The Kindness of Strangers

Today I went on a solo adventure to Birmingham and this evening I return, achy legged but happy with my day.

I have a wish board in my room. It was given to me by one of my best friends before we all went to university (first time around, for me) and it used to house photos and lovely quotes. It got to the point where I had tucked so many additional things into it that it was almost ready to fall off the wall, so when I came back home I removed (and kept) everything and turned it into a wish board. Some of the wishes are now complete – buy a bike, find Ginny, day trip to Birmingham – and some are still waiting in the wings. I think it’s important to have things to aim for, even if it’s as simple as visiting somewhere, spending a day with one of your favourite people, or trying something new. On days when I feel adrift I like to look at the board and see if I can fulfil a wish.

My day trip involved a visit to Birmingham Art Gallery, which was lovely. I really like the Pre-Raphelites and they have a great collection of artwork from the ‘brotherhood.’ I also got to revel in 5 floors of Waterstones gloriousness, browsing at my own pace, and trying my resistance at every turn. (I made it out without buying any new books – 1 point to me.) I found a pack of three notebooks reduced to £2 and bought them, along with some rainbow washi tape. When the cashier scanned the tape he was so surprised at the cost of it that he gave me the notebooks for £1! It was a small but kind gesture that put a smile on my face for the rest of the afternoon.

There was also the obligatory mooch in John Lewis, which took me the best part of 90 minutes and made me long for my own home to decorate and furnish. I wandered through a haze of perfume in the fragrance section – the mix of scents assaulting my Basset Hound nose and making me feel woozy. There were expectant parents test driving the pushchairs, much to the amusement of one set of grandparents-to-be. Children clamoured for attention, toys, and to be picked up for a better view. All around me were people going about their daily lives, and it was nice to be a spectator.

I enjoy people watching. Not in that nosy, mind-your-own business way, but I do find a certain pleasure in subtly observing people just being themselves. I lunched in Starbucks – for once mercifully quiet – and a man in a suit came and sat nearby as I was eating. We were near the door and it was clear he was waiting for someone. Not long after he sat down, a woman with a pram appeared at the door and his face lit up. He rushed to haul open those absurdly heavy glass doors, kissing her enthusiastically on the cheek. When they were settled a little later he lowered the hood on the pram, bending to kiss the presumably sleeping infant, holding his tie back against his chest. It was a heartwarming sight to see such tenderness amidst the bustle of people coming and going.

In Waterstones not long before, I had been asked by a sheepish lad whether I bought books often. Somewhat bemused by a) a stranger willingly engaging in conversation and b) the question itself, I half spluttered a yes. “I was just wondering about the returns policy,” he explained, and I smiled, suggesting that about a month was normal, but that he’d probably want to double check with the staff on the till. He went off to join the queue – something he’d clearly been trying to avoid – but I silently applauded him for reaching out to a stranger.

Talking to strangers is a weird one. I feel that, as a nation, we Britons often lack the skill of communicating with people we don’t know. As a result, these moments of connection are, I feel, to be celebrated. I try to engage with people, whether that’s with a smile or a polite gesture, or a small comment if they look indecisive and are lacking a friend to confer with. Often, it’s easier when there are small children involved as they lack some of the fear that we, as adults, seem to carry. They point and question, chatter and laugh, expressing themselves with enviable freedom. I sometimes find myself talking to a child and subsequently a parent/guardian, even if only for a moment or two, but typically the child initiates the conversation. Imagine what the world would be like if we all did that. If you could turn to the person behind you in the queue and say, “Have you tried this panini?” Or maybe, “What did you make of this book?” Discussions about the weather seem to be about as far as we feel able to go, and conversations that push the boundaries can feel a little intimate.

I was in another Waterstones a week or so ago and stumbled upon an elderly couple having a conversation, quite audibly, in the otherwise empty room. She was perusing, he sitting and listening. It turns out that they were strangers and he was waiting for his wife. However, in the time that I was browsing, she told this gentleman about her life and what she’d done, where she’d come from etc. Her Irish accent was so faint that it was only noticeable on certain words and, for the rest of the time, she sounded as English as me. When the gentleman was collected by his wife, the woman continued making her way around the room, considering the books on the tables. She talked to herself quietly, occasionally questioning whether she had already read the volume she picked up. When she joined my table of books and posed this quiet question, I said to her that it was difficult to remember as they changed the covers so often. We had a little chuckle at that and she offered some recommendations. She had been a librarian and giving reading advice was clearly deeply ingrained in her!

What I hope I conveyed through my ramblings today is the beauty of connecting with people. We live in a world where we are constantly reminded of the bad things that people do. The bombings, shootings, attacks. The media constantly draws our attention to the threats that are out in the wider world, emphasising all that we must be afraid of. It is easy to focus on that, to focus on all of the awful things that human beings are capable of, and forget the small acts of goodness. I met so many kind people today. People who held doors open, who smiled, who welcomed, who asked if I was having a nice day. We live in a crazy world where terrible things happen every day, and because of the immediacy of the digital age, we know about these events almost as they unfold. As a result, we can end up living with a sense of impending doom – an inner “what’s going to happen next?” Because of this I think that we all – collectively – must try and make the effort to see and be the good. We must show each other kindness, gratitude and love. Because at the end of the day, love conquers hate and together we are stronger. As I come to a close, please know that I am sending positivity and gratitude and goodness to each of you.

Day 13 Blog

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