I’m heading out of town tomorrow for a few days and have been a little preoccupied with how I’m going to do with my giveaways. In a different city and culture, will I still be able to follow my instincts? Granted, it’s not like I’m going to Djibouti, but San Francisco is a different world.

I had to stop at the store after work today. I got out of the car and was crossing the parking lot when I saw a woman struggling with her empty shopping cart. I always hate taking the cart back to the repository after loading my groceries in the car, so I decided to be really nice and offer to take her cart back for her. I was feeling kind of pleased with myself, thinking how this project is making me into such a nice person. Then I couldn’t find the place where you put the carts and I started to get annoyed. Ah! No wonder! Some idiot had parked right in front of it, blocking the whole thing. A couple of other shoppers were kind of circling around, trying to figure out how to put their carts away. Jeez. Some people!

It was getting dark but I could see well enough to realize that the offending vehicle looked vaguely familiar. Wait. Is that…? Doh! I was the one who was blocking everyone from putting their carts away. Wow. I hate that.

I fixed the problem as quickly as I could and headed into the store. I had the C-note in my pocket and just cruised the aisles for a while. There were a lot of people inside, mostly in ones and twos. I walked slowly and (I imagined) nonchalantly past the produce, the crackers, the peanut butter and the salad dressing. Heading into the frozen food aisle I saw a young woman pushing a little girl in a stroller. She was wearing tiny shorts that barely covered her bottom and said “Senior” across the back. High school? Possible, but she looked older. With the two of them was a slightly rounder version of the young woman. She had stopped pushing their shopping cart and was looking at the ice cream. “Klondike bars?”, I heard her ask. The cart was piled with chips, soda and frozen chicken. Something drew me to them.

“Excuse me”, I said to the woman with the cart. “Can I talk with you for a minute?” “Okaaayy”, she said, visibly dubious. She maneuvered her cart around in front of her so it was between the two of us. “What’s it about?” “Is this your family?”, I asked. “Yes”, she said. “These are my daughters.” She looked concerned, and mildly frightened. I saw the two girls watching me. “They’re beautiful”, I offered. I smiled, trying to put them all at ease. The older girl grinned at me and did a gracious little curtsey. I told the mom what I was doing and that I wanted to pass along a gift. Her face went slack and I handed her the $100 bill.

The woman’s hand flew up to her mouth and she burst into tears. In one fluid motion she came out from behind her shopping cart and gave me a huge hug. “God is so good!” She was crying hard. There was a story here, and lots of hurt. Her older daughter was crying, too. Then the woman said, “Your mother must have been a beautiful person.” “Yes”, I agreed. “She was.”

That was it. We didn’t talk long before I went on my way. The two women were still standing there with tears in their eyes when I turned into the next aisle.


Lone Fir Cemetery

I’ve always loved cemeteries, and used to spend a lot of time visiting them and wandering from grave to grave, thinking about the impact each person makes on their world. When I was a kid growing up in the New Jersey suburbs there was an old cemetery nearby we called “The Ghostly Graves”. It was a 15-20 minute walk through the woods, and I spent many days reading all the inscriptions on the markers and then lying on my back in the adjacent meadow.

I’ve kind of gotten out of the habit of visiting cemeteries. Although I’ve lived in Portland over 15 years I’ve never visited Lone Fir, our oldest pioneer cemetery with burials dating back to 1846. Heading home from an errand this morning I drove along one side of the cemetery and it crossed my mind to go in. It was a glorious sunny day and everything looked beautiful.

It took me a while to find the entrance, which was clear around the other side a few blocks away. I parked down the street and stepped through the gate, taking it all in. I imagined maybe I’d see someone mourning at a graveside and would brighten their day with the 14th Hundred. There were a couple of maintenance guys riding on lawnmowers but it was otherwise very quiet. A couple of people jogged past, and a woman walked by pushing a stroller. I saw a few people with sketchbooks and a guy in a bicycle helmet sitting on the grass having a snack.

Thanks anyway

Thanks anyway

In the distance, I thought I saw a figure curled up on one of the benches. Maybe this is why I’m here, I thought. I walked closer. It appeared to be a woman, asleep. There was a paper bag next to the bench that was partway open. I leaned down and took a peek inside. Instead of the bottle I was expecting, there was an apple and a box of coconut water. “Excuse me.”

“Excuse me”, I said again. One eye popped open and the woman turned her face up a bit. I could see that she was young and had some pretty serious piercings but not much else. “Are you okay?”, I asked. “Yeah”, she said. “I’m… okay”. Not too convincing. “Do you need anything?” “No. But thanks anyway.” Very polite. I stood there for a minute and she said, “Look. I’m just really tired. I’m taking a break from work and I just want to sleep.” “Where do you work?”, I asked. “Downtown”. Hmmm. We were nowhere near downtown. “Sit up for a sec, I have something I want to give you.” Her eyes were closed again. “No, thanks.”

Should I try harder?  I felt pretty torn about it, like maybe I was missing a big opportunity. Maybe a little hurt, too, that my gift had been turned down. I walked away.

The cemetery really is beautiful, and there are lots of interesting headstone designs and inscriptions. One style of newer headstone that seems to be popular among members of a certain community includes very large and lifelike photos of the deceased on the gravestone. It’s quite unsettling. There was a mix of real and artificial flowers on the graves, and one covered with Halloween decorations and a hand lettered sign that said “Dad”.

I kept walking and saw a woman up ahead bent before an easel. I walked closer and said hello. She kept painting. I watched for a few seconds, then said “Do you mind?”. “Help yourself”, she shrugged. “For a minute”. I watched her dip her brush into the paint – first green, then blue. She dabbed the color onto the canvas. I looked at the scene in front of us, then back at the painting.

Cheryl's painting“Actually, do you mind if I interrupt you for a minute?” She stiffened. “What’s up?” I told her about my project and handed her the $100 bill. She looked at me for the first time. “Are you kidding me!?? Are you kidding me??” She must have said it a half dozen times.

I was kind of chuckling inside, thinking about Gloria yesterday and how grumpy she was at first. I thought back to the woman on the bench.

The painter told me her name was Cheryl and it was her first time painting at Lone Fir. She had been inspired to do it after reading about the cemetery founders in a historical comic book put out by the Dill Pickle Club. She wanted to know if I lived in the neighborhood and how I came to be there today. She gave me a big hug and said she would do something good with the money.

We talked for a while and I told Cheryl about the blog. She said she would dedicate the Lone Fir painting to me and Gina. As we said goodbye, she said “Bless you, that’s all I can say. And I never say that!”

As I walked back to my car I looked for the young woman in black. The bench was empty.

Cheryl's sketch and the 14th Hundred

It was a day for miracles today. 33 men, trapped 2000 feet underground for 70 days, rescued without a hitch! I kept checking in on the news, and heard some of the family members on the radio driving back from my morning clinic.

At the end of the work day, I was heading to my car when I had the urge to turn back and peek in the window of Denny’s. I decided that if I saw someone sitting alone at a table I would go in and ask to sit down with them.

The place seemed deserted and I checked the sign to see if they were even open. Yup, till 1 AM. Then I saw that there was one table occupied, with two African American women sitting by the window holding hands. Their eyes were downcast and they looked serious. And maybe sad. Something pulled me inside.

I stepped right past the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign and walked toward the women. One of them pushed the shreds of her leftover pancakes into a box to take home. They both watched me suspiciously. “Excuse me. Hi. Can I talk to you for a minute?” “About what?The woman glared at me and kind of rolled her eyes. I launched into a quick version of my story, thinking it might soften her to hear that my mama had died. It seemed to, maybe a little. I sat down at the next table and said I wanted to pass along a gift to them, reaching over to put the $100 bill on the table.

“Thank you, Jesus! Thank you!”, cried the woman with the pancakes. “Thank you, Mother and Father. Thank you for this!” They each grabbed one of my hands and started to cry. Then they told me their story.

One of the women (I’ll call her “Gloria” but it’s not her real name) got hurt at work, needed surgery, and was going to be off the job for months. She had been sitting in Denny’s for three hours, making phone calls to her insurance company and trying to figure out how she was going to pay her bills. She was going through a real bad time. The other woman (“Mary”) knew Gloria a little from way back and saw her sitting there. She felt like Gloria needed someone to pray for her, so she went in and sat down. She ordered pancakes. They held hands and prayed that Gloria would have her money worries lifted.

“Were you in here? You was watching us?”, asked Mary. I told her no, I was walking by and felt pulled to come in. “Oh, my God!” She said. “Thank you, Jesus!”

Gloria was pretty quiet this whole time but she was squeezing my hand real hard. She apologized for “coming on strong” at first. “I shouldn’t have been like that”, she told me. “I’ve said it a million times: ‘Be careful because you may be entertaining angels unaware.’ That’s from the scripture.” I asked her what that meant to her and she said you never know what gifts or burdens another person is carrying.

Mary was shy but had a lot to say. She wanted me to know that her prayers have worked miracles before. “Psalm 91 says, ‘I will order his angels to protect you wherever you go.’ That’s a beautiful one. I love that whole scripture.” She said she had been on her knees praying for the last two weeks. “I’ve prayed to God to heal this recession! Not just for me, for everybody. And to heal pain. And blindness. And don’t let The Man take my social security! Don’t let the rich be greedy!” “Mmm hmm”, said Gloria.

We talked for a long time and it was hard to say goodbye. Gloria told me she loved me. “You are a blessing. Thank you”, she said. They both gave me a big hug.

I can’t explain what pulled me into Denny’s. I don’t really believe in God. But I do believe in angels, and I am so thankful for the two I met today.