The tables in the cafe were mostly empty as I hurried in to meet a colleague. Huge mirrors lined the walls, and I couldn't help seeing my reflection.
Hmm -- not a pretty sight. My hair drooped dismally in the humidity, and there were circles under my eyes.
A woman at one of the tables seemed to be beckoning a waitress. I checked my watch and looked around for my colleague.
The woman did it again. "You," she said in a calm voice. "Come here."
I'd never seen her before in my life, but she was looking straight at me and her voice was kind. She was many years older than me, and beautiful with high cheekbones and flawless cafe-au-lait skin. I sat down.
"I need to tell you something," she said. "When you walked in here, you were smiling and energetic, your eyes were full of light. Then you looked in the mirror. And your whole expression changed."
The woman paused. "I don't know what you saw, but this is what I need to tell you. That is not how you look."
She paused again and said, "Fret not, my dear. You look lovely."
Tears sprang to my eyes, and at the same time I laughed. Her words sounded almost biblical. "How did you know?" I said.
She smiled. "I'm familiar with that harsh judging. I used to do it myself. But I don't anymore -- and you shouldn't either."
Her name was Doris. She was 72 years old and wore a navy dress with pearls and a wide-brimmed straw hat.
"It takes a long time to figure out how to value your true self," she said. "It's plain hard work."
She went on to tell me a bit about her life. It hadn't been an easy one, but she found this unremarkable. "Sooner or later, we're all given our share of pain," she said. "Sometimes more than our share."
When my colleague arrived, she spotted us talking and laughing. "Oh, you've found a friend," she said.
"No, I don't know her at all," I said and began to tell what had happened.
Doris politely interrupted. "You do know me. You just didn't realize it until now."
Since that day, I've often thought of Doris -- how she simply appeared and offered her insights like a gift. It was one of those rare moments that lift you out of the ordinary and make you wish you lived in such a state of connection and awareness all the time.
Saints and poets do -- at least, that's what the stage manager in "Our Town" says. But the rest of us don't even come close.
Except for rare souls like Doris. It could be she spends her days scouting out wounded people who need her benevolent eye. If so, don't bother searching for her. She'll find you. And tell you what you need to hear in words you'll remember.
Here's what she said to me.
Fret not. Value and love yourself.
All I can say is, I'm passing it on.