Smiling Is Not Required

Yesterday, while at a gas station, a stranger locked unfriendly, cold eyes on mine for about ten seconds.

I had no intention of writing about him, but I just spent forty minutes in meditation, asking to be shown what to write here next. I don’t want to say I regret asking. But I confess to already having something in mind to write about before I posed the question to myself in meditation. I imagine my angels rolling their eyes and chuckling indulgently at times like these– when I ask for something, get the answer and then consider rejecting it. Humans.

This post is plan-B, what my heart was moved to write. Plan-A will have to wait for another day.

1. About Strangers

I am old enough and have lived long enough, to ignore the whims of strangers, whims such as the looks one might give me, the tone of voice if one is speaking to me, the vibes I get if we are standing close. I’ve learned there are too many strangers in the world to give my time and/or energy to every single person I come in contact with. It didn’t take long to learn that lesson, having grown up and spent a number of commuting work years in a large city teeming with strangers.

For the most part, I’ve trained myself to not care about strangers unless they touch me physically or overtly present themselves in my immediate sphere. If I don’t have my resting bitch face on — apparent whenever I am wholly distracted or in some kind of physical pain — I display a practiced, vague smile to indicate polite, mild friendliness but also, subtly pronouncing myself too spacey for any sensible dialogue. At least that’s what I try to convey. Hello world, please don’t bug me, I’m busy being in my head.

And yet, if a stranger insists on addressing me anyway, I will respond with effusive friendliness. Being a city girl who has met with her share of subtle reproaches — from familiar and strange folks alike — for her occasional over-friendliness, I kind of hate this part of myself. But it’s who I am, so I’ve learned to live with it. Nevertheless, there are days when I say, to hell with what anyone thinks, life is good and I feel lovely or beautiful or bold or happy, and I will lock eyes with a stranger and smile as openly as I want, showing teeth and maybe even gums (I know! Crazy).

2. A Stranger Passed By

Yesterday, as I walked back to my car from a Redbox kiosk, I saw an old man — in his late sixties, maybe early seventies — park and get out of his car right next to mine. It was a gorgeous, sunny afternoon, I had recently spent a relaxing and lovely three-day weekend with The Hubs, had also communicated frequently with both daughters throughout the weekend, and I was in a really good mood. The old man seemed in a mood too, so he locked eyes with mine and held it, except he had his stony, unfriendly face on and he wasn’t about to change it for some smiling stranger. As usual I assumed his cranky face was about me, but for all I know, he may have just left his ailing wife lying in a hospital bed or is in the midst of fighting off a foreclosure on his home. As strangers in this world, we tend to be wrapped up in our own lives. The old man and I passed each other without further incident.

As I climbed into my car I saw that I was still smiling. A year ago, feeling properly chagrined by the old man’s cold stare, I would have wiped my own smile away once I passed such a stranger. I would have decided he was an asshole or a racist or a woman-hater and I would have drove away hugging his micro-aggression to my chest. Not only that, a year ago, if that happened while on my lunch break, I might have driven back to work with a micro-aggression party unfolding in my mind, recalling and dwelling on slights that were already past. I might have smiled at the receptionist as I walked past, whilst fantasizing about slapping her in the mouth for a sarcastic remark she made six months previous.

But yesterday, I still felt like smiling. And as I drove home, the dark side of me marveled a little bit at the old man. (Yes, I’m learning to embrace my dark side and resisting the impulse to ignore her.) Whatever his deal is, he chose to stand firmly in the mood he was in for that moment. None of us are perfect. We are all entitled to be who we choose in each of our moments. When I have my resting bitch face on it’s all about me, maybe feeling tired or having menstrual cramps or lacking sleep. My resting bitch face shows up maybe ten percent of the time. If I’m not hurting or offending anyone, if I’m minding my own business, I can set my expression anyway I choose, just like the old man.

I was feeling full with light and good vibes when I passed by that man and it hasn’t left me yet. And I’m not writing this to shame him, I’m writing this to thank him for being who he is and celebrating our common bond as human beings. He belongs to loved ones, same as me, I have good days and bad days, same as him— we are both merely living our lives.

3. What I’ve Learned

Everyone in life has faced a burden that they have had to bear up under, at least one thing that has knocked them on their ass, the kind of thing they had to fight their way through to get to the other side of and keep living. Not everyone makes it. Some people give up by losing hope, deciding to hit auto-pilot and merely move through life’s motions or some people just die. I’ve tried to do both, but I couldn’t figure out how to sustain hopelessness and the death march with alcohol wasn’t as thrilling or romantic as I imagined.

So here I am. Eighty-four and a half months after my last drink, I am still learning how to live a sober life, still learning who I really am, and still in the process of becoming her. Lately, I’ve come to better understand why monks choose their lifestyle, why anyone would enter into a vow of silence, why someone would enter the priesthood or become a nun. I haven’t done any of these, nor do I have any plans to go that way, but on occasions I delve into piecemeals of the required conduct. I disappear. No internet, no television or media of any kind. No communication beyond immediate family.

It might last a few days, an entire week or a whole month. I meditate, I love, I live, I write and repeat. Not only does it replenish my soul, it sustains my muse. And it also prods me into smiling warmly at strangers who may or may not reciprocate.