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Not to long ago in Northern Alberta I was driving along the highway about to start my 6 day shift in a rural community. There was nothing extraordinary about that day; in fact, it was so ordinary that it seems insignificant to mention it now. As I was driving down the remote 2 lane highway and the drone of my oversized truck tires resonated through my head forcing me to transcend into a psychological space nestled between wakefulness and sleep, I decided I should pull over and pick up a coffee to make sure I made the trip safely.
I drove around the corner and saw the lone gas station and turned off the road to its access road. As I pulled into the parking lot, an older man in his high visibility coveralls was sitting on the picnic table reading his paper and drinking a coffee. Now I’m not sure if any of you have had the opportunity to visit Northern Alberta but there are probably 2 days a year when sitting outside and drinking a coffee is a good idea. Typically the last day of spring before the monster mosquitoes, blood-draining black-flies, and the flesh-tearing deer and horse flies come out, and the other being one day in the first week of November when there is snow on the ground but the arctic wind carrying the fury of the -30 wind-chill factors and impaling you with what we Albertans often shrug off as sleet but to everyone else in the world knows as chunks of ice comes. This was the last day of spring.
The man gazed up from his newspaper and looked into the cracked windshield of my truck and saw me. I use the word saw specifically but for a reason that is hard to explain. I put the truck into park and he returned to his paper. After coming from the store, armed with coffee in hand and ready for the next 70 kilometer stretch of tire noise, no cell signal, and periodic burst of the radio station coming back into signal I looked up and saw the man still at the table. I lit up a smoke and walked over to the table.
The man was withered, skin like leather that has been left outside for 10 years, wrinkles deep and directional. The lines on his face were so deep that it was as though time was a carving knife being wielded by a nervous man cutting his first turkey at the family dinner table. He set his paper to the side, looked up at me and his delicate reading glasses slipped down his swollen and misshaped nose. His beard was white and unkempt; eyebrows thick like two fox’s tails. In a steady and friendly voice he spoke, “Hey young fella, you on days off today?” I looked at his eyes, sparkling with life nestled deep inside the block of dense porous clay that was his face. I said, “No, just heading to shift, how about you?”
He shifted his weight and leaned back slightly. Still seated he began to say that his hauler truck broke down, fuel lines burst…..so,… “I thought I’d have myself a little break.” His arms moved slowly upward and to the side as though he was welcoming the sun and cool breeze and the gifts of that the day may bring. He said, “On a day like this couldn’t think of anything more I’d like to do.” I stood in the parking lot and agreed. I extended my hand gesturing to make acquaintance. He grabbed my hand with what was like a bear paw, strong, worn, and worked. I introduced myself and looked into his life filled eyes and with a simple shake we exchanged names. As we were shaking hands, he peered into my face and saw me. He saw me wearing the hardship, emotional weight, the uncertainty I have to life’s questions. His grip tightened as though he knew of my struggle and the onset of apathy that faces all of us when our resiliency is low. His grip was a reminder that people are good. People care and often in the most ordinary of places you will find someone that shakes you back into a world that is great to be in. I wished the man well and encouraged him to enjoy his day. It was when I said, it was a pleasure to meet you today that I witnessed a mutual gratitude for the 2 minutes that we shared. That was the day that a garbage man taught me more about living the-right-way than any Sanskrit Buddhist scripture, than any daily affirmation, and any mantra rehearsed until it resonates into my being.
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