The voice was warm. It was a voice that invited you to stop, to help. It broke my stride as I made my way along the street. The voice belonged to a young man wearing a beanie hat, who said he was doing research about people’s favourite things to do in the town.
Thinking he was doing a project as part of a college course, I expounded on the delights of the restaurants. Picking up on his American accent, I said several of them served American food, because as a nation, we Irish were fond of all things American. Then I asked him what the research was for.
Turned out he wasn’t doing research. Turned out he was a missionary for a Christian church.
I didn’t turn tail and run. It would be hard to show that level of disrespect to a man of faith, even if he did have bad teeth. So I heard him out, extracted myself and went on my way.
Selling Your Wares
I couldn’t fault the friendliness of his manner, but as I walked away, my mouth was flooded with the sickly-sweet taste you experience when you realise you’ve been manipulated. He had presented himself as someone looking for help, when in fact he wanted to sell me something, in this case spiritual enlightenment.
It’s easy to come up with a retort in hindsight. I resolved that next time I meet a missionary, I’m going to ask them how long it will be before the Apocalypse comes. And if they say they don’t know. I’ll shake my head sadly and say, ‘You’re no good to me, so.’
Cruel, perhaps. But it’s better than being taken for a mug. Still, I don’t know if I’ll be using that retort. Because it’s likely that I’ll be walking faster from now on. When someone like that stops you on the street, it damages the chances that in the future, you’ll stop for someone who genuinely needs help. And that really does make me sad.
One Sunday, I found myself having lunch in a golf club. It’s not the sort of place I’d expect to find myself in. They’re usually places where the respectable burghers of a town congregate. But I had been invited by a friend whose family qualified as respectable burghers, with roots going back more than one generation.
Whereas I was a ‘blow-in,’ a word we use in Ireland to describe someone who has moved to a town from somewhere else. You can live in a town for thirty years or more and still be considered a blow-in. Having lived in this seaside town for a mere six years, I was definitely still a blow-in, the sweet grass of my native inland place still clinging to my skin.
The golf club was a comfortable, homely place, and despite my blow-in status, I was able to pass through its doors without incident. I sat at a table covered with a crisp linen tablecloth and enjoyed a tasty lunch of deep fried Brie, bantering with my friend and her three lively boys.
As our lunch came to an end, a woman approached the table and my friend greeted her by name. I knew of the woman, but hadn’t met her before. After the woman admired my friend’s three boys, she turned her attention to me.
‘And who is this?’ she asked.
My friend, a sunny-side-up kind of person, introduced me as ‘a great writer.’
‘Might I have your surname?’ she asked.
I gave her the required information, while red dots danced across my line of vision.
‘Derbhile was in Toastmasters (a public speaking organisation) with your daughter,’ said my sweet dove of a friend.
‘Oh, you’re one of those,’ she said.
‘That’s right,’ I said, grinning. ‘You have me now.’
Satisfied that she had the information she needed, she withdrew.
What’s In A Name
You may wonder why I bristled at the woman’s question. After all, a surname is hardly classified information. My surname is readily available on my official documents, business cards and social media profiles. But I knew why she was asking the question – so that she could slot me into the town’s hierarchy.
It’s human nature to try and define people, to assess how much like us they are. And some people will define you by your place of origin and family name. Such people love to recite a litany of names to each other, and to outline how those names are connected to each other. The problem is that they don’t look beyond the name, to the richness of the person’s story. Once they have placed you, they are satisfied.
Making a Connection
In a situation where we don’t know people, it’s often necessary to ask for a person’s name and where they’re from, to break the ice. But if we really want to connect with people, then couldn’t we use those questions as a springboard that will help you dive into a broader conversation. I’d rather know whether someone has an unhealthy penchant for Club Milks or likes swimming in a cold sea than what town they come from.
If the woman had asked how my friend and I had met, for example, she would still have received the information she wanted. I would have told her how we met in Toastmasters and how this had indirectly brought me to my new hometown. We would have made a connection, no matter how slight.
But afterwards, I remembered what my husband had told me about the woman, that she had arrived in the town as a young school teacher from a windswept coastal town on the other side of the country. Perhaps, all these years later, she was still a little anxious about her own blow-in status. Perhaps she was defining herself by the same narrow criteria. But when you broaden the criteria by which you connect with people, you can put down deeper roots.
On a winter’s night, as a light drizzle fell, a cyclist came upon a homeless man as swished through the city streets. He lay in a doorway near a string of fast-food outlets. As the cyclist bent over him, she saw that he had a stash of food beside him, still in his packaging.
He made no movement, but she could detect the rise and fall of breath. She gently shook his shoulder, trying to rouse him. Still there was no response. A knot of people gathered around her. Some of them approached the man and tried to rouse him, but appeared to have travelled to a place beyond sleep.
Alarmed, the cyclist called an ambulance, and the group stayed with the man until it came. As the ambulance approached, the man awoke, blinking in surprise to find lights in his face and a circle of strange faces around him.
Did He Want Help?
When I first heard this story, I saluted the cyclist’s civic conscience. But afterwards, a question formed in my mind. Had this homeless man wanted help? Or was he just happy to have found a perch for the night, his food within easy reach. Perhaps he was sleeping his first real sleep in many nights. And perhaps that sleep had taken him to a place of warmth and light, a place filled with the sound of children’s laughter.
Was he grateful for the intervention of these kind strangers? Or was it a painful reminder that without a home, he could no longer shut out the world, and that he had lost the power to decide what happened to him. I still salute the cyclist’s social conscience. I myself would have picked up my pace, propelled by embarrassment and fear. But I wonder if the homeless man saw it that way. I wonder if ultimately she did the wrong thing, even if it was for the right reasons.
Last week, a man opened fire at a church in Texas and killed 26 people. This was one of the biggest mass shootings in recent times. It’s hard to wrap your head around a figure like this.
Yet every day, up to ten children are shot in America. That’s the equivalent of a Texas shooting every 2.5 days.
In my first blog post, I talked about how you can gain an understanding of major issues through the prism of small stories. Journalist Gary Younge illustrates this point with devastating effect in his book Another Day in the Death of America.
Ten Deaths, One Day
An English journalist living in America, Younge was horrified when he came across this this statistic. He chose a random day, 23 November 2013, and set out to find out which children died on that day. When he tracked down the ten children, he told their stories, one chapter for each child. Ten stories, ten lives.
The children were aged between nine and nineteen. All of them were boys. Seven were black, two were Latino and one was white. Most died in urban areas, but one lived in a country town. One was shot when he opened his front door to his mother’s vengeful ex-boyfriend. Another was shot in a stairwell. And another was shot by his friend at a slumber party.
Little Lives, Big Issues
Younge examines their deaths in the wider context of a culture where guns are rife, a society where young men can slip easily through cracks, where children are brought up without any real community support or a strong family structure. Yet there is no moralism in these pages, no judgement. And because of that, you can feel the full impact of what it’s like to live in a society where the fabric is torn.
As all good journalists should, Younge draws on primary and secondary sources. He interviews community workers and experts and quotes from relevant books. But above all, he uses the testimony of family and friends, and the words of the children themselves, to paint portraits of these children. He does not make saints out of them, but uses small details to bring them to life. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A used car. A poem to a Valentine. A rap video.
Deaths of children like these garner a few lines in a local news bulletin, but then they’re forgotten because these types of gun deaths so commonplace in America. Younge demonstrated that their lives counted. He encourages us to see beyond the circumstances of their deaths, and to remember the people they were.
The bus was almost full, but I managed to find a pair of seats near the front. I settled into the window seat and arranged my bags on the other seat. Then I fished out my iPod and untangled the headphones that were wrapped around it. For the next hour, the length of the journey to my mother’s house, I would cocoon myself in music and banish the outside world, letting myself be carried along by the rhythm of the bus.
Then behind me, I heard scuffles and shrieks. Feet pressed against the back of my seat. I swivelled my head. Three children were squashed into a seat for two: two girls aged about ten and a young boy of about five.
They waved at a man whose grew smaller and smaller as the bus inched out of the station. ‘Bye Daddy,’ shouted the boy and one of the girls. Then the man disappeared, and the little boy began to wail.
‘I want Daddy,’ he cried.
‘Be quiet, Jamie,’ said his sister. ‘We’re going home to mammy now.’
‘ I want to go back to Waterford,’ said the boy. ‘I want to go back to Daddy.’
The wails cut through my waves of sound. These weren’t the sounds of a child grandstanding for an audience. These were the sounds of a child in pain. A child who couldn’t understand why he was being shuttled from father to mother. A child who was watching his father disappear.
Unable to Reach Out
I happened to have a vibrating hamster in my bag, a whimsical present from my husband. I pictured myself showing the child that vibrating hamster. Kneeling against the back of my seat and giving the children a reassuring smile. Showing the boy how to make the hamster vibrate by pulling the string. Watching his tears turn to laughter. Pressing the hamster into his hand, a much more useful companion to him than it could be to me. Distracting him from his pain.
But I didn’t. Because I was a stranger, and children are quite rightly taught to fear strangers. Because of the fingers of suspicion that would point at me. Because my actions could be interpreted in a way I never intended, by the children and by other passengers on the bus.
The bus was quite full, full of people who looked as if they had plenty of experience of wiping away the tears of children. But maybe they held the same fear as me, because they didn’t reach out to those children either.
Creating a Different Culture
Is it possible that our efforts to keep children safe, we have put up barriers that prevent us from being kind to them? Barriers that mean a childcare worker can no longer hug a child in their care. That cause men to feel uneasy if they find themselves near a group of children playing in a park. That require people to jump through endless hoops if they want to offer their time and skills to help children.
It is quite right that the culture of covering up crimes against children is beginning to crumble. But are we replacing it with a culture of suspicion? Why don’t we strive instead to create a culture of common sense, of kindness, of balance? A culture that allows us to reach out to a child in distress without fear of pointed fingers.
‘I loved that book you recommended to me,’ said my friend, as we picked over the spoils of our tea and scones. ‘I told the book club about it and it was our book of the month. They all loved it too.’
A warm glow spread through me, a glow that went deeper than tea and scones.
‘I told them a little friend of mine recommended it to me.’
Some of the glow seeped out of me. I’m on the small side, but I’m not especially small. So what prompted her to use the word little? Even though I’m on the cusp of middle age, I’m still young enough to be her daughter.
To her, I was little because I had not yet accumulated the years of life experience that she had. But I feel I’ve accumulated enough life experience to move beyond being described as little.
A group of us sat around a table on a sunny summer evening. The host was a great cook and produced tender steak, accompanied by a salad and floury potatoes. Salad does not usually delight my tastebuds, but this one was redeemed by the tomatoes, which tasted of sun. When I bit into them, they released jets of sweet juice.
‘Where did you get these tomatoes?’ I asked the host. ‘THey’re sensational.’
‘Oh, there’s a little man who sells them at the market.’ she said. ‘He’s there every Saturday. He’s marvellous.’
Is he really small, I itched to ask. Or is he a man with a little job?