Friday, April 16, 2010

Social Awareness

Sometimes it happens: a situation or a person calls me to sudden clarity and I realize that the "daily grind" I swear off and swear about and swear by is an altered state of reality. I am guilty of being obtuse. I am dutiful and hardworking. I worry that one misstep on my part can cause the whole of my personally constructed universe to fall apart. (Can you see it now, that solar system model made out of paper Mache falling off its wire hanger? Landing on the floor, all of its interplanetary strings a tangled disaster. Saturn's rings broken off. No biggie, nothing a little Elmer's glue can't fix.) But sometimes I can look beyond and realize that there are others out there and I, unsuspecting denizen of Planet Where-Ever, never saw them there. (Maybe being "spacey" isn't such a bad thing.)

Like many busy moms, I sometimes like to unwind by getting a pedicure. One Saturday morning I was looking forward to the relaxation and hour away from my kids this would afford me. As always, I have my iPhone nearby with its ready array of novels loaded to the Kindle app. I begin to read a novel set during an insurgence in Sri Lanka. Where is Sri Lanka? I can't even recall. I read about brutal war time deaths half a world away.

I pause from my reading a moment to glance at my manicurist. I notice that she is a slight woman, but her hands are strong as she massages lotion into my heels and the balls of my feet. The thought occurs to me that if ever I am to be a good writer, I will have to do what Ondatjee, Kingsolver, and Fadiman have already done. I must step outside of my natural, childish shyness and talk to strangers. I have to be aware that they exist. I have to become an interested, therefore interesting, person. A senseless resistant insecurity warns me that I am stepping onto unfamiliar territory, but a stronger force tells me that it is time to grow up.

"Where are you from?" I ask this middle-aged woman who is now tearing at my cuticles with clippers.

She looks up a bit startled, but with a pleasant smile.

"Vietnam." Her accent is thick.

"How long have you lived in Lake Havasu?"

"One year."

"Do you like it here?"

"Yes. I come here with my daughter." She gestures to the girl with the blunt cut bangs and perfect almond eyes crouched in front of the spa chair next to mine. "She is 20."

"She is very beautiful," I reply.

"And that is my brother." She gestures to the man across the salon who is filing a woman's nails. "He's been here nine year. I come here to work for him."

She continues to talk softly in broken English. It is hard to hear over the top of the classic rock station promo truck parked outside. I think she is describing her work day. I understand "5:00 AM exercise" and "9:30 Come to shop." Other than that her words are lost somewhere between my poor audio processing skills (I said I was obtuse) and "Dust in the Wind." She looks satisfied and proud.

As she paints my toenails a vibrant red, I try to imagine this woman leaving her home and traveling to a world every bit as foreign to her as Vietnam is to me. I think of what her first shy days at work must have been like, hunched over working scrupulously at a new trade, trying to pick up a new language. I imagine her avoiding conversations with cutomers- so difficult to understand or to reply in a different tongue. That is as far as I can try to fill in the blanks. And I am struck to think that this woman, crouched at my feet, finishing my nails with a careful filigree has done something much more courageous than will ever be required me.


mim said...

I love it! It's a lot like when you were four or five and decided to go down that huge water-slide and so you climbed to the top and did. You became my idol that day. You still are.

phrenetica said...

It's great to read your writings again. Poignant and perfect. Although I still enjoy your high school "men" haiku...
It went something like...

Stupid stupid boy.
I'll stamp your head and call you
male. Die die die die.

Though it didn't repeat "stupid" but there was something else in there. Still, quite nice.

laura said...

this is wonderful and i agree. somewhere wrapped into this line of thinking is why i'm forcing myself, semester after semester, to learn spanish.