Wednesday, August 26, 2015

No Good Deed

Vulcan Trail, a beautiful, tranquil spot
for a walk — or a nap.

Just as quietly as it descended, summer's heat has relinquished here in the sunny South. It is as though someone flipped off the the humidity switch and suddenly, there is relief!

At 8 a.m., the cool morning air felt chilly when I stepped outside for my daily two mile hike. During the sweltering summer months, I find myself getting out earlier and earlier to beat the oppressive heat, but today there was no need to rush.

I walk this trail so frequently that I have made friends with the other regulars. There's The Cocoon Boys (three old men) who walk together each morning with two white dogs; Happy Walking Dude, a former athlete turned artist and art professor; and Jogger Lady, who inspires me as she runs up and down the hill every day.  We don't really know one another, but we always smile and wave, exchanging morning greetings and occasionally stopping to chat.

Today, as I reached the crest of the hill, I saw a person on the trail who I had never seen before. He was — in fact — lying in the trail. As I approached, I could discern than it was a man dressed in old, dirty clothes. He was curled in a fetal position in the middle of the paved trail road. (The Vulcan Trail is a paved road that was once a railway for Red Mountain mining.)

I immediately stopped and used my phone to call 9-11.

As I waited for the emergency crew, the Happy Walking Dude art professor walked up. He was ending his daily loop and said he had seen the old man lying in the trail too. He recognized him as a homeless person who "lived" in the area. He said he had asked him if he was OK and then kept walking.

"Oh, gosh," I said. "I called the paramedics. Maybe I shouldn't have done that?"
"No," Happy Walking Dude assured me. "You did the right thing."

HWD went on his way and I waited for the ambulance and fire truck and police. They all arrived in short order. I directed them up the hill (the road is wide enough to drive through) and hiked along ahead, showing them the way. I thought they'd scoop up the old man, place him on a gurney, start an IV, give him oxygen, and whisk him away to the ER. But within a few moments after the emergency workers approached, the man who I thought was collapsed in the trial got up and limped down the hill.

"We see this guy all the time," the policeman said. "He will just go to sleep anywhere."

"Are you OK?" an EMT asked me. "Did he scare you?"

"No," I said. "I just felt so bad for the guy ... Seeing him makes my heart hurt."

I watched the old man shuffle away, his slumber interrupted by a well-meaning woman, a fire truck, EMT and police team. He looked to be in his 70s, but he was so dirty and unkempt, it was hard to discern his age. He certainly appeared to be in need of medical assistance, but he waved off the guys with the stretcher and ambled down the hill. I felt so bad for him and there was nothing I could do. But beyond that, I felt ashamed.

In truth, the homeless man did scare me. I was so fearful that I hadn't approached him and asked if he needed help. I just assumed that because he was lying in the middle of the path, he needed help — and wanted help. And I was wrong.

"I'm sorry I brought you out here for nothing," I said to the emergency workers. "I thought that man needed help. Can't you take him to the local shelter?"

"He's not interested," said the EMT. "You can't help someone who doesn't want help."

The trucks turned around and slowly rumbled down the mountain. I walked home with a very unsettled feeling in my heart. I should have felt relieved when the old man got up and limped away, but I didn't. There was a part of me that was embarrassed I had called for help when he really wasn't dying or hurt. I felt foolish for assuming the man was mortally wounded or something.

I also felt bad that I had inconvenienced the emergency crew and brought them out when they weren't really needed. I certainly didn't mean to cry wolf. Was I supposed to just walk by an old man lying in the trail? Other people did. Maybe they were wiser than me. Maybe they saw the truth: That the man just wanted to sleep. And I had taken from him the one solace he could find on this cool, beautiful, clear fall morning. All he wanted to do was sleep and this stupid (but well-meaning) woman called the cops and the EMTs who shooed him on his way!

I felt twenty different types of crappy over the whole situation. But feeling crappy doesn't do anyone any good. If I really wanted to do something helpful I should get off my ass and volunteer at a shelter or donate money or food or clothes or do something useful. I felt like a dilettante calling 911 on my iPhone and demanding that the authorities clean this man up and making him better — as if I really knew better than the old man did what it was he needed! Ugh.

"You can't help someone who doesn't want help," the EMT said. And he was so very right.

How many times in my life have I foisted my idea of help onto someone when they didn't feel they needed or wanted my brand of help? Just because it makes me feel better to see someone get help, doesn't mean I'm actually helping that person. I might be making it worse. And yet, I don't want to be the person who blindly walks past the homeless man lying in the trail and doesn't do a thing. Of course, I also don't want to be the one who foolishly calls 9-11 for someone who just wants to sleep in the street. Sometimes it's just hard to know what to do. Either way, my heart aches.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Best Souvenir: Avventura Italiana Parte Quattro

Vacation re-entry is a bitch.

I'm not talking about jet lag. I mean the difficulty readjusting to my "normal" life after spending14 days disengaged from my everyday concerns.For the first few days after we returned from Italy, I woke up and had to remember just exactly where I was. There was a slight sense of disappointment when I'd realize that I was back in my own bed, in my own room, my own house. Traveling to Italy was fun and exciting and, well, a true vacation from my "regular" life. Not that my regular life is bad, but during those 14 glorious vacation days I was able to literally (and figuratively) unplug in a way that I rarely do at home.

The main reason our vacation was so idyllic was not because of what I packed and carried along with me, but because of what I left behind. 

Travel can bring out my fears ...
I made a conscious effort to travel light—only the two allowed carry-on bags. But I also determined to not take my laptop. It's hard for a freelancer to lay down her work and walk away for two weeks. Not working means not getting paid for said not-work. Sure, I tried to line up as many projects as I could for before and after the trip, but during those two weeks, I didn't do a smidgeon of work (at least not the kind that provides monetary compensation. A writer is always working, after all.)

So I intentionally left behind my laptop and I also deliberately resigned my fears about not working, not making money while I was in Italy for two weeks. That was not easy.

Of the "things" I carry with me, fear is my heaviest, most cumbersome, exhausting possession. In fact, fear has kept me grounded for many years, and not because I have a thing about heights or planes crashing. No. I fear that if I am not working the world (as I know it) might end. Funny thing though, no matter how hard I've worked, I've never felt I have "enough" to be secure.

In the days when I worked in marketing for Turner Network Television, I made a nice salary. I was single, had no car payment or mortgage, no kids, no commitments at all. And still I felt I didn't have "enough" to be financially secure. I was always balancing precariously on the tightrope of fiscal uncertainty. Why?

... or my child-like sense of wonder.

In 1995, when I quit my well-paying job at Turner and thrust myself into the great unknown I traveled for three months and drafted off my savings. When returned to Atlanta, I began to freelance as a copywriter and that's pretty much what I have done for the past 20 years. Sure there were a few short-lived stints where I held full-time jobs, but mostly I've managed to stay afloat by cobbling together a living together as a free agent, taking whatever assignments come my way.

Some days I'm busier than others. I'm not very good (read: lazy) at "networking" so I don't tend to cultivate a lot of new clients. The ones I have are all gained by good ol' word of mouth. Some days I really do not know where my next mortgage payment will come from. But finally after a cumulative 20 years of freelancing, I'm finally learning to lean into the unknown and be okay with it.

While I was in Italy, I took things as they came. We had an itinerary and a schedule of when we needed to be in one city or another, but I really didn't know what would happen going from Point A to Point B. There were lots of stops along the way for gelato, and a good amount of time spent just ambling through ancient, cobblestone streets. We didn't see the inside lot of famous basilicas, but we did wander around the little neighborhood churches with our mouths agape at the tremendous beauty and grandeur of even the most minor feat of Italian architecture. And I didn't scrimp or worry (too much) about what we were spending along the way. I wasn't foolish with our euros, but I didn't fret over every purchase — which I sometimes do at home, if I'm really, really anxious. (And, honestly, that happens more than I care to admit.)

The truth is this: Life becomes easier when I realize that I am the author of my fears, frustrations and anxieties. And as the author of these maladies, I can simply refuse to pick up the pen and write them. Or better, I can write a new script for myself. 

Instead of being fearful about not having enough, I can be so, so grateful about ALL that I have. When I'm not pinning the blame for my unhappiness on someone else, I am free to decide to be happy, or at least satisfied. That's huge.

Earlier on in our trip, we stayed in a 14th century apartment in a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside about an hour south of Bologna. It was a gorgeous setting and we loved it there. Our hosts were an American woman, Jayne, and her Italian husband, Francesco. They were incredibly generous and hospitable. As we cooked dinners together, Jayne taught me about life in Italy.

On our last night there, as we sat around their table having eaten way too much pasta, roasted chicken and anchovies wrapped in fried sage leaves, Jayne shared a saying that summed up my trip: panta rhei. It's an ancient Greek phrase that literally translated means "everything flows."

For Jack, pante rhei comes naturally.
Depending upon how you interpret it, panta rhei can mean "go with the flow" or let go of a fixed idea or outcome; or it can imply impermanence, as in everything flows, all things change, nothing is ever the same from one moment to the next, even though we think it is, or — often — want it to remain static. I rather like the combination of the meanings (both of which are quite Buddhist.)

Panta rhei! All things change! All things flow. Might as well go with it, because to not go with the stream means constantly fighting against reality. And that's the one thing that will always make me nuts. So to me panta rhei means embrace what IS because what IS is pretty darned good.

For the remainder of my time in Italy, I embraced the spirit of panta rhei. I let go of my idea of how our vacation was supposed to unfold and allowed myself to enjoy what was happening. I ate a lot o' gelato with the realization that I would never again have that exact moment in time with my son and my honey.

After 14 days in Italy, my suitcase was a bit fuller then I left home. I bought a few souvenirs along the way: glass beads in Venice, a bright colored scarf, and a linen dress in Sorrento. But the best memento of the entire two week excursion was that simple phrase: panta rhei.

Now that I've been back home for a few weeks, it's easy to start stressing over work (or the lack thereof), and bills to be paid and all those "regular life" concerns. But when I wake up each morning and realize that I am not in Sorrento or Ischia or Tuscany, I try to also recall panta rhei and vow to take life as it comes.