When life imitates art right before your eyes, you know the universe is talking to you directly, poignantly asking you to wake up and pay attention. I call it a “soul jolt.”
I had that wakeup call over the weekend. I was dropping my five-year-old daughter and her little friend off at a rehearsal for the musical, Cats. In front of the studio in the street was a homeless woman wrapped in rags, hunched over, reeking of pungent urine and lugging five battered cases down the street to nowhere.
A young girl and her mother were just ahead of us.
“What’s wrong with that lady?” The girl asked.
“She is homeless—dirty.” The mom said, shushing the girl, “Just ignore her.”
The snapshot of that human tragedy entered at shutter speed, searing an ache into my being. I studied the mom whose words shook me, and then back at the woman in the street, as car horns blared at her.
I ushered the kids into the theater and rushed up the stairs. I glanced back through the window and saw the lady in the street—a pathetic picture of a broken soul along with my reflection in the glass. One looking past the other.
How had I become one of the disconnected witnesses who walk on by.
I managed upstairs holding my daughter’s hand hoping to show her through action the true art of living a conscious life. And here I found myself woefully unconscious. How easy it is to judge, ignore, deny such pain; how easy it is to walk by such need without stopping to help. How is it possible to shut down to the silent yet overwhelming cries of collapsed spirits around us. I wondered which of us were more broken—the lady on the street or those who just shield their hearts and eyes and pass on by.
I’ve stopped my car on rush-hour streets after long, tired days working. Running into traffic to try and save lost dogs, chasing after a poor animal in the dark that was not mine. Yet I somehow walk on by a human being, a young, broken woman in the street drenched in sorrow in broad daylight for all to see, to walk the kids up to theater class.
My insides recoiled with pangs of realization that the me who longed to champion that woman, to be the one who would extend help no matter the inconvenience, required too much in real life.
It’s easy to paint a portrait of compassion in theory. But in real life during a busy Saturday? One person alone can’t solve the heartbreaking dynamic of homelessness, mental illness, and great need in every city of this nation. What could I possibly do anyway, extending myself to that woman in the street?
It all reminded of a painting I bought of a homeless woman made out of a collage of global cloths from every country. The woman in the painting is peering up at us with her hand stretched out and on her rumpled lapel is a button that reads, “I AM ALSO A YOU.”
The image touched me deeply, and I asked the artist to tell me what inspired it. Much like the woman I saw in the street, she too ran into a homeless woman begging for food. When her young daughter winced passing her by, the lady on the street looked up and said, “I am you.”
I had to have this painting and bought it long ago as it deeply connected with all I hold to be true about who we really are, and how we are connected to one another—how we are all of the same light. And how not one of us shines more brightly than another, no matter how it appears. This painting is a call for compassion and a reminder to the soul to see yourself in another with love.
I stepped into that painting in real life and all these thoughts rushed through me as I left the studio and walked up the sidewalk past the lady. I thought of that song, “what if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to find his way home.” I also thought back to a book I’d read about Mother Teresa where she was asked how she could stomach the filth and stench of her ailing patients. She said, “It was easier for her than for the patients who lived with it.”
Here I had the chance to walk the walk and be the kind of person I long to be, who would stop and take the time to make a difference. I was battling the rush of the day, and the inconvenience of sticking my nose into the battered life of a stranger when I’ve got plenty on my own plate. When do you become the you you know you to be? Is it always another day? When you have more time?
When do you walk the walk and talk the talk? At what point do you actually turn around, extend your spirit to another, even to make one moment more palatable no matter the inconvenience, no matter the outcome?
Artwork inspires, but in real life are we ever inspired enough to paint the portrait we envision and make real who we know ourselves to be? Do we ever believe in something enough that we are willing to dare—even in the most inconvenient moments—to bring art to life? There have been so many times I’ve silenced this voice, this calling to be real, to be conscious. Not this time.
I turned back around and approached the lady in the street. She was a middle-aged African American woman, crusted in filth around what appeared to be a beautiful but clearly battered face. She had brown, stained teeth in a mouth where many were missing and dry, cracking fingers and feet. The smell of urine was debilitating. She couldn’t smell it herself anymore. I asked her if I could help her get to where she was going. In a very sweet soft voice she thanked me but said she was just fine. She even smiled and assured me she was okay. I asked if I could give her a little something for food or a drink—again she said she was okay.
I told her I could at least give her a lift to where she was going. Lugging all those bags along the rugged road seemed difficult, especially in the rising hot sun of the day. She looked up at me and asked why. I told her I too had experienced tough times and it sure helped when others cared enough to give a hand. She looked at me long and hard when I finally said, you remind me of a beautiful painting I have. It’s called, “I am You,” and if I can help you with all your luggage get to where you are going, it would be my pleasure.
We lugged her bags into my car, carrying all her worldly possessions. The stench of her days on the street immediately permeated everything. I asked her her name. “Andrea,” she said. I asked where she was from, “New York. I’m going back there someday. It’s too expensive to live out here you know.” What happened to you that brought you to this moment, I asked. “Life,” she said. Then Andrea repeated my words, “I like that, I am You.” Then shook her head slowly.
I heard that. I felt it.
What is the final straw that allows such collapse of spirit I wondered. I certainly have felt broken at times in my own life. Yet no matter what level of desperation I’ve suffered silently or not, I never fell as deeply as this young woman into the abyss of hopelessness and decay. There was always a hand, a light, a way back. How lucky am I to have had a way back to myself through the help of blessed connection and the caring of others.
More than ever, in these troubled times, I am more convinced it takes conscious love, connection, community to find our way. When systems fall away, it’s love, consciousness, and community that saves.
When we said goodbye Andrea repeated my name several times as if it mattered to remember it. I wasn’t just a lady who eased the way for a moment, I had a name just as this homeless woman in the street has a name. She mouthed to me in a whisper, “I’ll remember that, I am You.” Yes I said, “Me too. I am you.”
When I looked at the time I was stunned to see only one hour had passed. One simple hour. That was all out of my busy day.
If each and every one of us awakened to the cries of others with small acts of compassion, even when most inconvenient, we could make a dent in the ills that cripple the spirits of this world. When we don’t do it for accolades or acknowledgement, but simply because it’s the right thing to do, when no one is watching there is a silent but seismic shift in the soul of the collective. The Dalai Lama believes even the tiniest act of compassion heals the souls of all humanity.
When I picked up my daughter, she actually asked, “where was the lady in the street. I told her about Andrea. My daughter said, “I’m going to paint her a picture of a beautiful world, mommy, ‘cause she’s just like us.”
Giselle Fernandez is a five-time Emmy® Award-winning journalist, producer, filmmaker, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.
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