I was having a beer with a friend of mine on the streets of Oslo, it was raining that day, I can’t say how much I hate European rain, it’s too cold, it’s too windy and the temperature gets under your skin. We were sitting outside this bar with an umbrella covering that kept away the water but not the wind or the spray or the life in the rain.
A woman passed by or tried to, she was shaking and freezing, she didn’t seem to feel the wet slicking off the sky onto the streets, onto her body, into her clothes. And she walked slowly, so very slowly. She had a cigarette in her mouth and she looked for a lighter, she put her hands into her wet clothes and searched, a slow search since her strength seemed to have failed her. For every step forward she had to take a couple back, baby steps, little, tiny steps of pain and exhaustion. We stopped talking and just watched. It didn’t feel like we were making a spectacle of her grief just giving the moment the silence it deserved, the solemnity it required.
My friend asked her if she wanted a lighter and she nodded.
It looked like all she could do. Nod.
Then she lit her cigarette and sat down beside us. She looked in her forties or fifties, she was one of those people who seemed beaten by life, her age wasn’t written in her skin but in the way she stood and the way she walked. Even with the freshness of a 17 year old she would still have looked fifty. She had a purple patch on her left eye and a jacket that had seen better days. She didn’t look like she herself had seen any for a long time
She smoked but could derive no pleasure from it. It was a routine. An addict’s conviction that one smoke can make things feel better, but it doesn’t always. Sometimes all it is a routine, a matter of custom, something you have always done. Looking in the mirror and saying everything will be ok but without the conviction necessary to convince yourself of this fact.
She trembled then she began to speak to my friend. She spoke in Norwegian so I couldn’t understand but pain needs no translation, her voice was shaking, trembling, breaking under the strain of a million souls on a million marches and she needed to talk.
Once in a while she would be overcome with what she was saying she would shake even more violently and begin to sob then stop herself. Am not really sure she could stop herself maybe she was just too tired with the effort it required. Maybe for this act she could see that unlike the cigarette a matter of routine, a set custom wouldn’t help anything. Tears don’t always unlock the pain we have and sorrow is not a liquid that we can squeeze out with eyes shut so we don’t have to see where it goes. Maybe she just thought the world was crying enough for her that day.
I had been happy for some time by that day. Filled with the conviction that there are times when your lot in life is to spread joy, to smile and bring happiness to places that don’t have enough. But a smile then would have been horrible. Empathy and compassion were needed. I couldn’t understand the specifics of what she said but I could understand what she said. Sorrow does not need a translation.
She needed to talk then and maybe she did have a lighter within easy reach but knew that the only way to talk to strangers in Norway is to be offered a light. The rain kept pattering. It kept falling down the streets, it kept up its cold as she told her story.
She would sigh.
Then she would continue. I looked at her and studied her face. The purple bruise over her eye, the coat she was wearing, the way she talked and I asked myself why life does this to people. Why it brings things to this desperate edge where the edge in a voice is all that’s needed to convey the deepest anguish.
I thought of a poem I had recently read, The Prophet by Khalil Ghabrain where he writes:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And what if my purpose in life then was to take in her sorrow. To give solace when it is needed. Not to bring joy but to mitigate pain. To make it feel felt, to feel it too and let her know that she was not alone. What if the turning down of my candle of joy, making it ten shades darker so that a vacuum of loneliness could be one iota more bearable was the true thing I was supposed to do? Some people do this all their lives. They put themselves on the back burner, they can be happy but choose not to in order to take away some of the world’s pain. Choosing a life they know will take them to dark places and leave them grey, blue and bruised. Not full anymore, not as happy as they could be. That’s true sacrifice and being confronted with it am not sure I could make it.
She jingled some coins in her hand and began counting them out. 20 kroner, 40 kroner, 60 kroner, shaking them into her hands, trembling them onto her fingers. She offered them to me and said something. My friend said that I could only speak English. So she asked if she could buy my beer. I offered her the rest of mine. As soon as I did I questioned myself. One more good intention, more firm planting on the road to hell. I wanted to be kind but is it right to give someone so sad, so obviously in need of something, anything else, more alcohol. She finished off the gulp remaining. And offered back a cigarette. I said no.
We sat a little longer in silence then she got up to go. I looked after her as she left and saw that beneath the jacket she had on a dinner dress. A black affair that you could wear to any state dinner in the world, she had heels on too. Take off the jacket, cover up the bruise and she would be instantly transformed. Take away the tremor cover up the pain and we would never know what was going on.