Friday, August 14, 2009

"I'm looking through you..."

"I'm looking through you,
where did you go
I thought I knew you,
what did I know
You don't look different,
but you have changed
I'm looking thorugh you
You're not the same..."

-     Beatles

I love this version of the Beatles classic, "I'm Looking Through You," by the Wallflowers.  It always reminds me of a moment in 1994 that stopped me in my tracks and changed the way I would look at others...and myself.

It was a bright beautiful, clear blue-sky, Colorado day in early autumn and I'd spent the morning at Just Baked, a wonderful downtown bagel shop where I often scheduled "office" appointments with patients who preferred talking over tea, to sitting in my office.  My last appointment of the morning had left for class and I was enjoying taking in the warmth of the bakery before heading home to check phone messages, before picking our daughter up from half-day Kindergarten.

It didn't take me long to notice the young man at the counter.  He was signing (American Sign Language) to the girl behind the counter, but she was not understanding him.  The University in our town was a leader in the field Sign Language Interpretation, and Speech Pathology, and it was not unusual to see sign language used in stores and restaurants.  I was a fluent signer, so I stepped up to the counter to offer assistance.  The young man "told" me his order and I gave it to the waitress.  Within minutes he'd made his purchase, thanked me for my help, and was out the door.

A few days later we ran into one another again at the same bagel shop.  But this time I was thrilled to see him sitting at a table, signing with a woman I had recently seen act as the sign language interpreter at a Wynona Judd concert.  I had been unable to take my eyes off her hands.  They danced in the air like a pair of ballerinas interpreting the music in graceful, subtle movements that made American Sign Language look like an art form.

I walked over to their table and the young man immediately recognized me,  rose from his chair, and thanked me again for helping him earlier in the week.  Then he turned to his companion and before he could make introductions, I gushed my admiration for her performance at the Judd concert.  She accepted my compliments graciously, but the look on her face betrayed her bafflement.  I chalked it up to modesty and excused myself. 

Before long it was time for me to gather up my books and journal and leave for home.  I noticed that the young man and his companion were also moving towards the door.  I waved a quick goodbye, found my car, and drove the four blocks to park on the street in front of our house. 

As I began to walk from the car to the front gate, and through the pale yellow rose arbor in the picket fence, I noticed that my neighbor about four doors down was also pulling into her driveway.  Sarah and her husband were young newlyweds who'd moved into the neighborhood about six month earlier.  We'd spoken briefly when I'd delivered an apple pie as a housewarming gift, but since then I'd only waved from afar whenever we were in our yards or going to and from our cars. 

As I saw her little red car pull into her driveway, I robotically smiled and raised a hand in hello...until I noticed that there was a man getting out of the car on the passenger side nearest me.  And he was the same young man I had
just seen with the sign language interpreter at the bagel shop.  I was perplexed.  It hadn't even been three minutes since I'd left them and here he was getting out of my neighbor, Sarah's, car. 

Then I took a better look at Sarah. 
She was the same woman I'd just seen him with.

I literally did a double, then a triple take. 

And then it dawned on me.  I had never really looked at Sarah.  I had already compartmentalized her as my young newlywed neighbor who was a student at the University.  I had assumed she was an undergrad studying something I didn't have time to care about.  In the context of our university neighborhood, she was, in my eyes (I am horrified and embarrassed to admit) just another pretty coed.

But in the bagel shop, in the context of seeing her sign with the young man, and recognizing, not her face, but the beautiful dance of her hands...something I had studied, tried to master, and was deeply interested in...she was special, a celebrity, someone to be impressed by, and honored to be in the company of.

No wonder she was so baffled when I gushed on and on about her signing at the Judd concert, as if I'd never met her before.  I was mortified.  I left my purse and books on the walk inside the gate and walked towards them. 

I apologized for myself.  Sarah was gracious enough to invite me in and the three of us talked until I had to leave to pick our daughter up from Kindergarten.

I learned a very important lesson that day.  I learned that I needed to be willing to really open my eyes, and see each and every person I met as if they were truly important, intriguing, remarkable, interesting, fascinating...because they are!  I had to stop looking
through people, categorizing and then dismissing them based on what I did or didn't know about their lives, and be willing to ask questions, listen deeply, and discover what was unique, and beautiful and wonderful about them. 

I have never forgotten this lesson.  The following story was shared with me recently by my friend Nancy.  I think it perfectly illustrates the importance of taking the time...and the listen for what we should never dismiss...the divinity in eachother's humanity.  Enjoy this story...


He was standing in the Washington DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After 3 minutes, a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds...and then hurried to meet his schedule.  After four minutes, the violinist received his first dollar.  A woman threw the money in the till and, without stopping, continued on her way.  After six minutes had passed, a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

Ten minutes into his playing, a three year old boy stopped to listen to the violinist, his mother tugged at him, but the toddler lingered looking at the violinist.  Finally the mother pulled harder, and the child continued to walk, turning his head toward the musician all the while.  This same interest was repeated by several other children.  Every parent, without exception, forced them to move on.  Forty-five minutes had passed, and the musician played.  Only six people stopped and stayed for a while.  About twenty people gave him money, but continued to walk at their normal pace.

He collected thirty-two dollars. When one hour had passed, he finished playing and let the silence take over. No one noticed.  No one applauded, nor was there any recognition that he had played...or stopped.

No one who passed through the metro station that day knew it, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest violinists in the world. He'd played one of the most difficult and intricate pieces ever written for the violin.  He was playing a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his morning in the metro station,  Joshua Bell had sold out a theater in Boston where the
average price of each seat was $100.

This is a true story.
Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.

The questions raised were: in a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it?  Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context? 

One possible conclusion, reached from this experiment could be: If we don't have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made...

How many other things are we missing?


A friend once told me that one of his favorite prayers, for himself, each day included putting  the words of the prophet Elisha in the first person:

"Lord, I pray Thee,
open Thou mine eyes that I may see..."

Something to think about...have a great weekend...
with open eyes, listening for beauty in unexpected places...

Kate Robertson, CS

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