The day after the presidential election a total stranger on the Muni complimented me on my boots and asked me where I got them. She was young, wearing a jean jacket and a had blue ribbon in her dark, curly hair. The boots were ordinary and I had been wearing them for years, black and at one time sturdy, with simple buckles across the ankles. This girl was the first person to speak to me after the tragedy I had experienced the night before and it jarred me out of a dark hole of despair.
Whenever I am confronted by kindness from a stranger, even if it is something as simple as a gesture or a smile, something frees up inside of me. My breathing lightens as the invisible spark of connection is lit and suddenly the world feels more pleasant. After the encounter with the stranger on the Muni my thoughts turned to my bereaved clients and how the world might feel to them today. They could likely be feeling sadder and more isolated and a compliment from a stranger would mean even more to them.
When I first moved to San Francisco I could neither believe nor understand the ease of life that I witnessed. After years of living in Manhattan, it was as if I could now take off my armor, whether it be a literal winter jacket protecting me from the cold or a figurative jacket which I also had worn, the one that said “look-down-keep-to-yourself”. People looked at each other in public here and strangers would say “good morning” to me. There was no jostling for position in crowded places and lines were actually formed by people who were waiting for public transportation. True statement! People made a line and then got on the bus or train in the order in which they were standing. This propriety baffled me and in a way its unfamiliarity made me uneasy.
After giving this weird behavior some thought, I came to the conclusion that this sense of decency had its origin in the fact that on the west coast pedestrians have the ‘right of way’. Traffic stops from all directions when the pedestrian crosses the street. For someone who had braved east coast city streets for years, it felt like I had a newly acquired super power. What I discovered about the crosswalk experience was enlightening. Drivers and pedestrians actually LOOKED AT EACH OTHER before proceeding. There was wordless communication going on all day long. Before stepping off the sidewalk the walker would look up, receive a nod or a gesture from the driver and then proceed. In return the pedestrian would smile and wave with appreciation at the driver for stopping. Even drivers at four way stops (which are common in San Francisco) would look at each other unless it was one of those magical moments when the flow was already in progress – driver #1 and #3 cross – driver #2 and #4 cross – back to #1 and #3 – you know the drill. The amount of signaling and waving was shocking. Now, years later, these habits are second nature to me. They have become reassuring reminders that people are connecting to each other, even if it is with the simple message “It’s your turn.”
This time of year is both dark and precious as we celebrate the season of lights. My own tiny recipe to celebrate the holiday season and help heal my post-election blues is to try to make contact with a stranger at least once a day. I know how it felt to have someone notice my boots on the morning of November 9th and the boots aren’t even that great.
Blessings, happy holidays and breathe. Slowly exhale out 2016 and breathe in with hope 2017.