Parents are supposed to teach their kids to be—if not scared, then wary of—strangers. We’re supposed to tell our kids not to talk to them. All candy and/or other treats offered by them is poisoned. They are not allowed to offer assistance of any kind, ever, be that on the playground, a friend’s house or the church. Strangers are the boogeyman. I love my daughters, very much, so that is, basically, what I’m supposed to tell them. It is one of the hardest rules of parenting for me to heed. Because, frankly, I love strangers. Because, frankly, strangers have never hurt me: the only boogeyman I ever knew was someone whose name I knew.
Strangers, on the other hand, have been saving graces; angels who have lifted me up, e’ver I stumbled. Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet. When we were little, and our dad had vanished into thin air again, leaving us with no way to pay our light bill, or rent, strangers were often the ones who stepped up and took care of us. I remember one Christmas when my sister and I got a few wrapped presents apiece from an organization that gave gifts to children whose parents were incarcerated. I don’t remember the gift—except—I really do: it was that a stranger knew about us and had taken the time to wrap, and then deliver, presents to kids they didn’t actually know. Recently, my stupid car broke down for the umpteenth time. I was on the side of the interstate, and was going to have to walk to the nearest exit. Instead, a stranger pulled over and offered me a ride there. All my training, all my 20th-century teachings, advised me against accepting the ride and made me hesitate. But, in the end, I trusted my instincts, reminded myself that, contrary to what Hollywood and the local news at 10 would like me to believe, serial killers do not constitute the majority of the population in our community. He was a nice, young guy that not only just took me to the exit, but also told me to put my money away because he wasn’t accepting any monetary form of repayment. Strangers are the often the ones who write me e-mails and letters that move me to tears and make me grateful for the gift of writing God has entrusted me with. In high school, it was a stranger who held a door open to a restaurant for me and forever altered my world by reminding me that good people still existed. He was a ray of hope, and he didn’t even look at me. The homeless man who handed out bracelets but refused to tell people his name, and who pierced my heart, was a stranger whose face I recall every time I see someone on the street. Once, when I was in school, I sat down at a table by myself to eat, just as I did every day, when a girl from a crowded, popular table tapped me on the shoulder and told me to sit beside her. I didn’t know her name, and I never saw her again. She was a stranger. I never forgot her.
Once again a stranger has moved me to tears.
Tonight, I checked my e-mail and received notice that “someone I know” submitted my name and story as a nomination for a photography package. Apparently, this person told the photographer my story, and that I volunteer with children; the stranger suggested that I deserve, out of the people the stranger knows, to be given professional photographs of my daughters and I. Now. I hope this sounds like a major ordeal to you, because, to me, it is massive. Pictures are stories made visible. I don’t just like them, I love them. I ask for them for nearly every imaginable holiday. Cameras are my friends. And I sit and stare at pictures of my daughters all day long. A good picture –speaks– it tells you what kind of personality the subject has. Pictures can also freeze time–make you remember, years later, the circumstances in which the photograph was taken. They document our lives, and preserve the memories we want to remember. In my world, pictures are big, big deals. And someone I know—but apparently, not really—thought I should be able to have pictures taken of the girls for free. That is, for no reason. By an award-winning photographer.
This is mind-boggling startling for at least three reasons.
Number one: I was nominated! There’s nothing special about me. I try to be a good mom. I write books that, really, just make people cry. That’s it. I have not been to war. I have not saved anyone’s life. I have not put out flames of fire. Indeed, not only have I –not– done anything deserving of recognition, I –have– done aplenty wrong. I’m wading through the Old Testament. I just read the story of where Moses struck a rock God said speak to. And that incident kept Moses from entering Canaan. Now, I know there was really more involved than that, and I’m simplifying just a bit, but, still… Moses don’t have nothing on me. In fact, reading the Old Testament where pretty decent people make a mistake and get killed by God’s wrath makes me afraid to get out of bed. And yet—I was nominated. I was nominated for a special award that will ultimately provide me with beautiful photographs of my girls that will help me remember this oh-so-wonderful time in their lives.
Number two: I was nominated by a stranger. Now, even if the person who nominated me was a member of my family, it would be special. And it would still be powerfully moving. I don’t know many people better than my mom or sister, and they are among the few that truly know me with all my flaws. So even if it were one of them who nominated me, it would still greatly touch me. But their reactions of obvious surprise to the news convinces me they knew nothing about it. That means a stranger nominated me. And that really just….it’s humbling, and it’s very, very special. It means someone has taken note of the work I do and the life I lead and decided that, out of everyone else they know, I should receive a special gift. A stranger’s spirit of graciousness and kindness means that my girls and I will receive the treasured gift of frozen time. I’ll be able to see Breathe’s smile as a seven year old years from now, taken by a talented photographer with an exceptional camera, and framed for preservation. It also means that someone I don’t know cares about me. It means that someone watching from the distance has decided that the way in which I handle myself, and my past, is appropriate and graceful and worthy of recognition. A true blessing.
Number three: I was chosen! The photographer chose my story from countless other, more worthy stories. Undoubtedly, she read of soldiers’ wives who are trying to raise kids while fearing they’ll receive the news of their husband’s death. She probably read stories of people who have, with God’s grace, beaten cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. Maybe she’s read of people who have looked down a darkened road where suicide seemed a viable choice and who decided that life was worth another chance. I don’t know the stories she read—it makes me sad thinking about all the letters a photographer probably received, detailing the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to make ends meet, who are tired, and who need to feel special. Like I felt when I read the e-mail that told me she’d selected me. All my life I’ve compared my story to that of others. When I was younger, it was Holocaust: I was much better off than survivors of Hitler’s war, and whatever happened to me was insignificant in light of concentration and death camps. Now, it’s single parents who have just been laid off and don’t have a way to bring Santa Claus to their children. It’s my mom. It’s my sister. But, for some reason, I was chosen. By a stranger.
When we start to feel worthless, when we begin to think nothing we do matters anyway and no one is going to notice—it’s then when a stranger will often step up, offer a smile and change our lives. I recently went to a Michael W. Smith concert with my sister. During that concert, Michael told a story of a woman who was contemplating suicide when she heard one of his songs on the radio in the car. She pulled the car over and wept—and her life was never the same. She did not know Michael. He was a stranger. Yet his words impacted her in such a way as to leave her altered. My pastor has a habit of asking the congregation to bless those around them—-he’ll say, “if you feel the need to tell someone across the room something—go tell it to them, even if you don’t know the person, even if you don’t understand what you’re saying. If you feel the need to give someone something, do it.” This habit of his has led to enormous gifts being offered, and received, between strangers: gifts of great magnitude. All because strangers cared. The good Samaritan did not know the stranger he came across. All he knew was there lie a man in need and that simple knowledge stirred in the Samaritan compassion. I guarantee you, the injured man would have been forever altered. Stopped at a red light, we see them in the car next to us. Sometimes, when we’re not in a hurry and when we’re not distracted by the phone or the radio, we wonder for ten seconds about their lives—where they are going, what song they are singing, their name. We see them sitting in the pews in front of and behind us when the preacher tells us to stop and shake somebody’s hand. When I was in college, I frequented this gas station near campus. One day, the lady who worked there said to me, “I’m so glad when you come in. You’re always so happy and cheerful.” I didn’t know her, and she (obviously) didn’t know me. But she made me feel better about being me. Strangers see things that we don’t see, that our families sometimes don’t see, that our closest friends miss.
They are not the enemy. They make our life richer. Indeed, our lives would be incomplete without them. Thank you, whomever you are, for nominating me to win this photography package: your act of kindness has been felt with the heart, and will long be remembered. Also, thank You, God, for the strangers I’ve met, for the ones I will meet tomorrow and for the ones about whom I’ll never know.