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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Week 4: The Gift of Taking Ownership

Photo by jonboy mitchell on Flickr

I yanked on the combination lock in growing despair, the perfect row of numbers impervious to my attempts.

My preschooler sat patiently in the bike trailer, the only “available” vehicle among us. We were outside a fast food restaurant 3 miles from our house with my son’s little orange bike and my red Schwinn safely chained to a wooden pole in the parking lot.

“I must have re-set the combination when I was jiggling the red things to lock it up,” I said to my son, the calm in my voice belying the sinking feeling inside.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“That our lock is now set to a new, random combination and we can’t get our bikes out.”

“Oh no! My bike! My speedometer!” my son wailed. Having logged close to 200 miles since July, the speedometer had now become as precious as the ride itself.

Unable to reach my husband at any of the numbers I had for him, I took a deep breath.

“We’ll have to walk home pushing the bike trailer,” I said, looking uncertainly at my daughter, whom I had bundled up for a 20 minute ride on this February day, not a one hour walk.

Then, acting more on an impulse to connect with another human being than on any hope of assistance I added, “I’m just gonna run inside the restaurant and tell the manager.”

After waiting in line with other customers, I told the manager my story – twice – before he seemed to accept it. “I’m not asking for help,” I assured him in response to the uncertain look on his face. “I just wanted you to know what was going on, so you wouldn’t worry – or call the police to remove the bikes – or something.”

Trudging back into the cold I took another minute to jiggle the unyielding cable and stare mournfully at the two trapped bikes. In my mind, I could hear my husband’s tone of “patient exasperation” as I told him what happened. I was dreading it.

Just then I noticed a Latino man in a crisp blue button down shirt heading our way. According to the gold tag on his chest he was Juan, a more senior manager who had been called by the other manager to see if he could help us out.

After scrambling the numbers and spinning them back to the combination I provided, he dropped the cable and stepped back, examining the scene with a thoughtful eye.

“Huh..” he said, as though seeing a solution to a Mensa puzzle that was too simple to be true. “I think you could just…”

And then Juan, like a magician performing the final move in an impossible act, deftly slid the cable down the handlebar, looped it through the frame, and pulled it out, leaving my bike free while the cable remained solidly around the wooden pole.

“Wow!” my son and I cheered. “That’s fantastic! Thank you so much!”

Juan smiled shyly.

“I mean that’s terrible!” I said, laughing. “I did that chain all wrong! Anyone could have taken the bike!”

Juan was already kneeling to examine my son’s bike, which was held fast only by the spaghetti thin tubing of the brake.

Running back into the restaurant, he returned with a wrench and within minutes had taken apart my son’s brake mechanism, placing various parts of it around us on the sidewalk and freeing the bike.

I felt grateful, elated, lucky, and not a little embarrassed. Here I was a University professional who couldn’t even lock up my bike properly, never mind use a simple combination lock without re-setting it.

“How did you know how to do that?” I asked Juan after he had reassembled the brake and tested it.

“In Mexico,” he said (pronouncing it Meh-hee-co), “if you don’t know how to fix your bike, you don’t have a bike.”

I was curious and asked more questions. Juan told me how he uses salvaged parts from all kinds of models to fix his friends’ bikes – and how his bike was once stolen under his nose when he went inside for a minute to get a tool.

The kids were waiting and it was time to go. As we pushed away, I felt exhilarated at the turn of events, the only ransom for our freedom a $7.00 cable left hanging around the pole.

And there was something else as well. A spaciousness and a feeling of awakening. Something in what Juan had said had tapped into a deep place in me, a place of “recognizing” a truth I already have.

It is the part of me that wants to take care of my own stuff, to know what I am eating and where it comes from, to understand how things work, to be closer to the underbelly of the beast.

It is the part of of me that wants to learn to take apart my own brakes – and to unhitch myself from the wooden posts that seem to trap me, when in reality, I am free to go the whole time.

It seems that in my life, as in Juan’s, if I don’t know how to fix my bike, I don’t really own it.

Thank you, Juan, for the inspiration and the reminder.


Week 3: The Gift of Seeing

image of person within human eye

Photo by naturesdawn on Flickr

The Stranger with whom I planned to share this week’s gift of NonViolent Communication (via Marshall Rosenberg’s classic book on that subject) wound up being a self-described resident of the men’s homeless shelter – who did not read or write.

Sitting in the library cafe in front of his laptop with a homemade lunch of granola and cranberries, his fluffy beard-tuft and small black skullcap gave him an air of thoughtful presence.

“May I join you?” I asked, my heart beating wildly.

And thus began a remarkable two-hour conversation which ranged from his vegan diet (“It’s hard to eat healthy in the Shelter, though”) to romantic relationships (“I was married once – just for a few months. It didn’t work out – the environmental context was all wrong”) to the mystery of urinary tract infections (“How do you get those?”) and the wonders of Psychology (“That’s like having a degree in Intelligence! Because you know the difference between thoughts, wishes, plans and ideas – which most humans don’t even think about”) to the rise and fall of his fortunes (“When it’s warmer my yard business picks up. Then I have some silver and platinum in my pockets.”)

His thoughts, sometimes clear and poignant – sometimes non-linear and disconnected from my reality, meandered widely, always curling back to his main point in the end.

“I learn differently,” he told me several times. “I never could master spelling or reading. I sat all through school watching others ’round me, trying to pick up what they were doing and saying. Mostly I learned from watching TV, though – you know, top 10 CNN news stories. People would always tell me ‘you’re so smart!’ but they wouldn’t help me. Then I realized that what they wanted was to steal the smart thoughts from my mind… So, as a kid, I would steal things from others. Sometimes I’d get caught. Been to prison for stuff I done – and stuff they nailed on me. Thing I learned after a while is they don’t wanna help you. They rather fuck you and fuck you and fuck you than help you. But I’m just slow, you know. I learn differently from others and that’s how it’s always been.”

As I was getting ready to leave, he stared moodily at his computer (“a gift from a friend on campus”), clicking back and forth between the currently unused Twitter, Facebook and g-mail accounts she had set up for him.

“Maybe you were sent to me,” he said, “By someone. Or by God. Maybe we are meant to help each other. You said you are looking for purpose in life. I might know something about that. I might be able to help. And you could help me. Do you think you could help me?”

His plaintive request ricocheted in my mind as I walked out of the library, head bent. I’d told him I wanted to think about it and asked where I could find him (same table, same place, every day). I felt like crap.

What was I doing? Why was I reaching out to others if I were not willing to follow through? But I already felt full – already not finding the spaciousness I wanted in my life – to connect with family and friends – to be a mom and lover and fly-by-writer and better-keeper of the vessel in which I lived. And what if he asked for things I wasn’t comfortable giving? Or if I compromised my family’s safety by reaching out to him?

I didn’t want my “self-improvement project” to become a game I played with other people’s feelings. But where did my responsibility to others begin and end?

Later that night, still revved up and ruminating, I shared my feelings (via Skype instant messenger) with a friend who’d taught NonViolent Communication to men in homeless shelters and prison:

Me: still worked up about the stranger. 2 hrs with him. looking in my eyes the entire time – and me looking back

Friend: wow. dignity.

Me: he asked for help

Friend: hmmm – you gave him hope. he mattered. when you are invisible like these guys often are, being seen and heard are huge.

I didn’t know what I’d do next or how I’d answer my own thorny questions. Yet, I felt somehow lighter and freer.

I had looked a Stranger in the eye as he talked about his pain, confusion, and struggles – and I had tried (imperfectly, clumsily, sometimes distractedly) to see the humanity within him.

Maybe Seeing was as worthy a gift as any, and maybe, I had managed to share the heart of NVC after all.

Creative Commons License
Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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