A few weeks back, I was sharing a glass of wine (okay, it was more like three) with my soon-to-be-former next-door neighbor. M. is one of those guys who is always hosting or at least going to gatherings with good friends from all over the world. His friends are great. First of all, many (like M.) are from Latin America, and so there’s always the brushing-up-on-your-Spanish fun. (Did I ever tell you about the time I was just learning Spanish, and asked for huevos mexicanos, which I thought meant ordering them scrambled with cilantro and cheese and jalapeno and onion, and instead the waiter replied by grabbing his package and saying, aqui mami, tengo dos.)
Like M., many of his friends are doctors, and who better to discuss issues of health care policy or share pediatric nightmares of your youth with? Or have endless conversation about the relationship between personal and environmental health? Or test out how to talk about reiki and yoga and other woo-woo topics in a way that seems scientifically grounded? Or just dance or watch them concoct you the perfect pisco sour? They’re totally fabulous.
Anyway, M. confessed that most of his friends were now beginning to leave DC. Their contracts at the international health organization where he works were beginning to run out, and they were slowly drifting to new places – Rome and Barcelona, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. And he was wasn’t meeting new folks quite as easily.
“You’re so open when you’re new in a place” he explained, “and that’s when connections begin that are much more profound and lasting. Then you settle in and develop routines and feel committed enough to the people you already know and your work,” he added.
I’ve noticed that in my own life – it now feels really hard to meet people in DC. Yet when I travel, I walk away with more interesting stories of the road and the folks I’ve met on it than I can in months of being at home.
I think this is especially the case if you’re not in a car. I’ve always thought the Great American Vehicle as your very own personal space that protects you from other people and places. Convenient, yes, but a bit like the Boy in the Plastic Bubble.
Last week, I went to northern California where my friends Eleanor and Bob got married. I decided against renting a car to get to the wedding, held in Napa.
I stayed just outside town in a LEED-Gold certified hotel with two other friends (it also happened to be the cheapest thing we could find, and it had two swan living in its lagoon that I liked to mess with each morning: how close can I get to the swan today without instigating them to nip at my feet – a daily pleasure for which my friend crowned me the Anti-Mary Oliver Poet). These friends were renting a car, and it seemed silly that I should have my own.
So I got a lift from a sweet lamb I know to the Berkeley Amtrak – really, just a platform under an underpass in the fancy part of town and took the train to Martinez about half an hour away, going over the bay. There, I was to take a through bus (Amtrak runs buses on the west coast to places without rails,) but because of a derailment in Fresno, I had to wait. And wait. Three hours.
I was lucky. I met a guy I’ll call BB from Baton Rouge. We didn’t strike up a conversation immediately – he kept going around the corner to smoke (apparently a chivalrous effort at non-molestation). But once we started, we didn’t stop, and the next thing I knew I learned about his motorcycle accident at age 19. “This isn’t even my real leg below the knee.”
And yes dear reader, that’s when he showed me his prosthetic leg. This is the intimacy of strangers. I had a beloved uncle of mine who I knew was missing part of his leg, but it was a whispered – not show and tell – topic.
BB also told me about the near death experience he had in the hospital, seeing his great-grandfather who he never actually met, who told me it just wasn’t his time yet, and to remember the whole point of life is to love. At this point, I wasn’t looking at BB, but off at a hillside. I was crying, and trying to keep it on the down low, in part because I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling exactly.
The day before, I had met a very distinguished looking man at a fancy tea spot at the Yerba Buena Park in San Francisco. He made a mildly sarcastic comment to me about the tea I ordered to which I responded “you must not live in California.” “What makes you so sure?” “Sense of irony.” (I love California, truly, but the earnestness of its residents means I inadvertently insult someone daily while there.) Then I added: “Iranian?” and my accent-sensitive ear apparently impressed him so much he started to explain all about Iranians and tea making — and then (you knew this was coming) he shared what had happened to him on a recent trip to Sacred Valley of Peru. “Let’s just say that I now know that we have an energy that doesn’t die when we do.”
Fast forward to my teary moment. I was utterly stunned that two strangers in two days (one who wore a beautifully tailored suit and owned an internet company, and the other who was heading to his 40 acre marijuana farm in Mendocino, which he co-owns with eight other friends from the great state of Louisiana) would be talking to me about death, and how they no longer believe in it.
It felt like a huge moment (or more like an intersection of recent moments).
And, extraordinarily ordinary, when we’re open.
As I’m back in DC (also as I’m posting this, about to leave again for a quick overnight trip to check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece known as Falling Water), I want to see if I can get away from some of my habits and routines for long enough to keep myself open when in my hometown – maybe open enough that people will trust me with their stories, which has got to be one of the great honors and pleasures in life.
Be excellent, Yael