A handful of years ago, I found myself waiting on a bench at a bus stop in MA, when a weathered, maybe young, maybe middle-aged man sat down next to me. We soon struck up a conversation, as I was curious about the assortment of craft materials he was pulling out of his bag. He proceeded to tell me a considerably involved story about how his ex-wife had kicked him out of the house and out of his daughter’s life, and how he had been homeless and couch surfing on-and-off for some time. In the course of these nomadic years, he had discovered how to create dreamcatchers from materials he gathered on the streets. He used thread unraveled from an old pair of jeans, washers dug out of the trash, and bits of feathers and bling found along the road. I had always wanted to make my own dreamcatcher, and as he talked, he also began to teach me. He generously shared his materials and assisted me in creating this simple design:
When it was time for us to go our separate ways, we said goodbye with a hug. I was thankful for the gift, and he was grateful for the listening. He smelled strongly of the streets, and I could intuit from his story that he had not treated his loved ones well in the past. This was not a person I would invite further into my life. And yet, I will never forget him or his patient teaching. I won’t forget his resourcefulness, how he made beauty out of what the rest of us throw away, how he learned from and connected to an indigenous tradition that goes back countless generations. The dreamcatcher we made together still hangs next to my bed and catches my dreams years later.
Here’s the other side of the story: he wasn’t yet able to take responsibility for the pain he had caused. He still blamed other people for his own destructive behavior. From what I could gather, there was good reason for his ex-wife to not tolerate contact by him. Was this a bad person who could do some art? Was this an artist who had done bad things? My answer is this: we are all everything. We contain all the shadow and all the light there can possibly be. Instead of judging ourselves or others, can we receive and appreciate the true gifts while also establishing clear boundaries where we need them? Can we invite the compassionate heart that also knows how to say no?
Humans are messy and paradoxical. Each one has a jewel inside, rare and beautiful. Each one casts a shadow, dark and sometimes hurtful. Love means committing to seeing the light, and it means stepping away when we need to. Finding the proper distance from which we can feel compassion is a delicate dance. But one worth every song.
If you’re having trouble negotiating closeness and distance in relationships with other complex human beings, you are not alone. Support is available here, not to tell you what to do but to redirect you towards your own intuition and wisdom on these matters. Maybe you’ll even find the answers you need on the streets or in a dream. If you ask for help, it is sure to arrive somehow.