The Collection of Strangers

I just got back from walking the dog and am seated at the long wooden table on the balcony with my second espresso, reflecting on my family talent for collecting strangers. We’ve always done it. Some of the collections have been more successful than others.

As far back as I can remember, total strangers would approach my parents while they were walking, shopping, sitting on the bus, doing pretty much anything, and strike up a conversation. With little or no input from my parents, these folks would pour out their life stories, detailing their woes and dwelling dreamily on their joys. Inevitably, the strangers would then be invited to our home for tea and cake, or a meal.

My siblings and I have inherited this particular talent for attracting folks who are full to bursting with stories.

When I was 13 my parents were shopping in Fremantle, a port city that sees sea traffic of all kinds including seven-storey high sheep carriers that export live sheep to the Middle East for halal meat (there are several whole essays there that I’m not getting into today). While my parents wandered the aisles of the supermarket, gathering supplies, two young men, merchant sailors on one of these sheep carriers, approached them. Having seen my mother’s sari, emboldened by this brown couple unexpectedly amongst many white faces, the young men stopped them.

“Malayalee ānēā? Are you Malayalees?” they ventured tentatively.

Within a few short minutes, those young men had been invited to dinner at our house, and so began a 35+ year friendship.

One of the young men continued to visit this part of the world for almost the entirety of his career in the merchant navy, and on every visit, he would make it a point to have a meal with us — even when my parents were out of the country, my siblings and I would have dinner with him.

He brought his wife and children on a few of his postings, and when we went to India, we’d make it a point to visit them.

A few years ago, while in the US, my mother went to stay with that (now not-so-young) man’s elder daughter and her family.

A lifelong connection spanning generations blossomed from that chance meeting and shy enquiry.

This morning, while walking the dog, a woman decided to join us. She sidled next to me, matched my footfalls and proceeded to tell me the story of her life, words gushing from her in great torrents.

She and her mother had lived in another suburb most of their lives, she said. In state appointed housing. They’d applied to live together around three months ago, and the process had been expedited because of her mother’s advanced age — she’s 88, and in a wheelchair, but doing so well for her age, you know because it’s hard when you get to that age and she’s lived longer than either of her parents. Her mother died at 76, and her father at 82. She’s outlived all her siblings too, she’s the youngest. One of her sisters died very young though, just 56. That was too early. But anyway, she’s outlived all her family and there’s just me and her, so it’s great that HomesWest (the state housing commission) was able to accommodate us so quickly and now we’re sharing a house just 10 minutes away from this beautiful park. Aren’t we so lucky to live here? And what a gorgeous day for a walk. I’m just going to walk to the shops and get a few things then I’m going to walk home. How old is your puppy? She’s a very well behaved dog. Oh, I like her name! That’s beautiful.

You get the idea. She really wanted to tell me about her life, and didn’t need any input from me. I was ears on legs for her. Well, one ear on legs, since the other ear had an earbud firmly screwed in with a writing podcast on play.

We parted ways as I reached my car and she veered towards the shops. Wishing me a wonderful day and thanking me for my company, she barrelled along on her path.

Six years ago, when we moved to the U.S., I found myself having to establish friends and community in a new place with new people. As anyone who’s lived away from home knows, it’s hard. I was very lucky to have a friend (who lived on yet another continent) who introduced me to a Facebook writers’ group.

And from that, sprang a rash entries into other Facebook writers’ groups where I have met some of the most extraordinary writers from all over the world. These are people who write in so many different genres, who write full time, who write part time, who write for others or themselves, who make their livings (or don’t) writing, whose whole existence is writing. These are people who have encouraged me, who cheer me on, who read what I write, and who have included me in so many wonderful projects (shoutout to YeahWrite and DeadHousekeeping especially!), and who have become friends. Some I’ve hugged in person, others have been embraced virtually, a tangle of electronic connections sufficing for the warmth of a shared physical space.

I admire their ability to weave whole worlds in a status update. I aspire to their command of language, their lyricism. I’m grateful for their steadfast friendship over so many years.

This month, I’m sharing the writing of some of these incredible folks. Keep your eyes on these posts for some really terrific writing. You’ll find some in my first post for the month, and here are some more to explore:


4 Comments on “The Collection of Strangers”

  1. I am loving this new feature as well as the in-depth flavour of your non-fiction, as always. Such important anecdotes make up our days, don’t they? Our writing streams from our experiences and vice versa.

    Loving the links too. Checking them out later today, Asha !

    • Thank you! So true about the important anecdotes in our days. Conversely, I adore the way some writers take the most mundane, most banal and create enormous ideas. The following (rather long) passage from Anaïs Nin’s “A Spy in the House of Love” is one of my favourite examples of this:

      “The ascensions of the ballet dancers into space and their return to the ground, brought before her eyes a Japanese umbrella made of colored paper which she once wore in her hair. It was lovely to see, so delicately made. When it rained and others opened their umbrellas then it was time for her to close hers.
      But a hi wind had torn it, and when she went into Chinatown to buy another the woman who ran the shop shouted violently: “It’s made in Japan, throw it in the gutter!”
      Sabina had looked at the parasol, innocent and fragile, made in a moment of peace by a workman dreaming of peace, made like a flower, lighter than war and hatred. She left the shop and looked down at the gutter and could not bring herself to throw it. She folded it quietly, folded tender gardens, the fragile structure of dream, a workman’s dream of peace, innocent music, innocent workman whose hands had not made bullets. In time of war hatred confused all the values, hatred fell upon cathedrals, paintings, music, rare books, children, the innocent passersby.
      She folded the letter, as she had folded the parasol, out of sight of hatred and violence. She could not keep pace with the angry pulse of the world. She was engaged in a smaller cycle, the one opposite to war. There were truths women had been given to protect while the men went to war. When everything would be blown away, a paper parasol would raise its head among the debris, and man would be reminded of peace and tenderness.”

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