My niece, Kaleah, asked a girl she’d never seen before “Do you want to be my friend?” less than five minutes after we had arrived at the beach. The adults in tow were still getting our bearings and the lay of the land as we set up our low-rider beach chairs, found a spot for the cooler and spread out the magic sheet that repels sand even though it’s lying in an ocean of the gritty stuff, while four-year-old Kaleah and her six-year-old sister, Lyla, scoped out the scene looking for boys or girls to be friends with. Anyone who could run a bucket and shovel was fair game.
“Do you want to be my friend?” was her opening line. There was no initial greeting or shy cat-and-mouse-game of should we or shouldn’t we speak to each other. The ask was simple. I’m here. You’re here. There is sand, water, and buckets to fill. Are we in this together or not? If Kaleah got the open-faced nod or shrug, it was on. If someone responded to her opening line with the silent stink-eye, she would just move on to the next target. There were no tears. No hurt feelings. No identity crisis about why people (everyone) didn’t like her. There were no promises of playdates in the future, the moms and dads didn’t meet each other or get involved, they just kept their eye on their kid and watched the play unfold.
This colony of kids that soon formed were suddenly the busiest people at the beach that day with an almost manic urgency to get water, dump it, then watch it disappear almost immediately, soaked up by the hot, thirsty sand. Some were designated to be runners and were responsible for sprinting with empty buckets to the shoreline, filling up and lugging the wobbly, overflowing container back to ground zero where the shovel crew dug the holes and demanded more water. They never seemed to tire or question the sanity of doing the same thing over and over with no visible results. That wasn’t the point anyway. The point was there was no point. It was play. It was laughter. It was connection. As Walt Whitman said, “We were together. I forget the rest.”
When it was time to leave, Kaleah insisted on saying goodbye to her friends. “Hey friend,” she said, “ I have to leave now. Bye.” They hugged. Kaleah came running to me without looking back.
“What was your friend’s name?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“How old is she?”
“I don’t know. Six I think.”
She shrugged. That’s it. Ready to move on to whatever was coming next in her day.
I’ve thought about that day at the beach many times since then and wondered when we lose that philosophy of, “let’s not overcomplicate this, we’re at the same place, at the same time, let’s be friends while we’re here, and when it’s time to go, we’ll hug (maybe not literally) and go on our way.” When did it become more fun to isolate and cut off, connecting only with ourselves and our devices? When did it become too scary to risk the vulnerability of connection?
I was walking to the parking garage one Friday night after work ready to start my weekend and as I walked past a man I’d never seen before, he said, out loud, “Nice hair.” My head whipped around looking for someone else on the sidewalk that he would have been referring to, someone with nice hair, but there was no one there. It was just the two of us in that moment. I must have given him the silent stink-eye, because he followed up with, “No really, it looks nice.”
I’ll never see him again, he didn’t stop and try to get my digits, we weren’t at a bar, there didn’t seem to be any hidden agenda. He was looking up and walking open-faced, saw me on a good-hair day and made the effort to reach out, to connect. I walked on air the rest of the way to my car, beaming for the entire thirty-minute ride home and couldn’t wait to tell my husband about my random connection that left me flying high.
How would we approach each day if we knew we’d have friends at the grocery store, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, at the DMV or the five-hour-and-forty-minute plane ride crammed in coach seats with the smelly dog in front of us and the crying baby behind us? What if we could look at each other and laugh, tear ourselves away from the television embedded in the seat in front of our face and talk about the trip we just took, the family fight that upset Christmas dinner or how worried we are about our aging parents?
In the digital world we live in now, we will “friend” anyone on Facebook or follow on Insta or Twitter, and connect on Snapchat. How much more enjoyable could each day be if we “friended” people we physically encountered? And if we got the silent stink-eye instead of the open-faced nod or shrug, we would simply move on without assigning any drama to it.
Recently one morning in my office building, I assumed the typical connection-avoidance position of looking down at my phone, pretending to scroll through important emails and social posts, while I rode the elevator. God forbid I let myself just be still and open-faced for the eight-floor ride. Just as the doors were closing, a woman about ten to fifteen years older than me boarded the car. She broke my silence and forced me to look away from my phone with a question. “Do you work for the opera?” Their offices were in our building so it wasn’t a completely absurd question.
“No,” I said very politely and fake-smiled.
“Oh. Well, I have a student learning the oldest opera ever written.”
Apparently it didn’t matter that I didn’t work for the opera.
“She’s going to be performing it. The oldest opera ever written.”
“Yeah?” I managed to politely contribute, captivated by her little-girl-like enthusiasm about her opera-learning student, yet unsure how to respond.
“How cool is that? And how cool is it that I get to be her teacher?”
The elevator door opened and she got off. As the door closed again moving on to the eighth floor, it took me a minute to get my bearings, to figure out why that sixty-second exchange with another human gave me a little lift inside. Just like the unexpected hair comment from a stranger.
I smiled, for real this time, and thought of Kaleah. This is what connection feels like. This is why she chases down friends at the beach or wherever she happens to be. The teacher and I had a moment in that elevator. We connected. She saw me. I saw her. How cool is that?