Thursday, May 07, 2009

That smile

Riding the subway or bus or train every day, life tends to fade into the background, just so much static and noise at the edge of awareness. Focusing on a book or a newspaper, knocking out a few more notes or closing the eyes and listening to whatever's on the iPod helps maintain the fiction that there is actually a cushion of space, insulation against the press of working humanity. That's all you need, a little bit of space. One face blends into another and another until you are immersed in a sea of blank faces all trying to preserve a little bit of personal space, a cushion of protection that separates you from the press. You've learned to ride the bumping and swaying like a surfer on a wave, a boxer rolling with the punches, a stunt man absorbing the energy of a fall and turning it into a roll that brings you to your feet to be ready for the next sway, the next bump, the next shock of contact.

In Jean Auel's first prehistoric novel, Ayla, a very curious little girl, ugly and gangly, all legs and arms and eyes, is adopted into the tribe by the Mogur, the shaman, and his sister, the wise woman and healer. It is hard for her to avert her eyes, keep from invading the huddled figures around the other campfires. It's all so new to her, these people who shelter in caves. She has yet to learn that to stare at the other family groups is disrespectful and rude. She's curious. She wants to know what the strange short, dark, gnarled people are like. She is a child, an intelligent and curious child. She wants to know, but she is reproved and cautioned against invading the others' privacy repeatedly until she finally learns to tune them out, until their lives lived in such close proximity is little more than a blur of images and sounds that no longer penetrate her awareness. It is the only way to live in such close quarters and maintain a little privacy, a little distance, a little personal space.

When does personal space become isolation?

Craig's List has a section for missed connections. A face in the crowd that coalesces from the static and touches something inside still not numb from the constant barrage of noise and bodies. Out of the greyness, the cacophony of humanity, comes a glimmer of color, a whiff of something that triggers a memory or a feeling, a glimpse of possibility. At that moment, the isolation is broken and you are infected. The disease is relentless. You must get closer. You want to reach out, to touch, to connect, to assure yourself that they are real. You miss the connection, but the infection has taken hold and fever sets in. You can't rest until you connect again. And so you send out a carrier pigeon, a paper bullet in hopes that they noticed you, too.

Red Line, 4:30 p.m., that smile.

You reach out and wait for an answer, some sign this isn't a one-way connection. You're alive again. You feel. You want. You need. You can't stop smiling. You're not alone.

How often in the busy day do the minutes and hours blur into an unrecognizable collage of what should be done and what must be done? Chores, bills, work, responsibilities, expectations, and mindless hours in front of the television or computer. Those moments when something out of the ordinary wakes us up are rare. They get rarer with time and age. A fleeting connection is a gift, a remembrance of excitement that infects with joy and magic. How sad to waste them, fall back into the anonymity in the surging sea of humanity, to disappear into the static, to become one with the predictable grey blur. Isolated. Silent. Lost. Disconnected.

that smile.

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