Brian

I stood in the dairy aisle examining the dates on the gallon jugs of milk. I was searching for the one with the latest date, but in this particular grocery store, I was also making sure the date had not passed. Next to me, an elderly man hoisted himself from a wheelchair, so he was standing on his one leg, and he leaned into the dairy case over the chocolate milk. I watched him for a moment. He reached way into the back and dragged two half-gallons to the front where he could see them better. He leaned over and adjusted his wheelchair, then he pulled a magnifying glass from the pocket of his jacket, and he checked the expiration dates on the milk he had just moved.

I moved closer. “Do you need help?” I ventured.

“Not yet,” he said with a smile as he turned to examine this person who had broken through his alone-space. He squinted a bit as he studied my face. “What do you do? Or what did you used to do?” he asked me. I told him I worked at the university in town. “Ah,” he nodded. “You teach?”

“Yes,” I told him. “I work in academic support.” He smiled and nodded knowingly as he told me about his cousin—the most compassionate person he’d ever known—who was also a teacher. Everyone thought very highly of her, and it was clear from his words that he did, as well.

With barely a breath in between, he began another story, this one about his life and his career, and I listened intently. He told me about the crimes he solved, the cases that he had easily cracked when no one else could figure them out, and the seventeen police departments that had extended job offers to him when he was younger because they recognized his talent. He shifted his weight on his leg as he leaned on his wheelchair for support. All the while he spoke, I watched his face. His long mustache and scraggly beard covered the lower half of his face, but his eyes held the wisdom that comes with age and experience. They held kindness. And they held loneliness.

Despite the fact that I had never met this man before this conversation, I recognized something about him. It was in his eyes. It was in the way he started his sentences… his stories. It was in the way he reached out of his loneliness to hold me in conversation, to connect with me, if only for a moment. Even though we were strangers, I recognized his humanness.

His stories, though perhaps embellished a bit, reminded me of the stories my grandpa would tell. And in more recent years, the stories of my dad. There is nothing that compares to the storytelling of the older generations.

So I listened. I learned. And for a brief, fleeting moment, I connected. I offered him the human interaction that we all need, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

When I walked into the store, this man was a stranger, but when I walked out, he was Brian. The next time I see him in the dairy aisle, as I’m sure I will, I will greet him by name, and we will pick up our conversation where we left off. Although somehow, I believe I may just hear the same stories—the stories of his youth—yet again.

{Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash}

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Hitchhikers

On my way home from Parents’ Weekend at my daughter’s school, I passed three hitchhikers. Now, when I was younger, people used to hitchhike all the time. But in recent years, this ride-hailing method seemed to be a thing of the past. Honestly, I believe I’ve run across maybe two hitchhikers in the past 15 years. Until Sunday.

It was drizzly on Sunday and not ideal weather to venture out onto the road to hail a ride. Aside from the guy hitchhiking in the other direction, the first hitchhiker I passed was wearing a green hoodie and carrying what looked like a sleeping bag in a red stuff sack. Just a sleeping bag. Nothing else. It had just started to rain at this point, and he didn’t look happy. In fact, he looked downright grumpy. He was young—early twenties maybe. He stood on the side of the road, looking down, waiting for a ride. He pulled at the heartstrings of the mother in me, but I didn’t stop because… well, strangers, you know. We’ve all heard the warnings.

The other hitchhiker piqued my curiosity. She had positioned herself on the entrance ramp to the highway with a small cardboard sign just large enough to hold the name of a town farther north. She was looking to travel about 70 miles up the highway, but I was only going to the very next exit—3 miles at best. The hitchhiker looked to be a bit older than me, with a sassy mop of short grey hair. She was energetic and working excitedly to get a ride. Her face was expressive and smiling as she appealed to the passing motorists—she looked like the kind of person who would entertain the driver with animated stories of her life experience for the entire 70 miles. Up the road a few feet, she had placed her name-brand suitcase with an additional bag on top—as if she had just stepped off a flight at the airport. She intrigued me.

I experienced a momentary urge to stop and pick her up. I wished I was traveling farther in her direction so I might give her a ride and get to know her. From my brief glimpse of her as I passed, I envisioned her as the “Thelma” to my “Louise,” the partner-in-mischief I have been searching for. I could just imagine the conversation we might have as we drove—so engrossing that we would miss the exit. From our brief moment of eye contact, I wanted to know this woman. She was that intriguing.

And from my brief encounter with this intriguing stranger, I learned something. Everyone we come across on our journey—whether for five seconds or five years—has a lesson to teach. From this woman (and the contrast between these two hitchhikers), I learned that one’s approach to life can have a huge impact on how people see us. The first hitchhiker—he was definitely a stranger, and he would remain so. The second, however, was a potential friend.

Two strangers, one activity, two very different approaches. Whenever you have the chance, be the engaging “friend.”

{Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash}

Nothing

Nothing. That is where I am. Still. After weeks of struggling with nothing, I am still at nothing. No ideas. No motivation. No creativity. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

So… I have decided to go out and steal some ideas. I’m going to go and listen in on other people’s conversations. I’m going to use their ideas to jump-start my writing. Maybe, if I’m feeling particularly persnickety, I will interrupt their dialogue—jump in and try to redirect their ideas. I might even mess with them just a bit to see if I can incite a heated debate or two. You know what might be fun? I could follow someone around the grocery store while they carry on a phone conversation. I could keep reaching in front of them to collect items from my list, and since I am there, I might offer them advice to deal with the person to whom they are talking!

I am going to engage in some random acts of mischief. Maybe I’ll swap some price placards at the grocery store (those things are so easy to change out!) or leave messages on chalkboards in random classrooms: Today’s class has been moved to room 302. I could walk around in a Halloween mask, or—if I’m really feeling daring—flip the arrows on construction detours. (This last idea would be best carried out under cover of darkness…).

I am going to pretend to occupy myself with some intensely secret projects. These projects will involve all kinds of crazy equipment and supplies, none of which will be related in any conceivable fashion. But I will collect everything I “need” in a massive pile on my front lawn, all the while touting my “top secret endeavor.” Or maybe I’ll just dig a six by six by three-foot hole in my front garden. That might make  my neighbors curious about what I was up to….

I am going to plant seeds of kindness. I am going to leave post-it notes with inspirational messages in places where their discovery will be a pleasant surprise—next to the toilet paper dispenser, inside the elevator door, on people’s car windows, and on the napkin dispensers in the dining hall. I am going to hold doors, offer words of encouragement, and hand out flowers on a street corner.

I am going to hold a wacky raffle and give away tickets for free. (How many people will write their names and emails on wacky raffle tickets for a stranger?) I will raffle off items from my home that I no longer need or want. This will be a much easier way to get rid of my clutter than selling it or hauling it away. And imagine what a pleasure it will be to email strangers and say, Hey, you’ve won this week’s wacky raffle!!

I am going to go out on a limb once a day for the next week and step out of my comfort zone. I am going to sit with a stranger who is crying or upset. I am going to talk to the children whose parents are consumed by their phones and not paying attention. I am going to offer a helping hand, a hug, or a kind word or bit of encouragement and hope that I can make someone’s day just a little brighter.

And maybe when I’m done with all of this, maybe … just maybe … ideas will start to flow. Because right now, I’ve got no ideas. Not even one. I’ve got nothing. But if you want a wacky raffle ticket, let me know. I’ve got those!

{Photo by Mark Eder on Unsplash}