Our stories connect us

Posted on Jun 6, 2011

I’m sitting on the bench in the Laundromat doing my monthly laundry, waiting for the last of my clothes to dry. It’s a lovely place, really, owned by a friendly chap, helpful and committed to running a quality establishment. He is, in my experience, successful.

About 90 minutes ago, a woman arrived whom I have seen here before. She smiled a big smile at me; and I smiled back, though at the time I was not exactly sure who she was. This is unusual here, as I have learned that the French think it strange to smile at someone you don’t know. But she did, and I did too.

There were two other women on the bench then, speaking English. I asked them where they are from, and learned they are sisters, from Samoa. One now lives in Australia; the other in Paris. But they have gone now, on their way to Italy for the day.

It is now only the two of us in this place. The smiling woman has draped her body across the bench and covered her face with her scarf. She is talking incessantly, and laughing without restraint. I can’t quite make out her words. Sometimes it sounds as if she’s praying, sometimes having a conversation with herself. She is not here to do laundry.

I remember her now. She was here the last time, on another Sunday morning, a month or so ago. The same thing happened then. And I felt the same discomfort. She is a mirror. So, while my clothes are tumbling, I look at myself.

First I feel my fear. I’m afraid to make eye contact with her for too long. Afraid to engage her in conversation. I think of what I could do, should do, but…. I decide to just sit here and be present with her and me and the moment.

I think of Minnie, my mother’s mother, who in 1938 was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. My mother was 14 when Minnie “went away.” She was incarcerated in an affordable mental hospital in Wichita Falls and treated with restraints, insulin shock, electric shock, and eventually (then in its first year of clinical use) a lobotomy.

My mother always wanted to be a writer. She became a physician and eventually a psychiatrist. She always said that Minnie was too creative for her life as a poor sharecropper’s wife isolated buggy distance from a tiny town in the Texas Panhandle. My mother never believed Minnie was schizophrenic. And my mother never became a writer. I did.

My heart goes out to this woman. I wonder about her story. I notice that she is well dressed, but she has only one sock on. I want to reach out to her, but what am I prepared to do?

I could have just written her off, called her crazy and alienated her even farther than she already is. I could also have done more to reach out.

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with a beautiful young family of friends. Over a delicious meal of fresh vegetables, homemade vegetarian tart, artisanal bread and wine, the conversation turned to independence, community and self-reliance. One of my hosts talked about how dependent we really are on each other. We turn on the tap and water comes rushing out. We go to the market and someone has grown the food and transported it there, and is willing to share it with us in exchange for our money. Then he showed me his vegetable garden, and gave me free samples.

It is 10:10 now. The smiling woman sits up and arranges her clothes. She covers her head in a headscarf. And then she leaves. I have my thoughts about the life she is going back to, but I cannot know.

We are all connected. We do need each other.

What can I do for this woman? What could I have done for Minnie? I guess my answer to that is what you’re reading now.

Perhaps what each of us needs as much as anything in life is someone to witness us. Someone to remind us that we exist, and that we have value.

Minnie could not tell her story. This woman tells hers on a lonely bench in stolen words while covering her face from the world. But I do tell stories, theirs, mine and ours. We all do.

Whose story were you witness to today? Share it.

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