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Updated: Nov 25, 2018


Free listening here today!

This was one of the slogans from our homemade posters on Saturday, as a we – a group of about a dozen New Yorkers - gathered at Turnstyle Underground Market, Columbus Circle, to invite perfect strangers to engage with us in brief conversations. Yes, just simply that: the chance to talk. One on one. #Sidewalktalk: You talk, we listen.

Half of us were to work as ‘greeters’, whose task was to walk around the immediate area inviting passersby for a chat with the other half of the group, the ‘listeners’, who were seated, with an empty chair opposite, waiting for any person brave enough to step over the ‘what on earth...’ / ‘do you really mean …’ line, to have that personal conversation. 10 minutes of person meeting person. Humans engaging with humans. Life and love being shared. And all because … we can.

And – listen to me now! - it was a phenomenal experience.

At first I was conscious of trying to hide my nervousness, both from the team, none of whom I had met before today but whose acceptance as a colleague I coveted, and from the public, that is, those who I might be going to actually meet as they took up the invitation to tell me something about themselves. In addition, in my anxiety about the unknown, I admit to having already secretly lined up a judgment about why it was going to have gone wrong, you know, the ‘I could tell it wasn’t going to work’ kind of vibe. (Bleurgh. I know, what a confession).

But you know, when you are really present - in ­this place, this conversation, with this person, right now – none of that silly self-conscious defensive fear matters any more. Defences and prejudices fall. All that mattered when each person came to sit in the chair opposite me, was that here was a new “you” asking me for loving attention. A someone. Because a human encounter is a place of trust. These were holy moments.

Read these scraps I wrote after my 5 encounters (names altered!) and you will understand why I left reeling and exhilerated and humbled and grateful. And drained.

Mandy: Cautious; unsure, clearly, of whether to trust this situation, this lady in her early 30s sat on the edge of the chair and looked at me. I felt she wanted something, wanted this to be a place of encounter, needed an encounter. Toothache – that is what is at the front of my mind. I am surprised, was expecting something less concrete. But I have no insurance. I keep trying to ignore it and think it will go away if I distract myself. I tell her about my recent sinusitis-related infection and toothache, and describe the home remedies that helped me. That’s what I need to do. But was this really why she came to sit and talk, I wonder to myself? Tell me about your work. I work in media, I like my work, but I am involved in a project where I have to listen to recordings of people describing a problem they have, and I feel helpless when I hear the stories because I listen on my own; they are not present, and I can’t help them. So this lady is in effect doing what we are doing with #Sidewalk Talk, but entirely unsupported? She agrees with my observation, and asks how we operate this project. Could I maybe join you … perhaps in the summer?

Diane. I looked at her young face and asked: what would you like to talk about? And her reply? Heartbreak.. ‘Tell me … ‘ And she did, a long and impassioned story all about – all about her longing for love, and the rejections in her life caused by fear. Mother, child, partner, self. And I am depressed; I wake up wanting to die.

[I enquired about her support network and offered to refer her for help, but she preferred the anonymity of our strangers’ conversation; she was of course free to go.]

Do you want a hug? Yes ... it’s like talking to my Mum … thank you.

Raj. Quietly spoken and with unclear English. He was reluctant to sit, needed persuading, said he only had 2 minutes. What would you like to talk about? Silence. But then: What is your vision? I gulp, and try to put into words something about exactly what we were doing that morning: about sharing, being able to express our stories to each other, about people meeting people. How does that sound to you - what is your vision? More silence, nearly uncomfortable silence … and then: my vision faded … I had a vision but it is not there any longer. His admission is faint with sadness, dull with weariness. Your vision, yes … is there a spark inside you still, something that could be rekindled into flame? A spark, oh, I like that, yes, a spark … yes …

Maria. She practically fell into the chair, her emotion overspilling before her mouth opened. Society no longer cares for the mentally ill … Tears are falling down her cheeks. This affects you personally doesn’t it? She nods – it’s my son, he is 42. What will happen to him when I’m no longer able to care for him?

Harold. An older man, using the supermarket cart he was pushing to support his walking, a cart full of dirty trashbags (containing most of his wordly goods, I admit to assuming, like so many homeless we see on the streets of this city), not wanting to come over to sit and talk. But he stopped, turned his head towards me, barely opening his eyes, and said: you tell me this - what is love? After my clumsy attempt to draw some honest words together he said: I say love is sorrow ... love is where joy and sorrow meet … look at this …. And for a few moments he poked about among his bags, looking for something. I am intrigued. He then drew out a pristine copy of a small book: Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. And he seeks in the index, turns to page 23, the chapter entitled: Joy and Sorrow. He quotes. And as he repeats these poetic and beautiful words he seems to expand, rises to stand at his full, strong stature, and his eyes are full of light and pride, and, yes, of joy in the sharing.

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Think about that!

I shall, Harold, I shall. What an astonishing man.

How very different from the other weekend’s posters and slogans: the protestations and provocations of the Women’s March! But each is a different outworking of the wish to be active in making the world better place. Both important, both exhausting! But I dooooo like the personal, the one-to-one encounters. I will most likely never meet again the individuals that I have described; but belonging to a team of like-minded and generous-hearted listeners is a wonderful thing, and I look forward to joining next month’s event. Thank you Traci (Founder of Sidewalk Talk, up for the weekend from LA). Thank you Kerrie (NYC coordinator). Thank you, colleagues.

Look ’em up, why don’t you? You’ll be impressed, maybe even inspired to try it out.


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