Have you seen this? An unshaven man in crumpled khakis and a worn shirt, sits cross-legged on a cold, DC street corner with a tin cup at his feet. In his hands, he grips a square of cardboard upon which is printed, “I’m blind. Please help.”
Well-dressed professionals clip past in their Stuart Weitzmans and Cole Haans on their way to professional jobs in plush offices with fake Ficus trees in accent-lit lobbies. Pretty women pause, dig in shiny shoulder bags, then toss in a quarter. Other passersby rush on, eyes averted.
A slim young woman with dark hair pulled back in a bun—maybe 18, 19– passes the man as well, but stops and turns back. Kneeling in front of him she gently pulls the cardboard from his hands, extracts a marker from her backpack, and flips his sign over. As the bewildered man waits, unable to see what she’s doing, she scrawls a new message on the reverse side, hands the sign back and walks on.
Over the course of the day, elapsed in U-Tube time, people stream past the blind man as before, except now, nearly everyone stops to place cash in his cup. Coins drop like rain, a flood of thoughtful compassion. The afternoon wears on and the perplexed man continues to hold up the sign the young woman has written. His cup overflows.
As shadows lengthen at the end of the business day, the woman returns from the opposite direction. When she greets him, the man recognizes her voice. “What did you do to my sign?” he asks helplessly. He is confused by his new success, the magic of what she has done. She responds, I wrote the same, but in different words.
As the camera pans out, the sign becomes visible. In black block print, the girl has written, “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.”
Words change everything. Luck, energy, desire, vision—the way you see the world and those with whom you share it.
Last Christmas I had one of those circle-of-friends candleholders on my coffee table, only the ‘friends’ were 3 elves, facing inwards, their little backs to the observer, holding hands around a lit votive. As I moved them to put a pizza down, I mentioned to my friend Rick that the little guys appeared to be circled around the glow of a burning log in a cold forest.
Rick, whose job description includes words like “covert,” “Pentagon,” and “flight schedule,” said dispassionately, “Yeah? I think they’re hiding something.”
Perspective. Like everything else, it’s a story we tell ourselves based on our experience of the past. That doesn’t make it true, nor a prediction of what’s to come.
My three kids have lived all over this country and all over the world, and I have missed them. My son left home at 17 to live in New Zealand for more than a decade. One daughter lived in New Orleans for years, then Vermont. Another daughter moved to the United Kingdom 12 years ago, and I can’t imagine she will ever live closer than an ocean away. I have missed weddings and births. Friends with kids nearby have felt sorry for me. I felt sorry for me, too.
Then I wrote the same story but with different words.
The kids are happy. They call home. They have created meaningful lives. They have found people they love.
It’s a beautiful day. And I can see it.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.