Thursday, August 27, 2009
The Prayer Bus
This morning on the second leg of my bus ride to work, I witnessed something extraordinary.
What's great about riding the bus (and there are precious few things that I can think of) is that you get familiar with the faces and the drivers, and after a while you start to call it "my bus." "On my bus this morning, I witnessed something extraordinary." You all commiserate when the bus is late, or slow, you exchange pleasantries with the driver. You may even have a favorite bus driver. I have two. The first drives my early-morning bus a few days a week. He has sparse white hair and an Eastern-European accent that I can't identify, and for the first week or so that I rode the bus, I would forget what he looked like between rides. The fourth time I climbed on board and asked, "Are you going to Old Orchard Mall?", he laughed and said, "I've driven you at least four times already!" After that, he would start honking the horn at me when he drove through my station. "I know, I know," I'd reply in mock exasperation. "I was getting out my Chicago Card!" (in case anybody reading this doesn't know me and where I live, there it is.)
My second favorite bus driver was driving the bus when the Extraordinary Thing happened. He's a middle-aged black man who compliments me as I get off the bus, perhaps knowing that I could really use a self-esteem boost to get me through a mind-numbing day of clerical work. He talks to everybody as if he's known them forever, and he especially talks to the delightful Jamaican woman who rides the bus with me every morning. Actually, this particular bus is a veritable cornucopia of nationalities--there are the two Russian ladies, a few Latinas, a very tall Asian woman, me (a white Jewish American), and our Jamaican friend.
This morning I got on the bus at the mall with the Jamaican woman and two Hispanic women who appeared to be friends. The Jamaican woman was talking jovially with the bus driver before one of the Hispanic women beckoned her to sit down with them. After they exchanged delighted greetings, she explained to the Jamaican woman that her friend's husband was sick, and she was very worried about him. And indeed, her friend had barely even smiled when the Jamaican woman had sat down; even I, sitting across from them, could tell that she was preoccupied and upset.
And the Jamaican woman started to pray. Out loud. In the middle of the bus driving up Skokie Boulevard. Her voice was beautiful to listen to with its lilting accent. "Dear Lord," she prayed (and here I'm paraphrasing, since nothing could quite capture this woman's prayer and I really can't remember her exact words, which were wonderfully colorful), "look down upon this woman's husband, who is sick, and help him to feel better. And Jesus, in thy name, in thy only name, keep this woman and her husband in thy sight." And then, addressing the woman, "Keep faith in Jesus, the son of God, He will help you through this time and make your husband feel better." On it went. The other Hispanic woman was translating the prayer for her friend into rapid-fire Spanish. Periodically, the bus driver would cry, "Amen!" or "Hallelujah!"
Normally, this kind of thing would make me uncomfortable. Like those times in high school volleyball when we'd go to a Christian school for a game and they would pray before the game. I'd always wonder why they couldn't just pray in the locker room beforehand. But not this time. I was so astonished by the amazing selflessness of the Jamaican woman. Judging from appearances she barely knew the woman with the sick husband, and yet when she learned of her predicament, she immediately set about praying for her and helping her to bolster her own faith in God. Extraordinary--and something we don't see often enough.
You can't forge a career in opera without "the kindness of strangers." Of course, by the time they've guided you to operatic success (hopefully), they won't be strangers anymore. But don't we all at some point have to put ourselves and our voices in the care of somebody we don't yet know--a teacher, a coach, a director, a speech therapist, a surgeon--and hope that it works out? The Hispanic woman on the bus accepted the prayers and the good faith of the Jamaican woman to help get her through and to strengthen her belief that her husband would get well. At times, we have to believe that those in whom we place our trust have the same kind of faith in us. Faith in our untapped potential, in our unknown future.
And those aren't the only strangers. I have been doing some kind of blogging since I was thirteen or fourteen years old, connecting with people all over the world on OpenDiary, which became Free OpenDiary, and then I followed all of my friends over to Livejournal where we have settled. I've been posting on a forum for fans of Stephen Sondheim almost as long as I've been sending thoughts out into the cybervoid. They've watched me grow up, and sometimes when I'm having vocal troubles and feeling discouraged, I'll go post on "The Cold Stone Bench" for some sympathy and advice. And more recently, I discovered the New Forum for Classical Singers, where if you ask for it, you can get feedback and help from incredibly well-educated and seasoned performers and teachers. It's amazing to me sometimes that people who don't know me, who may never meet me (depending on the forum), are so willing to share what they've learned with me. Sometimes on Livejournal I'll "friend" someone because we have one or two shared interests--we both love The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or Jane Austen, for example--only to find that there is so much to learn from this anonymous person (well, not quite anonymous anymore, with the advent of Facebook). When I posted in various places about my impending surgery, the reaction I got was overwhelming. Virtual hugs, offers to talk about it any time, inspirational words of wisdom. And all from people who, in all honesty, don't know me from Adam.
But sometimes we need that kind of support. Sometimes when I'm feeling really down about my voice, I don't want to talk to anyone close to me in real life. It feels too personal, too raw, too vulnerable to confess my fears about my vocal cords to someone in person. Sometimes I'm afraid it will make me cry, or I won't like the response I get. So I send my anguish out into the void. It's comforting to know that all over the world, virtual strangers have faith in me. Isn't that bizarre?
That woman with the sick husband may never see the praying Jamaican woman again. Her husband may get better; he may not. But I don't think she'll ever forget that random act of kindness. The Jamaican woman got off the bus at the next stop, after having been on the bus for about five minutes altogether. I thought about those five minutes all day, and I'm still in awe of the selflessness and faith of that stranger.