Backstory: Watching for Signs

A few years ago, mostly out of curiosity, I visited a seer. One observation stood out: “There are signs all around you,” she said, “and you see them but don’t think they have meaning. Pay attention to them.”

The signs I’ve noticed lately have come primarily from friends of varying ages. A wise and charming dinner partner and I were commiserating over the burdens everyone carries and marveling over how we all deal with private troubles in different ways. Born during the Depression, she had lived through World War II, the crazy '60s, decadent '80s and the Great Recession of 2008 and was the widow of a noted economist, a handy narrator through turmoil. Delightful and funny, she had seen it all and bounced through it.

“Unless you were born into poverty,” she said, looking me full in the face, “snap out of it.” Don’t hold your misery close, wearing it on your heart, your sleeve, your face. Open the blinds, square your shoulders and feel the warmth of the morning sun or the greeting of a stranger. The clarity of her wisdom was refreshing and without apology. No, this won’t pay the bills or, sadly, cure cancer, but it will get you out the door with a little more optimism, humility and energy to figure it out.

The next night, I greeted a young friend with a hug, expecting a brief, casual exchange. He launched into a dizzying recount of books he was reading — Sapiens, 12 Rules for Life, Tribe of Mentors — and dropped references from Mark Cuban to Warren Buffett and the Atocha, finally comparing the value of old Roman coins with foreign currency of later epochs. I wished aloud for a pen and paper to take notes, and with adept fingers, he texted the titles to me. A small miracle! His face shone with infectious curiosity, and I can’t wait for our next random meeting.

Days after the tragic shootings in Dayton and El Paso, a girlfriend and I mused about societal ills and what could possibly be done to make it stop. She said, “I believe we make this world better one kindness at a time.” I thought she echoed the rather famous quote, “Be a little kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

Three generations and — like every prior generation back to Adam and Eve and their troublesome sons — each suffered hard times. It’s anguish that gives a person a stiff spine, pain that drives someone to desperate learning, loss that teaches the infinite value of small kindnesses. The values my friends expressed — of humility, curiosity and empathy — comprise a resilient survivor, the very best dinner partner, the dearest friend.

Of course, I don’t remember not paying attention before, but watching and listening for signs — without fretting over the source — sometimes reveals flashes of hope as bright as the face of a sunflower at summer’s end.