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Want to make your world bigger? Don't be afraid to engage

Updated: Apr 2

My daughter says I talk to everyone and make friends with total strangers wherever I go. She's not wrong. I have a knack for talking to randoms, but not all interactions turn out to be a memorable experiences. And let’s be clear, I’m not walking up to a person and just striking up a conversation in the grocery store - I’m not a weirdo!


I can't tell if my child finds this trait admirable or embarrassing. I assume embarrassing because she’s 17-years-old and thinks most of the things I do are cringy. Still, I've been encouraging her to be a little more like her mom and engage with people in her daily life. Soon enough, she'll be going off to university, where she’ll encounter loads of strangers… better to be prepared for the onslaught of conversation and learn how to navigate it now, than feel overwhelmed later.


We should be open to talking to those we don't know. How else can we organically learn about people, places, and things? Ignoring those around you by staring at your phone or popping headphones in to hush the outside world is easy. I'm guilty of it, too, but I try to do it less because my world can feel small enough at times… Why close it off even more? It feels good to be seen by others, so it shouldn't be a one-sided effort, plus midlife women are amazing communicators — we grew up, showing up. We had no choice but to interact with people because we had no other choice – there wasn’t texting, on online shopping, or Uber Eats.


You never know who you'll talk to when conversing with a random person. They could be someone influential or someone who's having a shitty day and could just really use a kind word or two. It doesn't matter who you're speaking to because they both have a story to tell, and who knows where the encounter may lead.


During a recent trip to Blacksburg, Virginia, to tour Virginia Tech with my daughter, we had a chance meeting I've thought about each day since. I'm not sure why it was so impactful, but my daughter and I walked away from the conversation feeling warm and fuzzy.


While taking a break at a lovely little ice cream and gift shop on Blacksburg's main street, I noticed a man in his 60s picking out a card. He looked like a linebacker – tall with broad shoulders. I observed him reading several cards. The one he finally chose had a bouquet of flowers on the front. Next, he picked out a brightly colored gift bag and tissue paper, then selected an assortment of handmade chocolates with the help of the girl behind the counter. After paying for his items, he asked if he could borrow the girl's pen and went to a small café table next to ours to write a message on the card. Whoever he was curating this gift for was very special to him.


When he got up to return the pen to the cup on the counter, I said, "Whoever is going to receive that gift is very lucky. You're putting in a lot of effort to make it special." He looked down at me and said, "You're right, she's pretty amazing." He continued to tell us about his wife, who'd recently been battling an illness, and how he'd hoped this little gift would brighten her day. Tears welled in his eyes when he spoke about her — it was apparent she was the love of his life.


The tower of a man introduced himself as Mr. Bruce, then pulled up a chair to chat with us. This stranger, who seemed to wear his heart on his sleeve, continued, "My colleagues used to tell me I was a softie, but that's not true… Telling people how much you love them is important because you don't know how long you will get with them." My daughter and I looked at each other, and our hearts melted. I'm sure you might be reading this thinking this guy was giving us a line of BS, but he wasn't… I just know it.


I asked him what brought him to Blacksburg. Mr. Bruce explained he and his wife had retired to the area seven years prior. The description of how he chose this college town in the mountains made me believe he was either ex-FBI, CIA, or military. The couple had specific criteria: safety, a vibrant arts culture, being close to natural beauty, a welcoming community, and a good city vibe. He explained that they stopped scouting the area (AKA reconnaissance) a few days after their visit because the couple knew they'd found their new home. He said the most significant thing he noticed was how people interacted with each other and took care of their community. And that it would be a mistake if my daughter didn't attend Virginia Tech if allowed to study there.


Our encounter with Mr. Bruce was one of those memorable interactions that restored my faith in humanity… even my daughter agrees with this statement. We both walked away feeling a little better after hearing his story… How he loved his wife and hated her being sick. That he loved living in Blacksburg and promised he wasn't a paid representative to recruit students. And his favorite Italian restaurant in town was Avellinos, and we shouldn't miss eating there — tell them Mr. Bruce sent you. (We did this and had another lovely encounter with the sweetest waitress.) Oh, and to tell people how much they mean to you, even if they think you're a softie.


So, here's my theory…


Life can feel relatively small. If the stupid pandemic taught us anything, it was that life doesn't have to include other people if you don't want it to. Everything you need to survive can be delivered, work can be done from home, doctor visits can be done online, and about 5000 streaming services are available for your entertainment enjoyment.


If you want your life to feel bigger, be willing to engage in it. Put your phone down. Take your headphones out. Be aware of those around you. Notice little things. Talk to all kinds of people. Learn about them. Listen to their stories. Take recommendations. Try new things.


We walked away from our conversation with Mr. Bruce with a genuine account of life. From his thoughts on how to show others you care about them to the best Italian in town. We'd have none of that if I hadn't noticed and engaged with him.


Some might find small talk annoying. I love it and enjoy the opportunity to hear what other people have to say and the prospect of what the chance encounter might offer. I sometimes disagree with them or like their ideas, but being open to listening gives me more information and a view into different perspectives I wouldn't have encountered if I had my nose in my phone.


As we said our goodbyes with Mr. Bruce, we walked past his table. I looked down at it to admire his gift one more time. As I passed I noticed the salutation he had written — Dear Baby Cakes…

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