It is invisible. To most people.
Unless, of course you’re crazy then it’s a giant neon sign over my head that says: HEY COME TALK TO ME!!!
My whole life I’ve had this sign. As I have gotten older I think the sign is getting brighter and brighter, or maybe I’m choosing to leave it on. People, random strangers, come talk to me. No, they aren’t trying to sell me something. No, they aren’t hitting on me. The crazy flag is what people see when they need to bare their burdens to someone, and that someone is often me. I used to hate it. Now, I’ve come to embrace it as a gift. Really, it’s pretty fucking awesome. But the crazy flag moments have stuck with me.
A long time ago in a place far, far away, I used to study at a 24 hour IHOP in Albuquerque. Anything open for 24 hours a day in ABQ is gonna be…weird. I would sit in a booth with french fries and ranch dressing and a pot of coffee working on psychology homework (irony) or highlighting articles for a paper. Yeah college BG (before Google). I looked busy, I promise. But people ignored my busy looking facade and would come sit in my booth. Like they would just come sit next to me and start talking. I met a woman my age (nineteen at the time) with her baby. She spilled her life story and said she needed a moment and left her kiddo with me. Like she got up, left and didn’t take the baby with her. Yeah, I was already a mom so I wasn’t totally freaked out, but a stranger left her baby with me and said… I know he’ll be ok with you while I take care of this. Now, I don’t know if she was buying drugs, turning a trick or calling her grandmother at one o’clock in the morning for a different time zone, but she left her baby with me. He slept in my criss- cross apple sauce crossed legs as I sat in the booth for what seemed like an hour but was probably twenty minutes. She came back, looked relieved and said thank you, I’m gonna be ok. She picked up her kiddo and left. I hope she and that kiddo are ok. That baby, he’d be twenty five or so by now.
Same IHOP (Yes, I went back because the library doesn’t have french fries) a young man maybe twenty with a scruffy- oh honey you should just wait till you’re all grown up to try a beard looking beard, sits across from me. He says you look like you’ll listen. Crazy Flag. He proceeded to tell me about how he didn’t want to go to college, that he wanted to be a Rabbi and that his parents just didn’t understand. We chatted for a while about what it means to live up to someone else’s expectations. I hope that he has counseled people in faith.
Once the homeless guy we all knew jumped out at me one night walking home from my Dinosaur class. (yes, I got to take a dinosaur class for college credit, you should be jealous) He yelled Aqualung! at me and all I could do was reply, my friend, hoping he was referring to one of my favorite songs. He smiled and told me to be safer and that there were bad people out here. I wish I could believe he was ok.
On a road trip I hear about the woman who’s mom just had brain surgery while we both happened to be looking for a can of pringles in the gas station. Walking the dog I listen to someone who’s daughter has run away. On a run one Sunday, a man in his bath robe stands in front of me. I pause, knowing this is a crazy flag moment feeling oddly at ease with the situation even though I should’ve kept running. He tells me he’s schizophrenic and scared that he has to take meds for the rest of his life. I tell him it’s ok and that I need coffee for the rest of mine and make him laugh and remind him to take his meds. With a heart full of truth I tell him that if people have a problem with him on meds he will find new people who remind him to take them. I hope he’s taking his meds like coffee, and that his demons are at bay.
I always knew more about my students than most people in the building, often a burden that had to be shared because their burdens were life and death situations. I was told of abuse, pregnancy, drugs, the voices they heard, and their fears. I listened, and knew I was the first to hear it. There is power in letting go of secrets. I know some of my former kiddos are ok.
As an admin my teachers would come to me as well. I’d usually end up making them a cup of tea and reminding them they are not alone. Too many stories to tell there. Just too many.
At the nail salon. A woman not much older than me reaches over and puts her hand on my leg, she tells me that she has just lost her husband, and son in the last few months. Her skin sagged around her once laugh lines with a weight as heavy as her heart. No doubt she needed to be heard. I think she needed to remind me to love hard because life is so fleeting. A good reminder, not so crazy.
In a smoking section outside on the patio of a bar somewhere in a quasi suburban area a young woman with staples just removed from her head comments on my purse. I can see her wounds. I say thank you as she approaches and asks for a hug, which I gladly give. Because hugs. I then hear her whole story and just offer kind words that she can now finally be on the right path. Seeing her cry and say thank you is a moment I actually still feel proud of. I hope she made it.
A friend happened to be there for this interaction, and asked how come people just come and talk to you like that, it was kinda crazy? I said…crazy flag, I smiled and said I’m used to it.
The crazy flag has allowed people to rage at me too. People have come to me and just let loose what must be years of frustration. They have cussed and yelled and even thrown a chair or two. I understand that it’s not me they are angry with so I give the chance to vent. They rage, yell, get angry let it all out and a sudden calm comes over them. After the rage they almost always calmly say, I’ve never said any of that out loud before… How do you handle people treating you like that? I’m sorry, and thank you for putting up with me. I say you’re welcome, don’t you feel better? How can I be helpful? The answer is usually that I already did. Just by listening.
The next day I might find a random gift from the Universe on my desk in the form of a cup of coffee or a small piece of chocolate.
I try to explain these moments to people and they don’t quite understand. How is it that these people just talk to you, like really talk? How is it that people just seem to find you? I really don’t know, but they do. They always do. Most people don’t understand (or maybe ignore) how important it is to listen when someone decides to start bearing their soul, however it comes out. If someone is trying to talk to you about real deep shit, don’t we owe it as a human to listen. I mean really listen.
Not one of my crazy flag moments has ever lasted much more than an hour. An hour. We commute to jobs that we hate, getting angry about rush hour for that long almost every damned day. To think we could ease a soul in the same amount of time, or the time it takes for us to get our coffee or finish a cigarette should make us all pause. Pause. Listen.
I have taught my wee ones about the flag. Hers flies more than his. She came home one day when she was in sixth grade or so, to tell me a man on the bus asked if he could borrow one of her angels. It was then I knew she too would carry the flag. I had to explain. I had to show her, to learn her to deal with people bearing deep, desperately personal, dark (and sometimes truly evil) secrets to you. She began to notice how I handled similar moments we had when we were together and the crazy flag was out. It has become a regular thing now.
Maybe it is some Biblical like confession or something (shit I wouldn’t really know) but when a person gives you their crazy flag secrets, those words are no longer just their own. Those secrets are no longer a burden they have to carry alone and that is a good thing. They are not yours just for having heard them, but you do have the power to move the story forward. You share the power to hopefully make a difference. You now have the chance to save someone, possibly (at least for a moment of respite). You may have the chance to offer redemption of sorts, in a shared understanding. You have the chance to make a call to the doctor when they ask for your phone, or offer to show the route to the bus in the direction of the rehab, to offer to buy their coffee when they have just explained how they’ve had a case of the Monday’s for over a month. Simple.
You have to listen when people are telling you their secrets. I’ve learned it can be life or death. At this point, after all these years, there isn’t anything I haven’t heard. Really, I think that’s the scariest part. Nothing surprises me anymore. Maybe that’s why the flag is so bright these days.
Some days the flag flies higher and brighter than others, and there have been days I don’t want to leave the house knowing it is going to be one of those days. One of those days where I can just tell that people will find me. I just want to hide because I don’t feel like I can offer the support they will need even if just for a moment. On those days I am not sure I can be free of judgment, blame or shame and that’s not fair to anyone. But then I have come to learn, it is those days the crazy flag often has a lesson for me, not the other way around. So I go about my day and listen.
It is on those days the crazy flag reminds me that we are all human and I thank the gods none of us are even close to perfect. It is on those days that perhaps my flag says come talk to me, I need to be heard.
I think really, we all have a bit of the crazy flag to fly but ignore it. I see too often people attempt to open up and get shut down by a lack of receptivity intentional or otherwise. People want to be connected, so many of us just don’t know how. Or we are scared. Are we so afraid to be human? (a bigger thought process for another time)
I believe it is part of the human condition to listen. I believe too, that listening is difficult. I know it is part of the human soul to want to be heard, and understood. I believe now, that what I call my crazy flag is just the Universe allowing me to listen, to hear, to relate to understand and to feel connected…even if it’s just for a moment. Although it can make me feel…crazy at times, it is really quite a gift that I am now very grateful for.
My flag will be bright for the wounded seeking triage in words. My flag will fly for those who need to feel safe, even for a moment. I know that people will find me to tell me what they have yet to say out loud, or even to themselves like moths to a flame that will not burn them, rather offer a hug. I’m gonna keep the sign on.