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Are We Connected?

I’ve often written about how we are all connected—all humanity by DNA, many of us by culture, some of us by more personal values, a few of us by familiarity. Acknowledging that fact has been an ongoing effort for me, both intellectually (easy) and emotionally (not so easy sometimes). Fewer people feel like me to me than my idealism would like to claim.

A woman spoke to me in a restaurant recently. "Are you French?" she asked as she cleared dishes from our table. "I was just wondering, because I was in Europe last year, and you just look as though you might be French."

"No," I answered, "I’m an American—I don’t even speak French." I admit I was flattered. As we continued small talk, I asked her where she was from. Her accent and dark complexion suggested "Latin America."

"I’m from Costa Rica," she told me. "I’ve been here for about four years. Is this your family here?" She gestured at the group seated around the four tables that had been pushed together for the occasion.

"Yes, my family."

"You have a very nice family." She smiled and rolled her cart away.

Again, I felt flattered. I looked around at the fourteen people in "my family." My son Phil sat next to me and his wife next to him; my wife, Judith, was on my other side. At the far end of the clustered tables sat seven people I had never met before. We were together for an informal celebration—the engagement of my granddaughter Stephanie to the young man she has been living with for the past half year or so. His mother, sister and brother, and several friends of the couple made up the "other side" of my family. Stephanie and Charles were planning a trip the following weekend to be married. They had already moved into an apartment and had put some furniture on layaway. Stephanie’s three-year-old son, Dorrion, from a previous relationship, was off visiting relatives in Indiana.

Charles had greeted me with a strong hug when he arrived. His brown head was shaved smooth, and his body was that of an athlete. I’d heard from Stephanie some years ago that he had once dreamed of playing pro football. They had been friends since high school. He had gone to California for a time, but now here he was, accepting the life and responsibilities of family. My first impression of him was good—as much as we can tell about people across the chasm of fifty years in age, and the other chasm of racial and cultural differences.

It’s difficult for me to approach people, even many that I have known for years. I was grateful that Charles didn’t have the same problem. Instead of awkwardly trying to engage in conversation with these strangers, I spent the time after our meal taking photographs of the people around the tables. When it was all over, there was a general shaking of hands, and another big hug from Charles, as we went our separate ways.

Later, of course, I wished I had pushed myself to get to know these people and to share more actively in the conversations. Most—the young people, I realized—seemed to have a good time. Charles’s mother was reserved, but she shook hands and wished us a good day when she left. She has an emotional stake in this newly solidified relationship, larger even than my son’s. No doubt her dreams for her son have included more than a youthful marriage and struggles to make ends meet. At one time, I heard, there was talk of medical school for Charles.

This morning, looking at the photographs I took that day, I thought of how distant I feel in some ways from that life my granddaughter has become immersed in. She and I share a lot of affection even though our visits are only occasional. Stephanie seemed at home among those people and comfortable being the only white face among all that mahogany. It’s easy to say—and inadequate—that the color of skin makes no difference. Still, it’s not the color; it’s the cultural differences that matter most. To me personally, it’s whether or not I feel accepted by someone that determines my comfort level around them. I’m pretty sure the other people were feeling at least some of the same thing.

Fortunate is the person who can feel at ease around strangers. I’m grateful for people like our server at that gathering, who so readily made conversation with me, and like Charles, who so easily embraced me at our first meeting. I know I often hide behind my camera. It gives me something to do so that I am not faced with my own social inadequacy.

As much as my rational mind tells me that other people are for the most part just like me and that it should be easy to make small talk—even large talk—with just about anybody I encounter, it’s always been difficult for me. I used to depend upon alcohol to dissolve my own shyness, but I’ve learned that it is a risky social lubricant. These days, it’s also as apt to put me to sleep as it is to loosen my tongue. So, in groups I tend to be what they used to call a "wall flower," watching and listening and waiting for someone else to bridge the gap between us.

This social failure of mine is radically opposed to my conviction that much of what I am is shared with others. I believe that all of Life, at least that which exists on this planet and has existed for millennia, is of a piece. Each of us is but a wave in that vast ocean, a momentary manifestation of shape and awareness that is never totally separate. As John Donne put it so eloquently almost five hundred years ago, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." We grow from cells created in the bodies of our parents, and they from theirs, all the way back to some common event far earlier than the mother of us all, whimsically called "Lucy," whose bone fragments were scattered on a distant African plain almost four million years ago.

Would I feel more connected if Charles and his family shared my skin color? No. Only by familiarity can I come to know someone, to feel in my bones the connection I know is there. And even then the feeling is not always assured. Sometimes I can be in the company of my own children and have moments of wondering, "Who are these people, really? What’s inside their minds at this minute?" That’s not often, of course, and even while I feel it I know that the doubt is just my own uncertainty about reality itself. It’s like looking in a mirror and wondering who that old man really is.

Even with this uncertainty, my belief in my connection to others is something I mostly take for granted. It’s reinforced by small events accumulating over time—holding a door for someone and exchanging smiles, having someone tap me on my shoulder and handing me a glove I had dropped, overhearing someone remark to someone else about a sunset we are all witnessing. Feeling my hand touched by a sales clerk as she gives me my change. Sitting for a while with a suffering friend. Being kissed unexpectedly. Being thanked warmly for something I had not noticed doing. There’s something more going on among us than if we were stones simply sharing the same beach.

It is in its absence that I’m most aware of it, this feeling of connection. It is usually when I want it most, when I want to belong, when I want the distance between us to disappear. I’ve lived with this longing most of my life. I don’t know where it started—perhaps some minor experience in my childhood, even some misunderstanding. It hardly matters, except that I’ve grown up to feel that connection with others is terribly important to me.

As I sat among that group of people last week I wished I could feel as connected and warm as perhaps I was seen by the woman from Costa Rica. "You have a very nice family," she said as she walked away. I never thought to ask her about her own family, or whom she felt connected to in this cold land thousands of miles from her home. She had asked me if I were French—perhaps she sought a connection, something in common with another stranger to this place.

At least we exchanged pleasant words, and a smile. Those things do add up.

 

February 28, 2004

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