Hi there. Nice to see you again.
A few days ago, I bumped into Faith. D and I were walking down 8th Avenue, on our way to the 50th Street C/E subway stop. As usually happens with Faith, he appeared when I needed him most. I was ruminating on something of little significance. Frustration had tagged guilt, and now they were running circles around each other without knowing who was It – an absolutely pointless game with no possible winners.
Luckily, Faith stepped in and rescued me from myself. He was crouched on the Southwest corner of 51st. I noticed his shoe first, a well-worn white-ish sneaker sitting on the sidewalk next to a plastic Dunkin' Donuts cup with a dollar in it. My eyes panned left, and there he was, wearing a tattered blue t-shirt and jeans, hunched in a squat with his arms wrapped around his legs, staring at something on the sidewalk. As we crossed 51st, the something came into view.
It was a cross. A cross made of coins. A holy image constructed from spare change. Pennies formed a center cross, framed by an outer cross of silver, and there he sat, Faith, just looking at it, lost in it, whispering indecipherable words.
The image jolted me out of whatever had consumed me a second before. These words, from Autumn, by Ali Smith, capture it:
"...[I]t feels like you've been given a gift, or a chance, or that you yourself've been singled out and chosen by the moment."
We walked past him, but I couldn’t simply continue on my way. Faith called to me. I asked D to wait a minute as I pulled out my wallet. In typical fashion, I had zero bills. However, saving grace, I did have a few coins, which was exactly what I was hoping for anyway.
I pulled out a penny and walked back to Faith. I crouched down across from him and carefully placed the penny at the top of his cross. Without looking up, he said softly, “God bless you.”
As I stood, I heard him say more, but it slipped past my ears.
“What was that?” I said.
Faith looked up at me for the first time, slowly, as if it took every ounce of energy he had. His eyes were surprisingly light and just a bit clouded. Those eyes had seen a lot. They held the weight of the world, yet they radiated. My soul caught in my throat. He said something I still couldn’t quite catch, followed by another “God bless you.” The smile in my heart spread to my face. He added, “And you have a beautiful smile.”
I looked in those sad, hopeful, empty, full eyes. Faith-full eyes. I think I said “Thank you” or “God bless you, too,” but I have no idea. I hope I did. Maybe I wasn’t in a place to form words. Either way, I added the other three coins I had in my wallet – two dimes and a nickel – to the plastic cup and, as I walked away, Faith said softly, “Have a nice day.”
My father is the son of a preacher man. Basically. He was an altar boy and the son of an Episcopal priest. My mother grew up Catholic. Yet, in the Wolff house, God rarely made his presence known directly. Spirituality was often present in acts of generosity and kindness, in appreciation of simple things, in belief in greater connection to something that none of us really understood but knew was out there. In faith.
We shared prayers for those in need, but not in an organized way. We went to church when we visited grandparents, and we all seemed to enjoy it overall. Okay, truth be told, I was grateful when Grandfather wasn't the one giving the sermon, as he didn't make it very entertaining at all. Still, I loved singing, I loved tipping the holy golden goblet of sweet wine to my lips (in the days before anyone gave a hoot about germs), and I loved getting to the point where I knew all the words to the Lord's Prayer. I loved how that made me feel like part of the community, and I loved the feeling of being in a sacred space. I remember looking up and around me when I grew bored by the sermon, closing my eyes, and breathing in deeply, hoping it would sink into my bones.
God was very present in Grandfather and Nana's house. They even had a small chapel room right off of the living room. Even at a very young age, I never went in. I mean, I don't think I was ever invited in: Grandfather and Nana used it for their early morning prayers. But I also knew that it was sacred. That, plus the fear of what might happen if someone caught me in that sacred space that apparently no children could enter, lent it an air of reverence that I wasn't ready for.
Upon reflection, it does seem a bit odd that no one ever pushed a bible on me. I chalk it up to the Episcopal way: laid back and loose compared to other denominations...more accepting...less wrath. Grandfather and Nana sent my younger sister and cousins to church camp a few times during their summer visits, but I managed to escape that. I guess they just recognized the religion in me already! (Ha.) As a result, I missed learning a lot of pretty fantastic Jesus songs, which still bring the house down at family functions, but I can live with that.
Anyway, in our house, religious practices were primarily "special occasions," not regulars. Grace was the exception, and it appeared every single evening at the dinner table. No matter who sat around the table, we all held hands and expressed gratitude to a higher power before diving in. (The hand-holding was exciting-slash-mortifying if I happened to be sitting next to an attractive grown up, in which case I drowned out the meaningful message with my own silent prayer: “Dear Lord, please keep my hands from sweating profusely...”)
Grace was always different, and Papa usually said it unless we had a large group, in which case he inevitably asked one of us to say it – just as his father, Grandfather, always asked my mom to say it. Like her, it was my worst nightmare. Luckily, I always mustered something thoughtful enough to elicit appreciative hums yet brief enough to stave off the fiery Wolff Blush that threatened to slowly turn me into a human tomato.
No one thought it strange that this was really the only consistent religious practice in our house. It was simply what we did. No pressure, no guilt, just a small reminder of the importance of daily gratitude and how faith can help you get through the tough times.
As we continued past 51 Street and onward to Penn Station, I thought about Faith. Faith is always there, somewhere, and Faith knows when to show up. Faith is quiet, and patient, and appreciative of connection. Faith is vulnerable and beautiful and strong. Faith comes in all forms.
Walking down the subway stairs, I thought, “Nothing matters.” In other words, the little stuff – so much of what inspires daily anxieties and stresses – doesn’t matter. It's the big stuff that matters: love and gratitude and faith and strength and the human spirit and the nature spirit and everything that fills you and everyone else blessed enough to know it.
Then I thought, “Wait, no – everything matters.” That week, my therapist and I had been talking about the importance of making your own meaning. She had asked me to write my life story – briefly, which was a challenge in and of itself – and we discussed the moral of that story. She heard strength and resiliency. I added self-trust and faith. I thought about that. Were those the morals of my story?
We make our own meanings every single day, and sometimes we need a gentle reminder of the meaning we want to make. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day moments and thoughts and feelings that rattle you, push and pull you, and close you off. As a result, you miss so much. I’m sure I’ve missed so much.
I couldn’t figure out which one was true – nothing matters or everything matters – and eventually settled on, “Perhaps it’s both.” All I knew was that if I hadn’t looked to my left that day, I might have passed Faith by. I might have walked right past and continued to ruminate in my pointless game of circle-running. Thank goodness I looked. I hope I see Faith again soon, because I want to spend more time with him.
Thanks for stopping by. And keep sharing your stories, because someone wants to hear them.