“Great moments often catch us unawares….”
By Kent Nerburn
There was a time in my life twenty years ago when I was driving a cab for a living.
It was a cowboy’s life, a gambler’s life, a life for someone who wanted no boss, constant movement and the thrill of a dice roll every time a new passenger got into the cab.
What I didn’t count on when I took the job was that it was also a ministry.
Because I drove the night shift, my cab became a rolling confessional. Passengers would climb in, sit behind me in total anonymity and tell me of their lives.
We were like strangers on a train, the passengers and I, hurtling through the night, revealing intimacies we would never have dreamed of sharing during the brighter light of day. I encountered people whose lives amazed me, ennobled me, made me laugh and made me weep.
And none of those lives touched me more than that of a woman I picked up late on a warm August night.
I was responding to a call from a small brick fourplex in a quiet part of town. I assumed I was being sent to pick up some partiers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover, or someone going off to an early shift at some factory for the industrial part of town.
When I arrived at the address, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground-floor window.
Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a short minute, then drive away. Too many bad possibilities awaited a driver who went up to a darkened building at 2:30 in the morning.
But I had seen too many people trapped in a life of poverty who depended on the cab as their only means of transportation.
Unless a situation had a real whiff of danger, I always went to the door to find the passenger. It might, I reasoned, be someone who needs my assistance. Would I not want a driver to do the same if my mother or father had called for a cab?
So I walked to the door and knocked.
“Just a minute,” answered a frail and elderly voice. I could hear the sound of something being dragged across the floor.
After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman somewhere in her 80s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like you might see in a costume shop or a Goodwill store or in a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The sound had been her dragging it across the floor.
The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said. “I’d like a few moments alone. Then, if you could come back and help me? I’m not very strong.”
I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm, and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness.
“It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.”
“Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said. Her praise and appreciation were almost embarrassing.
When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?”
“It’s not the shortest way,” I answered.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”
I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening.
“I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I should go there. He says I don’t have very long.”
I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to go?” I asked.
For the next two hours we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they had first been married. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she would have me slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”
We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. Without waiting for me, they opened the door and began assisting the woman. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her; perhaps she had phoned them right before we left.
I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase up to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You have to make a living,” she answered.
“There are other passengers,” I responded.
Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held on to me tightly.
“You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”
There was nothing more to say.
I squeezed her hand once, then walked out into the dim morning light. Behind me, I could hear the door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
I did not pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the remainder of that day, I could hardly talk.
What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? What if I had been in a foul mood and had refused to engage the woman in conversation?
How many other moments like that had I missed or failed to grasp?
We are so conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unawares.
When that woman hugged me and said that I had brought her a moment of joy, it was possible to believe that I had been placed on earth for the sole purpose of providing her with that last ride.
I do not think that I have ever done anything in my life that was any more important.
Author Kent Nerburn talks about The Cab Ride… from the film The Four Chambers – four life affirming and uplifting stories about compassion, courage, vision and wonder
By Kent Nerburn
Adapted from “Make me an Instrument of Your Peace”
Reproduced on Zen Moments with the author’s kind permission.
Revised and edited in May 2012, at the author’s request, to accord with the original.
Photo: Taxi Union Square 2007 by Thomas Hawk
You may also enjoy another of Kent’s stories – The Window on the Heart
Kent was recently interviewed about the Cab Ride by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
This beautiful story originally appeared as part of a chapter in Kent Nerburn’s book Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace: Living in the Spirit of the Prayer of St. Francis (pp. 57-64 – see below)
Who wrote this? Kent Nerburn – see his blog www.kentnerburn.com – who is the highly acclaimed author of several books on spiritual values and Native American themes. You can support Kent’s work by purchasing autographed copies of his books directly from his bookshop Wolfnordog.com, which also features a range of beautiful gift baskets.
Is this a true story? – Yes – see www.snopes.com and www.truthorfiction.com.
Kent says “The story is real, my friends. It was a gift of a moment to me, and I hope that by passing it along it is a gift to you, as well.”
Why would the lady leave her place in the middle of the night? At 2:30 AM?
Kent responds: “I thought nothing of it at the time, but it did happen as I wrote it. Perhaps the woman did not say she was going to a hospice, but to a nursing facility — I wrote it twenty years after the event, so my memory, which always is an adventure, was foggy. Why 2:30? I don’t know. Did I think it was strange? Not at the time. When you drive a cab the stories of a single night could fill a book. You do what you can; you do what you must. Sadness, joy, fear, and all manner of unlikely occurrences are part of every shift. I’d be happy if this became an urban legend, and I’d be even happier if it became a story claimed by hundreds of cab drivers. It would speak to the good hearts and intentions of people who do a difficult and too often denigrated job.”
This beautiful story was published here in 2008, when we began ZenMoments.org. Much to our and Kent’s surprise it hit the front page of www.reddit.com and went viral. It has now been viewed here over a million times. Kent wrote about this on his blog: Our Better Angels: Some thoughts on “The Cab Ride.”
Kent also posted this comment:
“A website out of the U.K., zenmoments.org, has recently posted the now well-traveled story of my experience as a cab driver, when I picked up an old woman who was on her way to a hospice. It has reached number one on a number of websites as a result.
I am thrilled when my ordinary life offers up an extraordinary moment that brings some solace or insight or enjoyment to others, and such has been the good fortune of that moment in the late 1980’s when I was driving the “dog shift” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What is noteworthy about that moment, beyond its poignancy, is that I did not create it; I merely experienced it and let it unfold.
Life gives us all such moments — I call them “Blue Moments” (See Letters to My Son for an explanation) — where a brilliant light shines through the ordinary moments in our ordinary days. They come unsolicited and unannounced, and provide us the gift of significance and, if we are lucky, the opportunity to serve.
What it is important is to remember that these ARE gifts, and that we cannot receive them if we are not open to them. We need to listen closely, watch closely, and take care not to rush past or through them when they arrive. They are the fabric of our lives, and they will weave themselves with complexity and beauty if we give them time to do so.”
Living in the Spirit of the Prayer of St. Francis
By Kent Nerburn
Kent Nerburn’s Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, immerses us in the spirit of one of the most universally inspiring figures in history: St. Francis of Assisi. The Prayer of St. Francis boldly but gently challenges us to resist the forces of evil and negativity with the spirit of goodwill and generosity. And Nerburn shows, in his wonderfully personal and humble way, how we each can live out the prayer’s prescription for living in our everyday and less-than-saintly lives.
“Where there is hatred, let me sow love…Where there is injury, let me sow pardon…” Expanding upon each line of the St. Francis Prayer, Nerburn shares touching, inspiring stories from his own experience and that of others and reveals how each of us can make a difference for good in ordinary ways without being heroes or saints. Struggling to help a young son comfort his best friend when his mother dies, moved by the courage of war enemies who reconcile, being wrenched out of self-absorbed depression by responding to someone else’s tragedy, taking a spirited old lady on a farewell taxi ride through her town – these are the kinds of everyday moments in which Nerburn finds we can live out the spirit of St. Francis.
By incorporating the power and grace of these few lines of practical idealism into our thoughts and deeds, we can begin to ease our own suffering-and the suffering of those with whom we share our lives. And, remarkably, find a way to true peace and happiness by tapping into our basic human goodness. As we open our hearts and embrace his words, St. Francis “touches our deepest humanity and ignites the spark of our divinity.”
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love,
Where there is injury let me sow pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light,
And where there is sadness, joy…
In this beautifully written book, Kent Nerburn leads us into the heart of the St. Francis Prayer and line by line demonstrates how St. Francis’s words can resonate in our lives today.
- “An ennobling book. It will not only make you feel better, it might just make you a better person.” — — Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions
- “Kent Nerburn has written a little jewel of a book, to warm the heart and touch the soul.” — — Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People
- “What a lovely book!” — — Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
- “I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed Ken Nerburn’s Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace. I have never realized the depth of thought in that brief prayer of St. Francis. Kent Nerburn, in a few masterful strokes and touching stories, plumbs its depths and offers us a precious little treasure.” — Joseph F. Girzone, author of Joshua
By Kent Nerburn
A personal journey that reveals the sacredness of the small things in life, and what they can teach us about living spiritually fulfilling lives.
Very POWERFUL stuff here! By Blaine Greenfield
SMALL GRACES by writer, sculptor and theologian Kent Nerburn caught me off guard . . . I wasn’t expecting much from this short book of 20 essays, but as I got more into it, the more I was impressed with both its beauty and simplicity.
It made me think about moments in my life that I thought were ordinary – yet, in reality, are much more than that . . . As Nerburn notes, “We become artists when we see with our hearts instead of our eyes” . . . Methinks that this is something that we all need to do, regardless of profession.
I find myself reflecting about one section, in particular . . . The author describes a teenager’s anguish about having to walk around on crutches for a relatively short period of her life (because of an accident) . . . She naturally finds it upsetting, yet it also helps come to the realization that she’ll never again complain when she comes across an older person walking slowly.
There were several memorable passages; among them:
- She smiles, helps Nick with his knife. In Japan, one who masters the gentle art of making tea can be declared a national treasure. I watch her hold his hand gently in hers. Should one who practices the gentle arts of making a home be revered any less?
- “No, your life isn’t ruined. Now your life is your life. No one else can fix it or change it. No one else can be blamed. This is yours. And it is up to you what you will make of it.”
- None of us is promised tomorrow. Today, in all its beauty and sadness and complexity, is all we have. This light we see may be the last such day we have on this earth. There is no certainty, beyond the fact that one day we will have no tomorrow, and that it is not ours to know when that day will be.
And so, too, is the conclusion:
- Sometimes, it seems, we ask too much. Sometimes we forget that the small graces are enough.
I’ll cherish SMALL GRACES for a long time and will want it to share it with others . . . You’ll want to do the same if you give it a shot.