Face #12: Carmen

For the past couple of weeks, I have been working at a little boutique in a local mall. Carmen is the manager. But she is so much more than that label. She is kind and gentle. Hazel-eyed. Petite. Smiling and cautious. Talkative. Adventurous and anxious. She’s quite the paradox, and utterly lovely.

Carmen loves pearls and stud earrings. Desserts make her particularly happy, especially when she bakes them. She’s a dreamer. She longs to open her own store and to design interior items. Travelling is at the top of her bucket list. France, Italy, Spain…backpacking through Europe.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have come to care so much about her. She seems like she just needs someone to talk to, to tell someone about herself and her dreams. It’s a lonely job. I can attest to that. You spend hours by yourself. When you see a customer, you are so pleased that you just about tell them your life story.

Carmen has gently placed pieces of her puzzle in my hands, and I have tried to put that puzzle together. There is such a beauty to her. There is also such a beauty in getting to know people, their puzzles, their stories. There is an even greater beauty in making people feel loved and accepted, even if only for five minutes of their story.

Carmen does that. She listens. Accepts. Most people often simply need someone to talk to.

Recently, I was watching a documentary. The last line of the documentary is:

“Sometimes you have to ask yourself which part of someone’s day you want to be.”

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Face #11: Wilfred

Today, my dad and I decided to take a walk around a local nature reserve as part of an effort to get fit! We decide to get fit every year and it is usually forgotten about after a week or two. Nevertheless, as part of our tradition, we began the ‘get fit’ regime with enthusiasm and went for a short hike. At this time of year, Pretoria is especially beautiful. We walked through pathways of little yellow and purple flowers. Everything is greener. Fresher.

He was standing on a small bridge. Cigarette in hand. Leaning against one of the wooden poles with a kind smile on his face. Not one hair on his head. Circular glasses and grey braces. He seemed to have walked straight out of an era long forgotten as he nodded his head at us as we passed. I liked him instantly.

My dad and I could not decide which way to go. We heard him ask whether or not we had been to the nature reserve before. I detected a rich German accent. We chatted to him for about fifteen minutes. He told us about his favourite nature reserves and how much he loves his walks. He suggested a beautiful route through the reserve.

His name is Wilfred. He has a firm handshake and warm crinkles around his eyes.

We were walking through the picnic area about an hour later when we came across Wilfred sitting at one of the benches. Cigarette in hand. Staring at something in the distance.

“Wilfred!”

“Ah, hallo! You walked very quickly! These days… I can’t walk so quickly. But, I still come here every day.”

“It is a beautiful nature reserve!”

“It is indeed. Have you seen the zebras? I like to greet them. I say: ’Hallo!’”

He continued to chat to my dad. I stood there watching them chat, laugh, connect. I don’t really remember what they were chatting about. I do, however, remember their happiness. The glow of reaching out and reaching back.

“We’re each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Face #9: Jan

A security guard at the estate where I live.

Jan loves jazz. He wears a shiny black cap on sunny days. He always rubs his hands together and nods when he greets people. He is tall and lean. Gangly with a caramel complexion. Serious eyes peer at me from their wrinkled cases. But he very rarely smiles.

We greet each other every day. He rubs his hands and nods. I can hear his strong accent.

“Have a nice day.”

One day, I was on my way home from university. I was playing some jazz music in my car. I arrived at the estate gate and rolled down my window to greet Jan. Suddenly a wide toothless grin burst onto his face.

“You like jazz?”

“I LOVE jazz Jan!! Do you like it too?”

“I do! I do!”

When I arrived at the gate about two days ago, I was playing jazz music in my car again. I saw that Jan was on duty and turned the music up. I rolled down my window.

“Here’s some jazz music for you Jan!!”

“Ahhhh!”

And there he stood. Smiling that rare smile.

Face #8: Elsemarie

A woman in my psychology class. She is a free spirit. She is brown eyes and colourful scarves. A tinkling laugh and curiosity. A student. A mother. A friend.

I was sitting alone at one of the coffee shops on campus. I looked up from my book to see her floating towards me. A smile on her face. The same clip holding her hair behind her left ear. It is generally rather awkward when you’re at a coffee shop and you see someone you know…who you don’t really know. You get up to say hello.

*Should I invite her to join me? Will she want to join me? What if she came here to just relax by herself? I should ask. Should I ask? What if she feels pressured?*

“Hello there! I know you! Yes! We’re in the same psychology class, aren’t we?”

“Hello! Yes! Yes we – ”

“Ah, I thought I recognised you! Are you having lunch?”

“Just drinking some coffee and – ”

“Alright! Well! Shall we sit together then?”

“That sounds lovely!”

We chatted for about an hour. About her first degree and her current degree. About her passion for learning. Her passion for helping people. Books. Reading. Her family and children. About my hopes. My favourite things. Family. Music. Tea.

She absolutely loves random facts. She loves learning about things which enrich life. I remember one fact particularly well because it just struck me as applicable to life in general. I want to share it with you!

“Whenever you feel down, detached…slightly disconnected, you must go outside after a lightning storm, find a patch of grass and take off your shoes. Sink your feet into the grass. Feel it. You will feel rejuvenated.”

I smiled. Something about that tasted so fresh, so free.

I cannot remember all of the details very well, but apparently the lightning fills the earth with a kind of chemical ‘zing’ which goes through your feet and into your body. These chemicals re-energise the body and the mind. It was something along those lines. Something wonderful.

So when you’re feeling too caught up in life…perhaps all you need is a lightning storm, a patch of cool grass and bare feet.

Face #4: Joe

One of the security guards of the estate where I live. Tall and smiling. A round belly pushing at the buttons of his faded white shirt. Gleaming teeth contrasting with a smooth, coffee-coloured face. Warm eyes sparkling behind thick round glasses.

I arrived at our estate quite late one evening after a very long day. I was feeling down…listless and discouraged. I was playing loud upbeat music in my car in order to lift my mood. It was not working. The gate opened and I rolled my window down to greet Joe.

He was dancing! Jiggling! Jiving to the ridiculously loud music I was playing. There he was at 10pm on a Monday evening. The memory seems so surreal. The orange glow of the estate lights. The little bugs buzzing around the street lamps behind me. The joyful man enfolding me in his glee.

I sat there as the boom opened and closed in front me, staring and smiling at him. He said: “Ah, but this music is good! You always play such nice music and I always want to dance. So, tonight I am dancing!”

His eyes closed. He smiled and swayed.

The moment was so simple and so happy.

Life’s too short to not dance to the music.

Face #3: Ashley

A student who came running into my office once. I saw her again on Friday morning. Petite and powerful. Concerned, restless brown eyes with fairy eyelashes. Olive skin. A forehead all crinkled up with anxiety. Dark hair which is mahogany in the sunlight. Nervous. Vulnerable. Determined.

She hurried into my office on a quiet Thursday afternoon. She was a gust of energetic intensity waving papers and throwing questions into the air. I wondered when she was going to breathe. An anxious hour passed. And I am not even sure what questions I really answered. Every time I tried, her words were stumbling out of her mouth as she asked me a new question. Reflecting back on that moment, I think she probably just needed someone to reassure her that everything would be okay. I wish I had done that. I was too busy trying to make sure that I taught her all she needed to know. The sad part? She knew all of her work already. She left my office with a heavy backpack and an even heavier heart.

I saw her again on Friday morning. I was sitting on the steps outside our Humanities building when I saw her rushing towards me. She sat down right next to me and began unloading. I took her load away from her and put it on the steps next to me.

We put our arms around each other and remained still amidst the bustling throng filtering out of lecture halls.

Face #2: Hayati

An old craftsman I bumped into on Monday evening while I was having coffee with two dear friends.  As I sit at my computer, he illuminates my imagination the way short bursts of lightning illuminate muggy evenings. A shiny caramel complexion and short dark hair. A few strands of grey in his beard. A broad and toothy grin which makes him seem much younger than he is. Only one crooked tooth which proudly pushes in front of the rest. Smiling. Luminescent.

I was chatting to my friends about something or other and suddenly burst into song (as is my habit). Hayati was walking past our table, stopped and said: “Ah! Sing more! I want to hear!” I stopped singing and, smiling shyly, acted like a clown in shoes far too big for her feet. We saw Hayati a few more times that evening. He eventually sat down at the table next to ours and offered to buy us all drinks. We thanked him but said that we had had enough to drink. It’s sad to live in a world in which we might be thinking: “I better not accept that drink…You never know what a stranger wants.” I know I thought it.

Hayati suddenly looked incredibly sad. He looked at me and shook his head. He said: “I don’t know why people don’t want to connect with other people.” His hand dropped to his side. “I just want to be kind, to talk to you, to connect.” Lovely kind eyes were looking at me – looking through me.

We landed up chatting to him for the rest of the evening. He told us about his life, his experiences, and asked us about ours. He left Turkey in 1992 and immigrated to South Africa. He is a craftsman and started a small business which he has developed over the past 22 years. He works in Johannesburg. I can tell you his story, which was fascinating in itself, but what I really want to share with you are the gems that fell out of the pages.

I can still hear his delicious accent.

“Over the years, I have been lucky to do what I love to do. It’s because I made a decision.”

 “The thing is, we’re all given gifts. Depending on what you do with that gift, you become a hero or an asshole.”

“Life is too f**king short to not love people, to not connect with people.”

“I should have died 9 times by now. I think I must still have work to do.”

“Why is it all about the material, the material, the material? It does not matter what you have. They’re just things. People. People matter more.”

When it was time to leave, I turned to Hayati and gave him a hug. He was glowing. He had reached out. And someone had reached back.

Words seem inadequate when someone is unabashedly raw and unguarded, when someone shows you their indentations, their cracks, their beauty.

Today, I googled what ‘Hayati’ means in English.

‘Hayat’ means ‘life’.

Face #1: Sam

The man who looks after my car every day when I park outside of the university.He wears a hat on sweltering days. He limps every day. His face is weathered. It looks like a map; there are lines going in every direction imaginable. They confirm his pain, his heartache, his laughter, his age.

I think he irritates people sometimes. When people get out of their cars and seem to be in a hurry, he tells them to get back into their cars and to park straighter. People awkwardly get back into their cars, straighten out, and run to class because they are even later for whatever they were initially late for. I know this because he has done this to me a couple of times. First reaction? Probably irritation. I think he asks us to park straighter so that more cars can fit into the parking area he looks after…He wants more tips. He needs more tips. More tips for what? Perhaps food to keep the hunger pangs at bay for one night. Perhaps alcohol. Perhaps a new hat to shelter an old and vulnerable head. Perhaps something, anything at all, to make his life a little easier for a little while.

I was waiting for an elevator on Thursday morning with a man delivering a huge arrangement of flowers. One of the flowers, a beautiful carnation, fell out of the arrangement. The man picked it up, put it in my hands and smiled. He said: “Today is your lucky day.” I had just been commenting on the beauty of the flowers. I carried that carnation with me the whole day. Spring itself was in my hands.

On my way to my car that afternoon, I saw Sam waiting by my car. I gave him a tip and started putting my things in my car and then I stopped. I looked at him, looked at my beautiful carnation and asked: “Would you like this flower?” For the first time, I saw a wide, toothless grin appear on his lovely lined face. He held out his hands, and I gave him Spring.

But you know what? In that instant, he also became Spring. He bloomed.

People are the real flowers.