You know those times when everything feels like it’s working against you?
When your child is screaming and it takes 10 minutes just to get out the door?
And then you realize that it’s freezing outside and you forgot his shoes at the top of the stairs, which causes you to be 30 seconds behind where you would have been, which wouldn’t be so important except that it’s in those 30 seconds that you see two buses go by as you stand helplessly on the other side of the street.
You figure, there won’t be another bus for at least 5 minutes so let’s make the best of it and walk in the sunshine down to the next stop. Except that today- exceptionally- there’s another bus following right behind the other two. Oh, the feeling of impotence on a cold wintery morning when all that separates you from a warm bus is 4 lanes of a traffic and a red light! Nothing to do but grit your teeth and resign yourself to waiting for the next one which, on account of the three buses stacked one after another, is now at least a 10 minute wait since whoever’s in charge of the transit system (does such a character exist?) hasn’t figured out a way to space the buses properly.
The bus comes, we get on, and Gabriel starts to fuss like a hyperactive earthworm (perhaps he preferred to wait outside in the windy cold). Maybe he’s hot on account of all the layers I bundled him in, so I take off the hat with the cute little earflaps that hang down. That doesn’t seem to do it, so I try gently singing to him. Nope, he’s having none of that. Just when I begin to dread the thought of the next 30 minutes in transit, a woman steps in holding a turkey and cheese sandwich, which just happens to wind up at Gabriel’s eye level. The fuss stops immediately. He’s transfixed by the possibility of food… a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed.
Would he like a bite?
She hands us a small portion of her bread (homemade!). For the rest of our trip, Gabriel happily munches on this piece. Whatever was bothering him is a distant memory. We enjoy the rest of our journey.
This wasn’t an exceptional occurrence. Having taken about 40 round trips on metros and buses with Gabriel strapped in the baby carrier these last months, I’ve found that strangers have an amazing inclination to be kind to us. More often than not, fellow communters reach out to offer their seats along with their smiles. Sometimes all we share is a fleeting glance, while other times Gabriel catalyzes philosophical conversations on the nature of consciousness (no joke!).
Other interactions go straight to the heart. For two days in a row, we sat down on the same bus with a young Ethiopian mother who, over the course of these journeys, recounted how her sister is struggling to raise two young children while battling brain cancer. Hearing this story, I simply could not imagine how I would deal with the imminent demise of everything I held most dear. This encounter made me realize how easy it is to focus on what’s lacking in our lives, when the truth is that in every moment, we have been given so much. I was filled with gratitude for the simple fact that my body is healthy, for the fact that the people who matter most to me aren’t struggling with sickness.
I don’t have much time for seated meditation anymore. The hour a day that I would like to spend in formal practice is now spent in transit. The bus has become my temple; our daily commute is a pilgrimage where I reconnect with the beauty, wonder, and mystery of life. No less than in a religious temple or in retreat, the sacred finds ways to reveal itself in the most unexpected times in the most innocuous places.
We tend to think that we need to spend years in meditation or go to far off places to find something essential about life. But the most important truths are the most basic and visible. A smile is all it takes to transform tedium and monotony into joy. A little look from Gabriel opens up the qualities of the human heart, revealing our shared longing for a little kindness.
Of course, he won’t remember any of the lives that he’s touched. Perhaps that’s why he’s able to touch them. With his lack of self-consciousness and awareness, posturing, and expectations, he gives people permission to remove their masks. Without any words, Gabriel says, come on, lighten up a bit and let yourself play! What always surprises me is the enthusiasm and ease with which most people- men and women alike- do this. It’s like they were just waiting for the chance.
I hope that I remember this lesson after our bus pilgrimages end. One day, Gabriel will be able to find his own way to school, and I will have to find other ways to give people the chance to let their hearts shine. I feel like I’m training in smiling and being open so that I can continue to offer this to others, regardless of my age or theirs.