23 June 2014

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

I have a wolf. A wolf mix, rather. He is a handsome fellow.

Despite him being very wolfish of mien, people tend to assume that he is as sweet as pudding pie.

And he is.

He may chew on your hands to get your attention, fling a play-rope at your sister’s head, chew lightly on your sister’s cat, and rest his chin ever-so-gently on your computer so that it turns off while you’re typing a sentence…but he is a sweet chap.

This wolf o’ mine is the reason I get to talk to my neighbors despite our current individualistic shut-door culture. I get to talk to all sorts of random people who see me taking him on a walk. Children gather round—cautiously at first—and ask his name. People sitting on their porches call out asking “Is that a Husky?” “What is he?’ “He’s beautiful!”

People pull over in their cars and roll down the window to ask me about him. It’s crazy.

Oh and I love it. And it isn’t just because I feel a little bit awesome walking about with a wolf at my side who is so very pretty. It’s because I don’t think I would do more than casually wave or nod at people as I go by, because I get the feeling I might make them uncomfortable and also, maybe, I’m being lazy and anti-social my own self. Everyone is locked in their own spheres, most of the time, and there’s a whole lot of fear and uncertainty one betwixt the other wherever you go. I mean we do live in a dangerous world, but does that mean we should all just keep to ourselves then? I think not.

So because of this wool-soft wolf, I get to strike up conversations with people. I get an in to interact in a culture that is wary of interaction. I had thought to bake a mountain of cookies and take them to my neighbors and try to get to know people that way, but I think this works much better. I once talked to a very kind Vietnam Veteran for nearly half an hour about his life, his struggles, his and my contrasting experiences in the military, PTSD—and what it was like before care for PTSD was prevalent and encouraged—just because he had called out to ask what kind of dog I had.

You see, a dog is a safe topic to broach. It’s safe to compliment a stranger’s dog. So people feel comfortable doing it. I am so grateful for that.

Because, you know what? I have been so immersed in open-communication, semi-communal environments that I crave that openness and easy interaction wherever I go. I have five siblings and eleventy-million cousins, and most of us grew up pretty close. Lots of shared space. That generation of sisters—our moms—being pregnant at the same time and sharing duties.

Also, my parents lived on a Kibbutz (Israeli communal farm) for a number of years before I was born, so I think some of the small-scale social communalism sank in in the form of the extreme open-door and open-fridge policy of our house.

Then I worked on a Moshav (like a Kibbutz) for six months myself. Then I joined the military and lived in barracks [or cans] for five years. Then, when I went to school, I shared a home with several other women where we had a more-or-less community fridge and cooked large meals for all of us to share. Tight space, sharing books, sharing food and coffee and morning insights over said coffee. Dealing with all the little difficulties and interruptions that happen when you put a bunch of disparate personalities into a small area and say “Go!”

And I loved it.

When I lived in D.C. I met several times with a young Saudi Doctor and mother so that I could practice my Arabic and she her English. One time the conversation was waning and I had to keep it going in order to practice. So I decided to ask her what she liked most about living in the United States and what she liked least. Her answers on both counts were fascinating and stuck with me, but I would like to bring only one to mention just now.

One of her least favorite things was how people ignored each other in the metro (subway). Earphones in, sunglasses on, face turned to the corner, expression uninviting. Community transport, but no community is happening. People trying with all their might to keep their bubble firm and tune out all the life around them because it’s tiring (which is true…it can be very, very tiring). Where is the sense of community? Where is the ability to take a moment out and say good morning to the person you’re sitting next to? This dullness of manner between the metro passengers made this young Saudi woman very sad because she felt that people should be engaging one another, not their i-phones, on the metro.

I so heartily agree with her.

I tried to make it a principle of mine. In the two and a half years I lived in DC and took the metro almost daily, I think I wore headphones two or three times total. I tried to focus whole-heartedly on anyone who tried to strike up a conversation with me about any old thing, rather than being stiff with them, which I often wanted to be. I did not always succeed, but I tried to keep my eyes open.

(Confession: I did sometimes read on the metro which can shut you off just as badly as headphones and sunglasses if you’re not careful. I did not uninterruptedly stare out at the whole fascinating contents of the metro car. And, though this does not wholly absolve me, sometimes even a book can be a conversation starter: “What language is that?” “Oh, I read that and loved it!” “Is that any good?”….It happened at least once that I can recall off the top of my head, perhaps more.)

Point being? This dull, generic face of ‘outside interaction’ is not doing us any good. The bubbles make life easier, but they’re not making it better. They’re not forcing us to hand over a few seconds of our time to look someone in the eye. So if you think a girl’s earrings are pretty: say so to her. (I have been practicing this). Because if all she does is nod awkwardly and say thank you, who knows but that’s the one kindness she got in the middle of an awful day?

I want to live like this. So I want to be grateful for the things that help me do it when I am too cowardly and selfish.

So. A compliment. Cookies. A good, solid look-you-in-the-eye hello. A wolf. Whatever it takes.