The gypsy woman is there every Saturday at the gates to the farmer’s market, one hand on her belly, the other holding her magazines. “Big Issue?” she asks, as I walk briskly past. “No thanks.” I mumble, hurrying from her – uncomfortable. Week after week, her pregnancy is growing. (It must be great for business, I tell myself.) Most people smile politely even if they do not buy her magazine. But not me - I feel mean in her presence.
My feelings confuse me. I am not a ‘hard’ person; I usually feel compassion for someone begging for a living, and often buy copies of the Big Issue from more dubious sellers than her. And on principle, I always give money to buskers. (If they are bold enough to perform in public, then I reckon I owe them a pound.)
The gypsy woman’s boldness is something altogether different. She is young, with colourful shirts and rough shawl, sad, pleading black eyes and wild hair – a caricature of what a gypsy should look like. (Such an actress, I think.) But I am buying neither the magazine nor the “helpless me” act. This girl is clever. How dare she capitalise on the moral sophistication of the good people of SW London doing their part for local, sustainable agriculture! This blend of middle class families, urban hippies and conscientious foodies can hardly justify paying £2 for an organic almond croissant but not have some spare change for a magazine, can they?
What is wrong with me? Why do I hate this woman?
The irony is, as a counsellor by profession and a “wisdom seeker” by nature, my “thing” is the pursuit of understanding of the human shadow. I adhere to the philosophy that any strong reaction to another person – good or bad – it is merely a cast-off, unloved or denied part of me being reflected in the mirror of “other” and demanding some attention. The magic of this type of self-reflection (pardon the pun) is that it encourages love for the whole self, ‘warts and all.’ But clearly I do not love my inner gypsy…yet.
So what are the qualities in her that I am rejecting in myself?
I decide she is as foreign as the parrots that have taken over Richmond Park and equally as exotic and unnatural - their bright green feathers and deafening squawks make it impossible for them to blend in. And what about me? I am foreign all right - wilfully maintaining my American accent and cultural roots…but exotic and unnatural? Depends on who you ask, I suppose, but I don’t feel a strong response to this idea so it must not be the root of my distaste.
What else? Well she might as well be holding a sign that says, “I am a helpless victim!” But me? Internally I am screaming, “NO WAY…I am NOT a helpless victim!” My emotional reaction means I’m on to something. I keep pulling at this thread and decide that, in this context, a “helpless victim” is someone who feels powerless over the circumstances of their life; someone who feels they have no choices. I acknowledge how much I HATE that mentality when I encounter it. Bingo.
I focus on the “helpless victim” part of me. This is not a pleasant task. I realise that although I am not at the mercy of strangers, I am not in charge of my financial life either - my dependence is altogether more stealth. The truth is, I have nothing of my own that I have earned with my own labour since I first came to London 14 years ago. In fact, I am beholden to my ex-husband for my entire livelihood. I may even sell my home because I can’t imagine finding a way to pay the mortgage on my own. What’s more, I have passively accepted that I am “trapped” in the UK because I cannot take my son away from his father. This is uncomfortable to admit, but yes, part of me is indeed a “helpless victim.”
It’s interesting that this is being brought to my attention now, as lately I have taken steps to become more proactively self-sufficient. So, it seems, has the gypsy woman – she may be wily for posting herself in front of a farmer’s market, but she is also smart to do so. And she’s not doing ‘nothing,’ she’s selling magazines – an appropriate choice for a pregnant foreigner with few job prospects and presumably no wealthy husband like I had. She’s not just a helpless victim after all, but also a resourceful survivor. And so am I.
My hateful feelings begin to ebb as another piece of the intricate self-puzzle slots into place. Next week I will buy a croissant… and perhaps a magazine as well.