There can be a moment in a conversation with a stranger when the bottom seems to drop out; something opens up and deepens; we both free fall in a shared space.
Castoff art school painting by a childhood friend, Bunny Harvey, now a world renowned artist
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Paul Mccartney and John Lennon of the Beatles
If you want to overcome that feeling of isolation and loneliness…approaching others with the thought of compassion in your mind makes all of the difference.
H.H. the Dalai Lama
If you will not take care of each other, who else will do so?
The Buddha, adapted from “Tending the Sick,” Theravada Vinaya
There can be a moment in a conversation with a stranger when the bottom seems to drop out; something opens up and deepens; we both free fall in a shared space. That happens for me from time to time at the Farmer’s Market when I’m registering voters and canvasing. Or even on the phone, when I’m making calls urging people to contact their senators to preserve affordable healthcare. I never know when it might happen. This is a moment when the stranger and I are both vulnerable; it’s a moment when each of us might tap into what’s hurting, where each might sense what needs care. In that moment, we both know that in some way we belong to each other.
In my first call to Maine about a proposed Senate healthcare bill, I reached a man who who was angry about all the people who might lose healthcare with this new bill. He wanted to make sure that he could have coverage, that everyone would have access and could afford coverage. He was concerned that people would have access to coverage when they had preexisting conditions. So I said, “How about making a call to Senator Collins, letting her know your thoughts? I can give you the number right now.”
And he, “I can’t take that down right now.”
I encouraged him, “Just take your time finding a piece of paper and pen and I’ll read it to you.”
He paused. “Well actually, I’m driving, driving to a funeral.”
“Oh,” I breathed in, off guard, moved. He may have heard my intake of breath, a recognition of loss.
There was a silence. And in that moment, the bottom of our conversation dissolved, opened into a shared space. His voice lowered, “I’m driving to the funeral of my best friend.”
That was my first call. I felt this man’s loneliness, his yearning for contact. I sensed that he genuinely wanted to take action, even in a small way, for himself, for others—to reach out, to take care. We agreed I’d send him a text with the senator’s phone number. And I found myself also wanting to continue reaching out, taking care.
Image copied from card made from bottle art by Mary Daniel Hobson
Second contact. After a number of hang ups, recorded messages and wrong numbers, another man picked up the phone ready to talk. He too was interested, said he knew people needed affordable healthcare. He certainly himself did, he added. I said, “Well since you benefit from the Affordable Care Act, you’d be the perfect person to call Senator Collins, to tell her, ‘Vote no on this new bill.’”
And he said, “Yeah, in a way. But I don’t think I can do that.”
“Why not?” I rejoined, “It sounds like just the thing for you to do.”
“Well, I can’t do it because I’m sick.”
“I am so sorry,” I said.
“I know for a fact that I’m not thinking straight,” he told me.
I said, “Well sounds to me like you’re thinking straight.”
“No,” he insisted, “I’m not well. I can’t understand things the way I used to.”
I was quiet for a moment. I sensed his loneliness, his yearning for connection. Then something seemed to open up. He and I dropped into that shared space. “I have cancer, a brain tumor,” he told me, “I won’t make a call to the senator if I’m not clear on all the facts in that bill.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Finally, I let him know, “I appreciate your integrity.”
And he, “Good to talk with you.”
“Good to talk with you,” I said. And it was. Connecting around something basic in his life—in all of our lives—exchanging sentiments of appreciation, was nourishing, it seemed to me, for both of us.
I made a bunch of calls where I had to leave messages (which people will probably ignore and erase, I thought). Then my phone rang. A man’s voice said, “I’m calling you back. Are you the one who made that call about healthcare?” Not giving me time to answer, he continued, “I wanted you to know that after listening to your message, I made the first call that I ever have in my life to a senator or congressperson.”
“That’s amazing,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “It felt so satisfying. I had to do it. You mentioned about pre-existing conditions. Well I have a preexisting condition. And without Obamacare, I’d be paying for my medication, $400 every month out of pocket, which is something I can’t afford.” His voice softened, “I’ve got ADD.”
“That’s hard,” I said.
“It’s really serious. When I couldn’t get my medication, I talked too much. I was driving away my clients, upsetting my family. When I take my med, things can go really well. I’m a ghost writer. I even got a prize for my work. But just the other day my life fell apart again. And I’m losing my insurance.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. A moment of quiet. Did he sense my concern? Did he contact his own fear or grief?
I am not sure exactly what happened between us, but I do know that something changed in the timbre of his voice, in the quality of my listening; the conversation opened. “I’d been insured through my wife’s work and last week she left me for good,” he told me. “There’s nothing I can do to keep her.” He talked some about the loss of his marriage. Then he thanked me, “I’m glad I called the senator. It could mean everything to me and other people like me.”
These three people really wanted to talk. I sensed in each a longing to be heard, to connect.
Tracy Farmers Market
At the farmers market, in person, an exchange could sometimes go a little further. The last time I went to Tracy to do canvasing, I had a long conversation with a middle aged woman with a Spanish accent. She had immigrated from Mexico many years before and she was already registered already to vote, but she was upset about what was going on in this country and she wanted to talk. Lively, in red blouse, she engaged me with her bright presence. She told me her concerns about health care, about the economy, about local public education. She described her meeting with Jeff Denham, the representative in congress for Tracy. “I went to a town hall just before the vote on the first Obamacare repeal bill was up for a vote. I spoke out at that meeting. Denham promised us he would vote to protect Obamacare. But you know what happened?” Her eyes sparked. “When it came to the vote, he voted for repeal!”
“You articulate so clearly what you think,” I told her, “And you know a lot about these issues. I think you’d do a great job coming out to the Farmers’ Market and doing what I am doing, registering people and canvassing. Do you want to volunteer?”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that. I’m a supervisor at work. I like to talk to people. But not here. I don’t think I’d be good at that.” she said.
I didn’t want to push her. But I sensed she wanted to keep talking. I felt her urgency to get at what she really wanted to say, to make contact with me. A man with a veteran’s hat walked by, some teenagers with tattoos, an old man supporting himself on a walker. We talked about the military, about teens and schools, about the sick and infirm.
She leaned towards me, into that shared space. Something was changing in our exchange. I sensed it. I felt the bottom open. “To tell you the truth. I’m worried. I’m really worried about my mom.” She spoke close to my ear. “She’s old. And she’s alone all day in a little apartment right near here. She doesn’t know what to do with herself.” She looked me in the eye. “Do you know any service for old people?”
I showed her the Tracy Dems’ table down the block, where a retired Tracy couple come every Saturday to do registration and canvassing. They gave the woman a sheet about the nearby Senior Center which offered exercise classes, recreation, holiday events. After some conversation, I tried again. Would she like to volunteer at this table doing voter reg? Her Spanish would be helpful for new immigrants, I pointed out. “Maybe I can,” she said, and wrote down her email on the volunteer form. Before she left, she gave me a hug.
When the bottom dropped out in these conversations, I recognized in each person a common ache—a yearning to make contact, in part with me, but also with his or her own truth. We were strangers on the phone or in the market talking about a healthcare bill, education or jobs; it wasn’t the time or the context to delve deeply into personal heartache. Yet what came up was the death of a friend, terminal illness, a failed marriage, caring for someone old. We got at something fundamental—at things shared by all of us as humans. I love the Dalai Lama’s teaching that an attitude of compassion overcomes feelings of isolation and loneliness. For a few of the people I talked to, that exchange led to taking another step—making a call on their own behalf and in the service of others, thus continuing a movement out of loneliness into connection, into a sense of belonging.
Tracy Farmers Market
Indivisible Voter Registration Team