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Archive for June 22nd, 2009

Tell Me Your Story

Some people would describe me as a talker.  I would describe myself as a listener.  The thing that most people don’t notice is that when I start a conversation with a complete stranger (which I do almost everyday) I ask open ended questions in the hopes of being able to listen to something new – to learn something about somebody that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.   I am often greeted with a sideways glance and a grunt but once in a while I hit the story jackpot.

A couple of years back an older gentleman boarded the bus a couple of stops after me and I noticed that he had a running jacket that was almost twenty years old.  There was no mistaking the fact that, even at eighty plus years of age, he was still a runner.  As he walked down the aisle, I scooted over to the window seat and offered him a seat beside me.  On a bus you only have a few minutes to get to the heart of a conversation, so I asked right away about his running.  He opened up immediately.

I think the people who respond are just looking for someone to talk to.  They know they are interesting and are just waiting for someone to notice it.  This gentleman was wonderful.  Not only did I learn that he is indeed still a runner but, I also learned that back in 1954, in the race to run a 4 minute mile, this gentleman had run with Roger Bannister.  This gentleman could have passed right by my seat when I offered it or even sat beside me but not responded questions but, he did and I was given a glimpse into history I may have never gotten.

Everybody deserves their right to privacy and I understand the desire to keep to one’s self and not be bothered by those around you.  I also see how people get nervous when a stranger starts speaking to them on the bus or a Starbucks or even in a grocery store but, I love the people who have responded.  Sometimes I learn about the everyday things going on in their life – about their children and their sports teams or what they think about our economy or what movies they have watched recently and I can join in the conversations but, sometimes I just sit back and listen.  I am amazed at how interesting people are and how many things other people have experienced.

A London taxi driver sticks out as one of the most interesting people I have ever met.  As we were getting into his taxi, he noticed my copy of London at War and started asking me about it.  I told him where I was and what I had learned so far and that is as far as I got because he started talking about growing up in London in World War II.  He told my husband and me how his mother refused to evacuate and how hungry they were during the war.  He told us how his sister worked as a WREN and survived being in the war zone only to be killed when a German bomb was dropped on the train station by their house when she came home.  He explained how his mother built a garden over the top of their bomb shelter in the back yard and how they would run for the shelter in the dead of night.  We pulled up outside our flat and he turned off the car and sat there and talked and talked and talked.  All I could do was listen in amazement.  I did finish reading that book but, it never compared to what I learned in that taxi that evening.

This taxi driver was the beginning of my quest to learn more, to probe more and to listen more.  If a person wants to tell me about their daughter who has just left for college and how much they miss her, I am happy to listen because I know they must need to talk about that.  But, even more than that I am looking for those people who are truly walking history books.  Those people who are just waiting for someone to ask because they know they have a story to tell.  I am looking for the man who can’t stand the sun because he spent three years in an outdoor prison cell as a prisoner of war in the Pacific, or the woman whose husband was killed in Germany during the war leaving her to take care of six kids and stay in the same house for the next forty years because she just couldn’t face leaving the place where she last saw him.  I am looking for the person who once rode in a car with JFK on a campaigning tour or the man who was pulled over by police three blocks from the rioting in DC after Martin Luther King was killed because he was breaking the curfew but had no idea about any of it because he had been studying for the bar exam.

I do love to talk, to tell my own stories and those I have heard from others but, I what I love most is to listen – to close my eyes and let the stories float through my brain and grab hold.  So, if you are out and about and happen to run into a short little lady in running clothes and glasses, take a moment and tell me your story.

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