The journey: an ode to talking with strangers

Can I tell you a little story? It’s just a little one, and it’s not about carpet, although it is about being poor, and about the way we see ourselves.

One day, when my big nine-year-old girl was still a little four-year-old-girl in Kindergarten, I  met a man while walking home. It was a Friday, that I remember, because I was on my own  after dropping her at school, and he had a little girl riding on top of his shoulders. She was also at Kindergarten, although in the other class from my daughter. They looked like a nice family, and I found myself wishing strangely that we could be friends, or that our girls could be friends.

That’s not what this story is about though.

The man was a friendly man, and we got in step and soon we started talking. I don’t remember what about so much, or about how the conversation led to the ending it did. It was probably about renovating, because he’d asked me whether I lived around here, and I told him I lived in the house around the corner with the peeling pink paint. I felt bad about that paint. I don’t remember what else we said, but I do remember the feeling though that my little girl was now in Kinder, and that she’d bring her friends home, and I felt ashamed for her that she didn’t have the perfectly painted house-and-garden bedroom that I’d always dreamed for her, or the lovely romp-able back lawn. I felt, that year, that I’d let her down, or in some large cosmic sense, I’d let her future self down by not giving her the beautiful start in life I’d always dreamed for her, my first born, my baby girl.

I didn’t tell the man that. I didn’t tell anybody that.

What the man said to me though, after we’d stopped outside his house, a big old shabby-looking place that I’d often wondered about, was this: “We’ve done a lot to our house, and it’s taken years to get around to some things. I think it’s good though. I think it’s good for the girls to experience the process, and to understand that they can’t just have things done all at once.”

I nodded, and smiled. I didn’t once let on how his words changed my life, and then I walked home.

Five years later, and his little girl and mine are now fast friends. I’ve been to their house numerous times to pick her up from playdates, and seen that inside that shabby, crusty exterior is something truly palatial by my standards. They’ve done most of it themselves, and are still doing it. The last few times I’ve been there the dad has been up on a ladder plastering the ceiling of one of the bedrooms, or laying new floorboards, while the girls play Barbies or craft on the mat in the living room. I love their house I love the amazing journey they’ve had, and the huge amount of effort they’ve done to get it to the standard that it’s at. But what I love most of all is this: it reminds me constantly that it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.

I have not let my daughter down by not providing her the most beautiful house and bedroom to start her life in. I’ve given her the gift of experiencing a journey.

The stranger at the airport

Want to hear a story?

Over the weekend I rearranged my bedroom. I moved my big old wardrobe from one side of the room to the other, and in order to do that I needed to take everything out. Everything. There’s not many times I do that. Do you have drawers where you put special, random stuff underneath your jeans and jumpers? I think all of my drawers have certain amounts of special weirdness in them, and mostly I know what it is and where it is, but this day I uncovered something I’d been wondering about, something that had been missing for a few years. This is it. Let me tell you its story.

My amethyst crystal

My amethyst crystal

It was September 1993. I’d just turned twenty, and was leaving Tasmania to fly to Perth, Western Australia, to see my dad for the first time in about five years. I had an hour-long flight from Hobart to Melbourne, then a two hour delay before I could board my flight to Perth. I didn’t mind so much. I loved airports, and Melbourne’s is a big one. I took the opportunity to wander through all the shops, and to check out the International departures lounge, dreaming that one day I too would fly out from there to somewhere exotic*

I bought some lunch at one of the cafes there, looked through the book shops and the way-out-of-my-league jewellery shop. I perused handbags and scarves and tiny, fire-coloured opals set in rings and watches. I had a lot of fun looking through the tourist shop, trying to imagine what overseas travellers thought about Australia, and wondered where in the world these “Kangaroo Crossing” signs and outback calendars would grace the backs of toilet doors, and whether people in other countries really did believe koalas were everywhere** and kangaroos hopped down the main street***. I bought a couple of postcards, just to fill in the time, and sat down on a padded bench outside the tourist shop and started writing them, pulling out the massive study bible I carried in my backpack to rest them on.

I’m not great at knowing what to say in letters and postcards, and there wasn’t much news so far. I read a bit of the bible while I waited for inspiration to hit me, and sat quietly and watched the people walk by. There were a lot of Asian people, which I wasn’t used to seeing, and old round men wearing the brightly coloured jumpers I’d seen in the shops just near me. People in smart suits, and people who looked haggard and travel-weary even by the early afternoon. A dude in a Raiders jacket with his hair curly at the back. He reminded me of Tony, because Tony was growing his hair long at that stage, and, because it was orange and curly, gave him the appearance of having a basketball for a head. To deal with this (this was 1993, a time when afros were very much not cool) he wore a Raiders cap constantly. To this day I have no idea who the Raiders are, where they are from or even what sport they play, but I’m as familiar with their logo as if they were my own hometown team.

I wrote some more, and read some more, and people-watched some more too. I tried hard not to be nervous, and so I prayed. I hadn’t seen my dad in years. We’d never been close, and the years before he left had been so fraught with tension and violence that I was glad to see him go. I didn’t know what to expect from him, or from this trip to Perth, where I knew nobody but him. I was confident enough to know I could look after myself in a strange city if everything went sour, and excited to visit a part of the country I’d never seen, but nervous enough to cling to that bible and search through it for promises of hope, for reminders that God was with me, that I wasn’t doing this on my own.

That’s what I was doing when it happened. I was reading the psalms, although I forget which one, when a hand appeared on my bible. A man’s hand, not in a vision or anything spiritual like that, just entering my field of vision while I was reading. And on my bible the hand left that beautiful amethyst crystal. I looked up. It was the dude in the Raider’s jacket. I held his gaze for a few seconds before he turned and walked away with his friend. I picked up the crystal. It was still warm from his hand, and as I held it I felt a shy peace creeping over me. This was my promise. Things would be all right.

And they were.

I still have that crystal. I’ve searched Melbourne airport a few times since that day, and have never found a shop that sells things like that. I don’t know why he was holding it, where he got it, why he decided to put it on my lap like that that day, or who he is. I love the idea that one day all mysteries will be revealed though. One day, maybe in Heaven, I’ll meet the man in the Raiders jacket, and I’ll smile, and I’ll say, finally, “thank you”.

How about you? Have you ever had an unexpected encounter with a stranger? Did it change you?

And another thing, this is the internet. You just never know who reads these things. Do you know a guy with curly brown hair, maybe in his 20s, who wore a Raiders jacket and was passing through Melbourne airport in September 1993? If you do, tell him I said hi, and thank you!

*And lo and behold, nineteen years later, I did! To Los Angeles, which was uncannily like Melbourne, and to the wildly foreign and terribly exotic city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Madonna, Eminem, and Susie Finkbeiner are all from Michigan. It’s cool.

**They are not. In fact, koalas don’t live in Tasmania at all, so although many people on the mainland have seen them in the wild, I have not.

***They don’t. Not really. Well, not in the major cities, anyway. Weeeeellll…not unless you count Glenorchy as a major city (which nobody does, and this fella is a wallaby, not a kangaroo anyhow). Because summer was so dry, and because the bushfires were so severe, a lot of animals made their way to the suburbs for food.

Wallaby

Yes, this guy DID hop round the city…or at least, the suburbs.