Advent, beginnings, are like that old Confucius saying – the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In my life, it began with Daniel. His presence, its meaning, as his image, remains with me.
Sensory perceptions have a way of evoking not just memory, but reality. Daniel was a big man, strong, well-proportioned, a bit round. When a man’s diet is robust, fatback seasoned soul food, he gets round rather easily.
Daniel was not the first person I knew as a youngster whose life expressed less, but he was the first with whom I spent a good portion of time. Curious kids notice things. Daniel had a singular smell about him, one mix grease and dirt, one mix sweat, one mix hand-me-down, unwashed clothes. With his belt over-tightened to force his oversized pants to fit, his shirt filled by his girth and wearing hand-me-down professional black-on-black oxfords, Daniel still achieved a dapper appearance.
Possessing workman-like hands, uncut fingernails, with dirt always underneath, Daniel had the usual calluses, only extra dry and cracked. I remember the scar on his arm but he never told me the story behind it. His eyes were sometimes jaundiced, and only later in life did I understand this.
I noticed all these things and remember them still. I’m sure Mom and Dad knew them, too, but they never interfered with our relationship. I guess they knew, and I did, too, on some level, Daniel was a good soul who lived on the wrong side of the ledger. They saw no harm and I felt only comfort and strength in him.
In those days, Southern society called Daniel colored. It didn’t matter to me. I looked up to him, hero-worshiped him. The only thing he colored, as I look back, was my perception. Reality had not yet fully formed within me, but Daniel’s place in my heart planted the seed. As I grew, he became the angel to my better self.
Except in our imagination, no story is completely Pollyanna. At the time, Daniel’s life, and mine yet to unfold, is no exception. Daniel knew harsh reality but my awareness remained repressed by ambition, idealism and determined denial. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now, it’s the trinity for spiritual sickness.
For many years, Daniel’s friendship, God’s seed, lay dormant in me. But if advents are beginnings, there must follow an unfolding story moving to its own ending. God seeded my advent, my unfolding, and watered it with failures and avoidance and hindsight. With each pruning, repression gave way to humility and the realization there is more to life than created utopian consequences.
Daniel’s seed, my advent and beginning, brings me to a sober realization. As I remember him, his hands and smells and scars and eyes, I realize he probably was there, in the stable, watching over the manger, as he watched over me.
“Those who have ears to hear, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15).