I carried a hundred dollar bill around in my pocket for most of the week and just didn’t find the right person. The little voices in my head were back, and they had a lot to say. “That guy looks a lot like Charlie; what’s up with that?”

“Too nicely dressed. Clearly doesn’t need it. And is that an iPhone?”

“He’s looking for empties in the trash. But he’s talking to himself. Move on.”

“She probably doesn’t speak English.”

Sheesh. It’s exhausting entertaining such a clamarous mob.

I had a nice chat with a man on the bus. He was traveling with two large bags of recyclables and I was considering giving him the money. Then he told me that he hates Portland. “It’s Communist! There’s no freedom here!” “What?!” I exclaimed. “What?” Turns out he’s pretty worked up about not being able to smoke on the bus. And everywhere else. The giving urge passed.

After work, I decided to start walking home but stay on the bus route just in case I got tired.  The voices kept up their persistent chatter. “Wow. Are those ALL her kids?”

Everyone seemed to either be talking on their phone or in a group. I almost got knocked over by a bicycle and thought about how much that would hurt.

As I approached the stop across from Holladay Park, I noticed a woman sitting by herself waiting for the bus. She was reading. A book – the old-fashioned kind. This warmed my heart.

“Hi there,” I said. She glanced up. “Hello,” she said with a smile. Then she was back to reading.

“What are you reading?” I asked. She showed me the book: I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb. (I haven’t read this book and was very impressed to see later on Amazon that it weighs 1.6 pounds and comprises over 900 pages.)

Meredith and her book

“I wonder if you can help me out with something,” I said. “Sure, I’ll try,” she said. I told her a quick version of my story, how I had made a promise to pass along a gift in honor of my mother. She looked at me expectantly. “What is it?” she asked.

I handed her the hundred. “Seriously? For real??!” She laughed a deep belly laugh. “This is so amazing!” She told me her name is Meredith and she is a student. There was a mix-up with her financial aid and she didn’t get her check this month like she expected.

She was so excited. “I’m gonna pay my phone bill!” She told me that she is in recovery and that having a phone is critical to keeping her in touch with her support network.

That made a lot of sense to me. This whole journey has been about making connections, and I told her that nothing seems more important than that.

“It’s true!” she said. “I just took a class called Personal Health. They taught us that everyone thinks the key to happiness is having a lot of money. Or stuff, or good looks. But it isn’t! It’s the human connection. That’s what really matters.”

Her bus came. “Here, Jill, give me a hug!” she said. We held each other for a good long squeeze. Then she was off.






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7 Responses to The Key to Happiness

  1. Haralee says:

    For some reason this story really touched me. Good scouting Jill, glad you found Meredith and shared her story!

  2. j.kathleen says:

    The Key to Happiness was the first thing I read this am–my birthday am. 🙂 Thank you–and Meredith– for reminding me of what is truly precious and meaningful in this life. A perfect way to begin my new year!

  3. Betsy says:

    Lovely. I couldn’t help wondering, though, what it would have been like to give the hundred to the fellow who wanted the freedom to smoke on the bus. Would he have softened? Refused?

    What is your sense about giving your gift to people who put you off?

  4. Jill Ginsberg says:

    Great question that has prompted a lot of reflection. There are people whose grumpiness/inapproachability is superficial and can be broached by a simple and surprising act of kindness. These encounters have been some of the richest and most satisfying. Actually, this is often what I am looking to accomplish with my gifts. Others (and I would put the guy on the bus in this category) are in a state of disengagement that is profound and impenetrable. It would be easy to argue that these are the people who most need to be approached with an open hand. Whether through laziness, fear, selfishness or whatever – I choose to steer clear of these folks for the most part. I’m sure I don’t get it right all the time, but I seem to be able to spot the difference. Does that make sense to you? I would accept a challenge…

  5. Meredith Meacham says:

    Jill, I just wanted to thank you again! It’s been three years, and I wanted to tell you that I now have my Bachelors Degree in Community Development and I work at a drug and alcohol treatment center. My life is so blessed, and you were evidence that people are still good!

  6. Human connection is the key to help one another from the ground up. I met Meredith while going back to college, she always encouraged me like we all did for each other. Going back to college was the best human connection, I could have received at this time in my life. When writing a reference letter for Meredith last year, it was not hard at all. She is one person that makes sense when other don’t (it is her strive to help others). I had no idea that this happens~until now. So glad this ray of positive energy touched my friend~Meredith.

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