live your life. You’d never make it from A to B, you’d be taken advantage of, and you’d be mentally and emotionally exhausted. So instead of picking and choosing, I had to learn not to acknowledge any of it: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people. I had to focus on the task at hand--the mission, if you will--which was sometimes getting myself home at 4 am on the L or running to class past the herds of people wanting something from me. My body, my mind, my energy. I had to learn how to turn away from humanity a little bit in order to survive. Call it a coping mechanism, call it cowardly. It's just what I learned to do.
Which is why I didn't see her. At least not at first. I was walking home after work yesterday, head down. I heard my name called from a few feet away, from a stranger's voice that sounded eerily familiar. I looked up and saw a woman from one of my classes at St. Kate's. I couldn't place her at first, but associated her with a gentile kindness I remembered from one aspect or another of my scattered life. She hugged me, and asked how I was. There was a genuine interest in this question. She told me she planned to join the Peace Corps and we talked briefly about adventure and plans and the randomness of life. It was a two minute conversation that didn't feel forced. Rather, her sincerity snapped me out of my fog. It had taken me a minute to recognize her as she had lost a considerable amount of weight. I didn't say anything, I always think that would be annoying. Maybe she would have liked to hear it; it didn't matter to me. I recognized her same cheery smile and sweet, sing-songy voice; her sincerity. When she had called my name, my ears pricked up, my face lifted from my scarf-burrow, and I realized it had become warm again. Everything was damper, more humid; smells were no longer trapped in the frozen air. I could taste and smell and hear things that felt soft and gentle, things that felt like hydrangeas in the backyard in south Minneapolis and lazy days spent playing in the dirt and the mud. While I had been busy keeping my head down, the ice had begun to melt around me; people began to know me again, and I began to know people.
There’s a quote I read in The Desire Map that says something like “our relationship to others mirrors our relationship to life.” This encounter brought those words to the forefront of my mind. I may always walk with a purpose, remaining smartly guarded as I swiftly carry my humble frame from stop to stop. But I'm reminded to look up and notice the good things. Because while I was busy cursing my foot commute that day, people around me were coming alive, cracks in the sidewalks were sprouting new life, and the city that has cradled and jaded me began humming with a slow and steady buzz of vibrant things to come.
I once had an acting coach who started each class by doing a series of simple, slow yoga postures. She described the things we go through each day that contribute to our general sense of disconnection and malaise. She described the toll that seemingly innocuous tasks take on our bodies. How every time we have to merge on the freeway, our backs tense up a little bit. How we’re constantly bracing ourselves for the infinite stimuli we encounter each and every day. Unwinding these knots, learning to stop and release and straighten up—these are all powerful, hard lessons to practice. This teacher taught us to un-hunch our backs, un-clench our teeth, to attempt to embrace the world a little better. How can you connect with others (in a scene or in real life) if you can’t fully connect with the world?
Of all her pieces of advice, I’m going to add one more to her helpful list: look up. I don't need to remind myself to be any more guarded or protective of my senses; these things I've already learned. Maybe what I need is to write myself a little reminder each day in bold letters that says look up. Look up so you can see the ice melting. Look up so you can hear your name being called from a friend you forgot you had. Look up and accept you are a part of this crazy, bustling world that you will never fix and that is so beautifully broken sometimes you can see springtime through its cracks.