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Lessons in Humanity From My Barista

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THINKING ABOUT DEATH
alamy

The first person I normally greet in the morning is Diego. Today, I look at him with eyes whose vision has been altered by reading the opening lines of a poem by Ellen Bass called "If You Knew":

What if you knew you'd be the last
to touch someone?

Diego is from the Yucatan, but now he makes cappuccino in my local café in Sausalito. We shake hands every day as I order my cappuccino. He invariably slides it across the counter to me with some exclamation about how beautiful the day is; whatever the weather. Even if I have just walked through a blustery wind and a smattering of rain, it seems churlish to contradict him, and I can only agree; especially when I know how far he has cycled in the small hours of the morning to get here. Yes, it is a beautiful day. Always.

Today, I take in his tiny, Mayan frame, his businesslike vigor, his kind, open gaze and feel what this café would be like without him. It would be empty. All the locals are here because of him. Because of his warmth, his welcome, his verve. I wonder about the sad stories that hide behind his smile; the journey from his homeland, the family he has left behind, the relatives, perhaps, who never made it across the desert in Arizona. I think of him on his bicycle at 4.00 a.m. in the morning, pedaling into the wind all through San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge while the rest of us are quiet in the sleeping city.

Today, his gesture of sliding the cup over the wooden counter is lit for me with an uncommon light; the light that glows around someone as you sense that this gesture, that sentence, that smile, that look in the eyes, is already disappearing out of this moment into the timeless. Gone; gone forever. And yet a trace remains; not in the memory only, but in the feeling heart. And in the body, too; because when we see and feel like this we are moved. For what is illuminated is the reality that, even as it disappears, the most ordinary gesture can convey the truth and beauty of a human life. I feel grateful for Diego's courage, aware of his humanity now streaming across the counter to me along with my coffee.

Aware as I am, too, of my own vulnerability, and that of everyone else in this café this morning, washed and tumbling along as we all are in the river of time, on our way to the endless ocean. Because all of us are here only for the time being; vulnerable, intrinsically vulnerable to old age sickness and death. Nothing will save us from this, our common fate. However puffed out our chest may be, however booming that voice of ours, however many tall buildings or stocks we own, we too are exquisitely, excruciatingly exposed to the fact that, sooner or later, our place will be cleared and we will be gone.

When we remember this, something softens in us. Our judgments soften. Our hurry slows down a little, our worries return to proportion. We breathe a little easier. After all, every one of us is in the same leaky old boat. Everyone we meet, everyone around us -- the wise, the foolish, the saintly, the murderous -- all of us alive today are heading together, in one great fellowship, toward the final waterfall - even as we argue, lash out at each other, care for each other, love each other -- regardless of what it is we do or don't do.

This is why ours is an exquisite vulnerability. It is exquisite because it is so touching, so life-affirming when we see through the shell of a person to the tender reality beneath. One of the women I pass in the café most mornings was in the local supermarket the other day. We had sometimes smiled in recognition, but never spoken. She always seemed busy and brisk to my eye; in charge of her day and what she was doing. When we bumped into each other in the supermarket I greeted her by saying how colorful she looked in her bright blue shirt. She said her husband had died recently, and it was the first day since then that she had felt a little alive. I am so sorry, I said. She burst into tears and clung to my shoulder, sobbing. The wave of her grief washed through and over me. I had had no idea. I would never have known. She was not in charge at all. She was just trying to do what she could to get through.

We all have to say goodbye to everything eventually, and life is punctuated with a thousand goodbyes, some greater, some smaller, all along the way. And yet all too often, we can't find the words to say goodbye. We may leave a relationship or see a loved one die without ever being able to find the words or the courage to express feelings that have moved like weather in us for years. We can be at a loss for what to say when a relationship ends, when our friend or lover dies, when we wake up one morning and realize that a whole period of our life -- our youth, our career, our healthy body, perhaps, is no longer what it was.

This is precisely where poetry shines. Good poetry is not merely a few thoughtful words to fill in an awkward moment. It is not simply good advice or a gentle consolation. No, great poetry reaches down into the depths of our humanity and captures the very essence of our experience. Then it delivers it up in exactly the right words. This is why we shudder with recognition when we hear the right poem at the right time. This is why I have written a book called "Ten Poems To Say Goodbye," which will be published by Harmony next February 21st. It starts with Ellen Bass's poem, the last lines of which say it all:

What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time.

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