The streets of London plead for attention; a necessary contrast from the ubiquitous gloomy atmosphere of a tired city. Art, music, musings, and performances line sidewalks and alleys. Voices and brassy guitar chords echo into the rhythm of the river. The beats of nightclubs vibrate walls and glass. Chatter and tourists and the scent of candied peanuts mixed with oil–a hint of America.
However, the hidden gems lie in London’s crevices. Between the booming parkour magic tricks and tourist traps. They are the unadorned modest moments. The kind that whisper a reminder: life can be simple and sweet and beautiful in small moments.
My gem, this time around, was an old man.
He sat, unnoticeable, at the front of the Tate Modern along the River Thames. Each passing in my peripheral–a set of angles and bones. A structure that blended into the modern chimney pipes standing stoically behind him. Both things a reminder of the past; industry and smoke stains and wrinkles.
But each passing on my nightly visit to the museum allowed a new detail to enter my lack of attention. His wrinkles and sun-kissed skin. A smirk underneath his peppered mustache. His clothes tattered.
A sign under him that read, “Poems in writing…”
“Must be homeless…” I thought as I passed and walked into the museum. But as I sat on my perch overlooking the city, drinking a glass of wine, reflecting on the exhibits, my thoughts went back.
“Poems in writing.”
As I left the museum the next night, I noticed him feverishly scribbling on a piece of paper, two women watching in earnest. My eyes went to the ground around him, covered in colored papers all folded in half. Pulled by the magnetism of shared curiosity, I couldn’t help but walk over, but I immediately had the feeling in my gut that I would be solicited. That this was a mistake. He wanted my money. Pull out your wallet and be done with it.
Oh, the fault of human judgment.
“Let’s see what I have from China,” his fingerless gloves caressed the tops of the papers, brushing over the names of poems until a single finger paused over one called “Silent Night.” He opened it and read:
Beside my bed a pool of light—
Is it hoarfrost on the ground?
I lift my eyes and see the moon,
I bend my head and think of home.
The linguist in me imagined the effort of collaboration between his vocal cords, glottis, and tongue; his voice twisting and turning around every word with such elegance and lucidity.
The girls looked pleased. “Nostalgia is such a powerful feeling, don’t you think?” he nodded to his own question.
He said the poem was by Li Bai.
He said he loved China and its literature because it was a nation founded on the back of “gracious poetry.”
He said the words of Chinese poets were similar to snow: they drip slowly from lips and emphasize surroundings. Their brevity and clarity masks unnecessary noise.
I realized, then, that this man, homeless or not, was adding something valuable to the world. To my world, at least. And perhaps to the two girls next to me as well. He handed the girls the poem, asking for nothing in return.
“Wait, I have one more!” He searched again until he pulled out another titled “Snow”:
Birds in flight to the end of a thousand hills,
The shadows of men fading on myriad paths.
A single boat, an old man clad in straw,
Fishing alone in freezing river-snow.
“From the Tang Dynasty,” he said, handing them another poem. The two girls moved from China when they were young, but they always wanted to study Chinese literature. They all began talking about the poem and I stepped in, complimenting his metaphor of snow and words, and asked where he got his knowledge of Chinese poetry.
“Years of reading, love,” he whispered in a raspy accent, the muse that guided his poetry reading not following into normal conversation. I smiled. The girls thanked the man and walked away, and I began to scan the names of all of the poems on the little folded papers. Some titles from Yeats and T.S. Eliot stuck out, but many were ones I’d never heard of.
“Do you write your own poetry as well?” I met his eye.
“Every single day,” he smiled.
And then he went through and read me some of his poems. He wrote about everything. From the towering St. Paul’s Cathedral and lost lovers to a stray dog that hangs around the area. Between readings, we would discuss writing. I explained my horrible bout of writer’s block, which shadowed over me the last few months. That I hadn’t written a poem since college–since I edited poetry for the campus literary magazine. When I stopped and was consumed by journalism and graduate studies, it felt meaningless to do it.
He told me that means I just haven’t stopped since that moment.
He told me the restless mind loses the focus on the present.
He told me that all poetry or prose requires you to do is stop and breathe.
He told me that you can write about anything.
He told me that the ship currently coming up the river created ripples that were highlighted by the moon. That the angles of buildings create paintings in the water. The footsteps on the bridge make music. The feeling when your pupils dilate and your heart sinks at the sight of something or someone. That is poetry. That is writing. Anything sitting in front of you can fuel that game in your heart. That need to put two and two together and explore the invisible lines between them, and language’s ability to convey it all, however absurd, however unseen by others.
In essence, he composed a poem in freestyle, in that moment, about his surroundings and current state of mind. And I was struck in this didactic moment by this man’s passion for words and his natural ability. Perhaps I was struck because his very nature challenged my prudent judgment of him. Homeless. Haggler. Soliciting.
Homeless. Intellectual. Wise.
Maybe not even homeless.
Maybe the homeless aspect was irrelevant to who he was.
Why would it be relevant?
Whatever his state, he didn’t flaunt it. He didn’t use his writing to make money. He did it because he loved it. Cliche as that sounds.
And judgement. Judgement is something immediate. A conclusion we go to when we don’t stop.
Why do we not stop? Why do I not stop? To think and feel.
And then my wall was broken. His diagnosis complete. We shared a few more words and I took two of his poems to take home to my boyfriend and roommate.
When I delved back into the normalcy of my life after that trip, I left those thoughts behind. I went on moving. I woke up and my brain churned toward the future. I went to sleep and tossed around my to do’s for the next day. I stopped reading. I stopped writing. It wasn’t till I paused and reflected on what I wanted to write about that I thought of this man and his lesson. And here he is. Still affecting me. Inspiring me to go on and pursue passions for no other reason outside of love. To stop. To live.
Those small hidden gems–they can be life-changing.