Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Talking to Strangers can be Good for You (or how I met my friend Barb)

Boston is famously inhospitable to strangers. But not in my experience. I know one of my closest and oldest friends as a result of our respective willingness to start a polite conversation while standing in line together.

"My Sister Gerri" is the name of the documentary film broadcast at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in Fall 1993. As an introvert who was new to Boston screwing up the courage to go to a movie solo, took considerable work on my part. The film, which tells the story of the woman whose lifeless body became a grotesque icon for the pro-choice side during the early 1970's iteration of this national debate, was premiered. Arriving early I took my place in the growing line of well-heeled ladies who lunched, the Planned Parenthood donors who didn't need to work and instead spent their days in meetings for their important causes.

I was 23, a full-time secretary in a juvenile prison, and a part-time graduate student at the BU School of Social Work. I felt alone and conspicuously out-of-place.

I wish I could remember the self-talk that reverberated in my head as I waited. I'm sure it went something like this,

Says the tortured devil on my shoulder: "What are you doing here? You don't belong here."

"I paid my money, I can be here if I want," spouts the brave angel who gives me precarious balance. 

"Where will you sit? Who will you talk with? Does anyone even know you are here sad, fat alone girl?" came the retort.

And so on, and so forth. 

But, this time, the angel on my shoulder won out over the tortured devil and I stayed.

Not only did I stay, but my angel gave me the chutzpah to strike up a conversation with the stranger
next to me in line. A young , professionally dressed woman, also alone. "What brings you to see this film" was the likely start to our polite and reserved repartee. However, through our discussion I learned she was considering applying to the same graduate program I had just started, was living and working in Washington, DC, where I had lived during college, and was familiar with the parts of Central NY. We sat next to one another during the movie and both stayed for the talk-back with the filmmaker. As the event wrapped up this stranger handed me her card and we parted ways.

But that wasn't the end of it. While face-to-face interactions with strangers take an enormous amount of effort for me, I'm great with the written word. And I love a good handwritten note. So I dropped the stranger a note in the mail, thanking her for sharing the movie with me and wishing her luck with her graduate school decision. Letter dropped in the mail, I promptly forgot she existed.

That is until the following fall when I attended the new student breakfast reception on campus. Still largely alone at school (it was a hard program to do as a part-timer), I may have been chatting with an acquaintance when a woman approached me. She had been searching for me in the crowd because she wanted to thank me for helping her to make and achieve her graduate school goal.

"Huh?" I'm sure I said.

The stranger reminded me of the movie at the MFA and told me the note I'd sent to her later moved her to finish her application to the program she herself was now starting.

The stranger became Barbara and we became fast friends, sharing stories about our transition to Boston, bonding over classes and field work, and considering our professional aspirations as we moved through the professional training portions of our education. 

Our band of buddies grew. Eventually there were five of us living in one block of nearby Central Square in Cambridge, and two more who would join our crew we called Stitch and Bitch. Long after we marched the stage to receive our diplomas we continued to meet weekly for happy hour beer and curried French fries. 

Because we were both willing to talk to a stranger, Barbara met her now husband, and I was introduced me to my therapist. Barbara had a wonderful cat to love as her own when a move forced me to give him up. And I had the privilege of receiving the first afghan she ever crocheted from start to finish. 

Because we were both willing to talk to a stranger, we've experience the comfort of having a friend bear witness to our respective heartbreak, job loss, physical ailments, and family traumas. We have shared the joys of new love, new homes, new children, and many new years.

It has been 19 years since Barbara Charton Lambiaso and I first met. Just this week we shared wishes for a new year, and made plans to go to a lecture together. I am so touched by this friendship with my Gal Pal Barbara. Touched by the longevity and depth of our connection, and touched with the knowledge that we still love each other as much as we did when we first met, and at least as much as we will when we are old women.

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