I went to college in Ithaca, and I have fond memories of the stunning gorges that gave rise to the city’s famous catchphrase. The gorges are set apart in their own time and place, far away from the budding emotions and drama of college life. We spent so much time working and striving and learning, but the gorges, cut off from it all, gave us a safe haven in which to just be. To find contentment, whatever that meant.
It’s subjective, isn’t it? In one way, we all want the same thing. To be fulfilled. To be loved. To feel necessary, important. But we all go about looking for those things in different ways, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in how other people are doing it wrong. How they’re abandoning you. How they believe in the wrong thing. How they would be fine, if only they would be more like you.
My good friend and I talked recently about why we get mad at people, and the conversation turned to shoes.
Let’s say you grow up in a household where shoes are a big deal. Like, maybe there’s this kid, Mikey Nike, and he and his parents just fucking love shoes. Everyone in the Nike family has their own dedicated closet for their shoes, and their shoes are the centerpiece of every outfit they wear, and shoe shopping is their favorite family activity. They love shoes so much that instead of saying good morning to each other, they tell each other what nice shoes they’re wearing today.
I can safely say that Mikey Nike has a unique family. Not many people put that much emphasis on shoes (although I’m sure someone out there does). But if you ever met Mikey and didn’t say anything about his shoes, he’d probably get mad at you. Because, no matter how unusual, you did something that didn’t match his idea of how the world works.
We all do this, although maybe not to such an extreme degree as the Nike family. It’s easy, sometimes, to get caught up in these self-created dramas, seeing malice, when, in truth, the only problem was a mismatch of ideas. Fortunately, it’s also easy to fix if you make the effort.
You may have heard we had something of a blizzard this week in New York. The weather was beyond cold, the wind beyond oppressive. A “snowpocalypse” and raging storm only matched by the one brewing inside of me. This is normal for me in the midst of any writing process. I can get so lost in finding the meanings behind the characters and the worlds I’m building that I can start taking those problems home with me. In assigning meaning in order to convey a story, it becomes easier to forget that this kind of tidiness almost never applies to real life. It’s just too chaotic.
In the lead up to the internal and external snow storm, I passed a homeless man, asking for something to eat, and I applied my usual strategy, apologizing before moving on. I hardly had enough money for myself. I couldn’t help him.
And then I changed my mind. Now, as I write this next part, I can hear the internet’s collective eyeballs rolling back into its skull, but I’m going to find a way to power through anyway.
On a whim, I went back, and asked him what he needed. He said all he wanted was a hot coffee. I walked into a coffee shop, got a large coffee, a bagel and a banana, and when I came back to give it to him…
He was gone. I searched for 15 minutes, feeling the coffee lose its heat in my hands as I fruitlessly searched for the man who, I hoped, found something better than the Dunkin Donuts meal a neurotic writer could afford to provide.
But don’t think I’m telling this story to pat myself on the back here. Because, really, my getting that coffee and food wasn’t about the homeless man at all. It was about me, what I wanted to feel, and how I wanted to see myself in that moment. I’ve now found myself, at least once a day, trying to give some extra money or cash to anyone who’s on the street asking for it. I could go back to assigning them negative traits, that they’ll spend it on booze or drugs, or that I need it more.
But I’m not buying something for them. I’m buying something for myself. It’s still kinda selfish, but a selfishness I can deal with.
I’m buying a feeling that there is more. That things can make sense and can have a ray of hope. We try projecting on others what we want the world to be, asking it to make sense as much as possible because the rest of the world is an unrelenting and unforgiving blizzard. And sometimes, you just want to be told you have nice shoes.
And suddenly, the storm feels less oppressive.