Changed for Good

As you would expect from a seaside holiday town, there are many little cafes in Sandown. I try to use as many as possible, the seasonal nature of the Island making it so difficult for small businesses to survive. I have my favourites, usually dictated by the places I can get a good cup of strong, fresh coffee. Each café has its regulars, and in one of my own haunts, there is a lady by the name of Julia who visits daily at around three o’clock in the afternoon. She normally has only a cup of tea or coffee and always sits at the little table just inside the door. Julia is old; she struggles with her movement, walking with a stick that her hands cannot hold because they are arthritic and painfully gnarled; the stick is more of a crutch with a sling that she slips her arm through, enabling her fingers to remain free but giving her the support she needs.

Each afternoon, she makes her way slowly down the hill of the high street, unsteadily climbing the couple of steps into the café and resting down, with some relief, in her favoured chair. Almost before she has fully settled the proprietor sets her drink down on her table – so expected and familiar is this daily routine. Julia almost always has the right change.

I had started to worry about whether Julia had people around her; if she was alone in life and that this faithful daily pilgrimage to the café was a search for human company. One afternoon I was cheered to see a friend join Julia at her tiny table by the door, both of them happily chatting.

Our bonds with others are mysterious things. Julia, although we have never spoken, has become part of that inner role call of ‘others’ that work upon my thoughts and feelings, helping to shape and reshape me from day to day. We can never truly know the full extent of our impact on other’s lives, of how much we would be missed if we had not been present. A passing smile or gesture of support for a stranger might change the course of their day, a change that has its own rippling effects in their lives. And if this is possible with only the briefest and transient of encounters, how much more extraordinary and life-altering are those connections that endure.

I do not know for sure if our coming together with other souls is chance or something more inevitable. It might be that each subtle choice or decision we make moves us ever further from some possible encounters whilst ever closer to others. And yet, there are people who enter our worlds whose impact feels undeniably fated, as if no choice or decision we made along that meandering trail of our past could have knocked that meeting off course. All paths lead here, and although they might appear to have spiralled along the way, doubled back or drifted hopelessly off their mark, something about those relationships has an aim as true as the straightest line and when they eventually find their target we are powerless not to be changed by them. Life and circumstance – through a complex thread of events and choices – brings each of us together and can pull us apart in equally mysterious ways. The relationships that are the most potentially transformative will always bring us to a fork on our path, confronting us with possibilities, challenging our fears and waking us from the sleep of our mundane perceptions.

These deep encounters can be ones of undeniable joy or gut churning turmoil – sometimes both. They often bring us into the most shockingly intimate and terrifying encounters with ourselves; all that has laid dormant, hidden or ignored comes startlingly into view; all that we might have banished to the margins or felt only dimly in the periphery, moving into our eye-line, as irresistible as the gaze of Medusa.

Medusa turned her victims to stone with her gaze and these encounters can often make clear the places within us that have ossified; we are forced to break those hardened shells or like the beings frozen by the Gorgon’s stare risk being left painfully suspended and contorted by stasis. Those that touch our lives in the deepest sense reflect back to us the unseen pieces of ourselves, gifting us with the opportunity to uncover a more whole and complete picture; our colours become richer; our definition more firmly drawn; the composition a little more complex and yet paradoxically simpler and truer than before.

There are people in all our lives, both past and present, who by some miracle of circumstance found us. The meeting is only the beginning; whether that encounter is brief or enduring; whether it is loving and helps us to flourish or darkly painful and brings us to our knees, it will surely become a part of the core fabric of who we are. We are at once alone and singularly ourselves and yet woven intimately into the life and beings of others. This strange blending of our aloneness and our closeness can open us utterly, if we let it…and whatever the outcome, we can be sure that we will indeed be changed for good…

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