I don’t remember what we said exactly, but we expressed our empathy. And you could see her face soften. The corners of her mouth turned up, and pretty soon she was apologizing for dumping on us, and we were all laughing. We thanked her for opening up to us like that.
“How wonderful,” Barbara said, as we took our drinks to the table, “that she felt safe enough with us to share how she felt.” In that small and seemingly insignificant moment, we had been graced with a glimpse of Chey’s tough, savvy, yet inherently shy soul.
Often, we hide in the forest, behind the ego’s protective cover of false words and faces. We stand still, and try to blend in. We reveal our tender selves, our raw yet pure emotions, our secret thoughts only when it’s absolutely safe. That kind of living encounter with the soul of another is always fragile and beautiful. A gift, really.
Like meeting a wild animal on its own ground.
“If we want to see a wild animal,” writes Parker Palmer in Let Your Life Speak (2000), “the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”
As Mary Oliver recalls in her poem “The Place I Want to Get Back To” (Thirst, 2006), one morning, in that liminal time between night and first light, she was sitting quietly in the pinewoods when two deer came down the hill, cautious yet curious. She sat so still, the deer decided she was harmless. And moved closer. Peered intently into her face. Then, unexpectedly, one of them broke the imperceptible yet nearly impenetrable wall that normally stands between humans and wild animals—and nuzzled Oliver’s hand.
“What can my life bring to me that could exceed that brief moment?” she asks, her heart filling with gratitude. For twenty years she returned to those woods, “not waiting, exactly, just lingering.” Aware that some gifts can never be repeated.
How we cherish these moments of genuine contact. How we long for more glimpses of the pure, wild and sacred soul. Without pretense or defense.
And sometimes, if we’re honest, the soul we most long to see, to greet, indeed, to touch is our own. We need safe times and places, where no one is shouting at us. When no one is judging us, not even ourselves. We need practices that quiet all the loud noises, and allow the mind and body to return to stillness, to a natural and utterly patient solitude. Surprisingly, we often discover that place in the presence of others.
Human love, as Rilke so eloquently put it, consists in this: “that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.”
Even in small moments in public places, we can love one another, even strangers, like this. We can be so quiet, hospitable and non-judgmental within ourselves that there remains an open yet protected space for others to come out of hiding, if only for a peek. Two solitudes can meet. And something memorable can happen. If we’re paying attention.
This is one thing we cultivate in the contemplative and communal practice of Lectio Poetica. Whenever I see a shy soul emerge in our sacred circle, even for a brief glimpse, I know how Mary Oliver felt that day in the pinewoods. It is a place to which I, too, long to return.
But, hey, since we only meet once or twice a month, I’m heading back to the coffee shop.
—Jay E. Valusek