I walked in my chunky Mary Janes and my worn jeans and my favorite sweater through the outdoor market on a sidestreet next to a chocolate shop. It was only a glorified garage sale, with tables cobbled together and stacks of clothes and books, but it was in Paris, so it was charming. Chipped pottery. Rusty keys. Books stacked haphazardly to the overcast sky, daring us to brush by carelessly and topple ancient texts to the pavement.
I felt old like the books that day. Barely standing upright. In danger of falling to the earth. Brittle and fragile and more beautiful and wise than I could see.
I was dirty and rattled and deep in the throes of mental illness, although I hadn’t discovered it yet. I mean, I was on the brink of discovering it, filled to the brim with anxiety and rage and the teeniest bit of self-loathing which is like saying there’s the teeniest bit of cholera in the water; it doesn’t matter how much is there to start — it will pollute the whole damn thing and kill you regardless.
Yes, I was on the brink of discovering my depression in disguise, but I wasn’t there yet, and so I was still dying and not yet reborn but trying bravely to soldier on as though I wasn’t emotionally and spiritually bleeding out.
We were on vacation – the vacation of a lifetime – and the pressure to enjoy myself was fierce, though mostly from within.
How often do you visit Paris, Beth? PARIS. Geez. Seize the Day! Breathe it all in. Practice gratitude, for God’s sake. JUST BE MORE GRATEFUL already.
But, of course, I couldn’t give myself credit for being merely mindful of gratitude. For trying. No; I had to TRIUMPH at gratitude. WIN at gratitude. Beat myself with the gratitude stick until I was bruised and battered and had the joy in my heart to prove it. Like making a child both apologize and mean it, which is, of course, impossible, and yet we insist upon it. You will apologize to your sister for licking her doll again AND YOU WILL MEAN IT, except the Adult Gratitude Version is you will recognize not everyone gets to do this/have this/experience this, and you will be HAPPY YOU DO because we lie and tell ourselves that acts of contrition and mindful gratitude are nothing unless we can conjure the right feelings to accompany them, which is, of course, bullshit.
I wandered through the market that day and lost my companions to the tables that beckoned them. Old records. New scarves. And me to the middle-aged woman in the frumpy coat on the low-slung chair selling jewelry. Nothing vintage. Nothing from old Parisian estates. Just a few earrings carved from wood, some found agates strung into necklaces, and a polished rock or two.
My daughter came over and we haggled for earrings – the woman without English and me without French – over a small piece of paper with a pencil, writing small numbers back and forth until we agreed. The money changed hands, and I found myself with a little package in my hands, and then, because I was weary to my soul, I muttered something uncharitable to my kid about how we probably could’ve worn her down even more on price. It was a small and petty thing to say, and also probably untrue, but I consoled myself with the fact that I’d said it quietly and I’d smiled at the woman and she’d smiled back, and I turned to go which is when the woman stood and reached across the table and grabbed my smooth hand with her wrinkled one.
She grabbed my hand and held it in hers and looked at my eyes and gestured to the table between us, saying something earnestly in French.
I didn’t understand, so she said it again, but no luck or Babel Fish or translator appeared so she held my hand tighter in one of hers while she lifted a small, blue, stone pendant off the table with the other, and she held it out to me to see. I agreed it was pretty, but shook my head to tell her no; I was done purchasing for the day. Still, she wouldn’t let me leave until she pressed the stone into the hand she held and closed my fist over it. Then she shooed me away.
I finally got it.
A gift, she was saying.
I said no, no with my mouth and my gestures; I couldn’t accept. I’d spent what? $5? $6? on the earrings. A “gift with purchase” made no sense. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
A gift, she insisted while she held my eyes, the pendant inside my fist.
I said, Merci and Thank You, and I left, wiping away sudden tears that confused me.
In the years since I took her gift and walked away, I’ve wondered why she did it. Whether she heard my unkindness and chose to repay me with love anyway, which is the best kind of miracle I know. Whether she simply recognized I was lost and offered what she had to light my way home. Whether any part of her knew how much I’d come to treasure that stone and use it to remind myself to see people, too, the way she saw me that day at the market. To choose kindness to the stranger. To treat strangers like friends. And to believe, always, that the small lights we shine help each other find our way home.