Thursday, November 06, 2003

The Red Suit Diary 

Everyone has defining moments in his or her life. One of mine happened many years ago when I was working at a design/printing company. It was autumn of 1984 and I had just been promoted to the manager of the company's typesetting department. This being my first real job after college, I went out and bought a new suit to celebrate my raise in pay and world status. It was a bright red skirt with a single-breasted jacket that fit me just right and made me feel both professional and pretty. I even found pumps the exact same shade of red.

Feeling pretty was not easy for me. I'd graduated only a year or so before with a BA in Pasta and Cookies and a minor in Beer and Potato Chips (some people work their way through college -- I ate my way through college) Athough I'd since lost my freshman 15, sophomore 6, and senioritis 7, the skewed self-image remained (as did the unmentionable junior year poundage). So it was nice to put on a new suit and feel great.

The Monday morning that I wore my new suit for the first time was a magnificent September day; the sun seemed to be shining a little bit brighter than usual, the birds were providing standing ovation performances, and the dazzling fall leaves were cha-chaing in the breeze. Getting to work early to begin a new project, I parked in my favorite shady spot on the far side of the empty parking lot opposite my building. I was practically giddy with happiness about my new suit and the bouncy step in my stride probably showed it.

As I made my way across the parking lot, I noticed a homeless women with a shopping cart coming towards me. She was old and dirty and pushing her cart along very slowly. From what I could see, the cart was full of filthy blankets, dirty coffee cups, and rags. I considered pretending that I'd forgotten something so I could return to my car and avoid having to pass her or even look at her, but at the last second I didn't.

As we walked closer to each other, she stopped suddenly and gazed at me, giving me a full once-over. She smiled a craggy, broken-tooth smile, and looking me right in the eye, said, "My, don't you look pretty today?" Slowing my pace momentarily, I looked into her sparkling mocha-flecked eyes. "Thank you," I sputtered, returning her smile and feeling a little bit like I'd just been blessed by the Pope. Then she went her way and I went mine.

And I haven't been the same since.

That morning as I went about my work, I gave myself a talking-to. I saw what a critical, judgmental person I could be sometimes and vowed to get better about it. It seemed as though I was constantly scanning people and assigning labels to them: fat, bony, wrinkly, ugly, etc. Very little of my subtext was positive; probably because of my own self image issues. Not a nice thing to recognize about yourself. I was truly horrified that when I spotted the woman, I'd actually tried to plot a way to avoid her. Instead, she ended up making my day and changing my life.

A transformation of this kind was not going to be easy, so I made a game out of it. From that day forward, I challenged myself to look at people in a new light. To mindfully practice focusing on the positive and being blind to the negative. This shift in focus could be something as simple as as noticing how nicely a person's scarf accented her hair, or detecting the love in a father's voice as he comforted his child, or even just appreciating somebody's craggy, broken-tooth smile, sparkling mocha-flecked eyes, and kind words.
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