it begins like this . . . .


    A couple of weeks ago, I arrived early for my shift at the computer store, so I got a coffee at the Barnes and Noble next door and sat down at a table to read a little of my John Berger book. The chapter I opened to started:

    It begins like this . . . .

    Just as I was settling in, a woman moved between the crowded tables to the only vacant one available. She was middle aged, as best I could tell, Asian, a little tired, and quite determined to make sure she got a table. She was carrying a large satchel and a stack of documents on top of it. She pulled out one of the chairs and placed her things in it. Then she opened the bag and retrieved some paper towels and began to wipe off the table. She cleaned it like it was her job, wiping away any remnant of those who had left only moments before she had arrived.

    At first, I assumed she cleaned out of fear, determined to not be exposed to any lingering germs, but there was not an iota of anxiety in her movements. The more I watched her (trying not to appear as though I were studying what she was doing), I began to see that she moved with an artist’s flair. Rather than wiping anything away, she was creating cleanliness, if you will, laying it down like paint or polish, a varnish of intention preparing the table for the moment for which it had been created when she would sit with her tea and her notebooks in the light of the last of the afternoon sun.

    It begins like this . . . .

    I kept rereading Berger’s opening sentence as I looked back and forth between the words on the page and the woman at the next table who had finished her preparation and had seated herself to begin that for which she had prepared a place. I took out my Moleskin notebook and began writing down details so I could repaint the picture at a later time. She opened the satchel and pulled out a stack of about ten greeting cards, all still in their plastic sheathes. She carefully opened one of the envelopes, pulled out the card, and laid it on the table. As she turned to sip her tea, I read the card:

    “Thank you for being special.”

    That’s all of the story I was able to get. My time was up and my shift ready to begin. I wished for the freedom to lean across the chair between us and tell her it had been fascinating to watch her lay down her layer of intention, but I would have been the only one talking across tables and she had never turned in my direction during any of her work. She was also not the only story in the room; she was the only one I noticed. I marked my place in my book with the receipt from my coffee and made my way out of the store, wondering about the beginning I had seen unfold.

    When I was a kid, my brother and I used to like to make up stories about people we saw in airports and such. OK, I liked to make up the stories; Miller was kind enough to listen, since we were the only audience each other had during our family travels. As you might imagine, my image of who the strangers were leaned toward the fantastic and intriguing. Everyone was a spy or some sort of exotic vagabond. It never crossed my mind to say, “The man in the overcoat is lonely and wishing his daughter would call to see how he is doing,” or “The girl in the corner has kept a journal everyday for seven years – and it all rhymes.”

    I keep thinking about the woman and the table and the card and wondering how the story played out. It begins like this: on a winter afternoon, she prepared her heart and a table to make time and room to write the filling for a card whose outside read, “Thank you for being special.” Perhaps it was an expression of unflinching gratitude. Maybe, they were words that needed to be said to span a breach or heal a wound, but they weren’t words that came easily, so she had wiped the table and laid down a layer of love and a blanket of forgiveness in which she could wrap her words and write what she felt rather than what she ought to say. Then again, maybe she was a spy and the whole thing was a brilliant cover.

    It begins like this . . . .

    Berger was talking about being asked to restore a painting a friend of his had found in a junk shop that was worth something, though quite deteriorated. She had asked him to see if he could repair it and he worked to find a way to connect to the moment in the past when the painter had laid brush to canvas. After a couple of days of anguish, he wrote

    I paint freely, inspired by the longing of what is there on the canvas. I discover how in the corner of a small room the light, falling on two peeling walls and half a dozen throw-down flowers, is a kind of promise from some distant, unimaginable future.

    The job is done. There it is, a painting by Kleber, 1922.

    A moment has, for a moment, been saved. This moment occurred before I was born. Is it possible to send promises backwards?

    As I look back to my recent past and the incidental encounter with the woman at the next table – an encounter known only to me – I wonder why the image of her preparing a place hangs so fresh in my memory, why it matters I tell it tonight, or why I am moved by Berger’s idea of sending promises back in time as I think of her and her table and her greeting card.

    I have better questions than answers.


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