When Tom came over one lovely mid-October Saturday morning, he smelled suspiciously perfumed. Had he changed laundry detergents? No—same laundry detergent, same deodorant, same shampoo, same soap.
Completing my interrogation, I asked, “What hair-removal product did you use?”
“That’s called ‘age.’”
We were on our way to Berkeley to meet Ann for lunch, which was at a Tibetan or Indonesian place, and then to see An Audience with Meow Meow (as she explained, "I'm Meow Meow and you're an audience!"). The show starts with very broad humor, and I thought, “Oh, I’m not going to like this. Why do people think this is so great?” But by the end, tears were rolling down my face. It was subtle, surprising, and tremendously moving.
I won’t give anything more away except to say that it made me think of the line “See your fellow bugs” from this poem, which gave this very blog its name:
Bugs in a Bowl
by David Budbill
Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:
We're just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.
I say, That's right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.
Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.
Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.
Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Say, Hey, how you doin'?
Say, Nice Bowl!
It so happens that even before I bumped into Meow Meow, I had been in a “See your fellow bugs” mood.
We are naturally hesitant to intrude on strangers. Knowing that we would not like being stared at ourselves, we are afraid to seem to stare at others. But as we go from being a societal whole, at least sharing several reference points (e.g., the evening news on TV), to being zillions of independent units, each frowning into our own device, each putting together a custom program of entertainment and news in sync with the opinions we already have, the misinformation, paranoia and estrangement grow.
I don’t like to be stared at by strangers, either, and I don’t want to make others uncomfortable, but I find it weirdly powerful to see my fellow bugs, even for just a second. When I remember to do this, it is really wonderful, all the different ways people look, all the expressions on their faces: lost in thought, downcast, anxious. And now and then a happy face, which gives me a little burst of joy. After seeing just a few people, I often notice a big upturn in warm feeling within myself. The biggest difficulty with this practice is that I start to feel so exuberant and so full of tenderness for my fellow bugs that I can start smiling and nodding at all of them, which some people like, but I presume most might not. As long as 20 years ago, an old lady said querulously, “Why are you looking at me like that? It’s like you know me.”
So as Tom and I walked to BART, I was peeking at my fellow bugs, and thinking about my class. Whereas I might normally walk by someone in need (though I am actually prone to random acts of kindness), a chaplain has more responsibility, for instance, for the woman standing at the top of the stairs to the BART platform, holding a walker. What if I was at Laguna Honda, where I’m hoping to volunteer, and she was a patient there? I got five steps past her and then walked back up. I called Tom to join us and he suggested she take the elevator, but she said she once got stuck in a BART elevator. Tom carried her walker down to the platform and I walked with her down the steps. During just those few moments, she told me her boyfriend is in Laguna Honda (speaking of which) and that he recently asked her to marry him. Apparently he’ll be all right, but she’s not sure about getting married to him, because he has the tendency to advise her how to spend her own money.
On the train, I saw my fellow passengers. One was a drunk fellow sitting on the floor talking to himself. I ended up standing next to him, so I started answering him and he told me that he was sober before, but is drinking again now, and he also has cancer. He told me his attorney is a really fine fellow and that he’s ashamed to have his attorney see him in this condition. He said he doesn’t want to die drunk. He reached up and gently touched my hand a few times, which was OK. Imagine never, ever again feeling the touch of someone else’s hand or their arms around you. He was visibly filthy and smelled terrible, so I would not have welcomed a hug (though I did once hug a visibly filthy homeless person on the street), but that small and respectful touch was fine.
We reached a station and people got off and on and the man got up and walked farther into the car, saying loudly, “At least I’m not a ni——.” I cringed; there were several black people nearby, but one of them, quite a large man, continued the conversation with the drunk man, which I thought was extraordinary of him. And then another woman chimed in and responded to the drunk guy.
Then a few young black men came tromping along the aisle, heading for the next car, and I looked at them with interest and one of them looked back at me with what appeared to be surprise and even pleasure at being seen in a friendly rather than frightened or hostile way. On the way back, after Meow Meow, along came three other black men, these with a box for tips and a boombox. They staged a dance performance, contorting their joints horribly—is that good for their joints, or does it guarantee early arthritis?—which spontaneous work of art seemed remarkable and delightful. It was also nice, on a day of covert looking, to be invited to watch.
Back in the city, I went to Modern Times to get two more books for my chaplaincy class. Next, most splendidly, it was time for the monthly potluck at the home of the intentional community that runs the soup kitchen, which I will give the pseudonym Thomas House. There were about 20 people there, roughly half residents and half visitors, and I met two new people but already knew everyone else, and it was a very pleasant couple of hours of eating and hanging out.