The first summer I started riding the bus to work, I experienced an interaction that drastically changed the way I saw the people around me.

It was a hot afternoon in Tempe, Arizona and my bus was late.  I was new to the mass-transit lifestyle so I didn’t know that buses in Phoenix often break-down in the summer because of the heat. As I was sitting there baking in the 110 degree sunshine, I could feel myself getting irritable and decided to make an intentional choice to be positive and stay open to the unexpected.

It wasn’t much later that an old, Native American man (that looked homeless) walked up to me and asked for some money to buy dinner.  When I told him that I was sorry that I didn’t have any cash, he said something in a language I didn’t understand.  It reminded me of the beautifully fluid sounds I heard on the Navaho reservation when I visited as a kid.

So I looked him in the eyes and said, “Is that Navaho?”  I think he was shocked that I not only knew that, but took the time to ask him because he said, “Can I sit down and talk with you for a little while?  Most people won’t even look at me.”  The pain in his voice made me realize how desperately we all need connection with other people and that he probably hadn’t experienced that for a long time. So I told him, “of course” and tried to reassure him that it was nothing personal, people are just very nervous about strangers these days.

He sat down next to me and told me his name was Ivan (which he hated because “it wasn’t very Navaho”).  And when I engaged in conversation, it seemed like he could tell I was sincerely interested in his life stories.  He told me about his father who was a code-talker in World War II, and how his older brothers were drafted into the Vietnam war so he followed their footsteps and joined the army.  Ivan was a professional sniper for years and traveled the world.  He told me crazy stories about what it was like to stay up in a tree for days just waiting for his “target” to come out of a building.  With each story, he became more solemn until eventually his eyes filled with pain (and tears).

A half an hour went by and the next bus never showed up, so we kept talking.

I felt bad that I didn’t have any cash, so I told him I would go with him to buy some dinner.  He said that “Mother Earth” provided everything he needed and for the last several months he had been living in a tree–he ate the leaves for nourishment and slept in the highest branches so no one could see him.  Ivan said he had been trying to stay on the down low because last year he was thrown into “tent city” because the sheriff thought he was undocumented. I asked him if that was a rough experience and he said, “not after everything I’ve lived through.”

As I continued to ask him to tell me stories, he must of felt a connection and a comfort in being heard because he would often shift into the Navaho language (forgetting that I couldn’t understand him).  And I would have to stop him and ask “ok, what did you just say?”  He told me about the Navaho culture and how they consider words to be very powerful. Which is why they don’t have any curse words in their language–they would never “curse” another human being with the power of their words.  He told me about his mother, and how she was the one who taught him how to pray.  Then he looked at me and asked if he could pray for me.

I thought about all the past conversations I had at the bus stop (from nuclear physicists to the homeless) and no one had ever asked me that before.  And how did Ivan know that I was a person who loved prayer?  So I said, “of course!”  and expected him to close his eyes and whisper a prayer over me. So I was quite surprised when he stood up, spread his arms and started praying in Navaho (quitely loudly, I might add).  But I didn’t care who was around, or how crazy they probably thought he was, there was something about that experience that was surreal and it drew me in.

Afterwards I asked him to explain what he was praying and he said, “I was thanking Father God, Mother Earth, and Brother Jesus, and I was praying protection over your life that you would live many days.” And he said that he could feel his parents (who had crossed over) close to us when he was praying.

Another half-hour passed, and my bus still hadn’t come  (although in all honesty, it might have come while I was listening to Ivan pray).

After he told me about feeling his parents close to him, he started talking about his family’s land up in Northern Arizona–how there was lots of land, and lots of horses, and four sisters that he thought were worried about him. When I saw a tear welling up in his eye, I asked, “Ivan, do you want to go home?”

The look on his face was a definite “yes,” which triggered a quick call to find out how much a bus ticket costed, a trip to the ATM machine, and a way back home for Ivan.  He looked stunned and asked, “Why are you doing this?” I said, “Ivan…  we share the same Father God and Mother Earth–that makes you my brother.  We were obviously supposed to connect today and give each other something.  I know in my gut that this is what I’m supposed to give you.”

My bus finally came so I told him I had to go.  Ivan promised he’d go home (as soon as he got his belongings out of the tree he had been living in). As I got on the bus, he stood there and said something in Navaho and as the door closed I heard him say, “Thank you, Cindi. I love you.”

Wow.  Did that experience ever change me.
It taught me to stay open to the unexpected events of the day,
and to the new people we may meet.

The next day, I was riding my bike home from the bus stop down Shea (an extremely business street) and when I tried to avoid a tree branch I lost control and had a bike accident.  When I fell, my body landed so that my head was in the gutter and all I could see was the rush of oncoming traffic.  I got up, my body rushing with adrenaline, and realized if I had fallen 12 more inches into the street, I wouldn’t be here today.  And I thought of Ivan’s prayers of protection and said out loud…

“Thank you, Ivan. I love you too.”




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