A few weeks ago I started trying to breathe in people's stories. Not in the nod your head and smile kind of way, but in a slow me down and let me understand you kind of way.
While I am boiling dumplings at my archaic stove, this man has become a mini-series of stories for my mind to enjoy. Daily he wanders downstairs to water his plants or dry out red beans in the afternoon sun. His lanky shoulders tower over dainty dandelions as he steals dirt and puts it into his house plants. He shifts the dirt into piles so that passersby won’t notice what he’s doing. But I see. I watch his sly grin purse as he pats down the new dirt and he gingerly tends to the garden already there. As if being gentle minimizes the fact that he is stealing their dirt.
My kids roll through and talk to him. I watch him teach them about uses of the sunlight and how much water to feed a potted aloe plant. He laughs and sometimes scolds as my kids take off their shoes to run around in bare-footed freedom.
I’ve never seen a wife, son, or daughter with him. But his connection with his plants has become a stop in curiosity for me. He tenderly wipes their leaves with a soft rag. The flowers are spoken to. I haven’t listened to what he is saying, but I imagine he is telling them that he will be back tomorrow. That tonight it’s going to rain, so they will need to be brave. But he will be back tomorrow. As he exhorts the tiny dandelions all tucked in for the night, I see his sense of purpose straighten out his shoulders.
With retirement he was replaced by talent and youth. That did not go unnoticed. But he walked into retirement determined to find his place. While he is no longer a manager of hundreds of people, he knew he could be a manager of a few. He knew that instead of letting retirement be defined by self-indulgence and pity, he could still serve someone else. He walks down those concrete stairs each late afternoon, looking around to try to find a need to be met. It requires keen observation to see a need that is buried beneath the surface of things. It requires patience and thoughtful digging to bring resolution. But because he is willing to engage the world in such a way, rows of dandelions march through the summer breeze in confidence. My kids run downstairs to ask him questions because they know he will take the time to answer. He is present. Presence sees the person in front of you not as a task but as a story. And in that presence he is listening.