In novels, there are all sorts of meetings between strangers. Roger Mifflin meets Helen McGill in Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, and within a few pages, Helen buys Roger’s traveling bookstore. Or the children meet the new neighbors who move into their neighborhood, being inspired and inspiring in the children’s book Araboolies of Liberty Street. Or Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years where we watch Delia walk away from her old life to discover different aspects of herself, meeting new people along the way (this novel always comes together in my mind with the film, Pane e Tulipani).
I assume in most of our lives we have unexpected encounters that blossom. Someone sitting across from me in the California Zephyr’s dining car. Or Deb and Chris who stopped by the traveling bookstore in North Carolina five years ago and we immediately began talking about literature and the humanities, and have remained in touch. This April, I’ll stay with them while doing a bookstore tour through Arkansas. Or last fall, I searched out possible connection for some place to stay with my bookstore while in Brookings, SD for the state’s annual book festival. I was finally given the contact for a couple and knew by the time I left town after the festival, that Phyllis and Jihong and I had begun a friendship.
There was an afternoon eight years ago in Eureka while helping out at a local nonprofit’s office that I answered the phone. An employee who worked on the American side of the US-Canadian border (seven miles north of Eureka) was processing a young Cuban family seeking asylum. She asked if someone could please come to help this family as they didn’t have transportation or a place to stay once their initial paperwork was completed. When I got to the border, I met Maie, Adonis and their young daughter.
After four days during which we figured out their options, the family moved to Helena, found jobs, had another daughter, filled out volumes of paperwork, became US citizens, got better jobs, and this week came back to Eureka to visit. It was remarkable to hear all they’ve accomplished, to see the two girls growing up confident, curious, and smart. To recognize the roles we played in each other’s lives, and to appreciate the value of these connections.
Yes, there are plot lines and arcs in novels – some more feasible than others. But for me, I believe there are connections we can nurture in our lives, opportunities to engage with a new person, to discover shared interests. At times it feels almost effortless. Like showing up at Phyllis and Jihong’s house in South Dakota and immediately feeling there was more to talk about than we could possibly fit into the three days. Or picking up Adonis and Maie at the border, awed by their decision to move without contacts to a new country, and wanting to know these brave individuals better.
Of course, the traveling bookstore presents countless opportunities to meet new people. On this upcoming bookstore tour, Vicki, a friend of a friend in Caspar offered to put us up and even helped find a gig for the bookstore at Backwards Distillery. Karen Kunc of Constellation Studios again was a friend of a friend. I connected with her last fall in Lincoln, NE and have the good fortune of going back to Lincoln on this April tour. We will be staying at her beautiful studios and also setting the bookstore up there on April 25.
Perhaps you are thinking it doesn’t always work out so well. That there are some encounters where the new person is a jerk, or perhaps not all that interesting. But as with much in life, you have to take a gamble. And sometimes it is so worth it, to end up forming a connection with a remarkable individual who you are thankful for. So please, when not reading a book, consider talking to that person who is standing behind you in line at the movies, or who is perusing titles in the same aisle at a bookstore, or is even next to you waiting to cross the street. Lots of possibilities out there for you.