Sunday, 29 December 2013
TALKING TO STRANGERS
“Intimacy is when you into-me-see, and in that moment of connection we are brought closer together.” – Lenny Ravich
It started when I was on maternity leave. When the buzz of newborn excitement had hushed to a cyclical routine of feeding, and sleeplessness. When the steady stream of family and friends anxious to lay eyes on the new baby trickled to the occasional phone call. As I slowly slid into the isolation and loneliness of new motherhood, I lost touch with my working friends whose lives sped along at a pace I couldn’t possibly catch with my stroller and twelve bags of baby paraphernalia. And while I’d tour the baby- friendly coffee shops with other moms, the fleeting haphazard conversations we’d attempt to have between burping and bum wiping left me feeling empty. And so…
I began to talk to strangers.
It began subtly enough. I’d linger on the phone with telemarketers. “Are you sure you don’t have any other offers you’d like to tell me about?” “Maybe we could just double check the information in my file since I’m on the phone with you anyway.” “I really think we should go back and review my answers to questions 7-13.”
And then one year on New Year’s Eve, I found myself on the phone with my satellite provider and as he patiently went through the endless steps of updating my system (remotely from Mumbai I imagined), with neither of us having anywhere else to be for those 20 minutes or so, we started talking to each other just to fill the lull.
“How’s the weather up there?” He asked.
“Oh, much colder than where you are I’m sure,” I answered, “Poor you. It can’t be fun having to work New Year’s Eve,” I sympathized. We went on to have a delightful unexpected conversation about how we both preferred Christmas to New Year’s and were relatively content to pass December 31st in quiet personal reflection of the year that had passed and our hopes for the one to come. Before hanging up, I thanked him for bringing Dick Clark back into my living room in the nick of time and I wished him a very happy new year.
Then there was the travel agent, Joe, with whom I communicated by email for months as I planned and scheduled a much needed family vacation. Joe and I would fling humorous observations and friendly banter back and forth through cyberspace.
“You’re so organized,” he would type back when I sent him spread sheets of our passport details.
“Mother of 6. Not much choice.” I would counter. His LOL’s would be peppered with details of the weather in his home town, the progress he was making in his Christmas shopping or his own vacation plans. Once or twice I wondered if it was inappropriate to be cyber chatting with a young man half my age--- (Imagine my surprise when months later I finally had to call in my credit number and heard that “Joe”, the young man I had been bantering with was in fact “Jo”, a middle-aged woman with a smoker’s hack.) But ultimately the pleasure I got from these random interactions and moments of in-sight was proof to me of their precious value.
The other day at the bus stop my youngest waited and pensively shuffled her feet in the dirty snow. “Mommy, I have a question, but I don’t really know how to say it." I took a deep breath, apprehensive about her serious tone. Were we about to launch into the where-do-babies-come-from conversation? Or God forbid, the childhood crushing is-Santa-real question? I braced myself.
“What I want to ask you is... How do we make friends?” I exhaled in relief. No problem. I’ve got this one. The well-oiled gears of parental advice started turning.
“Oh, well, you could just ask them if they want to play with you. Or maybe you could introduce yourself and ask them what their name is. Or you could ask if you can sit with them at lunch, or at recess. Is it someone at school, baby?”
“Nooo!” (How does a seven-year-old manage to pack so much sarcastic exasperation in one syllable?) “I mean, how-do-we-become-friends?” I looked at her inquisitive face and realized that I had once again, in my naïve overconfidence, grossly missed the mark. She was asking me about the serendipity of friendship. She wanted to know-
How do we make friends?
Around this time last year we had taken the girls to our neighborhood Tim’s for hot chocolate and a donut. There is something about the steamy familiarity of the corner coffee shop in the holidays. The comfort of coffee and a donut. A gathering place for those seeking warmth, connection and a sugary treat. As we sat in silence, cupping our hot mugs, breathing in the cocoa scented coziness, an elderly man got up from where he was sitting with his buddies earlier. As his friends put their jackets on and started to shuffle out, he came to our table and with a twinkle in his eye, asked the girls if they liked balloons. Curious, they nodded, and he proceeded to pull out a handful of long skinny colorful balloons from his inner jacket pocket like some retired circus master on a break from the three rings. We all grinned as we watched him blow up the colorful bits of rubber and slowly manipulate them into a dog and a flower and hand them to my enchanted daughters who in their shock could barely remember how to say thank-you at this unexpected gift. “Happy holidays,” he said, and just as quickly as he had appeared, he zipped up his coat and stepped out into the blustery evening.
Somehow these days, these moments of simple connection and in-sight with strangers are few and far between. We have slipped from wishing passers’ by a “good morning” to crossing to the other side of the road, from asking the local butcher how his grandchildren are to ordering our groceries on line, from “ love thy neighbor” to “stranger danger” . So many missed opportunities for intimate connection, for learning about others, while learning about ourselves.
From telemarketers and cyber salespeople, I have moved on to cashiers, bank tellers, and strangers in the elevator. It’s become an addiction. I am constantly looking for that next connection. Can I engage the grocery bag boy to tell me about the sports team he is raising money for? What music does my pretty brooding teen neighbor listen to on her way to school each morning? What special event is the lady in the next chair getting her hair cut for? Each passing of a stranger is an opportunity for a serendipitous friendship, to have a moment that matters. And though these transient moments are gone as fast as they come, in the exchange of a few words, a laugh or a smile I am somehow the richer for it.
This year, we found ourselves making yet another seasonal trip to Tim Horton’s. I surprised my children by picking them up early from school to take them out for supper. I called their father on the way and told him to meet us there. It was already dark and the building anticipation of the upcoming Christmas vacation filled the three of us with warm fuzziness. The coffee shop was packed and I sent the girls to grab the last vacant booth while I ordered us all soup bowls, hot chocolate and their choice- donuts with red and green sprinkles. At the next table sat an older woman, waiting for a friend. We greeted each other and I settled in with my kids. Periodically I’d glance over and return the smile of the silver-haired woman next to us. I was clearly not the only one entertained by my daughters’ bubbling energy.
Finally, somewhere between sipping the last of our soup and peeling the wax paper from our donuts, we looked up and saw my husband’s familiar grey tuque entering the door. The three of us waved excitedly and he smiled back. “Is that daddy?” The woman next to us asked.
“Yes, we’re having a special family dinner.”
“How lovely!” she exclaimed.
After supper, I shuffled the girls off to the washroom, an essential step before zipping them up into their snowsuits before the long walk home. As we came out, the elderly woman was waiting to meet me. Gently placing her hand on my arm, she smiled warmly and said “A very happy holidays to you and your family.” I grasped her firmly, holding her in an impromptu hug. “Oh, and you too! Thank-you! A very happy holiday to you!” My heart fairly leaped out at this beautiful woman. Our eyes connected as, in a fleeting moment of intimacy she saw into me and I into her.
“Who was that?” my daughter asked me. “What’s her name? “
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.
“Is she your friend?” she persisted.
“Yes,” I paused. “Yes, she is.” And we bundled our coats around us and stepped out into the dark night.