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Week 4: The Gift of Taking Ownership

Photo by jonboy mitchell on Flickr

I yanked on the combination lock in growing despair, the perfect row of numbers impervious to my attempts.

My preschooler sat patiently in the bike trailer, the only “available” vehicle among us. We were outside a fast food restaurant 3 miles from our house with my son’s little orange bike and my red Schwinn safely chained to a wooden pole in the parking lot.

“I must have re-set the combination when I was jiggling the red things to lock it up,” I said to my son, the calm in my voice belying the sinking feeling inside.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“That our lock is now set to a new, random combination and we can’t get our bikes out.”

“Oh no! My bike! My speedometer!” my son wailed. Having logged close to 200 miles since July, the speedometer had now become as precious as the ride itself.

Unable to reach my husband at any of the numbers I had for him, I took a deep breath.

“We’ll have to walk home pushing the bike trailer,” I said, looking uncertainly at my daughter, whom I had bundled up for a 20 minute ride on this February day, not a one hour walk.

Then, acting more on an impulse to connect with another human being than on any hope of assistance I added, “I’m just gonna run inside the restaurant and tell the manager.”

After waiting in line with other customers, I told the manager my story – twice – before he seemed to accept it. “I’m not asking for help,” I assured him in response to the uncertain look on his face. “I just wanted you to know what was going on, so you wouldn’t worry – or call the police to remove the bikes – or something.”

Trudging back into the cold I took another minute to jiggle the unyielding cable and stare mournfully at the two trapped bikes. In my mind, I could hear my husband’s tone of “patient exasperation” as I told him what happened. I was dreading it.

Just then I noticed a Latino man in a crisp blue button down shirt heading our way. According to the gold tag on his chest he was Juan, a more senior manager who had been called by the other manager to see if he could help us out.

After scrambling the numbers and spinning them back to the combination I provided, he dropped the cable and stepped back, examining the scene with a thoughtful eye.

“Huh..” he said, as though seeing a solution to a Mensa puzzle that was too simple to be true. “I think you could just…”

And then Juan, like a magician performing the final move in an impossible act, deftly slid the cable down the handlebar, looped it through the frame, and pulled it out, leaving my bike free while the cable remained solidly around the wooden pole.

“Wow!” my son and I cheered. “That’s fantastic! Thank you so much!”

Juan smiled shyly.

“I mean that’s terrible!” I said, laughing. “I did that chain all wrong! Anyone could have taken the bike!”

Juan was already kneeling to examine my son’s bike, which was held fast only by the spaghetti thin tubing of the brake.

Running back into the restaurant, he returned with a wrench and within minutes had taken apart my son’s brake mechanism, placing various parts of it around us on the sidewalk and freeing the bike.

I felt grateful, elated, lucky, and not a little embarrassed. Here I was a University professional who couldn’t even lock up my bike properly, never mind use a simple combination lock without re-setting it.

“How did you know how to do that?” I asked Juan after he had reassembled the brake and tested it.

“In Mexico,” he said (pronouncing it Meh-hee-co), “if you don’t know how to fix your bike, you don’t have a bike.”

I was curious and asked more questions. Juan told me how he uses salvaged parts from all kinds of models to fix his friends’ bikes – and how his bike was once stolen under his nose when he went inside for a minute to get a tool.

The kids were waiting and it was time to go. As we pushed away, I felt exhilarated at the turn of events, the only ransom for our freedom a $7.00 cable left hanging around the pole.

And there was something else as well. A spaciousness and a feeling of awakening. Something in what Juan had said had tapped into a deep place in me, a place of “recognizing” a truth I already have.

It is the part of me that wants to take care of my own stuff, to know what I am eating and where it comes from, to understand how things work, to be closer to the underbelly of the beast.

It is the part of of me that wants to learn to take apart my own brakes – and to unhitch myself from the wooden posts that seem to trap me, when in reality, I am free to go the whole time.

It seems that in my life, as in Juan’s, if I don’t know how to fix my bike, I don’t really own it.

Thank you, Juan, for the inspiration and the reminder.

Week 3: The Gift of Seeing

image of person within human eye

Photo by naturesdawn on Flickr

The Stranger with whom I planned to share this week’s gift of NonViolent Communication (via Marshall Rosenberg’s classic book on that subject) wound up being a self-described resident of the men’s homeless shelter – who did not read or write.

Sitting in the library cafe in front of his laptop with a homemade lunch of granola and cranberries, his fluffy beard-tuft and small black skullcap gave him an air of thoughtful presence.

“May I join you?” I asked, my heart beating wildly.

And thus began a remarkable two-hour conversation which ranged from his vegan diet (“It’s hard to eat healthy in the Shelter, though”) to romantic relationships (“I was married once – just for a few months. It didn’t work out – the environmental context was all wrong”) to the mystery of urinary tract infections (“How do you get those?”) and the wonders of Psychology (“That’s like having a degree in Intelligence! Because you know the difference between thoughts, wishes, plans and ideas – which most humans don’t even think about”) to the rise and fall of his fortunes (“When it’s warmer my yard business picks up. Then I have some silver and platinum in my pockets.”)

His thoughts, sometimes clear and poignant – sometimes non-linear and disconnected from my reality, meandered widely, always curling back to his main point in the end.

“I learn differently,” he told me several times. “I never could master spelling or reading. I sat all through school watching others ’round me, trying to pick up what they were doing and saying. Mostly I learned from watching TV, though – you know, top 10 CNN news stories. People would always tell me ‘you’re so smart!’ but they wouldn’t help me. Then I realized that what they wanted was to steal the smart thoughts from my mind… So, as a kid, I would steal things from others. Sometimes I’d get caught. Been to prison for stuff I done – and stuff they nailed on me. Thing I learned after a while is they don’t wanna help you. They rather fuck you and fuck you and fuck you than help you. But I’m just slow, you know. I learn differently from others and that’s how it’s always been.”

As I was getting ready to leave, he stared moodily at his computer (“a gift from a friend on campus”), clicking back and forth between the currently unused Twitter, Facebook and g-mail accounts she had set up for him.

“Maybe you were sent to me,” he said, “By someone. Or by God. Maybe we are meant to help each other. You said you are looking for purpose in life. I might know something about that. I might be able to help. And you could help me. Do you think you could help me?”

His plaintive request ricocheted in my mind as I walked out of the library, head bent. I’d told him I wanted to think about it and asked where I could find him (same table, same place, every day). I felt like crap.

What was I doing? Why was I reaching out to others if I were not willing to follow through? But I already felt full – already not finding the spaciousness I wanted in my life – to connect with family and friends – to be a mom and lover and fly-by-writer and better-keeper of the vessel in which I lived. And what if he asked for things I wasn’t comfortable giving? Or if I compromised my family’s safety by reaching out to him?

I didn’t want my “self-improvement project” to become a game I played with other people’s feelings. But where did my responsibility to others begin and end?

Later that night, still revved up and ruminating, I shared my feelings (via Skype instant messenger) with a friend who’d taught NonViolent Communication to men in homeless shelters and prison:

Me: still worked up about the stranger. 2 hrs with him. looking in my eyes the entire time – and me looking back

Friend: wow. dignity.

Me: he asked for help

Friend: hmmm – you gave him hope. he mattered. when you are invisible like these guys often are, being seen and heard are huge.

I didn’t know what I’d do next or how I’d answer my own thorny questions. Yet, I felt somehow lighter and freer.

I had looked a Stranger in the eye as he talked about his pain, confusion, and struggles – and I had tried (imperfectly, clumsily, sometimes distractedly) to see the humanity within him.

Maybe Seeing was as worthy a gift as any, and maybe, I had managed to share the heart of NVC after all.

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Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Week 2: The Danger of Unasked Questions

Question mark made of puzzle pieces

Photo by Horia Varlan on Flickr

Walking home in the darkening slush of a winter afternoon, from the house of my Neighbor – a Total Stranger earlier that morning – I thought about all the questions I could have asked – and didn’t.

After 6 years of silently, facelessly, living two houses over, I had taken that first breathless step across her door – but did not find it in me to cross the cordial, awkward distance formed between us by her kitchen table.

Why didn’t I ask her about her favorite books when she shared her love of reading? I thought. I had allowed myself to be silenced, I realized, by the heavy sense of politeness and un-clarity between us. I had forgotten that the point of my Quest was not the sharing of gifts (in this case, a blank journal representing my love of writing), or the taming of my inner terror, but the search for the divine sparks among those with whom I share my world.

And then, feeling my throat fill with sadness, I was carried back to another slushy winter, the last one I spent with my grandmother Ester (known to all as Babe).

It was 1993, not long since the Soviet collapse, and I was visiting my grandparents in Latvia after more than 10 yrs of separation by the iron curtain.

Grandma Babe, her bones too wracked by osteoporosis to move beyond her bed, and her face puffed with Prednisone, entertained me with stories about my colorful Latvian cousins, whispery renditions of half-forgotten childhood songs, and reactions to my tales of “life in America” (toilet paper in public stalls! 5 kinds of apple in every corner grocery! 60 hr work weeks?).

A part of me, watching the bubbly cadence of our conversations, always meant to veer the topic to deeper waters, to ask her about the past.

  • Tell me more about your “musical” brothers and sisters. Were they kind of like the Von Trapp family?
  • What were you doing in the Bolshevik underground as a teenage girl?
  • How did your love for grandpa survive the Gulag labor camp when you were sent away as newlyweds?
  • Is it true that before you gave birth to mom, you lost a baby boy to a drunk Siberian midwife with dirty hands?
  • What was it like to return home after Stalin’s death – to find your whole family had been killed by the Nazis?
  • How is it that your former 5th grade students, grown men and women, still visit you so many years later?

Yet, somehow, in those quiet evenings in the Riga flat, I never made room for the vital questions, the ones that now seem to matter most.

The danger of Unasked Questions, I thought, is that time is not an ever-winding ribbon, spooling out into the distance for us to retrace its path whenever we make up our minds.

The danger of Unasked Questions is that sometimes Now is the chance we are given.

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Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Week 1: What All Children Need

Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders) - Zimbabwe side. Photo by jurvetson on Flickr.


Looking up from his laptop by the Cookbook section, Stranger#2 met my eyes, the smile on his dark chocolate face mischievous and inviting.

My heart beat so quickly I could barely hear myself ask in a tinny-can voice “Ummm, would you be willing to spare 5 minutes to help me out?”

“Yes, of course,” he offered, waving me to a seat somewhat magnanimously.

Holding the cheerfully wrapped package between us, I explained that I was there to offer him a gift I both valued and loved because I was an introvert and was trying to honor Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, you know, of pushing one’s comfort zone and such. The fear and thrill and tension of what I was doing was so great that my eyes began to well up as I trailed off with my speech and offered him the gift.

“This is so nice of you,” he said, leaning forward in his seat with raised eyebrows. “May I open it?” his voice was soft with an accent that was part British, part something else (Congalese, I thought?)

This book,” I explained as he examined it quizzically, “I’ve read it 3 times and every time I get something else out of it. Something valuable. I hope it works for you or someone you love.”

We then talked, sharing stories and hopes for our futures.

He was working on his dissertation about children with H.I.V. in rural Zimbabwe, looking at how it affected their education.

Living among the families in the villages he studied, he had interviewed 92 children (ages 10-13) and their caregivers, as well as 26 village and school officials.

“The children,” he said, “they are very tired from being sick, yes? So they come to school and they fall asleep, not learning much. But they want to come more than anything else, because of the community. To be around other children, to belong, that is what they want.”

“But,” he continued, “it is very hard. Because the other children, they do not want to be with the sick ones, you see.”

“Because they are afraid they will catch it?” I asked.

“Well, yes, and the stigma. The stigma is very strong. To be seen associating with the sick ones makes it, you know, not desirable. But the children, the ones with H.I.V., they keep coming back because that is all they know – that is all the community they have – the other children.”

Moved by the sadness of his story, and by what I heard as the universal longing to belong, to be included and accepted – I asked more questions.

He shared that the children also experience other hardships, because their caregivers (who often work multiple jobs to pay for the H.I.V. treatments) tend to run out of resources, sending the kids to live with relatives in other villages until they can save more money and send for their return, creating much displacement and instability in the children’s already complicated lives.

“How do they get sick in the first place?” I asked.

“Through their mother’s placenta,” he said, his face both soft and grave. “Or, many have been raped. There is much trauma for them. Much trauma.”

I then told him a little about myself and the places where our lives overlapped – how I interviewed mothers and staff at a homeless family shelter for my dissertation and how my interests in dignity and human rights led me to the study of NonViolent Communication and restorative justice.

Seeming to delight in this, he asked what it was like to be here – the Ph.D., the steady University job, the reliable income.

When I told him that I was taking a semester off to pause, harvest, dream and write, he offered me a gift back in return.

Who Moved My Cheese?” he said, his face beaming. “You will love it, I think. It is a one-day read. Perfect for where you are right now.”

We parted warmly, clasping hands for a long, deep moment of mutual appreciation.

My heart continued to beat fast all the way home, the rush of the encounter and the bittersweet message of his tale mixing into a potent cocktail.

Love, Acceptance, Belonging, Community – and Choice. What all children long for? What all of us need?
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Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Are We All Closer Than We Think?

white rat on top of tripod

Photo by SMercury98 on Flickr

This man injects things into rats – I said to myself as I passed his open door. We have nothing in common and he’ll never appreciate my poem.

However, I’d been wandering up and down the empty corridors of the 8-story Psych building for over an hour, trying to give away a basket of wine and cheese (and an original poem about my heart’s deepest truths) to a perfect stranger. Returning to his door, I thought: this is the last person I’d wanna gift this to – maybe that’s the whole point?

That choice – to reach across the threshold of our (seemingly) irreconcilable differences – would live within me for years, blossoming 16 months later into a gift of its own. But about that later.

“Oh, you brought me some wine,” he quipped when he heard my barely audible knock.

“Maybe,” I said, flushing with embarrassment and hope.

Telling me he was “intrigued” by the offer, he invited me in “for 10 minutes.”

As I finished reading him my poem about what I love and value, the Rat Man (as my friends later lovingly dubbed him) sat still for a long moment, breathing, his eyes shiny and intense.

At his urging, I explained the last stanza: Dominic Barter’s gift of moving toward conflict, which had changed my life and world-view irrevocably, the minute I heard it spoken. “He had me from hello,” I half-joked, half-confided.

“Yes, I too have a good friend in Brazil who pushes and inspires me,” The Rat Man shared, a twinkle in his voice. “His name is Ivan Izquierdo. He writes wonderful fiction and is also a human rights activist and pacifist.”

“A fiction writer and pacifist?” I echoed. Did the Rat Man really like someone who wrote “stories” and cared about non-violence?

“Oh yes. His writing has won Brazil’s version of the Pulitzer Prize. What is most wonderful, though, is the trouble we get into when we’re together. He loves to play and push the edges of things, like your friend Dominic, maybe?”

I listened, marveling, as The Rat Man shared of how he and Ivan, during one of his frequent pranks, almost got shot by a guard while trying to cross from East to West Berlin. Then, riding on the wave of merriment, I told of how I was taken for a desperate salesperson – or worse – by stranger after stranger, as I tried to give away my basket of gifts.

An hour later, floating down the corridor among echoes of our warm farewell, I thought:

Maybe what really separates us is not our ‘seeming differences’ – but our fear of sharing what we love and value most – across the chasm of our un-knowing?

Little did I know that one and a half years later I would embark on a 52-week journey to explore that question with nothing but a blank notebook, a black pen, and a lot of hutzpa.

Though this Quest is a personal one, I’d love and value your company along the way.

If you’re moved to reach across the chasm of our un-knowing and let me know you’re out there you can do so via Comments (below), e-mail (elainecure[at]gmail[dot]com, or Twitter [eshpu].


Creative Commons License
Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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