The concrete steps are cool because they have been in the shade of a brick wall most of the afternoon, and also it is long after supper. The dishes have been washed, and the wooden round table wiped clean with a moist yellow sponge. It is sometime in early May, and the hot days have really brought out the green in everything that is growing out of the red earth.
These steps lead nowhere, really, and that is one reason I like them so much. Perhaps they once led to a house that faced Shorter Avenue, walking you up to a cozy front porch. But that house is gone, and now these steps lead quite by the accident of having been abandoned to the side of a large brick office building where accountants, tax experts, and insurance agents work by day.
I have had a walk, and I sit after it for no reason almost but not quite halfway up these abandoned steps and watch the cars and trucks go by on Shorter Avenue. I sit almost but not quite halfway up these steps because that position is a) most comfortable and b) most hidden. I want to blend in with my surroundings. Like a deer hunter in the woods, I am as still as I can be, and the concrete steps are cool beneath my fingertips; and, being a born-and-bred Southerner, I never take cool for granted once April is gone.
I am fond of Shorter Avenue. If you follow it east, it changes names a few times as it winds through hospitals and past Papa John’s, a movie theater, Steak ’n Shake, Barnes & Noble, and Kroger, heading as Highway 20 towards Cartersville and on to Canton, Georgia, my hometown in sixth grade and for many years after, until I married.
Actually, my first family and I lived in Macedonia Community, which is fifteen minutes out from Canton, and as I sit on the cool steps, I can see the green fields, the forever reassuringly calm cows, and the long chicken houses filled with manually changed water drinkers and with never not-moving, smelly but cute yellow chicks that always reminded me of Easter gifts and irony.
I still love Canton for two reasons. It is where I first cut my teeth on the wisdom that living through childhood brings, and it is also where I learned the beautiful, wonder-filled art of diagramming sentences, from Mrs. Dot Whitfield, my sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher. So, in a way, this road leads to where my life began, because all of my days, the good ones, the glad ones, the amazing ones, the happy ones, the loving ones, the awful ones, the sad ones, the lonely ones, the injured ones, and the painful, ugly ones, were all lived out on a background of my search for Wisdom, or Christ, and of my love for language.
I have all of these reveries to the soothing background music that goes swish, swish . . . swish, swish . . . swish, swish, swish, swish, as cars and trucks of all kinds and colors drive past my cozy, abandoned, cool steps, as the full May sun turns the blue, cloudless sky all shades of red and purple as it slowly disappears into the pocket of the horizon. I estimate dusk won’t come for another good forty-five minutes, plenty of time for me to sit on these steps not far from home and watch my neighbors drive past.
After sitting there some minutes or no minutes, I cannot say which, I start having the most unusual thoughts. I wonder about the people in those cars. I wonder where they are going and why and are they happy? Are they driving to one of the hospitals in town to visit a dying friend, or are they going to a friend’s house for a birthday party perhaps? Are they driving to a pharmacy to pick up medicine for a sick child, sick themselves with worry? Did that person driving that green sedan pick the color of his car, and if so, why? Is it his favorite color or just the best he could find? Does he even like green, or did his wife pick the shade? Is he colorblind, and, if so, what does that green hue look like in his eyes?
I start seeing new, shiny cars and imagine that some are driven by confident people and some by scared humans. Perhaps the woman in that showroom-perfect luxury car is secretly afraid that her business is about to implode in the economy’s weakness? Then I see an older car with a dent in its back fender that is unrepaired and unrepentant, or is perhaps beyond the family’s budget for repairs.
Soon I find myself caught up in a blur of vision. I see that each car, truck, van, and delivery vehicle—the new, the expensive, the used, the least costly, the sporty, the Buick, the convertible, the gleaming pick-up truck, the beat-up and much-driven, the much-loved and polished, the hardly noticed until they break down, and the ones so brand-new that they are still without tags—that each one is vulnerable to dents and dings and life in general and that the people inside each vehicle are vulnerable, too, in various ways that are all different and all the same.
Where are they all rushing to? I love them all and wish them all well. I hope they are happy.
I find myself praying for this one and for that one. I catch faces of drivers, of passengers, of children, of men, of women, and then there are no faces, just swishes and metal and black wheels, and since no one ever looks my way but straight ahead towards their destinations, I am allowed to pray for everyone without being interrupted by a stare or a casual wave.
I am invisible, and in the sitting is the seeing, and in the seeing is the praying, and in the praying is the love for everyone I see. And in this love is the connection between us humans that is always there.
Is this how the Trappist monk Thomas Merton felt on that busy street corner in Kentucky on March 18, 1958? He was in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, when, he writes: “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . . There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
God bless and keep us all.