On the outside, people generally look quite ordinary. For the most part, we dress the same, we comb our hair, and we go about the world in a similar way. Occasionally you will see a colourful character that stands out from the crowd like the man yesterday. He was seated at a sidewalk café opposite us looking very much like a 1960’s hippy Captain Jack Sparrow. Long-haired with ribbons and ornaments dangling from his locks, round hippy glasses, eclectic clothing…he was old enough that I doubt his look was experimental. He was clearly comfortable in his own skin. Our companion wondered what made someone get up in the morning and want to dress in such a way. I suggested the man probably wondered what would possess a man to put on a suit and tie.
People watching is fun. It’s one of the things we enjoy doing while we are visiting a large city. I love to see someone strut by making a bold statement with their clothing or their manner. It makes me wonder what their story is. Similarly, I wonder about the life and story of someone who dresses to blend in.
My Sweet and I are on a holiday in England. We spent the first week in the north, walking a portion (65 miles) of Hadrian’s Wall. It is a remote part of the country where you can stand on high hilltops and no matter which direction you look, you might only see a couple of farmhouses and a whole lot of sheep. Occasionally we would meet other walkers, some on the same path, others intersecting on other trails.
Each night we stayed in a local bed and breakfast where we had the opportunity to chat with other travelers. We met the most interesting people – a man near our age from Lichtenstein who had recently given up his job with the government and was walking alone while he pondered what his future might look like; a young man from Newcastle who owned a small deli on the quay and was running the length of the Wall in two days (it was meant to be a first date of sorts but the woman in question had backed out); and a widow who had lost her husband to cancer six months earlier and was walking with her two friends in preparation for a trip to Machu Picchu.
At one of our last B&B’s, we made the acquaintance of an older couple from the Isle of Mann. We enjoyed a late supper with them at a local pub and just a few simple questions led to the most interesting conversation. I’m guessing that they were near 80 in age; they were returning from a fishing holiday in Scotland. They had spent the majority of their married life in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. They raised four children, three daughters and a son, while living in Africa. Before the couple returned to the UK, two of the daughters married New Zealanders and the third married an Australian. The son was younger and came back to the UK as well, where he married and lives with his wife and child (but not very near to the parents). The wife asked if our parents were still living? I said yes, both my husband’s parents and my mother. She glanced at her husband, then with a sad and wistful look on her face, simply said, “Cherish them.” Both her words and the look on her face will stay with me for quite some time I think.
We met an elderly man walking with his daughter and a lovely collie who (the man not the collie) taught us to recognize the scent of gorse in bloom, a friendly couple on a transit bus who took one look at our bewildered faces and rescued us by shepherding us along on the right exchanges to get us to the train station we needed, and a Russian lawyer who had rebuilt her life after discovering that her traveling husband was keeping a second family in another country.
Each and every one looked quite ordinary, not so different from ourselves except in age and the accent of their spoken English. But beneath the surface was a lifetime of stories, experiences, and moments that made them all unique.
Every time a life’s story was shared with us there was also a lesson learned that was being passed along:
• The man from Lichtenstein who was between jobs and searching taught us that sometimes a bit of solitary contemplation is just what is needed to gain perspective on an uncertain future.
• The young man running told us that he used to be very shy until he opened his deli; the daily interactions with the public had opened him up and taught him how much he actually liked talking with people.
• The elderly couple reminded us to hold our loved ones closely because life passes more quickly than we think.
• The man with his daughter and collie taught us to stop and smell the flowers, and to pay attention to your surroundings.
• The people on the bus were a lesson in the kindness of strangers (this happened just one day after the bombing in Manchester).
• The Russian lawyer taught us that you are stronger and more resilient than you think, and that hard work and determination can take you farther than you dreamed.
Do you think your life is ordinary and uninteresting? I know I felt a bit that way when I walked away from some of the people we’ve met on this trip. I thought for a moment how regular my life is, how safe and predictable, but then I thought about where we were and what we had done – traveling around England, walking across miles of rugged and wild countryside, climbing to the top of castle ruins, and meeting all of these fascinating people – and maybe my life isn’t so ordinary after all. Maybe none of our lives are ordinary except in our own minds.
I know I’ve said this before, but apparently I needed reminding, that it is the people who come into (and out of) our lives that we remember and that have the biggest impact on us. Don’t be afraid to say hello to the stranger in the coffee shop, smile at the woman on the bus, or admire the friendly collie. These moments have the potential to enrich or even change our lives.
Ordinary is never really as ordinary as you think.