In a crowd, with bodies unknown and faces unfamiliar pressing in to you, have you ever had someone slip their hand in yours? Before you can turn, your defenses shout, beat, and burn. But once you have the space to turn your head, you see a face like home and the hand is sudden comfort.
Last summer I got to step out of the noise and press and heat of New York City into the cool and hush of the Museum of Modern Art. A good chunk of the crowd seeped in behind when the doors opened and shut, and the floors were weekend chaos and crush. But the rhythm was slower, a reverential nod to the masterpieces that said so much in their still silence.
Hungry for the visual consumption of the unabashed creativity, I turned corner after corner, photographing with my phone works new to me, paintings pulling taut the chord in me that acts as kindling for my own creative fires. I loved the new; I was famished and I had found a feast.
Not one for crowds, I looked and smiled at those more famous works from a distance, not wanting to wait my turn to stand right in front, content that the distance between myself and the masterpiece had shortened just this much. It was enough.
I turned another corner, and there,
like the grasp of a familiar hand in a crowd of strangers, I saw a painting I had outright forgotten, a painting that had first caught my breath in high school, first incited the riot of ideas where art begets art.
Not that one that everyone knows by Edvard Munch, there was no crowd around this work. This one is titled The Storm. I stood in front of it for a healthy moment. An old friend, I didn’t want to walk away too soon. I circled the room, took myself back there again. I gave it a glance over my shoulder when I finally chose to continue the feast.
The placard beside the painting says this,
The setting of The Storm is the Norwegian seaside village of Åsgårdstrand, where Munch often spent his summers. The main figure and the group behind her cover their ears to keep out the sound of the storm’s howling winds. This painting was made the same year Munch originated the motif of The Scream. Here the depiction is more naturalistic, and the characters are female rather than male, but the compositions both reflect Munch’s preoccupation with the concept of a solitary individual set apart from a community of others.
When you know a friend needs encouragement, how long do you take before you slow down and offer the gift they have requested?
How tempted are you to offer a platitude because you know the asking is urgent and you want to fill that cup as soon as you can?
The more jaded person might consider that platitude as a personal pat-on-the-back of the person offering it.
There, I helped.
And off you go.
I think the quick offer might be an answering of the urgency. But how often do we pause, say, “Let me think that one over,” and then do just that?
Added to the hum of the usual daily soundtrack is a new chord, pinning the day’s thoughts down, keeping the person next to you wherever you sit, carrying them with you as you walk away.
I often talk myself out of carrying through. I convince myself that what I have to offer is paltry compared to what is actually needed, that my shoulder is not wide enough to help ease the burden.
Oh, but the times I’ve been helped.
In those moments of insecurity I forget the offerings I’ve had in the past. I forget that I’ve never been insulted, been annoyed, by an encouraging word. Any word, no matter how slight, has helped soften the hardening shell that troubles begin to build around my heart.
I have so often been the one crushed by the crowd, struck still by the pulsing other. Sometimes it hurts so bad to look up I feel like something has ripped open, ripped so deep I can’t reach it quick enough to patch it up before anybody sees I’ve come undone.
And then a hand.
Slipped into mine and connected to eyes that don’t look right into me to gawk and stare, but, unveiled, show a deep and true concern.
Those eyes and that hand inviting me to be true, to be all me, because it’s the parts of me I can’t carry they want to see, so they can put their shoulder right up under that burden.
I can’t help but look at my hand and wonder how well it would do at reaching in for the rescue.
It seems foolish that, at thirty-five, I am still learning how to be a friend. I would do anything for the people who have floated in and out of my days like clouds offering shade when the sun is too bright. I just don’t know how to offer.
So, trembling, I will hold out my hand.
I will open my mouth and cough out the kind words that seem stuck at the back of my throat. I will wrench open my time and my space and offer to share the corners of stillness I have found in my own spinning. Aware of my weaknesses, I will offer the depth of my shoulder to the weight of another’s burden.
I will put the card in the mail.
I will linger over the hard Facebook post when I am tempted to keep scrolling.
I will make the phone call when I am sure I can find a reason not to.
Maybe I can become someone’s familiar when all the other starts pressing in.