The Words You Speak

I wasn't going to immortalize this exchange because it's the kind of thing I'd rather forget. It didn't add to the stock of positive energy in the universe, except maybe a very little, at the end. I couldn't tell.
But then these three quotations came my way and I thought I'd tell the story. Maybe one day when you're inclined to snap at a stranger you'll remember this instead of your mom's admonition about sticks and stones.

"The words you speak become the house you live in." --Hafiz, Iranian poet
“That's what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” --Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
"My father would say profane words proceed from a profane heart, kind words from a kind heart, and loving words from a loving heart." --  Ron Sims, former King County Executive and Deputy Secretary of HUD

I was riding home from work on the Burke-Gilman Trail, heading toward north Seattle. The trail is great but lacking in signage in a few places to tell you what street you could get onto if you left the trail at a particular spot. In several places the street that intersects the trail has a name, not a number, so you don't know how far north you've gone unless you've memorized the map or you pull out your smartphone.

Thus it was that I left the trail at a paved intersection with a quiet street, knowing I'd passed the spot where you can leave the trail around 93rd but not sure whether I'd gone as far as the streets that climb, brutally steep, toward 123rd, which I wanted to avoid. The streets I faced had names, not numbers, and wound fairly steeply upward, but didn't seem to be as bad as I remembered being the case at 123rd the one and only time I've encountered that spot.

I was pushing my bike as I climbed to the intersection of what proved to be Exeter St. NE and 113th, where a woman stooped, working in the yard of the house at the southeast corner. She straightened her back to look at me.

"Is there a way to get up and over?" I called, gesturing over the hill behind her.

"What do you think?" she said abruptly, pointing to the Dead End signs.

Taken aback, I responded, "Well, I just thought I'd ask."

"Can you read?" she demanded. (I wonder now how she would have felt if I'd said no at this point. Adult illiteracy is not vanquished.)

"Yes," I replied patiently, already turning to push my bike up the hill to my left, away from those signs and from her. "It's just that sometimes they're a dead end for cars but there's a way through for bikes."

From behind me I heard her say sarcastically, "Only in Seattle."

I pushed my bike a few more yards, then called out, "Have a nice day!"

A bark of laughter came from behind me--whether she was startled into recognizing how her tone had sounded or laughing in disgust I don't know.

I pushed my bike to the top of the rise in front of me. As I prepared to mount and keep climbing I hesitated, thinking about going back to introduce myself by name and explain that I'm still relatively new to that part of town and learning my way around. I thought that perhaps if I put a name on the encounter she might not react that way to the next person with a bike who climbed that hill and asked her for directions.

It's so much easier to be mean to someone in the abstract than when the person is right in front of you holding out a hand, so much easier to see a label rather than a person if you don't know someone's name.

But I really didn't want to face that meanness of tone, the absolute absence of any hint of kindness toward someone asking for a tiny bit of help in the form of information. Although she was a complete stranger the encounter stung; the tone seemed so out of proportion to my simple question and I'd been having a really great day up to that point.

As I rode I imagined reasons for her to sound so crabby. There's no signage at that point on the Burke-Gilman so maybe she fields a lot of questions and she wishes people would figure out their routes before they get on the trail.

This was shortly after we'd had some high wind and maybe she was dealing with downed limbs and clutter and seething about the yard work while I was out enjoying a bike ride (albeit one caused by working on a Sunday).

Hey, maybe she's even recently widowed and it used to be her dead sweetheart who dealt with this sort of chore so she's mourning that loss while she rakes leaves.

I can come up with a thousand of these excuses when someone seems to be acting out of a very negative space because I really don't want to believe people are acting deliberately when they're like this. My husband will tell you I do the same thing when we're driving somewhere and someone passes us driving recklessly. "Maybe he's on the way to the hospital, honey." (I attribute this response pattern to my mother, who often made empathetic remarks about the kind of situation that might prompt someone to behave in a less than optimal way.)

Of course, thanks to the magic of the Web I can look up the address for my encounter and discover that someone just bought the house in July of this year, paying almost three-quarters of a million dollars for it. The house has 5 bedrooms and 3+ bathrooms. With its proximity to the trail its property value is higher than homes farther from the trail and it's already worth more than she paid for it. None of which apparently was making her happy in the moment of our encounter, however....

I told myself to forget about her. Regardless of the reasons behind our respective attitudes, I was clearly having the better day. I don't know her story--it could be far worse than anything I imagined or it could be she's just like that to everyone, all the time, in which case she is very, very lonely.

Either way, I'll take "Have a nice day!" over "Can't you read?" any day of the week and remember that when I speak, I'm creating a little piece of someone else's world, just for a moment.

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