A continuation of this story: Part I, Part II, Part III. About four months have gone by. I'm talking to someone I've never seen before.
She was like a river, the way her words tumbled out. An outpouring. In the same fashion you never remember how a dream began, only that you're suddenly there, I have no recollection of how this all started.
She wasn't on the bus until at some point she was, and now she told me not what was on her mind, but what was on her heart. An officer outside had been hassling a black man, and I'd made a comment about it. Something about life being complicated and difficult.
"Well the police took my son, my nephew got shot, my second cousin she just got kilt, and two of my grandsons died before they time."
I sighed. "Wow. You're breakin' my heart in all kinds of places."
"But I got to be thankful," she replied, immediately. Genuinely. She didn't voice it as an unwelcome obligation, but rather as though it were the most natural and obvious piece of common sense in existence.
She continued, breathless and optimistic: "I know I was born to die, but we're here for a short time and I know I gotta recognize all that's beautiful and count my blessings. I'm so blessed and so fortunate every day o' my born life. I could tell you got a beautiful kind soul too and that's good on you, what's your name, my name is Shirley M____ W_____."
"Miz W_____, my name's Nathan, but lemme tell you, you got the most positive, beautiful, inspirational attitude of anyone I've ever met. I'm being serious now."
"I love you and your spirit. Lemme off right here, that's my cousin."
Totally unaffected, like it was no big deal. Her pace was eager and present, ebullient even in the toughest of times, as though the bounty of life was too good to be true and how could we possibly handle it, how could we possibly process how lucky we are. I was reminded of a child in a sandbox, or a naturalist in a greenhouse. Or me in a darkroom, bookstore, bus, movie theatre. Nature. But the difference was she could do this when things were not going well. Her chips were down hard, and some of them would never rise. And yet.
Wonder is a special thing. We use the word awe nowadays, but what we usually mean is wonder– surprise and admiration commingled with enthusiasm, not fear. It requires humility. You can't be world-weary, seen-it-all snobbish... and experience the excitement of new joys. Because at the end of the day wonder is really just thankfulness, cloaked in the plucky zest of youthful discovery. Maybe the unsurprisable know-it-all route feels safer for some, but I think they don't know what they're missing. I thought back to the traveller who started this story, and his question about faith systems.
Are joy and wonder among the seeds of belief in the human organism? "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him," Voltaire wrote. Maybe because doing so is such a natural response to the impossibly intricate, interconnected beauty of life and nature. You feel like a louse just sitting there calling it coincidence.
But all that is secondary, part of the human urge to get distracted with the Why and How, diving into reasons rather than experience. Our friend Shirley embodied the best of human perception with such apparent ease: despite her hardships and loss, she could somehow still feel– or maybe generate– goodness all around.
Her cousin stepped toward the bus upon recognizing me, and she stepped out to hug him. Both of them knew me separately, and simultaneously tried to introduce me to the other.
"He a great guy, good driver."
"Yeah he's a cool cat."
Familiar voice, and face too. I know that guy, I realized. Her cousin was the man from earlier. The grieving, singing father, who loved hard. Things were falling into place.
Shirley's attitude made her beautiful, and he reflected that beauty now. She was the kind of woman people talk about. I'm not referring to appearance. I mean that she, by sheer force of genuine, charismatic personhood, made everyone around her believe they were having a good day. Some of us radiate energy; others are receptive, listening attentively. She was both. She awakened your better angels without your even realizing, your belief in hope, and I saw him transform. Their hug was one of awareness and understanding and uncomplicated love. I needn't have worried, earlier; he did indeed have good people around him. Who helped him know the best way to fight emotions... is with other emotions. With love. Because the antidote to despair is never reason.