While standing on the sidewalk near my front yard on a muggy, steamy July day, I noticed a woman approaching from the street. Her rotund body was encased in a long multi-colored skirt and baggy light green top, with a white flower placed neatly on the left side of her brown hair. She was carrying a small zipped case with a University of Minnesota logo on it. She appeared headed for a transitional group home for mentally ill adults next door to our house. We exchanged greetings, then she came closer to continue the conversation.
“Do you know the secret of life?” she asked nonchalantly.
“Oh do you know what it is?’ I responded, taken aback by the bold introductory question.
“Do you want me to tell you?”
For some reason, I didn’t pursue the answer then. “Do you live in the group home?” I asked instead.
She nodded and a slight smile of relief creased her round face. “I am getting out of here tomorrow,” she said, after three months. “I will be so glad to be free from addicts and alcoholics. Society doesn’t treat mentally people very well. I’ve been in the hospital. I’ve been in jail. I just want to be free.”
The key to peace
As she talked, I noticed a tattoo on her left arm, and, in particular, a small key with a peace sign on it that hung around her neck. I asked her about it.
“This is the key to peace,” she said, pulling it forward to give a better view. In response to my question, she named the shop in St. Paul where she got it – a small New Age place called Gypsy Moon.
I complimented her on the key, noting that I might want to get one like it.
She showed me another small item dangling from her dress. “Do you know what this is? It’s a dream catcher.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Do you know what it means?”
“I know it has Native American origin.”
“It catches the nightmares and traps them and lets out the good dreams for positive energy.”
“I wrote a poem about peace,” she said, lifting up the bottom of her dress on her left leg to show me the engraved words on her thigh. “Do you want to hear it.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I need a smoke,” she remarked, starting to walk towards the group home. “If you want to continue talking you can sit with me.”
Despite the stifling heat that tried to drive me away, I followed her to the front step of the group home next to a smoking pole. She lit up a cigarette as mosquitos began to buzz around her.
She began to tell more about her recent past. She wrote the poem after breaking up with a long-time boyfriend who had abused her. “He hit me. Once were driving and he started speeding and said he was going to drive off a cliff. I mean wouldn’t you be bothered by someone who called you names and abused you? I finally had to break up with him just a few days ago. I wrote a poem about that”
“Is that the one on your leg?”
“Yeah. I have it written down.” She reached in her purse and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper and read the poem. I don’t recall all of the words but I remember her making an analogy to a pine tree and broken love, and that it had a poetic syntax that resonated with me. I complimented her on it telling her she had a talent for poetry.
Taking another drag on her cigarette, she gazed straight ahead with a somber expression, referring to her ex-boyfriend. “He is an alcoholic and a drug addict and a drug dealer. But lately, I saw a sadness in his face.”
A chance to meet
“It’s been great to talk to you,” I offered. “We have lived here a long time and have seen lots of residents from here come and go but have not had a chance to meet many of them. We’ve been here since about 1993.”
“I was 13 years old then,” she said. “I’m thirty one now. ”
“Do you have a place to go when you leave here?” I asked.
“Yeah. I found a place in Prospect Park (the neighborhood next to mine). My mother helped me. She is an alcoholic, but is trying to reform.
“Do you know what you want to do with your life?” I asked.
“I want to help bring world peace,” she said.
I nodded in agreement, acknowledging that was one of my life goals, as well.
“The mosquitos are eating me up,” she said. “I need to go in.” She got up and walked to the door then paused and repeated the question we began with.
“Do you know the secret of life?”
“What is it?” I asked.
She stopped for a minute undoubtedly reflecting on the lessons learned from her hardscrabble past. “The secret of life” she said emphatically, “is ‘living.’ ”
I thought about that for a minute as I waved good-bye to her.
“Best wishes on your journey,” I called out. “I’m a peace activist myself,” you know,” wanting to establish that connection before she left.
“Peace be with you,” she answered, opening the door.
“And you,” I said as parting words.
The flower children
As I reflected on our meeting, a strange sense of dÃ©jÃ vu came over me. Here was a woman born long after the 1960s. Yet, she reminded me so much of the flower children of that generation in appearance and in the way she was living her life. She had found a way to turn her adversity into caring about something much larger than herself — peace in the world, which bonded us in cause and spirit. (I resolved to find one of those key chains.)
The week I met her had been a reflective one for me emotionally and I had thought often about the meaning and purpose of life but hadn’t resolved the question. Then I met a flower child and I had my answer.