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Giving Thanks

Yesterday around noon I was walking two of my dogs along the canal, as I do at least once a day. It was a beautiful day in Phoenix — blue skies and just warm enough — and except for the sciatica that accompanies me everywhere these days, I was feeling pretty good.

I came upon a family with a string of fishing gear spread out on the bank of the canal. Apparently the family had been fishing, but had stopped. It looked like a mom and dad and two little girls. The woman was sitting on a bench a bit far away from the water, and the man was staring at her helplessly.

The woman appeared to be crying.

Almost as a reflex, I stopped and asked her “can I do anything for you? What do you need?” I was sure they would tell me they were broke or homeless, as many people I meet on the canal are these days.

But the woman gave me a surprising answer: “just talk to us,” she said. “We need to talk to somebody.” It turned out they had gotten a phone call that had turned their world upside down, and because they didn’t know how to deal with the news, they were having what the man referred to as an “altercation.”

In an effort to make them feel better, I told them most life situations were only transitory, and they might feel better tomorrow. I told them we were living in a very difficult period of history right now, and that I knew this because I had been alive for 80 years and had seen many ups and downs. They listened intently, even though I had no idea what else to tell them that might be helpful. After all, I knew nothing about them.

As the story emerged, I found out they were not from Phoenix, but from the White Mountains in northern Arizona. Those mountains are home to the Navajo and Apache reservations, and to the summer homes of many city dwellers. They are pretty rural, and completely different from life in Phoenix, a big city.

When I realized they were indigenous, I was even more at a loss. Decades of living in Arizona had taught me how self-contained native peoples could be. I had once coached Native American women in Phoenix who thought they wanted to become entrepreneurs, and came up against the fact pitching was completely against their culture, which taught them not to distinguish themselves. At that time I arrived at the conclusion that maybe I should just let things be.

That one lesson was all I had to go on now. I didn’t try to pry, I didn’t ask for details, and I didn’t try to solve their problem. But I did offer my own life experience, some of it pretty recent, with the lesson that things will almost always turn around if you can remember the principle of impermanence, which comes from Buddhism.

At the end of my little talk I reminded them to be grateful for the two small children somersaulting around us, and for the lovely day.

They thanked me and said I was helpful.

I felt completely inadequate. I wish I could have done more, but I didn’t even know what “more”might have been.

Later on I became grateful for them having entered my life. They presented me with an opportunity to be useful.

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