One can become complacent about things. Just going about the task of getting to work every day and doing all of the things otherwise required to take care of one’s life, including those labelled fun and enriching, is busy.
There are a few reasons why I stayed in what was, for the most part, the wrong job for three and a half years. Mostly, it was because I was appreciated. I work in business development, and I’m pretty good at creating a good “face” for the company I’m representing. I created a fresh “brand” for our proposals and other documentation, and I was considered an integral part of the proposal development teams.
A good part of the success of any proposal writer is the ability to persevere under pressure, and spiking hours. I must say, I dig the pace of proposal writing; the constant turnover of projects appeals to me. I work better under pressure, and I love the feeling of producing something of a high standard under difficult conditions.
But I had no true understanding of our product (software solutions), nor the desire to, really. I don’t have a brain wired to understand this kind of technology. I didn’t really need to – it was the specialists that had to write up the solutions – they were the ones inventing them and had to be the ones describing them. It was cool to watch the process of a team designing a custom solution for a client – a creative process working in a highly technical environment. But I always felt outside of that, and thus not satisfied with my role in it.
They appreciated me, and they paid me to stay. My financial situation was substantially improved in my tenure there, but in the end, I don’t live for money. Job satisfaction is more important to me.
There were a number of times over the past three and a half years that I started to look for a new job, but complacency took over and I just carried on. I was “comfortable;” doing work that, while not satisfying on a personal level, gained me the respect of the company. Recently though, as recruiters started calling, it seemed the time for change was right.
The long commute had started to wear me down. My loyal blogland friends will know that the commute was often a source of inspiration for this space, and that lately it has become less so. The crowds of rush hour, and the inherent (?) rudeness, anonymity, unseeing, cattle-like behaviour just plain depressed me. I found it harder and harder to live the rule, “be the change you want to see” and I don’t want to be cattle.
So I’ve been entertaining opportunities presented to me by these recruiters that seem to have come calling all at once. There was an almost-hiring at Christmas. I was excited because the office was near to my home. But really, the work sounded much like what I do now – lots of coordinating, not much challenge. There were lots of opportunities opening up in the area where I work now, but what’s the point? Fresh job/same commute is only addressing half my problem.
But then, another recruiter called with another address that caught my attention. And then an enjoyable (yes, enjoyable) initial phone interview with my would-be manager, who described a job that sounded challenging and exciting – more writing, less coordinating. There was another in-person interview over lunch, just as enjoyable as the first. I was being presented with the opportunity to develop my own job (not previously held by anyone), and to help another company grow in an area where they want to expand. There is opportunity for travel, to develop my skills, better benefits and yes, a little more money.
And I can walk to work. I live in the heart of the city because I love the vibrancy, the diversity, colour, sights, oddities, action and surprises. You can't know how gratified I am for the opportunity to move out of the underground tunnels and up to the sidewalks.
The best part of all: two hours a day, formerly spent travelling to and from work, mostly underground, will be mine again. Two hours a day. That's ten hours a week, forty hours a month…
All the riches in the world can’t replace that.
This morning I’m watching a young guy sketch people on the subway. I’m an observer of an observer. I’m captivated by his surreptitious search for detail and the subsequent concentration in getting what he sees onto the page of his sketchbook.
I get to imagining what the young man’s eyes are seeing in the short amount of time he has to create the images. Line? Space? Plane? Perspective? Or is he, like I so often am, imagining what lies beneath the surface – what is it about that changing furrow in a brow, that curl of a lip, what thoughts are washing over that face looking at itself in a window’s reflection?
The artist is young enough that I can guess he is still at the point of the former, working to strengthen his skill before attempting to convey the layers of his subjects’ humanity into his drawings. But then I also expect that the more an artist becomes accustomed to seeing, the more evident those layers become. So what is going on under those lines and planes must be evident at some level of his consciousness.
As I watch him, aspects of tunnel walls and station platforms move in shifting formations in the window behind him, and people move in and out of his space with that air of muted resignation that morning commuters always have. What I see is a young man in a bubble; a bubble in the middle of a busy transit system, in the middle of rush hour, in the middle of a big city, amongst thousands of people, most of whom are working very hard with various means to ignore and avoid the unpleasantness of experiencing each other. And I feel grateful to have encountered this one person who is striving to do the opposite – to see them.
And for that, the young man seeing is beautiful thing number 27 of 101.
You know, certain parts of most of my days are focused on me getting above ground again. This video made me think about the coming above ground part. I should always view it as rising to the new, and to not expect. Like a goldfish?
(This video encouraging me to see like a goldfish: beautiful thing seventeen.)
This morning on the subway I sit by myself in a forward facing seat. A few stops later a man somewhere in his sixties, gets on and sits directly in front of me in an aisle facing seat. He is wearing a rainbow: orange windbreaker pants over jeans, yellow jacket, red gloves, black toque over grey hair – more colours poking out amongst his layers of shirts. He’s wearing tan runners with no laces.
He leans back and stretches his legs out in front of him as if to relish “taking a load off,” but he’s not relaxed; he fidgets. I wait for the unwashed smell of “homeless” but it doesn’t come – and I see that his clothes are clean – as are his hair and beard. Now and then he makes a gesture, jabbing at the air with his flat hand horizontal in steps down, as if pointing out the levels of something; his mouth moving subtly, carrying out some inner conversation.
Now and then he looks at my black tights-covered knee sticking out the top of my boot on the leg crossed over the other. As many men would – the knee/boot combination is a popular one, I think. Given his potential mental illness, however, I feel vulnerable about it and resist moving my leg out of his line of sight.
Some riders get on at the next stop and he moves his own legs back in and sits a little straighter to let them pass, still fidgeting, still looking around at people with a furtiveness – sort of looking without looking. I study his face when he looks ahead, his line of sight perpendicular to mine. He’s fit, vital and handsome, with eyes that crinkle a little at the corners. I’ve liked those crinkles that some men get ever since I was a child, probably because they indicate good-naturedness – when I was small I could read kindness into those kinds of eyes. Like now – those eyes compel me to like him.
His beard comes down off his chin in a gentle triangle, puffy and shimmery grey with white streaks; growing unruly from his neck beneath his shirt, but otherwise cared for. Perhaps it was admired in the mirror that morning. No doubt, if I met this man at a party I’d find him attractive.
Nevertheless I’m still a little uncomfortable by his jerky movements, haphazard dress and close proximity as he glances at my leg. Like most people, I’m conditioned to try and ignore people who seem to exist on the fringes in the hopes they won’t acknowledge me and threaten my personal safety – even if it’s just my dignity I’m trying to keep safe. But I don’t want this wall, and close the book and set it in my lap. The train has stopped at Bloor Station, and just before the doors close again the man stands and walks out onto the platform.
Feeling a little disappointed, I watch him walk away, waving to the odd stranger with a point and wave that suggests they are old friends. Like me, the strangers work hard to not acknowledge him. But I'm thinking that those strangers might be to him, like he is to me – something like friends, who find their way into your life for the purpose of adding colour to it.
As the train starts to pull away, I admire the colours of his clothing, getting the sense that a good bit of beauty had been sucked out with him, like a fine mist of light particles, when he exited the car.
It’s cold again this morning, but not as cold as the past couple of days. When it’s above 0° C, it’s tolerable. Nevertheless, when I get to Don Mills station this morning, I wait inside for the shuttle to my office. As I’m standing there looking out, a young couple walks up to the door on the other side. The mom is pushing a child, under two, in a stroller. I know it’s a part of growing and aging and every year the phenomenon gets more remarkable, but I’m stunned at how young this mommy and daddy look. They're teenagers.
The mom is small and round – little more than five feet tall. She’s fair, childlike and pretty. And smoking a butt. She stands for a minute outside with the child to smoke it while the dad walks inside to play with his phone. Eventually she pushes the stroller inside, instructing the dad to take him while she finishes her smoke.
The dad is a little taller and slight, of mixed race, with cafe au lait skin and long, relaxed curls pulled into a sloppy pony tail. He continues playing with his phone, occasionally talking to the child: “it’s cold out there huh?”
The child is a darling combination of the parents: cherubic face of his mother, crowned by his father’s chocolaty curls. He’s a picture of patience. He acknowledges his dad’s occasional dragging himself away from his cell phone to speak to him, but doesn’t seem to require it.
He spots me and gives me a grin. It’s the grin of a self-assured old soul. He’s not playing coy with me, or making shy aversions with his eyes like so many little kids do. He seems to just like my face, and gives me another closed mouth grin – not looking away but just grinning a little more when I smile back and give him a little wave.
That grin has me thinking that this tiny boy seems much older than his teenage parents. As I’m considering that, the mom comes in and they whisk him off toward the elevator which will take them down to the subway.
At the other end of the work day, I’m sitting in a subway car, heading down to meet up with my sister who is working near Union Station. I see a woman come on. She’s cute, artsy looking with that marvellous look of having thrown a random collection of clothing on her body and it just working. She’s smiling to herself. The smile doesn’t wear off – in fact it undergoes a number of variations as her thoughts carry out. Her eyes meet mine and the smile is erased for a moment, but after a few seconds it’s back. I bandy about a number of reasons for the smile. I hope it’s because she’s in love.
I turn from the woman and down the way I see a man. In a suit. Not her age. Not with her or like her in any way.
But he’s smiling to himself.
I saw this little girl, about seven, on the subway. Her mom was sleeping beside her. She was surveying the people in the car with a calm and wit that belied her age. Some people might identify her as an “old soul.” Each time the car pulled into a station she would turn and look at what was going on out on the platform, then return her attentions to her neighbours in the seats around her.
It was one of those mornings when the car was quiet – all of the passengers into themselves, nodding off, sipping coffee, rolling through BlackBerry messages, reading the newspaper; a collection of sleepy-eyed commuters easing themselves into a day in silence. The absence of chatter makes a ride like this seem as if we’re suspended in time for a few moments before city life whirls itself back into your consciousness.
Behind her cute little wire rimmed glasses the girl watched people; still, hands in her lap, and a slight curl to her lip that indicated a confidence in her perspective.
I wondered where her mind was taking her; I wondered if she would always observe her world in this thoughtful way. I wondered if she might grow up to be a writer or an artist, taking inspiration from her world around her always.
This morning I get on the subway car and it’s really crowded. I grab the left side seat in a group of three and pull out some student stories to read over the trip. Soon after a man sits in the middle seat, and he immediately starts getting in my space as he twists around to find a place for a used commuter paper, then looking through another one, apparently scanning the headlines. I take a deep breath and try not to let annoyance wash over – it’s going to be a crowded journey, deal with it Jennifer. One would think that after living in this city for four years I would be more tolerant of these inevitable invasions on my personal space, especially as I choose to take public transit, but I’m just not.
He’s a clean cut bloke, dressed a little oddly in grey pin-stripe suit pants and a casual fleece jacket. There is that steely, unwashed clothing smell coming from him, mixed with a fainter, sweet scent of what could have been last night’s whiskey. I cram into the corner with a story and hope the smell doesn’t transfer from his jacket to mine.
As the car rolls on, I’m feeling more and more aware of him, and with each station stop I find myself silently begging, “get off…get off… get off….” I’m not exactly sure why, he’s facing forward now, still, no longer fidgeting or elbowing, stoic like the rest of us in the crowded car.
Then I realise – he’s muttering. It’s like a faint whispering of some character in my ear. It’s like one of those moments when you think you hear someone say something, only to turn around and find no one there and you wonder if you’re schizophrenic or if you’ve heard a ghost. The muttering is steady – I turn and look at him and his lips are barely moving; I smile inwardly wondering if he’s practicing ventriloquism. Or maybe he’s practicing a speech. Or maybe he’s simply a person who talks to himself as a matter of habit – going over the matters of his day aloud, instead of, say, writing a list. Given the steady drawl of the muttering, I guess it’s prayer.
It is – or maybe meditation, for his hands are cupped together like a vessel on his lap. The soft muttering continues to waft over into my ear and I can’t concentrate on the story I’m holding. I turn and look at him and he’s facing straight ahead, barely moving his lips as the sounds waft from his mouth to my ear. By now I’m feeling invaded and I wrestle with why the seemingly harmless, tiny sound amidst the busy car is bothering me so much. Lots of people pray on public transit, there’s nothing annoying about a person praying. But there’s something about this man – it’s as if his most private moment is trying to enter my consciousness, and my consciousness is fighting it off.
I’m reminded, suddenly, of that person we used to have to call “step-father.” He was the king of personal space invasion and making people uncomfortable. One of his favourite ploys was to give us these fierce, long and most unwelcome hugs, and the more you tried to push him away the tighter he grabbed, seizing with a vengeance something he would label love and reverence, neither of which he deserved or would ever get.
I feel guilty for being so annoyed at something like a guy praying under his breath; certainly I encounter MUCH more annoying actions and events every single day. I look down at the cupped hands and see that the fingers of the upper hand are stumps – red and chaffed, as it it’s a relatively new injury. My guilt is escalated as I sink further into the wall trying to escape the muttering.
He begins to count off something on the whole fingers of his left hand – unfolding one at a time in sequence, “one, two, three, four, five…” and again. Then he brings his hands up in a hugging himself gesture. After about the third time he leaves them there and the stubs are resting on my jacket sleeve.
My stop is next and I’m grateful for the excuse to jump up and stand by the door – to tear myself away from the wafting mutters and thoughts of those awful hugs by that manipulative jerk who should be residing out of mind, far in my past where he belongs. And I’m wondering why I’m applying the qualities of that former step-father to this praying stranger.
Maybe, similar to that step-father's unsuccessful attempts to force love and respect, there is a similar futility or false intent in that particular prayer. The pollyanna in me is shouting "shame on you!" But I can't shake the sense of that unintelligible muttering as thick and substantive – not going off to where it was supposed to be going; but hanging about in my brain like an dead weight. Or a malevolent hug.
This morning I open my eyes and roll over to find I’m joined by a rainy day and the lull of its gentle conversation. As always I want to keep it to myself – I don’t want to have to share it with the mechanical goings on of the work day. I want to walk in it at my leisure and absorb its smell and energy into my body.
I want to watch it lazily from a window as it provides sustenance to the vegetation and washes the streets and sidewalks. I want to cook in the glow of the stove light while I enjoy the sound of it falling outside and the deepened, bluish/greenish atmosphere closing around like a protective hug.
I think of rainy day jobs and creative activities and the pleasure and satisfaction we find in those things because the rainy day has given us an excuse to stay in and do them. I think of certain past lovers and how we dreamt of rainy days together, lolling about, talking, sipping tea, reading the paper and those other things lovers do so well together.
There’s something in a rainy day that slows my wheels a notch – and as I head out the door this morning I’m wishing I could have this rainy day for my very own. Or better perhaps – to share with someone else.
What is it that invisible thread of connection that binds you to a stranger? What is it about that person that stands out in the sea of intentionally bland, internalized faces in a busy transit commute in a busy city? What makes your attention rest on a particular person; makes you wonder about a stranger’s life?
Say you see something in a pair of bright blue eyes. Brighter and clearer than you might expect to see in a body even decades younger than the seventy odd year old one that houses these ones. Something in the way they stop on you only for a split second and move away just as you notice them. You know in that instant those eyes are present; they are living in their surroundings, not glazing over them. And you somehow know those eyes didn’t glaze over you.
Then you notice the way he lingers back casually away from the rest of the people at the bus stop, not needing to stake a place just where the driver will stop to ensure a seat. The peaceful way he sits in the crowded bus, holding various bags and an awkward plastic box without fumbling or struggling or intruding on anyone else. You notice something that is somehow lucid and purposeful in way he pulls on his gloves while still holding on to those bags and the box.
That mouth drawn up in a way that elongates his chin makes him look something like Ray Bolger – an expression that could make him look simple or comical like The Scarecrow, but doesn’t. It’s a mouth housed in a face that is alive to its surroundings. A face and a body alive to a moment.
Today I encounter a stranger. After he exits the bus I imagine what his kitchen is like, and him making breakfast and coffee, planning a day that will include an early bus ride.
Copyright © Jennifer Morrison 2008