On talking out loud

John can usually be found at the coffee shop I often go to. He is a grizzled man in his sixties, homeless. Sometimes he talks to himself but he is gentle, always very gentle. Not like me, where gentle is a decision I make when I would really rather punch someone. He is gentle all the way through.

Sometimes he says hello and wants to talk and when that happens I listen. Once he told me all about the microclimate we live in and why it is prone to drought. Once he told me about his friend who drinks too much and often can’t get a bed at the shelter because of it. Another time he told me about a friend who had triple bypass surgery after too many years of eating peanut butter and popcorn, prompting me to change my planned menu for the day.

Today he is talking about education, and how learning shouldn’t be about all the things you’re doing wrong but about all the things you’re doing right. And also families need support and teachers need support. John is making a lot more sense  than any politician I have ever heard.

I don’t know anything about him, in terms of biography. I guess he is a Vietnam vet, because his age and circumstances are right. That war did a lot of damage to a lot of people in his generation. I am old enough to remember the fall of Saigon and the last helicopter leaving, but too young for any of it to have left any scars.

John always thanks me politely for my time. I always say, “You’re welcome.”

I don’t know why I stop and listen. I have a lot of other things I could be doing. Maybe I listen to remind myself that life has almost nothing to do with how much I accomplish  today.

Today my head is in that place I hate, where I know I am being Type A and I can’t seem to stop it. I know that the busywork is just avoidance, like that Burn Notice marathon last week. I can’t seem to help it. It is a feeling of being stuck, the idea that if I just do something, do more, I will change what cannot be changed.

I am letting go of outcomes, but it’s a process, and I’ve been letting go for almost twenty years now. I still don’t get it right a lot of the time. Today is one of those days. I am losing the path. I am one of those middling people who find it, then wander off. The ones Lao Tzu gently derides. I know it, and can’t seem to do anything about it.

Sadly, I tell Lao Tzu, I was not born a superior person. At least I am not a goat.  

I don’t know what’s wrong with being a goat, but it seems a good thing to be thankful for, so I go with it. I am a middling person, wavering on the way.

John is quietly winding down about education policy. He looks up at me, his eyes watery and old behind his glasses.

“Not very many people can see reality,” he says suddenly, from out of nowhere. “I try. It’s important to try.”

It is like a little message from Lao Tzu. I can hear him chuckling.

“Thank you,” I say.

“You’re welcome,” says John. Then: “What is your name? I don’t remember it.”

“I’m Jennifer.”

“That’s right. Jenni-fu. Jenni-fu.”

I don’t correct him. I like what he has named me. I figure it translates to The art of not being a goat.


On what might have been