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When You Decide to Walk

When I walked to the post office, it was chilly, overcast, and gusty, but quiet enough that I could hear the wind whipping the American flat atop the grain mill two blocks away. It was still and stark. The sound of my boots crunching on the pale gray gravel of the alley kept me alert. I didn’t want to twist an ankle, so I couldn’t sleepwalk.


All of the things I passed looked dirty, dingy, tired—exhausted by unseasonal winter rains and neglect. The inflatable Santa Claus in a yard listed nearly to the ground. The alley revealed the backs of things. The back of houses where warehouse pallets leaned against little sheds. The backyards where a few plastic children’s toys lay left over from summer. The back of one small commercial building advertised Firewood For Sale on a haphazard sign with the admonition “Winter is coming…” and I wouldn’t swear that the pop culture reference was intentional.


The love I felt well up frightened me.


It came on all at once and was fiercer than pity and more tender than forgiveness. It was not pride or connection. Just love.


I saw each of these things was touched by a human life, and I couldn’t dismiss or disdain that. I only knew the outside of the buildings, I realized, and the insides were mysteries to me. Just like every human. Just like every heart.


Making your peace with someone takes time. It’s not easy to let go of a hurt, let alone a collection of them. But seeing someone’s humanity in spite of their flaws brings a kind of peace. If I can see and love the humanity in this place, maybe it’s possible to allow my own humanity to be loved. Perhaps that’s what compassion is.


I arrive at the post office and the postal worker hears me rattling around in the small and very old brass-and-glass postal box. The combination to the box is grooved to my fingers, and I spin the dial back and forth through the combination with thoughtless confidence.


“What number?” he calls from the back of the business end of a building so small it barely deserves the glass partition and door that separates the two sections. We have our own zip code, so our building ought to be official, I suppose.


I tell him the box number, and I enter the business lobby of the Speedtrap Post Office. The bell on the door jingles.


He rattles around looking for the larger mail that I expected. Mail that won’t fit in the box. He tells me he cannot find it, and we agree that my mother must have picked it up. He never asks for identification or even a name.


The postal worker is younger than me and resembles a beloved cousin of mine who grew up to manufacture meth and die early in a four-wheeling accident not long after getting sober. My cousin had been handsome, if sometimes rough around the edges, and the worker has the same clever eyes.


I smile under my mask and thank him for checking for me.


He notices I am only wearing a hoodie against the wind and hollers, “Stay warm out there!”


“I will,” I reply.


“And Merry Christmas,” he adds, smiling.


“Happy holidays!” I answer, cheerfully.


I don’t mean it as a rebuke or a correction. It’s reflexive from years of city living blessed with Jewish and pagan and atheist friends. But he repeats, “Happy holidays,” softly, almost under his breath. There is no resentment in it. Perhaps confusion.


The walk home is somehow colder, and I feel my ears burning red. I know I have a cup of coffee still sitting on the kitchen table. I hurry a bit more to get home. Several times in the alley, I find myself softly muttering things like, “Happy holidays includes New Years.”


I am burdened with a sense of my difference. It is not shameful, but it is a little heavy. I look around at the world to pull myself out of myself. I am challenged to see details—the length of weeds, the shape of a bird’s nest that has fallen from a tree. I struggle to see the colors of things.


The day is so gray, at first it all feels colorless. Then I notice that I see different shades of gray everywhere that things ought to be white—the siding on houses, cars, the clouds. The grays come alive, distinctive from each other—each a story of age and survival.


Maybe that’s compassion, too.



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