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In a new light

The weather, here in southern California, seemed very un-Christmaslike but the calendar said the time was nigh and I had been dashing in and out of stores trying to get through the items on my Christmas list. Stop, start, stop, start, stop, start! My foot had only been off the gas pedal long enough to put it on the brake since morning. My mind and body had become a single focused mechanism directed only at my errand list and the traffic lights that let me through or bade me stop.

It was getting close to supper and I still had about four more errands to complete, and I was feeling the tension of my deadline. Now another stoplight went on to impede my progress and my foot went abruptly and irritably to the brake.

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As I stopped I noticed an elderly man walking beside the car toward the intersection. Looking at his gray beard, fringe of white hair and his attire of T-shirt, walking shorts, heavy hiking boots and little backpack, I decided that, considering the mid-December season and mid-70s temperature, that he would be an appropriate California Kris Kringle. At least he seemed like a misplaced mountaineer who had wandered down into the city. As he strode along purposefully but unhurriedly, he actually looked around him. This was totally out of keeping with my mood and apparently that of the other drivers around me too, if you could judge from their tense, frowning expressions.

This man, on the other hand, did not seem to be on a yo-yo string or be so tense he couldn't see the world around him. With his daypack, he seemed out for a city hike to see what he could see. Then, suddenly, when he came to the curb, he glanced down and stooped to pick up something.

For a moment I was surprised and a bit disappointed. His casual but neat attire certainly didn't suggest a vagrant, nor was his stride the slack, aimless shuffle one associates with that sort of person.

I was curious to see what he picked up. It wasn't the cigarette butt I was afraid it might have been. No, it definitely was not, because he held it up to the sun and looked at it.

Then I saw that it was a piece of broken taillight and he was viewing the westering sun through it. I caught a spark of fire-red light flash from the segment and thought that the sun must look awesomely resplendent through this jewel-like, multifaceted lens.

I smiled with the sudden pleasure of seeing someone so avidly aware in the middle of what most people call ''drab reality.'' This man was obviously able to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary. He seemed to have retained the intense awareness ordinarily ascribed to youth. Daily routine had not numbed and desensitized him. Or was he rediscovering life? No matter! He was onto something good.

As I took my foot off the brake and put it on the accelerator, I smiled with amusement as I realized that the traffic lights were colored appropriately for the season. Then, looking up I saw the sun's rays coming from behind Bob's Big Boy restaurant. The whole roof glinted as though solid gold. It was beautiful when you took time to notice it - even without a taillight lens.

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