March 5, 2023

One of the beauties of doing the project in Southern California is the ability to do it outside, year-round. I wasn’t sure what the winter would bring, but I have only been rained out three times, and I’ve only sat there seriously shivering a couple of times. Whether sunny or gray, I find that people will sit down.

I want to think out loud a bit about listening in the context of the project, what comes of it, and the (perhaps larger) question of what we can mean or be to each other. I have been doing the project for eight or so months now. Thousands of people have walked by me, hundreds have at least stopped to check out the poster and/or ask a question, and over 200 people have sat with me.

I have never heard from most of these people again. A handful of people have contacted me after we’ve met (they take one of my cards, which has my email address on it). It usually doesn’t occur immediately, but comes some time afterward. When someone has joined me, and I have the sense that they could use a bit of additional support, I will proactively offer them one of the cards, and tell them that they are welcome to reach out if they would like to do so. This has happened in a handful of instances.

You might ask if this was an aspect of doing the project that I had planned before it began – to be present and available to and for people beyond the moment that we meet. The answer is no, but then there really wasn’t much planning beyond setting up a couple of chairs and a poster. It is, I think, human to be moved by other people’s histories and experiences and needs, and to tend to want to help them, to see them through their difficulties, to believe that we have some small solace to offer in the context of the enormity of these lives we lead, and of the world in which we live them.

And this question – what can we mean to one another – keeps arising in me as I sit in these public places and wait to see what will happen on any given day. I have a feeling that the answer to this question is somehow related to our relationship to the idea of the ‘stranger.’

Would it be correct to state that, in thinking of all the relationships in the lives of each of us today, everyone we know, everyone we hold dear, everyone who gives our life meaning, was a stranger to us first? There was a moment when we met our parents, our siblings, our other relatives and lovers and friends for the first time, and we knew little or nothing about them – we did not know them. Are we naturally afraid of strangers, wary of them, uninterested in them?

I don’t know how we can be so and live. I live my life from an understanding (or you could say, a belief) that we need each other. So perhaps the key question is how do we choose how each of us will open the circle around us? Is it possible to have too many people in one’s life? (I have never heard anyone state this about their life.) Are most of us in danger of giving too much?

I understand that, whatever the project may be about, it is certainly about finding or making meaning through connection, through expressing care, showing consideration, seeing oneself reflected in the lives and ways and experiences of others, and potentially building enduring bridges here and there, even if those bridges endure only as someone’s memory of a moment in which they received something that they needed, and perhaps are more inclined to do so for someone else as a result.

I believe that I will end up making some friends through my experience with the project. Indeed, I already have. That, for me, is a deeply pleasing, if unintended, consequence of opening myself up to ‘strangers’. There is no saying what we can mean to each other, to any other given person with whom we cross paths. But I believe the answer is ‘ much.’ And what that meaning looks like – it probably can take a million different forms. All we need is the energy, optimism, curiosity, and/or courage to open ourselves to these possibilities.

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