By Tim King of Long Prairie
“Talking to Strangers” is one of my favorite poems. Actually, it’s one of my favorite things to do. The poem is by Mary Ruefle. Here are a few lines from her poem.
“Put down your book. Look at me when I talk to you. I’m the oxygen mask that comes dangling down in a plane.”
Years ago I met a stranger on an airplane. The thing about talking to strangers is that often the memory of the stranger can last forever.
My airplane stranger was a photographer for National Geographic magazine. Before he became a photographer, he and his wife were school teachers. They taught at a Hopi Indian community in the southwestern US. What he and his wife discovered, and what he told me that night 20,000 feet above the earth’s crust, forever changed how I see and think.
One day the two of them showed the school kids a picture of a horse. The thing is the kids couldn’t see a horse. The two well meaning teachers said “see the horse.” But the series of one dimensional lines and colors didn’t add up to a horse for these kids. Nobody had trained them to see things one dimensionally. These children knew horses were big flesh and blood creatures that had a certain smell to them.
The children taught these smart teachers that the lines and colors on the piece of paper weren’t a horse. They were an image of a horse. The teachers realized that most of us point to a one dimensional image and call it the thing it portrays. We look at TV and say “see the football players”, or the newspaper image of a president and say “the president was in the paper.” Sounds dumb, but it made me and my airplane stranger wonder about all of us calling the one dimensional by a name that belonged to the three dimensional.
Mary Ruefle wrote: “Someone who brushes against you in the street has shared an experience with you for 500 lives.”
It’s not yet been 500 lives, but I have tried not to confuse the one dimensional with the three dimensional since I met the airplane stranger.
On another journey, I was in the town of St. Peter, Minnesota. For dinner I stopped into a student hangout called the Chestnut Tree. I don’t think it’s there any more but the place had one large, high ceilinged room. It was late, so there were only a few people in the cafe. Good chili could be had at the Chestnut Tree and, as I slowly ate mine, I entertained myself by people watching.
A young professor, geology I gather from his talk, entertained a male student and an interesting-looking young woman who seemed to be from Sweden. To their right, a young man worked industriously in a notebook. In the far corner, a woman in a faded denim dress was alternately by herself and with visitors at her table. A couple with a baby in a stroller struggled in the door, bought something to take out, greeted friends, and left. I took little notice of a boy sitting by the door. He also was busy with a notebook.
After chili, I went for the cheese cake. Then some knockout coffee. But you can only dawdle so long. I paid my bill. Walked out the door. And just as I got outside, with the door closing behind me, I heard the boy near the door say good night. To me!
I was amazed. I sat in a room with all those people and was just connected to them in a silent way. And the boy by the door said “good night” to me! I didn’t even know he knew I was there. I sat in my car a full four minutes. Finally I got up the courage and returned, in the falling dusk, to the Chestnut Tree.
“Did you say ‘good night’ to me?” I asked the boy. He had said that. He had been watching me. And writing a poem about me. He showed me the poem. I was deeply honored, and that feeling shall vibrate down through at least 500 lives.
So I take risks and talk to strangers. And I am often rewarded in wonderful and surprising ways.
The poet and I suggest that we should all stick our necks out. Take some risks. Talk to a stranger. And if you can’t find a stranger, do something outrageous that will unmask the stranger living within your friends. Maybe then you’ll discover an interesting stranger in yourself.