April 1st, 2013

A walk to remember

We all love a good story. Outside of the office, I have found the best storytellers among fellow passengers on long distance train trips. The train ride offers long stretches of time in a confined space with complete strangers and nothing better to do than look out the window at the passing scenery. I could not have imagined a better place for storytelling, at least not until a walk I recently took down a city street that I had known for a long time but seldom visited in recent years.

With our plans for a longer day trip scuttled by a late winter snowstorm, my wife and I made the short drive into the city with lunch as our first stop. It was our third visit to one of the city’s legendary diners that had somehow escaped our notice for the past 40 years. There’s a lot that escapes my notice so there’s nothing surprising about that. According to the custom and strictly enforced rule of the eatery, we took our place in the long line of customers plodding in lock step past the seating area and around to the counter and open grill where we placed our orders, paid and followed a staff person who carried our trays to an open table.

There is always an open table no matter how crowded the restaurant and so customers are forbidden from saving a place before they get their food. The sign on the wall implies that this natural flow of humanity obeys some mathematical principle and should not be interrupted.

On that particular day, the universe seated us next to two young women who seemed to be deeply involved in catching each other up on their lives after having been out of touch for a while. Not that we were eavesdropping, but we were sharing a table and they were making no effort to shield their conversation. The details don’t matter and I wouldn’t tell them anyway, accustomed as our profession has made me to keeping secrets. What does matter, as I was to learn during our walk down the street, is the intensity and urgency of the challenges that life puts before us at every stage in our passage through the years.

It is not easy being a young adult in this or in any other time. Establishing yourself in a career and making a place of your own in the world is hard work, hard enough to make me glad to have checked those tasks off my to-do list.

After lunch, we walked down one side of the familiar street and back on the other. The brick buildings with their chimney pots, the cobbled alleys and the colonial style street lamps could have easily brought us back 200 years. One building in particular brought me back 40 to my graduate school days in this very place. The prod to my memory was a church where a friend and I watched a film about the life and work of Fritz Perls, the originator of Gestalt therapy. Today, one could probably go through four years of graduate school in psychology without ever hearing the name, Fritz Perls.

Time moves on and so did we, right into one of those gift shops where the merchandise was of high quality and selected for its association with all things New England. As we examined some scrimshawed bookmarks, a pleasant woman in her middle years told us about the artist and we explained that we were looking for a gift for friends in England. An older man who seemed to be the shop’s owner, took this as his cue to tell us about his family’s roots in an English village that bears their name. Soon the four of us were chatting like old friends and I came away with a good deal of information about the proprietor, not to mention a selection of scrimshawed bookmarks. Perhaps this was nothing more than a clever sales ploy, but I would like to think that for a few minutes two sets of strangers made a human connection.

There was no doubt about the connection that developed in our next stop, a basement level store filled with antiques and bric-a-brac. If there was any order to the arrangement of stuff, only the proprietor knew what it was. He sat behind the counter wearing a scarf against the winter chill that found its way into his subterranean vault. A bit of small talk about his wares soon led to his telling us how happy he was on this, his first day in the shop after a long and serious illness that he was still battling.

We soon discovered that we were about the same age and grew up with similar religious and cultural influences. We talked about taking care of aging parents, retirement, health and the importance of staying busy and involved in life. We transacted no business and exchanged nothing but goodwill.

We had come to the end of our afternoon walk along what turned out to be a street brimming with stories. In the brief space of several city blocks, we had traversed a timeline of adult development beginning with the overheard conversation of intense 30-somethings and concluding with the heartfelt sharing of war stories with a comrade in arms. There could be no better reminder of our own journey through the years but, if we needed one, it was all around us. The bricks and stones of this old street stood in silent witness to the common history we shared and the personal history we lived on this very spot.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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