Bad Example

I have set a bad example more than once in my life.

     In at least one instance, I am pleased to have done so.

     For several years I ran a fairly regular route for exercise, every other day.  I actually don't run much anymore. At my age, running hard easily leads to knee, ankle, hip, and back damage -- chronic problems that could interfere with dancing.

     Dancing has priority.

Fortunately, I live at the bottom of a great hill.  So now I march up that hill, trot a little, walk my route, and go down and back up and down several long stairways to get the blood pumping for an hour.

     There was a time when my goal was to cover this three-mile route as quickly as possible.  I carried a stopwatch.  Focused on getting through each section just a little faster each day.  Getting in shape as quickly as possible was the goal.  Time and distance were the measuring rods of a successful morning.  Just do it and do it and do it -- better and better every day.

     A stranger changed all that.

     A woman whose schedule seemed to coincide with mine.  She was usually somewhere on my route at the same time I was.  We nodded.  I was in a hurry.  She was not.

     A slim, gray-haired woman about my age, who wore comfortable clothes and high-tech walking shoes.  She caught my eye for two reasons -- she followed an erratic course, and she carried a plastic shopping bag.  I wondered why.

     When I stopped running and started walking, I had time to observe her more carefully.  Over a couple of weeks, I put her route together as I saw her here and there.  Though she marched along at a brisk pace, she always stopped to pick up trash and put it in her bag.  She didn't make a big deal out of it or go out of her way -- just tended to her own path, cleaned up the world under her own feet.

     Her route zigzagged uphill a block and then went level for a block and then uphill again.  At the top, she sat briefly on a park bench to admire the morning sky and the mountains to the east.

     Next she looped through the cemetery, around a great redwood tree, pausing to read names on tombstones.

     Then across a children's playground going up a ladder and down a slide, followed by a swing through the monkey bars.

     Next through a scattered grove of tall fir trees, up the stairs to the top of a water tower, around a road where she stopped to admire the water lilies, along an alley where she looked over a fence and into a greenhouse.  Out into the park again to an open field of grass where she lay down on her back for a short time.

     Then down to the Episcopal cathedral -- inside briefly -- and out again.

     In one door of the art school next door, down a hall, and out a door at the other end of the building.

     Down three long flights of stairs, under the freeway, and down to the local bakery for a cinnamon roll and cup of coffee.

One morning I joined her at her table at the bakery and introduced myself, explaining that we seemed to share the same exercise route, though I noticed she added some unexpected detours to hers.

     She knew who I was, and she had also been aware of me -- "the man in a hurry."  To my surprise, she had been influenced by me, seeing in my morning rush a model for the kind of life she was living but hated.  She had decided not to be like me.

     The woman is a family doctor.

     For years she had rushed off every morning to make rounds at the hospital and make healthful suggestions to patients that she did not act on in her own life.

     She began to notice death and how fast she was running to meet hers.

     "Haste does not improve the quality or quantity of life, you know," she advised me.  So I had heard.

     She decided not only to tend to her physical health, but the health of her mind and soul.  "I lost touch with me, somehow," she said.

     Not being a religious type or interested in cults or fads or isms, she decided that common sense would suffice for devising a new morning routine.  No big conversion -- no big deal -- just think, then do.

     To add usefulness to self-concern, she would pick up trash along her route -- not try to clean up the whole neighborhood, mind you, but to do her share as she came to it.

     To learn to see something new, she would go at least one block out of her way each morning as a very small adventure away from efficiency and into curiosity.  That's how she found the greenhouse in an alley, the cemetery, several great trees, a garden dedicated entirely to edible plants, and the children's playground.

     It was hard for her to explain the stop at the Episcopal cathedral.  She wasn't religious, yet there was something important about standing alone in a great room set aside to mark a relationship with the Eternal.

     The art school next door to the cathedral always had a show of student work in the front hall, and she liked being near evidence of a continuing struggle for creative expression, so she always walked down that hall slowly.

     What amazed her in all this was the closeness of delightful things that she had missed for so long because she was in a hurry and focused on efficient exercise.

     She explained, "I think of my morning adventure as going to get the news of the day.  It's not all on the radio or in the paper, you know."

     "And don't forget your part in this -- it was because I didn't want to be like you that I found another way."

We serve our fellow men -- and women -- unexpectedly.

     Even by being a bad example.


-excerpted from Maybe (Maybe Not : Second Thoughts from a Secret Life), by Robert Fulghum