Thursday, August 25, 2011

Smiles: My Reason for Living


What’s a Contract Postal Unit? It sure doesn’t look like a normal post office to me, it’s Saturday, and these boxes need to go in the mail TO-DAY. The thought vanished as quickly as it came, as the tiny Latino woman took hold of the scores of boxes in my hand. She grunted quietly, I wondered ¿Hablas Inglés? No reply.

My pyramid of packages toppled her at first when she went to grab the lower box, this puzzle starts from the top dama. Ok, let me show her with my eyes, as my big browns rolled up to the sky, and slowly down to meet hers. She nodded, grabbed the first of a dozen boxes from the top of the pile, and placed it on the scale. With perfect timing as the first box touched the scale the screen went black, this was going to take awhile I thought, as samba sounds from the telenovela playing on the awkwardly hung flat screen lingered in my ears.

As the minutes passed so did the boxes, slowly, methodically, this contractor was posting box after box. By now her daughter, someone’s daughter, sat behind me tapping her foot, even she was ready for me to leave. And then, right when I was losing all hope, the last box left the counter, and she mouthed 122 dólares. Si, I said quietly handing her my debit card. So she didn’t speak English, but maybe she understood it, this poor lady had to deal with a commercial haul of mail, probably for the first time, and I wanted to thank her, I’ve been on the other end of the counter proverbially many a time.

“Thank you, you did a great job, I appreciate your hard work,” I said slowly the way people talk to non-English speakers when they want them to understand something, and that’s when it happened. Like the most amazing picture of the brilliant sun peeking through post-rain clouds she paused, looked up, and gave me a smile larger than her gaunt face might usually afford. It was beautiful, I tripped my way out of the shop.

Smiles, real and authentic, are like feeling God’s finger touch your forearm. Shockingly gorgeous, like a regal cardinal perching on your windowsill just long enough for you to see her vivid red coat as she spreads her wings and ascends high into the heavens. Smiles are the good to life’s bad, the better of the best, and not always earned, beautifully and serendipitous as it seems, sometimes they just arrive.

Two Hispanic women stood facing the counter, waiting for the CVS clerk to figure out how to activate their phone cards, were they calling family back home? I wondered if they knew about Skype? I glanced at their backs, they were wearing matching sundresses in different colors, I imagined they were the type that could make anything look good, sometimes fashion isn’t brand-oriented, it’s people. After a minute or less the problem was solved, gracias. They turned around, the taller one looked right at me and smiled, I smiled back, they left the store, I looked at the clerk even he was frozen for a moment. The right smile can stop you in your tracks.

I’ve experienced a lot of smiles this past week, just the day after my contract postal unit experience I’m in a big building watching a young minister, does he have a twinkle in his eye tonight? When we have lunch he doesn’t have that twinkle, but man, this guy is happy tonight. I can’t blame him, his fledging church is growing like weeds, and when growth equals stability, a spiritual entrepreneurial thing, we all share a laugh. A smile signifies a risk paid off, a path cut with a machete of ideas in a jungle of very old thinking, we are talking BC people.

Animals smile too. I see my little dog Rufus smile every time I give him a slice of American cheese, he knows how to get what he wants. Smile, sit, act good for a minute, then be bad again by sleeping on Dad’s leather couch. He glances at me as if to question whether that trip to the furniture mart in Atlanta wasn’t actually a mission to buy him a dog bed, sigh, his smiles still get me.

My two eldest dogs smile for a different reason, they made it out of that backyard, that dark nasty yard. They made it out of the tall grass, towering weeds that split at the top like stalks of corn, and from behind that shed, the very shed where their brothers and sisters weren’t so lucky. They survived, rescued no less, so they smile, and they protect what they have now, comfort, stability, I’m sure that yard isn’t ever too far from their hearts. Dogs feel pain too, but smile, maybe they can, in their own canine way identify with perseverance, two barks for yes, one for no, ok?


I soak in parental smiles, collect them actually. Mom in Myrtle Beach, her eyes fixed on the ocean and her hand patting me on the back, literalism is the best approach for teaching me lessons, as she very well knows. She’s waiting to go back, and when she does, you bet I’m doing the trip for another smile.

I watch my dad smile anytime we talk cars, MPG’s prompt them, as do belts, bolts, tires, and differentials. We talk cars like we talk dreams, it’s not what you couldn’t drive now, it’s what would you drive now, there is such a difference, we both smile at the thought of it.

Are you smiling in public, around family, friends, and pets? You should be. Gone are all your material possessions sans the clothes on your back, you stand helpless in a parking lot far away from your comfort zone, what weapons do you have in your battle to get home to safety? Here is a hint, scowling won’t get you far. We always have smiles, they are universally available in our personality repertoire, yet we so rarely decide to fire them off. What are we so afraid of? Can we just smile for the heck of it? Apparently not, just ask Congress, a group that is caught frowning more than a New Yorker that just missed the N train.

Smiles on occasion come in pairs, stuffed like a turkey with irony. In college the smile on the face of my financial aid advisor during an exit interview spoke of sadness, you’re 22 years old here’s $32,000 to pay back, we train leaders here, aren’t you ready lead? Just like the counselor’s smile came another a year later, when friends laughed at my idea to import intimate clothing from India to pay for graduate school. It worked, I chuckled my way through a masters degree on the magic carpet ride made of intimates from another land. Funny, but it worked, the mother of innovation is…

We hold on to the smiles of those gone and past with special reverence, if we can just hold onto that image for a lifetime, we will be better for it.

Grandma dancing around the kitchen with me after my SAT score arrived, acceptable enough for some college, any really, to accept this late bloomer. We laughed, we danced, and that smile of hers on that day is so very close to my heart, 14 years later, I can still feel that moment of elation, all in a smile. The very thought of sharing one more smile with my grandmother waters my eyes more than the gardens of my green thumb neighbor are doused with on a steamy summer day.

Or Jenny Dixon at college, we’d walk around campus talking about how we were battling for the worst reputation on campus, a partner in fodder. She smiled, and I smiled, God forgives, she’s gone but not forgotten, her smile and approving nods still linger all these years later. Surely she’d be proving those naysayers wrong right now, a flower that never fully was able to blossom withered far too early that night in Columbus.

My first roommate in graduate school, his mother by our sides, feeding us, setting up the blinds, telling us we were going to do big things one day, that smile, the encouragement, we all celebrated it. Even if we thought we knew better, we really needed every emotional push she had to offer, may she rest in peace knowing her son is as successful as she said he’d be, despite enormous winds depressing his sails, his boat still floats. She’d be so proud.

Or an artistic football player from high school, angry for reasons that were hard to discover, always nice to me, always welcoming, always treating me as an equal. His smile sits with me, gone too soon Greg.

A welcome smile tells us we are accepted in the foreign place we risked our sense of security to visit.

An approving smile tells us that our volunteering is time worth more than money multiplied into inspiration for others.

A thankful smile offers the notion that we are doing something for someone that can’t do for themselves in some fashion, we smile back in hopes of preserving the moment, even just for another few seconds. Who feels better the giver or the recipient? The answer might surprise you.

If smiles are such an important part of our lives, how do we ensure there are enough to sustain us? The answer is not within my grasp, but a good idea might be to start by being thankful for those smiles of the past.