Philosophers have asserted for thousands of years that we are not defined by our bodies, by our deeds, by our feelings, certainly not by our possessions or even by our intentions. These thinkers assert that humanity is defined by spirit, and we’re encouraged to think of ourselves as an empty bowl — my body is the bowl and my spirit resides in the emptiness of the bowl. As a woman actively seeking to define for myself the space between my feelings, my intentions and my thoughts, I ask of myself: what occupies that space? On my best days, it’s love. And maybe on my worst days, it’s love.
My watch word for two years running has been “compassion” and when seeking compassion for myself and others I’ve come to find it only where love resides. My heart has also taught me that love is limitless. I have no fear of giving away too much love. I don’t subscribe to cautions about forgiving the unworthy, or trusting people too much. Where love is concerned, I’m trying to honor my “all in” nature. But even though I seek to give love freely, I know I need to make sure that I nourish my source. Gotta replenish the bowl. Here’s the thing: I can’t look to any one person to replenish that love. I can’t ask that the giving of love is reciprocal. It’s not a transaction, it’s a gift. So what about that empty bowl?
Once upon a time, a long time ago, it was a dark, shitty evening. I’d had a shit day at work — full of high drama and asshattery and I came home entirely done. I had nothing — and I mean no thing — left for myself or my family. It was most definitely a take-out night. Neither my family nor I felt any enthusiasm for take-out, but food must be eaten, if for no other reason than to get me closer to bad TV and bed (and probably a glass of wine). I got the kids something. I got Dusty something (multiple stops was fine by me — more time in the car and less time subjecting myself to other humans). I had no idea what I wanted but decided to drop off the meals I’d already purchased and meander over to the local strip mall for cheapo Chinese food.
It looked menacing outside. The sun had not merely set — it had run for cover. You could feel the storm gathering itself for an onslaught. I had a pounding headache, my blood sugar was low and I was completely out of fucks. Not one fuck could I give. I felt as menacing as the gathering storm. As I got out of my car an older black woman approached me and asked if I could help. I scrambled for an excuse, but I was entirely empty. I hemmed and hawed, struggling for words. She went on to explain that her car had died at the Costco across the street, that she had not been able to get in touch with someone who could pick her up. Her home was on the other side of town, she needed groceries and she needed to get home. She made no mention of the storm that was about to inundate us. I had nothing else to say, so I said “yes.”
We got into the car (which was a colossal, fucking mess) and it was at that point that both of us realized we’d thrown ourselves into some kind of real-life exercise in trust. She had clearly missed all my menacing signals. She’d not gotten the memo that I was entirely out of fucks and sequestering myself even from the people I loved the most. And all my own defenses had departed with the chickenshit sun — fleeing my own, menacing clouds. I could hear older, wiser voices in my head raging that I could very well have invited an ax murderer into my personal space. I pulled onto the street and hoped she’d be able to guide us to her home.
It started to pour. Not rain, but pour. Sheets of rain clouded my view, distorting the red glare of the brake lights in front of me. Perhaps to reassure ourselves we started to chat, interrupting our surprisingly easy rapport with directions and exchanges about the best ways to get to our destination. About 5 minutes into our trip my passenger started to thank me profusely. She was nearly in tears — perhaps because she felt relief at having found some help, perhaps because she suddenly realized that she was alone with a grumpy, old, white woman who may or may not be dangerous. In an effort to reassure her, I told her it was my pleasure and that I had certainly needed this kind of assistance in my day. I changed the subject and asked if she was going to have help rescuing her car. She took the cue and started talking. It was a rapid-fire soliloquy at that point and I only remember bits and pieces of it, since I was trying very hard to stay on the road (it was still pouring). She had worked at Duke, we knew some of the same medical folks, she had health issues, she was working intermittently and there were adult children living with her in her two-bedroom apartment on the Eastern side of town. I was still mostly hemming and hawing, signaling that I was listening but still trying to keep sight of the yellow line down the center of the street, which was rapidly fading from view.
And then she changed the subject. “You’re an angel” she said. “No, I’m not! I think you’re the angel” I responded, surprising myself with the earnestness of my proclamation. Because she was. We marveled at how we’d found one another, at how we’d trusted one another and how funny life was when your defenses are down and you have barely any fucks to give. She’d given me an opportunity to be my best self when I was absolutely certain that my bowl was good and empty.
We found our way to the Food Lion near her home. She refused the umbrella I offered to get her into the store, so I left it in the car and we both picked our way through the rain and into the bright, cheerful, dingy store. The cop who earned a little extra money on the side with his security gig, was leaning amiably against the customer service counter, chatting with the very young man who managed the store. As soon as she walked in, he looked up, waved at her, called her by name and inquired after her health. All the other checkers within ear shot turned to see her, shouting over their shoulders familial greetings. This woman was well-known and well-loved. I was traveling with a rock star. Of sorts.
We’d discussed in the car her grocery list and had agreed that once in the store we’d divide and conquer. I was in charge of collecting a few items that would get her family through the next couple of car-free days — cereal, milk, bread, PB, luncheon meat (ham), cheese, fruit (bananas and apples) and something entirely unhealthy (chips, I think?) on accounta — logic. My friend moved purposely through the store to the deli where she got a roast chicken and past the freezer section where she pulled her grandchild’s favorite brand of pizza. As we checked out I got the third degree from the checker while the cop perched nearby and listened in on the exchange. These people were protecting my friend and they were not trying to be subtle. I was humbled and I was grateful. As we left, one of the bag-boys called out to my friend and assured her he’d help figure out her car woes once she’d found a way to bring it home.
We bundled ourselves and our groceries back into the car and she settled into her seatbelt a new woman. She was less shaky and more assured. She directed us adroitly through the neighborhood and up the hill to her apartment. I helped her through the door with her groceries and once inside she put her share of the bags down and shouted out to the empty house to see if anyone had come home. She apologized weakly for the state of things — the living room having been transformed into a bedroom and the kitchen — on the far end of the room — appeared to have expanded its role to include both pantry and clothes closet. It was sweltering, dark and spotlessly clean, carefully appointed with homey wall hangings and cared-for furniture.
I climbed back into the car and drove home almost in a daze. I called my husband to let him know I’d be home in a bit. I hinted that I’d have a story to share, but I had a feeling it would be difficult to communicate the enormity of the unfolding events. I drove through the still-pouring rain, blinking and giddy as I found my way through now-familiar streets. I started to edit in my head the headline: “I met an angel!” I started to weigh the reaction I’d get from friends or family with whom I’d share my story. But it wasn’t a story. It wasn’t a supernatural occurrence. I hadn’t even performed a super-human or heroic act. What the fuck just happened?! I hadn’t done a damn thing except follow with grumpy resignation the flow of the evening’s surprising events, and you know what? That bowl was full to overflowing.