Would it hurt to smile and say good morning?

Morning walk in James Bay

Actually it doesn’t hurt at all. For instance, this morning, I’m walking down Toronto street and a gentleman, approaching, smiles and says, “Good morning!” (I use the exclamation point here because that’s just the way he said it, like he was happy or something.) I smile and say in response (without the exclamation point), “Good morning,” and note that I was not injured in the least.

But then he stops. Well, that’s upping the ante. Walking by is rude, which I can’t bring myself to, so really the only thing you can do is stop. I stop.

He says, “Did you notice anything?” I say, “What do you mean?” He says, “You know, the reverie, those small seconds of unconscious reflection that accompany a greeting; that zen-ish moment within this most common of human encounters, where you’re lost but not lost, inside yourself and outside yourself at the same time, I mean, it doesn’t get more elemental; and consider the injection of good will into the universe, it doesn’t’ matter if you’re religious person or a run-of-the-mill humanist, because it’s just these tiny unremarkable acts of human decency that the universe savours don’t you think? and consider what this does for this street, what it does for the grass sprouting through the fence here, or the soil in all these little backyard gardens, consider the sparrows, won’t they sing a little louder, and won’t they tell others? and what a chorus of sparrows that will be; consider the nieghbourhood, the community, the city, well you know where I’m going with this, right?” “I suppose,” I say.*

I carry on down Toronto street, meet a woman whose head is down, face firm for the day, and I interrupt her with, “Good morning!” and a smile, because it kind of comes with the greeting. I mean it’s possible not to smile when saying good morning, but it’s a chore and I’m mostly against chores. Anyway, if I hadn’t said good morning I wouldn’t have known how sweet a voice she had. One of those naturally musical voices, and I dearly hoped she sang in the some choir, or at least sang with all these birds that I was noticing now, because the way her voice sounded when she smiled and returned a good morning, was like a full-throated chorus of song sparrows.

*The encounter with the gentleman is accurate at points, the rest is simply the way I remember it.

Those who wait in shadows

It’s 6:30 AM. I’m serving porridge and handing out some donated brown-spotted bananas and some apples that are due.

It’s quiet, the holiday season frenzy is past. But the line is lengthening and now I’m busy. “Patience,” someone says, “he’s the only one in the kitchen.” Most are patient. Most are polite. Most respond to a greeting. Many initiate a greeting.

Then there are two men, one young, one older, then an argument about nothing, maybe queue-jumping. The older one drives his head into the nose and mouth of the younger one, I hear a cracking noise, there’s blood, now fists, a cup smashed on the floor, the older one is bigger, meaner, picks up a chair, others step in and move to separate the two, staff appear, the young man leaves quickly, the older one, raging, roars after him, kicks at the heavy glass door, flings it open and marches through. Staff clean up the mess, people go back to their tables, back to their porridge, it’s quiet again. Nothing has happened. Everything has happened.

A man with five or six teeth is thanking me for being here, for volunteering. He repeats himself. He’s far too effusive. A woman with blister-thickened hands is stirring mountains of sugar and powdered cream into her coffee. A young man wrapped in a sleeping bag, wreathed by odour and grime, takes his oatmeal. I would like him to move by quicker.

The next person takes his porridge with great belligerence, cursing me and the cereal in equal measure. I ask if anything is wrong. He spits, “What the fuck do you think? I’m here!” I do not say I understand, I say only that I’m sorry. He vows never to be back. I’ve served him before, I’ll likely see him here again. I recall a quote attributed to St. Vincent de Paul: “You must love the poor very much so that they will forgive you for helping them.” Would that I could rise to that. I fail. I only try not to further wound another’s dignity.

A girl with sores on her face, her limbs spastic, moves jerkily back to her table carrying a full bowl. There is something heroic in the way she manages to spill very little of her milk, something heroic in her ability to move in these mortal shadows, to sit in her own darkness and a darkness not of her own making, and still herself, steady her spoon, and eat, and be, at least for a moment, at peace.

Zechariah’s prayer-poem:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Wouldn’t that be something.

Black Turnstones, the New Year and Peace

When you come to the coast in the new year,
we’ll walk to the cliffs then descend to the shore.
And when I point out the Black Turnstones
picking their way along the wave-washed rocks,
searching for acorn barnacles and corded limpets,
won’t we cheer to see their humble sandpiper bodies
insinuating themselves, monk-like, into
the jagged cloisters of their granite abbeys?

Wait ‘til they take flight, I’ll say, and we’ll wait
and they’ll lift in quick chorus, and we’ll trace,
in the flair of their wings,
the whirring utterance of glory,
the declaration of Divinity,
patterned against the green-slate sea.

Won’t we talk, then, of their untaught faith
of finding, daily, what is needed for strength?
Won’t we note their belief in original goodness,
their simple trust in the grace of littoral space?

And we’ll pause too, won’t we? at some twinkling tide pool,
some gentle rivulet running over basalt,
some gleaming seastar,
some reflective stillness on sun-glazed sandstone,
some intrepid sea palm swaying in the psalm of heavy surf,
wise to connection, open to communion, open to conversion,
the ora et labora of this botanical beach.

And won’t we rise to what feels like a fanning
of our own courage in the glide and dive
of a double-crested cormorant?

Won’t we be delivered?
Won’t our hearts grow deliciously wild?

It could happen on some new year morning
walking the intertidal span from the Ogden Breakwater
to Clover Point, the Black Turnstones lifting and landing
on the foreshore, and you, me,
brimming with peace.

From Grow Mercy to you, here’s to a beautiful New Year!