She stands in the doorway of the tiny beauty shop, white coated, spiky hair the color of polished copper. Her eyes are blazing and she speaks quickly and with obvious annoyance. His feet are planted at an angle to her, his stance is relaxed, back curved, shoulders forward, one hand holding the elbow of his other arm. He gazes softly at her, a slight smile on his face.
I have three seconds to take this in. We’re banging through the stone streets of Siena in Alberto’s little scratched up Renault and as always, it feels like Mr. Toad’s wild ride. Hard left, hard right, hard brake, rapid acceleration, a sudden stop. Everyone drives this way here. No longer white-knuckled during these moments, I try now to stay present and delight in the little vignettes that appear around each corner.
The scolding aesthetician and her bemused-what?- boyfriend? brother? husband? – is the star of this particular scene. In the few seconds available, I take in the visible clues and use my imagination to fill in the blanks. What happened before this snapshot? Why is she angry? Is he the cause or a friend lending an ear? What happens next? And then I fall against the car door during the next turn and the scene changes.
This time it’s an older man. He’s outside of a home with a walled garden, hands behind his back in the way of so many older Italian men. He’s staring at what appears to be an air-conditioning unit. This is a sequel to a glimpse from yesterday, except yesterday there was a repair man taking the unit apart while the man watched from the same place, in the same stance. Why is he there again? Was it not fixed? Is he waiting for the repairman to return? Is he not the owner of the home but instead the nosy neighbor? With little prompting my imagination takes off again.
The scene changes. I see two little ballerinas, tights askew, arms and legs akimbo and intertwined, heads resting together as they sit on the hard marble doorstep of the dance studio. Another turn and there are a trio of teeny wiener dogs running in circles as fast as their little legs will move, sniffing, bumping, jumping as their respective humans exchange buon giorno’s. The road opens and there is a waiter at the corner cafe struggling with a broken awning as a group of regulars watch and gesture but at this moment at least, seem to offer only benevolent supervision.
Three seconds to tell an entire story. I love these moments; the punctuation of a point in time, a curtain opening to reveal an intimate- or ordinary- peek at the life of another person. The sense of commonality gained by observing what happens to complete strangers in the blink of an eye.
When I think about the 16,000 day quest- the effort to live my life to the fullest and not squander a second, I am grateful for these moments. Grateful that they don’t always go by in a blur while I am too busy thinking about something else. Grateful for the practice of awareness because it does make a difference in the quality of life.
Yesterday, I stopped to admire a beautiful wall of flowering plants on the street where my sweetheart lives. Today as we walked by there again, he told me that although he had passed those same flowers many, many times he had never noticed them. He called this a difference in anima, or soul, between the two of us.
It may be as intrinsic as the quality of one’s soul, but I believe that “seeing” is possible for all of us. And important. How can we stop to smell the flowers, appreciate a beautiful smile, comfort a friend’s sadness or delight in the playfulness of two tired little ballerinas if we never focus enough to see them? It only takes a second…or three.