Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Series of Blind Dates

I’m a big fan of the short, short story. Often just one line long, but full of suggestion. Traveling as I’ve been doing means meeting lots of strangers and getting glimpses of their stories. Someone will agree to pick me up; someone will have me stay at their home; someone else will fetch me before class and take me to dinner. I don’t know any of these people in advance. It’s like what I imagine a series of blind dates would be like, only nicer.

Others will come up to me during whatever class I’m teaching to ask me a question, or tell me a few lines of their story. If there is more time, though, some will go on and on. I enjoy it. One woman told me about her granddaughter adopted from China who as a small child had looked at her mother searchingly and asked, “Mommy, when you were little, were you Chinese?” Another told me about her experiences in the Peace Corps in Malaysia some 30 years ago.

One woman told me all about her mother, a woman who knew how to do everything and was given to lavishly entertaining. Even a bowl of cereal at breakfast requires a full table setting, if you are married to a career-military officer, she told me. Her mother was a highly "prepared" person, and kept index cards listing what was on every shelf of the cupboards, even the refrigerator. When the Y2K scare came she had her garage lined with full kitchen cupboards. Other people were stocking up on water, which she did – but also made sure she had extra truffles in oil, and that she had plenty of cans of capers, under lock and key.

One day this capable woman was diagnosed with breast cancer. It took seven years to take her life. But that day her husband resigned from his job to be with his wife for the rest of her days. As he dedicated himself to her; she dedicated herself to him: specifically, somewhere along the line, she decided to teach him how to take care of himself to the standards to which she had accustomed him. Taught him how to wash and iron his clothes, how to keep house, how to cook. (Not just how to open a can, but how to make balanced, elegant meals; she was a gourmet.) He could do none of these things, before. When she was done teaching him, she died.

“It was four years ago. I miss her so much,” said her daughter. “When she had cancer, she never wanted people to know it. ‘Do I look sick?’ she’d ask, before going out anywhere. When I look at the pictures, though, I can still see the pain in her eyes. But she didn’t want to ever look sick.”

I also liked the story about (and seeing the picture of) her seven handsome uncles, all members of the Portuguese mafia (under cover of running a family catering business!)

Each evening this week when I was teaching I would share a few pieces of my own story. I told them about the time I sat down and wrote out my autobiography, looking for God’s fingerprints on my life. I asked them to give it a try themselves. “Take just a minute and think about two or three things God has done for you, and write them down. Think of something more specific than ‘He died for my sins’! You might think particularly about the things he did to free you up to be part of this class, provide the time and finances, and get you here. What is God doing for you through this experience, or in other areas of your life?”

Then I asked them to turn to someone next to them and share what they’d seen God do, and take a minute to pray and thank God for his work in the other person’s life. The last night I asked if anyone wanted to share with the whole group. “I was impressed how easy it was to relate, in some way – to find common ground,” said one. Perfect. I love to see that happen. And of course this is a setup for teaching history; I want them to relate to William Carey, Cameron Townsend, Maria Taylor, or Lottie Moon.

Often when a man approaches me in these contexts, he’s saved up something controversial and wants to hear what I have to say about it. So he brings up his topic or asks his questions, and we begin to spar. Sometimes this takes me by surprise; I have to switch gears, but I love it. We may get to “finding common ground” pretty quickly, but not without some friendly intellectual wrestling. When I’ve been relating to people in this way a lot I sometimes forget that it’s not always appropriate, especially in a conversation with a woman, especially if we’ve never met before.

I particularly enjoyed spending time with one man who took me to dinner and quizzed me about missiology, then told me about his life as a music teacher, about retirement, and how good it feels to play the trombone (so much more physical than pushing the keys on a clarinet), why he loves fly fishing (the aesthetics of casting, among other things), and his recent experiences visiting Turkey. He gave me a couple of restaurants to choose from; I chose The Olive Garden. “My wife will be jealous, we’re going to her favorite place!” he crowed. (I met her later, and she was!)

It never seemed to occur to him that I might be uncomfortable having dinner alone with a married man,* or that others might look askance; I didn't bring it up but just pretended he was my uncle or something. It was not hard to find the family resemblances. We both wanted pasta e fagioli, and bread sticks, and lots of cheese on our salad.

I was in a jovial mood when I got to class and told more jokes then I intended, cracking myself up: I may have squandered some of my dignity and weakened my teaching. But we had a good time.

Book report: Want to meet some appealing, interesting characters without even leaving your armchair? Let me recommend to readers a series of books I’ve been enjoying as I travel, the “Sunday Philosophy Club” series, by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith.

* OK, I know, some of you find this sketchy. I don't make a habit of it. These people were taking care of me and it was the plan that they made. I =did= object when a Perspectives coordinator arranged for me to spend the night at a the home of a single man, recently divorced. She did not know him well and assumed his wife was still in the picture. It was a bit awkward. I asked her not to do that again.


Paul Merrill said...

Great set of recollections! Interesting people...

I Was Just Thinking.... said...

OK Marti, your title caught my attention and I was reading through the entire entry with baited breath. You caught me, pulled me in but not to what I expected. I'm especially intrigued by the Portuguese mafia!

Marti said...

ha, gotcha! Yes, I knew the title would get people to read my posting. I did provide an oblique explanation in the first paragraph though...

Yes, I wanted to know more about the mafia story, myself.

Beth said...

Marti, I don't know if you will remember who I am . . . but I've been lurking for awhile and thought I should officially say hi. (I found you through Barb's site).

I just wanted you to know how much I love reading your blog. You have such amazing insight and say things so well—I've even delved into your archives. : )

Please say "hello" to Deb for me.