Pull up a Chair
(from Brainstorms &
Pull up a chair
and tell me your story,
a friendship we will christen.
For your tale and mine
if we take the time to listen.
Many years ago, when our ways of being were wildly divergent (and seemingly irreconcilable), my sister gave me a pillow for my birthday. I unwrapped the gift upside-down, so the first thing I saw was the deep blue velvet backing, but I could feel the wool needlepoint pattern on the front. I had taken up needlepoint towards the end of college and made several needlepoint gifts for family members, so I immediately appreciated my sister’s gesture.
When I turned the pillow over, I saw words stitched in capital letters: YOU DON’T HAVE TO UNDERSTAND ME, JUST LOVE ME! The words seemed a plea for acceptance from my sister, whom I judged as audacious in a way that was both hard for me to relate to and which I secretly yearned to be more like.
As the story goes, when I was a very young child, I used to strike up conversations with anyone who would talk to me. Sometime around my early elementary school years, I stopped talking so much. I haven't been able to uncover a specific inciting incident for my silence. One possibility is that I was so often in the company of gregarious talkers (including my sister) that I became content to listen. Adults started referring to me as “shy.” Over time I believed them.
The more I repeated the story of shyness, the more it became my reality, and the further I retreated into awkwardness and insecurity. Silence became a comfortable habit, and a seemingly convenient shelter from being judged or misunderstood. Somehow along the way, I began to internalize a narrative that what I had to say didn’t really matter anyway.
Several years ago, I was reflecting on what I had grown to accept as the truth of who I was. It seemed I had drifted so far away from the little girl who used to go up to strangers and introduce herself as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and who earned the nickname “Princess Chatterbox” in her preschool classroom. I realized that the only way to disrupt the narrative was to stop my auto-pilot, but I didn’t quite know how.
I thought of my sister, who, at the time, was making YouTube videos in which she would record herself performing comedic monologues while running in New York City. Periodically, she would stop to talk to strangers on the street and ask them questions about whatever topic she was riffing on. If my sister could so boldly talk to strangers, maybe I could too.
It felt risky the first time I looked a barista in the eyes and asked him how he was. I could feel knots of dread in my belly as I approached the front of the line. Then, I imagined myself as my sister, which gave me an unfamiliar feeling of confidence as I offered the question. He gave me a strange look as he responded, “I’m sorry, you caught me off-guard. You asked me that like you actually meant it.” We exchanged a conversation about how it's easy to forget to connect in the hurried pace of our lives. I saw him several times after that and grew to enjoy our brief but friendly conversations.
Another time, I was sitting in a coffee shop working on my computer when a woman walked by in a long flowing turquoise dress and matching earrings. I thought about complimenting her on the dress and then chastised myself, “She’s so elegant and beautiful. Why would she care what you think?” I complimented her anyway. Her response: “I’m pregnant and feel miserable and this is the only dress that fits right now. You have no idea how much I needed that!” We talked for another minute or two about pregnancy and bodies and babies before she walked away saying, “Thank you for making my day.”
Over time, talking to strangers, this behavior that seemed so outrageous to me at first, started to feel more natural. Eventually, this way of being transformed my world of transactions into one of connections and shared stories. I began to feel like I was living in a world of community and belonging. My sense of self expanded beyond my own perspective as I experienced the intricate web of connection that we are all deeply embedded in. And I realized that most people I met were eager to connect and share a part of their story.
My sister and I grew closer over time. The pillow she gave me all those years ago now sits on a chair next to my front door. One day, I had an aha: The message on the pillow wasn’t only a plea for love and acceptance from one sister to another; it was an invitation for me to drop my own fear of being misunderstood and to let go of the illusion that silence or conformity is safety. It was a reminder of the possibility for authentic connection that arises when we drop expectations of who we want someone else to be. By allowing each other to be who we are in the present, we also give one another space to live into who we are becoming.
This year, I started sharing poems with strangers using Artwise Poetry Roulette Cards. I keep a box in my bag and ask people I encounter, "Would you like a poem?" To be honest, sharing poems in this way has been a bit of a stretch for me, just like my first conversation with the barista. But it's been worth it for the pleasure of people's heartfelt response to receiving them.
While the Artwise Poetry Roulette Cards are also for sale online, as I wrote about in last week's email, I'd love to gift you a free set if you'd like to try sharing poems with people you encounter in your daily life. One woman took me up on the offer so she could share them with students at the college campus where she teaches. She told me in her message, "Thank you for doing this. The students really need this right now." If you're interested in a free set, please respond to this email before December 10th and let me know where to send them.
Wishing you a week of meaningful connection.