The Nuanced Lives of Strangers
Yesterday, Cathy wanted to go shopping, so I ended up on a bench outside the fitting rooms at Macy’s. At one point, an elderly gentleman ushered his wife to those fitting rooms. She appeared to be a bit confused about where she was to go, and the gentleman said, “To your left.” She started to turn right, and he took her shoulders and gently directed her. “Your military left,” he said. His wife disappeared down the aisle of cubicles, and the gentleman came to the bench and sat down beside me.
You should know that generally I’m not one for chatting with strangers, but it was a beautiful fall day, and I was happy to be out and about with Cathy, and besides that, I was just plain curious. So, I said to the gentleman, “What’s a military left?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but my sergeant kept shouting it at me.”
From what I understand, after some research, the military left is the real left, the left that sets the standard. The initial confusion on the part of this gentleman’s wife had brought him to the same sort of exasperation his sergeant had felt when the young soldier the gentleman had been once upon a time started to turn to his right instead of his left. His reaction to his wife’s initial confusion seemed to speak volumes about his character and the role he’d assumed in their marriage. Granted, I was only allowed this brief glimpse, but for a writer the impression of a brief encounter can be enough to help create a character and a narrative.
I’ve always been interested in observing people, and I tend to like them for their imperfections. That’s what I believe I was observing when the gentleman told his wife to go to her military left. There was impatience in his voice, and I can only imagine what challenges he and his wife may have faced in their long life together.
The whole point of this is to say as writers we must be curious and observant. We must be open to the bits of conversations and the small gestures we might witness that arouse our curiosity and seem to provide an entryway into the complications and contradictions of the lives we live. I heard the impatience in my gentleman’s voice, yes, but I also observed how gently he escorted his wife to the fitting rooms and how tenderly he turned her to where she needed to go. Our lives are made up of nuances most people don’t notice. We need to pay attention to the strangers who cross our paths. They have so much to teach us about the intricacies of our human interactions. Try it sometime. Go to a public place and see what you might find that you can use in the stories you tell or the poems or essays you write. Be sensitive to those around you. Love them for everything they invite you to see.
Recently I bought “The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor” for my verbally precocious little granddaughter. As a child, Flannery stared at everything despite her mother’s admonition of staring being impolite. “No writer should ever be ashamed of staring,” Flannery responded. “If she studied something hard enough, Flannery found she could always discover some hidden strangeness, making it beautiful, funny and sad all at the same time.” Those words came back to me when I read your blog and realized that during my focused-on-achievement childhood, I had not learned to stare.
Thanks for sharing this, Lorraine! I love that about finding the hidden strangeness.