In 1972 Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a noted astronomer and famous ufologist developed a measurement scale for alien encounters. When a UFO is sighted, it’s called an encounter of the first kind. When evidence is collected, it’s known as an encounter of the second kind. When contact is made with extraterrestrials, it is the third kind. The next level, abduction, is the fourth kind.
Aliens aside, these past few days I’ve been contemplating encounters of a different sort, a fifth kind; encounters between humans on this planet. Random strangers. Though, not so random, if you believe, as I do, that God delights in orchestrating many of these meetings.
We’ve likely all experienced something similar; an encounter that has stayed with us, whether it was an act of kindness forty years ago, an unexpected hug in a hallway last year, or the discovery of a kindred spirit just yesterday.
Six years ago, I wrote about this very topic in my No Such Thing As a Random Stranger blog posting. At that time I asked “What if we treated every day as the momentous event that it truly is? If we allowed that the strangers we meet each day might be the friends of tomorrow? What if we are all presented with ‘random strangers,’ ‘random encounters,’ and ‘random moments’ that are not so random? I believe we all are given those opportunities to make a friend, help someone, be helped, to hug, to be hugged, to say ‘God bless you,’ and mean it. It is a personal relationship with God that allows us to recognize those moments for what they are.”
“Never met a stranger,” is a commonly-used phrase to describe someone whose personality is outgoing, friendly, and with an ability (and desire) to talk to anyone. My husband David was such a person. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit now that it used to embarrass me when he’d stop to talk to a stranger. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now that I’m the one who embarrasses my children by doing the same. I’m a different person than I was then; talking to strangers, reaching out to others, and glad for the change in me. My mother was also one who “never met a stranger,” which accounts for the names and addresses of several “strangers” in her old address book.
Apparently, Lyn was a man she met on the bus on a trip to Colorado to visit my younger sister. I’d love to know what intrigued her about this man enough that she requested his address. Did she notice his long hair? A tattoo? Was he carrying a guitar case? Drawing in a sketchbook? Was she the only person on that bus to truly see him? To talk to him?
What happens when we treat every day as the momentous event that it truly is? I can tell you what happened to me in the last ten years, since I look at every encounter differently, knowing the strangers I meet are not always random.
A few days ago, I had my hair done at the local beauty school. I save a lot of money there and am confident because of what I’ve observed about one of the instructors who oversees the students. Not only is Diana talented, she is lovely, glowing. That’s what I see in people who are in the right profession. Their eyes brighten when they talk about their work, their voices become animated. Their whole face lights up. I watched for this in the young student when she informed me she planned on opening up her own salon in Bellevue after graduation. I saw it in her face and heard it in her voice when she told me she’s known since she was a freshman in high school what she’s wanted to do.
While normally I crave silence while my hair is cut and dyed, when I pulled out a clipboard and started to write, young Paige settled into the chair next to me and asked what I was working on. Before long, my clipboard was forgotten and we were leaning in close to each other, deep in animated conversation about creativity, the topic of my upcoming book. I became certain there was something she was supposed to hear, that our unexpected encounter was not random. At the same time, I was struck by how differently I would have responded to her questions just ten years ago, if I’d have even bothered to respond beyond simple “yes” and “no” answers.
Time passed quickly as I enjoyed our conversation, and soon the instructor interrupted to check my hair. Diana’s fingers move fast. She has a magic touch, a skill that comes with talent and practice, but it’s the look on her face and her casual banter while she works that makes it obvious she truly loves her job. Perhaps her comments to the student are intentional, to boost the customer’s ego. I assume the young woman can learn more than simple hairstyling from her instructor’s methods.
“Her hair is fine like ours, but has wonderful body to it. It’s so easy to work with. Look how beautiful it is,” Dianna says to Paige as she deftly scrunches whipped mousse into my hair. “Look what happens when we use this product that boosts her natural curl,” she continues. I stare into the mirror, transfixed. Transformed.
Tired, stressed, and overwhelmed when I arrived, I feel lighter, happier, maybe even beautiful. I needed this. One student. One instructor. One haircut. An encounter others might deem meaningless feels otherworldly to me. Whether I was to observe someone else come alive with their passion, pass on some words of wisdom to a young person, or realize just how much I have changed, there is a meaning to this meeting, an encounter that stays with me some four days later.
Then, there’s yesterday afternoon. I have a recurring dream; a nightmare where I spit a mouth full of teeth into my cupped hand. All my teeth. I shudder every time I have this dream. I’ve given birth to eight children, undergone three caesareans, a knee surgery, gallbladder removal and hernia repair, but when it comes to teeth, I get dizzy and feel faint when I need dental work done. Imagine my horror, then, when eating yesterday, to feel something come loose, and yes, live my nightmare by spitting out a tooth, a crown, or something like it, right into my palm. That I didn’t immediately identify it as a crown come loose, nor could I bear to look into the mirror to study the area from which it came, demonstrates just how bad this phobia is. The dentist on call must have heard the panic in my voice. He agreed to meet me at the office. My anxiety was fueled by the one-hour drive. While I was fairly certain it was a crown, what if it was a broken tooth? I’d broken a tooth before and have an empty space in my mouth to prove it. What if my teeth fell out, one by one, until I was toothless? How would I do public speaking without teeth?
Entering through the side door, I noticed an older gentleman seated outside of the room where the dentist was leaning over a woman laying back in the chair.
“Are you the lady with the missing crown?” the man asked. “You’re not the only one needing dental work this weekend. I’m waiting for my wife.”
I noted the obvious concern on his face, and my heart went out to him. For a brief moment, I forgot about myself and the teeth that were surely falling out of my head, one by one.
In the next instant, I felt a deep pang of sadness. This is what it is to have a partner in life. Whatever you go through, you are not alone. They are with you. David would have talked me down from the anxiety, would have driven me to the dentist office, sat there waiting. Worried about me, like this man with his wife. I had that once. Secondary loss, having lost that partner, hit me hard.
The man indicated I should sit down. When I obliged, he asked to see my crown. Confused by a stranger who was not the dentist asking to view something that came out of my mouth, I made a feeble joke. “You make me sound like royalty, wanting to see my crown.”
He introduced himself then, a retired dentist. Pulling his chair close to me, he studied the little plastic bag I pulled out of my purse. “Yes, that’s a crown. It looks good. This should be an easy fix,” he assured me, patting my arm. My heart stopped racing. I relaxed. I suddenly knew; this was no random encounter. A retired dentist waiting for his wife at the exact moment I arrived? His kind eyes, reassuring voice, the pat on my arm. This moment, this encounter meant something. It reminded me that although I might not have my partner anymore, there are a lot of good people in the world, people that care about others. Who don’t laugh at another person’s anxiety. A dentist who takes time out of his weekend to care for a patient, even when it isn’t a dental emergency. He could have told me I’d have to wait until Monday. I’ve had dentists who have done just that. A man, worried about his wife, taking the time to reassure a stranger. These were good people.
Within minutes, the dentist had reattached my crown. I stood to leave. “I hope your wife is okay,” I said, turning around to face the man. His wife sat up in the chair.
“She will be,” the dentist reassured all three of us.
What happens when we treat each day like the miracle it is, each encounter with a stranger like the miracle it might be?
Which way will you live your life?