these are the answers, you feel me? & the impetus. the why. of when the manicurist holds my hand, making my nails a lilliputian abstract,
People who don't live in cities often think city-dwellers are rude. We don't make eye contact; we don't chat; we hunker down into our corners at the coffee shop, set up our computers or phones, and block out the world. I'll admit that, for a time, I believed that myself. I mentioned last week that I found the depth of anonymity overwhelming when we first moved to the city, not knowing who lived on the other side of my walls, and while I've chosen to work to mitigate that, it's not the whole story. One of the human challenges of living in a city, of dealing with high population density, is in finding a balance between being seen and being anonymous. Although I want to know my neighbors, and I do greet people I know when I pass them on the sidewalk, I'm also prone to the eyes-down-just-keep-walking anonymity when I get on the subway. I want to be seen, yes, but not always.
What I didn't understand until I lived here is that it's not rudeness, not really, that makes us turn up our collars and bustle past one another, but the way people who live in dense population centers deal with the fact that our personal bubbles are very, very small. Nowhere is this more obvious than on public transit, where we are often literally pressed against each other, trying desperately to pretend we're still strangers.
Still, those moments many of us have had of wanting to sob on the way home from a bad date or a rough work day don't go away just because we can't shut ourselves into a private vehicle, and the occasional urge to wail (or sing) out loud doesn't disappear just because you know the neighbors can hear. All of those emotions, the anger and sadness, the frustration and joy, happen in close proximity. My neighbor lost his mother just weeks after we welcomed Ro, and the funeral visitors met the new-baby visitors on our shared doorstep. When we don't know one another well enough to say anything, we reconcile that dissonance with our downcast eyes.
But for all that carefully-orchestrated urban socialization, I've also had so many beautiful experiences with strangers who noticed what I needed and stepped in to offer it: an older woman who kept a watchful eye from the other end of a subway car when a man wasn't taking my "please go away" signals; the guy downtown who made sure the baby and I had a seat on the train. I try to be the kind of person who keeps an eye out, who tries to notice the difference between the person who needs help and the one who needs to be able to feel their feelings inside their bubble. It takes practice, and we don't always get it right, but I make a point to try to be the person I've needed in as many ways as I can.
Because that's the thing, really. You hear that Gandhi quote a lot, "be the change you wish to see in the world," but I've also seen another one that always strikes me a little more centrally: "be the person you needed when you were younger." Even though it's always a little bit awkward, I know that the times I've needed help and didn't get it, the failure came because nobody was able to break the social code and check on me. To say "hey, I don't mean to be nosy, but are you ok? Can I help?"
Sometimes the response isn't positive, but when it is, it's usually important enough to make it worth the risk.
A newsletter on life, current events, media & culture, and living in wonder amidst it all.