As you have probably discovered, people are nearly everywhere, and there is little we can do about it. Fortunately, hidden among them are Saints and Angels, many of them in disguise. Sometimes, the more humble they appear, the more potent their message.
There were many handsome young people working at our modest beach hotel, most of them happy to work twelve hour shifts, smiling all the while. Eduardo was a little different. He was older, and while I thought he was about sixty, he later revealed that he was seventy-one. He was a small man, maybe five foot three, about a hundred and thirty pounds, with the lean, upright posture of a yogi.
I first saw him at the hotel entrance, using a palm frond broom to sweep the dirt parking lot, one of the humblest tasks imaginable. He looked up from his work as I passed, and he was surprised when I smiled at him and gave him a nod. Eduardo was used to being overlooked.
The next time I saw him, he was standing very still, watching a potted hibiscus plant on a stand near my room. I stood there with him, quietly watching a small army of black ants marching up and down the hibiscus stems.
“What are they doing?” I spoke to him in Spanish, as many older Mexicans didn’t speak English, or had forgotten it.
“Gardening,” he replied. I thought I’d misspoken,
“The ants; what are they doing on the hibiscus?”
He nodded, and pointed to a plump bud. I put on my reading glasses. It was covered with tiny green aphids. We watched for a while. The ants marched up the stems, and out to the bud, where each one gingerly picked up a plump and tender aphid in its mandibles, and carried it back down the stem. Eduardo spoke in English,
“The ants are gardeners. This plant is their garden, and the insectos are their crop.”
“At home, I am also a gardener.”
“Oh, then you understand.”
“Have you read Tagore, the Hindu?”
“Yes, a little. I lived in India for a year.”
“Tagore wrote a book called ‘The Gardener.’ Pure poetry. How about Thoreau?”
“A long time ago, in school. Did you read Thoreau in Spanish?”
“No. Many years ago, I went to Maryland to deliver a ship. I stayed for a year and read books to learn English.”
I took a moment to reflect on what kind of person learns English by reading Thoreau. I remember struggling to understand his 19th Century prose, even as a student of English Literature. I returned my attention to the hibiscus.
“What are you going to do about the ants?”
He shrugged, “If I watch them long enough, I may learn something.”
I saw him the next day, watering plants and trees around my palm-thatched hut on the beach. I was typing into my computer, and he said,
“There is the beach, nice waves, beautiful people, warm sun. Why are you working so hard?” I gazed out to the strand, where nude Latinos and topless European women played in the churning surf.
“I’m working on my novel. I need to finish, and publish it, so my wife will be able to quit her job.”
“Have you published before?”
“No, not yet, but I’m trying, and it’s a good book.”
Suddenly, he looked excited, as if struck by a marvelous idea. Eyes wide, he pointed a finger at me and said, “You’re gonna get it, don’t worry. This year, you’re gonna get it.”
He was willing to chat with me in Spanish, but when he had something really important to say, it was in English, as if he wanted to be sure I understood. His enthusiasm was enough to make me forget momentarily that my book had already been rejected by at least twenty agents. Why not? Harry Potter was rejected forty-seven times before taking the literary world by storm. Somehow, this man’s excitement was contagious. Perhaps it was the brightness of his eyes, or the peaceful calm, which was his default expression, but whatever the reason, he seemed in earnest, and I believed him.
I usually greeted everyone with a buenos dias, or buenos tardes, but after that encounter, I began to feel differently about the people working at our hotel. I started calling the young men hijo or hermanito, the women damas, and the older men caballeros. They began to talk with me about their families, their aspirations, and their hobbies. The next time I saw Eduardo, I said,
“I’m sorry about our new President. I hope you know that his stupid wall is about his insecurity, and has nothing to do with you. He’s a clown in an expensive suit.”
Eduardo shrugged, “We all have a soul, and we are here to work on it. Trump just has more work to do than others. No one here is perfect.”
I was struck by the generosity of this statement. “Maybe when he has so much work to do on himself, he should not be President.”
“Maybe. But maybe he was elected because his imperfection appeals to people.”
I nodded sadly, “I think you are right, but I’m sorry he has insulted your country.”
“You are not all the same, and neither are we. Most of us know that. Even Trump is here for a reason. Maybe to remind us to work on ourselves.”
I was stunned. This beatific man, happy to be working at age seventy-one, could articulate a reason for Trump’s existence. This was more than generous; it was humble, even forgiving, certainly more than I could manage. Obviously, I had to work on myself too.
On the day we left, my wife and I walked up the slope away from the hotel office, and there was San Eduardo, watering the cactus. He spoke in English, so Crissy would understand,
“You are leaving today?”
“Yes, we are sad to go.”
“Look at you,” he said. “Many couples come and go, many. But you two really have it. You live in God’s grace.”
How few words it took to make our eyes dampen. Crissy and I looked at each other, now in a new way.
“Do you have a family, Eduardo?”
“I had a wife who was the joy of my life for twenty years, but she left me.”
“No, she is with God now, but she left me a child, the greatest gift of my life. Yes, you guys have it, you love each other.” Crissy lets a tear roll down her cheek, and I say,
“You sweet Little Baby.” His eyes open wide in surprise. He’s not sure he heard me right. I explain, “I say that to my favorite people, so I remember to hold them close to my heart.” I pantomime rocking a little baby in my arms. Eduardo beams, and now he’s getting misty too.
“Well, I am very happy to be in that family.”
“We hope to see you again next year, Eduardo.”
“With God’s grace.”
“I don’t ask God for much, but I will ask for that.”
Grace, Humility, Generosity, Forgiveness; these are the qualities of Saints. Watch for them, they are out there, maybe sweeping parking lots or watching ants.