“You’re basically doing all the right things”, the ophthalmologist tells me after the examination, having almost blinded me with her strong light, taking the deepest look into my eyes anyone has ever taken.
The flood of light when I get out into the sun and the snow is so painful I can barely keep my eyes open and I’m feeling a little bit confused trying to make my way to the park to meet some of the kids in my class. There are no contours and everything seems to float and move all the time, as if I were trying to focus and the camera just won’t keep still.
“Mrs Daniela, Mrs Daniela, I missed you so much”, he says running towards me and jumping into my arms. I forget he’s grown and, hugging him tight, I lift him at my chest to make keeping him close easier on my back. This embarrasses him, so I quickly put him down and tell him how much he’s grown (though I’m not so credible anymore, since I could lift him).
“Me too, my darling, me too. Let me look at you” and I’m searching for his eyes and, through the blinding light still pouring in, I can still see that part of me I’ve always seen in him and that part of him I see in me every morning when I look in the mirror.
He’s so sensitive it almost feels like his skin has been peeled off his chest and his heart has no way of defending herself against the world doing all it does just by being itself. He takes it all in and lets it storm throughout his entire being. His heart is so big everyone and everything fits inside and there is still room for more. I wish mine were brave enough to be like that all the time. Leaving the doors and the windows wide open through the lowest and the highest temperatures.
He lives in India now with his family. A travelers’ family. We’re from the same family, so not even for a moment do I feel we have ever been apart. And I do feel, with all my heart, that there is a strong connection between us and it will stay strong and live through many life changes. I knew it since the first time I saw him – a strong, intelligent and scared eight year old, blinking all the time and hiding his eyes from mine. I knew he’s from my ship. We’re still sailing together.
If there’s an important question on your mind, try asking a child about it.
On Thursdays I teach a creative writing workshop in the afterschool for third and fourth graders. Yesterday I felt like discussing and working on trust and distrust.
I started with a physical exercise that I learnt in a contemporary dance workshop four years ago. We formed a circle and took turns being inside the circle, eyes closed, the others placing their hands softly on the arms, back, shoulders, head, chest and stomach of the person in the middle. Then the hands moved away and the person in the middle had to lean backwards, forwards, left and right, eyes still closed, offering their weight to the others and being supported by unknown hands, practicing trust and noticing how that feels.
I then collected words on the board, describing our experiences. And each of us took time to write their own, personal, definitions of trust and distrust.
I was impressed by two definitions and took them in my heart overnight. They helped me reach an important conclusion that brings me to the end of a major stage in my life.
Here they are, translated from Romanian:
“Trust is a state of the human body on which friendship relies.”
“Distrust is a state of the body on which nothing relies.”
My latest date was a smart and handsome guy and it felt like I was dating the center of the universe. (Yes, this is relevant.) Sure, you can be flattered for one night. But the universe can only have one center and you soon start feeling like the periphery.
But on the first (and probably only?) night, as he accompanies me to the Dhafer Youssef concert I’ve been waiting for, smiling and leaning towards me to whisper stuff into my ear, rubbing his shoulder against mine as we sit and eventually taking my hand into his, only to leave the concert hall hand in hand, like two teenagers, I feel good. “You know, I tell him, I haven’t walked hand in hand with someone for…” “… ages”, he quickly completes my sentence. “It feels weird”, I add giggling.
And there’s an insecure part of me thinking “Ah, if my ex is here and sees me, he’ll notice I’m better off now.” But I know it’s not nice, so I banish the thought and continue smiling, my chin a bit raised as if wanting to build a bridge for my eyes so they can roll directly over the insignificant crowd.
Bear with me, I’m getting there. Haven’t forgotten I promised blood and tears.
The next day I have an early birthday celebration at school with the kids in my class and it feels wonderful. They asked me to make them a cake, so that’s what I was doing the previous night at 2 am, after the concert and date. I take out the cake and everyone is excited. I light the candle on it and they want me to tell them (again) the story of how I came into this world, where, in what family and how my life has been so far. I end the story by telling them that I do what I love and I am grateful for my life and a happy person. They then shower me with gifts and flowers and hugs and warm wishes and all cluster around me as I open the gifts one by one and enjoy the surprises.
I left the school and picked up my bike from where I’d left it two days before, crammed the front basket with my presents and flower bouquets, took out my phone, took a picture of it and posted it on my Facebook wall with the caption “The happiest bike in the world.” “How beautiful!” a lady exclaimed as I was taking it out into the street. “Yes, it is”, I replied. “I was just thinking it must be the happiest bike in the world.”
I get home and leave the presents and flowers and take the bike out again to shop for party stuff. An early birthday party (or rather gathering) at my place, with close and dear friends. I have my shopping list in my backpack and I am still wearing my dusty pink (princess) birthday girl dress. As I’m riding, an obese guy, struggling to walk, looks at me and says “The bike is good.” “Yes, it is”, I answer and speed up past him.
Here it is.
When I get in front of the supermarket, I attempt to make a right turn and jump over the curb of the sidewalk, right in front of the entrance into the underground parking space, where the curb is lower. The front wheel hits the curb and refuses to mount the damn thing, sliding sideways and throwing me and the bike onto the sidewalk. I’ve never fallen before. That’s the thought that echoes in my mind as my face and knee hit the asphalt. I quickly roll and sit up, my face in my hands, knees bent, legs wide open. There’s this faint thought quickly being swiped by an invisible finger at the back of my mind that I am wearing a dress and should probably put my knees together, but my body ignores the hint.
My eyes are closed (I think), but I can still see (or sense) the crowd gathered in the tram station five meters away. And feet walking past me. No one stops. I feel like I am the center of the universe. Alone. The center is always alone. The whole world is swirling around it like whirling dervishes and no one ever touches the center. Everything and everyone keeps moving and I am finally still and so alone. I don’t know how long I am there, I guess a few minutes. Then someone comes, picks me up and moves me away from the side of the street. Picks up the bike and leans it against a fence, hanging my backpack from the left handlebar.
“Are you ok?” he asks me.
“Yes.” I quickly answer. “Thank you.”
“It looks bad.”
I can see in his eyes I don’t look ok. He’s looking at me, assessing the damages and his upper lip slides upwards, revealing some metal teeth and gaps here and there, where his teeth are missing. He’s in his forties maybe, looks dirty and shabby, wearing a green safety reflective vest.
“Please stop touching your face”, he says. “Should I bring my first aid kit?” he asks me.
“I don’t think that is necessary.” I reply as my left hand reaches my pocket for tissues. I find the pack as my fingers get tangled in my hands free headset and I remember I was thinking of calling my mom when I left home. I congratulate myself for not doing that. I take out a tissue and touch the pain on my face and when I look at it I see blood. It’s ok, it’s not much, I think, I am ok.
“Wait here”, he says and disappears behind me.
When he comes back, a minute later, he’s holding his first aid kit and his dirty fingers are quickly shuffling through the stuff in it, looking for something that might help.
“I am so sorry, he says, I just have these bandages, no disinfectant. You should use some disinfectant there, clean the bruise so you don’t get an infection. Here, take this”, he says. And his black fingers hand me this white thing. “It’s a sterile pad” he says. I take it and softly press it against my face and then slowly wipe my bruises.
“Stop it”, he says, “Don’t do that anymore, it’s not good.” So I stop. He then takes the pad from my hand.
“What happened?” he asks.
“I fell.” I feel like I am submitting and answering like a child who doesn’t even consider the option of not answering.
“These drivers… They’re always driving so close to you, aren’t they?”
“It was not that.”
“Did your wheel get stuck in the tram line? Cause that’s what happened to me once and I fell.”
“Did you lose balance?”
“I don’t know. I simply fell. I’d ridden my bike here hundreds of times, did the same thing over and over again. I’ve never fallen before.”
“It happens…” he says in a deeply compassionate tone.
“Where did you come from?” I finally remember I can ask questions and pull myself out of the submissive role.
“Across the street”, he replies. “I saw you and I saw no one was stopping to help you. These people, they just walk by, like you don’t even exist.”
“What is your name?” I ask him as tears start rolling from my right eye only.
“Alexandru. I am a bike courier.”
“I am Daniela.” I smile and it hurts and the tears in my right eye force my left eye to take in the whole picture on its own.
He smiles back and blushes and I can sense he’s not used to the friendliness; it makes him uncomfortable because he has no idea how to react. I take a step towards him and hug him. He’s not used to this either and, like people who cannot stay in a hug, he pats my back as if wanting to encourage me it is time to move away now and put that safety distance between us again.
“Thank you so much.” I tell him.
“You are welcome. I am so sorry I didn’t really have what you need. You should put some ice on your face. Or no, meat. Yes, put some meat on it.”
“Ok, I will” I reply and realize telling him I haven’t bought meat for years because I am a vegetarian makes absolutely no sense. I have ice, I am thinking.
“You shouldn’t go now. You should sit a little”, he says.
“No, it’s ok, I’m fine, I’ll go.” I answer and I am still thinking of doing the shopping.
I say goodbye and after I leave him I realise people are staring, so I figure I must look bad. I check my face in a car window and see the damage. Ok, I think, I’m going home. So I start heading back to the house and as I am walking I start trembling again and it takes me a while before I get to the house and upstairs to my room.
I send a text message to a friend who I know cannot talk. “I had a bad fall with my bike.” Then, as I start crying uncontrollably, I realize I need help, so I call another friend. She answers. She helps.
“Who hates you so much?” the first friend later asks.
It takes me a few hours talking to my friends at my birthday party to realize what the whole idea with the fall is all about. As I am talking to them, telling them the story of the fall and stories of my travels and of the kids in my class and of friends and what not, opening gifts, opening the door, pouring drinks that they brought (because my shopping trip got interrupted by the fall), there’s this part of me observing everything – the tone of my voice, my choice of words, my gestures, my secret thoughts, my feelings, desires, criticisms etc. It’s the first time I do not ask myself what I did wrong to attract the accident.
And I remember my date and how it all went, step by step. And I remember precisely what I was thinking of the moment before I fell: I don’t have patience and don’t want to waste time and energy and I decide to tell him that I like him and ask him if he’s only into one time stuff, 100% sure he is emotionally unavailable and I am not even going to get a reply.
And the whole picture comes together and it dawns on me. I am smug. I have exceeded the safety limit of self confidence. I am proud. I got my right knee all bloody and bruised, my face looks like I got punched by a jealous alcoholic spouse. A damage to my image. Ok, haters gonna hate. True. Still, this is my Achilles heel: pride. Got it, God, thanks!
Never there to stay. Always temporary. A traveler. A couch surfer in their lives. Or a soul surfer. Whether for some months or some years, I know I am not a friend, not family, not a peer. “I am a passenger, and I ride and I ride…” Sometimes when my part is over I feel a bit sad, but I never forget that I should not get too attached and that I need to keep a healthy balance between a warm heart and a clear head. That gives me ease in allowing my students their space and respecting their choice of taking their own path, no matter their age. And I always give myself the same gift, too. Freedom.
And I know I will not be forgotten, no matter how fleeting the encounter. I have not forgotten any of my teachers. Not even the most boring ones. And I may be many things, but boring I am not. Sometimes knowing you won’t be forgotten can feel flattering, but more often it is quite demanding. Everything I do, everything I say, my body language, my look, my choices, my reactions, my feelings, my preferences, everything is perceived more or less subtly, more or less consciously, depending on how old and awake my students are. And it all makes a more or less lasting impact.
So when I break this little girl’s heart, I know it’s not something she’ll easily forget. I am teaching my weekly creative writing workshop in the after school program and I’ve just finished a brainstorming activity, passed the second step and I am getting ready to give out paper and start the first stage of writing when I notice her. She’s a tall, slim, long haired nine year old, quiet and shy. She’s in my class. I see her every day. And I have just noticed her now in my workshop today. Now. When I’ve already finished the warm-up, the lead-in and the preparatory activities and we are all ready to get down to writing.
Her right arm is raised, propped up by her left hand, she’s trembling and tears are running down her red face. She’s raised her arm as high as she possibly can in an effort to make herself noticed so she could contribute. And I didn’t see her. I drop the piece of chalk in my hand and rush across the classroom to her, calling her name. I sit down next to her and I take her in my arms, all the time kissing her hair between sentences.
The moment I see her, I remember looking up to my father trying to get him to notice me, looking at my mother going about her chores, always so busy, hoping she’d come and take me in her arms, I remember that time in my childhood when I thought people could not see your eyes if you look at them unless you also point your head to them, I remember how much I wanted my father to love me, I remember how invisible I was feeling in my former relationship. It all comes back to me in a flood of images, at the same time.
“Please forgive me”, I tell her. “It is my fault. I am sorry I didn’t see you. I think I cannot see well anymore. I should wear glasses. It is my fault. Can you forgive me. I am so sorry, my dear. So sorry. It’s all my fault. I know how you feel. I know I have hurt you. And I am so sorry. So, so sorry.”
Her warm tears have melted on her sweatshirt and are now popping against the skin on my neck and my arm. I can feel her heart pounding, like a wounded bird’s against my chest. I feel her entire body trembling and I can feel her pain. I want to take her in my lap and never let her go again. I know exactly how she feels. I feel her pain. I have felt her pain so many times. My childhood was about the same kind of pain. Not being seen, not being found, not being valued, being forgotten, passed by, skipped, ignored. My life is still about that same pain, only to a much smaller degree and much more consciously.
And so now I am feeling so grateful to her for the lesson. And to whoever is orchestrating this whole shebang. It is me who has done this. Me. I love her so much. My intentions have never been even remotely close to this. And I have opened her most painful wound. Unintentionally. I was just going about my work. To the best of my abilities in that moment. And I realize this is what everyone does all the time. The best they can, the best we can. Right then and there. And that, truly, we cannot do otherwise. If we could, we definitely would. And that the reality is that we are all most precious helpers for one another.
When her mother comes to pick her up, I approach her, pull her in the classroom next door and I confess everything. “I think this was for you, actually. It is you who needed to have this experience.”, she says smiling and hugs me before we say goodbye.