About a month ago I was taking a walk along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, having just arrived in San Diego a few hours earlier. I had my friend’s dog with me, and we were both so happy to be walking, together, that if I’d had a tail I’d have been wagging it right along with her. I was wearing just a t-shirt and yoga pants, after six weeks spent bundled in the countless layers required by life in a tough New Hampshire winter. And this particular winter, as some of you know, has been rapidly and regularly punctuated by near- and sub-zero temperatures, due to an uninvited guest called the Polar Vortex, or as we like to call it, “$%(*^*^(.”.
The sun had just set, but the sky was still light. It wasn’t, as sunsets go, Show Time, but beautiful in a quiet way nonetheless.
Was I smiling? Yep.
Was I open? I was practically hugging everyone who walked past.
Was I feeling the generosity of spirit which is the benchmark of my spiritual practice? Yes, yes, yes, can I get a “Hallelujah,” my fellow Sisters and Brothers on this fantastic journey we call Life?
So was I prepared for what happened next? Absolutely not.
Turning inland from the cliffs, I walked less than a block when I noticed a woman walking towards me down the middle of the cross street. It was a little odd. Who walks down the middle of the street in the near dark? She was charging ahead like someone who either didn’t realize cars actually drove on streets, or who had assumed that if they did, they would just see her and drive around. As she got closer I noticed she was talking on her phone.
Now, I was also on the phone, which was unusual because I have a strict No Phone policy when I walk. But I had picked up because my husband, who was also traveling, had called and I wanted to tell him to hang up and call our nanny right away, since I had just talked to the kids and I knew they were still up and would want to say goodnight to him.
So. I have my phone in one hand, my friend’s dog on a leash in the other. Woman approaches, raises her voice towards me, “Where is Sunset Cliffs???”.
I think, “Directions! I’ve got this!” and scrunch the phone to my neck with my ear so I can sort of feebly point, “That way”. And I smile.
Woman looks right at me, still talking on her phone, and–how can I put this so it actually sounds plausible? Because what happened next was so unexpected, so ridiculously cartoonish that I still am wondering if she really did it–she makes a face at me that is a combination of an epic eye-roll and a derisive grimace. Her whole face scrunched up, like I smelled bad.
I remember thinking, “She must not have seen me point to the cliffs. It’s almost dark, after all.” Except that then she said, in a tone that can only be described as so angry that had she the power to turn her words into icicles, they would have hung in the air briefly, above my head, before they smashed down into a million sharp pieces. (Unless she was lucky enough to have them impale me). “Left?! Right?! WHICH WAY??” she yelled. And then she sighed a big sigh which translated into, “What. An. IDIOT.”
Now while this was happening, I was trying to rearrange the phone and leash to enable me to gesture more clearly, as if that had been the problem in the first place. I was also clearing my throat in preparation of repeating myself, because I do tend to speak softly, and we were outside after all, and she was on the phone…all while trying to tell my husband to hang on a second. Suffice it to say there was a fair amount of contortionism going on.
I raised my voice while I did a kind of disco hip shimmy, so that my whole body rocked up and westward toward the cliffs, and amazingly didn’t drop the phone or lose the dog. It must have looked a little dramatic. But I was determined to help this woman. My thumb then lead the arc of my body skyward, pulling me onto my tip toes so I was sure she got it, so desperate was I to make sure she didn’t get lost…and have to say I nailed it in my best, projected stage voice, “THAT WAY.”
But she was at this point typing furiously into her phone, I assume trying to use her GPS. She looked up briefly. She rolled her eyes again. She walked away.
In a breathless instant the last few seconds replayed themselves in my head, coalescing into the massive realization that I had obviously neglected to register in my euphoric state: that basically I was invisible to her. I had somehow failed to give her the information she wanted in the way that she wanted it, and she was done with me.
And then…I completely lost it. I knew it was going to happen just one second before it did. I couldn’t stop it. Out of my mouth came the most derisive, goddammit-look-at-me-you-entitled-troll, rage-filled shriek that I have ever used with a stranger. “AND BY THE WAY–YOU’RE WELCOME!!!”, I screamed. I was gearing up to shout something about her not even saying “excuse me” or “please” but she looked up briefly, confirmed to herself that I was as idiotic as she first surmised, and walked away.
My husband was still on the phone. Stunned, I mumbled a bit to him about the indignity I had just suffered, and we wrapped up our call.
Just in time for another wave of rage to hit me in the heart. I was looking uphill, the next four blocks ahead of me all leading up to the mesa of Point Loma, the finger-like land formation that projects out of the San Diego basin and into the Pacific that locals call The Point. I took off attacking the hill in a speed-walking fury, trying to breathe out the anger that had taken over.
The first block was all rage.
The second block was about shame. I was obsessed with how I could have prevented what happened. Clearly I was a total chump who had missed the obvious danger signs. She’d had no manners, she was walking down the middle of the street like she owned it! In the dark! I shouldn’t have responded! I should have just walked on by! I was so ashamed of my behavior, and I was ashamed of getting triggered in the first place. I hated how helpless and invisible I felt. I hated how I had “let her get to me”. I had collided with the rudest woman in the world, and I had acted like a goddamn golden retriever puppy welcoming her owner home from a long day! And then when she kicked me, I wiggled right up to her so she could do it again!!
Block three was self-pity, with shades of self-righteous indignation, the How Dare They stage, and it went something like this: Why do I always have to take the high road?? I was just trying to help! What kind of world is this becoming? Who treats people like that?? I was so happy, so open to the entire Universe, and this is what I get in return? What the hell is wrong with her? Doesn’t she know that people have feelings? Who gave her the right to stomp all over mine? It’s like I wasn’t even fully human! Like I was just some walking talking machine put there to be her personal concierge! I didn’t have to help her! She attacked my generosity! And then the kicker: She acted like her life was more valuable than mine. She acted like I was an object, put there for her needs only. And when I wasn’t useful, I stopped existing.
There was a sharp wave of pain that followed this revelation as I started up the fourth block, the last before the top. I was crying a little and panting as I charged up the last, steepest part of the hill. And then, it hit me: Hadn’t I spent the last three blocks doing exactly to her what she had done to me?
I had criticized her. I had labeled her. I had been just as disgusted by her behavior as she had been of mine. I had judged her as someone inferior to me. I dismissed her as the cause of my discomfort.
And why? Because she had done something different than I had expected her to do. Than I wanted her to do. I had assumed that she would let me help her. She had gotten in the way of all that I expected from that joyful evening: that it would last, that I could share it with others, that I was a good person for being happy, and a helpful one at that. I had pushed my version of myself upon her, taken her hostage by it, and when she didn’t follow my script I had nothing left. Except derision and distress.
I got to the top of the hill and stood there catching my breath. I turned and looked back down upon the whisps of last oranges and pinks to the southwest, at the deep indigo of the ocean as it met the sky and made the horizon blur, all of the land and sea sprinkled with the first lights of evening, the twinkling jewels that were houses and boats, winking at me as if I’d just gotten the joke…and I thought to myself–wait for it, it’s one of my more profound moments–“Oh.”
I was exactly like her. She hadn’t hurt me at all, she had held up a mirror, and I had turned away, not wanting to see: How I had lived so many moments in my life expecting everyone around me, strangers, friends, family, to all be on their best behavior so I wouldn’t be uncomfortable. How conditionally I had loved! How entitled to be safely within my own image of myself! Had my happiness really been that flimsy?
What I heard next came up from deep within me, from my guides, and from a quiet place of compassion that was much, much bigger than me. It was a whispered thought, partly audible, partly tactile, and it gently blew me away. It nudged me into the next chapter of my spiritual growth. It said, “Susan, you are stronger than your anger. You have access to reserves of kindness and peace that can steady you in the face of uncertainty and loss. Let your vulnerability be your guide”.
I understood that it was okay that I felt hurt. But I hadn’t been hurt, by anything other than my own unwillingness to be kind to her.
Most days since then, as I have begun to practice this new way of living, I do feel a little bit like a baby deer learning to walk. It is a new, tentative, wobbly way to live. I stumble. A lot. But one thing I know for sure: I will pray for “That Woman”‘s health, happiness, and prosperity for the rest of my life. She wasn’t a stranger to me at all, she was the angel who with her own pain and struggle, held up the archway to my deliverance into freedom.
To be continued…;)