Compassionate Strangers

One of my favorite questions to ask strangers is some form of, what do you love about life?

A week’ish ago I pulled out this question just a few minutes into a conversation with the woman behind me in line for the bus to Albany.

I love asking this same, simple question is because the answers are always varied and often surprising, in the best of ways.

Her answer? It came pretty quick and was quite clear:

People’s ability to care and to show compassion for other people even if they have no relationship with them.

The second reason I love asking this same, simple question is because the conversation then usually heads off into uncharted territory.

This uncharted territory is both for me (which, with a stranger, everything is pretty much uncharted), and – more importantly – for them.

She’s a new teacher in the NYC public school system and she told me about her challenging week.

One major question that confounds her:

How does one balance the need to control the classroom and garner respect from all students, while also knowing that some students who show disrespect to her or to others may know no other way to call out for help?

I don’t feel right sharing some of the details of this story, but one thing that I do feel comfortable sharing that truly blew me away was when she said this:

The worst thing about being a teacher is about encountering parents who don’t care. Parents who will save your number specifically so they won’t pick up when you call because they don’t want to hear about their child.

We talked a bit about experience we had abroad. When she learned I had spent quite some time living in China she immediately wondered aloud, I read something about how Chinese teachers spend a lot of time discussing strategies for classes, much more so than in America. Is this true?

Our conversation extended from the line, through the bus delay, and all the way to Albany. Teaching in New York, China, Cuba, Pakistan, relationships, love, Humans of New York, and more were the topics of the evening.

She told me at one point that she doesn’t usually talk to strangers.

What was it that lead to a stranger conversation that day?

Did she just need someone to talk to?

Was it a conversation that took an unfamiliar twist after a short warm-up of regular chit-chat?

Something else?

Maybe if the result was so excellent for everyone involved, the reason’s not all that important?

Do you think it’s possible to find compassion – and comfort – in an interaction with a stranger?

Maybe you’ve experienced it before?

When was the last time?

What was it like?

I Never Thought a Dog Would…

My Dog Bro Oliver Hangin

I didn’t grow up with a dog. Pets were not a big part of the ecosystem in which I was raised.

When the idea was suggested that a dog would be coming to live with us last summer, and that we would be taking care of it for 3 months, I wasn’t exactly, um, well, thrilled… is the word, I think.

It was presented to me as something to discuss. But it was never to be a discussion. It was a unilateral decision. Minds were made, and plans soon followed. It didn’t exactly feel so good.

I arrived home a couple days later after a month on the road to meet my new housemate. His name, Oliver.

He was white, fluffy, and though he had just arrived hours earlier, Oliver seemed to have already made himself right at home.

[If you’re up with dog lingo, we’re pretty sure he’s a mini poodle meets bichon frise mix.]

My Dog Bro Oliver First Meeting

[And by the way, this shot is from the first day Oliver and I met and is the very first picture I took of him. Sometimes there’s value in going back and starting again from the beginning. It’s there where you can find things you might not expect, which you won’t find anywhere else.]

In the days between the gauntlet being laid down and my arrival back home, the narrative in my head went a little bit like this, “I’m not a dog person. I’ve never been a dog person. I’m not in favor of this arrangement. Why does my opinion not matter?”

And then, I decided to change my tune.

I love a special lady. She loves dogs. I’ve never had a dog before. Maybe I can love dogs too. What would happen if I turned my frown upside down, threw myself into the world of being a dog daddy, and chose to love him from the start?

And you know what? I made the change and did just that.

It’s amazing what you can do when you choose to change your attitude.

And you know what? The experience was incredible.

I grew to love the little guy. Oliver and I became bros. In fact, we had a surprising number of similarities, so much so that I feel like we have the same spirit, just different bodies.

We love people. We love to hang out. We both like to work from home. We find ways to easily amuse ourselves. We enjoy going running in the morning. We eat when we need to. We like to try new things. Explore new places. Bark infrequently – usually when we don’t get the chance or enough time to meet new people. And we both have a soft spot for the lady of the house.

My Dog Bro Oliver and Salimander

[Here’s a nice shot of Oliver amusing himself, playing catch with himself with his little friend the once-upon-a-time-was-stuffed salamander.]

Now, a common question I would get after sharing my story about Oliver:

“Wow, so are you a dog person now?”

My standard answer: I’m an Oliver person, though I’m not sure if I’m a dog person.

But here’s the thing. I might be a dog person. What if I am and never gave myself the chance when it mattered?

These days I’m much closer to knowing the answer because I said yes to a relationship with Oliver.

Yes to pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.

Yes to doing something I would not have done on my own, but am now so grateful to have had someone give me that initial push.

How do we know if something won’t work out if we’re not even willing to give it a go?

Oliver’s stay with us was 3 months, 90 days. Not short, but also not that long. And a lot can change in that amount of time. A lot did change.

With all the goodness he brought, it’s equally important to note that Oliver’s presence in our lives was not without its challenges.

Which got me to thinking, and what I realized about Oliver, about dogs, and about myself is that it’s not that I’m not a dog person, it’s that I’m an extreme people person.

Actually, some of my biggest fears came to light while living with Oliver.

There were a healthy amount of extra logistics involved, especially when headed anywhere away from New Haven, or the house, for more than a certain number of hours. He took up a fair amount of time that could have been focused elsewhere. At times we made choices that favored Oliver over people. And that, especially, was very hard for me.

However, there were some incredible benefits to having Oliver around.

First and foremost, we should start with the fact that I love him. I can’t help myself. And he loves me.

There is something about the love that a guy like Oliver can give that is so innocent and much less complicated than the love we sometimes exchange as humans.

What’s not to love about someone who is always happy to see you when you come home?

And that’s the biggest lesson Oliver taught me about being in a relationship.

There will always be tough times. There will always be logistics to work out. And life will not be perfect.

But with all the things we fight against on the outside, if we can come home at the end of the day and show unbridled love to the person that matters the most to us in the world, then we are going to completely change how they feel in that moment.

All of a sudden that day might just get a little better. For them. For you. Or me. For us.

Oliver changed my life.

Never could I have imagined that I would say this about a dog.

Never would I have thought I would be bros with a poodle.

Or even know that a bichon frise is a dog and not a type of cheese.

Or talk to a grandmother in the bus station on the day before Christmas about her third and fourth “grandchildren.” i.e. two dogs. Bentley is a Morkie (a maltese + yorkie aka yorkshire terrier) and Bailey is a Cavachon (half king charles terrier spaniel, half bichon frise).

But now when I see dogs, I see unconditional love. I see a relationship between two beings that matters and makes them both so happy. And what could be wrong with two beings choosing love, care, compassion, mutual interest and affection, … over the alternatives?

A dog is not what I wanted. It was not my ideal outcome.

But I had a choice to proactively participate. And I’m so glad that I did. And it became an ideal outcome.

Because, ultimately, Oliver pushed me out of my comfort zone, he got me thinking about someone other than myself, and he helped me on the road to be a better man.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my relationship with Oliver. A lot can change in 90 days. Sometimes, even more than you think.

Beyond just thinking about Oliver and his needs, it got me thinking about why someone special in my life would have such a love for dogs and animals in general.

Seeing how she would light up around Oliver. Seeing how much pleasure she took in taking care of him. It reminded me how wonderful she is at taking care of those she loves. How she’s such a great daughter and sister and aunt. Friend and colleague and boss. And teacher and mentor to her students. It also made me feel how wonderful she would be as a mother.

If you talk to a lot of pet owners or lovers, most of them have had a pet growing up. I’d be very curious to know how many who do not grow up with pets have pets as adults. My non-conclusive research to-date indicates few. It’s easy to be disinterested, and to say no, in these situations.

Besides, most of the time we say no to lots of things we don’t have experience with much more than we say yes, particularly when there is work involved.

But through this experience I was opened me up to this other side of myself. A side that loves animals too. All that work? It sure was worth it.

Though, along with that work, introspection and reflection helped me to realize how important it is to find the right balance with my human relationship needs too. But I believe that middle road is easily found, especially since now we know the why behind those feelings.

When it comes to the stuff that’s hard – the stuff that we’re afraid of, or perhaps just a bit concerned about – fear or concerns don’t mean, “No”, even though that’s often the first thing that comes out of our mouths.

Instead of an obstacle, we can look to these feelings and actions as more information. And given more information we have a better idea on how to work out any issues. Again, because we know the why. And that why helps us to make it happen.

When is your next chance to stay open-minded to something you think you’re so uncertain about?

Oliver was a catalyst for quite a bit of new thinking for me. He helped me to see a different side of others, as well as myself.

Who or what might be your Oliver?

And when it comes, will you not only open up your mind and say yes, but will you also open up your heart and share your love?

My Dog Bro Oliver and Me

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The photo immediately above is my favorite picture of Oliver and me. Ollie was never all that patient when it came to looking at the camera. Photo credit to a very talented photographer (AH).

The photo at the very top is a popular break time position for the little guy. As usual, he’s giving and sharing the love from a cozy and comfortable curled up position on the couch.

And when I was looking to find the spellings for all these dog breeds I have heard of, but never seen in writing, I came across this interesting article on the next generation “perfect” dog.

All-Timers with Alzheimer’s

memory_brain_map

My Grandmother, we call her Babci (bop-chee: bop rhymes with top; chee as in cheese), has dementia.

Babci and I had lunch today at Friendly’s in Utica*. It was strange and wonderful all at once.

And it made me wonder whether all lunches should end with a sundae with a cherry on top. Senior citizens really know how to live it up 🙂

Living away in China for the years that I did, I missed quite a few family moments. And now that I’m back in the US, I’ve done my best to join in for as many as possible. This is one of those moments.

There’s a lot that Babci forgets these days. But that’s okay. I forget a lot of things too.

Though since her 90th birthday back in March, it’s incredible how quickly, and noticeably, Babci’s mental state has declined.

It’s stunning, actually. I was so impressed at her birthday party. A 90-year old woman, still very much on top of her game.

But these days she has no idea who I am. She doesn’t remember my sister, or any of her other grandkids.

In fact, given our lunchtime conversation today, she doesn’t even remember my Mother – someone who calls and comes out to see her regularly. She remembers her son, but doesn’t seem to always call him by name. Carol (my Aunt) seems to be the last remaining name her memory bank.

I suppose it makes sense. They live just around the corner from each other and see each other daily.

Actually, over the past few months, you wouldn’t believe the number of times Babci has described to me how to get from her house to or from Aunt Carol’s.

But she describes it well, and I don’t mind hearing it. It’s a beautiful thing to see how her face lights up each time she makes the final zag with her fingers, “…and we’re there!”

So many of us take our memory for granted.

Babci seems to be extremely proud of these things she remembers well – like how to get between her and Carol’s house or stories like the one about how she and Grandpa (Dziadziu) moved into their place on Noyes Street. We reviewed that she’s been living in her house for 63 years at least 3 times today.

What if we treated our memory like a gift rather than a given?

What if we were a bit more understanding when someone re-told us a story that excited them, even if we’d heard it before?

What if we were a bit more understanding when someone that mattered to us forgot about something that mattered to us?

What can we learn from interacting with the people closest to us with dementia / Alzheimer’s that we can apply to all the other people in our lives who have moments of forgetfulness?

Memory is still very much a mystery to me. And parts of me wish that I could remember more than I do. But, you know what, my grandmother no longer remembers who I am. And that’s okay with me.

Today may have been Babci’s and my last supper.

Over the course of 90 minutes we had the same conversation a handful of times. Many of the same questions from her. And I did my best to improv with my answers.

But we laughed. A lot.

She may not remember what we talked about five minutes ago – along with all the other stuff – but she sure hasn’t forgotten her sense of humor, to laugh at herself, or to crack a joke.

Though today Babci didn’t need her memory to remind me of one of the all-time greatest lessons I’ve learned about compassion.

Is it more important to remember and be right or to remember to be who the other person needs you to be in that moment?

And laugh, as much as you can. Because when all else is lost, we’re never lost in laughter.

—–

*For all of you playing the Upstate NY game [*ahem*, Camille], Utica is in Central NY.

Today’s image came from the google search “memory” and the UCLA Longevity Center’s Memory Training page.