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The Bag Lady

"There always must be a next thing."

These words were spoken to me many years ago as I sat on a bench in New York’s Central Park. Now, whenever and wherever I am on a bench, I think about a particular bag lady. It was a beautiful spring day and I was writing in my journal (a thing many of us did before computers and blogging.)

As the sun shone down upon the children playing near the pond, a warm breeze wafted across my face with — the most horrific stench! Arranging herself next to me on the bench was a disheveled old bag lady, smiling through what remained of her teeth.

I remember how awful she smelled. I remember looking at her hands as she rubbed them together, not for warmth but out of some ancient habit. But most of all I remember those eyes - shining blue eyes with a warm sparkle that seemed very out of place in that dirty, wrinkly, sad old face.

I wondered what those eyes had seen, what wisdom was behind them. I wondered how this soul came to be living on the streets of New York - was there no family? no one who cared about her? Paradoxically, there was something very calming about her presence. She did not seem to be a lunatic nor any kind of threat. There was something about her that wanted to be known.

While my nose begged me to find another location, my human spirit connected with something emanating from those eyes. I wanted to hear more, so I took the bait and engaged in conversation with the poor old soul now seated a few inches away from me on the creaking wooden bench.

“Excuse me,”I faltered, trying not to breathe in too deeply.

The hag smiled and nodded, as if she’d been invited to tea and was about to tell a delightful tale.

“You’re writing. What are you writing about? Those children playing? What a waste of time!”

No, I was journaling, not writing about the children (though they were adorable.) Without correcting the assumption my curiosity caused me to urge my visitor on.

“Just trying to capture the moment.” Blech! Did I really think that sounded deep?

The hag gave me another grin and I saw the soot of the streets caking in the wrinkles set in her cheeks. With a long, stinky sigh, she poured out a story that seemed to have long awaited an audience: The story of her “friend” who used to “be somebody.”

She told me how her friend had been a big-wig of sorts in the corporate arena, but that she had spent her life foolishly. She spoke of the long rise and terribly hard fall her friend had suffered adding (and here she leaned in with a whisper) “don’t think they don’t try to rape an old hag, because they do.”

I hadn’t thought of that; it made sense that life on the streets could be cruel. As the tale went on I, of course, realized the tired woman was relating the story of her own life, or at least some version of it. I was completely enthralled, waiting eagerly for the next episode in this hero’s adventure.

Finally she looked off, blankly, over the pond. The children had gone. The water rippled only slightly. The sparkle in the eyes faded into some distant memory as the muse continued: “Don’t ever stop moving forward. No matter what happens. Never give up. Never abandon you’re own principles. Always be true to yourself. Always move forward. Remember - and this is important - there always must be a next thing.”

And with that this fallen angel - for that’s how I think of her now - gathered up her filthy tote bags and walked away, without so much as a glance in my direction. No good-bye or thanks-for-listening. Just on to the next thing.

Whether she was indeed an angel sent to guide me with her message, or just some random, unfortunate soul, the desire for human connection was real. I suppose we all want someone to hear what we believe to be wisdom acquired over the years. Do we not all have our own story to tell? In a way, my gift to her was honest listening. Her gift to me is her story.

Since then and over the years I have listened to many stories from many people. Some stories from people much older and some people far younger than myself. Some stories are surely more dramatic than others. Sometimes the heroine rises and sometimes she falters. And in some stories, maybe, she ends up in a city park silently contemplating the next thing.

Everyone has a story to tell, if only someone else is willing to listen.

What is your story? What is your “next thing”? I'm listening.