You have a name for the voice inside of you.
Why do we live at a speed that prevents us from hearing it? Why does it speak only at its own pace? O, pride. What arrogance for us to assume the turning wisdom of the earth will adjust to our rhythms. If the gods could speak, would not their syllables more likely sound out in years, rather than seconds?
I watched him prepare to board. It was my last trip of the night, and only a few miles removed from the last stop; not many souls out here. He gathered his bags with urgent agility, the sure and capable grip of someone familiar with manual labor. There were scuffs and scratches on his skin I don’t think he noticed. A tall man but young, short-haired lithe, slim and ragged: a quiet midwestern soul whose next word you could never anticipate.
All epiphanies are whispers, my colleague Ernie Lawton told me one night. Wisdom needs something to take root in. It doesn’t come when you’re rushing ahead, and like most great things, it often happens when you’re not expecting it.
He was talking. He remembered me from before, somewhere. People remember me to a degree I’m surprised by. Two nights ago a man walked past my darkened bus on the street side, scream-musing to the universe as he pushed a shopping cart. He saw me in the gloom and the words came bursting out: “DIS GUY GOOD. HE ALWAYS ON THE MIC, LETTIN’ ‘EM KNOW. YOU GOOD, BRO, GOOD TO TH’ PEOPLE.”
Not what I was expecting!
Back to tonight, as I listen: “I finally got off the street,” he was explaining. He was off it, he was on again, an issue with a slumlord, trying to maintain… he paused before speaking again.
“Those people I was hangin’ around with, they know me the best of anyone else but they’re not necessarily the best influence, you know what I mean?”
Did I ever. I remember my high-school-aged self looking up at the moon as I walked with my friend group, wondering: Are there people out there who understand me better than this? Where will I find you?
“That’s hard,” I said. “It’s so easy to get pulled back in.” Now it was my turn to reflect before speaking. “It’s like that saying, somebody told me, we become most like the five people we hang out with the most often.”
I said it again. He grabbed one of his bags before it fell off the seat.
“Oh, yeah. That’s interesting. I haven’t heard that before.”
“Yeah so I try to be mindful of who I put around me, you know?”
“This is like the longest time I’ve spent not around other people.”
The pandemic blues. Isn’t it strange for society to be melancholy, and not just you? “Totally. And it’s especially hard these days…”
“Yeah. Like I’ve just been watching, like, YouTube videos.”
“Dude I know the feeling.”
Young people don’t often ask about others. He did. Was he older? “How’s COVID affected you outside of work?”
“Well, it’s kinda like you’re saying, I’ve noticed just a lotta people telling me about they’re feeling isolated. It’s such an interior time, isolated, even for folks that’s outside.”
“Yeah man. I was gonna, before the virus hit, I was all lined up to go the Redwood School of Botany.”
Young people will not always share with you their passions. They may be too scared, embarrassed, vulnerable. Reward it. Reward that risk, so they know there are people who won’t laugh.
“It’s the largest botanical horticultural school in the United States.”
“Oh awesome. And that’s such a beautiful area, the redwoods.”
“Yeah totally. It’s crazy now though. They had these fires down there, you know California, and a bunch of redwoods burned down, and get this, they were the oldest ones. Two thousand years old.”
The light was red. I turned around.
“Whaaat? That’s devastating!!”
“That was my reaction,” he said. “Some people I told about it to were like oh that sucks, but I was like–”
“Oh. Totally. It’s devastating.”
“Yeah it is. I mean, 2000 years.”
“Two thousand years!”
The light turned green. We trundled. This was the time for trundling, unhurried conversation in the neighborhood night.
He said, “So I was staying with these hippie guys out there–”
“Yeah. This that the other… I got stuck outside for two nights, and there was this redwood, super tall, and it’d been hit by lightning and the inside had died but the outside was still growing.”
He used his hands to help explain. “So the inside part was gone, was hollow but the outside was still a growing tree, and it was wide enough for me to lie down in the empty space inside.”
Let them know there are people who care. “Wow! That’s amazing! That’s really beautiful. How many people can say–”
“Yeah. And it was just… I know this might sound like, kinda–”
“Oh no, I get it. I remember standing under those redwoods, and you just feel it.”
“I always feel hesitant to say stuff like this to people out loud–”
“Dude no, I hear ya.”
We were cresting the wave.
He finished with, “but just saying the word redwood, I feel calmer.”
I breathed in. I exhaled the ocean of stress my personal life has been, the clutter of nonstop Doing. He hardly needed my help, my emotional supports. I needed his. He illuminated what I too often fail to keep in sight, surrounded as I am in the chaos-happy urban vortex. Even here you can slow down, build your peace. No need to live life in fifth gear. “Man, thank you,” I said. “I needed that reminder.” He had no idea.
“It is calming. Just thinking about them, out there. Man, I’m so glad you got on this bus, seriously.”
He smiled. The grin was a mixture, equal parts Not a Big Deal, and Thank You For Hearing Me. My soul breathed through me, suffused as it was with the image of sleeping inside a redwood as I trundled through rain-lit neon. When you feel like you belong amongst your friends, that’s special. You need that, sure.
But when you feel kinship with strangers, doesn’t matter who it is the person next to you, the smile that travels down your spine means something else. It calls you awake, deeply, and you know everything’s all right.
You belong amongst the World.
Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.