Sunday, October 23, 2005

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On a back road in Midwestern Florida I drove past a doorstep adorned by a small crying girl. I was far enough out of the city that the house sat on about an acre of land; one side of the yard held two doghouses and the opposite end boasted a chicken coop and what looked like a rabbit hutch. From all the toys in the yard I could tell that the house must have contained a whole mess of kids, but for the moment the only living creature in sight was the weeping little girl with twin braids on either side of her head.

As we've already established, I can't ignore crying children, and so I pulled over and went to check on things. I asked if she was ok and she said yes, but her voice was thinly held together and her hands trembled. A dog trotted around the corner and shoved its head against her nose, and she hugged it to her and sniffed. With each hand full of dog fur she mumbled, her voice muffled by a canine ear, "It doesn't matter, anyway." "I don't know, it must matter a little bit if it's made you this upset."

Her brother, she told me, had that afternoon thrown an egg from her chicken at her and it had broken on the grass. A few weeks before, her mother had given birth to a baby that was stillborn, and her mother hadn't been out of bed since. (That was why she was there alone--her family had gone to visit grandma, and she was left to watch over her mom.) She was worried that her pet would be like her mother, that it would never leave its nest again because her brother had killed its baby.

Her breath hitched here, and before she could blame herself for either incident I hugged her while her dog looked up at us with human eyes. It knew what was going on. I had nothing else to give her--my car contained a blanket, a pair of sandals, and a copy of Neruda--but in the end a hug is the world's best healer. I smoothed her hair and told her that they both would be fine, and she sniffed one more time and nodded, patting the dog on the head. She took me over to meet her chicken and then I got back in my car and went on my way. When I got to Tampa and told the boys what had happened, they wondered why no one had taught her not to talk to strangers.

Dostoevsky demands to know which is better, "cheap happiness or exalted sufferings? Well, which is better?" But I think that what really matters is the space in between, the steps between the hackneyed and the sublime. I think that it's only in the ordinary every day that we get the chance to be supremely human, to be real, and to be compassionate.

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