Sunday, June 29, 2014

The People on the Periphery — And Why They Matter

The other evening I was eating dinner at Whole Foods' outdoor café when a young woman turned around and looked at me as though she knew me. After a moment, I remembered. "Oh, you're the twins!" 

About a year ago, she and her sister, both 25, were scrutinizing the produce, wondering not just about organic vs. conventional but also the nutrient value of different fruits and vegetables. I found their interest in health refreshing, and we engaged in a lively dialogue. They told me a bit about their colorful pasts and how they were committed to taking good care of their bodies now. I congratulated them, and we spoke of "bad habits". I said, "Well, no matter what recreational drugs you may have used, at least you're not addicted to nicotine!" There was an uncomfortable silence. Then one sister admitted, "Actually, we both smoke."

Astonished, I said something along the lines of, "Why are you bothering about organic foods if you smoke?" Perhaps I was not quite so zealous, though knowing how I feel about cigarettes (can't abide them from 50 yards) I probably was. Then our encounter ended and I went back to my regularly scheduled life.

I was unlikely to have thought about these girls again. Yet here they were, with Rowan (both names have been changed) clearly itching to share.

"I stopped smoking two months ago!" she crowed. She quit cold turkey, and said even though she found herself craving a cigarette about a month in, she held to her resolve. When I congratulated her, saying, "Your lungs thank you, your liver thanks you, your whole being thanks you! And now you can taste food again!" she agreed, "Yes, you said we had it backwards by focusing on organic food if we were smoking."

"Did I say that? How rude," I apologized. But Rowan held firm: "No, you were right." Her sister Miranda still smokes, but I said with confidence, "She'll quit when she's ready."

As her sister reappeared from within the store, the pair got ready to leave, and Rowan's parting words were," It's the best gift I could ever have given myself!" I felt she was delighted to have the opportunity to share her win with me, to complete the circuit and receive my acknowledgment, because I don't think there are a lot of other older role models in their lives.

Honored, I reflected yet again on what I've come to call "the people on the periphery": those with whom we interact only briefly, perhaps once or twice in our lives and never again, yet who leave a lasting impact. A man who overheard our entire exchange said to me after the girls left, "You instigated that change for her." From my perspective it had just been one of the thousands of casual conversations I have with people over the course of a year. It's a great blessing to realize what we may not realize: namely, that every word matters, every action counts, even, especially, if we never see or learn the outcome.

Here's another example: I've had the same hair stylist for 17 years, though I only visit her seasonally and each cut lasts less than half an hour. But we cover a lot of ground in that time. Nora (real name) is also a hospice volunteer, and several years ago told me about a wonderful book called Deathing, which shows us another way to approach our final passage — including practices you can use, even at distance, to assist a loved one in crossing the threshold. I bought the book and absorbed its teachings. At the time, no one's death was imminent, though I have a 100+-year-old friend and my mother had serious heart disease.

When my Mom was close to the end of her earth journey this past January, I used the Deathing techniques with her. She was unconscious, but/and, hearing is the last sense to go, and medicine has demonstrated that people can hear what is being said even in a coma.

The next time I saw Nora she was telling me about a recent death workshop she'd attended, and how she was feeling she "didn't really know anything," compared with the other participants. I exclaimed, "That's not true! If it hadn't been for you I would never have known about Deathing or been able to use those tools with my mother! You're a blessing in my life." She was grateful for the mirroring.

Perhaps we have the most profound effect on those we see just once in our lives. Perhaps one wise word to a stranger changes the trajectory of their life. The periphery of the supermarket is where the fruits and vegetables are located. Maybe living at the edge (but not necessarily on it) is the healthiest place of all.

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