A Smile

  
There’s this guy I’ve recently noticed at my favorite coffee shop. He’s there when I arrive and he’s still there when I leave, every time I’ve been there lately. The last time my writing partner and I were there together we had a conversation about him, curious, wondering, about his story. My first guess is, he was once a soldier, obvious by a few distinguishing accessories he always carries with him. My second guess is, he’s witnessed something traumatic, obvious by the weight of the air around him. 

He sits at the same corner table, a battered notebook in front of him, furious scribbles bleeding out across the pages. It wouldn’t take a sharp observer long to recognize he’s haunted. By so many ghosts. Pouring them out each day over page after page after page. We’ve never spoken. I’m not sure he ever even looks up at those around him. His focus is always intent upon his pages, and the bleeding out of ink. 

Tonight though, was different. I’m by myself tonight, scribbling away at my own ghosts. I noticed him stand from the corner of my eye. As he walked across the room to throw something away in the trash can near my table, he looked up. And on instinct, I smiled at him. A smile and a nod. Even being the introvert I am, it’s just one of those Texas things you do when you make eye contact with a stranger in passing. It’s ingrained in us. I can’t help it. But the truth is, I wanted to smile at him. I wanted him to know, I see. 

It was clear in those few seconds in passing, he struggled to reciprocate. The smile he returned was nervous and heavy, his eyes shadowed, like the stories he carried had become too much, like he was daring me to run away screaming. A heart damaged. Walking wounded. Burned by a fire the naked eye can’t see.

I’m not normally moved by strangers. I’m notorious for getting lost in my own head most of the time and people blur past me unnoticed, as we all go about our respective business. But this guy, him, I saw. I made the decision to look up, to get out of my own head and pay attention. And now I can’t stop thinking about him. I can’t shake this feeling that his burdens might be undoing him and though the circumstances are most certainly different, I know what that feels like. I can’t shake this feeling that even though his posture screams “keep away”, he’s lonely, and I know what that feels like too. Now, he is haunting me.

It crossed my mind to sit down beside him, to trade a cup of coffee and a kind word for a piece of his story. But he already had a cup of coffee. And the set of his shoulders, curled tight and protective over his words, told me my offer wouldn’t be welcome. Maybe he just doesn’t want to be completely alone, and that’s why he’s chosen this place for his thoughts. And maybe, though surrounded by so many possible conversations, his words are meant for those battered pages only, because that is all that he can bear…

So, I ’ll sit here wondering from afar, curious and haunted by his sadness, sending up a silent prayer for the burden of the ghosts he carries. I’ll sit here in peace, sharing the space in respectful quiet. And I’ll smile when he passes by, wishing that he might find hope there or somewhere, anywhere at all.

He left before me tonight and his eyes found mine for the second time as he walked out. I smiled and he smiled. And maybe it was just my own irrational hope clouding my vision, but this smile didn’t feel as heavy as the one before. 

We’re all walking wounded, carrying ghosts. We’re all bleeding stories of either hope or madness, or some irrational combination of both. And the truth is, we all have a story to tell. We all want to be seen, to be understood, to be loved. 

I haven’t always been good at looking up, at paying attention to other wounds, but I’m getting better and better. I’m glad I looked up tonight. I’m glad I smiled. Because, maybe all this soldier needed, in the middle of his heavy story was a smile and a nod from a stranger, to remind him he matters. To remind him of hope. Maybe, that’s where redemption begins…in those slivers of hope. 

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Shadows and Cold: A Scribble by Leah Jarvis

  
I am blessed to be friends with some incredibly creative people, ranging from very young to very old. They inspire me on a daily basis and keep me going when I lose my spark. 

I had the privilege of spending this last weekend with just such an individual. In real years she is sixteen, but her soul is old and perceptive and wide and deep. I actually taught her in preschool for a very brief time, which brings to painful attention my own age. I consider her more than a friend, she is family, a niece if a title must be established and I love her dearly. What an inspiring and incredible thing it is to watch a human grow and become themselves. It has been an honor to watch Leah grow into a radiant, kind, sharp, compassionate, brilliant young woman. 

We share a love for words and stories, Leah and I. Bookstores and music, movies and old poems. These are the treasures I share with those I love the most. The conversations I most love to indulge in. 

So I asked her the other day, if she would be willing to share a scribble with me. If she would be willing to let me post it for my other word loving friends to enjoy. She said yes. So today I would like to share a scribble by the ever so incredible Leah Jarvis, brilliant teenager, beautiful soul and talented wordsmith, a scribble inspired by a conversation on the way home from a movie inspired by a book. 

Shadows and cold.

They are what creeps under your skin with rotten fingernails and through your porous bones, a paralysis. They steal your breath and replace only glass-cracked stiffness of the mind and soul.

Shadows and cold and holes.

You fall with the wind at your back only pushing further as it laughs, and then you hit the bottom only to have it crumble out from under you once more. You are swallowed in every sense of the word in the maw of your own helplessness. How freezing is it now, that your limbs aren’t even in agony anymore? There is only exhaustion, except that your heart is racing to catch up with you, to save you. It never makes it. It fails, and again, down you plunge.

But then, suddenly, it doesn’t matter, because there is a warmth that pulls back. Yellow flares up in the cold, and there is a candle flame beating like the heart far behind you. One single candle. Yet the exhaustion lifts, and relief washes like a bath.

The darkness snarls at it, snaps at it, but you are bold now. You laugh.

There is a light now, you say, gathering strength for the words.

The candle flickers dangerously and nearly perishes with a particularly biting gust of wind. Then it returns brighter than ever, renewed by the oxygen.

The darkness is ahead of and behind you. It’s impossible to see when this will end, or if it ever will.

But it doesn’t matter.

There is a light now, and its name is love.