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Shaun

In my search for a dude with big, strong hands and some anger to work out in the form of a back massage, I found instead a slight man with a sunny disposition, an inspiring story, and the lure of patience to which my angel wings easily relinquished their anxieties.

I had a two-hour massage this evening by a man we’ll call Shaun. At 30 years old and not more than 120 lbs. in stature, his first impressions on me were hardly foreshadowing of his impact. Shaun came to the US nine years ago from Harbin, China, the nation’s ice festival city, established in the aide of the Russian’s building the Trans-Siberian Railway. Once here, he realized that he didn’t know enough English to successfully attend college, so he decided to study English and took a job in a Chinese restaurant as a delivery driver until he could more successfully take classes.

Shaun worked 11 hour days, six days a week at the restaurant, and had very little time to study English, so he decided to orchestrate yet another life change that would enable him to work fewer hours and learn more English. Today, he’s a massage therapist (and a damn good one, at that!), who works seven hours a day, five days a week, and whose English is very good!

Shaun and I shared ideas, thoughts, and questions. He didn’t really understand what communism is when I asked him what it was like to grow up in a communist nation. Further, he said that one of the big differences between the Chinese and Americans is that the Americans always want to travel to see the world and nature, where the Chinese are unconcerned generally with travel and nature experiences. He said plainly, “We don’t have fate. After the war, in 1949, the government told us to believe in science only, so we do not have fate or religious conflicts.” He said with warmth, “America is the greatest nation in the world. Everyone comes here to be better people, so there is no option but to succeed when you come here, even if it is hard to learn the language and culture. Even when it feels very lonely.” I also learned that in the US, we look forward in time. In China, they look backward in time. We have fate and a sense of what might be to imagine. The Chinese have science, and thousands of years of what has been to celebrate.

Shaun said casually at one point that if the US government survives to 1,000 years, it might work more like China. Our nation is so young, that enough time has not yet passed for people to forget their anger and learn to live in harmony. He suggested that America is the future, the hope of humanity, and the pioneer of the world of tomorrow. The hard times of today, too, shall pass he assured me.

While my back muscles gave way to his not-so-angry maneuvering, I felt restored in my confidence that neighbors and friends hold space for peace in our world. Tonight, where America and China met, shared stories, asked questions, and learned a little bit more about the other – we demonstrated that world peace is more than possible. It’s forthcoming, and lives in us.

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Foyer on 5th

There were no people on the sidewalk, no beggars on the steps; the antique, ornate metal doors budged as much as a stubborn ox at the plowing season’s dusk. I shut my right eye tight and leaned in close to peer inside through the small crack between the two monumental doors. Nothing, except a small flickering light deep in the distance, greeted my curious eye. I might have been able to slide a note between the doors on a single sheet of paper, but I could not press sight into the same space before darkness consumed it wholly. Stillness moved swiftly about on the other side of the doors, and made a ruckus of silence that easily spilled out through the narrow crack between those doors. The steps were sticky with silence and shadows, and I stood plainly in them. No one on the sidewalk. And no one else on the steps.

The tall entryway hung around me, like a high-flung blanket of thick folds of grey and white marble, the center of which got stuck on a nail high on the wall over the doors. I stood under the arching marble blanket in a soft glow of light that pressed the marble blanket away from my crown. I felt tiny and soft standing in the glowing marble archway, still and curious. The skins of the doors appeared to have been meticulously carved with mathematical precision, a visual orchestra of swirls, peaks, squares, and circles. They echoed a grand tale: “Once upon a time, through these doors, walked a king and commoners alike …”

Tonight, though, there was no king. No commoners. Street lamps cast a powdery mist into the calm night air, and I noticed a few passersby; they seemed not to see the doors, the marble entry, or me. A man with a dark blue suit and shiny black shoes walked briskly by, and glanced at his watch twice before crossing the narrow, two-lane street. He hurried by the steps upon which my shoes soaked in silence.

A young woman with drab blonde hair sauntered in the opposite direction, wearing a skirt that moved like the aurora borealis, and in colors the same. A brown bag slung over her shoulder, and she carried a book in the crook of her arm. She didn’t notice me noticing her approaching the tight intersection at 5th Avenue, which she crossed carelessly.

I turned again to the door, and touched the unyielding handles. Brass or gold, I couldn’t be sure. My senses begged for more of the story. Who were these commoners that crossed the threshold guarded by these grand doors? Why did they come here? Where were they now?

Just then, I heard a purring whisper from above, as if peace passed over the heartstrings of a poet, whose words needn’t find paper or tongue. And there, tucked in a small architectural crevice that gave rise to yet more marble, rested a lone, gray pigeon. From the breast of a peaceful messenger, the story began to unfold.

A pigeon is a common bird, with an uncommon gift. Her sooty wings give flight to messages of love and longing, of good news, and warnings of danger. It is in her commonness that she journeys—unnoticed—from one place to the next, stitching humanity together with threads the length of her travels. She is ordinary, but in her ordinariness, she tells extraordinary tales to those who listen. Unlike her elaborate, marble birdhouse, in which she tucked herself out of view from the street behind layers of ornate majesty, she cooed a quiet, unassuming greeting.

The important man with the shiny shoes hadn’t noticed me. The woman with the book walked by without even glancing up at the mountain of marble upon whose steps I waited. But a simple, ordinary pigeon welcomed me to her spectacular home from a foyer the size of a breadbox. She told me about how commoners come to these doors to hear messages of love because they long for acceptance. There are times when the doors swing wide open to share good news, and other times they are unlocked to calm the commoners’ fears, and soothe their pains. She made this her home because from her foyer, she could watch the common folks pass through the doors; their sooty stories and tarnished, hardened hearts made well by the extraordinary experience of being common … noticed and loved.

Far above the narrow streets and luminous streetlamps, the moon glistened. With my silence-soaked shoes and quenched curiosity, I descended the steps delicately and walked north on 5th Avenue, on the tiny island of Manhattan, where common is breathtaking, and awe is as common as a small, silvered bird.

Marble entryway

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Saturday morning in Connecticut

This morning, I met a delicately-statured lady at the hotel restaurant named Jael. She was bustling around doing thrice as much as her male contemporaries, and we struck up a sweet conversation after I commented about her being a busy little bee. As we talked she said she feels like the world has lost touch with humanity and that we all need to pay more attention to each other, to smile, and connect through conversation. That we should work hard to serve others. My brief encounter with Jael was a warm reminder that many people are starving for the richly textured life society gladly dropped and left behind when it reached for a smaller, faster, smarter phone. She told me about her son, about how she learned to serve others from her roots in Asia, and how she appreciates the chance to talk to people who actually see her … a person. I saw her, and I liked her immediately, pretty sure that I could sense her heart open to receive any warm human outreach. Sadly, no one else paid her any attention. I’m so glad I did.

​Following breakfast, I headed out to get a taxi for the train station to get on my way to Washington, D.C., only to learn that there weren’t any taxis nearby. German the bell hop personally drove me to the train station​–a gracious gesture given my limited time to make my reservation​. During the ride he told me about his ​ailing ​daughter, and about how the doctors ask for proof of insurance papers before addressing her by name or even looking twice at her, even after three years of treatments. “Healthcare isn’t about people,” he said. “It’s about money.” He wore the worry of a papa and the armor of a father in the fine creases drawn across his brow and at the corners of his eyes when he talked about her. He told me exactly how to get to the train tracks, and I hugged him, compelled to whisper “God bless,” as I left. ​He bowed his head slightly, and smiled gingerly. ​I couldn’t help but wonder if God himself asked me to do that very simple thing … to simply listen and allow German to serve and feel appreciated for taking care of another fellow human being. I knew I was safe in his care as a guest of the hotel, and as a friend in humanity.

​O​n the platform of Track 2 at the train station, I saw a lone man around whom lots of people walked, ignoring his existence​ except their sidestepping his wheelchair​. He wore a brown, delicately woven cap over his balding head​, and​ I noticed that the top portion of his left ear was missing. He spoke with a thick Spanish accent, wore bifocals, and gladly told me about my train when I asked him if I was in the right place. He was on his way to New Haven to the VA hospital, and I learned that he was discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1969 after serving in Vietnam. He told me all about the beach to the northeast of Stamford, and of his enjoying that part of the country for the last 45 years between bouts of travel all across the U.S. He called me “ma’am” when he spoke to me, and looked directly into my eyes with kind strength. Then, when the train people announced that my train would arrive on Track 3, I thanked him and headed toward the footbridge; he waved good-bye from the platform, wearing a broad, grateful smile, as I looked back in his direction from the top of the escalator. We became friends and bid a final farewell without ever knowing each other’s names. When I emerged on Platform 3 on the opposite side​ of the tracks​, he was gone.