More and more, it strikes me that the best guides are the ones who feel they've lost their way. Those guides make sounds of incredulity when you tell them they have worth. They say don't follow me. They are the fallen athletes who warn you "I'm no rolemodel." True enough, there are paths you wouldn't want them to lead you down, and you wish for them their own sherpa at times--a beast of burden who can help them shoulder the load as they make their breathless way up personal Everests that seem, at times, insurmountable. The air gets thin up there, but damned if their cheeks don't manage to still glow. And isn't that how it is? It can be cold--the sort of cold that makes you brittle, the sort of cold that threatens to numb your very soul. Yet, if you look out across those berms, it looks like a diamond field.
My friend, Shanda, is that way. A diamond. Borne of the same sort of coal as anyone else, but squeezed, pressured, shaped, configured until a stone. The diamond wears a diamond. She glints, and so does that ring on her left finger. I'm no jeweler. I have no idea how many carats, but that ring is heavy. When I met her, I was jealous of that ring. I thought, "She has EVERYTHING."
Now I know that everything can be too much sometimes. Sometimes I see her give it away. The shrugging off of wealth, on the surface, reminds me of a college friend of mine, Sara. Sara was so deep into her Buddhist study that the idea of impermanence had its own pulse--a complusion to not be of the world that manifested in constantly giving herself away. If you said, "Sara, I like that necklace," her hands would contort behind her back as she unclasped that necklace and presented it to you as if she'd never wanted beauty.
Shanda's charity has nothing to do with impermanence. In fact, it feels the opposite: she's trying hard not be erased. Maybe it's like another friend of mine who daily submits to the gym's hamster wheel to "fight entropy." He know's he is going to die, and he wants all he can get from this life before he has no more.
Her giving is not what compels some to box up the so-called unneeded things in our lives and take them to a thrift store. It is not meant to save the unfortunate around her but herself. And quite honestly, I think she's onto something. We all need to stop stuffing coins into the metaphorical bell ringer's kettle. We need to stop thinking that focusing on charity will save the world when our own private worlds are in need. It's all about triage, caring for gun shots before paper cuts. The Dalai Lama and all manner of enlightened people will disagree with me on this point. They would say we should focus on others as a means of helping ourselves, but I often think it's shell game, slight of hand, trickery.
Let's be real. Sometimes the path is exhausting, and the lack of oxygen makes you light-headed. All you can do is seek out a resting spot. Make a temporary shelter until you catch sight of base camp. Some days, seeking shelter looks a lot like dumpster diving. She goes to the recycle center, bends over the book bin, gathers raw material for her art. Other days, it looks like a natural distaster. A stranger looking in the window might see the victim trapped in the rubble, but in this case, the victim is not a victim at all. This is not destruction but construction. She sits surrounded by bits of paper, metal charms, inks, glues. She is at peace here. And lately, she is a version of Alice's Mad Hatter. She can breathe easier when the sewing machine hums and makes whole what others see as scraps.
She shared her make-shift shelter with me the other day. It involved a camera and a few precious kid-free hours. To an untrained eye, we were just two women having hot chocolate with no problems or worries. But one just happened to be taking photos of the shadows the handle casts down on the saucer and the faintest hint of lipstick on the rim. We drove deserted backroads, so she could take pictures of startling red barns that slashed out against snow and a sky so faded that it might as well be snow. She put her car in reverse, backtracked in order to take a photo of the most beautiful turquoise door. The shack on which it hung looks like it will blow down with the next big storm. But in my mind, it holds. It holds because she has it in her to recognize its beauty. But the part of the mission I remember most is her standing with her back to a busy street. The traffic rushed behind her, but she was still. Her mouth was open as she looked into the lens. She saw the irony of an alley corner where two one-way signs seemed to point in opposite directions.