Saturday, August 21, 2010

Whose blessings? His... or mine?


May I "dedicate" a blog post? Are there rules against that sort of thing? If there are, I reject them and dedicate this post to my mother. She has often used action, rather than words, to teach important lessons in life. Today I had the opportunity to use one of those lessons myself. I hope to one day find that my children are as moved and inspired by my deeds as I am by hers. So here is the story - and the lesson - behind my dedication.

I was in a Panera transcribing some interviews for the books I am working on. As I sat in one of the leather seats to the side of the restaurant, I had a plate of food next to me and was eating it a little at a time as I worked. Nothing much, half a sandwich, half a cup of soup, a coffee.

After being there for about 45 minutes, a man came over and sat down in the leather chair opposite mine. He had a tan canvas bag with him, somewhat frayed around the edges. He was wearing faded jeans, an old long-sleeved shirt on a day that was around 85, and no socks under his worn white tennis-shoes. He had a beard that was trimmed, but still scraggly -- longer than a goatee and more gray than black. His hair was similarly colored and just as unkempt, though he was not too dirty looking.

The man didn't say anything to me - he just sat and looked at some generic picture on the wall over my head. It wasn't a very exciting picture even, just something to look at while he contemplated... something. At the time, I had headphones on and was trying to focus on my work - the voices on this recording are particularly muffled in places and it has loud background noises in others. I felt rude sitting with my hands covering my headphones to block out as much ambient noise as I could.

It was hard to focus as the man sat across from me. Some part of me wondered whether he might need a bit of spare change for a meal. Various scenarios (excuses?) as to why I didn't need to talk to him or offer him a bit of kindness passed through my mind. Maybe he's just sitting there thinking of what he wants to order. I don't want to embarrass him by offering him money when he doesn't need any. Maybe... Maybe... Maybe he's just enjoying the air conditioning.

Yeah, I know, I was stretching on so much of this. Suddenly the man saved me from myself by getting up and going around the corner to order. Whew. He was just making a decision. In my heart, I knew I was wrong. I knew I should have and could have offered him the little $5 that I had. What really stopped me? Cowardice.

Knowing that my heart was speaking to me, even as I tried to ignore it, I jumped up to peek through the pillars toward the cash register where the man was making his order. How much did he have? Was he counting out change to pay for everything? Having lost my glasses over a month ago - and not taking the time to get the prescription renewed yet - I looked with squinty eyes, trying to tell what was going on.

I have countless stories of times when I have watched my mother as she offered a kind word, food or some recognition of humanity to someone often considered "less than." She and my sister came to visit us this past spring. One day, we were driving along and trying to decide what to do with the last two slices of pizza she was holding in the box on her lap. Wouldn't you know that just at that moment, we stopped at a red light and she happened to see a man getting ready to cross. He didn't look indigent or "in need," but he was pulling a suitcase behind him and looked a little haggard and tired. She offered him the last two slices of pizza and he accepted gratefully. As he left our car window, he seemed to move with a lighter step.

So there in the Panera, I said a little prayer (I'm fond of that these days): If I'm supposed to give that man this money, Lord, let him sit back in front of me with only water to drink. Then I'll offer him my money for coffee.

Sure enough, here came my man, tan bag, plate in hand, with a little freebie cup of water. He sat down and began to eat his toasted blueberry muffin and I searched myself for some way to open conversation without coming out and saying, "Hey, do you need some money?"

So finally, I said, "Their blueberry bagels are really good."

In a soft tone, characteristic of one who is down on his luck and who is trying not to come to the attention of the rest of society - one who has been scorned and ridiculed for who he has become, my man said quietly, "Yes, they are." His voice was so soft that I could barely hear him.

I (lamely) said, "My husband's favorites are the Asiago Cheese ones...." Just a nod this time, a small one. Lady, don't pity me. "Hey, do you want a cup of coffee to go with that? They're really good with a hot drink to go with them."

Again, barely audible, "Yes, thank you, I would." (Or I think that's what he said!)

I pulled out the money that I had gathered from my pockets a few minutes before, when I was snooping... uh, squinting through the pillars, and offered them to him. He rose and left his bag and plate while he went to buy his cup. He returned a moment later with an empty coffee cup in hand, the smallest size they sell, and offered me back my change. There is an honest man for you - take no more than you need...

During that same springtime visit with my mom, I was in the library at a meeting. Inside the meeting room, there were sandwiches and other goodies to eat that few people were partaking of. My mom sat outside in the lobby area reading books to our daughter and youngest son. As she sat there, a man who is often seen around town happened to walk in. My friends and I have seen him in the local bookstores as well. Often he appears dirty, he dresses differently than "the rest" of us; people tend to give him wide berth. My mother looked him in the eye and smiled. She asked him if he was hungry, did he need or want something to eat? As it happened, he thanked her and said he was okay, and I had seen a TV interview of him online just a short time before. He is not homeless, nor is he penniless, but he does have a disability and he uses biking around town and wearing unusual outfits to help with his uncontrollable tendencies. How many of us, though, think to even ask? How many of us fail to offer that kindness simply because we are unsure, embarrassed or ... (insert 100 different reasons here.) She has shown me that same example through the years.

I have no excuse - my example has been set for me many times.

My Panera Man sat and enjoyed the steaming coffee and the bagel, rose and left without another word to me. He did not want my pity or charity, he asked me for nothing. But I was blessed by the encounter. I was reminded of what I have to offer and that I am obligated to do so. In the end, it is up to the individual to decide who was more blessed by the encounter: the Panera Man... or me?

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