When six years ago a close relative succumbed to schizophrenia, withdrew from family contact because of paranoia, and started wandering around homeless, I could hardly bear my helplessness to make any difference in his life. So I began trying to make a difference in some other lives by having weekly coffee with individuals who have mental illnesses or who live in Seattle’s tent cities.
My past volunteering had always been as part of a group — sitting on a nonprofit board, phone-banking — the kind of thing you’re urged to do because “you feel good about yourself.” Socializing on my own with someone roped off in one of our society’s invisible ghettos is another sort of experience.
One day last year after Mina and I had our weekly coffee, I walked with her part way to the supermarket where she planned to buy some groceries. She reached into her shoulder bag to show me the vintage dime she’d found the day before and suddenly halted mid-stride, rummaging in its depths. "Oh, no!” she wailed. “Where’s my change purse?” Mina’s in no financial position to lose even a few coins.
Had she somehow dropped the purse at Bus Stop Espresso? We hurried back to the cafe, but nothing had been turned in. She dumped the contents of her bag onto a table, but the purse didn't tumble out. Then on impulse I reached inside the bag, and there, caught in a fold of the lining, was a small sack with coins in it. Mina hugged me ecstatically, saying "Thank you, thank you!” and added, almost to herself, “I don't always think you have my best interests in mind, but maybe you do."
“I don't always think you have my best interests in mind”? I’d spent an hour with Mina every week for almost a year, but still she didn’t know that her well-being is important to me. She obviously didn’t see me at all. The realization was startling to a red-blooded American narcissist with a lifelong need to perform in ways that might convince others of my worth.
From early childhood on my goal was to be the Second-Best Little Girl in the World (my mother held onto the Best Little Girl title until her death). I especially wanted to live up to the name my parents had given me in the expectation that I’d be the next Judy Garland. My radio career started on Philadelphia’s WIP with “Judy the Juvenile Jockey” on Sundays, for which I was a 6-year-old DJ with scripted patter, a changing program of records, and a radio audience of kids whose doting elders sent in fan mail and requests.
Then came TV. Watch cute little me eat canned Oscar Mayer hot dogs! Watch me toss my wee white gloves into the wonderful Bendix! Watch me sew on the Singer sewing machine a donkey could operate! For weekly Philadelphia Zoo shows I delivered my lines with well-practiced casualness, lobbed the ball python to the reptile house curator, made adorable faces at the camel, and became a pro with pancake makeup, eyelash curlers, perms, even girdles. As the camera swung in my direction I’d lick my lips for shine and blink for sparkle — it was all terrific preparation for a life of “I’m on, therefore I am.”
Glamor-girl dreams faded naturally as I aged, but a 35-year teaching career fed my addiction to performance, and the urge to impress people is still strong in me. I want others to think I’m smart, highly competent, and kind (as well as modest).
But Mina isn’t interested in knowing what sort of person I might be. I’m not part of the world that Gerald’s imagination inhabits. Benjamin is often so hung over he can hardly see, not to mention sleep-deprived because his bed’s under an I-5 overpass. Sometimes Alfred barely notices I’m there with him. And since I can’t solve their problems — they have incurable mental illnesses, or their material needs could make a Bernie Madoff weep — I can’t take pride in helping them change their lives.
What a relief! With my coffee companion, instead of “feeling good about myself” I can forget myself.
I can focus on the other person in the present moment, enjoying who's in front of me and a sense of liberation from the need to make a good impression or to steer the occasion toward the light. Americans spend fortunes to be instructed by gurus halfway around the world in the kind of freedom from ego demands that they can learn right here at home. They just need to meet for coffee once a week, open-hearted, with a person whose mind is truly different and of whom they hold zero expectations.
Curiously, knowing I can’t change Benjamin, Alfred, Gerald, or Mina makes me feel strong instead of helpless. I'm capable of sustaining my commitment to them in the absence of quid pro quo: even if they don't see or appreciate me, I can see and appreciate them.
So Mina’s on to something when she doesn’t think I always have her best interests in mind. After all, I don’t fully know what those might be. But I do know it seems in my own best interest to keep on spending an hour each week with her.