Do you mind if I sit?

This is the third in a three-part series about seating and meeting.

Yesterday I left you with a bit of a cliffhanger. This was intentional. Cliffhangers usually are. It’s funny, but almost as soon as you start writing, you hope that people are reading, and I’m not above using cheap literary gimmicks to entice you to come back the next day.


This is part three: the end of the story. If this were a fable, it would be the moral; I’m no Aesop, however, so don’t expect any guidance in virtue from me.

Here’s what I do have to say: isolation is a sleep from which we can awake.

From my bus trip to New York, I learned that although shutting down and tuning out may be the easy, natural, comfortable thing to do, every minute spent drowning out the world (whether on a bus or elsewhere) represents a missed opportunity, and perhaps even a friendship that fails to bloom.

Does this mean that we ought to go around greeting and conversing with everyone we see? Perhaps; it seems to work for them in the Midwest. More realistically, though, I would advocate simply finding moments, here and there, to reach out to someone sitting near or next to you—or, at the very least, to allow yourself to be reached out to.

Allow me to further illustrate my point.

A few weeks after my Thanksgiving encounter, I found myself at Harvard’s Memorial Church. I was there to attend the annual Christmas carol services, which are so superb that attendance ought to be mandatory. This year was the 100th anniversary of the services (relatively young, by Harvard standards), but it was the first year I had attended the services by myself.

I showed up about 15 minutes before the scheduled concert time, but for this service, 15 minutes early is more like 15 minutes late.  After scouring the church for a seat, I thought I was out of luck—that is, until I glimpsed not one but two empty seats near the front of the church, at the left end of a pew and immediately adjacent to the roped-off section reserved for people evidently more important than me.

Two seats! I though to myself. That’s room for me and for my coat!

Then I remembered the bus, and the importance of leaving an open seat. I asked the (roped-off) woman to my right if I might sit, then slid into the seat and placed my coat under the pew in front of me, sure that I had done the right thing and that someone wonderful would soon arrive to fill the seat to my left.

As it turned out, someone wonderful was already sitting on my other side.

Soon after I sat down and began flipping through the program, the woman to my right paid me a compliment that I have never received before or since: she said she liked my purse.

I would like to make it clear that I do not now own, nor have I ever owned, a purse.

Yet I looked down and there, at my feet, was an attractive Kate Spade handbag…

Flustered, I looked back up and realized that the woman speaking to me was actually quite attractive herself. This didn’t do much to help my flustered state, but I recovered gracefully enough to remark that I hadn’t wanted to admit the purse was mine because it really didn’t go with my shoes. The rest of the concert was spent in quiet quips between movements, and as it turned out, the evening had just begun. The concert was followed by an impromptu dinner (possibly the only time in my life I’ve popped that question without planning it first), a rain-soaked adventure in which we attempted to return a purse we found outside the restaurant (purses were getting us into all sorts of trouble that night), and…

… with that, I’ll draw the curtain on this pleasant little scene.

I’m not making this up, folks: you never know whom you might find when you ask to sit. And life is short.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn contains a beautiful passage on life’s chance encounters and the brevity of our years:

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

In the language of sailors, to “speak” a ship meant to hail the vessel and exchange words with her captain. In comparing our encounters with others to ships passing in the night, Longfellow reminds us that although we may never know where others are coming from or where they are going, our interactions with them, however brief, are the moments of meaning that punctuate an otherwise empty sea of being.

And it all begins with a willingness to be hailed.


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