Stranger Things

Maybe take the headphones out every once in a while

Hello you.

I took myself out on a date the other day and spent a lovely afternoon wandering around a museum. Being surrounded by art just feels so good. Reveling in the pleasure of our own company just feels so good. Eating a sandwich on a park bench. Buying a new perfume. Browsing a bookshop. Taking the long way home. I’ve been thinking a lot about life before the internet became our all-consuming universe, and how grateful I am to know what those ‘before-times’ felt like. Obviously I’m no Luddite, but as much as possible, I’m trying to reclaim some of that space for myself again, a ‘rewilding’ of my time, if you will. It’s a bit tedious as commentary, and Bo Burnham was far more eloquent on the matter than I’ll be, but can we just not document every single thing? Can we just, like, use our eyes and our brains for making memories, at least some of the time? Can we just look at a painting? Can we just witness an event? Can we just enjoy an unmediated moment of presence in the world? Welcome to the winter of my dis-content.

(That’s a truly terrible pun, but you know what I mean.)

Love, and other indoor sports,

Heather


Print by illustrator Hallie Bateman

About a month after 9/11, I boarded an American Airlines flight at Boston's Logan airport, sliding into my aisle seat and trying not to let my nervousness get the better of me. I was heading back to Paris after having left just three months earlier. After having spent two years there, toeing the line between rom-com fantasy life and desperate loneliness, I'd moved back home to the States in June. A young man with absurdly long, spindly legs like a Tim Burton character stood over me. "That's me," he said, pointing to the window seat. I slid myself upward in that awkward half-standing position to let him pass through. We smiled at one another, and then I returned to flipping through my magazine. The plane was full, and everyone was seated. A restless tension crackled in the air.

Normal was a fractured concept, but after what was still an unusually long time, the captain came over the loudspeaker to announce that we'd been grounded indefinitely and would have to just sit on the runway until further notice. The anxiety was palpable, but the wound was still so raw, the moment still so fragile, no one dared let out a single huffy sigh of frustration. If this happened today, I'm fairly certain there'd be mutiny on board. Mercifully, they rolled out the drinks cart.

I forget how long we sat on the runway; several hours, at least. I lost track of time as the conversation (and warm white wine) flowed between my seatmate and I. We chatted easily, telling each other stories, sharing confessions and confidences with the no-strings-attached freedom of talking to someone you'd probably never see again. I told him how I'd just gotten married impulsively and was having immediate regrets. He told me about coming to the States from Serbia as an exchange student in the early 90's and deciding to stay because of the war at home. We bantered throughout the whole overnight flight, leaning in to whisper for the hours the cabin dimmed, until slivers of bright blue crept under the window shade in the last hour before landing. At Charles de Gaulle we hugged like old friends and exchanged emails before we went our separate ways. I think we might have even corresponded a few times in the following weeks. Twenty years later, a name jumped off the page of The New York Times, accompanying stunning photographs of architecture: shapes and angles and curves in poetic abstractions. I remembered that he'd told me he was a budding photographer. I Googled to be sure, and there he was, my unforgettable seatmate.

I miss talking to strangers. Admittedly, my introversion has some contradictory character traits. Small talk and mingling at parties fills me with existential dread and crippling shyness, but put me in a taxi, and I'm an inveterate chatterbox who wants to hear the driver's life story. Trains, planes, and automobiles, I'm just a girl who can't say no to a conversation. I may not be the initiator, but odds are that I'll engage. Of course, there are times that I regret it and struggle to extricate myself delicately. There are times when I've gotten off at a subway stop at my own inconvenience just because it was the most graceful way to exit a sticky chat.

Living abroad and not being perfectly fluent (or particularly bold), I find myself longing for casual, ephemeral interactions: commiserating while waiting in a long line, striking up a chat with the person next to me at a café. I miss a lot about running my bagel shop, but I think what I miss the most are all of the conversations I'd have with my customers. Getting to know each person drop-by-drop, microdoses of soul-filling energy. It's what I've always loved about working in service, those seemingly inconsequential exchanges that actually add up to so much more than their sum.

In his new book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, writer Joe Keohane makes a strong case for talking to strangers as a source of comfort and belonging. This builds on a piece of social network theory I remember being compelled by in grad school. In 1973, Stanford Sociologist Mark Granovetter published a paper on the strength of weak ties, his research demonstrating that a network of loose acquaintances and indeed, connections with strangers can be a significant predictor of an individual's emotional well-being. As coincidence would have it, Joe Keohane was a stranger I once connected with as well. Back in Boston, Keohane was the editor of the Weekly Dig, and I admired his sharp, witty writing. Imagine my surprise when his name popped up in my inbox, responding to an ad I'd posted for taking over the lease of my attic apartment in a stately Cambridge Victorian. Joe and his girlfriend came over to check the place out, and we pleasantly talked shop and local gossip as they poked around the slant-roofed rooms. Unfortunately, my landlords rejected his application. No couples, they said.

I recently watched this delightful short film about a woman in New York, Lee Kim, who, as a whimsical tribute to a friend, started fashioning elaborate fascinator headpieces out of colorful pipe cleaners. I mean, just totally ridiculous, only-in-New-York constructions that for one person (me) might invite a mortifying amount of attention, but for Kim became a daily habit that, to borrow the eye-rolling term, truly sparked joy for the exchanges it engendered.

I'm not likely to start wearing eclectic headgear, but Kim's story reminded me of an interaction with a stranger that I’ve kept with me for years, like a sweetheart's photo in a locket. One morning in Brooklyn, as I cut though Fort Greene Park on my way to the Q train at DeKalb, a well-dressed woman, maybe in her fifties said, "You look great!," smiling wide as she walked past me. I was wearing my favorite outfit: a printed circle skirt, denim button-down, and a chunky turquoise necklace. Indeed, I felt great when I left the house, and I think I was walking with more confidence than usual.

Her compliment made me feel seen in way that matters when the world can sometimes make us feel invisible. Strangers talking to us can be disarming, especially when we often try to make ourselves invisible, with our sunglasses, our headphones, our books, our straight-ahead stares protecting us from intruders of our personal space. But that cloak of invisibility isn’t real, and we know it. Talking to strangers wakes us up to remember our own aliveness. These pure moments of human connection remind us of our mutuality, our personhood. Seeing, and being seen. Knowing, and being known.

In the words of poet Mary Oliver*:

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

*from The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac (Part 3)


Glad that I ran into you