It used to be the norm for strangers to talk to one another on the street, hold doors for one another, chat in line at the bank. Now, given the proliferation of technological devices at our disposal, we seldom look up long enough to smile at a passerby. It’s my personal belief that perhaps we like travel so much because it’s one of the only times we disconnect from the usual forms of communication (email, text, cell phone, internet) and find ourselves in meaningful conversations with perfect strangers. But what about when we’re at home living our normal, everyday lives?
Author Eli Davidson asks in her Huffington Post blog, “How often have we each been so embroiled in our own petty dramas that we breeze past someone in trouble?” She poses the challenge that we divorce ourselves from the idea that our technology (our tweets, our Facebook status updates, our emails) aren’t always about us (she calls it the It’s Not About You movement). Similarly, MIT Professor and Psychologist, Sherry Turkle, writes in a NY Times article that,
Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, “I am thinking about you.” Or even for saying, “I love you.” But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it’s derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.
Last night, my mother called me to tell me an interesting thing that happened to her. She kept calling it ‘interesting’ because she couldn’t quite explain what it was about this particular experience that meant so much to her. Despite the fact she’s never published a written work, I pressed her to write about her experience because I felt it was an important reminder to us all and she has agreed to share that story here.
My mother has always been the greatest model for me to reach out to strangers—she meets people everywhere we go (she has befriended everyone from a Uyghur man in Tiananmen Square, a motorcycling couple from Quebec riding through our hometown, and a Chinese merchant marine making his first stop to port in the U.S.). I thank her for her braveness in sharing this story and for always challenging the way I see the world.
by Kathleen O’Gorman Solimine
I just finished reading a tweet posted on Facebook today about a movie producer’s chance encounter with an unruly passenger on a cross country flight from NYC to LA. We all have had similar experiences in which we are flying somewhere, anxious to get to our destination, family, friends, or work, and we sit next to a person who is not the type of person we would ever talk to anywhere, and now here we are, trapped at 30,000 feet, with this stranger, and there is no where to hide. Most of us reach for the headphones, kindle, or those little bottles of alcohol available to numb the pain of long (and short) distance flying (thank God for headphones, the kindle, and that alcohol!).
But in this series of tweets, the narrative unfolds thus: the movie producer finds himself in an unusual predicament, one in which he makes a choice to interact with the unruly passenger. This choice ultimately has an incredible impact on the movie producer, upending his (as well as the reader’s) snap judgment about the reasons for the passenger’s surly attitude.
Chance encounters don’t just happen on airplanes, buses, or trains, although these modes of transportation are often the perfect place to choose to ‘engage’ or ‘disengage’ (as the choice is more often made). But what if we decided to open ourselves to the possibilities of conversations with those we come in contact with as we live our lives?
I’m sure some of the time, we may find the conversation boring, trite, crazy, or just not to our liking, so we think it’s probably better not to chance an encounter, easier to just insulate ourselves and move on.
Maybe we could just try it out slowly, a smile—it’s a start, and it could be the start of something ‘good.’ After all, babies like it when we smile at them! What is that makes it so hard for each of us, as we grow older, to acknowledge each other?
As I said, chance encounters can happen anywhere, at any time, and our decision to engage or not is always available to us.
Yesterday I had one of those chance encounters.
I was taking my evening walk (headphones on, my friend Joni Mitchell keeping me company singing one of my favorite songs), when I stumbled upon something fluttering on the concrete sidewalk next to a large oak tree that was home to a family of birds. I watched him for a few moments to see if perhaps he’d regain his strength and fly off, but the poor little guy was obviously hurt from the fall from his nest and was in distress.
As I reached down to pick up the distraught baby bird, a young man walking in the opposite direction stopped to see what I was doing. He was also taken by the young bird’s condition and we began to talk about what would happen to the little guy if we left him to fend for himself, realizing he’d probably die, or be stepped on by some unobservant walker. As daylight was fading through the trees and nightfall was upon us, I decided to pick the bird up and take him home. I could google ‘bird care after a fall’ and he would fly away on his own after a day or two.
I shared this with my new friend, and also shared with him stories of heroic efforts made in the past by my children that ended badly for the mice, birds, and other hurt animals they tried to save. But it was worth the effort, after all. So I reversed my direction and began the long walk home, holding the tiny bird ever so gently and conversing with my newfound friend.
He told me that he was in town doing a landscaping job at the local cemetery for the summer. He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, has five sisters and one brother, and that he misses them all very much because they moved far away from Providence for jobs, adventure, and warmer climates.
As we walked, we talked about the bird in my hand and I showed him the beak, which had a slight curl. I decided that our little friend was definitely a fierce hawk! Being a hawk will help him survive we decided, and we watched as he labored with each breath that he took and hastened our steps to get him home.
I hoped that the warmth of my hand provided him some comfort now that he was alone and away from his mother. As me and my friend the landscaper reached each intersection, we paused and found that we were still traveling in the same direction and so our conversation continued, bird in hand.
“Will you give him a name?” my new friend asked.
“Probably,” I said. “What is your name?”
“Samuel,” he said. “After my Grandpa.”
“Well then, his name will be Samuel!” I said, and my new friend smiled.
As we approached the next intersection, the tiny bird began to flutter and move his wings as if to fly away—we both smiled and felt this was a good sign that he would survive.
Here, Samuel had to continue walking straight and I needed to turn right to return home. We said ‘good-bye’ and I told Samuel to be sure to look up one day soon for a full-grown hawk over the cemetery where he worked, as that would surely be Samuel the hawk that we saved.
When I arrived, I looked down at Samuel ‘The Fierce Hawk’ and realized that he was no longer struggling to breathe, there was no fluttering of his wings. He had decided to give up his struggle.
I buried him under a tree where a nest of sparrows live. I thought about the other Samuel and smiled.
Kathleen O’Gorman Solimine grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts and now lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She’s the owner of an insurance agency by day and yogini (at Empower Yoga) by night. She is a proficient potter and poet, and prefers bicycling to driving a car. She is still, forty years later, a Big Sister in the Big Brother-Big Sister program. She celebrated her 18th birthday in the fields of Woodstock, NY—yes, that Woodstock (a fact I never let her live down when I was 18), but she claims she saw no one nude or on drugs at the festival (sure, Mom…). She is the best mother in the world, and I’d be willing to fight to the death to prove it.