I met Dorothee (not her real name) out walking.
That in itself is a surprise. When I walk by myself, I intend to be, as you can imagine, by myself. All by myself. It’s introvert time; I don’t want to be “on” for other people. I’m selfish about my solo walk time.
I walk to exercise, listen to God (and think to God because talking out loud would make me look bananas.), boost creativity for writing, and sort my thoughts.
And most frequently I like to walk alone in cemeteries. One, there’s usually not many people there, and the folks there don’t usually want to talk to anyone as they’re preoccupied with their own business, be it grieving, exercise or maintenance work. Two, it’s quiet park-like green space, with very limited vehicular traffic. Three, it’s public, labyrinth-like wandering space. Four, perhaps because my mom died when I was a kid, I got accustomed to cemeteries, and they don’t freak me out. Five, it helps me be mindful of my mortality, which, in turn, helps me keep life issues in perspective. And perhaps most conveniently, there’s a bunch closer to my house than normal park trails.
Walking with others is great (I do this frequently, too.), but it’s more about general companionship and exercise than meeting God and self-care. And this is something introverted me does with my husband or schedules on the calendar with friends. I don’t start out walking by myself with the intention of talking to anyone along the way.
By myself, I put on my floppy wide-brimmed gardening sunhat and whatever t-shirt and exercise pants I can find (who cares when I’m going to sweat to death anyway?). I blare cheesy dance jams in my headphones, and head out the door to power walk around the cemetery all the while hoping not to run into anyone I know because I look like a literal hot mess.
I speed walk. I bee-bop along and dance. Thoughts come together. I chill out about life stuff freaking me out. Walking helps me distill what things I can do in my life, and at the same time, let go of things I can’t control. God and I converse, usually resulting in me eating some slabs of humble pie.
That was my agenda when I met Dorothee. I’d gotten to the cemetery, jamming and doing my thing, while I started making my first lap.
From about forty feet away I see her frail arm wave, while her wrinkled face smiles at me. Being polite I wave and smile back.
I think the exchange is complete. I did the good, “Hi, I notice you fellow human” exchange, and I am eager to go on about my solo walk feeling confident about my humanitarian efforts.
Then, at about twenty feet out, I realize she is no longer walking on her route. Instead, she stands at the intersection, shuffling back and forth on her feet.
So, I smile again, pull my right earbud out in politeness like I do whenever I encounter people on walks, and say, “Good morning!”
Her entire face lights up and she says, “Good morning!”
Maybe this exchange should satisfy the awkward standing? Please.
And at this point, I’m still feeling good about myself and my humanitarian efforts.
Now, I’m about ten feet away. And she is still standing there. Waiting. Feigning up-close interest in the tiny cemetery road sign.
Meanwhile, my brain is screaming: What is she doing? Oh, no. What does she want? What if she wants to talk to me? But, I’m grooving on my solo walk with my jams blaring. Jesus, I’m sorry I’m a horrible person.
Five feet away. She’s still there; only now she’s looking at me with a doe-eyed expression somewhere between wistful and hopeful.
Panic makes it a bit difficult for me to breathe, and even though it’s real-time split seconds until we meet up, I’m having a sci-fi moment where time feels slowed down while I have a rapid fire mental conversation with Jesus and myself.
What do I do? Oh, dear Jesus, what do I do? What if she wants something?
And I get in reply, “Breathe. And also, roll with it.”
Thanks, Jesus. That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted a sanctioned escape route.
Okay, Jesus. I yield. I’ll buck up and be nice to her. I’ll begrudgingly own that the whole “love people” thing is more than just smiling and saying “good morning,” even if it makes my life more messy and complicated.
And Dorothee, with her bright blue eyes and red lips, stands waiting expectantly as I pause mid-stride.
I’m not sure how it happened, but she and I start walking in step with the other. Meanwhile, my right earbud dangles, while my left is blaring Shakira’s “Try Everything.”
I don’t know her name yet, but she begins telling me how she misses having someone to walk with now that family has moved away and her friends are no longer as able-bodied as she is.
Committed to the conversation as more than a quick exchange, I shut off the music, so I can focus and slow down my pace.
I find the presence of mind to [finally] ask her name and shake her warm, weathered hand.
She continues to telling me stories about her family. As she talks, I realize God had something to teach me when I met Dorothee, and I almost missed it in being stupid and arrogant.
I, in my arrogance, originally saw this conversation as me patronizingly giving up some of my time to care for someone. A one-way exchange.
I was an idiot. And so are we all when we give in to the unhealthy fantasy that we are anyone’s remedy to what ails them. Having god-complexes dampens our ability to love well. Because the reality is, we are all our own brand of crazy, hot messes.
We all need each other; to be human is to need community. Giving makes us feel powerful and in control, and receiving can make us feel vulnerable and weak. At least, it does for me. But, the uncomfortable and sticky truth is that we can only rest in the reality of our belovedness when we will receive help not just give it. Otherwise, we’re busy trying earn love and worthiness, and we miss that we already are loved and valuable by virtue of mere existence.
While Dorothee started chatting with me and telling me stories, I realized God had something to teach me about grace, community and provision. Not because of what Dorothee said exactly, but because of the meeting between us. As Dorothee walked and shared her story, she moved from stranger to kin. She was no longer this strange elderly woman waving at me, but now a grandmotherly like person.
To be honest, while Dorothee was more honest about her neediness, I was needy, too. I hadn’t been willing to see my own neediness. And in that seemingly random encounter in the cemetery, as we walked and talked, we were both meeting the others’ needs. I was not the giver and Dorothee the receiver; instead, there was mutuality. Dorothee became someone who helped me see the promise of grace in my life.
Perhaps I don’t receive what I think I need. Perhaps I don’t get to grasp it in my hands for longer than a minute, an hour, a day. After all, manna was only a day’s supply. Faith sustained the Israelites till the next day, when God provided again. Perhaps what troubles me most is my own greed of wanting to hold more than this moment in my hands. I want concrete and tangible security instead of faith, whether I’m talking community, career or family.
God pointed out that if he could get me out of the house to meet Dorothee to ease her loneliness and my unacknowledged neediness that day, could He not also handle the rest of the things freaking me out? If God could provide a strange walking companion for Dorothee who missed walking with family, could he not also continue providing companions in my life whatever shape this life takes? If God cares for Dorothee, the sparrow and the lilies of the field, can I not also trust Him with myself (Mt 6:25-34)?