White guys can be such a-holes sometimes. It’s embarrassing. There are so many days when I’m embarrassed to be a white guy. And not just because of the Donald Trump’s and Ted Nugent’s of the world, either. I’m talking about run-of-the-mill, a-hole white guys. I think those guys annoy me even more, because I ought to identify with them.
Even worse than average a-hole white guys? Cyclist white guys. Again, these guys should be my tribe. I mean, we have a double connection, right? White guy and cyclist.
“Should be” my tribe. But time and time again, they pull crap that makes me grateful again that I mostly ride alone.
Take the other day, for example.
I was on a fairly typical ride around White Rock Lake, when something caught my eye and I decided to stop. I was on a part of the trail where there’s a long fence (I won’t say exactly where, for reasons that will be apparent in a moment…) So, it was not possible to get all the way off the trail. But I was definitely far over to the side. (And, the trail is double-wide there…)
Out of nowhere, a speeding peloton of white guys comes whooshing by, sounding for all the world like a squadron of TIE Fighters. They were hauling ass. 17-20 mpg, I would guess.
And just before they pass me, I hear their leader yell out in my direction…
“Clear the Trail!!!”
He sounded like a condescending drill sergeant, and it was loud enough that it made me jump a little.
Of course, they were going so fast that I couldn’t have cleared the trail in time for them. They were safely past me in seconds.
And, even if I wanted to “clear the trail,” there was no where to go because of the fence.
And even with the fence, there was plenty of space for them to pass me without commanding me to “Clear the Trail!!!”
It was just the kind of condescending, privileged, a-hole-ish thing that white guys do all the time that makes my head explode.
I wish I could find that guy and tell him why I pulled over. I’m sure I never will, so I’ll just tell you instead.
I pulled over because I saw this little planter-box, by the side of the trail, just on the lake side of the fence. It’s not something the city created, so that why I’m not gonna say just where it is. It’s something a family created with love.
They’ve brought in potting soil, lovingly planted a rose and some other foliage. There’s a small cross off to one side.
It’s at a spot where, for several years running, I saw a little makeshift memorial. You know the kind. Like the ones you see alongside a state highway when somebody has died.
And that, of course, is exactly what happened here. The memorial is mostly gone, but the planter box —which is so small and inconspicuous that you’d never see it, whizzing by at 20-mph— is now there instead.
I stopped because the family was there. The family that lovingly built it. It was a Latino man, his wife, and a very small child (perhaps three). They had brought a watering can in their red wagon, and were watering the roses. They were, all three, standing on the lake side of the fence.
Through broken Spanish and a little English, I got the story of what had happened.
Exactly two-and-a-half years ago to the day, their son had been driving along the road when he lost control of his car. It came up over the trail, hit the fence. The metal fence hit his head like a baseball bat (This was exactly the gruesome metaphor the father used…) and killed him instantly.
Every so often, they come back and tend to this memorial for their son. He told me the exact date of the accident. And when I got home, I found the Morning News archived story….exactly as he had described, from the morning after.
His wife and the small child fled when they saw me. That made me sad. But I understand. Big white guy, just randomly stops to ask questions.. That often doesn’t end well.
The man and me sat in a bit of silence, partly because of the language barrier, and partly because silence was exactly what was needed in the moment. The continuing grief was real. I told him I was a pastor, and that I would pray for him, his family, and his son. He seemed very pleased by this.
His son’s birthday is coming up at the end of the month, August 30th, and I hope you’ll join me in remembering them. Again, I won’t use the name, in the hopes that no a-holes out there would come and destroy that little planter box.
Because it’s a place of holiness…tenderness…grief…right there, by the side of the trail. And it deserves our respect and reverence, not our condescension and scorn.
I shook the guy’s hand, hopped back on the bide, and continued my ride, musing on the “Clear the trail!” guy. And my thoughts moved to Jesus and the story of the feeding of the five thousand.
In that story, Jesus is trying to get some “alone time.” He’s trying to rejuvenate and renew his soul. In one version, he’s just found out that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed. And so, Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee by boat, to what the Bible calls “a lonely place apart.”
But when he gets there, he finds a smelly, stinking hoard of humanity has stalked him, all the way around the footpath of the lake. They are there to interrupt his solitude.
Now, you might think Jesus would be angry at them. You might imagine Jesus approaches them and yells, “Clear the trail!!!”
But that’s not what he did at all. Instead, as the Bible says
“As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
This word, “compassion,” is one of my favorite words in all the Bible. I’ve written about it here.
The word is “Splagchnizomai” Pronounced: “Splagh-Neats-Oh-My-ee”
It means “to be deeply moved, as if in ones bowels.”
It’s a deep-level resonance and empathy with others. It’s not just a conscious decision. It’s SUBconscious. It’s the instantaneous, gut-level response of empathy and caring for even the smelly stranger, and the teaming hoarde.
Jesus does not tell the crowd to “Clear the trail!!”
Instead he and his disciples feed them. And then, after the human need has been met, he sends them home, and continues on into his time of solitude (So, please note: He delays his solitude. He doesn’t deny it…)
One final story about that spot on the trail, that sort of sews this story up with a neat little bow. I did not take this picture the day I met this man, prayed for him, and learned about his son. Frankly, in that moment, it didn’t feel right to whip out my camera and snap a shot. So, several days later, on my next ride, I made a point to stop again to get the picture.
But as I was putting my phone away, a young blonde woman —dressed in bright red bike clothes— cycled past me. And as she did, she threw her head back over her right shoulder and called out to me…
“Are you OK?!”
You see, that’s what we’re supposed to do on the trail. The kind of cyclists I love are the ones who look out for each other. It happens a lot on the trail, so I don’t mean to imply that the white guy was typical of everybody. In fact, he’s relatively rare. But he is a type…and that’s really why he bugged me so much.
And, frankly, everybody has their story. Hell, for all I know, the white guy has had a hard life. Maybe his wife died of cancer, or he just lost his job. Maybe that’s why he was such an a-hole by the side of the road. I don’t know.
What I know is that I’m increasingly called to try and find the point of compassion for all people. Even that white guy. Even me.
But I also know this. As this little series of blog posts testifies, “the trail’s always a metaphor.”
And the metaphor here is…
In life, be the rider who calls out “Are you OK?” instead of the one who whizzes past. If you stop to smell the roses, you might find beautiful stories of compassion and truth, in little planters boxes by the side of the trail.
One thought on “The Planter Box by the Side of the Trail”
oh, Eric, I am so blessed to get your emails again. i gather my husband met you on facebook and remembered how much a source of inspiration you were to me. i knew your work during my glory days (i’m not sure when)….life was so good. we had a gorgeous home, two small kids, i had a great job. since then everything has fallen apart. larry had two hip replacements, melanoma, and a progressive neuropathy. we lost our house. our parish of ten years abandoned us. your words speak even more to me now….thank you so much Juliana