What Strangers Tell Me

This past weekend I asked the cashier at Trader Joe’s how her day was going.  It was my first day off from nearly three consecutive weeks of 12-hour-days at school and my internship.  I finally had time to stop in the store, and I didn’t feel much like making conversation amidst the overwhelming line of angry long-weekend shoppers wrapped around the market’s perimeter, adding to the grocery stress.  Even so, something inside willed me to speak— “how’s your day going?”

I locked eyes with the cashier, a young woman not much older than me, with her hair in a tired ponytail.  I noticed an immediate, recognizable sadness in oceanic blue eyes when—almost tearfully—she told me it was going well because she had seen a friend from home that morning.  “It was so good to see her.  I’ve been so homesick.  New York can be so overwhelming.”  I nodded knowingly, asking how long she’d been in the city.  “Six months,” she replied.  I had expected to hear a few short weeks, maybe a month, and was surprised to hear the same length of time as me.  Isn’t it funny how the passing of time means things to different people.  I went on to hear she had moved from D.C., a short train ride away, and felt almost ashamed to tell her my move across the map from Seattle had gone as well as it could so far.  I wanted to tell her that things would be better soon, but I could only wish her well and say a thankful goodbye.

When I lived in Seattle, I worked at a small boutique.  The evenings were rainy and quiet, and on the darkest winter dusks the store walls rarely saw a customer.  I remember a woman in her early thirties stopping in one night.  This time, too, something inside me struck up a conversation.  I asked what brought this shopper in on that eerie, gloomy, evening and she told me she was exploring the neighborhood, having just moved from Chicago.  “I’m so lonely.  I’ve never been this homesick,’ she barely made out.  She shed actual tears in front of me, right then and there.  I couldn’t believe this stranger was crying in front of me, barely twenty at the time, as I stood helplessly organizing racks of distasteful clothing.  When she asked me if things ever got better, got any less lonely, I lied and told her that they do.  That they always do.  What else are you going to tell a stranger who feels she can cry in front of you? 

It is strange to me, looking back on it, to have had these experiences on opposite sides of the map, years apart.  And all the while I have felt the different sides of loneliness, of missing people, of wondering if I made the right decisions or would even make it through the night.  The fact that these strangers told me their stories without knowing how well I could relate… well, it’s inspiring. 

The truth is we are all having a hard time.  So often we forget this when we are busy having a good time.  But reality always hits hard and fast and suddenly we find ourselves wondering where all the other sad lonely people are.  But they are always there, you’ll find if you look hard enough.  They are in crowded grocery aisles or empty boutiques that keep passersby dry from rainy streets.  They are next to you at crosswalks, across from you at dinner, they might even be sleeping beside you between the sheets.  They are there, hidden among all the happy people, the people who seem to get all the attention when we are at our loneliest, our lowest, our darkest. 

I don’t know what this all means.  These encounters, these people I have never met and will never meet again who are so willing to tell me how they feel.  But it has taught me the importance of vulnerability again and again.  It has taught me to be honest every now and then when someone begs the question, “how are you?”  It has taught me to be a little more careful with my words, with my answers.

I think that sometimes we keep asking this question, we keep wondering how everyone else is doing, because we want so badly so hear that they are doing exactly as we are.  Or anything like we are.  We want to know if their life is maybe not so perfect as everyone pretends.  As everything seems.  Honesty is really a beautiful thing.  So is being homesick, being lonely.  It is beautiful because it is real.  It is important to endure it all.  And it is important to spend certain days telling all the wrong people exactly how we feel.

And so the friends I am seeking lately, they are of the brutally honest kind.  They are wise, talented, young, intellectual people.  Maybe I am not seeking them so much as they are finding me.  They are the kind of people who will tell you the story of their worst, lowest day without batting an eye.  They will tell you of the time when they had absolutely nothing left in them, the time the kept going anyways.  The will convince you to do just the same, because you can.  Because they proved to you that they could, that someone could.  Because no matter how many times you tell yourself you are not going to make it to the next grueling responsibility life expects of you, you will do it.  I am seeking and finding and being graced with the kind of people who tell you about friends who aren’t acting like friends anymore, about how sometimes they think of dropping out of school, about the time they got fired from the best job they ever had.

These people are honest, they’re real.  They are enough even when they cannot be much or do much for anyone.  They never need to tell you of their triumphs, but they will if you ask them to.  They don’t speak of the celebrities they saw on street corners, the friends and parties that fill up their calendars, the future that is being handed to them with each passing day.  They don’t need to tell you these things while there are real, raw, examples of life happening all around us.  We just have to be willing to see them; to know they are there and be willing to talk about them.  Every one of us can relate because we are human and our hearts are all a little broken.  We are wrung out, we are dripping.  No one has a clue what they are doing.  Some of us are better than others at faking it.  But my favorite type of people are the ones who never feel the need to pretend.