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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 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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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


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.


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.

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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