Among her wise words that I try to live by are these: “Instructions for Living a Life” “Pay attention, Be Astonished. Tell about it.” So let me tell you about me and Carlos and how we came to translate “Wild Geese” into Spanish at Starbucks. It is my habit to walk somewhere early in the morning and often I stop at a Starbucks for morning coffee because they open at 5:30. After I moved onto Gough Street, I walked through the civic center to the Starbucks at the intersection of Polk and Market. I would place my order and tuck myself into one of the big chairs near the window. Soon I was joined by a young man from Nicaragua named Carlos. I learned that sometimes when he did not come, he was in the hospital because he was, he told me, diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and felt safe there. Most of the time he lived in a residential hotel on 9th St. He told me he had a sister living in the Mission who wanted him to live with her, but he was afraid because Cubans in the Mission glared at him. He suspected they knew he was from Nicaragua and had been tortured by the FSLN. He told me many stories about his past in military service, former marriages, girl friends, fears. Sometimes, he would meet me in the United Nations Plaza at the farmer’s markets on Wednesday and carry my produce.
Once, I suggested we go to the movies, a terrible mistake because it was in Spanish and about wife-beating and he said it dropped him into a hell of remembering how he beat his wife when he suspected her of being unfaithful. I thought, oops, I have been unwise. And then, unwisely, he hugged me. In no way was I encouraging more than a friendship, so I hoped his hug was just friendly. But I knew we would see no more movies together and there would be no more hugging.
Yet I wanted a comfortable way to be with this Spanish speaking Nicaraguan on Thorazine and Haldol who yearned for a female other than his sister to help him in his life.
And I did find a way to relate to him – with a table between us. He would teach me Spanish by translating poetry I would bring in, and for his being my teacher I would pay him.
And so once a week at Starbucks we would ask the barristas to turn down the music and for an hour, work on translating into Spanish a poem I loved. The poem we worked on was: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. Ganses Salvajes in Spanish.
Here is what the first lines of that poem sounded like to me. Tu no tienes que ser bueno. You don’t have to be good. Tu no tienes que caminar sobre tus rodillas. You don’t have to walk on your knees por cien millas otra ve del desierto, arrepindiendote For a hundred miles thru the desert, repenting. Tu solo tienes que dejar el animal suave de tu cuerpo amar lo que el ama. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Dime acerca tu problema, y yo te dire el mio. Tell me about your despair, yours and I will tell you mine. Mientras tanto el mundo sigue. Meanwhile the world goes on
Yes, meanwhile the world goes on. And one morning, Carlos did not come for our lesson. And I waited. I came back the next morning. None of the other “regulars” who often sat with us in the window corner knew where Carlos had gone. After a while, I stopped waiting for him and went other places in the morning. Perhaps, he stopped being afraid and went to the Mission to live near his sister and he is having coffee with the Cubans. I hope that Carlos finds his safe place “en la familia de cosas,” in the family of things.
And so far regardless of which early morning Starbucks I wander into, I have not regretted any time I have spent listening to lives far different from the “safe and sane” one I am living. I believe that Mary Oliver got it right when she wrote: "Ten times a day something happens to me …- some strengthening throb of amazement - some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness."