A while ago, at the Royal Ontario Museum I went to the public restroom. Just before I came out of the stall I heard a high clear voice say, “Who’s going to get me soap?”
I walked out and saw a little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, the arms of her white sweatshirt rolled up as she stood at the sink. She couldn’t reach the soap dispenser. I wasn’t sure to whom she had addressed the question. The room was empty except for the two of us.
“I can help with that,” I said and proceeded to offer her soap from my hands.
“What’s your name?” she asked as she scooped up some of the foam.
Seeing she couldn’t reach the faucet I pressed it down for her and replied, “Oriah.”
“I’m Dakota,” she offered promptly.
“Hi, Dakota.” She nodded and proceeded to rub her hands under the flowing water.
“And how many years old are you?” she asked in a matter of fact voice.
“Fifty-five,” I replied. She frowned a little and then held up four fingers. “Ah,” I said, “and you are four years old.” She nodded and moved over to the hand dryer putting her hands under the warm air. My own hands now washed and dried, I headed for the door.
“Good-bye Dakota. Nice to meet you.” She smiled and waved good-bye.
Just outside the doorway, a young man stood waiting. “I bet you’re waiting for Dakota.” He smiled and nodded, and I assured him she would be right out.
The incident could not have lasted more than three or four minutes but I keep going over it in my mind and smiling, wondering why it touched me so. Physically Dakota reminded me of myself at that age- I was also slight, blonde and blue-eyed. But Dakota was so at home in her own skin, it took my breath away. She was not trying to be precocious, or ingratiating or demanding. She needed soap and she couldn’t get any so she wondered out loud who was going to help her, and seemed to take my appearance as a reasonable answer to her question. She was confident but aware of her own limitations. She was curious but not invasive, willing to give whatever information she asked of the other. She was. . . . whole and at home with herself and the world in way I could not remember being as a child.
Thinking about Dakota I remember being the same age and visiting Buffalo NY to shop at Grant’s Department Store with my family. It was 1958, and I was carrying a small pink purse. As my grandmother and I waited for my grandfather at the entrance of the store, an elderly black gentleman walked up and squatted down in front of me smiling. I heard Nana gasp and felt her suddenly grab me and pull me back against her as she stepped away. I could feel the fear coursing through her body hitting mine like an electric shock. The gentleman looked up at her. His smile faded and he slowly shook his head as he held out my purse.
“Your little girl dropped this,” he said. He looked so tired and so sad I felt like crying, but I didn’t know why. I wanted to say something, but he quickly got up and walked away. I felt confused and embarrassed for my grandmother who just stood there, her body rigid, her arm across my chest pressing me against her.
Dakota was not afraid. I have no doubt that if anyone tried to harm her she could fight and yell for assistance very effectively. And of course she was too young to be there alone, and her guardian was close by. But she did not start from a place of fear. She did not expect me to be anything but helpful. No one had yet taught her to be afraid of everyone she did not know. My grandmother had been taught to be afraid of strangers, and a racist culture has taught her to be afraid of people- particularly men- of colour. I have been privileged to live in a city of such multi-cultural diversity that many of the fears she passed from her body to mine have been expunged and healed. But I remember them and how they affected me, how they put up a barrier to the other.
Encountering Dakota made me feel hopeful. Maybe we can raise children who do not approach unknown people or places or ways of being with fear and hostility. And maybe, if we do not meet the stranger with fear, we can get to know each other a little, can find ways to live and work together.
Oriah House (c) 2009
Oriah is the author of the international best-selling books: The Invitation, and The Dance, and The Call (published by HarperONE, translated into eighteen languages.) Her much loved poem “The Invitation” has been shared around the world. Trained in a shamanic tradition, her medicine name Mountain Dreamer means one who likes to find and push the edge. Using story, poetry and shamanic ceremony Oriah’s deeply personal writing and her work as a group facilitator and mentor explore how to follow the thread of our heart’s longing into a life where we can choose joy without denying the challenges of a human life. www.oriah.org www.oriahsinvitation.blogspot.com https://www.facebook.com/Oriah.Mountain.Dreamer?sk=wall
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