Long ago, when I taught Mandarin at a big city high school in Minneapolis, some of my students would stay after school and talk with me. One was a Hmong young man, quiet and shy, with halting English. He would sit in the chair by my desk and cast his glance at the floor. For a long time I would inwardly urge him to look at me —look at me look at me come on look me in the eye– and then it came to me that his avoiding my direct gaze was part of his culture, and a sign of respect. All my annoyance melted away and from then on I was more soft-spoken, gentle, and slow in his presence.
The poem below makes me think of that long-ago student, and others too: The young man with OCD who sat in the chair next to me clicking and clicking and clicking his pen, asking How am I doing in this class? How am I doing in this class? How am I doing in this class? and then I’m sorry I keep asking, I’m sorry I keep asking. Sometimes, if it felt right, I would put my hand over his as he clicked his pen. And when he apologized for his constant How am I doing in this class? I would say, No worries. Whenever you need to ask, ask, and I’ll tell you, which seemed like the right thing to do.
Every time I read this poem, by the lovely Laura Hansen, I think of the unnoticed and unsung among us. The girl who taps her fingers up and down her legs, the child who calls up the MGM lion on Youtube over and over to watch him roar, the man who walks up and down my block with a flower in his pocket. We are not immortal, no, nor are we more sacred, but the sacred comes to us in our solitude.
Sometimes I Pray that You Won’t Talk to Me, by Laura Hansen
Adrienne knew the wholeness of being alone,
as a plane rides lonely and level on its radio beam.
And, I admit, there are times when I wish
that you would walk on without saying hello.
I may be at a table at Arby’s, reading or staring,
and you may think that I am lonely, alone,
but I will be thinking my own thoughts
with no regard to how I look as I unwrap
my Jr. sandwich, slow-turning the pages
of the latest mystery I’ve been reading.
If you see me in the park, on a bench
or on a trail, know that I am not looking for you.
I will be waiting, like Mary O., for the trees
to reveal the yellow paint-splash of the warbler.
It will be dangerous to approach me, lost
as I am inside my own head. I may
mistake you for a honeybee. Or a tiger.
Conversation comes hard for the wanderer,
for the one born with silence always
clamoring for attention in our heads.
Our eyes hear more than voices,
our feet lead us away from your world.
We are not immortal, no, nor are we
more sacred, but the sacred comes to us
in our solitude, in the brush of tree bark
under our hands, in the soft way the sun
cups the star-studded Potentilla
in the fast food parking lot,
yes, even there.
For more information on Laura Hansen, please check out her website.