Early this morning it started to rain here. It began softly at first but within a few hours had begun to come down in waves and sheets. The rain has lingered all day. It’s still humid and hot, despite the rain. The heavy greenery of sycamore trees, squash blossoms and shrubs begins to drip and rustle heavily in the wind. My hair gets curly. In New Mexico, rain is rarely like this. It sweeps in and then departs. In the desert, rainstorms build up with drama and effect and then crash out of clouds with thunder and lightning, especially in summer. Storms pass quickly; it is rare that they hang around for hours and days. My familiar rain has drama and is synonymous with relief. Here, I am working to embrace the soothing qualities, the softness rain can bring.
Then, in the early afternoon, on my way to a coffee shop to do some work, I saw a dead person. Or at least I think that was what was happening. I drove down the big boulevard by my house, past the community gardens, carniceria, car wash, fruit stands, gas stations and liquor stores and wondered for a moment why traffic had stopped. There were horns honking and from a distance, outside of the projects, I saw a woman screaming and beating another woman to the ground. As I drew closer to the scene I could see two cars and a man’s body, half in and out of the open driver’s side door, unconscious and covered in blood, another man standing over him staring blankly. By the time I was finally able to pass by I could see that the two cars had smashed into one another and there was glass and metal strewn out across the pavement. The woman continued to scream “Ambulencia! Ambulencia!” Heart shattering. Desperate.
Here’s the thing. My first thought was this: please don’t let it have been a shooting. If it was a shooting, that’s it, I will move. I have reasons for this thought pattern I suppose though admittedly, they aren’t that good. I have been robbed (in a very minor way last week when some stuff was taken out of my backyard), my tires were stolen from my driveway last winter, someone was arrested out in front of my house in the middle of the night etc. Something about living in this urban environment feels unsafe in a way to me that I’ve never experienced before. I used to live in Brooklyn and felt much more secure. I’ve lived in Albuquerque, a city with one of the highest murder rates per capita of any in the U.S. But there is something about the grit of a dirty, east coast urban environment that makes me uneasy in a way I’ve never been before.
And really, all of that is justification. I saw a man’s body on the street, covered in blood and my first thought was for myself. For shame. After I had gotten to the coffee shop, ordered a cup of tea and gotten back on my laptop, I wondered, why is it that we can be faced with an event such as this and then, because we aren’t directly involved, we just go back to our lives, to our little worlds? Or we try to make someone else’s pain about us. I don’t have an answer. And yes, there are people who are doing things to be sure. Most of us, however, we just turn our heads. I would like to have some spiritual answer here. I am sure there is one. The trouble is, I’m not sure I believe whatever it is. I do know that part of our deepest suffering as human beings is that we turn away, helpless in the face of these tragedies, this human pain. We cannot even face our own pain, let alone that of others.
Later before I left the coffee shop, the woman at the counter said she heard it was a shooting, a murder. A rumor? Will I move? My boyfriend said it probably was, that it was likely a car accident, then someone got angry and shot the guy. He said it nonchalantly, like it was logical and reasonable. He grew up in cities. He grew up a bit bluer collar than I did, not in a community that values the same things I value—touchy-feely interpersonal processing. We have very different perspectives on violence and I can’t say one is better than the other. I can’t really stand behind my perspective; it is just my perspective. My liberal sensibility wants to be traumatized and outraged at the death of a stranger, so close to my front door. But who am I to live in this kind of denial? Who am I to pretend that if it’s not happening where I can see it, that it’s not happening? Who am I to pretend I have any control at all over the lives of others, the suffering of others? Is this what is required of me to continue to be a human being in a city?
In 12-step recovery, one of the pieces of the path is “admitting to ourselves, God and another person, the exact nature of our wrongs.” It doesn’t mean that we are only flawed as human beings. It just means that to get free of some of our shame, our guilt, our fear, our anger, our selfishness, we have to own up to it. Today I have to own up to my self-centered, willfulness and delusional need to avoid pain. It is supposed to be freeing, to do this. To admit the exact nature of things.
And I see my selfishness everywhere I look. In the way I avoid my partner’s needs because I am afraid sometimes. In the way I withhold praise for my loved ones because I am not sure how to form the words. In the way I resent having to sacrifice for my family-life-work-etc. The way I resent having to be present instead of cocooned in my own rooms. For example, there is a man who lives down the street from me who I used to avoid every time I walked past. He is slightly “off” in some way and lives in a rundown old house that smells slightly of cat piss. He has an unruly boxer dog that he is constantly yelling at and he always, I mean always, needs to engage me and have me acknowledge him. Without fail, rain or shine he says to me “nice weather we’re having huh?” And I always interpreted it, frankly, as his daftness. And then I thought, well, maybe this is a good metaphor. I am always so up and down, lilting and falling without reason. Here is this guy, always even, always appreciating the weather, treating every person the same.
But even in that, I was wrong. Here’s the thing: when I returned to NE after the summer in New Mexico, I saw him on the street and he said, “I haven’t seen you in a while, your dog got a haircut eh?” and then “Nice weather we’re having huh?” I had to laugh, for thinking that I am not seen, for thinking that I am merely the object of someone else’s delusion just because I am selfish enough to make them the object of my own. I’d prefer to think that you couldn’t pick my face out in a crowd. But now I know: people see me. And in being seen, I have a responsibility. As uncomfortable as it is, I have to answer this man with respect and I have to acknowledge him in return. I can’t just hide. I may be a selfish bastard but luckily life is asking me to change.
Somehow, all of our stories fit together. We would be foolish to think otherwise. The weather man, the woman wailing, the bloodied man, the broken glass, even the rain which feels like atmosphere today.