Wednesday, October 21, 2015

No Strangers

I had a quick writer moment recently at a coffee shop.  They strike me at the oddest times: these words that grow from sentence to paragraph to story.

My colleague and I had ducked in for a quick purchase when we ran into mutual friends.  A very pleasant exchange set a friendly mood which carried over to the coffee order.  The clerk picked up on it, and our English language, and cordially joined the chatter.  In the minute it took to order, I learned he had just been promoted to Manager of the store. 

To me, the conversation was normal.  People sharing the path of life for a short moment.

To my young colleague, however, it was something new.  People divulging personal information in an odd setting.  She assumed for the clerk to tell me his news we must be familiar.

“I see they know you here, as well.”   

“No, not at all.”  I answered.

The phrase turned in my mind the rest of the day.  “I see they know you here.” 

It’s not the first time I have heard something similar, especially here in Moscow.  To me it’s natural to make a friend wherever I go.  If not a friend, at least an accomplice in hilarity or a co-conspirator in joy or, sometimes, just a fellow traveler to share the weariness of the path. 

These bridges are constructed in the simplest of forms.  A smile, a hand gesture, a soft word, a reaching across from my side of the human experience into theirs. 

I didn’t know everyone didn’t do this and I don’t know where I learned it.  I think it was my dad, actually, and my Grandma.  Yes, definitely those two.

My dad wasn’t always a nice man and not often a good man, actually.  But he had friends wherever he went.  Every financial transaction he made began as business and ended with friendship. 

I can hear his voice at the corner store.  “Can I get a pack of Big Red gum, too?” 

A tired clerk would reach for it, throw it on the counter, say the amount, wait for cash.

My dad would respond with, “Need to make sure I’m ready in case I meet a beautiful blonde.” 

The clerk (male or female) would smile in complicity.  A friend was made.

My Grandma had a different approach.  “Just bring them with you.”  She was often heard saying.   And if they would come (whoever they were), she would set out the best of the day for them.  It wasn’t always society’s best, but it was her best of whatever with a main ingredient of love. 

“Do you want some soup?  I made it today.  Oh, it’s so good!  Here let me get you some.  And here’s coffee, too.  Did you want some coffee?  Sit down.  Here.  I’m glad you’re here.  Now.  Tell me about you.”

She would sit in her corner rocking chair and listen.  Sometimes throwing out a word or a question, but always listening. 

And the people came from everywhere to talk to her.  I watched it my whole life. 

Every day it seemed someone’s cousin or uncle or co-worker would have been at the table while I was at school.  If I was out and my friends stopped by, they would leave before I got home because they hadn’t come to see me, but to see her!  Tough teen-age, knife carrying punks would stop in for coffee and soup and to talk. 

It wasn’t only for a day, sometimes also for a night.  More than once concerned parents were on the phone or at our door and I would hear Grandma say, “Come in.  Yes, he was here.  I made sure he was safe last night and I gave him a good breakfast before school, but then I don’t know where he went.” 

Then a counseling session would begin with Grandma trying to help another frustrated parent figure out how to parent a strong-willed child. 

So to me, it’s natural to make family-friends and casual-friends and clerk-friends and to not meet a stranger.  I guess it’s my super power.

My siblings are the same.  It’s most fun when we are together meeting strangers. 

One of my favorite memories is of walking in New York City with my sister.  It was autumn and the world was aglow with yellow and orange leaves.  We had spent the day roaming Manhattan and were almost finished with that chapter when we came upon street vendors selling hats, sweatshirts and trinkets.  I knew I wanted a sweat shirt for my son and she knew she wanted a hat so we kind of took over the two tables before us. 

The vendors tried to begin with their usual sales pitch, but quickly realized it wasn’t necessary.  We didn’t need to be convinced.   Banter replaced pitch and before they knew it they were giving us discounts and free items.   We left laughter and genuine memories behind as we bustled to the ferry.

Later that day we shared our news with a native New Yorker friend.

“I bought these two sweatshirts for $20.  I made such a mess of his table searching for this XXL.  Poor guy.  I was trying to fix things as I found them and he gave me a free key chain.  Can you believe it?  Wasn’t that nice?’ I said.

Tina added, “My guy was hilarious!  You should have heard me when he asked if I wanted a princess hat!  Princess?  Oh my word!  I think this hat was $15, but I think I paid $10.  I’m not even sure.  He said I got the blonde discount!  Isn’t that hilarious?” 

My New Yorker friend just shook his head.  “I don’t know what it is about you two, but that doesn’t happen in New York.  If anyone else told me that story, I wouldn’t believe them.  Prices get raised for tourists, not lowered.  But you?  I don’t doubt it at all.

It happens to me all the time.  I think it’s not me that feels familiar.  It’s the presence of God in my life.  Me, I’m so far from good enough.  But with Him working in my life, there is an extra ingredient that makes people comfortable, casual, friendly.

I’m glad for it.  It means that God is answering my prayers.

I pray for an open home and an open heart.  I pray that God will take away the caustic, jagged side of my words and attitude daily.  I pray for eyes to see the world like He does.  I pray for hands to reach with gentleness and grace.  

“May all who enter as guests leave as friends” is the motto for my home and my heart.
“I see they know You here, as well.”  It’s a compliment.