“We cannot lose what is our own, even if we throw it away.”
—The I Ching
One morning, while trying to light my pipe in the blustery wind at Lawson McGhee Library, a young man watching me finally said, “Would you like to have a cigarette?”
“Yes, I would,” I said, gratefully accepting his hand-rolled cigarette. His hands were long and slender, and he carried himself with the grace of a concert pianist despite his clothing, which was cheap and ragged. His dark hair was unkempt and he wore a knapsack on his back. He looked to be in his early 20s, yet already had an air of sadness.
“Thanks for the smoke,” I said. “Not too many people are giving away their cigarettes these days. They’re so expensive now.”
He continued to stand there, saying nothing.
“It’s the worst of many bad habits I’ve acquired in my 64 years,” I continued. I often babble like this when the person I’m talking to does not respond in the socially acceptable, often inane fashion I expect.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m homeless,” he replied.
His eyes were so full of sadness that I could hardly bear to look into them, as if his sadness were a contagious illness I might catch.
“Are you homeless, too?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “But I’ve been close. I’ve been evicted no less than five times in the last seven years. I like to paint murals on the walls of subsidized housing apartments so I’m definitely not a favorite with landlords.”
At this he smiled, so I put out my hand. “I’m Donna,” I said.
“I’m Peter,’ he said, shaking my hand.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I came with my girlfriend, Anna, last week from Montreal. She had been admitted to the graduate program at UT in social work and was studying the phenomenon of homelessness in different regions.”
“And where is Anna today?” I asked.
“She was murdered last week at the campground where we were staying,” he said, with no more emotion than if he were describing his favorite color. I wasn’t sure if I had heard him right.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“She was stabbed in the dark when she went out to go to the bathroom,” he replied, looking up at the sky, as though he might see her or the reason for the violent crime that had taken her from him. Could this story be true?
He opened his wallet and took out a photograph of himself and a tall girl with delicate features and long, blonde braids. They had their arms around one another and the girl had her other hand up, forming a peace sign.
“She was beautiful,” I murmured, and found myself believing him.
“She was so beautiful,” he agreed, gazing wistfully at the photograph. “And she was full of goodness and light. She was murdered for her beliefs, basically.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, staring up at the clouds in the sky that seemed now full of foreboding. Still reeling from what the young man had disclosed to me in his dispassionate way, I pondered the meaning of existence itself. If a young girl so full of promise could be murdered, what chance did the rest of us have?
“It’s really all in how you look at it,” Peter said, taking the flask I offered him and pouring a shot of whiskey down his throat in one gulp. I followed suit and we began walking towards Market Square, like old comrades, which perhaps we were, on some level.
Peter abruptly stood still and cocked his head, as though he were listening to a voice in the wind, which now blew fiercely.
Peter laughed out loud, then returned to our conversation.
“It’s strange, we communicate all the time,” he said. “It’s not in words exactly, but something deeper than that. She tells me I need to forgive the people that killed her because they actually helped her by showing her that the body is really only a vehicle for the soul, and that our true essence can’t be touched by anything or anyone.
“Anna was too pure for this planet. If they hadn’t of killed her, she would simply have chosen another way to transcend. You see, Anna’s love and acceptance of people of all races was like a reproach to them. Because they hold on so tightly to rage and hatred and destruction, when she tried to teach them differently, they had to destroy her in order to keep their own evil ways.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Evil is only a consequence of ignorance, but ignorance can do vast damage.”
Before we parted, we shared another shot of whiskey and a cigarette. A heavy rain began to fall but Peter and I just grinned when he put up his oversized umbrella and we turned our backs against the wind.
The rain let up after only a few minutes and Peter said: “She is giving me a message for you.”
“Really?” I said. I wasn’t too sure about these messages coming from the so-called other side, but since I seemed to be screwing up a fair amount lately, I was ready to listen to anything.
“Anna is telling you to stop wasting so much time on people you don’t even like, who don’t like you either. Be more selective, and above all, spend more time alone. That’s where the real gifts of the spirit can be found.”
This wasn’t exactly new information, but it had been a long time since I had heard it, and an even longer time since I had practiced it. Much of my life recently has just flitting in and out of places and people’s lives, ones with whom I have no connection.
As I passed by the Church of Immaculate Conception on Summit Hill, I went in, kneeled, did a hasty Hail Mary, and vowed to repent and change my ways in the new year. Seclusion seemed about the most promising thing I could think of in the moment.
It’s hard to say whether I’ll succeed in a new and improved life, with a cleaned up and made-over attitude. Sometimes I’ll win, sometimes I’ll lose, but I’ll never know what I can do if I don’t try as hard as the radiant girl from Montreal.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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