Farewell Jacques*, and Thank You…

Grapes of Wrath

“Way down the street there’s a light in his place
He opens the door, he’s got that look on his face
And he asks you where you’ve been
You tell him who you’ve seen
And you talk about anything”

Gerry Raferty, Baker Street

I see him walking up my driveway one warm, early-September afternoon. He is tall and lean; about my son’s age, I would wager, although I will eventually discover he is slightly older: age 35. Handsome as only the young can be, he carries a big, old-fashioned, green burlap backpack from which is hanging a crinkled, well-worn pop bottle with only a little remaining water. In both hands, he is carrying a metallic bowl that looks exactly like my dog’s water dish. The dog has spotted him too and is excitedly bouncing on all four paws at the prospect of a visitor (which is thrilling to him – each and every time – whether we have one or twenty visitors in the run of a day).

I quickly slip out the door and shut it before Buddy can follow me and jump all over this poor stranger who has not even had a chance to open his mouth. I peer up at him with a smile as I apologize for the dog – who is barking excitedly in the window now – and ask him what I can do for him. His response astonishes me. Like a scene out of The Grapes of Wrath, he courteously and ever-so-slightly proffers the metal bowl in my direction and asks “I wonder if you might have some cheese that you could give me?”

I have been fearful and distrustful my whole life. Although the worst of my wounds have come from family and friends, I have expected strangers to have an ulterior motive; to want to rob me or hurt me. I have always been cautious of strangers and I have never allowed people I don’t know into my home. Especially if I am home alone. I can name a few very frightening past examples where this caution has served me – and my children – extremely well. And yet, I find myself trusting this young man immediately. “Come on in,” I find myself saying to him, “And don’t you worry about the dog. He wouldn’t harm a fly.”

So much for letting him know I am in control of the situation.

Once inside, he leans against the kitchen doorway as I bustle around, offering him various sundries: I cut and wrap a big chunk of cheese and then offer him other things like tomatoes on my windowsill, fresh from my garden; a solitary banana from the fruit bowl and a small jar of peanut butter (I offer him a big, brand-new jar but he politely declines, saying a jar that big would be too heavy for his backpack). When I offer him a water bottle in much better shape than the one he is carrying, he gratefully accepts that as well. All the while, I am brimming over with curious, fascinated questions that my very conservative upbringing discourages me from blurting out. He is a conundrum: extremely well-spoken; obviously very well educated; his clothes are a little worn but clean and presentable. Only his sandals show obvious signs of coming apart. He has a bit of an accent and when I discover that his mother tongue is French we are soon chattering away in his language.

By the time my husband arrives, showing absolutely no surprise at the stranger sitting in his home, Jacques and I have thoroughly bonded: we are sitting comfortably in the chairs in my husband’s office. I have told him all about my adrenal exhaustion burn-out and have shared how my writing has recently opened a whole new, happy chapter in my life. He has read me some of his poetry, beautifully hand-written in tiny, neat script in a miniscule notepad. He reads me a poem that he painstakingly translated from Sanskrit to English (I am too speechless to even ask), that is so beautifully Buddhist in its philosophy that it leaves me with a yearning that stays with me for days after.

Serendipity is such a lovely thing: a dear friend chooses this particular afternoon to drop by with the gift of a few miniatures (which she knows I love). When she sees that we have company, she quickly suggests coming back but I just as quickly urge her to stay. She is in her eighties, sharp as a tack, and always such gentle, lovely company. My husband – the cook of the family – prepares Jacques a big sandwich, cuts up an orange for him, and puts on a big pot of coffee which Jacques appreciatively drinks as we talk. Our friend and my husband do not share my fear of offending with probing questions and I sit quietly, as Jacques eats his meal and thoughtfully answers each of their fascinated queries.

He has been walking for two years, we learn. He never asks for or accepts money. And he carries no money of his own.  He averages 11 kilometres per day – and he does not accept offers to be driven anywhere. He tells us that he left ‘normal’ life behind (my choice of words; not his) just as he was starting his doctorate studies. “I find living day-to-day far less stressful that my life before.” He tells us simply, when asked whatever prompted him to make such a decision.

And he does live day-to-day. He sleeps under a tarp each night, stopping when it feels ‘right’; making his bed wherever his feet lead him. He assures us that he aims for warmer places in the winter months (“Toronto is perfect for sleeping outside in the winter,” he tells me, as I unconsciously shiver, “Only 11 degrees below zero.”). In the colder seasons, he has slept in the lofts of abandoned barns when he has been lucky enough to find them. When it comes to food, he does not plan ahead: instead, he gathers his food on a daily basis, subsisting on what he can forage or what folks like us choose to give him when he knocks on their doors. Most people are kind enough to give him something to eat, he tells us, but the city folk are less talkative, shutting him out entirely if he stumbles over his words in English, silently giving him the food and willing him to go on his way.

He stays with us for many hours, and he talks knowledgeably about anything and everything. Our visiting friend is particularly curious about the food he forages in the fields and forests: having lived through the World War II years and the Great Depression, her generation knows a thing or two about living off the ‘fatta the lan’ (‘fat of the land’, for those of you who are not fans of Steinbeck). When asked, he tells us of the huge variety of protein, greens and berries he finds as he walks: plantain leaves (‘a bit bitter’); dandelion greens (‘much sweeter, especially nearer the woods’); grasshoppers (contain protein and Omega 3: best if you bite off the heads first and chew quickly so they don’t wiggle too much). He does not hunt, he tells us, but will accept the gift of meat from a deer that has been freshly hit by a car. He and my husband meander for a good chunk of the visit into the merits of data gathering versus data analysis when it comes to neuro science and cognitive-behavioural therapy. I am mesmerised by his views on mindfulness; on his philosophical questions (“Is it considered ‘stealing’ to take food from another’s garden if you only take what you need for one meal?” he asks us). My friend – a reverently devout Christian – has many questions of a more religious nature for him and he responds with a detailed knowledge of the Gospels, referring, at one point, to Jesus sending his disciples out, ‘taking only the clothes and sandals you are wearing’.

Suddenly, my husband – never one for subtleties – announces that he has a client arriving soon and that we must all disperse. The afternoon has flown by and I am deeply chagrined: there are so many things I have yet to tell Jacques; so many things I have yet to ask. I uncharacteristically want to invite him to stay the night but it is my uncharacteristically reticent husband who – through that silent language some married couples develop over the years – is not ready to ‘go there’ (although he will regret – a few hours from now – that we didn’t).

I am a person who feels things so deeply that I sometimes have the utmost difficulty articulating what is going on in my mind. I am convinced that some people – enlightened and wise – have transcended the levels that most of us mere humans live on. I have always had a deep sense of skirting that level – just on the periphery. I do not know the language they speak there, so it is almost impossible for me to put into words. Once, when I was perhaps 19 years old, I sat beside a young man on a bus who – by his simple presence – had me sitting silently and reverently beside him, certain that I was in the company of holiness; of a beauty no words could describe. I wanted to ask him who he was; why he inspired such awe in me; what wisdom he might want to share with me. But I was 19 years old and fearful that I would sound crazy – or worse – stupid. It has been thirty-seven years and still I find myself wondering who he was; why he was put on my path and how my life might have changed had I just asked him those questions.

While Jacques is speaking – especially when he is sharing his beautiful, disciplined poetry with me, all alone in my husband’s office, I find myself wondering if he is the same person I sat beside all those long years ago on that bus. Because he inspires the same faith; the same trust; the same reverence that I felt sitting beside that young stranger all those years ago. But no, Jacques is far too young to be the same person, I have to keep reminding myself throughout the afternoon.

Just before he leaves us – with gentle thanks and a lovely smile on his young face, he and I reach out at the same time, warmly clasping with all four hands, as we smile at one another. “Goodbye, my friend.” He says to me.

“Oh, I hope to see you again,” I respond with warm conviction.

Like the young man on the bus, I am never going to forget him. For one brief afternoon, he has guided me right to the threshold of that elusive level that always feels frustratingly just out of reach.

Perhaps one day, I will speak the language they speak there, and I will be better able to share all the feelings I have felt on this magical, beautiful day…

 (*) not his real name

Patti Moore Wilson/ © wednesdayschildca.wordpress.com


Author: Patti Moore Wilson, wednesdayschild2

I write what I feel. And I rarely know exactly what I feel until I write. I have lived long enough to have known many joys and many sorrows. I have made many mistakes; I have forgiven myself for a few… I have learned that there are lessons in every step of this journey, if we only take the time to pay attention… I hope you will feel free to pick and choose the stories that resonate for you…

21 thoughts on “Farewell Jacques*, and Thank You…”

  1. Well, you’re not alone. All us creatives monkey climb the ladder of consciousness all around that perimeter …

    Boy oh boy, what great writing? I end up reblogging you to “Timeless Wisdoms” quite a bit, don’t I? Well, I’m about to do it again 😘

    Liked by 1 person

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