While we were grocery shopping last Saturday, Christian spotted someone who looked familiar at the next cash, so he struck up a conversation with him. It turns out he was right. It was the father of a former work mate who had also become Christian’s friend.
Christian had never actually met this man so he went over and introduced himself.
I know the son too, but would never have guessed that this man was his father.
The person before me was a long-legged, small man wearing an ill-fitting coat that would have been refused at a thrift shop. He was thin in a way that suggests neglect or bad habits. His stringy hair had outgrown its cut months ago. His shoulders stooped in a bookish way, as though a permanent pair of reading glasses at the end of his nose had altered his posture and dragged them forward (I don’t think he was wearing glasses, but it felt that way).
He was friendly and yet oddly casual as we parted ways.
While heading to our car, Christian said to me: “You’d never guess by looking at that man that he’s a martial arts master who traveled the world, lived all over Asia, fell in love with a beautiful Bangladeshi woman, married her and came back to Montreal to have two gorgeous kids and live his life, would you?”
No. No I wouldn’t have. Not in a million years. He looked like an old-school journalist or wrecked university professor.
This made us both smile. The coolness of it. The unpredictability of humans.
It struck us both—and not for the first time— that there are as many stories as there are human beings. And then some.
I grew up in middle-class suburbia and never moved away, and that has given me a sense that my life is—that I am—mainstream.
Which means generic.
Which means part of something homogenized and indistinct. Made uninteresting by sameness and an unwillingness to be adventurous.
Fortunately, it’s all optics.
We are pieces of a great mosaic; it’s true. And when the lens pulls far enough back—as it does in that wondrous video footage from orbiting spacecraft we’ve grown accustomed to seeing—we disappear and all that’s left is our blue planet.
Move in closer though, and it’s a subjective lens that shapes us: it’s the image of ourselves we receive from others.
I feel this very keenly now. It took a long time, but I’m much more aware that the different shades of who I am are brought out or suppressed according to how individual people respond to me.
The fact that this is ongoing in my life perplexes me. Apparently, I’ll never outgrow it and never become impervious to it.
If that’s the case, and if I’m not alone in this, then I have to become a much better person. I have to learn to look at others with vastly more seeing eyes. I have that responsibility.
Each of us is a world.
I was reminded of this just days ago, while reading Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian.
Toward the end of his endearing memoir, Hanagarne refers to a passage in George Orwell’s essay, “A Hanging”, in which Orwell witnesses the execution of a prisoner in a Burmese jail.
“This was a man like him. A man of tissue, organs, bones, muscle and, one would hope, a man who had dreams of something better for himself. Then comes the line I can’t forget:
He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing and feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less [the italics are Hanagarne’s].
For Orwell, the loss of a life was the loss of a mind was the loss of a world, and the world we inhabit is poorer for each loss, for the contributions that mind could have made.”
This beautiful message runs through Hanagarne’s unique and honest book, written by a 6’7” weight-lifting Mormon-raised man with severe Tourette Syndrome who has a Masters degree in Library Science and is an accomplished writer.
He’s the gigantic embodiment of the notion that every life story is a unique saga and that literature is just scratching the surface of Us.
This makes me happy.
And sad, because while reading The World’s Strongest Librarian, I was reminded of the far-too-many moments of unkindness I’ve been guilty of in my mainstream life; how often I have failed to treat people with true empathy because I failed to imagine their world.
But I was fortunate: I wound up teaching French to brand new Montrealers and learning to see the worlds they brought with them.
A few days ago, a story appeared on BuzzFeed that is a testament to the value of each person’s, each family’s story. It’s a short photo essay written and shot by Hani Al Moulia, a young Syrian, who arrived in Regina with his family after living in a Lebanese refugee camp.
The characters of this story: a father, a mother, four brothers and a sister, have already experienced so much, and yet of course, their stories are being written every day.
Who could have possibly imagined that they would be where they are now? Who can imagine where they are each headed?
It’s good that we have those questions in common.