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