Thursday, September 1, 2016

And Another Thing

One thing I noticed on our hike was that most of the people we encountered were very friendly. I can’t say if this is because friendly people hike, or because hiking brings out the friendly in people, or some other factor or combination of factors entirely. All I know for certain is that the trail, especially the early part of the trail, was rather busy, and most of the people we met were full of smiles and friendly greetings. There was even enough of this that I commented on it to Heather at the time. I believe my words were something to the effect of, “It seems I’m not the only one who finds this good for the soul.”

I suspect there is something of a combination of factors involved, but I also suspect that there is a strong element of “nature brings out the good in people.” It’s worth noticing that we also stopped to talk with people. If you know me, you know that stopping to talk with strangers is not something I would often do. Stopping to talk with non-strangers is not exactly common, especially when I have set my mind to doing something. I tend to be somewhat tunnel-visioned, and I’m not exactly talkative without that handicap.

That wasn’t always true, though, and this is something I have been thinking about lately. When I was a teenager, we would often take trips to various vacation spots, with places like theme parks, nature trails, and caverns being popular locations for the family. Many times, once we had gotten to wherever it was we were going, Mom and Dad would tell us to meet them at a particular landmark at a particular time, and then send is off on our way. I’m not sure how acceptable that is today, but it was pretty common back then. You’d see kids and young teens forming herds around the parks as their parents kicked them free for a while (which, let’s be honest here, resulted in a bit of short-term freedom for the parents as well). During such times, I almost never wandered alone.

I would start alone, as you always did, or maybe with my younger brother in tow. Sometimes there might be one friend who came with us, but I don’t think there was ever more than two or three of us in the original group. Then, as it usually happened, we’d be standing in line at a ride or an attraction or maybe a food stand, and I would strike up a conversation with the next person in line. Inevitably, I would have maneuvered this so that the next person in line was someone in our age bracket, often with more people connected that that one, and, before you knew it, our groups had merged, and we were all off to spend an entertaining day with people we had not even known existed prior to that. Most of my photographs from those trips back then include groups of people I couldn’t name today on a bet, but I could have told you the life stories of everyone of them at the time. That was just how it worked.

The important thing to remember here is that I was almost always the one who initiated those conversations. It was a specialty of mine. I didn’t always do well with friends and social interactions back home, but I could be the epitome of the social butterfly in a special setting that wasn’t bound by the expected rules. That was probably part of it. Give me some place where there was no expectation of conformity, and the child who was terrible at conformity could stretch out and shine. There was also the “I’ll never see these people again” aspect. We always exchanged addresses (that was what you did before the Internet), but I don’t think we ever used them. At least, I can’t remember ever sending more than a single letter or two. Best intentions and all, but the temporary nature of the situation was part of the appeal. For someone who is almost pathologically afraid of embarrassment, there is an incredible amount of freedom in the knowledge that no one you know will be talking about this later. It cuts a number of chords and opens a number of doors, allowing you to do things you wouldn’t normally be able to do.

Even that freedom has been something largely confined to the past for me, though. Actions become habits, and habits become engraved in stone, and I just don’t comfortably interact with strangers these days, no matter where I am. I will not strike up a conversation in line at the grocery store. I will not compliment a person’s jacket or hat or whatever at the checkout stand. I will usually put effort into projecting a bubble of I’m Not Here space around me (it’s a trick I can’t possibly explain if you don’t already know the concept) to avoid any contact at all. To be perfectly honest, none of that is exactly restricted to strangers either. I avoid contact, and that is certainly not always a good thing.

I get too closed into my own head and I forget things, like how to interact, how to empathize, how to do basic human things. I’ll lose track of time on a large scale and I could go days without talking to people without even realizing it. There are times when that sounds pretty peaceful, actually, possibly even a recommended form of unplugging occasionally, but on purpose and in a mindful manner. It’s not usually a good thing when you do it on accident. Going that deep into your own head requires a safety line and an escape plan. Forget those and you might not come back out again.

Then we go hiking, and I’m talking to strangers. Only a little bit, but a little bit is a lot more than usual these days. A little bit is something. I’m waking up parts of me that have been dormant for too long, and it feels good. So that’s another reason to be doing more of this. Not only do I need my nature fix, but something deep down inside of me needs something as well. Something is waking up, and I think I remember that guy. He was pretty fun, and it was a healthy, almost childlike fun. We could use more of that. I could use more of that. I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting more of that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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