Talking to strangers…

Do you do it?

When?

To ask for directions? To order at a restaurant? To the grocery store clerk? To buy or sell something?

image of author taken by stranger at brew fest
A lovely stranger took this picture.

I admit, I don’t usually strike up conversations with strangers, I’m still a little shy about it and… yeah scared. The times I have spontaneously erupted in conversation with a stranger has had surprising results.

Sometimes we are thinking the same thing about a certain situation happening around us, like waiting in line at a brew fest. Sometimes we are both feeling the same thing, like nervous about the turbulence during a plane ride (ever wonder why people erupt into conversation as an airplane descends, after being silent for the entire flight?). I have had 5 hour conversations with strangers, learning that we both work in the same industry or have something interesting to discuss (I once convinced a person from a right leaning state that the worry about climate change is the rate of change – that some species – perhaps most – will not be able to adapt to this change fast enough to survive. It was great to see this person have an “aha” moment.)

These conversations are like one night stands – never to talk with the person again, despite exchanging business cards or email addresses. But what is left could be a lesson, a feeling of interconnectedness with a greater thing called humanity, or it could be a reminder that there are many people out there that are afraid of interacting with other humans.

st_helens_castle_lake
Mt. St. Helens with Castle Lake, a lake created by the landslide post eruption.

My most recent encounter was yesterday as I was visiting Mt. St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument. I was reading about those that survived and those that did not survive the eruption. Fifty-seven people lost their lives that day, at least that is the known number. As I finished reading one placard, about a family who was camping about 13 miles from the volcano and escaped harm because their campsite was behind a hill (they still had to hike out, through hot ash and over fallen trees) and was moving to the next, I caught the gaze of a gentleman who was behind me and gave him a simple smile, acknowledging the emotion that we were sharing. He said to me that the family I just read about survived because the campsite they originally wanted to go to was already taken. “Oh really?” I replied,

“Do you know the family?” I asked.

“No” he said. “My daughter was one of the campers in the other campsite and she did not survive.”

“Wow.” I said. Not knowing how best to respond, my heart sinking at thinking about the tragedy the day the volcano erupted 32 years ago.

He continued to share that she was camping with 6 other people, two died, two were severely injured and two walked out. She died when a tree fell on the tent she and her boyfriend were in, she was only 21 years old.

imagining the destruction
A simple visualization of how much of the mountain was blown off the day Mt. St. Helen erupted.

His story accentuated the feelings of awe and wonder I was already dealing with. I told him thank you for sharing his story, placing my hand on his shoulder, a gesture of love and acknowledgment of our shared humanity. I asked him what her name was “Karen Varner.” he replied. “There is a memorial for all that were killed, on the other side of the hill.” he said, pointing in the opposite direction I was headed.

I didn’t make it to the memorial, but the entire area is a memorial to the amazing forces the Earth has within her and to the humanity that loves her, fears her and idolizes her.

Talking to strangers can be a transformative experience, a scary journey, with unknown treasures at the end.

Til Death…

Death.

What it means to each of us is very personal, but transcendent as well, meaning it is a part of our being human. What is your relationship with death? Is it filled with fear? Peace? or Indifference (which may lead back to fear)?

The author with her childhood friends Khal and Regina, Dec. 2010.
The author with her childhood friends Khal and Regina, Dec. 2010.

It was June 12, 2012, a month ago, when I went to an old friend’s funeral. Khal’s passing reminded me about my relationship with life and with death and how we who are left on this physical plane to deal with loss. Although Khal’s physical body left this planet way too soon and it filled me with sadness, I knew his spirit lives on in the people whom he influenced with his love and his stalwart personality. I am at peace with death.

What I am not in peace with is how some of us will meet our death. Through stupid accidents, preventable or treatable diseases, through another’s incompetence or malicious intent.  Khal’s death was due to preventable and treatable diseases, that many of us have, it’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it’s called pride, it’s called emotional abuse as a child, it’s called being overwhelmed with life. I saw so much of my own struggles when I last talked to him, we had just reconnected via Facebook in 2010 and were planning a small high school reunion. During this time I remember sharing with him my concern over his weight and health (he was an athlete in high school and a U.S. Marine), he shared that it was because he had a hard time making time for himself.  I suggested he think of his future, his kids, that he needed to find time for himself, for them and he promised me that he would start going to the gym. I said I would keep tabs on him, that I wanted to hear how he lost weight when I saw him at the reunion. I did keep tabs on him, once or twice and he had started going to the gym. I was even keeping tabs on him in my dream state: “Khal, I had a dream that you were smoking in your garage.” I messaged him one morning. He was dumbfounded, he said that no one, not even his wife, knew that he smoked. I asked him why he did that, and he responded “Stress.”

I lost contact with Khal soon after the reunion. He had reconnected with other friends and I had hoped through that he would find some reprieve from his stress and quench his need to talk to someone about it. I was also going through my own dark period (end of relationship, dealing with demons from my past, etc.) and had begun shutting people out of my life. During this time I even deleted my FB page, losing contact with many people I thought were superfluous in my life. I was performing my own type of death ritual. I needed to do that to reconnect with my true self and needed time and space to find me.

Me and tio
The author, with Uncle Danny, circa early 1971.

This wasn’t the first time I had done my own death ritual. Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Transitioning from marriage to divorce. Death to me is a transition. I came to terms with death, both physical and psychological, when I was a junior in high school. It was during this time that I learned my uncle had AIDS (a preventable and now treatable disease). It was the mid-1980s, when the big AIDS scare began and all those awareness campaigns started. Uncle Danny wasn’t just any uncle, I had three others, he was my kindred spirit. He died during my senior year, an already difficult transition period (college looming, boyfriend being a butt head). Thanks to his suggestion, the summer before his death, I had begun writing in a journal. These journals, were pivotal in helping with transition; they provided me with a venue to vent my anger, talk about my sadness and eventually see that in death we do not part with those whom we have that special connection. My uncle was there with me then and is now and I’m still writing in a journal.

I am at peace with death. I am at peace with transitions. Trust me, it doesn’t make it any easier when a relationship ends or when someone you love dies. It doesn’t mean that I look forward for the next transition to happen. No, because I am still only human and I have these things called emotions to deal with, to work through, to come to terms with. But I am wiser. After each transition I learn something new about my self, about what it truly means to be human and what this life is all about. My spirituality grows with each transition. It is as if being at your most vulnerable, your most human, opens a window to see beyond this physical plane of being. To gain sight to see that my energy mingles with all the energies of the universe, that I am a part of something greater, that we are a part of something greater.

I am at peace with death and with life. Today I realized it has been a month since my friend was buried, and in recalling my relationship with death I realize that it has been 24 years since my uncle died. I am vulnerable, I am feeling emotional, but I am also feeling the love that connected us during their time on this planet and I can continue feeling it to this day and possibly forever.