When we’re young, we are advised by our parents not to talk to strangers. Adults use this warning to protect children, of course, but I’ve noticed that as we age and we understand that “not talking to strangers” just means avoiding dangerous situations, we continue to accept the notion that we shouldn’t speak with people we don’t know, period. In waiting rooms we stay glued to our phones, we avoid eye contact in elevators and even pretend not hear another person when they try to start conversation. Sure, there are moments when it’s best to avoid bugging someone, but I’ve come to realize that maybe every time I don’t grasp an opportunity to get to know a stranger, I may be missing out on learning something important. In order to explain what I mean, I’ll do what I do best and offer you a recent experience of mine. A few nights ago, I was taking a jog near the North Davis pond and the train tracks on the outskirt of the city. The road near the tracks was completely empty and seemed to disappear into the dusky watercolors of the horizon. The birds of the night were emerging from their sleep, littering the sky above, and the crickets were tuning their nightsongs. I’d run further than usual as I had begun to lose myself in the cinematic evening scene surrounding me. I forced myself to ignore the breath-taking beauty of this little-populated area of Davis because it was beginning to get dark, and I decided I needed head home. As I rounded the lake, though, I noticed an old man, maybe around 60 or 70, standing alone at the edge of the water, eyes towards the sky. He noticed me and, quite unexpectedly, yelled “Quick! Come here!” I was completely thrown off-guard and honestly, kind of scared. The man, though, called me with urgency and beckoned me over with an unthreatening outstretched arm. My mind told me to keep running, but my instincts caused me stop at his side. As I approached him I noticed his eyes were bloodshot and his face was puffy, like he had been crying. He pointed across the shadowy pond to the top of a tree, his eyes once again towards the sky. “Do you see them? Can you believe how beautiful they are?” he asked excitedly. In the tree were two large brown owls. Their eyes were beginning to glow green as evening set in. The man began to hoot at them and to my surprise, the birds cooed back. I watched and listened for a short while as the two exchanged this music, and for a moment, I completely forgot what I was doing there. Eventually the man grew quiet, but kept his eye on the owls. Feeling compelled to understand why he wanted me to see the animals, I decided to speak. “Are there a lot of owls around here?” I asked. He immediately began to tell me about all the birds he’d seen at this pond in his lifetime and how this was the first time he’d ever seen owls. Never taking his eyes off the birds, he spoke to me for a long while about his nightly nature walks and how he loved picking fresh flowers to bring to his daughter and how he would bring her on his walks sometimes because all she ever wanted was to bird-watch and witness the cargo train as it sped past civilization into the the great unknown (“a.k.a. Winters, CA”, he chuckled). She hoped one day, he said, that she would get to see an owl. I noticed he hadn’t brought his daughter that night and realized he must be in a dilemma. I took out my cellphone and offered to take a photo of the birds for him — or at least try the best I could beneath the setting shadows — so I could send the photos to his daughter on his behalf. For the first time since I approached him, the man looked me in the eye. His eyes began to well with tears and his body started to shake violently. I didn’t understand what was going on as he took one of my hands in both of his, and squeezed it. “Thank you,” he said, “but you don’t need cameras in Heaven.” At first I felt horrible, guilty, and I started to apologize profusely — for his loss, for my unknowing, for myself in general. The tears rolled down his cheeks; he was still squeezing my hand. He looked back towards the owls as his grip loosened. This, of course, is the part where you probably expect me to tell you that the man offered me some tidbit of wisdom, told me something that changed my life or gave me the ring of Mordor (you all just THOUGHT it melted). In reality though, we stood there silently until the sun set and until we could only see shadows of the birds. I began to shiver as the night grew chilly. The man saw this and told me to get a move on. I agreed, but didn’t move for a while as I watched him leave — I was still processing the moment. He didn’t look back. I never asked him his name and never inquired about his daughter, but that didn’t really matter. As I ran back home, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just unexpectedly dropped in on one of the most purely human experiences: loss. Like I said, I wasn’t given a worldly revelation, nor did I necessarily learn anything new. This experience simply reminded me that life is short and that you cannot regain time once it’s lost. If I already knew this then why did talking to this stranger matter? Well for starters, sure I know I should live life to the fullest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I do or that I keep this sentiment at the front of my mind. This human encounter reminded me of and enforced the notion that time is precious. His tears spoke volumes, his emotion was real and I could just feel he regretted that he was never able to help his daughter find an owl – he didn’t have to say it out loud. I couldn’t help thinking, what would I regret in my lifetime? Is there anything I would want to do today if I were to die tomorrow? Is there anything I would do for someone if I knew today would be the last day I would ever get to see them? Because I took the time to talk to this man and allow him to let me into his life, even just a little, I felt the urge to spend the last few days, and hopefully the rest of this week — maybe even the rest of this quarter, making sure the people I love know it and living life to the absolute fullest. If I hadn’t met him, perhaps I wouldn’t have remember to contact my sister and remind her I’m thinking of her, or maybe I would have missed out on just enjoying the spiritual catharsis that is the sun setting behind the hills of Winters after my runs, rather than just speeding past in a hurry without appreciating the world around me. I’m neither saying you should feel obligated to talk to strangers nor condoning you if you don’t, but I just want to put out into your universe the questions of “who knows?” and “why not?” Akira Olivia Kumamoto (A.O.K.) is the Arts Editor at The California Aggie. She writes the “Talking to Strangers” column in The Centennial. She is passionate about string theory, Mark Ruffalo [the human], jazz and cultural journalism. On any given day you can find her writing poetry, practicing acappella, running long distances, fighting for social equity and not sleeping. If you would like to remind A.O.K. that talking to strangers is creepy as heck, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or send her a tweet at @akiraolivia.
Photos by Anna De Benedictis.