The Superlative Stranger

"Good things happen when you meet strangers." Yo-Yo Ma

On my flight home from Denver the other afternoon I found myself seated in the center of a row of three seats -- not a happy place to be when one is traveling solo. I prefer the window seat as I absolutely love to look out at the cloud formations and I like the view of the world below during take-off and landing. I'm not much of a chatter on planes; I like to sleep or listen to music, but on this particular flight, for some odd reason, I felt compelled say hi to my neighbor. Maybe it was the fact that he had a pile of newspapers and The New Yorker magazine on his lap. "He's either a reader or a writer," I thought, "there must be something interesting here."

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Mr. New Yorker and I talked for the entire duration of the four-hour flight to Newark, and then we continued the conversation over something resembling dinner at the airport diner. He was, indeed, a writer, and meeting him made me think that some of my prayers had been acknowledged. Recently I had been asking the Great Beyond to help me in the writing realm, wondering how I might expand my reading audience. As time wore on, though, I understood that this meeting wasn't about my wishes for greater success. Our time together was satisfying for a very simple reason: my seatmate was fully engaged in our encounter. He asked the kind of questions that told me he was really listening and he had a healthy curiosity and a great sense of humor -- the things I hold in high regard in humans and human interactions.

In the days since our shared flight and meal, the two of us have stayed in touch, firing questions and small stories back and forth between Vermont and the greater metropolitan New York area where he lives and works. Lately I've been thinking a lot about the nature of relations between men and women "at our age," and so last night I asked him a bunch of questions hoping to gain some insight into the perplexing middle-age male psyche. I asked him what it was about me that he found compelling enough to want to share a meal after a long flight, and this was his answer:

"I liked the evolving nature of your life, your curiosity toward everything and your interest in expressing yourself and finding a measure of wisdom in the world around you. But I was really fascinated by your interest in death and helping others face it. That was something I had not encountered before. I also liked your determination to begin a new chapter in your life once your child raising responsibilities are largely behind you."

It made me cry.

Because though I had only spoken with this man for a few hours, he was able to sum me up in a way that reflects all of the things I value and hope for for myself. He made me see that everything is exactly the way I want it to be, and he used language that describes the things that matter most to me: evolving, wisdom, curiosity, determination. The fact that someone I had just met could glean all of this gave me the freedom to exhale; it was the antidote for every single moment of fear and self-doubt I've experienced recently -- it was a beautiful offering of eloquent and honest kindness from a truly perfect stranger.