Shadesbreath, the inspirational example
My friend Shadesbreath has written a wonderful story called “Sunrise Epiphany” which I took to be true, but it turns out to be fictional. This demonstrates Shadesbreath’s huge talent, making the story so much better than I originally thought. I urge those of you who have not read it, to spend a few minutes treating yourself to real literature.
To me the story sounded real because of my own similar experiences which have marked my life. And inspired by John’s story, I want to take this opportunity of sharing some of those experiences with the younger generation, in the hope that they might learn from them and consequently spare themselves some pain.
A very long time ago I was in Odessa, Ukraine, on a lovely summer’s day. I was sitting at this outdoor café, a short way from the almost endless, wide rows of steps leading down to the port, enjoying the view of the calm blue sea below me and the sounds of the port merrily clambering up the steps. An old woman, dressed normally, like everyone else around me, drew my attention simply from her fidgeting, the expression of desperation on her face and the fact that she was looking at me. It was this desperation on her face that made me keep the corner of my eye on her out of curiosity.
She looked around her in extreme anxiety, seemingly unable to find what she was looking for. A light breeze pushed a sheet from a discarded newspaper towards her and it got trapped between her feet. She bent down; picked it up; considered it for a while with obvious doubt; and then, holding it extended in front of her like an offering to a deity, she walked towards me with a mixture of fear, shame, hope, pleading and hesitation.
I was the only one there dressed as a businessman, in a suit and tie, and with my dark hair I looked completely different from the casually dressed blond people sitting around me at the other tables. An obvious foreigner. The old woman covered the distance of thirty odd feet that separated us and stood a few feet away from me, hands still extended with her offering of the crumbled, torn and discarded sheet of Ukrainian newspaper, ready to be told off, ready to be chased away, ready to be despised, but ready to risk it all on off chance that I might take pity on her.
I took the decrepit piece of newspaper from her two extended hands, thanked her and paid for it with a $10 dollar note. The tears run down her face as mine are now as I write down the memory, and soundlessly her lips formed the word “spasiba”, the Russian word for “thank you”, before she walked off.
I knew that there was a black market exchange rate for dollars in Odessa at the time and that the $10 properly exchanged would probably see her through for a week, but after she left I felt ashamed of myself and I felt extremely small. I was a rich man at the time and I could have easily afforded to make that old woman’s life easy for the remainder of it. But I did not. And to this day I feel ashamed of my meanness and my lack of humanity.
But worse than that, I did not learn from the experience and I repeated myself.
On a hot first day of school I went to pick up my youngest at the end of the school day, arriving early, anxious to hear his first impressions. While waiting outside the classroom for the bell to ring, I saw this young man dressed in ugly shorts, dusty sandals and dirty T-shirt, holding a fishnet bag full of plastic bowls, walk along the corridor from a distance. I saw him open the classroom doors without knocking, spent a few moments inside and then come out and repeat the process with the next classroom. It was obvious that he was trying to sell something to the teachers.
His rudeness annoyed me.His dress code annoyed me. His ugly shorts with the waist band askew to the left of centre annoyed me. His lack of respect annoyed me. Everything about him annoyed me, so when he finally came up to me I was ready to crush him with my superiority in all respects. He held out a set of his plastic green bowls and offered them to me saying in the voice of a retarded person.
But my bias had picked up speed and had shut off its ears to the stuttering, tattering voice of the unfortunate youth whom life had punished for no reason at all and certainly through no fault of his own, by making him less than other youths.
So I said a very arrogant and definite “NO”, full of my own superiority and perfection.
“Only two dollars!” he said looking at me with a look that was pleading and actually seemed surprised, but I turned my back on him. That look has hounded me for twenty years. Even to this day. It was only a few seconds later that I realised that he was afflicted, that his surprise was due to the fact that the teachers knew him and bought things from him to help him out because of his disability, so my refusal was unusual to him and, indeed, a surprise. He had not been used to meanness as great as mine.
The shock of my own unkindness - and my ability to be so unkind - stunned me. I turned around and looked for him so that I could make it up to him by buying his stock, but he was gone. The bell rung and my son came running out, but my mind was on the young man I had mistreated. I took my son by the hand and I went around looking into every classroom, trying to find him. But to no avail.
“Only two dollars!” - “Only two dollars!” - “Only two dollars!” It’s not only the three simple words. It is the way he said them that have crushed me and drove my inhumanity home to me. I have actually cried about this many a time I thought of it. Alright, so I am a cry baby. I am a sentimental Greek, so what do you want from me?
So the consistent humanity our friend Shadesbreath constantly displays in his stories serve the purpose all good stories should serve. They remind us of our faults but they also inspire us to be better.
But you see, sometimes our previous acts of meanness are meant to be training experiences to train us into becoming what we were meant to be in the first place. Only we somehow got side-tracked into paths not really meant for us.
So, my own previous experiences were of some use to me as I was driving to Sheremetyevo International Airport in a Moscow taxi. As we drove along some side streets I saw an old woman looking through a garbage bin and my heart went out to her. I thought of her as a young child, with her mother dressing her up in the morning to go to school, with her pig tails and rosy cheeks, anxious to go out into the world and to conquer it. And somehow things went wrong. The wrong man, the wrong education, the wrong job, the wrong place to be born…
It was too late to stop the taxi, but when I went home I called my friend Boris Sposobin in Moscow and asked him to find an old woman for me to support. And he did. He found an old woman who had suffered no end of troubles through the second war and who had lost everyone. I have never met her, but I like to think that I managed to make her life a little better. Thank you Boris and Nina!
So, friend John, we are supposed to learn from our errors and omissions and if your story had not been an imaginary one, the incident you described would have served you well for next time you came across something similar…