One of the gifts offered to the only child - aside from one’s own room, which is a delightful gift indeed - is the opportunity to cultivate a keenly observant eye and the chance to learn to enjoy one’s own company. Some only children refuse these gifts, it’s true, feeling deprived of community and wary of solitude, but for myself, I grasped them both with grateful hands. They have made my life richer, deeper and infinitely more interesting as both held the key to an intellectual curiosity that bubbles still. Even today I often imagine myself invisible, a holdover from my childhood when I intently observed the often complex interactions of the adults all around me, secure in the knowledge that nothing save watching and listening was required of someone so small. I still love to spend my time in airports, hotels or restaurants making up back stories for the characters wandering past. One would think this habit of slightly detached observation would render me a bit unapproachable, the faraway look in my eye label me distant or cool. I can assure you, this is not the case. Strangers talk to me all the time. They ask me things, they tell me things. They inquire where I purchased my clothing, what I’m knitting, what I’m reading. They share their plans, disclose their histories and reveal their worries. I often feel as though I have some sort of flashing neon people magnet glued to my forehead. I used to wonder why but I’m used to it now. Besides, these random connections have their compensations.
For example, just last week, I was climbing off one of those contraptions at the gym when I noticed an elderly gentleman making his way towards me,. Now it’s pretty much a written rule that one does not engage a fellow exerciser in small talk at the gym. It’s as if there’s an fortified force field of privacy around everyone affording each of us the freedom to look our worst. But it was clear this man was going to pierce my force field like a puppy. And sure enough….
“Hey there!”, he said, grinning.
I took the headphones out of my ears, reducing Adele to a tinny little squeak in my sweaty palm and smiled up at him.
“Do you like looking at pictures of rainbows?”, he asked.
Oh boy, I thought. “Ummm, yeeessss”, I said, not sure where this was heading.
“Well, let me tell you. Go on Google and type in pictures of rainbows and about halfway down the page you’ll see these pictures this National Geographic fellow took right here in the city after those storms that rolled through last week. He just happened to be in town and I tell you, those are the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen in my life. My wife found ‘em and I though you looked like someone who’d enjoy them like I did.”
Once again I found myself grateful for whatever is written
on my soul that causes strangers to share things with me.
I mean who couldn’t love this?
It is astonishing to notice how little people make eye contact with each other these days. And really, who can blame us? So much distrust is sewn into our very beings in this current culture. If one’s knowledge of the world was limited to certain media, one might be forgiven for thinking every face on the street is potentially an enemy. Fear of “the other” seems rampant. Immigrants are demonized, ( rather ironic here in America when everyone save a Native American is essentially an immigrant). The poor are losers, the police are enemies. Guns are good, travel is dangerous. Rather than the balm it could and should be, religion appears to have become a knife used for division and pain.
While I’m hardly a Pollyanna when it comes to the challenges we face in this age, happily, all this is not what I experience when I walk outside my door. Troublesome issues are rarely easy to solve and very little is exclusively black or white. But somewhere in the shady areas lies the real world. It's cooler here in the shade, colors are truer and visibility is so much better far away from the glare of extremes.
Looking into eyes unlike my own, conversing with those living lives so different from me, sharing a laugh with someone I can barely understand - all this makes my life happier, lighter, clearer. My interactions with people have taught me to look for the good, and after all, we usually find what we’re looking for. Author E. M. Forster put it much better and more succinctly that I ever could when he wrote in Howard’s End…. “Only connect!” These words speak volumes and meant so much to him they are on his tombstone.
So I’ll keep talking to strangers whenever I can.
After all, that’s how I get to see rainbows like this…..
photograph by Andrew Evans
Note: More connections will be made soon as I'm heading back
to my beloved Scotland in a few short days.
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