It is a rare sunny day in Arcata. I have taken some time off in the morning to do paperwork, the most dreaded part of my work as a nurse/therapist.
As I clean up my kitchen before going to work, I glance out my window overlooking the alley. A woman of undetermined age, but on the youngish side, is walking past, pushing her shopping cart full of bags apparently containing all her possessions.
Curious, I stop. I am a voyeur, watching silently and unknown to her. She captures my imagination.
As I watch, she stops the cart, looks around and appears satisfied that she is alone. Privacy on the city streets is coveted and she looks content, nodding to herself.
She methodically begins looking through her plastic and paper bags. She withdraws a mirror, searches for other parts of her morning ritual. Looking through her many bags, she finds her makeup.
Across the kiddy seat, which is opened for occupancy, its red belt dangling, is her jacket. In its pocket is her toilet paper, which she uses to prepare her face. For her, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.
I am mesmerized by this glimpse of the homeless world, a world I see everyday, and everyday feel grief about.
She continues her ministrations. Propping up the mirror just right, she peers into it. It's just where she wants it, at the right angle and height so she can see her face in the bright sunlight.
I continue my clandestine observations, discreetly. I cannot tell her age because of the window screen and the distance between us. But I wonder.
She is dressed in black. A good color to wear in the big cities and anywhere else if you are homeless. But her shoes provide a stark contrast: new, white high-top tennis shoes. She seems to be a series of contradictions: young and old, arrayed in black and white, homeless and organized.
She moves through her cart bag by bag, pulling together her makeup. It takes about 10 minutes to apply. Most of the time and effort is spent on her eyes, those windows to the soul.
She makes faces at herself in the mirror, testing the effect, and stretches her features into grimaces to check for details. I stare amazed. Then I realize I have never really watched anyone apply makeup and I only spend a minute or so a day on my own face.
When she is satisfied with the results, she puts each item away, reorganizing her belongings. That done, she takes the mirror in her hand and inspects herself from different angles, sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning. She puts the mirror in its assigned place and nods to herself.
Smiling, she walks to the other side of the cart, the side where she faces the sun. Once again, going through her cart in a meticulous fashion, she draws out three objects: a pouch of tobacco, rolling papers and a Bic lighter.
Expertly, she rolls one cigarette, places it in her mouth and lights it. She replaces her paraphernalia and looks around. The alley is empty and quiet, with only the occasional cat wandering by.
She pulls her cart to one side and parks it. Deftly, she pulls a glossy magazine from its place in her cart. Sitting down against the fence facing the sun, she smiles, draws on her cigarette and, opening her magazine, is lost in the fictional world of glamor.
And I am there, too, only on the inside looking out. I had a glimpse of the bright side of her world from the dark side of mine. She was living in the moment, enjoying the now; I was preoccupied with what I still had to do.
Her gift to me: I slowed down to her pace, shifting from frantic, get-it-all-done place to peace in the sun, a place to enjoy. It was like going from a kaleidoscope view - a skewed vision which is beautiful and absorbing, but also distorting - into a new, clean point of view filled with a special quiet beauty.
Until I saw her, my vision was obscured through the lens of busywork and I almost missed that lovely morning.
Lesley Meriwether is a registered nurse and psychotherapist with the Arcata Family Medical Group.
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