One time I said to a friend, “Don't you just look at the people around you and feel so connected to them? So full of love for them?”
She looked at me blankly. “No, I really don't feel that.” Her answer wasn't judgmental just resolutely no.
In that moment, I remembered that I'm not like most people.
A few years ago when I was sad and confused, I decided to flirt with the world. It was a decision that would change my life. This flirtation takes the form of making eye contact with every human being with whom I come in contact. I offer a smile. I relish their responses. I'm delighted when I get a smile in return, and am undaunted when it is not. No one is spared this smile/connect campaign: man, woman, teen, child, baby. No one is exempt. Not even intimidating beautiful, men.
This is scary territory for me. It's a vulnerable assignment. People don't expect to be seen like this. With intention by a stranger. I persevere. This simple act fills me with hope and great love.
I remember the young teenager who served me at the McDonald's drive-thru. He had a beautiful smile, so I told him. This is not what he expected from a white woman. A look of surprise flashed across his face, and then he smiled more.
There's the dad at school who never smiled. He became a project. I looked him in the eye and smiled every time we brought our children to school at the same time. He was a tough nut to crack. I kept smiling, and he kept staring at me. And then one day, he looked in my direction and waved. From then on we've exchanged a smile and hello. Now it seems he seeks out the exchange. Success!
I am my father's daughter. We don't know a stranger. We strike up conversation with everyone—the cashier at Home Depot, people in line at the grocery, you get the idea. Our warmth melts people, and they respond. These random conversations have led to interesting relationships:
- Seated next to a pregnant woman carrying twins on an airplane, I mentioned that I was considering moving to France to be an au pair after college graduation. By the end of the flight, the woman asked if I would consider nannying for her family. Nannying for the twin boys was my first job out of college.
- On another flight, I was pregnant and seated next to a woman who was recovering from a broken heart. I shared my experience of a college heart break. We exchanged information at the end of the flight. We've been acquaintances for ten years.
- Standing below the Prague Astronomical Clock in the historic town center waiting for our city tour begin, a mother and daughter heard my travel companions and me speaking English. “May we wait with you for the tour? We don't hear many people speaking English,” Lisa explained in her beautiful Northern Irish brogue. They toured with us for the three days we spent in the city. We've exchanged Christmas greetings, wedding invitations, and baby announcements in the eleven years since that cool Czech morning.
It comes as no surprise that this walking habit has peppered my path with a new cast of delightful characters. The smile/connect campaign continues as I walk through Clayton.
Patty was in her front yard one day as I walked by. I admired her new landscaping, started asking some questions, and ended up getting the name of a landscape architect for my own yard.
Jeremy is an ambassador at the Panera Community Cafe, a social experiment the company launched to feed the community. Those who can afford the suggested price pay that or more, and those who cannot, pay what they can. Jeremy and I struck up a conversation one day as I ate my meal and wrote a handwritten letter. Jeremy remembered me the next time I came in for lunch and a friendship emerged. We've seen each other on the sidewalk as he makes a food delivery. We hug, wish each other well, and continue to our individual destinations. I am always greeted with a warm welcome when Jeremy is working.
Recently I went for lunch and didn't see him. I assumed I'd missed him on his day off. I went in again a day or two later, and he wasn't there again. I asked one of his coworkers about him. He's not at Panera anymore. He got a better paying job closer to home. I am thrilled for him, and sad for me.
I took my shoes in for repair and met Linda. She and her husband have owned the shop for thirty years. They have five children. She's a warm woman, proud of the work she does.
One day I walked to the Barnes & Noble. The store is a long walk from my office, so I was walking as quickly as I could to get there and back within the hour. The stretch of sidewalk I was walking was on a steep incline. I noted an attractive blond man leaning up against a brick retaining wall outside a restaurant. I got shy and almost didn't look at him, and then remembered that I interact with EVERYONE. Just as I looked up, locked eyes, and smiled, my toe hit a crack and I tripped. In front of this beautiful man. I smiled and kept walking.
The final regular character I greet on my walks is a TopCare employee. He sweeps the grounds of the office building in which I work. He waters the plants. I wave and smile at him. At first, I could tell he didn't know what to make of my outreach. Over the course of the summer, he's figured out that this is what I do. Now he readily waves when he sees me.
This smile/connect campaign has been a balm to me this summer as I work to understand how there can be so much hatred and distrust of people. Since I believe in the power of the smallest gestures, this campaign makes me feel like I am doing my part to sow seeds of peace and harmony wherever I go. Call me Pollyanna. I am certain these brief interactions have made ripples in other people's lives. I know they have improved mine.
This TED Talk echoes my experiences as I have interacted with the random people who crossed my path. I love the speaker's description of talking to strangers as “beautiful interruptions.” My life is richer for each of these often fleeting moments.