talking with strangers

the sun is rising over hawaii, where in a couple of hours I will start a sabbatical program at the kalani retreat center. I had another epic travel day yesterday, waking at 4am to fly from costa rica to miami to los angeles to honolulu. I managed to stay awake most of it, so hopefully jet lag won’t be too bad.

along the journey I had really nice conversations with strangers. I met an elderly couple from new mexico, an irish banker girl all decked out in day-early st. paddy’s day accessories, and an elderly hawaiian man going home for a visit. each conversation was sweet, about love, family, doing what we are passionate about, health. I have had lots of conversations like this in my travels.

the elderly woman from new mexico said I had a truly beautiful smile.

folks who know me well may remember that generally, I avoid small talk like it is a plague destroying the lives of millions of traveling americans, and also that I’m an introvert who deeply prefers to be alone or one-on-one with close friends, though I can give the extrovert boom when needed.

I travel with headphones, eye masks, books, magazines, journals to write in – I love the quiet anonymity of travel, looking out the window while traversing time zones.

but here I am, talking with strangers, and enjoying it.

one key has been avoiding the small talk conversation. I don’t initiate the conversation, but if someone starts up with me, I don’t do my usual conversation exit strategy move of smiling, nodding and going back to my reading. I ask something related to my own emotional processes these days – health or love. I share that I am on a sabbatical supported by my community, seeking my health, and i speak about doula work, being a writer and wishing that I could just do that, facilitation as a life skill, being an aunt, daughter, etc.

so far, every time, the other person is willing to jump into that deeper conversation and skip the ‘what about this weather?’ or ‘insert travel complaint session here’ routine. I have been amazed by what has emerged in these conversations:

1. I love detroit so much, though I am away. I love blowing people’s negative assumptions to hell. I am not traveling to be away from detroit or even winter, just to get closer to myself.
2. under the small talk, people are so hungry for authentic connection.
3. the shift is in me, i am getting so much out of setting my normal judgments, critiques, assumptions and dismissals aside (I am a Virgo y’all, this is hard, it’s as fast as breathing to me) and pursuing whatever brought us together.
4. the world, the humans in it, are much more complex than a lot of my political views normally account for.

I’ve always been drawn to the gray areas in issue work, and in people…the part that can’t determine whether something is good or bad, the part which has to rely on the pull of the heart, gut instinct, prayer, the circumstantial, what emerges from being present rather than being strict. for this reason, no single religion has held me, though I love mashing up sacred works and myths and histories and beliefs.

this talking with strangers has a similar yield – I don’t have to buy in or agree with these people aout everything, but I love hearing how they love, where love is hard, how they take care of themselves, especially elders.

I am aware that the passing of my grandfather has probably opened up my longing for deeper connections with older generations. I rode a horse the other day for the first time since he passed, he the great horse whisperer of the south, and felt my grief and longing all over again.

the lessons within my own family (accept the infinite shades of gray and let love clarify action), those lessons apply with these strangers. if I approach them as teachers, slivers of the divine, I can see them in their complexity and curiosity and wisdom, and learn.

it may seem small but it feels like a radically different way to be than I have been for most of my adult life. in order to articulate solid critiques, I have been good at quick assessment, at speaking to the distinctions of my people, my races, my gender, my sexualities, my community, poor vs rich, etc.

now I am learning to articulate love, and my wholeness, seeking my connectivity to others, seeing that the distinctions are only useful in so far as they help me see and be awed by the intricate richness of the whole.

years ago, in ny, people used to ask me for directions. literally, on the subway, street, wherever I was. I once counted something like 118 days straight where I was asked for directions. surprised each time, and usually able to give a next step, if not the whole journey.

over the course of this journey, that has also started again. each time I travel and often just walking around in new places, people have started asking. and, since my experiences in morocco and costa rica especially, I have started to notice people who are lost or need help. and offering up myself – ‘do you need a hand? can I help?’ it isn’t to be charitable, or be an angel, but just to be a better human being. to be aware of other people, of ways I might have something they need and vice verca.

it is an awakening, for me. what humanity needs is to reawaken to each other, to the little spark of creation in each of us, to our multiple vulnerabilities, to our need for each other, and to our interdependence. these two unplanned practices – talking with strangers, and being helpful – now feel like more honing of the new muscles I need for the world I envision for myself, my niece and nephew, my loved ones, and for everyone through extension.

kindness, curiosity, interdependence. silly to have to learn these things, but I was born and raised in an individualistic time. so I have go to school, in my own way.

now, one more short plane ride and then I get to be in one beautiful isolated naturally stunning place for a month and half! so I get to hone the muscle over a longer period of time 🙂

wish me good learning.