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Change and exchange 

I went to a superb talk in Chapel Hill on Monday, staying for the energetic discussion following the talk itself. Because so much time had already passed, a graduate student and I began to walk to my car—I wanted to talk with her and I also wanted to go home to my family who was waiting on dinner for me. We stood talking in the cold by the pathway to the parking lot, until we noticed a couple behind us, waiting to get by. Because of their bags, they could not pass by until we moved out of the way. Which we did, apologizing as we cleared the pathway. For which they were exceedingly grateful, and apologetic about us having to move.

As they set about chatting us up, I finally looked at the couple and realized these folks were homeless. Phrases like "when I was in 'Nam" and "visiting her sick mother" surfaced in the conversation.

"Oh no," I thought, "they will ask us for money, and I have not a penny to offer them." These two conversations continued on their independent tracks somewhat contiguously, with talk between the graduate student and I about various research possibilities, and between the couple and I about their lives. A bit surreal, but OK, as I wanted to talk with the graduate student and not be rude to the couple who were rather upbeat.

And then, one of the pair turned to me, and handed me the rose she was carrying.

"I don't have any place to keep it, and it will be all brown and withered in the morning. It is so beautiful now, and I would like you to have it," she said, smiling, with a few teeth between the gaps. "Oh no!" I protested. "It is yours, you enjoy it!"

But she insisted I take it, and after a few rounds of insistence and demurral, I finally did. Her husband gallantly editorialized, "From one beautiful woman to another!" And off they went, as I stood with the rose, expectations about the transaction totally upended, and a bit dazed by receiving gifts far more precious than the money I'd been expecting to be divested of.

The rose has a home now; it has been sitting in a vase on our table now these five days, enjoying the warmth of our kitchen as we, in turn, enjoy its beauty daily. It is doing remarkably well, each day a new wonder as it slowly and gracefully opens to its full splendor. I have never had a rose last so long in full beauty. And each day we wonder where that couple is, as the weather has gotten colder, and then as it has snowed and rained, and rained some more. Frost in the mornings. We wonder how they are faring. The juxtaposition of warm rose, cold people does not escape us.

  • As they set about chatting us up, I finally looked at the couple and realized these folks were homeless.

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