If someone were to ask me what my favorite thing about life was, I would have to say “connections.” I love the little things that flavor and color our lives, bind us to one another, and catalyze us into our surprising friendships and futures.
These simple, small things that we hold in common are abundant, but they are difficult to discover.
Facebook has recently made this a little easier (“He likes Maker’s Mark? Me too! Now we can talk about bourbon instead of politics, which always ends badly anyway…”)
Previously, we relied on t-shirts, hats and bumper stickers to reach out.
Of course, the timeless and most effective means of discovering our connections is deep conversation, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently in all aspects of my life. It just feels right and makes sense.
Relationships are critical for all of us, including and especially for people with labels of disability. And we know that relationships grow out of the fertile soil of common ground. So at Starfire, our way forward has to be helping people discover connections with each other.
Recently, we had a group of young people from the College of Mt. St. Joe call us to volunteer. In previous times, we would have had them come over to the office, fill out a form or two, and instructed them on how to interact with people with disabilities. They would have then “volunteered” (i.e. chaperoned) on an “outing.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, people are quite happy with their experience in that scenario.
But now we’re asking: “What would be better?”
So this time, Candice and I took a big sheet of paper and markers over to the campus and met with the students one evening. We sat down with them and asked them to draw what they cared about. One woman drew a pair of running shoes, cats and a cup of coffee. Another woman drew a stove with simmering pots, a cross and an open book. Dan, a young man in his 20’s who lives in Delhi, drew a football and an electric guitar. Candice and I asked them questions about their drawings and then told them each about someone we knew in Starfire U who lived in their neck of the woods and shared an interest of theirs.
I asked Dan about his drawing of the electric guitar. He said that he played guitar and that he liked heavy metal, jazz and lots of other music. I told him that I knew a guy named Andy who is also in his 20’s, lives in Delhi and loves rock n’ roll. Andy is always wearing a Poison, Aerosmith or Kiss shirt and work’s at Everybody’s Records. I remember saying “Dan, you’d love him. His favorite song is by Cinderella…”
As I fumbled for the name of the Cinderella song that Andy loves so much, Dan said “Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone?”
“That’s it!” I said.
“I love that song!” said Dan. In my mind, we were high-fiving and air-guitaring ala Bill & Ted.
The three of us met up at the Panera in Western Hills one Sunday morning. I sat there listening as Dan and Andy debated whether “Houses of the Holy” or “IV” was Led Zeppelin’s greatest album. I tried to join in and discuss the Led Zeppelin album I own, which I could only identify by the fact that it has a picture of a building and the inside sleeve pulls out and changes what images show in the windows. They laughed at me and told me there was no way that “Physical Graffiti” (apparently that’s the name of the album I own) is better than either of the aforementioned masterpieces.
Andy started complaining about modern DJ’s who “mix Michael Jackson lyrics overtop of AC/DC guitar riffs.” I sensed my opening to get back into this conversation and told Andy he was stuck in the 80’s and needed to get with the times.
I leaned back smugly, quite pleased with my hipster coolness, until Dan piped in: “Nope. I agree with Andy. I hate that stuff. It totally ruins the song!”
It was clear that I was the third wheel here.
I loved listening to the two of them chat. It turns out that they live within walking distance from each other. They grew up blocks apart and their back yards are basically opposite ends of the same park.
What struck me, though, was a brief moment at the end of our time together. Dan said “You know, Andy, I think I’ve seen you around. I work at the UDF up the street.”
“Yeah, man,” replied Andy, “You look familiar too. I’m in there all the time.”
And it suddenly occurred to me that for the past few years, these two people have crossed paths dozens of times. To Dan, Andy has always just been the customer who comes in to buy a bottle of pop every now and then. To Andy, Dan has always just been the guy behind the counter that gives him his change.
I imagine that neither one of them ever considered that the guy across the counter from them at UDF was his rock n’ roll soulmate.
After that coffee, Dan friended Andy on Facebook, who promptly posted a Cinderella Youtube link on Dan’s wall. The two of them have gone to a couple of jazz concerts at MSJ and a few weeks ago Andy told me that they got their tickets to the Poison/Motley Crue/New York Dolls concert at Riverbend together this summer.
Dan and Andy’s story makes me appreciate the importance of conversations, which give us a chance to really spend time getting to know each other.
Think of all the seemingly trivial aspects of our lives and personalities. What magazines do we subscribe to? How do we blow off steam? What is our favorite place to go outside of our house? What is it that our friends are always telling us to shut up about?
Chances are that there are many people living within walking distance of our front door that share those passions and interests with us. So how can we stop seeing each other as random strangers and passers-by and start seeing each other for the potential of our commonalities?
I think conversation is the answer. Creating the time for it is the challenge, but what could be more important than finding your next best friend?