“Did you even bother to look at the directions before you assembled this bookcase?” my friend asked.
I glared at him. “They were in four other languages I don’t read, and I thought I could just follow the diagram.”
My friend began to take apart the piece, which was listing toward the piano. “For future reference, these things work best when the shelves are parallel. You did study geometry, right?”
Despite my annoyance, I found myself smiling. Geometry had been one of the few forms of math I’d liked and understood, thanks to a jovial teacher who’d known how to make polygons less painful. Years later, I could still hear him drilling us in the definition of parallel lines: “Always the same distance apart, and they never touch.”
Although I no longer struggle to solve geometry problems, I’ve recently encountered parallel lines in a new and heartbreaking way.
Across the street from my office building, a row of tents sits along the city sidewalk, surrounded by trash. For about 10 people, this small encampment is home. Every morning, I rush past them, following an unseen line that leads to a desk and a daily routine. They trace a different path, searching for food, for water, for others to recognize them as human.
The two sides of that block are all too parallel: a high-rise office building and a tent town, feet apart, worlds away, and never touching.
But when a man collapsed in the middle of the street, those lines converged.
A few pedestrians immediately called 911, pouring bottles of cool water over the man’s face and limbs to revive him. I’d spotted the concerned huddle as I was leaving work, and I joined the group just as a young woman emerged from one of the sidewalk tents. She knelt and grasped the man’s hand.
“Hang on,” she murmured. “Help is coming.”
Moments later, medics loaded the revived man into ambulance and drove to the hospital. The small crowd dispersed; the young woman smiled at me, pushing aside a matted strand of her long, dark hair.
For a moment, our eyes locked, and I suddenly thought how much she looked like my younger sister. Then a curt inner voice broke in.
Smile and say “God bless you” and leave, it advised. She’s probably on the street because of addiction, mental illness, family issues, bad choices — none of which you can single-handedly fix. Maybe she has a criminal record, or a contagious disease. There are resources she can access; tell her to try those. Let her know you’ll pray for her. Walk away now. Donate to a shelter later.
“Have a good night,” she said, turning to go.
I felt a rule of geometry break, and I asked what her name was.
“Holly,” she replied, and for the next half hour, we talked — about her life on the street, before the street and (one day, she hoped) beyond the street. Dreams of becoming a graphic designer had been sidelined by domestic abuse and drugs, yet she still managed to draw on scraps of paper; Celtic knotwork was her specialty.
She worried about an older friend, a veteran of the streets, who was in hospice. She loved “Phantom of the Opera” and actually preferred Philadelphia to her native California.
She promised to look into the shelter information I gave her; I promised to bring her socks and shirts. I gave her a bottle of water I’d bought for my commute home, and we said goodbye. She smiled again and promised to draw me a picture. “A Celtic knot for an Irish girl,” she laughed.
The next day, I looked for Holly’s tent, but it was gone. No one in the nearby tents could (or would) give me any further information. I didn’t know if Holly had made it to a shelter, or to another street, or to another city. I didn’t know if Holly had made it at all.
What I did know, as I breathed a silent prayer for her, is that parallel lines had intersected. And like the beams of Christ’s cross, a new geometry had taken shape — one whose rules demanded that others, even those discarded by society, be seen from an angle of merciful love.
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