It was a balmy June morning. I was in a little town called O’Fallon Illinois, right outside St. Louis. I was excited to be going to a huge bike ride in the city, expected to have 3,000+ riders. The clear blue sky outside my hotel was expansive, and matched my mood. It was one of those brilliant mornings where the sun shines in on a low angle through an utterly cloudless sky, bathing the entire world in dazzling golden colors… yellows, oranges… every reflection almost too bright to look at directly.
I needed to find a place to walk a couple miles, as was my habit every morning, so I popped on my sunglasses and set out to explore. If I was lucky, perhaps they had a forest preserve with trails. I was pleased to discover that they had an extremely large public park right in the center of the town. It was immense. Filled with baseball diamonds and picnic areas, it was at least a mile around. This would be perfect!
There was a parking lot right beside the public swimming pool on the north side of the park, and it was there I began my transit. I headed out to the east,
directly into the brilliant sunshine. This park was amazing! Besides the swimming pool, there was a diving pool and a ‘kiddie’ pool, and horseshoe pits, and baseball diamonds, and bocce ball and basketball and volleyball courts, etc. It had large green spaces, picnic areas, trees, bushes… all lit by the piercing sunshine in brilliant highlights and hues. There was even a big sign that announced special events, like Friday “Movie in the Park” night, with free popcorn!
I was contented and happy as I walked, turning first to the South and then the West as I circled this immense green space. I thought about the many blessings this town has, and about how nice it must be to live here. I thought about how many blessings I have as well. Just like the glimmering edges of everything in this wonderful park, my life had a glow and a lightness these days too. I had discovered life modeling, and a passion for everything related to figure art. My whole life seemed as bright and filled with possibilities as this brilliant morning.
I rounded the third corner and began walking up the ‘far’ side of the park. Here the shadows were long amongst several old oak trees… it felt like the “backside” of the park. It was then that I first noticed her.
There was a woman with dishwater blonde hair sitting in the shadows by the base of a tree. She was staring across the street into the town with a fixed gaze, smoking a cigarette and wearing dark sunglasses. Behind her, stacked against the tree trunk, were three plastic bags with… I’m not sure what… inside. At the base of the tree on the other side was a soiled and crumpled blanket. As I approached closer, I noticed that her hair was unkempt and her hands were dirty. She did not return my gaze. I said “good morning” with a smile. She didn’t respond.
Except for a puff of cigarette, she remained motionless in the glances I stole over my shoulder. I rounded the fourth corner of the park, and there turned out of her sight… then on past my car to start a second circuit round the park. The same brilliant sun blasted my eyes as I made my way to the east, but I didn’t seem as blinded or awe-struck by it this time. I couldn’t get the woman off my mind.
I wondered what she had done, or had not done, that brought her to my path, next to that tree, on this day. I wondered what multitude of decisions she made that resulted in her current circumstances. I wondered what had been taken from her by others… or what had been done ‘to’ her by others… that resulted in her sitting in the shadows of this old oak tree, on this brilliant morning.
I wondered how much money she had. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the wad of bills I knew was there. I think it was $63. I didn’t count it.
I thought about the many blessings in my life: family, health, wealth. I thought to myself “if I drop this money on this sidewalk right here, right now, and walk away from it, it will not significantly affect my life… I will still eat today.“ I wondered when the last time it was that she had eaten. I wondered, “If I give this money to her, will she have a full stomach in an hour, or will she be drunk?” I wondered, “if I give this money to her, am I a fool?”
For sure it would mean I was very much my father’s son. He was a compassionate man and a philanthropist. He had a tendency to look for needs around him, and then work to find a way to meet those needs. The fact that I was moved to compassion by the sight of this woman was a good thing. It meant that my heart was colored in the same hues as his.
As I walked along I marveled at the many shadows and deep values I hadn’t noticed the first time past. I had only fixated on the highlights before. I also noticed things in the town that I hadn’t seen the first time around: some streets in disrepair, a shuttered strip mall. It was my second time past these streets and buildings, but the first time I really saw them… really looked.
It occurred to me that this park needs this town, just as much as this town needs this park. It occurred to me that I might need this woman in the exact same way. I decided that if I were to find her still beside the tree, I was going to give her the wad still curled in my hand. I practiced the speech I would give in my mind and I rounded the corner.
She was still there, sitting in the shadows of the tree, staring out at nothing…
I walked deliberately now, with my chin up. I began to veer off the sidewalk toward her slightly as I approached, and she, noticing this out of the corner of her eye, lifted her gaze warily to watch me approach. Once close enough I began: “Hi! My name is Joseph and I have many blessings in my life, and I would like…“ She interrupted me suddenly and said “Oh! Oh no, I, I… I couldn’t!“ She dropped her gaze to her lap shaking her head. I said quickly, “No, you don’t understand! I have some money here, and I would just like to give it to you.”
At that I held the money out to her… all $63… (I think)
She looked at me for a long moment without speaking, then slowly took the money from my outstretched hand. It appeared to suddenly weigh a great deal, and her hand dropped to her lap. Her gaze followed. She said quietly but clearly “thank you.“ I said cheerfully “you’re welcome“ and practically skipped away. I smiled back at her over my shoulder a couple of times as I walked away, but her gaze was fixed on the wad of bills in her hand.
I rounded the corner, out of her sight, and into a feeling of wellness that I have seldom experienced in my life. I walked again around the park, light in my step and energize in my heart. I could see balance in everything around me, the park with its luster in a town with imperfections… highlights with their brilliance and the shadows with their depths. I decided that I was probably blessed by the woman more than she was blessed by me… that I truly needed her, here, today. I hoped that she would be well in the life ahead of her.
I felt focused as I walked. I felt a sense of internal balance and peace.
I wondered if she would still be there this time around, or if she would be gone from the tree, from my life. I turned the corner and looked ahead.
She was still there…
She had switched to the sunny side of the tree. Her chin was up into the light. She was smoking a new cigarette. Evidently she was watching for me, because as I approached she turned her face to me and smiled. I thought to myself “she might actually be pretty!“ I walked a few more paces returning her smile, which made her smile even broader. It was then I knew I was correct… she really was pretty! Some of the shine of her youth had worn off along the journey, but the lovely young girl she had once been was still there. Her smile was radiant.
Before I was close enough to hear she looked at me directly, tilted her head slightly, mouthed the words “thank you,“ and then smiled warmly, intentionally. With tears welling up in my eyes, I crossed my hands over my heart and mouthed back the words “you’re welcome.“ As I passed her I gave her my biggest smile and wished her a wonderful day. She in turn wished me the same, smiling after me.
I walked away from her a third time into the rest of that brilliant morning, and into the rest of my life. As I went, I carried a new lesson inside of me. Simply this: that the colors we see in the world have much less to do with the condition of the light… and much more to do with the condition of our hearts.