e n c o u n t e r
by Vanessa Rush Southern
One year while I was in graduate school, a friend who was worried about my safety gave me a personal alarm as a present. This red box fit neatly in my pocket and had a button and a pull cord (like a grenade), either of which would set it off in wild peals of noise. I carried the alarm with me for a few months, but fortunately never did need it. The day I decided not to carry it any longer was the day I set it off in my coat pocket.
It was a bitterly cold day in the fall, and I had spent the better part of the morning on a tour of a historic cemetery in town. I was exhausted and didn't notice at all when I set off the alarm while reaching into my pocket for a subway token.
The whole train ride I wondered what the alarm was about. Was there a fire? Were they testing some emergency system? At each station the sound was the same. How annoying, I thought.
When I got off the train I heard the sound in the parking lot. People were agitated and looking around confused. When I went into the supermarket, it was the same story. Everyone looked around, this way and that, staring and wondering aloud what that sound was. A couple of them asked me about it and I looked at them, innocent and ignorant, and said I didn't know. It must be some holdover from the Cold War, I mused to myself. What a great story it would make in the next day's paper, I thought.
And then, amid my musings, I stopped to ask a stock boy where I might find the popcorn. He looked at me, nodding his head in silence and with hesitation as if he were thinking something over in his head. "I'll tell you," he finally replied, "but only if you'll tell me about that noise." Completely tired of the whole business, I said to him in exasperation that I had no idea what the noise was about and wondered why so many people seemed to think I might.
"Because, lady," said the stock boy, with the nonchalant indifference of one who had seen it all, "it's coming from you."
Never has a face turned red as fast as mine did that moment when I realized that he was right, that this sound (that had plagued me for the better part of an hour) had, indeed, been coming from me. There in my pocket was that little red box with its little black button in the ON position.
How many times do we walk around with alarms going off in our pockets? How often does everyone else around us realize that something having to do with us is seriously wrong, and we just mosey along, slightly agitated in our journey? How many times in a day or a year are we completely oblivious to the effect we are having on people, even though it is the same effect on person after person? And how often would we rather make up the most elaborate excuses for why the world responds to us the way it does, rather than take responsibility for who we are and what that invites into our lives?
I just hope the next time I walk around with a personal alarm system going off in my pocket that someone is bold enough to look me in the eye and ask me what I am doing. Then, when I deny the charges, I hope he or she is able to say, without much pretense, that what is going on is, indeed, coming from me. And I hope the truth of what that person is saying will be as impossible to ignore.
The Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern is minister of the Unitarian Church in Summit, New Jersey. This story is excerpted from her new book, This Piece of Eden: Meditations, published by Skinner House Books in 2001. Available from the UUA Bookstore ($8; 1-800-215-9076).