Isn’t there a book with a title something like “I Learned Everything I Needed To Know in Kindergarten?” Well, sometimes it seems we haven’t progressed too far from that point of innocence and discovery. I was reminded of this by several unexpected conversations with friends from past and present.
I’m always surprised and amazed by the interesting encounters I have at the front counter of my retail business, Oak Street Natural Market and Deli. During one lunch rush, I thought the phone ringing was either a customer’s order or a sales call. When the voice asked for me by name, I hesitated and then asked who was calling.
When the man said his name, I took an instant time machine trip. He was a fellow performer I haven’t seen or heard from in over thirty-five years. The last time we worked together, we were young men full of optimism and hope, ready to conquer the theatrical world. His reason for searching my name on the internet and calling? My face had been coming to his mind for several weeks and he decided to pursue the connection. We set up a time to meet and catch up in the Midwest where he now lives. I learned much from our visit.
About seven years ago, I experienced a similar connection with another old friend, also a performer, from my college days over thirty years before. I was startled awake in the middle of the night by a dream of my friend who was hurting and in need of help. The vividness of the image prompted me out of bed and online to do a search for his name. Unfortunately he has a common name, so lots of different options came up. I thought if he had pursued his acting dreams, he might be working in New York City, so I took a chance and called Information there. A phone number for my friend’s name was listed in Manhattan. It was 4 a.m. at this point and I thought I might as well take the plunge and call.
The voice that answered the phone had not been asleep, but was heavily slurred. When I asked if this was the Billy P. who went to college in southern Illinois in 1968, there was a sharp intake of air over the phone line. He asked who it was, and when I said my name, he began to alternately laugh and cry. “Why, why are you calling, and especially right now?” Turns out just that week his wife had left him, taking their two daughters with her. He had lost all his acting jobs and was very nearly suicidal. He had been up all night drinking trying to numb his pain. He said my call was like a life preserver. After a long conversation, I made plans to spend a week with him and give some moral support. Turned out to be one of the best weeks we’ve ever spent together, full of hope and self-discovery for both of us.
Coincidence? I choose to think not.
Another recent event reaffirmed my belief in the importance of maintaining connection with individuals who have been important to us in the past. Recently my wife and I performed our Classic Broadway show in Philadelphia. Remembering that a former teacher from my high school days had retired there, I sent her an invitation to the show. She had cast me at age seventeen in my first lead role in a high school musical and hadn’t seen me perform in forty years. It was a delight to introduce her to the audience at intermission and give her credit for starting me on one of my careers. Later, over dinner together, we explored the paths we’d taken in our lives and compared lessons learned in the journey so far. An extremely enriching encounter, I gained an expanded vision of who she was as my teacher and my own evolution from teenager to adult.
This last connection makes me laugh. A business associate and I had always meant to take time from our busy schedules to get to know each other on a more personal level. We had felt a kinship and wanted to explore the impulse. But timing was never right and something always prevented our meeting. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling through the Minneapolis airport on business and family trips. Two times in a row, as I got off my plane and stood in a crowd of people looking at the Departure board, I saw my business associate also standing there. We laughed at the coincidence each time, and wished each other well on our respective journeys.
Then on my next trip to Philadelphia, I got off the plane in Minneapolis and stood looking at the board. Sure enough, there was my associate, who hadn’t yet seen me. I walked up behind him and said quietly in his ear, “Do you think life is trying to get us to plan a meeting outside of this airport?” After a good laugh, we got serious about setting a time and place at home for our encounter. We agreed to go for a hike together. And guess what happened? We had waited so long to explore each other’s lives that when we got to the trailhead, we sat down for a moment to drink our coffee and never left the bench for two hours. Our conversation was deep and enriching, leaving us both exhilarated as if we’d taken the hike after all.
A customer asked me to write about how difficult it is to get accurate diagnostic information from doctors. We chatted about the changing face of standard medicine, when practitioners are forced to control their time with patients due to rising costs and managed care. Gone are the days when the local family doctor gives you undivided attention for as long as needed. Some of these changes are inevitable, but what it points out is the importance of developing your own listening skills when dealing with illness and states of imbalance. The very first connection we need to nurture is to our own body and what messages it gives us.
In performing, one of the basic lessons is to develop your listening skills. It’s not so important what lines you speak, but how much you really hear of what is said. What have you heard today? What is life whispering in your ear? Is it a new friend, someone you pass on the street every day and have just never taken the time to say “hi” to? Or is it that recurring dream that perhaps tells you to take the different bend in the path? I believe there are many of these tailor-made signposts for each one of us, ready to deliver a great gift of expanding our lives. But first you need to “hear” what is being said to you.
None of us are separate beings. We are all connected in a truly visceral sense. It’s being aware of that connection on a daily basis that can really make this ride a lot of fun! Listen up and make the connection!
Robert Worobec is the owner of Oak Street Natural Market & Deli in Bozeman and FoodWorks Natural Market in Livingston.