bn2199_25-fbpeople-disembarking-subway-train-new-york-city-new-york-usa-postersOn the way home from my weekly OB appointment during the ninth month of my last pregnancy I stepped onto a very crowded train. It was rush hour, which meant I had spent far longer than planned waiting at the Dr.’s office just so I could get weighed, have my blood pressure taken, asked if I had any questions and then dismissed until next week. I had tried to enjoy the alone time, read, listen unobtrusively to others’ conversations and not be annoyed at waiting and waiting. But it hadn’t worked. I sat there wishing I’d brought more than a granola bar to eat and feeling frustrated about needing to use the bathroom, yet again. So when the train pulled up and I had to squeeze in just to find a place to hang on it just about drove me to tears. Everyone around me had earphones in, books and newspapers blocking their faces or the classic eyes-closed, I’m already asleep, don’t bother me position. A sixty-something year old man in a furry hat noticed me and scooted his bag over on the ground to make a spot for me to hold onto the pole he was using. He glanced around at the people sitting, searching for someone to be valiant or at least cordial and offer the nine-months-pregnant lady a seat, but to no avail.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” he asked in an accent I didn’t recognize.
“It’s a girl,” I answered. Apparently I had still managed enough of a smile through my frustration to invite conversation.
“Girls are always late,” he said.
“I hope not.” I really hoped not. Nine months was enough already!
“They are,” he said again. “But it’s okay, because they are beautiful.”

His genuine and peaceful way of speaking started to calm my frazzled nerves. He surveyed the train again, looking to see if anyone had noticed me yet. Everyone remained in the same state, self-absorbed. He started again, “People don’t ever talk to each other anymore. People need to talk. How will we learn what others have to offer if no one talks?” A poignant question for a crowded train ride.

“We won’t,” I answered.
“People are all that really make a difference. When I left my country to come here I left behind my family. I thought I would have to go back; I was so lonely. But I am still here, thirty-seven years later because I created family here. I had to talk to people and be the one to help my neighbors. Suddenly you have purpose when you are part of a family, even if it’s one you created just through helping each other, yes?”

I smiled and nodded, feeling the truth of his words. His stop came up next and before he got off the train he secured a seat for me by blocking the oncoming passengers. He smiled and gave a slight bow. “Bless you and the new baby,” he said as the train doors slid closed behind him.

I made eye contact with the woman who sat down next to me, “How are you?” I asked. She looked a little surprised, but smiled back and we shared a bit of what we each had to offer the rest of the way home.

Where have you found unexpected wisdom? Would you share some with us?

June 10, 2009

25 Comments

  1. amelia bedelia

    June 9, 2009

    Thanks for this post – there are too few interactions like this in the world. At Sacrament mtg this past Sunday, my 2 month old fell asleep, my 6 yr old fell asleep (afternoon church), and my 2 year kept me busy. My husband can’t attend right now due to back pain. As the meeting ended, I felt trapped by my sleeping kids – I needed to take my son to nursery, and also find a last minute sub to help in nursery, and I was doing sharing time as well in five minutes. An older gentelman noticed me standing there, trying to decide what to do, and walked over. “I’d be glad to sit with them for a while”…I expressed my gratitude. He said that spending time with kids was the best use of time in the world. True wisdom, and yet, even as a mother, I forget that sometimes.

  2. Heather H.

    June 9, 2009

    amelia bedelia, What a blessing! My friend always says, “If you’re sitting there holding a baby, you’re busy; you’re not doing nothing.”

  3. Johnna Cornett

    June 9, 2009

    I love this story, and how this man created comfort and humanity for you on the subway. I appreciate his wisdom and courtesy.

    But really, I don’t want to talk to anyone on the bus or the subway or the plane. Nine times out of ten I’ll feel exhausted or trapped when someone tries to talk to me. My mind goes “what are they after?” when someone talks to me. I’m tense if they talk to my kids. I have this terrible assumption that most people who work up the nerve to talk to a stranger are asking for attention, money, or conversion to a cause. Or will do me harm. Maybe if I were more confident of my ability to get out of an unwanted conversation, I wouldn’t be so careful about avoiding getting in one.

    It’s a narrow way, but it’s hard to figure out how to get out of it.

  4. Heather H.

    June 9, 2009

    Johnna, my husband feels the same. When we travel together he takes the window and I sit in the middle so I can chat with the stranger. When he has his morning commute on the train he puts in his iPod, bows his head, and closes his eyes. He probably wouldn’t have noticed me and given up his seat if he were on the train. 🙂

    I’m wondering, where do you think that assumption came from? Is it based on experience? I mean, if someone is stopping me on the street it’s usually about joining a cause or selling me something, but when we’re all just sitting on the train waiting to get somewhere . . .I’ve rarely had something bad come of it.

    Side note, the people who try to get you to give money to a cause here will often ask a question as you’re passing. And everyone approaches me; I guess I don’t look like a true New Yorker even after 5 years. I have a firm “No” response prepared for anyone who comes up to me. One day a girl asked, “Do you have a moment to help the children in New York?” “No.” I said without a smile as I walked on. A couple blocks later it sunk in what she asked, “Help the children in New York …” Suddenly I felt harsh. My husband tells me-that’s the point.

  5. corktree

    June 9, 2009

    I had an experience like this once, though for the life of me I can’t remember how it went well enough to repeat it (it was also in Russian) but I do remember the feeling that I got from the attempted conversation and wishing that I understood better to gain from what the old man was trying to tell me. I also wish there were more conversations like this that took place and that more people had the courage to share their experiences and their view of situations. What the man on the subway said says it all. We all have our own wisdom to share with others based on our unique perspective, even though our experiences may be the same, but we’ll never know what people need to hear or what they have to tell us if we don’t open up and remember that we are all really more connected than we usually feel.

  6. Maralise

    June 9, 2009

    oh wow. God bless that man. Thanks Heather.

  7. QueenScarlett

    June 9, 2009

    I love this. It’s beautiful.

    One of the things I had to get used to moving to the Sacramento area from the South Bay was reaching out of my veneer of disinterest.

    In the Bay Area you don’t look at each other, or strike up conversations. In Sacramento we do it all the time….and I LOVE IT!

    I think it takes practice. But the Sage on the Subway is right. I don’t always like being the person to organize something, or start up a conversation – but we need it. We need to connect. All the tech in the world won’t let us feel as connected as eye-to-eye focus.

    I’m happier after sharing a pleasant conversation with the lovely little ladies at the grocery store, or watching an old man’s eyes giggle at my girls and their silly, dramatic antics.

    We need each other. That lovely man on the subway has it right.

  8. tori

    June 9, 2009

    Several years ago I was on a train going from Florence to Venice. I was seated to an elderly Italian man who wanted to talk. I do not speak Italian. He tried to converse in several other languages. My high school German was inadequate. Not only did I feel uneducated, but I knew I was missing out on a chance to connect.

    Thank you for your story. What a lovely man.

  9. Justine

    June 9, 2009

    I love to chat it up with strangers. I especially love to holler words of encouragement to other people I see running as I am running. But, at the same time, I have been accosted in Target for money, and have had that cordial unfamiliarity stripped for want of some cause or political advancement. But more often than not, you can quickly figure out if the person is being friendly or if they’re after something. Then it’s just a matter of getting out of it if necessary!

    But I would be genuinely sad to see that type of kindness disappear. It’s something that keeps me smiling at everyone as I go about my life – I know I would love it if someone smiled at me, so I’ll go fishing for smiles.

  10. Karunya

    June 9, 2009

    I’ve been having an unusual number of casual conversations lately. I’m normally a reasonably friendly person, and I know the names of every salesclerk and bank teller in my town. But I suddenly found myself having deep conversations with passers-by and casual acquaintances when I donated my hair three weeks ago in solidarity with one of our Primary girls who has bone cancer. (Her name is Savannah, and we covet your prayers.) My hair was waist-length, and I wore it in a bun under a netting in the fashion of my Pennsylvania German ancestors. I offered to cut my hair all the way to the scalp if my students donated $2 per inch. As it happened, the final total was something like $4.50 per inch (now I’ll have to tweeze my eyebrows and shave my legs, I joked), so I was completely bald when it was done. Ths thing is that whenever I see someone looking at my bald head with a worried look, I tell them Savannah’s story and invite them to church to meet her in person. I’ve found that if we have an uplifting story to tell, even the most withdrawn people are usually glad to hear it. I hope that I continue to remember this lesson even when my hair has grown back.

  11. Justine

    June 9, 2009

    Karunya, when I was bald after a brain surgery, it felt like I talked to the entire world every time I went out. Something about looking in a vulnerable position or something, every other woman I walked by struck up a conversation.

    What an interesting observation. I wonder what it says about our inclinations.

  12. Julie P

    June 9, 2009

    Oh I love that man! I wish this post would be on the front page of every major newspaper – no, every major web page. 😉

  13. jendoop

    June 9, 2009

    I’m really not trying to be a Molly by saying this.. but… This reminded me of visiting teaching. That is really all VT is, talking. You don’t have to take cookies, you don’t have to take a casserole if it is beyond your means in their time of need. Most of all visiting teaching is about talking, and I have seen a great amount of good from a simple visit. You are showing by your actions that, “People are all that really make a difference.”

    Great post. I live just outside of NYC and the cold shoulder attitude abounds. When we went to the South for vacation I loved the hospitality!

  14. Selwyn

    June 9, 2009

    I find unexpected wisdom scattered amongst the everyday. Half a sentence from a book (“Sometimes it’s better to light a flamethrower than to curse the darkness” – Men At Arms, Terry Pratchett) or essay, a quote on a blog or a graffittied wall, a few lyrics in a song (“My God don’t make junk” – Shawn McDonald), a tiny part of conversation.

    On Monday my Mum and I were talking about life, the universe and everything, and she said “When you’re tired, that’s when it gets hard.” The air in the car shimmered, and it just reverberated within us both. It made us both mute with clarity, and we could only breathe and think. Unexpected wisdom indeed.

  15. Kristin

    June 9, 2009

    This was a well written post. I loved this man’s advice, and agree. For me, I find these conversations with strangers interesting and uplifting. I have a much tougher time with people I will see over and over again. I think I am more guarded in those situations. Anonymity gives me courage to talk about deeper things, so I think my conversations with strangers are sometimes the most meaningful.

    I found unexpected wisdom in a duck family last Saturday. While on an early morning run, I took a break to walk around a large pond near my home and enjoy nature. As I got within about 10 feet of a duck family, which was as close as I planned to be, the father gave a signal, and the mother led the ducklings quickly towards the middle of the pond…far away from me. They were so quick to obey. It was their instinct.

    I thought of the times the prophets warn us. How the proclamation was issued before a new onslaught against the family. Am I so quick to swim to the middle of the pond when danger is sounded? Or do I sometimes hesitate. “She doesn’t look threatening. She is still 10 feet away and she moved so slowly.”

    There is safety in heeding the voice of the prophets. Those were some sage ducks.

  16. Melissa M.

    June 9, 2009

    Karunya, bless you for cutting off your beautiful hair to help a child in your primary. Your story touched me. I will pray for Savannah.

  17. Jennie

    June 9, 2009

    That’s why I love Texas. Strangers always talk to each other here. I love it but my husband was born paranoid. He’s sure somebody will be wanting something. Like that’s the end of the world.

  18. Faith.Not.Fear

    June 10, 2009

    Unexpected wisdom came when our neighbor’s tree uprooted and fell into the street during a major snow. It lay there, helpless to right itself.
    But, hours later, it was upright again, supported by deeply driven stakes and ropes on all sides.
    Thus the analogy — when we fall, or tilt, or waver, Heavenly Father has prepared those who can support and strengthen us until we can support ourselves — home teachers, visiting teachers, family, neighbors, friends, even strangers.
    It impressed me deeply as to how important it is that we be that support — one day or another we will all need it, and how blessed we are for it.
    Reminds me of Elder Holland’s “angels” talk last fall — angels aren’t just on the other side of the veil (although they’re pulling for us, too!).

  19. Sue

    June 10, 2009

    I love that this man thought of you. I’ve notice people are less willing to give up a seat these days, even to a very pregnant woman, and I love this tale of thoughtfulness.

    We are just too busy and self-absorbed. Your post has reminded me to take a little more time to really “see” people around me.

    Thanks.

    =)

  20. Kelly Jo

    June 10, 2009

    My husband and I were flying back from a cruise a few weeks ago and were stuck in the Orlando airport b/c of a storm. What has every child just done who is at the Orlando airport. . . .gone to Disneyworld of course!! I was chatting it up with a 3yo boy who’s favorite thing was the monorail (forget seeing Mickey!) Then the wisdom came from this little girl, probably about 5yrs old sitting behind me and talking to this older woman beside her. The older woman asked “did you just go to Disneyworld?” the girl replied “yes.” The older woman said “I just went to Disneyworld too.” The little girl, with a very puzzled and emphatic tone said “I didn’t see you there!” I chuckled to myself but also wished for that sweet wisdom of the world being so simple for a 5yo.

  21. Merry Michelle

    June 10, 2009

    I’ve gotten a lot of great advice from Librarians. They’re so friendly ans knowledgeable. I think that’s another thing I want to be when I grow up.

  22. Faith.Not.Fear

    June 11, 2009

    Kristin — I’ve seen the same system among quail!

    There’s always a quail sitting higher (on a fence post or roof top, etc.), watching for danger while the rest are going about their daily foraging. When he gives the warning call, they all disappear like lightning. It’s amazing.

    I believe God can teach us many things through His creations if we’re watching & listening!

  23. Clarice

    June 14, 2009

    This is why I like to come here on Sunday mornings, to read beautiful posts like this one, thank you!

  24. Cheri

    June 14, 2009

    Thanks for the sweet story, Heather. And kudos for immediately acting on what the old man taught you.

  25. a toast to kos

    June 16, 2009

    I am a fellow New Yorker (not native). I should smile a little more and make eye contact. It’s easy to get trapped into thinking you shouldn’t/don’t need to here.

    Thank you for your lovely thoughts. People matter most.

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