It was a harmonic convergence. As the full November moon emerged through the clouds, my mind started humming “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”
I guess love can take any shape it wants.
I was leaving a parking lot where I’d wheeled my shopping cart from an upscale grocery store only to have the cart skid to a stop a few yards from the door. Thinking the wheel had trapped a piece of discarded produce, I tried to kick it into gear. A man called out, “You can’t go no further. The store controls the carts. You have to carry your stuff the rest of the way. Here, let me help you.”
The man – tall, thin, draped in cigarette smoke and a worn hoodie – was missing most of his front teeth. He sat his own bag on the cement and reached into my cart.
I protested. “It’s OK,” he said. “I can keep an eye on my bag from here.” He hefted my cases of water from the basket and checked to make sure his groceries were safe.
“These carts are expensive, see? Cost the store thousands of dollars. But there’s folks nearby try and take these carts home, cause it’s too far to carry their groceries and they can’t afford a car. So the store loses all this money on account of those people. And you can’t be having that. Cause this is America, right?”
He shifted the cases of water into my truckbed. I had no idea how to respond except to say, “This is America, and I bet there’s a better solution.” He busted out laughing and loped back to his grocery bag, which held barely enough for one meal.
As the full to bursting moon rose before me, I wanted to call that man back and tell him a different story. A story from the Rev. Joe Ingle, who visited Durham last week. A story about Philip Workman.
Philip Workman was about to be executed for a crime he hadn’t committed. That was not the anomaly. For his last meal, he had requested a vegetarian pizza. But instead of eating it, Philip asked that the pizza be donated to the homeless community. The Department of Corrections refused, on the grounds that they didn’t donate to charity. (A claim that wasn’t actually true, but nevertheless what they said.) CNN broadcast the state’s refusal. That night, all across this country, thousands of people ordered vegetarian pizzas in honor of Philip and donated them to shelters. More than 170 pies showed up at the Rescue Mission in Nashville.
I wanted to share this story with that lanky, dark man in the dim parking lot, but he was long gone. I thought about him in his murky hoodie and how what I was seeing when I looked at him was exactly what he was not. How he was every color except that blue black reflecting back to me, which was why I saw it. And how I, reflecting pale pink into his sight, was exactly not that, as well. As if in some strange way we were the absence of each other.
The men who write us from death row have not had a contact visit in decades. Many have never, in all their years in prison, had a single rehabilitative or support program. Some were surprised to know there even were such. These men reflect to us the communities of absence in which they were reared, our own shadow communities.
Yet somehow their hearts have expanded beyond their violent and despairing upbringings. They want so much to be of service, One wrote that “sacrifice is not the ending of life but the devotion to it.” These men envision a system where they might serve as coordinators of rehabilitative programs, their focus not on freeing themselves but on freeing younger prisoners’ minds through the truth of their own stories. They imagine these younger inmates returning to their neighborhoods and families with a new vision of justice.
This is America, right?
But their cartful of goodwill gets jerked to a stop by a system that doesn’t know or care where they are headed or what assistance they might bring.
The manager of a friend’s thrift store said: “If I've got one piece of advice, it’s this: Always make decisions that expand your heart, and shy away from decisions that make your heart contract. That's the key, here, in this crazy world. Always be expanding your heart space.”
The closer we move to each other, the less distinct we are. I inhale his smoke. He inhales my confusion. We breathe each other. It’s impossible to say where he stops and I begin.
We’re given gifts all the time that we don’t notice or don’t notice for long enough. I want to keep that man’s presence close. I want to give thanks for whatever he gave me that I have yet to understand. Most of all, I want to create a community where we notice the bright harmonic convergences rising around us and where every single one of us gets a piece of the pie.
Lynden Harris is the founder of Hidden Voices and lives in Cedar Grove in northern Orange County. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org