Last Christmas, a good friend of mine gave me a train case with a pattern of red cherries spread cheerfully across the black vinyl.
It’s a running joke between us, brimming with the kind of meaning that a long friendship can create, emerging from a long talk on a long hike about the psychological “baggage” one still carries even after years of learning and growing and the occasional round of psychotherapy. She gave the cherry train case to me without any thought that I might actually travel with it. It is a symbol. It can hold, like our friendship does, all the private or persistent stuff for which we just need to find a place. We write down our deep and more difficult emotional thoughts, fold the papers, and put them into the case. This way, they are located, and perhaps won’t knock around our insides so hauntingly.
The other day, I put three glass rocks in the case. They had been purchased from a trendy boutique and were my gift to myself as I made a career transition and took what I expected to be an exciting position at City Hall. The rocks are made of tumbled sea glass and each has a word solemnly engraved in black. I wanted them to serve as a reminder to me and whoever came to visit my office, to “LAUGH,” “INSPIRE,” “DREAM.”
After a year and a half on my desk, I thought they needed recharging.
I had forgotten about them. I remember now the private sense of ceremony with which I carefully held them, beheld them, and then put them in a select spot in the wooden dish on a corner of the glass topped desk, where they could be seen by all. But very shortly after that moment, they became overlooked. They lay for a long time unread: ignored by me in the crush of business, and the weight of adjustment; ignored by my many office visitors who sat right next to them and passed many papers to me across the adjoining conference table.
But the visitor in the rotunda made me think of them again.
I didn’t need to see the “visitor” tag plastered to his shirt pocket to know that he was a visitor. He was dressed too casually to be a city hall regular, and he was wandering slowly on the inlaid marble tiles, a floor much more accustomed to purposeful striding. The rotunda is the pulsing intersection in the midst of this decades old restored building, it sits at the heart of the main branches: the Mayor’s wing of offices, the council public hearing chamber, the city clerk’s office, and then the wing of offices of my board, where I sit in a suite beyond a glass door with my name on it in big gold letters.
The visitor was gazing upward at the four story sweep of the rotunda’s arches, probably at the huge Art Nouveau chandelier, or the gilded paint work on the high wooden beams. He did as anyone does who is new to city hall and who has any sense of wonder. Just like the many visitors I had seen there before.
Before, though, I had managed a soft, internal and knowing smile at the visitors, a tacit sharing. I smiled in agreement that it is an important and beautiful place, expressing an ideal of civic optimism, reflecting architectural grace and richness in form.
I had particularly enjoyed those moments during the winter, when I would be the last to leave the office and would turn the corner from my suite to have a private view down the long arched marble corridor to the 40 foot high Christmas tree; to hear the sound of only my heels, echoing; to feel the rhythm of history. No matter how hard the day had been, no matter how late I left the office, the holiday tree was still lit, and the soft glow of the lights against the tall marble pillars around it was somehow reassuring. No matter how gritty the battle, it would all be worthwhile in the end…wouldn’t it?
What caught me, like a sudden loss of balance, in the passing encounter with this visitor this time, was how harsh and flat I felt about his look of upturned awe. In the brief seconds of passing by him I had thought with dank cynicism that he was oblivious to the dust of frustration that had collected on all the surfaces that might look so glossy to his uninitiated eye. He was unaware of the scars we wore beneath our suits, from being stabbed in the back so many times. He could not hear the whispers of duplicity from those whose psychological ceilings are as small as the rotunda’s is high. I, on the other hand, had the scales taken from my eyes. I had become aware. And I had let myself become inured.
Back in my office, I paused. To me, this was no longer a place of ideals; it had become merely a place of work. While it held great ambition it also contained the attendant dark matter of human frailties. I looked around, wanting to see things again. I saw those three glass rocks.
We needed recharging.
I recalled an experience from college when I had to confess to my roommate, who was an orthodox Jew, that I had inadvertently used one of her kosher forks to stir my unkosher hamburger goulash. To remediate this transgression she quickly stuck the fork in the dirt of a planter for seven days and all was kosher again. Curative; something like confessional prayers to a Catholic.
I brought the glass rocks home and let them be in my garden for seven days. I let the sun shine on them and the spring wind dance across them and the healing dirt support them. Then, I zipped them up in the cherry train case.
There are there to pull a quiet meaning from the dark and to mingle with the unwritten ideas that are always in there: hope, faith, courage.
They will be there until they are ready for city hall again. And when I put them back, it may be with one other word: BELIEVE.
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