Issue May 8, 2012

Sunny afternoon

I ran into an old friend sitting on a bench in the park up the street from my house. She was clearly lost in thought, preoccupied; I imagined that she had gone there to meditate, and I admired her choice of locations for such an activity. It was a beautiful sunny day, the sky was dappled with pretty clouds, there were children playing nearby, but then I thought maybe it was a bad choice, because, it seems, her reverie was likely to be interrupted by other people.

At first, I thought to walk by without saying anything. I was sure that I recognized her, but as so many years had passed, I was not sure she would recognize me or that she would want to talk to me (or anyone); people can be polite and suffer another person’s company when they would rather be alone, you know, and I didn’t want to be that guy. But I was surprised to see a familiar face from so far back in the dark recesses of my memory, so I took a chance.

We exchanged a pleasant reacquaintance and quickly got to that part of the conversation where you recognize you’ve shared all of your superficial news, where you’re working, what’s up with your family, children, what’s happened over the last couple decades, which ones of our mutual friends we had kept up with, our attitudes about Facebook … and then there was a pause, and I got the weirdest feeling, like she was going to break down. I could have made a polite retreat. I hadn’t seen this woman in at least 20 years, and we weren’t terribly close back then; I had initiated the conversation as something of a novelty. “Hey, waddya know?” you know? I really didn’t mean to get into something heavy, and I felt like I might have been intruding. Classic weird dilemma for me, always stepping into the breach of simple social interaction.

I asked her if she was really OK, and she looked down and said something I couldn’t hear. I sat down next to her at that point and asked what was wrong.

“It’s stupid,” she said. “I don’t know why I’m so upset.” And then she told me about this little wooden box that she had. It was an heirloom of some sort. It had belonged to her grandmother, and she had kept it on her dresser for years. She hadn’t thought about it in a long time, in fact, but the day before our meeting in the park, she said, she went to look it over, and it was gone. It was a mystery.

A dozen questions popped into my head. When was the last time she saw it? Who could have taken it? Was it possible that she moved it herself and didn’t remember? Was there something important inside it? And, um, is her dresser so cluttered that she wouldn’t notice it missing a little more immediately?

After a moment, I finally settled on one question that tended to cover all of my bases of concern. “What do you think might have happened to it?”

“I don’t know!” she said, more distraught than angry, and then she added, “It may have been the gnomes!” Then she laughed a little, and I started to wonder about her sanity.

“Gnomes?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t mean real gnomes. I just mean … I guess it’s something that’s out of my control.” The gnomes, she explained, were a metaphor she had created, somewhat spontaneously, when her kids were very young, a little piece of personal mythology that she hadn’t thought of in many years. At that point, we both had a bit of a laugh.

For further consideration: My friend Marcus is teaching a Sunday school class this month. The main topic is something about how narrative and storytelling are an element of faith or something like that. For the first session, he focused on the 21st chapter of Antoine de St. Exupery’s “The Little Prince,” wherein the Little Prince tells of his acquaintance with a fox. As this is ostensibly a children’s book, the fox schools the Little Prince on the nature of friendship in very simple terms, but we discovered in our discussion that the meaning behind the dialogue between the two characters was much richer and more complex than it seemed to be. There were as many different interpretations as there were people in the room!