If we are paying attention, we are granted many beautiful moments in life. These moments are like witnessing a soap bubble floating through the air, the iridescent colors swirling on the surface so perfectly, but only for a moment. You can retain the feeling of the moment in your mind and in your heart, but communicating that moment to others takes real work. Writing down a story is like painting a portrait of the soap bubble. It is like laying down a brushstroke of paint that leaves a perfect blend of color on the canvas,the exact desired effect you could not have dreamed. Yet, after years of practice and with deep concentration, sometimes you get it just right. It is the result of years of practice, yet it feels like a gift you have been given. Here is a soap bubble I painted for you. I hope I got it right…
I opened the door to the book store, and stepped inside. Underneath the sign bearing the owners’ names, it says Rare, Vintage, Used. I heard the jingle of the bell on the door as it closed behind me. Behind a fortress of books, sitting at a table, a man was intent on his work.
I tentatively say to him, “I’ve lived in this town 16 years and have never been inside here. I guess today was the day.”
He barely looks up.
“I was wondering, do you buy used books, or could I trade them for store credit,” I ask, holding a plastic shopping bag of my offerings. I have a small collection of almost-new paperbacks that need a home. They are not worthy of my bookshelf, but I don’t want to give them away either. I want to turn them into other, better books.
“Oh no, we only buy books by appointment, and we have 15 appointments a day for the next 36 days, with 40 calls a day from people wanting to sell books. We mostly buy hardbacks and…”
I finish his sentence for him, a little dejected, “…rare, vintage, I get it. I’ve just got some paperbacks from Target.”
“Okay then, if you don’t mind, can I just look around?” I was disappointed. I wouldn’t be getting any new books today. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to stay. His slightly gruff, resigned manner didn’t exactly make me feel welcome. Having taken the first step, however, I decided to keep going.
“Yes, sure,” he replied.
I notice the signs above the shelves- Gardening, WWII, and many other categories of non-fiction. Not what I came for. “Do you have any fiction?”
“Center of the store.”
Do I need to describe the interior of a used book store? They are all exactly the same. Faded couches, antique cabinets, repurposed furniture, old tables, stacks of books everywhere. Usually cats. Bare wood bookshelves, mismatched. Dark and light. Organized and chaotic. No discernible order, except to the owner. A maze, a labyrinth, a place of discovery. Used book stores are an oasis in a desert, a balm to the soul, depository of our dreams. Holding treasures our eyes will discover, but that our hearts have always known. Do you dig and search, or do you let the prize come to you?
I make my way to the middle of the shop, and immediately spy a novel I have been wanting to read on top of a pile of books stacked on a table. I feel it’s meant for me. I wasn’t planning on buying anything, but books call out, like old friends asking to be let back in your life. I pick it up. After searching through the shelves, I come up with two other books I have read before, and would like to own. One of them was signed by the author, like my copy was before it was loaned out and never returned. It feels like a piece of my soul has been gently put back into place.
I wasn’t going to spend any money today, so I had left my purse in the car. Placing my selections on top of another pile of books at the checkout, I said I needed to get money and that I’d be right back. He barely acknowledged me. I had decided to blow all of my “mad money” for the week on books in this man’s shop, and he barely lifts his head. Okay…
Jingle of the door bells out, then back in. He rings me up, and my total is $20.33 with tax. I hand him the crisp twenty dollar bill from my wallet, and start to unzipper the change purse to dig out thirty-three cents.
“I’ve got the change,” he announces, quite proudly. “I bring it in from home, and we always have so much of it lying around.”
Since it was more than a few pennies, I acknowledged his generosity.
He mentioned that he didn’t have a family, so all of the spare change he and his wife collect goes to take care of their puppy. He comes around from the counter and starts talking about his toy poodle, Monkey, and how she’s usually at the shop, but not today, and how everyone just loves her, and she them. He shows me a framed article about the shop, with a picture of Monkey, with a cast on her leg. He explains that she was so excited one day to see someone, she jumped out of his arms and broke her leg. The man is becoming animated, rising up on his tip- toes several times, telling me about Monkey. And how, even with a hurt leg, she could run as fast as ever. I listen to his story, becoming fixated on his accent.
I am reminded of a beloved aunt and uncle on my husband’s side of our family. It’s almost like this man is the embodiment of the two of them. And when he speaks, it’s in that slow, Southern way that I immediately recognize as intelligent and thoughtful. Where the person really takes the time to find the right word. I say I’m pleased to meet him and I’ll be back, and we introduce ourselves. I am about to leave. He says quite candidly that he has owned the shop for twenty years and no one knows his name. Upon hearing my name, however, he launches us into a conversation about Dr. Seuss books, Julie Andrews movies, signed copies of books, obscure TV shows, The Los Angeles River, and somebody’s wedding at Notre Dame. The Notre Dame. In Paris.
I am starting to feel awkward standing there, but my feet feel fixed to the spot. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. I’m a little confused, so I ask, “What’s your connection?”
“Oh, it’s my business partner’s daughter.” His business partner, he explains, who gave up her prestigious career after earning two degrees from excellent schools, to raise her children. His partner, whom he had to regularly reassure as to the importance of being completely attentive to her children. His partner, who sacrificed so that her daughters would have dance lessons. So her son could pursue a medical career. His partner, expressing her doubt at the folly of opening a book store when she could have had a lucrative career. His illustration of the financial benefit she gained in raising them by their scholarship money- totaling $1.8 million when it was all said and done. Scholarships they wouldn’t have been able to attain without her support and encouragement. I understand in the moment that their partnership is deeper than that related to business. Sometimes, we are given the people we’re meant to have in life.
“Do you have kids?” he asks eagerly.
“Yes,” I say, “you’re speaking to my heart right now. I’ve been home with them for almost fourteen years and I get where she’s coming from. It’s hard to feel the value of it sometimes.”
His voice goes into a hush, “But raising children, giving them your time- that is the most important thing.”
“Oh, you’re crying.”
“Yes, you’re speaking to my heart.”
I look up, seeing a giant stuffed dog on top of a bookshelf at the far end of the shop. It is the exact same as one my son, then daughter, and now dog have slept with for twelve years. I point it out, share the connection, and he says that the kids play with it with Monkey. We cover many more topics of conversation: terminal illnesses of parents, siblings, cats. Counseling. Weight loss. He spoke of the government work he did in the Middle East and Africa- the horrors he saw.
“You were a witness,” I said, having never used that particular word before.
He paused, took a breath. “Yes. Yes I was.” In that moment, I saw him and his pain. I was a witness to him.
As we were talking, it occurred to me that we should be sitting at one of the sofas, having a coffee. Instead, we’re standing, awkwardly, anxiously. “What kind of coffee do you like? Next time I come, I’m bringing us a coffee and we’re going to sit down and have a proper chat.”
He looks down, embarrassed, humbled, “Oh, well, anything really… So, your kids…?”
“I have an almost 14-year-old son and a daughter who is eleven. They’re fantastic.”
“So see, if they’re fantastic, well, that’s what you want. You need to talk to children like they’re one of us. It’s easy to raise children. It just takes time…”
We volley back and forth, filling in the blanks. He knows.
And now I’m really crying. We’re standing eight feet from each other, but our connection is so strong. Trying to hold off The Ugly Cry, I say how embarrassed I am.
“Then you’re missing the whole point.”
But I’m not. I haven’t. I’m simply trying not to dissolve into a puddle on the floor. I was seen today. I was valued today. He was a witness to me as well. I was able to express myself with a total stranger, who I imagine may become a lifelong friend. How many times did we hug each other?
“Here, let me give you a hug.”
“Now it’s my turn to give you a hug.”
I am learning how to take better care of myself- my needs, my wants, my values. I am learning what that means for me. I have been on a path of self discovery since the new year. I can see that it is opening new doors every day. Doors into a world of which I only scraped the surface for most of my life. A life of full attention rewards us in ways we couldn’t predict. “We get double for our trouble,” a phrase I picked up recently. This was my reward for going to the doctor earlier that day. I decided to treat myself by visiting a new place, taking care of my innate need to have adventure and freedom in my life. I had no idea that to which I was about to be treated. It seemed like a small step, walking into that book store. But it feels important. It feels like the start of something new.
Our conversation ends, and as I open the door, I manage to say, without blubbering, “You gave me a gift today.”
“You just made my month,” he states, very matter-of-factly.
“Ok, I’m going to go cry in my car now.” As I am really walking out this time. Tinkle of the bell on the door again.
Driving home I think, “What just happened?” Was this a 10-minute conversation? Twenty? Had an hour gone by? How long had I been in there? I had the intense desire to retain the feeling, document the memory. I lost all memory of the words we spoke, and remembered that the real communication was from heart to heart. I felt a tingling in the back of my neck as I walked into my house and tried to recall every word, every feeling. I wanted to retain the feeling of ears listening, eyes seeing, hearts connecting. Being a witness to each other’s lives.
These moments come along in our lives, unbidden. Moments of intense connection. Clarity. Usually, these moments are with a friend or a family member. And we may connect in smaller, more consistent ways over time, so there are few epiphanies. Sometimes, a moment can happen with a stranger who- in the time it takes for a soap bubble to form, grow, be released, float up, then pop- becomes a friend.
We are given the people we’re meant to have in life. We only need to pay attention.
It is Thursday. I am going back on Monday to visit my new friend. I think I’ll take him a coffee. It doesn’t matter what kind.