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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Reverb10, Day 27: No such thing as an ordinary moment of joy

Prompt: Ordinary joy. Our most profound joy is often experienced during ordinary moments. What was one of your most joyful ordinary moments this year?

The author of this prompt is Brené Brown:
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Friends who stopped to smile. From Japan, UAE, New Zealand, the US and Brazil
It is a cool evening in northern California. The buildup to Christmas is over, but Christmas trees are still glowing in everyone's windows, and the strings of lights along the eaves of most of the homes and many of the oak trees on the block are still glimmering. I am not Christian, but I have enjoyed the general good feeling that Christmas seems to bring no matter where I am living. People in coffee shops, at art galleries, and even in the line at the cinema who I have never met before stop and take the time to have a conversation. When I walk down the street, people who usually take great care to not look up are suddenly not only making eye contact, they actually smile and say "hello", or "merry Christmas."

The choices that most of us living in western cultures seem to be making on a daily basis create a world that feels like it is spinning faster and faster every year. We are working more than we ever have before, making more money than we ever have before, and we seem to have less time to spend with our family and friends than we ever have before. The anonymity of city dwelling allows us to live next door to people, sometimes for years, without ever even knowing their names. We go from our homes to our work and back home again in the evening, and apart from essential interactions with colleagues in our workplace, we often get home in the evening without actually having made eye contact with anyone else during the course of the day.

For the past six years, I was living on Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada. PEI is a tightly-knit, rural community where almost everyone knows almost everyone else. A common introduction on PEI is "now what is your family name, dear?" or "who is your father?" When you walk down the street most people smile and greet each other. You may not know the person (although if you do not, your father, mother, sister, brother or grandparents undoubtedly do), but once you have seen them once, they are bound to appear again at some point behind the counter at the pharmacy or the post office, or behind a mask when you sit down in the dentist's chair, or counting your cash at the bank, or turning up to fix your pipes when they burst, or pulling over in a winter storm to help haul you out of a ditch. I am sure that Prince Edward Islanders are friendly and warm because they do not want to rock the boat and risk offending people, but I also think that people in smaller communities tend to lead lives that move at a more humane pace, and they also have more time to connect with those around them. Life in small rural places is dependent upon strong interpersonal relationships. A few of my acquaintances back on the island who did not live in Charlottetown (the capitol) told me that they drive all the way to Charlottetown to do most of their shopping, even though there is a local supermarket in their community. The reason is that they have to budget at least two hours when they visit the local market, because they know they will run into a constant stream of people that they know who will want to catch up. Interestingly, these same people told me that at least once a week they would allocate a couple of hours to go to their local market simply because they recognized how important maintaining strong relationships within their community is.

Over the past few years I have been equally as amused by how foreign the idea of relating to other human beings is to my city-dwelling friends as my friends are by my irrepressible inclination to reach out to total strangers. I am a guaranteed source of never ending amusement for them when I smile at strangers on the sidewalk in San Francisco, or on the London tube. The first few times that it happened, my friends pointed out to me that it was obvious that I did not actually live in London because of how I made eye contact with the people sitting opposite me on the tube instead of burying my head in a book or newspaper, and how I did not avert my gaze when people happened to look up and accidentally catch my eye. At the time, it had never occurred to me to behave otherwise. The desire for human connection was, and still is, a vitally important part of my sense of place and belonging. It is an essential part of what makes me human.

Living in another city for the last nine months, I often notice myself falling into the pattern of not greeting those who pass me on the sidewalk or sit down next to me in a coffee shop. I am conscious of it, though, and whenever I notice myself withdrawing into myself I stop, look up, and smile at someone, just to turn the tides! 

I have always experienced my most profound moments of joy in what might seem to an outsider as rather ordinary places and in rather mundane circumstances. A cup of tea with a friend is a gift that I look forward to tremendously. Silent time to sit and pray or write in my journal. Stopping to smell the roses growing over someone's fence as I walk by, or taking the time to listen to a stranger tell their story at a coffee shop or on a train. This last week, as people celebrated Christmas, I noticed more of a hop to my step as I walked around the city, and I think it is because I was not smiling and saying hello to faces that did not look up. I will probably always be someone who experiences joy in the act of looking a stranger in the eye and smiling, whether they reciprocate or not, but when they do look up, our eyes meet, and we greet each other as fellow human beings, there is something profoundly uplifting and joyful that transpires. I think it might be that in acknowledging each other and the common experience that we are having, we are also honoring that part of ourselves that we share -- our soul. And when we acknowledge what makes us the same, we are no longer strangers. We have suddenly, instantaneously, if only for a split second, become friends.

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