A personal essay by Judy Clement Wall
I live near a Hindu temple. Very near. It is the view from my backyard. From just beyond my worn wood fence, it rises up, high brick walls and intricate towers, magnificent and separate from its middle class, suburban surroundings. It has become, over the years, a pleasant, non-integral part of my life. I have watched them landscape, remodel, repave, repaint. I notice when the temple is quiet, and when it’s not. I enjoy celebrations I know nothing about, often opening my back doors to listen to the chants and the tinkling of bells – exotic background music by which I write and clean and garden and study.
My relationship with the temple is not unlike my relationship with the rest of my neighbors. I know what kinds of cars they drive, who has children and who doesn’t, who mows their own lawn and who hires a service. My knowledge scratches the surface of their lives, and most of the time, I don’t think about all the things I don’t know – who are the poets, the chefs, the engineers, who meditates, who dances, who lies awake at night, which neighbors are content and which long for something more.
Lately though, it’s been bothering me. Not so much all the things that I don’t know, but the fact that I’ve never wondered, never been curious enough to ask. Asking would require me to connect in some way. It would make us – my neighbors and me – not merely observers of each others lives, but participants in them, however briefly. I would ask and they would answer and we would connect, maybe fiercely. People are unpredictable, and who has time for that? And yet, I find myself wondering now, dawdling outside when I get the mail, ready to say hello should someone else get their mail at the same time.
I blame the Hindu man.
He’s the one that got me thinking. He started it all, on a Tuesday afternoon, as I drove past the temple on my way to pick up the kids. I was thinking about a term paper due at the end of the week and a disparaging email from my son’s second grade teacher, when suddenly he was there. Walking down the street, dressed in a long white tunic and sandals, he was heading toward the temple. I might not have noticed him at all, except that he smiled when he saw me, and waved.
Thinking maybe he’d mistaken me for a member of the temple, I hesitated, unsure of how to respond. I smiled back, not wanting him to feel embarrassed, and he nodded, holding my gaze as I drove past.
It was the nod that did it. The nod that told me he had not mistaken me for someone else. He knew who I was, had probably watched me drive by many times, noticing me not noticing him. His nod said, “We are neighbors. We are connected. It is nice to see you.” I thought about him all the way to my sons’ school. I told my boys about the Hindu man on our way home. I looked for him outside the temple when we returned and felt disappointment when he wasn’t there.
On some level, the Hindu man and I had connected. With a smile, he had leapt from the background of my life and become, in an instant, someone familiar, someone distinct, good and noteworthy. And what was even more surprising was that his smile had made me all those things too.
And so I’ve been thinking – about the temple, about my neighbors, about all the people I pass without really noticing. For a week, I’ve been turning it over in my mind, the Hindu man’s smile – so simple and unexpected and extraordinary – trying to get at the meaning of it, the feeling that in some fundamental way I’ve been changed.
Then, yesterday, I decided to smile.
Even as I write this, I am aware of how odd it sounds, my having to make a conscious decision to smile. After all it’s easy, right? Just smile. At your neighbors, at the checkout clerk, at people you pass on the street. But it feels strange. At least for me. I’m a blend-into-the-surroundings kind of person. I’m the one at the party whose face you can’t quite place, whose name you can’t quite recall. Having demonstrated a distressing tendency to panic in situations that require decorum and poise, I surround myself with people who are unafraid to blaze social trails, happy to let me walk quietly behind them.
So when I decided to smile, I worried. I would be calling attention to myself. Would people think I was strange, a little too friendly? Would they fear I’d mistaken them for someone else? I worried so much that, at first, I only smiled at people I recognized. I smiled at the guy who lives on the corner as he was getting into his Honda Accord, and at the crossing guard, looking bored and uncomfortable in her bright orange vest. I smiled at the other parents who were dropping their kids off at school. To be honest, I was surprised when everyone smiled back.
And encouraged. I turned my attention to unfamiliar faces, like the man ahead of me in line at Target. He had a mustache and his eyes, behind thick plastic-rimmed glasses, registered surprise. He grinned, accepting his change from the checkout clerk, and just before he left, he turned to me.
“Thanks for the smile,” he said, and I was hooked.
For the rest of the day, I tossed out smiles like baseballs, watching people catch them, delighted when they threw them back. I smiled at the woman in the Safeway bakery, who put down the tray of cupcakes she was holding and asked me how I was doing. Getting into my car to leave, a man approached, a thin, sallow-faced man whose eyes slid around oddly in their sockets and whose gravelly voice kept answering questions no one had asked. I wasn’t sure he ever actually saw me, but I smiled at him anyway, reaching down, nonchalantly, to lock my car door.
At school, things went just as smoothly. I felt an exciting new camaraderie with my fellow students. The world seemed brighter, safer, positively overflowing with friendly, approachable people. And then I saw him.
He was in the parking lot after my last class, heading toward the building as I was heading to my car. He was young, probably just out of high school. He wore an enormous Raiders jacket, a black backpack slung over one shoulder and a practiced scowl. He had headphones, a cool, rhythmic bounce in his step. His lips moved silently with the music.
Not him, I thought, suddenly uncertain. I’ll wait for someone else. Someone older. Someone less cool, less glaring, less… musical. Maybe a nice 49er fan. But before I could look away, our eyes met and it happened. Just like that. I smiled, and he did too, one of those beautiful, transforming smiles that turns its wearer into someone new.
“’Sup?” he said, passing before I could answer.
I kept walking, too, but inside I was dancing. There was, I think, a definite, cool rhythm in my step.
On my way home, I saw the Hindu man standing just outside the temple gate. He smiled and waved, and I felt a sudden surge of gratitude, a need to thank him, to tell him how he’d effected me, how he’d made me think and see the world a little differently than before. But I didn’t stop. I smiled back, and I waved, and I nodded. A nod that said, “I know who you are. We are neighbors. We are connected. It is nice to see you, too.”
An earlier version of “Connecting” was published in the Spring 2004 issue of The Peralta Press.