Sunday, December 15, 2013

Conversations About Angels

This past fall, I got to talking with a dear friend about angels.

She told me some pretty amazing stories about interventions in her life--no-win situations that had every potential to leave her emotionally eviscerated, physically hurt, or even dead when someone had come to her rescue. Police officers. People on the street. Faces she’d never seen before and never saw again that did and said something fundamentally important at a fundamentally important time.

She called these people angels.

The skeptic in me balked at the terminology. Selfless, good people, I’ll grant you. Fortuitous timing, absolutely. I’ll even grant the label of hero. But angels?

Like a good friend will, she pushed me on this point. She asserted that I, too, must have been helped by angels, only I didn’t notice them or recognize them as such. She went on to say that I’d probably served as an angel for others.

I reflected on these points for a period of days. Took a step back from my skepticism about all things magical or supernatural to wrap my head around what she was really saying. How little it had to do with religious iconography or mystical beings, as opposed to the brand of spiritualism I’m more comfortable with: that people are interconnected and that a larger force (be it karma, God, or the gestalt of the human experience) is steering us toward something good, or just, or balanced.

As such meditations tend to go for me, the point led to a lot of personal reflection.

I thought about how rarely I ask for help.

A detour: In my youth, my father illustrated one of the differences between my older sister and I. That when she learned to speak, her first catchphrase was, “Do self,” meaning that she didn’t want my parents’ help--she wanted to do things on her own, whether it was walking from place to place, turning on the faucet on the kitchen sink or feeding herself. By contrast, my father said I wanted things done for me.

There’s a lot packed into that designation. I remember one of the times my father made this point--certainly not the first. I had what was probably my first experience of turning something that made me uncomfortable into a joke (one of my signature social tics). I feigned laziness and said, “Sure, why wouldn’t you want someone to do things for you?”

But putting aside that verbal reaction, I also think that this was a key moment in teaching me independence. Good, to a point, because solving my own problems paved the way to a number of leadership roles and living as a pretty self-reliant adult.

But one can be independent to a fault. I recall the time I was in the seventh grade Shop class and struggled mightily for my utter lack of intuition about mechanics and using tools, and how I hid my lack of progress building a clock rather than asking the teacher or friends for help. I recall however many dozens, if not hundreds of times I got lost in the period between getting my driver’s license and getting my first GPS, and how many accumulated hours I might have lost for my resistance to stopping to ask for directions.

What’s all that have to do with angels?

Angels, in the spirit my friend suggested, are people who help in times of need. There’s an implication of divine intervention, but a more concrete sense that help can come to those who need it.

I’ve made a life of not needing help. Guarding myself, planning meticulously, finding my own way through jams that others probably could have helped me through. And so arose a pretty clear explanation for why I wouldn’t have seen angels.

My friend suggested that if I reflected enough upon it, I would recognize those times when angels helped me. Or that one might reveal itself now that I was looking.

I thought more.

And I remembered.

I remembered a late spring afternoon in middle school when a friend and I walked around our neighborhood, only to get jumped by a group of older bullies in Halloween masks. They didn’t do much more than push us around before we ran away, but we ran in the opposite direction of home, and were fully conscious of the likelihood that our tormenters were waiting for us to double back.

So we rang a doorbell. An old woman let us inside. She cast a wary eye outdoors and observed that the older boys were, indeed, waiting for us around the corner.

I’d never met this woman before. To my knowledge, I never saw her again. But she let us out her backdoor to cut across her backyard, shaving invaluable yardage and time off our journey home. To this day I’ve never been a true physical fight. In retrospect there’s every possibility that woman saved me from a beating.

I remembered another time, further back. In one of the traumas of my childhood, from June to August of my elementary school years, I took early morning swimming lessons at the local public pool. Each summer ended with a pizza party. On one such occasion, I got in line with the rest of the kids, got myself a couple slices of pie and met up with my father. He was infuriated that I hadn’t picked up any pizza for him. He yelled at me and cursed, then stormed off to enter the pizza line on his own.

And I stood there alone, having lost any semblance of appetite. I threw away what was left of my pizza and stood apart from the rest of the kids, staring at the ground, doing all I could to keep from crying.

One of the lifeguards came up to me. A large black man I’d seen around the pool all summer but never interacted with. He asked if I was OK. I nodded. He asked if I had gotten any pizza. I nodded again.

He stood by me. I don’t think he said a word, and he didn’t hug me or anything so sentimental as that. But he stayed long enough for me to choke back all those beginnings of tears and see clearly again.

A child’s perspective is screwy. Months blur together. Mere minutes seem like they dragged on forever. I have no idea how long that lifeguard stood by me, but I remember that I wasn’t so upset when father came back with his plate of food, and that he’d cooled off, too. I remember the rest of that end of summer party by the pool proceeding without event.

An old woman lets a couple nerds escape bullies by darting through her yard. A lifeguard asks a visibly distraught kid if he’s OK. If you don’t believe I was visited by angels, I don’t blame you. The truth is, I’m not so sure myself.

But I do know that in those moments when I needed help, I found it. That I didn’t know so much as the name of the people who saved me, and don’t think I could pick either of them out of a crowd today. But that they nonetheless existed. And that I’m thankful for them.

I first drafted this post on the heels of my conversations about angels. In deciding when to post it, the holiday season seemed both poignant and a bit contrived. But as I considered the scheduling further, I thought of the angels we see atop Christmas trees. Angels lining front yards. Angels hovering outside windows in made for TV movies.

I thought of all these consumer-brand angels. And I thought of the angels my friend insisted upon. The ones I’m starting to believe in.

I thought about angels and thought it might be worth reminding you, dear reader, that angels just might be more than branded goods and figments of the imagination. And if they are there, I’m pretty sure their existence transcends the month of December.

Be at peace, friends. Happy holidays.

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