Last week a FaceBook post by an old friend, someone I knew about fifty years ago and has only recently reconnected with, set me to thinking about how we perceive other people. My friend had gone grey many years ago and now was using a cane, due to some back problems, as well. She has noticed lately that when she is among strangers, people look at her with a certain amount of pity, perhaps thinking “Poor dear —  she hasn’t had much of a life, has she?” But this is so far from the truth, that she just wants to be able to tell people her story:

I want to tell them that I was in the Peace Corps when it was a new and somewhat progressive thing to do. I want to tell them that I traveled through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey on my own. I want them to know that I met a Pakistani woman on a train and that despite our lack of a common language, she invited me home with her and I went and stayed for three days. I want them to know that I was bombed in Vietnam and again in Israel. I want them to know that I have a minor reputation as a hell-raiser in the disability community. I want them to know that I have been in a movie and on television, and am the founder of the only braille fortune cookie company in the world. I want them to know that I organize and feed 100+ people at least three times a year . . .       (Judith Lesner)

She is proposing that she would like some badges to wear, like the girl scouts. She’d like a Travelers Badge (Yes, it took her about six years to return home from her Peace Corps Philippines assignment in the ’60s), an Innovator’s Badge, with a fortune cookie on it, and a Survivor’s Badge, as she had lived for many years with neither electricity or water, in addition to being bombed in two countries.

She wants to know what badges other people want and ends by saying she simply hates to be discounted.

And I can vouch for her very interesting, brave, and active life – and for her continued usefulness.  She has been a long time advocate for the blind, which started, I believe, in the Peace Corps, and she has taught the blind, trained others to teach, started a Braille fortune cookie factory, and I think she has more than a “minor” reputation as a hell-raiser in the disabilities community – and also in the LGBT community. And she not only feeds 100 people three times a year to this day, but she also gathers toys and paraphernalia for the blind a couple of times a year and sends them off to two different SPED schools in which there are blind children here in the Philippines. One of these schools is in Brooks Point, Palawan.

Of course, when you see her on the street with her gray hair and her cane, none of this shows. But that’s her point. Whenever we look at a crowd of strangers, we are categorizing, judging, assigning importance. This guy looks successful and probably rich. This guy looks irresponsible and is probably jobless. This middle-aged woman looks harsh and angry and probably had an unhappy marriage. This fat, smiling lady probably loves to cook for her children and grandchildren.

And when we look at the old, we assume they are useless, and don’t do anything worthwhile. Whatever value they had is long past. But we don’t know. Who was a hell raiser? Who still is? Who started something wild? Who fought in a war? Who is planning something huge even now in her silver gray head?

I sometimes send Creative Writing students out to observe people and make up stories about them. Elise Suarez did that in her column about riding a multicab.

This is a fun exercise and certainly good for one’s general perspective on the world. I’ve also seen write-ups of an exercise in which an individual sets out two chairs just off a busy urban street, sits in one of the chairs, and puts out a sign that says Let’s Talk! And people actually do sit down, and talk! Imagine the stories that might come out of that!

But it’s also fun to imagine what badges you yourself deserve, and what they would look like!

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