… and here you stand. heart
like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas.
heart leaking something so strong
they can smell it in the street.
— From Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell
A few days ago I sat on a chair in the middle of a busy city street and I had a sign that said “Need to talk? Hopes, dreams, fears? I can listen.” An empty chair sat next to me and for the rest of that day I waited for random strangers to come off of the street and fill it. I waited for them to fill that chair and tell me their stories. I waited for them to share with me the intimate details of their lives. In the times in between when the chair sat empty I practiced a form of sitting meditation. I sat there with my metaphorical hand and heart out, asking for someone to join me. I didn’t let myself shy away and pretend like my heart wasn’t exposed, vulnerable and open. Instead I worked on building inner resilience. I grounded myself in what I was doing as much as I possibly could, whilst hundreds of people walked by with their silent eyes, curiosities and judgments. I paid attention to the small, scared voice inside me that felt lonely, worried, like an other. I took care of her gently.
When people did come to fill that chair, I felt immense gratitude. Even though this social experiment (the idea which is credited to an artist in Berlin called RallitoX) was an attempt to give something back to the greater community, selfishly it was for me as well. I’ve always craved connection. I’ve always needed to know the other deeply, for in the depths of the other I see the depths of myself. And when a person would come to sit down next to me and greet me with their shyness, excitement and their smile, I would see my own shyness and my own excitement and my own smile. I would feel less alone. And I would feel more connected.
People from all walks of life came by. They talked about all sorts of different things. One young man talked about relationships and trust. He talked about how he puts up a barrier when he gets into intimate relationships. He reflected on how that barrier stops him from being hurt, but how it also stops him from feeling connected. He told me about how he learned long ago that you can’t trust anyone but yourself. He talked about his immense loneliness. Another man came and sat down to tell me about his life and his gambling. He told me about all of the houses that he had lost and about how enormous amounts of money had often passed through his hands from one day to the next. He talked about how there was no meaning for him in his life anymore, and how he wanted to stop gambling. He was becoming interested in collecting gold though, and perhaps that would be something interesting to do for the next little while. Another woman came and she asked me for life advice – should I study this course? Is this the way to go? She looked into my eyes hoping to find the answers to her questions. I told her I thought she herself would know the answer best. She looked at me with utter confusion. She walked away looking dissatisfied. Finally a beautiful young man came and sat down next to me with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen on his face. His family were refugees from the middle east and he had lost two of his brothers to the conflict that was happening back home. He had just come from a protest advocating for the rights of asylum seekers. He had the most beautiful way of seeing the world and an enviable affinity for words. We spoke like we were old friends.
And in a way these people were all my friends – they were my human community. I knew their confusion, loneliness, questioning and worry well. I had swum in the places they were swimming. To me, they were my community in this messy, vulnerable, confusing experience that we call life. And each time someone broke the flow of the current of reserved passers by, each time someone stepped out of the masses and stepped deliberately into that space with me, I felt so alleviated to know that I wasn’t completely alone.
Then, in the times in which the chair was empty, I couldn’t help but ponder what that emptiness meant to me. What kind of person was I hoping would fill it? What am I looking for in terms of the empty chair in my life? What am I looking for in my other? And what qualities, people and conversations help me feel less alone? Being recently single I’ve been working on filling my life with all of the things that make me feel more whole. Being recently single I’ve been working on simply becoming more whole.
And today I thought about how healing can happen so much in community. When something happens to someone, the impact is definitely not isolated. Rather I see it as ripples in a pond. A stone gets thrown in, and the stone affects many people’s lives, not just the person at the centre. For me one example of this has been my break up. I went through shit, and it not only affected me, but it also affected my relationship with my friends, housemates and family. And to some extent it affected their relationships to themselves too.
For example, my father recently came up to me and said, “you know, you mentioned the family therapy thing to me. If you still want to, well, we could still go.” This is the man who one year ago told me firmly: “you won’t ever get me into therapy. Wait another ten years and maybe try again.” This is the man who broke my heart with those words, but who was now coming around. I firmly believe he came around because for the past few months, he has seen me in my humanness. He has witnessed me confused, in pain, lost, searching, trying to figure things out, feeling alone, and working hard at being a better person. I firmly believe that he saw my realness and it reminded him of his realness too. Of the stuff he wants to sort out. Of the places in which he is also lost and searching. Of how he wants to be a better person.
I firmly believe healing can happen in community. Even tonight, I met with two very good friends, and we placed our lives all on the table. Conversation flowed like a river down the rocks of experience, and we felt nourished, we felt seen. We felt accepted, and we felt real.
You all know I’m working hard at becoming more real. And I hope you know that I’m grateful for you, for witnessing me in the process.
Need to talk?
Hopes, dreams, fears.
I can listen.