Sunday, November 22, 2009

Carpe Diem:"Hola"

The first EVER Carpe Diem column I wrote. At the time I had no idea where that path would lead, but what started as a local monthly hard copy column, became a worldwide online weekly. What a wondrous journey it all is. Yes! There is a new format of Carpe Diem coming. Stay tuned! In the meantime? "Hola!":

Carpe Diem: "Hola!"

The little girl's dark shiny curls bounce up and down as she gleefully jumps in front of me. She must be all of three years old, and her wide eyes and her broad smile demand an answer from me.

"Hello", I reply, and, of course, I have to smile. At the time, I had no idea what language she spoke (I later learned it was Spanish), but I couldn't resist her exuberance, her guileless innocence. I smiled broadly back at her, as she immediately jabbered on, unconcerned with my lack of understanding. It didn't seem to matter, as we smiled at each other. And then I got to thinking. Have you noticed how seldom we say 'hello' to complete strangers? Have you noticed how rarely we smile at people we don't know? It's probably a sign of the times, but when was the last time you said 'hello' to someone you passed on the street? Yes, I know we live in hazardous times, with all manner of strange people walking among us, but we seem to have lost the most basic of human interactions in our attempts to protect ourselves from potential dangers. For myself, I'm always saying 'hello' to people I meet on the street, and the interesting thing about that simple word is how it can open the door to all sorts of interesting conversations, encounters.

I have met the most amazing people as a result of 'hello' and heard the most astonishing life stories. I know, having taken the plunge to actually say 'hello', the risk is always there that the person being greeted will be brusque, curt, even surly; remember it IS uncommon to be greeted by a stranger! But what is interesting about that is that any student of human behaviour can, by a one word response, glean a wealth of information. Do the eyes light up? Does the person's face crease in a wide smile? Do they grimace? Does their body fold in?

"Zdravo!" The woman greeting me has a wide open smile on her face, but the eyes show a wealth of experience beyond her age. With her brightly dyed red hair, cleanly scrubbed face, and neat clothing, she could pass for any North American woman; but this is a woman with a history.

After I say "Hello" we talk. She is Yugoslavian, and the story she has to tell is horrific. In her fractured English, she tells me that she and her family - daughter, aged 7, son aged 3 and her husband, were living in Belgrade a month ago. As a civil engineer, she had a good income, and since her husband was a professional too, they had a great standard of living. Not anymore. Now, her husband attends English classes, and she concentrates on settling the children in their new country.

We talk, and we watch her children playing. Her son shyly hangs behind his mother's skirts, and her daughter climbs and swings and all the other activities that kids, worldwide, get into. And as I watch and talk with mum, I am reminded, yet again, how alike we all are and how one word can forge tenuous connections. I cannot possibly conceive of the dangers her family has recently faced, but we both respond to the similarities, rather than the differences, in our lives. She was thrilled to find a stranger willing to listen, and I was humbled by her willingness to share.

And so it is, every day. I am often reminded of a song, written long ago by Joan Baez, called "Hello in there". Baez sings about lonely people 'just waiting for someone to say, hello in there, hello'. I think of this song when I meet a shuffling senior, maybe bent over with osteoarthritis, carrying one half-empty shopping bag as he carefully steps home from his one outing of the day. I always smile, at the least, and often say 'hello'. It seems to me, that in this materialistic society, where apparently everything has a price tag on it, 'hello' is one of those rare civilities that costs absolutely nothing. And when accompanied by a smile, the rewards for both parties can be priceless.

"Hi", the young man says. Sitting on a street corner in downtown Vancouver, his body language suggests he doesn't really expect a response. But... "Hello" and a smile from me and I hear a story which reminds me of how lucky my own child is. This teenager has travelled a long road from Nova Scotia. His freshly scrubbed face, and unguarded eyes belie the position he is in, and the journey he describes. As he tells of leaving home, because his family can't afford to support him along with his many siblings, I listen intently. As we part, I marvel again at the temporary bond formed from a simple 'hello'.

Yes, I know, sometimes when your day seems absolutely abysmal, or your day starts with many minor disasters (fill in the blanks!), to say 'hello' or hear a stranger say 'hello' can be a major intrusion, inconvenience. Been there, done that!

But... if you open yourself up to all the infinite possibilities and listen, you might be amazed. I, for instance have discovered on many a 'bad' day, that there is always someone with a more harrowing tale to tell than mine. I've also had the opportunity to marvel at the innocence, joy of small children, who haven't yet learned some of the crueller realities of life. One simple 'hello' has frequently transported me back into the wonders of a little person's life as they share experiences they have embraced. From a hesitant 'hello' I have been shown the wisdom of an elderly war bride - now a widow - who is thrilled to have an open ear. I have come away the richer as I continue on my daily grind.

So... I'm not suggesting we put our whole lives on hold as we busily accost everybody we pass as we rush thither and yon...but why don't we all make a commitment to stop, and say 'hello' (or 'bonjour' - to recognize Canada's two solitudes!)to at least one stranger every day? I know it can be a daunting experience but, hey, it's not a lifetime commitment. It's one word. You never know...

Oh, and.... "Hello, out there!


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