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Stranger #15, Deb - R6 Bus Kingston to City

‘James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother,

Though he was only three.

James James Said to his Mother,

"Mother," he said, said he;

"You must never go down

to the end of the town,

if you don't go down with me."’

Disobedience by AA Milne

We are having a run of lovely weather in Canberra; cool air but hot sun.  The trees are starting to turn and this Easter Weekend there is a buzz in the air.  The National Folk Festival is in full swing just up the road from us with the tram full to capacity taking visitors to and from the site.  Friends who came over on Saturday jumped on the tram to be squished in between a troop of Morris Dancers.  Not a sight you see every day in Canberra.

The day before, Good Friday, I too had hopped on a tram, travelling to the city and then a bus to Kingston to meet a friend who was travelling through on her way to Bowral.  We walked a little way around Lake Burley Griffin to find a cafe open on the holiday.  Not too busy but then it was before 10.  We watched the still water and the water birds taking a dip and the people taking a walk.  We had to adjust our positions around the table a couple of times to get out of the sun.  It was lovely; chatting and catching up with an old friend in the outdoors on a beautiful day.  What could be better?  Bringing my crochet, of course.

I am on a bit of a deadline with a Crochet A Long (CAL) I am doing.  I am about one week behind and feeling the pressure, so my crochet squares come along with me wherever I go at the moment.  The squares have been on three outings in the last week for lunches around the capital and I am sure the finished object will reflect the encounters.  Taking my work with me is not something I usually do; I like to give my full attention to the person I am interacting with.  There is also the problem of size.  I tend to make big things so taking them on the bus is not always possible. But this week I have a big thing in small parts, and I just want to get it done.

My friend and I say our goodbyes and I head off to the bus stop, looking forward to the 20 minutes or so I will get to finish the next round on my squares.  I sit in my favourite place, up the steps towards the back on the driver’s side.  I pick up my hook and my square and off I go.  A voice behind me says, “I love your hook”. The passenger behind me is pointing to my Furls wooden hook.  This one, made of camwood, is a darker colour than most I have.  The grain in the wood makes circular patterns along the shaft.  It feels beautiful to work with.  The passenger tells me about her knitting adventures and how she really should finish a jumper she is making.  She tells me she is off to the Folk Festival to see how her hearing will cope with it.  She has a hearing problem that has seen her give up work and move into retirement.  She missed her physio work and the talking to new people every day.  I tell her what I do.  She is very interested.  I give her a card.  

In the Power of Strangers, Joe Keohane finishes his book with a chapter titled A New Social Renaissance where he reminds us that we are drifting apart and how we need to change this.  We are simultaneously independent and codependent and have to find new ways to navigate and manage this. Keohane describes the nomadic Tureg people who live on the edge of the Sahara desert.  Their way of life means the men leave, on their own, for weeks at a time.  This time in the desert, which is so vast and dry and eternal, brings on a feeling the Tureg call asuf.  This word can translate to ‘homesickness’ but is better described by a Malian scholar, Ibrahim ag Youssouf, as ‘a desperate effort to put up with the absence of men, to ignore one’s human insignificance and frailty in the huge and hostile land’.  Asuf might also be described by some, as the thing many of us experienced during repeated lockdowns.  The Tureg people loose their ability to interact with others.  Socialising is just like everything else, it takes practice.  In being alone and dependent just on themselves they loose the connection with family and others in their tribe.  This brings on a melancholy that leads them to avoid any interaction.  When two Tureg people meet in the desert and can do nothing else but walk towards each other they enact an elaborate ritual of sounding each other out. They may both want the contact but they are suspicious and on camels, shaking hands, the usual greeting, touching each other, may mean being pulled off the camel and being left for dead.  They don’t want to show their suspicion to each other, and know how they shake hands is important; not firm enough may mean disinterest and too firmly may be a prelude to an attack.  They also have to show they are curious about each other but not too curious.  Their culture is based on honour so insults are a grave matter.  Once hands have been shaken the rest of the greeting ritual can happen: news about their families, exchange of information about water or food.  These men live a dangerous life in a dangerous place; this ritualising of interaction makes that place feel safer.

Sitting behind me on the bus, Deb and I exchange talk about retirement, travelling on buses, giving cards.  She thinks they are a good thing and maybe we should all carry them; it is a way of introducing yourself, “Just like in the old days, calling cards.” She tells me about how her son, when about 10, told her off about talking to people when they were out and about.  He had been told about ‘Stranger Danger’ at school and was now suspicious of everyone. 

From the earliest days of societies coming together humans worked out that they were not independent.  Early societies worked out that not everyone had to do the same thing by way of work, that one person being a blacksmith, for instance, would do work for the whole community.  We became interdependent and therefore connected.  No-one is truly independent, or as George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Independence? That’s middle-class blasphemy.  We are all dependent on one another, every soul on earth.’  We now live in a world where we can all be connected via electronic devices of one sort or another but we are moving further apart in person.  Many of us have worked out ways to stay connected online but avoid personal contact. Loneliness is an epidemic just as insidious as Covid.  

Social isolation and loneliness are different things but are often conflated.  They are connected.  People who are socially isolated can become lonely.  It depends on whose statistics you look at but between 30% and 36% of people surveyed report feeling lonely over the previous week when they were interviewed.  And many surveys report that young people (16-34) feel less connected and more isolated than older people.  (This may reflect how the study was conducted, online)

Loneliness according to Lifeline is ‘the feeling of wanting greater social connection in your life’.  Their website goes on to explain that loneliness is not the same as being alone nor is it about quantity; everyone has a different appetite for human connection. Some people need daily interaction with others. Some people have many social connections and are constantly busy but still feel lonely.

Loneliness has huge health implications for the population.  It is said that being lonely means you sleep less, are at risk of higher degrees of anxiety and depression, have lower self-esteem and this takes years off your life.  If you are lonely you are more likely to present at an emergency department and a GP. One Senator in the US has blamed the shift to the political right on mass loneliness. In the UK loneliness is so big there is now a minister for loneliness, just like for planning, housing, sport and war.  Friends for Good a national charity in Australia offers tools and services to do with social connection and loneliness both for individuals and community groups.  They also conduct research and estimate that over 2 million people in Australia feel lonely. Friends for Good run a chatline for people to have a conversation with a trained volunteer.  This is not a crisis intervention line like Lifeline but a service that provides a chat and to be listened to for anyone who needs it.  

Talking to strangers does not solve all the problems in the world but it does give us more trust in all things: people, government departments, things we read. In the days before we ordered everything on the internet and did not have to speak to shop owners or workers we would do our trade with people in person.  These constant interactions built a trust. Humans have always distrusted and been suspicious of the ‘other’.  We make strangers sub-human in one way or another.  Think refugees and asylum seekers today; in Australia they are ‘processed’ offshore so we do not have to see or think about them.  This removes them from the dominant culture and makes us believe they will never fit in.  But this estrangement can affect even the dominant culture.  We all feel ‘other’ sometimes and that sense is growing; loneliness.

There is a stigma attached to identifying as lonely.  No one wants to put their hand up to say they are lonely and if they do it is seen as their fault and something they can do something about.  But what if it is not something one person can control totally, what if it is the structure and how we see our society that contributes to this?

I had a job once as a manager of a neighbourhood house in a small country town.  I had one staff member and a few volunteers.  I oversaw a number of programs that ran themselves with volunteers.  The state funded this role, in part, as a recognition that people who develop communities are important.  I spent my days talking to the folk who lived in and visited the town.  I talked to them about the classes we offered, I talked to them about classes and programs they would like to see, about bushfire, about their families, how their children were and what the weather was going to do.  I would bump into people I knew from the town in the neighbouring town, where we lived, when I was doing my shopping.  The irony here was the job was lonely.  I was the only person doing it in that town. Of course the longer I did it the better I got and felt like I had some sort of control but feeling like I was the only person doing that one thing was lonely.

Joe Keohane argues that in order to counteract this we should move to an idea of cosmopolitanism, the idea that all humans are part of the same community, but redefine it.  He suggests that big group thinking; all beings the same, is not helpful, we should think about humans being different but connected.  The analogy he gives is the difference between Network TV and blockchain. With network tv we all have access to the same information.  With blockchain the information is divided into blocks and connected on a peer to peer network.  We access the bits of it and all get something different.  As Keohane puts it, we need fewer bigger homogeneous things and more connected but smaller things that recognise ‘we are not all one but we are all here.’ 

Thinking about humans with curiosity and a belief that, whatever your status, we are equals.  We are not the same but  there could be a recognition in a shared humanity while recognising difference.  Keohane describes this as ‘a renewed civic faith’. It can be practised daily by talking to strangers and based on the idea of hospitality, listening and curiosity.  It is something we can all learn to do.  Not all conversations with strangers are earth shattering, giving lightbulb moments of clarity. Not all conversations with strangers make lasting connections. But contained in that ‘subjunctive moment’, a term coined by Will Buckingham, the possibilities are endless and a trust is being built.

Deb and I have walked from the bus interchange to the tram stop.  She has not been on the tram before and is pleasantly surprised at its layout and the number of people using it, the fact her Seniors Card is not being charged.  Our conversation has ranged further to how her life is in a new phase; a transition. Deb marked this with a trip to Italy. She stayed with people she knew and also spent time on her own, both experiences complimenting each other.  Trips to Italy, the Folk Festival, she is clearly up for new things.  

As I leave Deb at my stop I ponder the card giving idea.  Maybe it is the modern, Western equivalent to the handshake of the Tureg?  Maybe Deb is right, we should all have cards to offer to the people we meet?  We could be the beginning of a new Renaissance to connect people, build trust and build a civic faith.


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