Last week Meeting in the Margins and I were welcomed to Ravenna Third Place Books in Seattle for a reading/discussion hour.
As I usually do, I began my presentation with stories of offering compassionate touch to the street people of San Francisco. Those are arguably the more compelling stories in the book; they catch the attention and imagination of the audience.
Those stories may also be the “safest” ones for listeners to hear, because homelessness and slums are more remote from the personal experience of many bookstore shoppers than some other margins such as hospitals and nursing homes, or people who are physically or addictively ill or dying.
Folks who hear the street-stories are convinced that they would/could never interact with the people on “skid row.” That may be so. But what about the other margins, the more familiar, less dramatic ones? What about our neighbors who reside in those margins?
A friend who attended last week’s reading suggested that “the margins are wherever the familiar is strange.” That’s an idea worth unpacking.
We are uncomfortable imagining being in the margins. It’s a matter of our inexperience combined with situations that are as yet unexperienced. We can’t know what we haven’t yet learned. We can’t be proficient in what we’ve never done before – we are inexperienced; we can’t understand what we’ve not ever encountered – it is unexperienced.
But could we be willing simply to pay attention in those unpredictable times where the familiar turns out to be strange (a person sitting . . . not on a porch but on a curb; a child hurrying . . . not on a tricycle but in a wheelchair; an elegantly-dressed woman . . . not at a luncheon but wandering in traffic)?
Or can we allow for the opposite: a place or time where the “strange” turns out to be unremarkable and familiar (the corner panhandler has in his pocket a paperback book by your current favorite author, and the two of you have a brief conversation of appreciation not unlike the one you had yesterday with your friend in the coffee shop)?
Or could we welcome a moment when the taken-for-granted becomes mystical (a man dozing and drooling in his wheelchair in a nursing home corridor suddenly reaches for your hand, looks into your eyes, and begins praying for you in words that seem to embrace your soul)? Could we stay in the wonder of that moment and not flee?
If there is any “secret” to encountering the invisible people of the margins, it is saying “yes” to just a few of these opportunities, accumulating enough small experiences (I promise you that this is possible) that we actually want to go to the places where these little miracles can happen.
“Meeting in the margins” turns out to be a simple equation: one human Being unconditionally being with one other human Being for just a moment in time.
Meeting in the margins is the skill of being fascinated by the familiar and the strange, both at the same time.
Our comfort zone, which most of us prefer, is most likely too dangerous to even the familiar. Empathy and good communication both require experiencing someone else’s comfort zone. Nicely examined.