The inspiration for this walk came from several themes I have been thinking about for some time. First, I have always been drawn toward conversations among strangers. I am curious to discover what people are willing to share or not about themselves. It is interesting that in our computer culture, people can find themselves very easily engaged in on line conversations with people they do not know, conversations they might be reluctant to have with someone face to face. I have been surprised by the candor of some discussions/comments I have read, attributing this to the safety of anonymity. I am also keenly aware that some discussions on line are also disingenuous…that persons can create alter egos on line, and represent themselves as whomever they like. It seems that the cover of our computer screen can allow us the safety to be completely open, but also unknown, or completely dishonest, and safe from being called out.
In person, however, the meeting of two strangers sets up a different dynamic. No longer anonymous, we have a bit more at stake. Often there is a palpable discomfort. The reasons for this are many, and I am not necessarily concerned with reasons, but rather with the outcome of such unease. What do we choose to share, what do we hold back? Are we as genuine as we can be, and how long does that take to happen? Is it a matter of trust, or safety, insecurity, ego, or even chemistry between two people?
I am wanting to explore the idea of what people share about themselves when they are not permitted to talk about what they “do for a living.”(see rule #3 below) The topic of work is an easy fall back as a conversation starter. It can be a source of pride, or shame, and can then set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Work is often seen as identity…” I am what I do.” I am interested in learning who people are aside from their professions.
Rules of the Walk:
- Take an hour long walk with someone you do not know. By this I mean, someone with whom you have never had a conversation and/or met face to face. Ideally you would set up the walk through another person.
- Have a conversation during the walk, this is not a silent meditation, although that could be interesting as well.
- You may not talk/ask about your jobs, what you do for a living, how you make money, etc. Trying to be very clear about that!
- The path of the walk is to be decided together as you walk.
- Go over the rules of the walk before you begin.
I made a conscious decision to not have any prepared questions along the way. I wanted any discussion to be spontaneous, and any awkward spaces to be just that. I was eager to see where each walk took us…the physical landscape as well as the interpersonal one.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE WALKS
WALK WITH HENRY
the bee who joined us
the river view
the old trolley line
I headed to Milwaukie to the home of a friend to walk with Henry, the father of my friend. Henry is in town for a month visiting. I arrived at my friend’s home, and within a matter of about thirty seconds, I was headed out the door with “my stranger.” I explained very briefly the rules of the walk, and Henry was a little concerned about NOT talking about his work. “That will limit us some,” he said. But in fact in didn’t.
We walked for over an hour in fact, and talked the whole way. We spoke about our names first, and our preferences and dislikes concerning our nicknames. We then talked about families…our own and the nature and often dysfunctions of them. We ran into a number of dogs, giving them all our attention. This of course led to talk of pets in general. We then got into a long discussions of bees, and at one point Henry bent down and allowed a bee to crawl up on his finger. We walked for quite sometime with that bee, and then just as unexpectedly as it had joined us, it flew away.
I was amazed at the ease of our conversation. We had an immediate rapport and I credit Henry with being so open to the experience, with little or no expectation. The time passed quickly and before we knew it, we were back to home..no longer strangers it seemed. The experience was delightful!
WALK WITH KATSU
Duke and his person, we met them along the way
a sweet garden
My second walk began as my first one had, with little fanfare and out the door. Katsu is visiting from Japan with hopes of moving to Portland. He apologized time and again for his English, which was completely unnecessary as his English was flawless. And my Japanese is non existent.
Katsu had just finished a 43 day, 800 mile pilgrimage on a island off of Japan. He walked everyday…up to 30 miles, but averaging about 20 miles per day, with the intent of visiting over 80 Buddhist temples along the way. He called himself a “funeral Buddhist”…one who only seeks out a monk when someone has died. But the devotion of an 800 mile trek seemed to counter his perception of his faith. He saw the pilgrimage as a way for him to return to a simpler life, one he had been living until his father had become sick and then passed away.Katsu had returned home to care for his father and to take care of the family business. It was during this time Katsu said he became a “spending person.” A person he did not want to be. He has slowed his pace since his trip and is free right now of work of any kind…open to seeing what happens.
We also spoke of Katsu’s wife. She is Chinese from Hong Kong and she is not with him on this trip. They met at the university in Los Angeles, and married shortly after. I was amazed to learn that they are only able to communicate to each other through English, as neither knows the other’s first language. While Katsu’s English is very good, he says he misses the subtleties of the language, as does his wife. Katsu said that English for them is the “shock absorber of their emotions.” I am still pondering this…
The walk with Katsu too flew by. He laughed at me once saying that if I had wanted to walk with a stranger in Japan, people there would think I was crazy. I laughed and told him how in our culture we warn our children to “not talk to strangers,” but how often we actually do in fact. I dropped off Katsu at the home of his host. We hugged briefly and I felt I had made a new friend.
NOTES REGARDING BOTH WALKS
In both walks, I found that the physical path we took was decided through a primarily unspoken communication. It seemed we walked with no direction or destination in mind, and only on a few occasions did we need to stop and pay attention to where we were. Once we came upon a dead end, another a very busy street. Often I did not notice the scenery at all, but then there were moments when our surroundings directly influenced our conversation. The walk and the hour we spent was what we had in common…we had committed to that time and space together and what unfolded seemed a shared investment.
Tips For Finding Strangers
1.Ask your friends to help you connect with someone you do not know. I put out feelers to a number of friends, and the most ideal situation set me up with someone who I did not have even an menial conversation with. In one instance, I did speak with my “stranger” via cell phone, to set up the time and date. I felt afterwards, that this may have compromised the walk. In the end, I was unable to walk with this person, so I am not sure how this would have panned out.
2. Some suggested craigslist….I was skeptical
3. Wear a billboard sign, advertising for a “walk with an artist who walks.” Walk with someone who’s up for the walk.
4. “Cold call” approach someone you don’t know and ask them….might be weird
As a matter of safety, if the person is not the friend of a friend,walk in a public space with lots of people around. You don’t need to go for a hike in a forest, pick an urban setting. If you feel unsafe…ABORT the walk.
5. I have thought seriously about organizing an “walk with a stranger” event. Ideally people would be called to gather at starting point and each person would be paired with another randomly, again someone they didn’t know at all. Each pair would be given an hour to walk, after which everyone would return to the starting place. A discussion/ opportunity to share would follow.