Which Voice Is Loudest?

I was on my way home after a medical appointment, wrapped the quiet sort of reverie that comes from driving a long-familiar route. The car ahead of me applied its brakes and went around a slow-moving obstacle just over a rise in the road. I expected a farm tractor, bicyclist, or carcass of an unfortunate deer but couldn’t confirm till I made it over that hill. When I did, I saw what I could only describe as a contraption. It looked like the square hood of an Amish buggy (common site around here) stretched over a small metal frame. Attached to the back was a hand-lettered sign with words nearly too faded to read.

Blinkers on, I passed carefully on the 55-mph road, trying to decipher the sign. It said something like “Walking To California.” And there, pulling the cart, was a man. I didn’t get a good glimpse, but enough to see he looked dusty and road-weary. He had at least another 45 minutes of walking before he’d get to a place where he might buy food or drink. If he stayed on this route he’d have many days of walking a two lane road passing little more than farms, struggling businesses, and homes built on former farmland.  

“Pull over,” my heart told me.

There wasn’t any place to pull over. I drove on slowly, waiting for a turnoff where I might wait for him to catch up. But then what? I wanted to ask if he’d like a homecooked meal and a shower. Surely his cart could fit in my trunk. My husband was home, so I didn’t pause to worry about the lone woman and strange man thing, instead I thought about what I had in the refrigerator.   

As I looked for a place to stop, half of me argued with the other half. My heart told me it takes rare courage to do what this man is trying to do. I wondered what fueled his quest. Maybe a pilgrimage of sorts, or an outgrowth of loss, or a creative venture, or a personal challenge. Maybe a quest to answer for himself what Einstein called the most important question facing humanity, “Is the universe a friendly place?”

“Pull over!” my heart kept saying.

But my mind’s voice reminded me this traveler might also be carrying Covid-19.

My husband and I have medical conditions that make us more vulnerable to the virus. We continue to be careful during a pandemic that has not gone away. Although media and government sources assure us it’s safe to get back to normal, stats show the last seven days there were nearly three thousand Covid deaths in the U.S., a 911-level loss of life per week. As of September 18th, there are now 464 deaths per day, which will move the weekly toll even higher. These numbers can’t possibly hint at the suffering and grief on a planet that has lost 6.53 million souls to this disease since early 2020.

In the last two and a half years, my husband and I have lost irreplaceable time with family members. We have not hosted our beloved house concerts here, or eaten once inside a restaurant together, or gone into any building without a mask. That is, until last week. All this time I’ve been completing editing jobs at home and teaching writing classes via Zoom. But my newest series of classes are, per the regulations of the institution offering them, in person. I walked in the first day wearing my KN95 mask. I set up the room and greeted the first few students. But about ten minutes before class started, two older students told me they couldn’t hear me with my mask on. I dithered for a moment (dithering is one of my most practiced abilities), then took off my mask. I reasoned I could leave the doors open for ventilation and the classroom, posted as large enough to hold 100 people while we were only 20, was roomy enough to confer extra protection. I’d also gotten the most recent bivalent booster. We’ll all be safe, I told myself. I’m still not sure about that.

Now I was considering this additional risk.

I thought of pulling over to offer this man help that didn’t involve an invitation to our home. I could offer him whatever I had in my wallet, although a quick assessment showed I had only two dollars. Okay, I could ask him if he’d share his story and a cell number so I could offer to call local media to help him get coverage. And contact area churches to see if they might want to alert congregations along the way who might host him. Heck, I could simply say hello, welcome him to this part of Ohio, and listen to what he had to say. By this time I was nearly home. I decided to brainstorm solutions with my husband, then drive back along the same route until I spotted the man.

I was convinced at this point that I had a soul-deep need to respond to this traveler. This urge, as I understand it, is deeply embedded in who we are as a species. I mean, come on, it’s there in belief systems around the world.  

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1

“The husband and wife of the house should not turn away any who comes at eating time and asks for food. If food is not available, a place to rest, water for refreshing one’s self, a reed mat to lay one’s self on, and pleasing words entertaining the guest–these at least never fail in the houses of the good.” Hinduism. Apastamba Dharma Sutra 8.2

“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Judaism, Exodus 22:20

“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”  Islam. Quran 4:36

“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137

 “The heavenly food is needed successively; be thou a server of the food and direct thou the people of the world to present themselves at that table and guide them to partake thereof.” Baha’I  (Abdu’l-Baha)

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu.

But, despite my strong conviction, my husband informed me I was nuts. He made rather pointed arguments to support his contention that one does not stop to talk to strangers on the side of the road, let alone bring them home, pandemic or no pandemic. I briefly wondered if I’d married the wrong man, although our differences make our lasting partnership work. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was foolhardy hubris for me to think I should do anything other than let a stranger live his life while I live mine. I didn’t get in the car and head back to greet the traveler.

I believe there are essential friendships never made and significant soul promptings never answered because we don’t make time, or don’t feel ready, or harbor fear, or simply let life’s everydayness block us from what might be. We never find out how these unexplored connections might answer one another’s deepest questions. I still regret not listening to my heart.

27 thoughts on “Which Voice Is Loudest?

  1. This is such a familiar dilemma: risk, don’t risk, try, don’t try, reach out, postpone. An intelligence test has a question that goes roughly, “Why is it better to give money to a charity than an individual.” The answer, of course, is that it’s more likely that the money will be spent for good use. But who defines good use? The dithering continues until, like a light bulb, it goes out, until next time. I honor your dithering.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Laughing at “I honor your dithering.” I don’t imagine I’ll ourgrow the dithers any time soon.

      I think your example of the intelligence test is interesting, although the correct answer may not be entirely accurate. After all, we have a popular former president who (along with family members) was found guilty for defrauding not only his own namesake charity but also the Army Emergency Relief, the Children’s Aid Society, Citymeals-on-Wheels, Give an Hour, Martha’s Table, the United Negro College Fund, the United Way of National Capital Area, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. On the flip side, the rise of Go Fund Me shows how much we humans are drawn to directly helping an individual, even people they’ll never meet. (Too large a subject here to discuss why we live in a time when people can go bankrupt due to medical costs or end up homeless after leaving an abusive situation…) Sorry, I do love a good devil’s advocate conversation…

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  2. Laura — thank you for this completely honest rumination which is timely for me. My husband too is the “no” voice in my house when I want to share more, donate more, offer help. But I have situations coming up where I can no longer use his boundaries as mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • oooh yes, such a great point about using “his boundaries as mine”. This teamwork we call marriage really is a balancing exercise. I too am pulling back to more of my side of the scale to balance things.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think of boundaries as naturally shifting, the way the shoreline shifts at low tide and high tide. Tight boundaries and barriers just don’t seem natural to me. I hope you find the place where both your boundaries can shift more easily.

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  3. So familiar, that wanting, needing, to offer help, food, aide, a hand, anything. I guess i’m nuts too. I used to offer rides to people on bus stops, but having young children surely stopped that. They’re now 16 and 19. Wonder when i’ll resume my offers

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    • Your comment brought up a memory of my paternal grandmother. After her kids were grown, she started picking up hitchhikers. Her family was appalled and repeatedly warned her to stop. She said, “How can I stop. They remind me of you.”

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  4. I so believe in living angels like you! That said, there are so many reasons these days to not get involved with a stranger even if it tugs at your heartstrings. I take solace in making sure I reach out to extended friends and family who have fallen on hard times and try to help make their lives better. Not the same but much more satisfying than just donating money unless you know it’s a trustworthy cause. Love your posts!

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  5. My voice says “Be the change…” I would have felt the same impulse as you to hold out my hand, to help. My husband would have driven straight past, since his super-power is not seeing that which is not convenient! It’s not that he lacks compassion; he simply doesn’t see it.

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    • It’s interesting what we see isn’t it? Driving down any street, my husband will notice a random apartment’s structure—maybe a foundation issue or roof problem. I notice the same building’s stories– maybe faded curtains, blooming window boxes, a child’s toy on a balcony, a tipped over grocery cart by the walkway.

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  6. An angel told me my brother is on the road again. He told a cop that he’s Willie Nelson Mandela on the road again to join the ’49ers in the Gold Rush to California. The angel said it’s OK that he gets into those Time Warps a lot. It’s OK as long as he holds onto his sifting pan. Last time he panned for gold he got a few nuggets of wisdom but no gold. He told the police that he had nothing to do with that woman’s murder. The angel told me he’s not going to back my play — supernatural is out. But I have my pan and my knife. I think I’ll hitchhike to the river and pan for gold, and maybe I’ll find a soul. Sam Cooke said I was born by a river and change is gonna come… maybe some quarters and dimes…

    Liked by 1 person

      •     Thanks. I often think of turning my comments into poems, but I sometimes think it isn’t fair because I wrote the response for a particular post. Changing points-of-view and narrator can be a tricky business, and sometimes it’s mis-understood. Changing voices almost seems like cheating somehow. I once started a poem thinking about Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” but then I couldn’t keep up the rhythm and it needed too much explanation so I had to add an intro stanza which threw off the rhythm. “Broken down in Sugar Ditch” was my first draft start. Sugar Ditch was a town in Mississippi that had a sewage ditch in back of houses without running water. But then I went off on several tangents:

        Though there’s little food in Sugar Ditch
        the rabbit hoped to hop from me
        a foolish-stewing-hopeless creature,
        who’d let luck go where
        fecal creeks don’t drown
        perfumed hope

        Broken down in Sugar Ditch
        waiting for a scholarship
        I was wheeling like
        lightning struck me down

        The documentary camera came
        just before a thunder wash,
        saw the open sewer
        that’s home to family shame

        I pulled out my crying rag
        time moaning sack of clothes
        and the man heard me sing
        while driving lightning roads

        Honking horns daring me
        to dream away from poverty,
        I bent my trumpets to heaven’s ears

        But no one told me
        evil flies to me
        every place I go, and
        King Sorrow would reign
        over sovereign hopes

        I reached the skyscrapers
        a tourist of bad timing
        had to be the highest
        place to see heaven
        aside from you

        After lightning struck this New York
        I was lying under debris,
        my quilted sorrow bristling
        with cast off bricks

        Mortar thoughts around me
        being so damn mortal, I
        could be thundered away
        to the heavenly scene

        But a steam pipe was hissing
        while lifted stones flew away
        like missiles whistling
        choruses of dusty blues

        Jaws of life jacking time
        they slid my body out in time
        let the building collapse on through

        Thought I heard,
        old Joplin singin’
        more on Earth
        will be slapping you
        if you
        dodge more bullets
        from another fool

        And when I sang right out
        across the clapping crowds,
        my best laid blues
        went right to you,
        New York girl
        in a rabbit hat

        Oh magical girl,
        my new love,
        you kissed the breeze
        made illusions
        fondle my wishes

        Now I dream of you deeply:
        my salvation laughing everywhere

        To whinny, my dream horse gallops, your
        giggling jiggling in my cortex,
        cerebral fondness hunting for you
        in pulsing fibers
        embedded in desire
        throbbing in crevices
        of nerve-cell books,
        passions hiding in no man’s nook.

        You journey through my mind,
        scampering mind dancer,
        doing wild animal tangos. I embrace

        your beauty in the hunt
        to capture your essence;
        my dogs sense your scent,
        a presence so foxy,
        they transcend all knowing
        rockin’ and rollin’ in serotonin.

        I have traveled into you–
        touch me there
        where thoughts are real
        and lightning tingles fine:
        hats off to
        everlasting good times

        When I awake to you
        I am in heaven

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Laura, thank you for sharing your beautiful story. My husband would have reacted to the situation exactly as your husband did. I think the loving, caring, kind thoughts you had for that man would have rippled to him in a way you would never know about but would have benefited him and his need.
    I enjoy all your emails. Thank you.

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    • You are very kind Joanne. I really wondered if I should even post this piece, aware people would see it as another white lady wringing her hands in guilt instead of doing something. (Which is, in essence, what that post was about.) I simply find it easier, many times, to write about where I went wrong.

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  8. I just want to offer up the counter-husband here, since there are four nay-saying husbands represented. And I don’t think this is a gender issue. My husband is the yes-sayer–and he says yes with such grace. One day, accosted by someone on the streets of Chicago who offered his drivers license for us to hold in lieu of the $10 we would hand over for something he’d repay in an hour, Paul handed him the $10 and said, “No, keep the license. But I want to make clear, this is for your performance, which was excellent.” And we don’t really have a lot of spare tens. I am full of second-guesses, but he seldom is. My parents, too, were seldom wary of the stranger. But I’ve been bedeviled by many a stranger and so am wary like you, Laura, and thank you for your honestly here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hopefully our partners help to balance us. But whew, when the poles shift it’s weird. Current example: For decades I was the worrier, he was always the no fret guy. Now he’s such a fretter that countering it has boosted my speculative optimism.

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  9. Laura: This post is like a 3D holograph on so many of our lives. The two dimensions I most relate to – what my wife and I call “COVID math” (owing to my rather advanced heart disease we weigh each exposure in relationship to the reward for us or others), and husbands needing to learn from their wives about generosity.

    If it is any consolation to you, I did, eventually, come closer to my beloved’s sense of personal generosity. It has been a wonderful gift and the fact that it took well more than 30 of our 43 years only speaks to her patience and determination to be who she was regardless of who I was!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I continue to ponder this haunting story. I share your grief and regret for all of the times I did not act upon my good intentions in spite of my fears and any barriers that may have existed–real or imagined. But I also applaud you for this–for dignifying this man by seeing him. That is the foundation of love and community. Perhaps in the sharing of this story someone farther down the road will be looking for him, prepared and confident in taking action. We are all travelers. May we each be given the dignity of being seen.

    Liked by 1 person

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