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Monthly Archives: January 2012

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.

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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].

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

Poem: On Being Asked to Give a Stranger a Gift I Love and Value

moon

Photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel on Flickr

In thinking about my friend’s birthday request I discovered that the things I love and value most – my Relationship with my partner, my Children, spending time in the company of Friends, learning and living NVC and RC – are the hardest to give away.

This poem tries to capture that insight.

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On Being Asked to Give a Stranger A Gift I Love and Value

I cannot give away the waking of my heart:
the sugared scent of syrupy French toast
amidst the unfamiliar clang of pots,
him standing in an apron, spatula afloat,
after that first night when we cast our lots.

I cannot give away the birth of motherhood:
the sun-warmed touch of skin against my skin
amidst the lull of clockless milky noon,
us breathing, turning, waking, as one tide,
one revolution of the filled-to-overflowing moon.

I cannot give away the savoring of friends:
the rippling laughter floating on wine breath
amidst the pearls of fruit and curves of cheese,
our voices weaving, overlapping waves
reflecting peace, exhaustion, gladness, ease.

But I can give the gift you’ve passed along:
of moving towards conflict, not away,
amidst the rising clang of disconnecting words,
the clarity that comes from hearing one by one
each note within the Circle’s swelling chords.

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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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