I love coming down from the wild after a week. It feels as adventurous to encounter the “normal” world as it did to head out into bearland or mountain lionville. I notice so many things, how peculiar our version of normalcy is. I know I look dangerous in my wild-eyed, unshaven scruffiness. People glimpse me and return to their parked cars and lock them. Women grab their children by upper arms and draw them close. Walking in to pay for gas, I once cleared out an entire convenience store. I am raw, unafraid, available to make good connections with anyone if they dare. I am dangerous—to the status quo, that is. Everything is amazingly fun. The delightful universe of a highway entrance ramp.
There was this greasy diner where I had a huge breakfast right before I set out into the Adirondacks one year. The waitress paid me perfunctory attention, and I tried to chat her up—my last exchange for a week so I wanted to make it good. And failed. One long week later I returned to the same diner for my first hot food, first contact with people. Heads turned as I entered, a few stayed turned as I made eye contact and smiled—faces!; what an amazing gallery. They were interested and wary; I was joyful and unafraid. I got the same waitress, Maeve her nametag read. I asked, and she didn’t remember me from a week before. Made sense, I was a different person then. I told her I had just spent a week staying in a hundred foot circle in the woods. Pause. I said I hadn’t eaten much all week, and she said I must be hungry. I asked what might be good for easing back into a regular diet, and she said oatmeal, and even though it was afternoon, she would get the cook to make some if I didn’t mind the wait. For once, I had all the time in the world.
She came back with some orange juice I hadn’t ordered and told me I should have this too. So I did. She asked me about my week, and I told her the basics of doing nothing for seven days. She didn’t ask the usual questions or express the usual aversion to such a thing. Pause. She asked me if I prayed. At other times, an alarm would have rung in my head, yellow caution sign—sticky situation ahead— but not this day. I told her I prayed a lot, but that maybe my praying didn’t look like everyone else’s idea of prayer. She sat down in the booth across from me. And we didn’t say anything for almost a minute.
She got up to serve other customers. She came back with a glass of water for me. And she said, “I know I live near beautiful natural places, but I don’t go out there much because I hate bugs. The hour before the diner opens is like a prayer for me. I don’t say that at church. It’s quiet, and with just a few lights on it is like a church in here. Except for the smell. I walk around slowly and smoothly doing what has to be done. No music or anything. Just the sounds of a person in a place. I don’t think I could live without that.”
The sound of a person in a place. I knew exactly what she meant. The connection between us was species deep. She smiled as she brought me the oatmeal, but we didn’t have much more to say. She brought me the check, and we met again standing at the cash register as she took my money and bid me good day. In the pause, I glanced at the diner—imagining the beauty of this diner in the divine half-light with Maeve moving reverently through it. We made our formal exchange, just a nod and a look. The power of the human spirit to connect so quickly. It happened because I was as open as an artist to the creative opportunity of the moment. It happened because Maeve was far more remarkable than I ever would have guessed, and she dared to grab the opportunity.
With my hands on the steering wheel that would guide me onto the freeway and home, I vowed to do whatever was necessary in this disorganized world to sustain the awareness of being a person in a place.