My mug-shaped reminder of our impact

During a recent video-based coaching session, my client prompted me to show off the hand-made mug I was drinking tea from. I love this mug: Its bulbous body tapers toward the top, offering both a big space for lots of tea and a shape that keeps it hotter longer. Its glaze is fairly simple – brown and blue – and is a signature style of the studio where it was made, Turn and Burn in Seagrove, NC.

Though I was already familiar with Turn and Burn when I received it, I did not buy it from them. It was given to me by a stranger on a sidewalk in 2008.

At the time, I had just ended a four-year stint as a regular columnist for the Greensboro, NC, daily paper, the News & Record, in preparation for a move to Virginia. The impending move was also why I was visiting a friend at the store where he worked. We were chatting, in fact, when the stranger came in. Quite uncharacteristically for my friend who enjoyed being a big, tattooed, scary-looking guy, he very gently reminded this person that he had been banned from the store. With almost no push-back, the person left.

Turns out the banned fella exhibits some strong suggestions of mental health challenges, including doing what he got banned for, which was pouring soda on the shop’s stoop to attract ants as a punishment to the owner for sins only this guy perceived.

As I left from my visit a half hour later, I heard my name being called out from behind me only to find this exiled man running towards me. “Are you Sarah Beth Jones from the paper?” he was asking. That was, indeed, my name at the time.

“I was with the paper,” was what I led with because I was so completely certain that he was going to ask me to write some sort of expose on his unjust treatment. But no, I was completely wrong.

“I used to read you all the time when I was in jail!” he said. He resonated with what I wrote, had found a sense of connection when homelessness and mental illness had led to jail. And here he was, still dealing with mental illness, still homeless, but free to travel and focused on an exchange economy where what was in his travel pack – all of his belongings – were as transient as he, his today and potential gifts tomorrow.

He pulled the mug out of his bag and insisted I take it. I dug in my bag for a gift to return and found only the pouch of stones I carried at the time. He seemed delighted to receive those. After 10 or 15 minutes of chatting, we parted ways.

I had made an assumption that this person was going to ask something of me and, instead, he hoped only to give, to return what he felt I had given him. And in that way, I was reminded of how rarely we know of our own impact. We put ourselves out into the world and receive back only the barest hint of what it means to others.

Yes, a newspaper column is a unique opportunity to put oneself into the world, but the impact is potentially no lesser in those simple, passing moments of human connection. Just the other day, Theresa and I were taking a walk and as we passed two people returning home, Theresa complimented the pair of gargoyles in their yard. With those few words, their faces transformed from withdrawn and detached to enlivened by connection.

Of course, the inverse is true, too: those moments of fist waving in traffic, sharp tones in coffee shops, mean-spirited bumper stickers (I really don’t understand those!) reverberate just as easily. Perhaps even more easily.

Happily, we get to choose, day by day and minute by minute, how we put ourselves into the world.

What will you choose today?