It was a whirlwind weekend but one of some really great human connections. I refer to them as such because they are moments of being highly present and listening to peoples' stories. These are the stories and interactions that make me look back and reflect on where I've been, where I am and how my story is inextricably bound to those of others as we fumble our way around on this this huge piece of dirt spinning in the universe.
The moments/interactions were:
- At the book signing on Friday I was able to talk to some of my readers as we discussed my book and our lives together. When I told one woman about my brother's death from cancer at 47 and how death changed me in ways I'd never expected, she told me her daughter died in a small plane crash at 21 years of age. I was nearly speechless. It reminded me that just when you think you've got the saddest story ever written, someone puts it in perspective for you. And as I've said many times before, these signings remind me that EVERYONE has a story. Everyone has hurt and loss. And everyone needs to work it out, and maybe that night I was part of that equation.
- At the same book signing I mentioned to the shop owner about my mom's tragic loss of our sister, our dad, her brother, and her mother all in the span of about 6 years. Ironically the owner also lost her father to a traffic accident at age 5 and her mother's sister to suicide shortly thereafter as well as a couple of other extremely tough incidents. Our mothers' lives were almost parallel. Talking to her was like talking to a sibling. Our lives were mirrored. Again, maybe I was there to do more than just sell books that night.
- After the sale, I went to my mom and sister Pat's apartment with my other sister Jane to have a drink and talk. We ended up talking until 2:15 in the morning. The lion's share of the talk was about the death of our father, our sister and the extremely difficult early years of our family in North St. Paul, Golden Valley and the McDonough government housing projects of St. Paul. As we talked, I found out a number of things I never knew about my dad, my sister's illness and passing, and the circumstances of the night my dad was killed in what was essentially a racial hate crime. While someone might ask, why would we want to rehash these things, I would argue that it is important to all of us to know our history. It is our way of working it out and recognizing how lucky we are to have come out of the whole thing relatively unscathed. And I think it makes us healthier as we work through it as a family.
- But the biggest connection of all perhaps happened on Saturday. I went to a Caribou coffee shop in our old neighborhood to write and, yes, I'll admit, to reminisce a little. I sat at a table that had a wobbly leg for 10 minutes until a woman left a more desirable seat. I moved to that spot next to a beautiful African American woman. I minded my own business for an hour as I wrote away. She seemed restless, getting up and down to go to the bathroom, out for a smoke, to the counter to buy a pastry etc. She had a small bag with her and was dressed okay, but because of her restlessness, I'd kind of pegged her as likely homeless. She finally asked me what I did for a living - being curious about my writing. I told her I was in GIS, but liked to write. It led to a 25 minute discussion about everything from my church to her jumping a boxcar to Minnesota from Montana. We talked about her past, my past, what makes us happy, my kids and more. It turns out she was a foster kid and was moved from home to home. She'd recently lost her job and was on a list to get into a shelter in St. Paul somewhere. When I asked her where she lived, she said "the trees, the sky, the water." She told me her name, but said she preferred to go by the name Gypsy. She was 23 years old, incredibly well spoken, intelligent and approachable which was part of the reason I had trouble reconciling her homelessness. Part of me also was fighting with engaging versus shutting the conversation down because of preconceived notions about homelessness, talking to strangers, scammers, etc. But instead, I chose to be present and listen. I am glad I did because her story was beautiful and tragic and rich. She was broken - but not permanently, I felt, and I told her as much. As she got up to leave, I told her I wanted to give her something, and gave her a twenty dollar bill. She said I did not need to do that and that was not what our whole exchange was about. I insisted because I felt I needed to do something. She thanked me, we hugged and we both left. When I got into the van the second song on the radio was Gypsy, by Fleetwood Mac. And I thought, Seriously, God? I can't make this stuff up. He's got a great sense of humor.
I don't tell this last story because I want to be lauded as a good guy, or to puff myself up. It was simply a really cool experience that may not have happened if I had not switched chairs. It definitely would not have happened if I had not engaged and been present for this person, this human, this sister of mine. And both of our lives would have been less rich as a result. It was a great ending to a great weekend of connection.