Sunday, March 23, 2014

I Came Across a Body

When I run ideas percolate to the surface. This story has risen and settled several times. It’s rough and it’s probably not ready to be shared, but whose to judge? I return in my mind’s eye to the scene of the body.  It's got a hold on me. 

When I run I reflect on life’s happenings, good, bad, and disturbing. This is how stories come to be on this old blog. I run to clear my mind and sort through ideas.  I run because to do otherwise is unfathomable. Running is my therapy, writing is my release.

I came across a body.
I was rushing to work the other day when I came across a body. I was running late. I was to present to a staff.

I rubbernecked a body shape as I zoomed by in my little car down lonely Alexander Street. Alexander Street, where it's best not to be found after dark.

“There's nothing I can do and I'm late,” I thought as I zoomed on by.

I paused at the stop sign some 200 meters beyond the body. My options were simple, turn right to my destination or return to the body? With one foot on the gas and the other on the brake I pondered this dilemma. It was a critical moment that we all find ourselves facing from time to time.  Jagged thoughts ensued…
Is the body alive? 
Is the body in trauma? 
It's freaking cold! 
Do I care?
Is it just another drunk? 
There's no one around to judge me and I'm late. 
No one will ever know if I keep on going.

Removing my foot from the brake I turned slowly and pulled up alongside the body.  I yelled from the safety of my car "Hey, are you awake?"

No response.

I approached the body, stooped and shook its hip lightly. No response. I shook the body again, harder this time and yelled again, louder than previously.
Still, there was no response.

I called 911. 

"Is he breathing?" the operator asked.

"I don't know." I replied.

"Can you check?" she asked in a calm voice.

With phone in hand I returned to the body and stooped again and shook the body’s shoulders hard and yelled "Wake up, wake up".  I thought for sure the body was dead, how could it survive a night on this desolate, cold street.  He just curled up and died.

Suddenly a head popped out of the dirty cocoon of a sleeping bag. He was confused and looked fearful.

I spoke softly "Are you okay? Do you need help?”

I remember his long scruffy hair falling loosely over his young face. His bleary eyes were dark and empty. He was little more than a child really, maybe early twenties, but it’s hard to say for sure. My heart softened and time stopped in this moment of compassion. Our eyes locked, me standing, he lying in the cold gutter. 

"Yes, the body is breathing" I told the 911 operator while standing over the body, our eyes locked.  

I left the body lying on the cold street with a $10 Tim's card and $10 cash. An ambulance had been dispatched. There's nothing more I can do.

"Go get a hot breakfast, buddy, It's cold out” and drove off in my warm car.

I started my presentation.  “I’m going off script” I told the audience, and I proceeded to tell the story of the body and my ambivalence. I asked them to consider their students and reflect on their practice.  We talked about mental health and mental illness.  We talked about the universal need to belong. We talked of the importance of feeling safe and loved. We talked about states of languishing and flourishing.  We talked about making learning meaningful and relevant for all students especially those at risk. We talked about how might we create a school community where all belong, all succeed, and all are cared for deeply.

These invisible bodies that we step over are the philosophers of our time.  They teach us compassion, but we turn away. They teach us patience but we are too busy.  They give us wisdom, but we turn our backs.  If only we would heed their voice.

I thank the body for his wisdom, his patience, and the compassion that warmed my soul. I thank the Alexander Street body for this story and I wish him well.

Today I ran 12 hard, fast miles with friends and it was life affirming.
It's a good day to be alive.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Garbage Hill Angel

Some kind of saviour singing the blues
A derelict in your duct tape shoes
Your orphan clothes and your long dark hair
Looking like you didn't care

Lucinda Williams, Drunken Angel.

Photo Credit, Heidi Hunter, Runs With Scissors
Cynthia and David got me thinking of angels. Not the creepy doe eyed, yellow haired, wing sprouting angel. Nope, I like my angels with a little grit. I like 'em with broken wings, with warts and bruises, derelicts in duct tape shoes.  I like my angels sprouting pain with a side of wisdom, not wings. 

Let's back it up a bit...

Cynthia writes....

I saw an angel today. Her name was Leticia. We were on opposite sides of Marion Street. She was the first to reach Lloyd, a man lying face down in a snow bank. Traffic was heavy and I could only watch as she lifted Lloyd to his feet. She brushed the snow off his face and then his entire body. She took off her mitts and put them on his hands. She then grabbed him securely and started to make the shaky walk across Marion. That's when I decided I would stop staring and help. 

I jumped onto Marion and stopped traffic with my commanding red jacket and balaclava. I held Lloyd with Leticia and we walked him across the road. We took him to McDonalds and as I picked up his food order, I saw Leticia help dress Lloyd. He struggled in so many ways. 

I really looked at him. He was a beautiful man. He told us how grateful he was and gave us a hand signal for love. We left him to eat. Later, I passed by where we left him and peeked through the window. There he was sipping his coffee slowly, completely owning the moment. A moment that was warm and safe. I wept in that moment. 

I saw two Angels today and their names were Leticia and Lloyd.

To which David responds...

Lest we entertain angels unaware. Whatever your faith, Cynthia, you have allowed yourself to be touched by our common humanity. Never lose that ability to embrace the beauty found in the least likely of sources. You are a good person to have seen beyond the surface. May you own the moment.

Ever the sucker for good prose (I saw an angel today... my commanding red jacket...touched by common humanity) I set off on a quest for angels. With my iPod thematically loaded... angels wanna wear my red shoes, fallen angels, drunken angels... I hit the river trail.

Alone, with thoughts of angels churning through my brain, I run this gorgeous trail in -50 degrees celsius.

Alone, running in rhythm with my heart and lungs in perfect cadence with my legs and arms. 

Alone, reflecting on angels I have met, angels I have loved, and angels I have cruelly ignored. 

I recall a broken angel on Garbage Hill last summer. Garbage Hill, where runners and fallen angels find common ground. He was face down on the trail when I passed by the first time, and the second time, and the third. The noon sun was blazing, dangerously hot.  

On my fourth lap I stopped and said ... hey buddy, you okay? ... only to realize the absurdity of the question; a question for which I have no understanding, no right to ask. No response. I stooped down and shook him lightly. I remember the sour smell of old vomit, his tattered clothes, his matted hair. I shook him hard on the third try and he woke in terror. Fear flashed in his eyes. His brain steeped in cortisol and rye whisky, his fists clenched in defence.  I backed off while we sized each other up. Me standing, he kneeling, broken; the symbolism painfully obvious.

I offered my water and said ... buddy, it's hot, you're gonna die here, let's move to the shade. His eyes softened and his fists relaxed as he reached for my water bottle and drank deeply. I helped him to his feet and supported him to the luxurious shade of the elm tree 30 paces uphill. 

I left him sleeping with my water bottle by his side.  I continued running the hills for another hour; up and down, all around, running in penance for the damage we inflict on humanity; you know the drill. One lap he was there, the next he was gone. All that remained was the empty water bottle and the memory of this angel. 

This Garbage Hill angel, this man of common humanity, this man disappeared from my life as suddenly as he entered.  I embraced the beauty in the least likely of places and my heart soared and my soul cried. 

I allowed myself to touched by common humanity and I am humbled in its presence. I am blessed for this broken angel has entered my soul.

Musician Chuck Brodsky says "We are each others angels". With this in mind I thank angels Cynthia, Leticia, Lloyd, David, Heidi, and the Garbage Hill Angel for loaning me their spirit in writing this story.
We are each others angels.

It's a good day to be an angel.