Friday, March 29, 2013

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

I'll be honest: I don't like seeing homeless people standing in medians, holding cardboard signs, and asking for money. Their presence makes me uncomfortable, because I am driving a car and wearing clean clothes and wearing my permanent orthodontic retainer and showing any number of other signs of relative privilege, while they are the epitome of need. I am blessed in many ways that keep me from standing on a roadside asking for help from strangers. Ways, in other words, in which these people are not blessed.

When I really assess my discomfort, I find that it doesn't come from a deep fear of that-could-be-me. It doesn't come from the not-uncommon opinions of go-get-a-job-why-don't-ya or you'll-probably-just-spend-it-on-booze. No, it comes from the feeling of skewed perspectives skewering my own self-evaluation. I might often think that I am broke, but my tough times are a hell of a lot cushier than the guy fortunate enough to find a piece of cardboard and a magic marker.

Yesterday, pulling into the grocery story, Jenny and I passed a man in the median asking for help. His dog laid by him, clearly pleased just to be with her friend. I felt bad for the dog, who hadn't asked to be in this situation -- as if the man had.

We bought the staples to get us through the month -- milk, eggs, bananas -- our tight budget for the month already tapped. We left the store, and the light at the edge of the parking lot turned red. I was first in line to pull up next to the man and dog in need. "I don't want to look at them," I said. "I feel too bad." So I stopped the car where the windshield pillar obstructed my view.

I stared straight ahead, in that way where I was ignoring the man by trying to look like I wasn't ignoring him. I couldn't even look at Jenny, because it would look like I was avoiding looking at him. I think the whole time, she was busy staring at me. "Or you could just help them, if you want to. We have change."

Protest was my reaction. We did have change in the console; not much, but some, and it was for parking meters. Yet I felt that Jenny's spirit was open and giving at that moment. Why wasn't mine more so? Especially because I had Grace Lin's book fresh in mind, where Minli learns to be thankful for what she has, and to improve other folks' fortunes instead of her own. Where everyone finds happiness that way.

I didn't think. I rode the wave of feeling that swelled from my gut to my shoulders. I scooped up the tray of coins, rolled down the window, pulled forward, and handed the man the change. While the notoriously long light sat on red, we chatted. He was not a homeless man, and I was not a driver of a car. We were two guys talking about a sweet dog.

More factors went into that moment than a kid's book about a girl's attempts to change her family's fortune. But Where the Mountain Meets the Moon played its part. Books change the world, because they change their readers. That's the strength of a story.

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