Hello - Oasis
On September 12, 2001, I sat in at a kitchen table in Somerville, MA in a shitty apartment with an array of simple tools at my disposal. Gus was curled on the floor around me, as always knowing something was wrong. He stays close to me, calm, and utterly quiet whenever I feel sad. The dog knows everything about the way I feel. Either that, or he is a perfect creature to project such comfort upon, but either way, he has always been one of the great comforts of my life, big perfect brown eyes lined dark and kind. And on that day, the day a whole nation needed a Gus, he lay still, right there by me and my tools, perfectly ready for any move I made.
My moves, as it turns out, were slight. I held the tips of two stainless steel sewing needles into the flame of a disposable lighter until they seemed cleansed. Then I unwound a length of 100% cotton thread from a spool and found it a new home on the ends of the needles, entwining the two together and leaving a wad of cotton by the bottom with just the pointy heads sticking out. The rest wound up around the shafts of the needles for me to grip. I dunked the contraption into a capful of india ink and poked a small heart into my left thumb. The whole time I cried, still reeling from the way those people jumped from the falling building. It wasn't even the image of the planes that haunted me, it was everything after that. I suppose if I was somebody else, it would have been everything that came before. The heart was a reminder to me. Try to always just start from there, right on my hand with a line to my heart, left side awkward but for that. I figured if I could remind myself to start from there, I could have a little bit of practice in thwarting my own personal war on the "other", whomever that might be. I also decided that day to begin a commitment to a practice that, when I engage it, serves me well. I say hello to everyone, especially strangers in the world with whom I make eye contact.
I had this idea that if everybody began saying that to each other, simply acknowledging the humanity of the person on the sidewalk or at the corner store or passing slowly on a tractor on a stretch of country road, late fall sunlight turning the world a little bit rusty, maybe then we could begin to see our own humanity, our own mistakes and dread and demons. Maybe we could all just say hello, relieve ourselves of the petty assumptions we are bound to make, the silent ways we pick teams, a mean gym class of people leaving the unskilled as a worthless afterthought, or worse, a punishment.
I don't manage it all the time, but I still believe in it, the simplicity of the two syllables. It actually works the best when I don't feel like it, and I do it anyhow. And on my runs, I try hardest, especially when I am hating the run. I say hello to all the runners that trot toward me, try to manage the whole word, although sometimes I just get a nod. Some people just look down, don't let you say a thing. Others look imposing in their focus, then you say hi and their face explodes into a greeting, Mornin'!
Yes it is.
My run, as the hellos multiply, always manages to weed out discomfort. Or change the focus from discomfort to something else. I begin to focus on strange social things, how we all share this city, a diminutive town in an agreement with fault lines and earthquakes, keeping it's skyline low and elegant. I think about how strange it is to not know your neighbors, be crammed on trains sharing scent and space and still pretend there is no intimacy happening. But running, I say the hellos or flash pained grins and the people, they smile back, say
I'm doing this thing too.
I live here too.
You can do it.
We are the same.
These people and their willingness to be with me for a passing stride remind me that as much as stopping seems like it would be a relief, not stopping has its charms as well. Not quitting is a practice as much as quitting. It is not a Herculean effort, it is a moment at a time, just one choice to keep the stride. Then later I may have to make the choice again , perhaps as soon as three strides, but I don't have to make a choice to get over all the hurdles at once.
There is something so amazing about saying hello to someone who doesn't answer. Looks away. Avoids me and my smile. Maybe my offer is ultimately self-serving, intrusive or rude. Maybe it's a way for me to congratulate myself on how evolved I am becoming, stretching my broad shoulder out of the socket to pat my liberal back in congratulations. Maybe I should just save my money up for a Prius and shut the fuck up. Maybe not everyone thinks I'm so great. And that has to be okay too. Because when the time comes that I'm the person that doesn't say hello, the day I close up and don't smile back, act like a shitty neighbor with an ugly fence, well, I have to live there as well.
I know Hello won't save us from ourselves. And since I gave myself that tattoo on my thumb, I had an accident at work last year with, ironically, a box knife that sliced the thing in half horizontally, leaving a thin scar separating the puffy humped top of the thing from the pointy bottom. I look at it some days and I think, it's true that Hello won't save the world, but maybe it can be a salve for some scar tissue.