(Don’t) Lower Your Expectations

Last winter, I made myself this hat.

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I was disappointed with it, at the time. I wanted a slouchy beret, and I hadn’t made it long enough or large enough. Blocking it with a plate inside didn’t help. The color was wrong, not warm enough against my skin. I believe I told Twitter that it made my head look like a mushroom.

It wasn’t what I expected.

This wasn’t going to be a post about a hat. It was actually going to be a post about a conflict Jon and I had last week over what “doing the dishes” entails, and who should do them, and when, and how. But that made me feel petty and ridiculous, and I didn’t have any pictures to go with it, so here’s this hat.

I think, “Lower your expectations,” is terrible advice. I know the idea is that if things go well, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and if they don’t, you won’t be disappointed, but that’s acting as if your expectations don’t influence the way things go, and they absolutely do. I expect myself to get good grades, to be at work on time, and to speak kindly to people. If I didn’t expect it from myself, do you think I would do those things? Because I think I’d lie on the couch marathoning Battlestar Galactica for the third time and telling my family to leave me the hell alone. Thoughts have power. Lower your expectations and you won’t get anywhere–or knit anything.

On the other hand, you can’t quit knitting because your hat didn’t turn out quite as planned, and if half a sink full of dirty dishes makes you want to throw something or start to cry, you clearly need to reconsider something about your life. So where’s the middle ground?

When you join the Peace Corps, they spend a lot of time during pre-training and training telling you not to have expectations. You have no idea what you’re about to get into, and whatever vision you’ve constructed in your head about your future home or work is, assuredly, wildly off-base. Better just to not expect anything at all, right?

I always thought that was such a load of crap. How is anyone supposed to not have expectations? That’s some Buddha-level shit, right there, and let me tell you, nobody joining Peace Corps is anywhere near Nirvana. But, seeing the merit of the reasoning behind the advice, I tried the next best thing–having expectations, but acting like I didn’t. I didn’t waste time frantically trying to prepare for the unknown. My bags when I left were 20 pounds below the allotted amount, and I spent the next two years trying to convince future volunteers on Facebook that they would be just fine without quick-dry towels, or anything else from REI.

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I think the trick is knowing how much to invest in your expectations. How much are you going to let them affect you? With Peace Corps, I was well warned to invest almost nothing in them–I read all the blogs, all the Wiki articles, even, “So You Wanna Be a Peace Corps Volunteer?” I internalized all the good advice about how Peace Corps is unpredictable and you need to be able to bend and not break. In the rest of life, I’m not always so well prepared.

The hat went into storage for the summer. When the weather got chilly and I found it in with my other handknits, I couldn’t imagine why I didn’t absolutely love it last winter. A few months took the edge off my emotions, and now I love the warmth of the thick cables over my ears. I love the wavy line where the hat springs directly from the cables. I love the near-perfect kitchener graft I did to join the cable band (visible in the above photo; I’m sure a knitter can spot it, but it’s almost invisible). The hat even makes my hair look good! It’s still not terribly slouchy, but why does it need to be?

On Saturday, Jon went out in supremely nasty weather because I was mired in homework and craving the warmth and comfort of red wine. He doesn’t even particularly like red wine–he just wanted to take care of me. And I’ve been doing the dishes myself, because for crying out loud, it takes ten minutes, and I do them exactly the way I want them done, and why should I expect anyone else to do that? I’m learning that the world doesn’t operate within the parameters of my expectations. The things I focus on aren’t the only things there are. Sometimes I forget that. I’m working on it.

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The hat is Scathach’s hat by Mona C. NicLeĆ²id–it’s a free pattern, and I recommend it. And the scarf, well that’s a subject for another post. (There may be another post. Blogging twice a year is still a schedule, right?)

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The Quietest Place: Suburban Detroit

This post is part of The Art Assignment #5, The Quietest Place.

I spent the first two decades of my life in very rural environments–I grew up in western Colorado, miles from anywhere, then attended college in Virginia on a campus with thousands of acres of woods, away from any major cities. In those environments, it was never very difficult to find quiet places.

Then there my small city in the Philippines, where quiet was practically nonexistent. You can’t cram so many people into such a small space without hearing your neighbors washing laundry, or having a busy street right outside your window.

And now? Suburban Michigan. Oh, how I resisted moving here. What could possibly be less glamorous?
I came around on the subject of Michigan, and I love living here now. But I hadn’t really confronted the idea of the suburbs until this assignment. The assignment was to take a walk from your home and find the quietest place, then absorb and document it. I actually began my walk at my inlaws’ house, because that was what worked for me. So here it is: the quietest place in my inlaws’ neighborhood.

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Or is it? The first thing I discovered when I started walking is that noise is fairly homogenous in the suburbs. Once I moved away from the busy roads, it was a thin soup of dogs barking, robins chirping, cars passing, and always, somewhere, someone using a power tool.

It was really hard to find a quiet place. Every time I thought I had, a dog would start barking at me, or a car would pass, or standing still would cause me to hear the wind chimes I’d missed while I was walking.

I walked for an hour. It was Easter Sunday, and as I walked, I slowly began to become amazed by how much of people living I was observing. I heard a lot of radios, and because the weather was so lovely that windows were open, I caught a lot of snippets of people’s Easter celebrations–well wishes, arguments, complaining, and several parents stepping out onto the front porch to smoke and escape from their kids for a minute.

I’ve somehow always thought of suburban neighborhoods as faceless blocks of houses with no personality or distinguishing features; I had a lot of contempt for them, in fact. I’m actually ashamed to admit this, but it wasn’t until this walk that it clicked for me: Every house has people in it. All of those people have stories. Every single nearly identical house is absolutely filled up with the stories of people living their lives. They’re people who have buried parents, who worry about their children’s developmental milestones, who like yellow mustard but not brown.

There is no quietest place in a neighborhood like this. People’s lives are moving through it constantly, leaving ripples. I realized, I wasn’t looking for the quietest place: I was looking for the quietest moment.

So, after an hour of walking spanning a couple of miles, I finally stopped, just two blocks from where I started, and waited. And for a few moments, there were no dogs barking, no cars passing, no one mowing their lawn or calling to their kids.

So, here it is. Two photographs of a still moment between the waves of life on an Easter Sunday in Michigan.

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Leaving a mark

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I found this mug in a thrift shop, yesterday. It’s custom-printed and features an older man repairing or building a chair using Elmer’s wood glue.

I had to explain, both to the girl who bagged my purchase, and to Jon, that I suppose I felt sorry for him. Someone loved this man and respected his skill (as a carpenter? handyman? husband?) enough to both take this picture and immortalize it on a mug. Then, some time later, someone (someone else? the same person?) sent the mug to a thrift shop, for reasons unknown. (De-cluttering? Painful memories? Clearing out an estate?)

I felt that, whoever the man on the mug is or was, he deserved some respect. And as he was clearly a maker, I feel some kinship there.

(Jon: “So do we have to keep it forever?” He indulges my flights of fancy but doesn’t necessarily understand them.)

As it happens, I stumbled across this mug at a time when I had another dear craftsman on the mind.

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I snapped this photo in the park, while watching the twins play. I recently took up spinning again, and have found it remarkably well-suited to child supervision. But that’s a subject for another post; right now, I want to talk about the spindle.

My mom was, for some years, married to a man who built fiddles. He was an artist and a craftsman, and as I was living with them at the time I took up spinning, I asked him to make me a spindle. I had visions of some hand-turned, polished object of beauty, so when he delivered this, a dowel fitted rather poorly into a plain disc of wood, I was a little disappointed. But on it, I learned to spin.

Over time, the unfinished wood has developed a smooth, glossy patina. The spindle is just the right size and weight for my purposes. It holds a great deal of yarn. Since it’s a bottom whorl spindle, I can let it rest on the ground while I draft out extra twist, without getting the yarn dirty. It has no notches or hooks, no frills. It’s useful and it’s been used, and it was a gift from one maker to another. All that makes it beautiful.

The man who made it died of depression while I was in the Philippines. I cried for days, and no one understood why. “So… he was not married to your mother any longer?” They wanted to comfort, but they were confused. I couldn’t quite articulate at the time, but I think it’s the unfairness of the whole thing–that someone who added so many good and useful things to the world would leave it the way he did.

I think about him often. As a craftsman, he’s best remembered for his fiddles, but I have this spindle. I’m going to use it to make more good and useful things. It’s the best tribute I can think of.

On the Cognitive Dissonance of Compassion

I was born in a travel trailer.

Well, I was born in a hospital. But I spent many of my early months–both pre- and post- natal–in a little travel trailer on the top of a mountain in the Flat Tops wilderness area near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. My parents were there because my father was a logger, and that’s where the trees were. My mom bathed me, and later my brother, in plastic dish tubs on the slab of tree-trunk that served as our front stoop. My best baby pictures feature a rosy-cheeked baby almost lost in a sea of wildflowers.

This isn’t a Peace Corps story.

This is: Yesterday, I discovered that the two children who had mysteriously appeared in my back yard with the beginning of the summer are in fact the daughters of the young couple who live there.

Against the back wall of the compound, there’s a little two-room, concrete shed. Our landlords use one of the rooms for storage. The other houses our neighbors. It took a while to figure out what “neighbors” meant. At first, I thought it was just the one girl, barely 4’6″, a student at the neighboring university. A few months later, a boy appeared, to much speculation. Surely our landlady wouldn’t approve of a live-in boyfriend?

No, they were married. A little weird to an American eye, but okay, sure, they’re both students, they probably really need a cheap place to live near the school. But how is it, after 14 months of living so close that I can hear their indoor conversations and midnight trips to the outhouse, I’m only just discovering these two little girls, ages perhaps six and four?

Somewhere, I failed at something.

It’s not like I somehow missed two little kids for a year, incidentally. The girls probably live with a family member–a grandma or an aunt–during the school year. But still, how do you not know your neighbors have children?

Here’s the thing. You know when you sign up for the Peace Corps that it’s going to make you confront the fundamental inequities inherent in the “developed/developing” dichotomy.

(Incidentally, how I hate the term “developing”. It implies some sort of upward climb towards the inevitable glory of freedom and prosperity, like all of these poor foreign people will soon be just as happy and free and healthy as We Americans. “Developing” makes it so easy to dismiss the morass of environmental, social, and infrastructural factors in the way of that climb. It smacks of “differently-abled” to me–terms that sugar-coat the struggles of a minority are, I think, almost universally used to salve the conscience of the majority. I don’t have a better term to suggest. It just bugs me, is all.)

Anyway, you know the feeling I’m talking about. That squirmy thing in your stomach when you think about Those Less Fortunate. The one mothers of a certain generation called on when they invoked the starving children in China. The one no one really wants to think about.

And of course we don’t want to think about it! You rely on that car. That internet connection keeps you in touch with friends and family. Your smartphone is a lifesaver.

Confronting the reality that your fortune well exceeds another’s induces this weirdly possessive guilt. You feel terrible, and you know it’s not fair, and you’d love to fix it. But you’re also gripped by the uncomfortable knowledge that you don’t want to lose the things you have. You justify.

I can’t tell you how many times, for example, I’ve heard some variation on the following: “I know air-conditioning is [expensive/bad for the environment/etc.], but in [Florida/Arizona/Texas/etc.] you really need it.”

My friends, I’ve been in the Philippines for twenty months, living, like most of the population, without air-conditioning. I’m coming to you with a hard truth: You don’t “really need” it. It makes your life immensely more comfortable and, if you’re old or young or ill, much safer. There are lots of good reasons to run an air-conditioner. But perhaps you should take a moment to examine your definition of “need”.

So, back to my neighbors. I’ve always told myself that I’ve avoided engaging with them out of respect for their privacy. The personal space allotted to them consists of: a) half of a concrete shed, furnished with a bunk bed, two stools, and a rickety table; b) a roofed area outdoors with a counter and a small wood stove–their kitchen; c) a single faucet belonging to an apartment that isn’t even theirs, from which they can haul water to; d) a concrete outhouse with no electricity and no running water.

In their position, with so much of my life happening outdoors in someone’s back yard, I would want as much privacy as possible. So I didn’t pry.

But what if that’s just an excuse? Doesn’t my life–this big apartment with its refrigerator, flushing toilet, indoor kitchen, and mere two occupants (two! in all this space!)–seem rather extravagant by comparison? I love and crave those things (personal space, indoor plumbing, unspoiled food). Isn’t it rather uncomfortable that literally in my backyard these people have none of those things?

The kids pushed it over the edge for me. Suddenly, this isn’t a young couple–this is a young family. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is, but it’s there. So on my way home from a trip running errands, I picked up a handful of Filipino popsicles, called “ice candy”.

It wasn’t until after I delivered the ice candy to the little girls and their mother–how many years younger than me? I don’t even know–that I started thinking about my own mother. She spent a lot of my childhood raising two children in trailers. I mean, we always had a house, but there were lots of times when if we wanted to be together as a family, we had to go where the trees were.

For me, memories of those months are mostly of the sawdust-and-mildew smell of a logger’s trailer, and sleeping at the foot of my mom’s little bunk, and reading the same chapter book over and over. I couldn’t tell you what my mom was feeling. Was she bored? Lonely? Worried about our health? I got bronchial pneumonia during one of those winters, and in a small space with a propane stove carbon monoxide poisoning was a constant danger. But mostly, I just don’t know. I wasn’t old enough or observant enough to know what that experience meant to her.

I see my mother in young Filipina with her two children in her too-small house. I mean, they don’t have much in common. My mom married at 30 and had me fourteen months later. Without resorting to speculation, observation suggests that my neighbor was still a teenager when her older daughter was born. But aren’t they still the same? Young families, trying to make their way in the circumstances they find themselves in. Just quietly pressing on.

Here’s what I’ve learned in Peace Corps: We need a hook. As long as our compassion is colored primarily by guilt and discomfort, how are we supposed to get anywhere? We have to find that link, something that surpasses the internal conflict of wanting-to-care with wanting-to-have. That bridge from Other to Us.

Guilt is a worthless emotion. Worse than worthless, actually: it arrests movement. It encourages deflection, excuses, ignorance. My exhortation, as a Peace Corps volunteer: Forget the guilt. Find your hook.

What comes after that? Well, that’s another thing I’ve learned in the Peace Corps: Just take the first step. You’ll figure it out as you go.

The kind of person who

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being “the kind of person who . . .” I’ll do something, and think, “Does that make me the kind of person who does this sort of thing?”

For example, yesterday I went to a farmers’ market, and bought, among other things, half a pound of Swiss chard. Today, after work, I sauteed some of it with garlic and tempeh, and that was my dinner. I ate it with chopsticks. It was delicious.

So, does that make me the kind of person who shops at farmers’ markets? The kind of person who eats chard and tempeh? The kind of person who uses chopsticks even though she’s not Asian?

All those things are ignoring the first half of my day, which was spent taking money from people and giving them food that I’m ethically opposed to enough that I refuse to eat most of it. Am I the kind of person who works in a fast food restaurant? The kind of person who’s willing to ignore her values in order to get a paycheck?

I’m not saying there’s anything to this notion of “the kind of person who.” In fact, I think it’s kind of bollocks, and you probably do too. What interests me is the fact that it’s so ever-present in my thoughts these days. I’m rather obsessed with the notion, even though I know it’s both insubstantial and unhelpful.

These days, more than ever, I’m trying to define myself as a person. Up until very recently, I’ve always had a community to help me define myself, and when I find a community I want to belong to, I’m good at reshaping myself to fit into it. When my community was classically homeschooled Christians, that’s the identity I adopted, even though the “Christian” suit was ill-fitting and rather uncomfortable.

When I got to college, I was able to shed it with little-to-no social side effects, and I did, and I adopted a the identity of scholar–and very effectively, I might add. That’s the closest to myself I’ve been yet, and even then, I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself. I didn’t really love everything I studied as much as I made out. (I don’t regret this–a college experience is much healthier and more enjoyable when your attitude in every class is, “This is SO COOL!” Cultivating an attitude of delight has served me well.)

Well, since I graduated, and especially since I moved to Fort Collins, I don’t really have much of a community. I certainly don’t have one locally. Online it’s perhaps a little better, but even here–I’m not even a member of any fandoms! I mean, a person never really exists in a vacuum–I still have roommates, and coworkers, but still, there’s a distinct lack of structured community to tell me who to be.

I guess you might think this is a good thing. Like everyone else in our culture, I’ve been hit over the head with the “be yourself!” club since before I could walk. But, the thing is, community expectations aren’t the same thing as peer pressure. They can be good or bad.

As a student, for example, being a good student required me to behave in certain ways that made me a much better person–from basic courtesies like being in class consistently and punctually to far deeper adjustments like open-mindedness and critical thinking.

Admittedly, my school’s explicit goal is to develop young women in precisely those ways. I’m under no illusions–not every community exerts forces that guide people in positive directions. The obvious example would be Nazi Germany, but that’s overdone. Limiting this to my own experience, there are still plenty of examples of social pressure to be closed-minded, hateful, or ignorant. (See, for example, my brief stint under the “love the sinner, hate the sin” banner, regarding homosexuality, or the fact that to this day I can sing songs about how “Mister Darwin made a great, great, great big mistake.”)

At any rate, I digress. My dilemma these days is that I’m having to discover who I am all by myself, when I’m alone. Well, actually, it isn’t even that. It’s the frequent and painful disparity between the person I want to be and the reality of my situation. It’s not about being “the kind of person who”, it’s about the kind of person I want to be. The phrase, “living in a way commensurate with my values” is right up there with “the kind of person who” in the list of phrases that crop up while my brain races through its little rat maze every day.

I’m worried about disappointing myself. I’m constantly looking at the way I’m living and wondering if I’m living like the person I want to be. It would help if I knew more about the person I want to be. It’s good, in a way, to have a period where I have to figure out these things without a great deal of pressure and expectations, but it’s also leading to an awful lot of existential angst. (Occasionally important, but mostly silly. Do I really need to be worrying about what it means to be the kind of person who wears shawls?)

I know this is all a good and necessary process (and who trusts a person who thinks they know everything about themselves?). I don’t want to declare that I’m “finished”. But I wouldn’t mind getting past this lost-and-lonely feeling.

The benefits of religious diversity: a case study

My move to Fort Collins brought me into the heart of a social group that is quite unfamiliar to me. My roommate is an atheist and a skeptic, as are his boyfriend and his brother (my other roommate). All of this means that atheism and skepticism (not the same thing, but two related movements) have been a lot more on my radar than they used to be.

It’s a curious position for me to be in, because while I disagree with very few of the principles these people hold–I don’t practice any religion, I think science is a good thing, and I don’t really believe in God, per se–my worldview continually comes into conflict with theirs.

It’s mostly a result of my education, I think. My family would like to believe that college turned me into a godless liberal–in most cases, that’s simply untrue, but it is true that my liberal arts education is at least somewhat responsible for the fact that I am, when all other labels fail (and they usually do), a relativist. Basically, it really matters very little to me whether I believe the same things that you do–in fact, I feel like the world is a better place because you believe different things than I do. I care a lot less about Truth than I do about the richness that results from a world in which different people believe different, crazy, beautiful things.

That last bit is the part that drives my skeptic friends crazy. What kind of crazy person will outright announce that they don’t care what’s true?

I’m never quite sure how to respond. It’s been hard to work up a defense, because I’m . . . simply not troubled by the fact that Truth doesn’t matter that much to me. I’m still working on fine tuning my defense. But, while I’m working that out, I’d like to offer up a case study.

Howard and Sandra Tayler are the creative machine behind the very successful webcomic Schlock Mercenary. The comic has updated continuously (every single day without fail) for ten years. A few years ago, Howard quit his corporate job, and now Schlock Mercenary is what supports their family. They have four children, and they are Mormon.

Now, Schlock Mercenary is not a very Mormon comic, in my opinion. By that, I don’t mean that it’s full of things Mormons would object to–not at all. But, you know how you can pick up practically any book that Orson Scott Card has ever written, and just smell the LDS wafting off it? Schlock Mercenary doesn’t have that.

But this comic is a full time job, and not an easy one. You only have to spend a little time on Sandra Tayler’s blog to get a sense of what a massive undertaking it is. It isn’t easy being self-employed in a creative field. It’s even more challenging to do so while attempting to raise four children and keep a healthy marriage. But all indications are that the Taylers have been successful on all fronts.

Now, could a secular couple in the same situation succeed? Absolutely. I’m not trying to say that religion is sine qua non here. But, this kind of creative partnership, especially one that demands so much from both members, cannot help but benefit from the peace and strength that Howard and Sandra draw from their religion.

That’s not something I’m making up, either. Have a look at this recent interview with the couple. It’s intended for Mormon audiences, but I think that helps provide a better sense of how their faith matters to them. (They tend to be very tactful when discussing their faith before mixed audiences. They don’t preach–in fact, they just plain don’t talk about it all that much, at least online. In my opinion, their lives give a far better testimony than any preaching, anyway.)

Sometimes, atheists like to imply–or, hell, outright state–that the world would be better without religion. (I feel like I should make it clear that that’s a general “atheists”, not, say, my roommate, with whom I have had numerous very interesting and challenging discussions about the merits of religion.) That anything that’s good with religion would be better without it. That the drawbacks of religion far outweigh the benefits.

I say, maybe more of us would be better off like the Taylers.

Found story: All from a sweater

I’ve worked at Walmart for the last six months. Yesterday was my last day. It was a terrible job in many ways, but one thing I did love was gathering stories and characters–fleeting glimpses of people that stuck with me. I think of them as found stories. Mostly, I see just a brief image–an Asian woman, herding her tiny, round grey-haired mother into the store, or a man with wild grey hair and a wild grey beard and his all fingernails rotted away–but every once in a while, to my delight I get more details.

The other day, an older gentleman came up to me from the pharmacy and asked to borrow a pen so that he could write down his blood pressure. He was just turning to go when I asked, rather unexpectedly, “Did someone make that sweater for you?”

The sweater in question looked to have been made out of bright blue Red Heart Super Saver–solid, except for a couple stripes made out of matching variegated blue yarn. It had a crocheted hem and button band, and a zipper. There was a bit of dried food crusted onto the button band, by the zipper. It was obviously handmade, but also quite well constructed. It’s pretty rare to see someone in my town wearing a handknit sweater, so I felt it was worth asking.

I had to repeat myself before he understood, but then he brightened and told me his wife had made it; she’s Navajo, and her craftmanship, he told me, is superb.

I smiled, and told him it was a beautiful sweater. And then, I don’t know what it was, but he started talking to me.

He told me that because of his wife’s handiwork is so fine, he hasn’t needed a belt in thirty years. He used to teach school, and he favored jumpsuits, which his wife made for him. He saw her making them, once, and realized that she made the pants and top separately and sewed them together, so he asked her if she couldn’t make them out of different materials, so it looked like a normal shirt and pants.

So, he went around for all those years wearing jumpsuits that looked like normal clothing. He told me, people used to say, “How is it that Mr. Queen is the only teacher here whose shirttails are always tucked in?”

He told me how he earned the respect of the people on the reservation by eating their food without disgust or disdain. They would invite teachers into their homes, and feed them. One of the things they fed them was blood pudding–the other teachers would refuse to eat it, but he ate it.

(I could have told him how I had a similar experience, how I was initiated into my Vietnamese family over a dish of congealed duck blood, but it didn’t feel right to talk about myself; he was on a roll, and I was enjoying listening.)

The other teachers justified their refusal to eat it by saying that the Bible says not to eat blood. But, he told me, most people don’t understand what it means to be Christian. He took on an instructional tone. There are only two principles at the heart of Christianity, he told me. He asked me if I knew Matthew 6:14. I confessed that I didn’t.

Matthew 6:14, he told me, says that if you forgive, you’ll be forgiven. That’s all. And if you don’t forgive, you won’t be. That’s the first principle at the heart of Christianity. The second is love your neighbor as yourself. Those are the only things that actually matter.

I nodded, and listened. His Christianity had its heart in a very different place than the Christianity I grew up with, and I liked his quite a lot more. The Christianity I knew said that it didn’t matter what you did, you were condemned if you didn’t confess Jesus as savior. In his, though, there was more emphasis on attitude and action. It would have made my Sunday School teachers shake their heads, but I liked it.

He was clean-shaven, but he had long, wild, grey eyebrows, like down feathers, and his eyes leaked tears as he talked; not from emotion, he told me, but because he has a disease (his word) that makes his eyes tear up at odd moments. Every so often, he’d reach up and wipe a tear away from the weathered skin under his eyes.

I listened to him until I had to step away to help someone else, and before he left, he thanked me for talking to him. It was good, for once, to listen to someone else instead of talking about myself. I came away from the conversation with little pearls of beauty, and I think he appreciated having an welcoming ear for a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon in Walmart.