Do I know you from somewhere?


I’ve never had many close friends, I’m afraid -just a lot of people I nod or wave at. And of those, most of them remain nameless even though I recognize them in their proper contexts. But, devoid of that, the majority remain enigmas that smile at me when I approach; I usually require more finite clues for identification. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of ‘face-blindness’ I have for them, as much as ‘person-blindness’, perhaps; or more accurately, context forgetfulness.

Nevertheless, embarrassed as I may be at my memory, I treasure their smiles, and casual greetings; I welcome their conversation that usually does not require anything more from me, than listening and adding a few observations of my own on whatever the subject we’re discussing. Seldom does it require encyclopedic knowledge, nor is it expected. It is, by and large, queue-talk at the supermarket, say, or perhaps complaint-talk because the bus for which we are both waiting, is terribly late. If nothing else, it makes time go by less painfully, and, at best, adds something to the day: something to remember. Something to think about, however briefly, when they’ve left.

Of course, as with many such random encounters, it slowly fades into the wallpaper I’ve plastered over my life, but on occasion it assumes an unanticipated value: a novel pattern perhaps, or an appealing viewpoint that merits further consideration, largely because it does not emanate from the usual databases that both I and my few close friends tend to access.

I hadn’t really given this type of acquaintanceship much thought, to tell the truth -there seemed little need to invest much effort in considering the relative merits of chance encounters. And yet, it was purely by chance that I happened upon an article in BBC worklife about just such meetings: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200701-why-your-weak-tie-friendships-may-mean-more-than-you-think

Ian Leslie, a London-based author, writes that ‘Close friends are important – but research shows that building networks of casual acquaintances can boost happiness, knowledge and a sense of belonging.’ This realization apparently stems from a 1973 paper from Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University, entitled The Strength of Weak Ties. ‘As Granovetter pointed out, the people whom you spend a lot of time with swim in the same pool of information as you do. We depend on friendly outsiders to bring us news of opportunities from beyond our immediate circles.’ Chance encounters, in other words.

I suppose Social Media can perform a similar function, but there’s a degree of anonymity possible in Social Media that does not penalize undeserved self-aggrandizement, or frank dishonesty in the replies to any disclosures posted online. Of course in this continuing Age of Social Distancing, maybe we simply have to take whatever’s available.

Still, the world is more than the space between us; life is more than video-links, or earnest phone calls to people you haven’t seen, let alone hugged, in years. A physical encounter, however many metres apart, is still the preferable way to engage, I think -even with strangers.

I am an obsessive runner of trails these days. It’s refreshing to encounter reality in additional dimensions not available on the screen: the feel of wind caressing my cheeks, the crunch of leaves underfoot, my eyes able to scan the ground ahead for rocks or roots, not pixels… an absolution, somehow.

But things do not always go as planned, even on a trail. There are moments when my attention fades as the forest’s blanket attempts to wrap me in its arms and secrete me away to its lair. And then, if I am not careful I find myself in it -in some bush beside the trail, or worse, dashed against a fallen log, or soaked in a nearby creek.

Such things are not unknown on a leafy trail where the shadows sit and wait for company -or, at times, a person who is herself lost in the freedom of dreams. And one day, I found myself lying in a cluster of salal suddenly conscious of an elderly worried face staring down at me.

“Are you okay?” it asked.

I could hear the hesitation in her voice. I can imagine that seeing a stranger lying on a bush in a forest with no one else around might seem suspicious. “Yes,” I said and smiled, eager to reassure her. “I must have tripped on a root, I guess,” I added, and sat up feeling a little dizzy.

She immediately smiled. “My son runs in here,” she said. “He says he usually comes back with scratches, and feels it’s all part of the fun.”

I got unsteadily to my feet and leaned on a nearby tree. “It can be exciting,” I agreed. “At least it’s something to do that breaks up the day a little…”

“It’s all better than staring at a screen for hours on end,” she said, nodding her head as if acknowledging that it was therapy for her as well. “Even with all of the inescapable video calls with friends, you run out of things to say to the same people. I mean, nothing new is happening to them, either.” She rolled her eyes briefly. “It gets rather stale, don’t you think?”

I chuckled at that. “Especially if they’re not even reading anything interesting to discuss.” I smiled as I remembered boring one of my friends with whom I’d tried to discuss some of the thoughts of the philosophical anthropologist Loren Eiseley. “Have you ever read any Loren Eiseley?” I suddenly asked her on a whim.

Her face lit up and she grinned from ear to ear. “My god, I didn’t realize anybody around here even knew his name,” she gushed. “Have you read The Invisible Pyramid?”

I suddenly perked up. “Yes, I have,” I answered. “I thought I’d read most of his stuff, but just the other day I found a book of his at the bottom of a pile of books I hadn’t looked at for aeons. All the Strange Hours it’s called. Have you read that one?”

Her eyes became saucers. “I can’t believe this! I’ve just started reading it! I tried to download it to my Kindle from Amazon, but they only had the paperback edition…”

I looked at her with new respect. “I hate it when that happens, don’t you?”

We both chuckled, and then, as if she was suddenly considering something unusual for her, she glanced at me and the bush I had just arisen from. “How big is your bubble?” she asked, but slowly, carefully -as if she was thinking something through.

“My social bubble…? You’re looking at it,” I said, shrugging. “My kids live elsewhere…”

She pretended to look off into the shadows by the trail, but I could tell she was still assessing me. Judging my trustworthiness. “My name’s Martha,” she suddenly blurted out. “Would you consider enlarging your video bubble?”

My smile grew so wide my face actually hurt. “My name’s G,” I said, and elbow-bumped her like a new-found friend. “Enlarge my video-bubble…? Yes, of course… I thought you’d never ask!”

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