Adventure at the other Duck Pond
Life has been very complicated lately, very exhausting, very full. I was in two minds whether to change my sit-site, or not: I am not tired of the labyrinth, still want to return there; and at the same time I crave somewhere a bit wilder, more varied in its inhabitants. I was thinking about Morris Woods, or even maybe somewhere on the Haverford campus, nearer where I live. In the end I think the natural course of my life has decided for me. I was wanting a walk this afternoon, called one of our helpers to come and stay with my mom, and set out on my usual route around the Nature Walk (what we used to call it when I was a kid) which encircles the Haverford campus. Today it was a walk rather than a sit. Haverford has more wild space, is overall a bit wilder than Bryn Mawr. I love going through the woods - even though there are almost always lots of runners and walkers, some with dogs or babies, using the path, in that way less wild actually than Morris Woods at Bryn Mawr. Then I come out at the Duck Pond, larger and older than Bryn Mawr's duckpond: we used to skate on it in the wintertime, 50 or more years ago. There is often a heron fishing here, as well as the entertaining societies of ducks and Canada geese. My future sit spot will be at the far side of the duck pond, among silver maples and larch trees, a favorite place to stop and meditate, and dream myself into the depths of the pond, which seems like a gateway to Mother Earth herself.
Today, though, I was stopped and greeted by a man asking directions. He wanted to get to Chester, or maybe to 69th Street, both destinations rather far and impossible to explain how to get to. He had very little English, but I gradually learned he had come from Mexico - how? partly by bus, otherwise mysterious. He seemed to know people in Chester. He also had no money (and I presume no papers) and wasn't interested in suggestions about trains or buses. At first I was a bit wary, accosted by a stranger in a (semi)wild place, but once I stopped and spoke with him there was no feeling of threat at all. He was entirely friendly, straightforward, gentle. Chester is at least 15 miles from Haverford. I said it was a long way to walk; he gave me to understand he had walked much further than that.
A quandary: I did not want to give up my afternoon to give this stranger-in-need a ride to where he was going. I did not want to invite him back to my house. But I did not want to refuse his request, leave him lost and without help. I did not want to turn my back on this chance encounter with a world I know about but seldom meet, with someone so much more unprotected than me, so much more in direct contact with the physical world, with only his own body to rely on. Someone who had come so far, and was near the end of his journey, and lost. He described, somehow, half in words and half in gestures, how no matter what direction he went in, he always seemed to find himself back here, at the Duck Pond.
So, I told him to wait while I went home to find a map. I said I'd be back in 10-15 minutes and he said OK, he would sit and wait. On the way home I had the idea of giving him my old bicycle, the one I bought second-hand three years ago when I moved back here. I don't use it now that I have had my other, better bike shipped home from Ireland. At home I found an old map, which just reached as far as Chester, found a reasonably simple route and marked it in pen on the map, pumped up the bike tires, got a twenty dollar bill out of my wallet, and rode back to the campus. But instead of my Mexican I found only a courting couple sitting on the bench near the pond. They said they had seen a Mexican man, but quite a while ago. I circled the pond and found no sign of him. The couple had left by then and I decided to leave the bike propped against the fence, sort of in sight and sort of out of sight. I left the map in the carrier basket with a small plastic bag of cut up apple (the only food I could grab quick enough on my way out), and the twenty dollars hidden among the apple slices. I wanted to leave my cell phone number, but realized I had forgotten to write it down, and had nothing to write with. Never mind. Left the bike, walked a bit further around the pond in case I could see him, and looking down at the ground saw a pen underneath another bench! (A good omen - another gift of looking down.) Wrote my phone number on the edge of the map, left the bike, walked home.
Can I describe my thoughts and feelings? I've been practicing for years at not feeling guilty: just don't go there, don't let those feeling-bad-about-myself feelings get any foothold. But still wondering: why is it so hard, given the opportunity, to do like those people you sometimes read about on Facebook or wherever, who go way out of their way to help someone in need? What is it in me, my heritage, my genes, my culture, that makes me so unwilling to change my plans, to take time out from trying vainly to catch up with my busy life? But, I had no trouble letting go of my bike. It would get to the intended person who needed it, or to someone else, or maybe it would even still be there if I went back later.
I did go back, a couple of hours later. It was raining by then, but not very hard. Beautiful to be out in the grey, damp, chill of an autumn pre-storm late afternoon. The bike was gone. The only clue was the empty plastic bag the apple had been in, and it seemed like confirmation that the right person had the bike. I felt suddenly happy about my actions. Just give a man a bicycle and a map, twenty dollars and an apple, and he can take it from there.