I'm not always so good at being present in the moment in my own life but I'm almost always excellent at paying attention to what's going on around me in the lives of perfect strangers. I love the way people look and talk and interact. Watching and listening make me happy. It's like reading short stories without having to check out the book. Vignettes of lives that are disconnected from mine until I connect them by observation or overhearing. For the record, I do take only observe or listen to what is available in the public space around me; nothing sneaky or creepy!
I've heard great snippets of conversation standing still in a crowd, waiting in line, walking by people, or even riding my bike. Once I rode by a woman sitting on a bench and talking on the phone. I heard her say with great volume and emotion, "c'mon, he's not that bad...this is my dad we're talking about!" I think of it as serendipitous listening as opposed to eavesdropping. I've often thought I could write a book about the best things I've overheard. This is one of my favorites:
I was in Chattanooga standing in heavy rain waiting for my boyfriend to finish the first leg of an Olympic triathlon, a mile swim in the Tennessee river. Beside me were a woman, her sister (I don't remember how I knew, but I clearly remember they were sisters), and her two young daughters. We were all under umbrellas, happy to not be the ones in the river on that particular day. I gathered from hearing the women's conversation they were waiting for the woman's husband to also finish the swim.
"I'll be so relieved when he comes out of the water."
"When I told you earlier that he really doesn't swim, I meant it literally. He really doesn't swim."
"What do you mean? It's a triathlon...there's always a swim. Of course he swims."
"This isn't his first one, right?"
"Well, yeah, but this is his first mile swim and it's his first river swim. He usually fakes his way through with dog paddling and stuff. He hates swimming so he doesn't train for that part."
"Uh, he'll be fine? (several seconds pass) How worried are you?"
"Feel like I'm gonna throw up. I just feel like he should be out by now."
The girls are oblivious to all this, under a separate umbrella, giggling and running around in the mud. Some more time passes.
All of a sudden the woman says, almost yelling and very animated, "Girls, look, girls, look! It's daddy! It's daddy! Daddy didn't drown!" By the somewhat startled look on the older girl's face, it hadn't occurred to her until then that drowning was an option.
I love these glimpses into the lives of others. It's usually enough of a story to imagine the whole of it. The conversations they must've had about this damn event. Him complaining about the swim, her incredulous he wasn't going to train for it. "I hate swimming." "You're a husband and father, you could drown!" "I'll be fine. People hardly ever drown in these things." And on. It was also easy to hear from her words to her sister (really, how do I know the other woman was her sister??) that she was worried but not angry. The snapshot of their relationship one of affection. As he hurried up the hill to transition to the bike, she was jumping up and down to get his attention..."you're alive, you're alive!!!" Sweet.
I'm not positive why I enjoy snatching bits of conversation or watching an interaction so much. There's some thinking that eavesdropping originally emerged as a behavior to discover social norms or learn the location of the best food or the most secure shelter. Makes sense. Though I'm pretty sure that's not why I enjoy it. I think for me it's the story. I like re-telling the story of what I heard or saw. I like seeing the world through someone else's lens. I like hearing stories different from mine and maybe learning something.
Standing beside two women and two little girls for fifteen or twenty minutes that day told me a story of adult sisters who are also friends, of a family who support each other for important events even if in driving rain, of little girls who are growing up happy, of a man who loves a good adventure but doesn't take it too seriously and of a woman who lets him make his own damn mistakes even if it worries her a little.
It was a good story for a rainy day.
Hi, I'm Donna. Long time artisan/creative. Full time work in nonprofit world. Mother of two adult sons. Currently, also mother of two cats.
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