Reflections on a Meeting with a Stranger

 

Last week, I went for a walk in the rain.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no such  thing as intrinsically “bad weather”; there is only weather, which we call “good” when it suits our purposes and “bad” when it obstructs them.  To me, the rain is beautiful.  It is calm and peaceful.  It forms a wet blanket of cascading water for a time, which falls to Earth and penetrates its roots, refreshing all of the lifeforms that depend on it.  I love its fresh smell, its cool or warm texture, the gentle pattering sound that it makes on my umbrella as it falls.  And so, I grabbed my umbrella, and left my house to go for a walk during which I could enjoy the rain.

I decided to walk through a back route, the route behind the stores on Taschereau,  where the employees take their breaks and the delivery trucks drop off their deliveries.  I was walking, mindfully contemplating the rain when I noticed a middle-aged man leaning against the wall and smoking a cigarette.  He wore a beige overcoat with a shirt and sweater underneath and a hat and toque on his head.  I was simply going to pass him by, but as I neared him, he greeted me, saying “hello.” I returned his greeting and casually asked him “how’s it going?”

“Ah, alright,” he answered. “Where are you headed?”
“I’m just going for a walk in the rain.  People often about it, but I love the rain.  It’s serene.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean… I’m just having a cigarette out here.”
“Nice,” I said. I didn’t think it it tactful to lecture a stranger on the detrimental effects of smoking on the body.
“Do you often go for walks?”
“Probably not as often as I should, but I do like these walks.”
“I’ve been going for walks every day.  I’m just happy to be able to walk after my leg injury.”
“Ah… may I ask what happened?”

He told me about his former business redecorating homes and how he had badly injured his leg on a piece of machinery.  He went through extensive medical treatments and physiotherapy and gradually worked up to the ability to walk again.  I expressed admiration for his willingness to work hard to regain his walking ability.  Our conversation moved to other things.  He asked me what languages I spoke.  I said I was bilingual.  He said he was too; he was actually born into an English-speaking family, but had a French last name, Ambroise.  “It’s Ambrose with an i,” he said. “Ah… like the Christian Saint.” “Exactly, he said.”  We continued our conversation in English.

We talked about our mutual passion, music.  Robert was a guitarist and a singer.  Previously, he had played the drums, clarinet, and flute, but said that since 2004, he had barely been able to sing, and was no longer able to play wind instruments.  I asked him what had happened.  He said that he lived for a time in Ontario, and worked as a security guard for a stadium there.  After a game, he spotted a man with an open 40 ouncer of vodka in his hand.   He told the man that he had to get rid of the vodka while on stadium grounds.  The man angrily refused and stormed off.  That night, Robert was walking towards his bus stop, when he saw the same man with the vodka bottle in a bus booth.  The man surprised him, jumped out at him, and bashed his face with the bottle.  Robert toppled to the floor and the man got on top of him and proceeded to beat his head and face repeatedly with the bottle until it broke.  Then he used his fists.  Robert quickly fell unconscious.  He awoke in extreme pain in the hospital with broken ribs, a broken jaw, black eyes, and many other excruciating injuries.

It took Robert a long time to regain the ability to talk and even to sing became straining to him.  He showed me a picture on his cell phone of his smashed up face in the wake of the assault.  It was an agonized mess of bruises and blood.  Since it was his passion, however, he continued to sing, though he was disappointingly no longer able to play wind instruments since they would cause his jaw bone to vibrate painfully.   Robert took the man who had assaulted him to court.  The man walked with a light house arrest sentence.  When Robert tried to get compensation for his injuries and the resulting medical bills, the company gave him nothing, arguing that he was injured off of stadium property, so they had no legal obligation to pay him anything.  He left Ontario, broken and disheartened, but still willing to keep pushing on.

He asked me if I would like a beer and I said “sure, why not?” He pulled out a can of Labatt Blue Dry for me and one for himself.  I thanked him, and we talked about music, bands and songs.  He started to sing “Amazing Grace,” and I sung along.  We sung a Beatles song and talked about what made for great songwriting.  I asked him if he had any tips for me as a musician.  He offered a wise pointer for effective singing.  He told me to “always be sure to pronounce all of your words… don’t mumble or cut off your words abruptly. Go through the whole sound. Enunciate every part of it. The most moving songs do this; it’s the secret of their power.” I practiced this a few times until I got it right.

We talked of other things.  Robert told me about his children, one of whom was in Cegep studying to be an interior designer.  His eyes teared up with pride when he remembered how he used to bring her to work with him on the interiors of  expensive homes and how she loved every minute of it.  It was her passion and she decided to pursue it, just as her father had.

Robert additionally revealed that as a younger man, he had spent nearly a decade as a Christian minister.  As a result of all of the difficulties in his life, however, he had fallen into substance abuse problems and believed he couldn’t remain a preacher in good conscience, so he left the Church.   Some homelessness ensued, during which he moved from place to place, living temporarily here and there.  He sat and talked with many people and learned from them.  He told me that he was hoping to get through his problems so he could go back to being a minister once again.  “Some day, I’ll get over these struggles and be able to go back.  I hope that God will give me the strength to make me worthy to do that again.”  Robert struck me as a man of great integrity; unlike many in this complicated world, he was not content to be a hypocrite.

As our conversation progressed, we began to discuss physical exercise.  Robert told me that what helped him get through all of his injuries was not only his faith and his love for his family, but also all of the exercise he did as a young man.  He told me that “the best thing for you can do for yourself now and later on is to get physically active.  Before my injuries, I would go for long runs nearly every day.  I would work out with weights and felt amazing.  I felt like Superman.  It’s a really great feeling.” I asked him what exercises he found most effective and we talked about these a little.  I explained what work out equipment I had to work with and he offered some suggestions for how I could use these tools in my exercise regime.  I was very grateful for the lessons he had to share.

Finally, I revealed to him that I was a musical producer myself and played my latest song, “Nova,” for him.  He was very appreciative and gave me some kind feedback on my music.  He then said that it had been great talking with me, but that he had to get going.

“I’d better get going too,” I said. “But it was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Robert answered. “You know, Adam. You made my day.” He smiled.
“Thanks, Robert. You made mine too.  Thanks for sharing your experience with me.”

I smiled back and shook his hand, and we walked our separate ways.

***

As a child, I was  always told that we should not talk to strangers.  For children, this is wise advice, for there are many abusive people out there who wish to hurt and sexually abuse innocent children.  For them, a precautionary approach is best.  The advice also holds for people who are making their way home in sketchy urban areas late at night, where muggers and rapists sometimes lie waiting.  But there are many occasions when conversations with strangers can be wonderfully illuminating.  My discussion with Robert was one such occasion.

I learned a great deal from Robert. Robert reinforced my understanding of the importance of compassion.  All he had wanted was someone who was willing to listen to the sufferings he had undergone.  He appreciated that I took the time to do that.  His story and person inspired me and I was struck by the resilience, endurance, and courage that he showed as he overcame countless obstacles.  I talked little about myself; I was more content to listen and learn what he had to teach me about  singing and more effective workouts from him.

Robert taught me, moreover, about the importance and unspeakable value of connecting with other human beings.  As Martin Buber once wrote, “all real living is meeting.” He means here, an authentically open-hearted and open-minded encounter with another human being, with nature, or with the transcendent.  Robert and I spontaneously met and took the time to open up to one another.  The result was beautiful; it was as emotionally fulfilling as it was intellectually stimulating.  All too often, we close ourselves off to the world.  We take the bus and do not say a word to those sitting around us.  We wait at the subway station and ignore our fellow passengers.  Our social norms almost discourage us from sharing with others, telling us that we had better be quiet if we don’t want to be perceived as strange.  K-os put the point poignantly when he sung that “we don’t talk to each other now, what an alien nation.” But we must talk with each other, we must connect.  Encounters and connections are the essence of a meaningful, fulfilling life.

Robert seemed like a genuine person and, though a stranger to me initially, quickly became a welcome acquaintance.  Above all, Robert taught me to be open to new experiences; I set out for a walk in the rain and was inspired by someone I never knew I would meet.  Both Robert’s life story and my meeting with him exemplified the importance of adaptability and openness.  When we are open and adaptable, there is nothing that life can throw at us that we cannot handle.  When we cannot find a way, life teaches us to make one.

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