When Strangers Talk

Blogs are tricky because you want to write to keep them alive, but like Christmas and birthdays, I don’t just want to come up with something because the date is dictating that I produce. I want to be inspired. I want to have something that grabs ahold of me and doesn’t let go.

It’s been a busy last month and a half here at the modern real, and while I’m sure inspiring things have been all around me, my nose has been in a book—my book. As some of you know, I am in the process of finishing up the editing of a book, and I am hoping that it will be out there in the world and in all your wonderful hands pretty soon. But thankfully, there are moments when even in the midst of my overwhelmed distraction, life pushes its nose into my view, and I am moved.

I have a sweet friend who works at the Huntington, and she invited me to lunch today. We spent a nice part of the afternoon eating in a beautiful Chinese garden and wandering around the property. She dropped me off at one of the art galleries before she headed back to her office, and I had full reign to wander and take in the beauty. Given the 102 degree weather, I chose to do the majority of my wandering inside, and so I walked through the large doors of the Huntington home into an even larger foyer and was surprised by a delightful collection of classical European art. My bag was heavy, and I was hot from our walk. I found a bench.

The bench was wide and the white marble floors stretched out in every direction. An older gentleman sat next to me, and we sat together dwarfed by the ceilings suspended more than 20 feet up. He in his blue checked shirt and khakis, arms folded, staring at the wall ahead, me staring at my hands as I fiddled with my phone.

It’s always a risk talking to strangers. Not usually dastardly but it can be a risk all the same. I never would have thought this when I was younger. I talked freely with anyone often oblivious to their unease, but now that I am grown up, I know that we live in our own spaces, often content to sit behind the walls of silence that words so quickly disrupt. Today, however, was one of those days when I felt young.

I gathered up my bag and got ready to go, when I turned and asked the man next to me if there were much to see in the galleries upstairs. Like someone who had spent considerable time in this palatial gallery, he smiled and said yes, proceeding to explain some of the collections and the way that you could see all the way to Newport Beach from the windows upstairs.

“Huntington could probably see the water when he built this house.”
“Yeah, probably. With all the traffic, you forget how close the beach really is.”

He talked about the trash dumps that had become mountains along the freeway and how you could also clearly see them from the enormous whitewashed balcony along the second story of the building. He told me about his grandchildren, and how he brought them here, one at a time, to classes where they learned about art. He told me about how they did presentations at school and missed their Ipads when they didn’t have them, and how even though one was only six, he would probably be doing power point presentations before too long.

“They just have so much energy.” He smiled.
“Well, at four and six, that’s not surprising. I just wish I had some of it,” I responded.
“Oh well, you’re young. What are you? 22?”

I blushed. If only one person on this entire planet over the age of 7 thinks that I am 22, it is a good day. I confessed to my real age, but his wizened face smiled again insisting that I was still young. I smiled back and pulled my bag closer, ready to go upstairs and discover just how far I could see. As I did, he pulled his wallet from his back hip pocket. It was the trifold kind, black leather, and in the center was a black and white picture that was more grey than anything else. I leaned in thinking that he was going to show me the rambunctious, presentation-giving, six year old delight in his life, but then I sat back again as I watched him rub his calloused thumb across the lighter area of the photo. I could not see what was in the picture, but I could feel the sacred moment, him forgetting that I was there as he breathed in deeply. I waited.

“My wife died a month ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“56 years.”

He turned away, and I held my bag a little bit tighter, waiting out the silence.

“She had cancer,” the last part of the sentence trailing off as he turned his head away and then back again, the tears damned resolutely behind his wrinkled eyes. He turned away again.

A year ago.
A trip.
Got her.

His friends came down the stairs behind him, and he saw them as he turned away from me. Stopping mid-sentence and waving behind him with one hand, he walked over to join them, asking a gallery attendant for directions to the tea room.

I sat on the bench for a few moments alone and then headed up the stairs to peer over the mountains of trash into the ocean 30 miles away. I wandered past artwork, a testament to times when beauty was different and details were enjoyed and life was essentially the same as it is now. I descended the stairs and saw the half-draped statue that had been eavesdropping with me on our conversation. It sat poised behind the bench staring resolutely into the past. A past where people still choked back tears when the loss was more than you could say, but the silence was even more than you could bear.

I’m not sure that the man on the bench ever meant to tell me about his wife. I didn’t know him or her or the lively six year old that was giving presentations to fellow first graders because of their 56 years together. But I think that sometimes it is in our words that we feel more real. When we speak and the thoughts in our heads and the hurts in our hearts tumble onto the space around us, we can see what we could not see. And when others see those words too, we feel that we are not quite as alone.

There is no doubt that as an adult it is a risk to talk to strangers. Sometimes they are annoyed or private or just in need of silence. But sometimes they are lonely and hurting and in need of our ears so that they can spill their lives and see their words dance around in front of them while we smile and nod and say we’re sorry too. Because even though we don’t know them, we know what it means to be alive.

I looked up at the tall, brooding, life-sized image on the wall that was hanging in front of the bench where we had sat. Her dark eyes peered down from her place high on the wall. She was young and pretty, probably no more than 22. Frozen on the wall, I thought about the tears that she cried and the moments that she talked just to hear her own words and feel more real. Surrounded by amazing art that has been passed down to us through the centuries, I realized that it is we who are really the art. Our lives. Our moments. Our relationships. It is in our stories and out of them that art is born.

The marble sculpture of a mystical Nymph behind me, the brooding young woman draped in 18th century robes on the wall, the man on the bench in the checkered blue shirt, the women in the smudged grey photo tucked neatly in the tri-fold wallet, myself clutching my mustard colored bag. Each of us an art piece. Each of us a reminder that life is magical, heart breaking, transformative, and very real indeed.

I returned to my car and headed back to the coffee shop to work on my book a little bit more. Things may have been busy for a while now and I think they will be for a little while longer. I am learning that there are no shortcuts in this thing called writing. But I am thankful that today life grabbed ahold of me and didn’t let go, even if only for a few moments of friendship and beauty and love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *