Hard Lessons on Compassion
And the passing of an Elder
The other night on my way home I stopped at the grocery store to procure dinner components from the deli. The person who helped me is someone who has helped me many times before, though we've never really interacted much beyond the obligatories. This time, though, I kind of garbled my request and we had a chuckle together over them saying, "I've been here three-and-a-half years, so if I haven't figured out how to understand what people actually mean when they ask for stuff, I'd be gone by now." It was kinda funny but you probably had to be there. Anyway, for the first time in weeks the area wasn't swarming with people, which led to room for further interaction. They asked how I'm doing, how I'm holding up, and I made the usual commentary about how it's good to be on the other side of Christmas, blah blah. Noncommittal grocery store small talk, basically.
As they were weighing my stuff on the little scale, they said, "This is a really rough time of year for me."
"Yeah?" I said.
I could feel the weight of them wanting me to inquire farther, so I said, "How so?"
"Well, seven years ago my grandmother was murdered on Christmas."
I was set back on my heels, as that's not the type of exchange one expects to have across the deli counter at your Albertson's. But I sensed an earnestness from them, a need to share, you know? So rather than deflect it I asked a couple questions, and mostly just listened, and this person shared their story. When it was over, I just told them, "Hang in there, and have a happy new year." And they smiled and told me to do the same.
I've been going to this grocery store for the entire time this person has worked there. They tend to be a bit loud and somewhat rude to their co-workers—from a position of authority, I think—but nothing egregious. They're also prone to being abrupt and a little rude to customers, which frankly doesn't bother me a bit. They don't blend in to the surroundings like every other person who works there tends to.
And now they've shared this story with me, the details of which are hard and irrelevant to what I'm writing about. Because what I am writing about is that everyone, everyone, has a story that will break your heart, one that will have you see them in an entirely different light, for better or worse.
Just a day before this encounter I learned that one of my favorite writers, Barry Lopez, died on Christmas Day. He was 75. It wasn't unexpected because he was ill for a few years but it's still sad. I met him once, not as a writer but as a fan. I always hoped I would get an opportunity to meet him "as a writer" (I know that sounds foolish) because I am friends now with a number of people who did know him. Our orbits were beginning to convene. But now I won't have the opportunity.
I was pretty certain I was going to meet him in 2019. He did an event with another of my favorite writers, Robert Macfarlane, at Powell's Books in Portland. You can watch that event yourself HERE. I had every intention of going but some conflict, I don't recall what, came up so I couldn't. Macfarlane is published in the United States by WW Norton, and their rep is one of only a couple who actually visit us in the bookstore in person. We've become friends. He was able to secure not only a signed copy of Macfarlane's book, the magnificent Underland, but also Lopez's latest, Horizon. Both are on my shelf now, and I don't hang on to that many books once I read them. Dan, the Norton rep, must have relayed my story of being unable to attend, because Lopez signed my copy, as you see in the header image, "To Chris — we missed you. Barry Lopez." It is a gift, especially now, because I already miss Lopez.
Lopez's 1978 book Of Wolves and Men might possibly be the first work of narrative nonfiction I ever read, and I was hooked. I was (and am) a major wolf geek, and his blend of myth and science, anecdote and storytelling, blew my mind. I don't love everything the man ever wrote, but I'm not sure I'd be sitting here writing now without him.
I learned of his passing via this NPR piece. Then I fell into various other rabbit holes of interviews, essays, etc. related to Lopez and his work. There is a wonderful interview with him by Dave Blanchard at NPR shortly after Horizon came out. Here is a comment Lopez makes in response to a question about why it took him so long to write Horizon that really struck me. He says:
"I think I had a greater tendency when I was younger to judge. To maintain states of anger. I had impatience and I had to bleed all that off before I wrote the book."
He “bled it all off” when he got the cancer that ultimately took his life. He goes on to say:
"I imagined in everybody I passed there was some story that they carried with them that would break your heart. So how could you have the temerity to approach that person and say, 'Here's what's wrong with you....'"
I know that. I've known that, for years. But with his words I felt like Lopez was speaking directly to me because I've often been an asshole. I call people names; I refer to a certain archetype of (usually youngish) white males consistently as "meatheads." It is a conclusion I jump to all too often about the guys roaring around in their pickups with Trump flags and everything, "Blue Lives Matter" stickers, all of it. They make me angry, and I shouldn't give them that power. It's hard.
I know that everyone carries stories. I didn't need the reminder via the encounter with the deli person yet the Universe provided it. I am often brimming with simmering anger and hate, because so many of the people I see and judge, like these Trump supporters, reflect to me the mindsets that have always sought to eradicate and eliminate my people as if we never existed, and it's hard, in the middle of writing a book about it, to constantly wrestle with my own weakness and rage. I never win; at best it's a standstill.
"The Achilles Heel of consciousness is that we forget. We forget what we stand for. We forget to maintain good relations with the people around us. The reason for story is to repair the damage that forgetting always does. The story comes along to say, 'So what about this? What about living like this?'"
The biggest story of 2020 wasn't how politicians handled anything, it's how people—friends, relatives, neighbors, and strangers—didn't step up when the time came and say, "You know, this all seems weird to me but I'm going to do my part to help in any little way I can." This failure to rally collectively against COVID-19 fomented so much anger, frustration, fear, and suspicion that it will take years to recover from. There are entire counties in Montana that I kinda don't want to even venture into based on how the populace collectively responded to mask mandates, and that is stupid and it sucks.
Yet whether we do recover, and how long it takes, is up to us. Because you know what? The BEST story of 2020 was how people—friends, relatives, neighbors, and strangers—did step up when the time came and say, "You know, we are all in this together and I am going to sacrifice all the convenience necessary to get through this." That is beautiful, that makes me love my friends and my community even more, and I'm hoping that love will buttress the compassion I'm going to need to overcome my frustration with all the other people who just, I don't know, dropped the ball. This is no time to give up.
A final Lopez quote:
"It's so difficult to be a human being. There are so many reasons to give up. To retreat into cynicism or despair. I hate to see that and I want to do something that makes people feel safe and loved and capable."
That's my big goal for 2021: Do my part to fill the breach created when a wise Elder leaves us, as Lopez has done. I'm no Elder, but I don't want something like imminent death by cancer to be the only thing that makes me a more compassionate person either. So I'm going to try even harder to overcome all my petty bullshit with compassion. Because there will be a time when I am going to need some from someone — everyone — else.