How are you? How are you doing? What’s up? These are common greetings in the English language. Most of us have a favorite. We tend to slip in old familiar phrases when we see someone we know.
I have a question for you. Do you really listen for the answer?
This world we live in is complicated enough without the isolation, confusion, fear, and uncertainty of the last few months. It is more important than ever to really listen to those around us.
In Spanish we do the same thing. I have gotten into the habit of a certain greeting as well. I generally will use the “todos bien?” Using the Nicaraguan accent it comes out more like “todo bien.” It basically means, “Is everything good?” The normal reply is usually a hard, “Si, todo bien, y usted?” Which of course is, “yes, everything is good, and you?”
It’s a mere formality. A greeting you give out of social custom followed up by a meaningless reply.
Every once in a while, however, somebody goes beyond the norm and tells you, “Mas o memos,” which is “more or less.” That’s when your ears perk up. Since it is so rare that we actually exchange feelings in our busy world, these words become a conversation starter.
That’s what happened this week.
I have a large house by Nicaraguan standards. It certainly is deep. The kitchen is far from the front door and often I cannot hear a knock on the door. I happened to be in the front of the house grabbing my garbage. I try to have it out by six in the morning.
Under different circumstances the street in front of my place would already be awake and dotted with passers by. People scurrying off to work or the market. Vendors might be yelling about their wares. Children would be dressed in their school uniforms, giggling and yapping as they walk. But these are not normal times.
This particular morning I only saw one person. It was a young woman. She was a girl I knew from one of the restaurants in town. She is the waitress-bartender at one of my favorites. I have not been there in a few weeks. I actually haven’t been much of anywhere in the past few weeks. Like you, I have been keeping my distance, measuring my trips, and carefully evaluating every decision to venture past my white iron gate. I rifled through my mental index cards to remember her name as she approached. Rosie, Mary, or was it Karen, I couldn’t remember and thought I would have to resort to a generic, “Hello.”
Just in time, I remembered. “Rosie, that’s it”, I thought, as I opened the lock to set my bag on the street. “Hola Rosie, todos bien?”, I called out.
She looked up, saw me, and instantly smiled, then lost that grin just as quickly as she had found it. “Hola Jeff. Mas o menos,” was her reply.
I asked her what was up, and she told me that the restaurant had closed. She seemed surprised that I hadn’t heard. I was surprised as well. I usually try to keep up on the town news, especially when it comes to restaurants, hostels and hotels, as they provide a good resource for my more advanced English students.
I asked her how she was doing. This time it wasn’t a formality. This time I wanted to know. This time I wanted to listen.
She said that she was afraid. She feared what would happen to her family. She feared the virus. She feared that she wouldn’t find another job. All were valid concerns. But all were questions that I could not answer.
My mind raced. What could I do? How could I help her? I finally told her to wait. I had bought some rice because I was low. At the time I was not sure why I had purchased two pounds. I was even more curious about why they had given me two bags. Usually the stand where I buy my rice fills and weighs the bags to order. This time, for some reason they had already prepared bags lying on the counter.
Now, I know why that happened. I ran back into the kitchen and picked up my “extra” bag. I returned and gave it to my friend. “It’s not much”, I said. She started crying. She tried not to take it at first. But I insisted and she then relented.
30 cents of rice will not be enough. I didn’t have any cash, so I couldn’t give her anything else.
I told her that I would let her know if I should hear about any opportunities for employment. I told her that I would pray for her. She cried again.
All of this happened because for some reason, at that particular moment, on that particular day, I was putting out my garbage and she was walking by. I don’t know how this story ends. I don’t know what will happen to Rosie and her family. I don’t have any pretty bows to tie up this package. But I do know what I can change in my own life.
Are we limited by the amount of contact we can have? Yes.
Are we then to live lives totally void of interaction? No!
I have harped on this point now for weeks. Being smart, being safe, avoiding physical contact does not mean the cessation of our connections. We are still in this together even though we are living separately.
Your computer sound system may force you listen more intently. Your video feeds may require you to look more diligently for nonverbal clues. Masks may hide real emotions. But all of these inconveniences only mean that we must try harder to get beyond the surface of our old ways of communicating.
I have been reading about what will happen after this crisis ends. I assure you it will end. I don’t know when. No one knows.
The question is: What happens next?
Will we be in some post apocalyptic Sci-fi novel where we have become so inured by our self isolation that it becomes the new normal?
I hope not. I pray we learn from this time of quarantine. I hope we remember how much we missed our friends. I hope we no longer take for granted the precious time we get to see each other in the flesh. I hope we never again minimize how important other people are in our lives.
Will I ever see another friend on the street and simply, cordially, robotically ask how they are doing? I don’t think I will. I hope you won’t either.
Every person who reads this blog is dear to me. The next time I see you (and I hope that is soon), tell me about your day when I ask. If something is wrong, I want to know. If something is great, tell me why. Whatever the answer, know that I really want to listen.
That’s what I am going to take from this wacky era in which we find ourselves. I hope you do as well.
Thank you for all the encouragement I have received. You all mean so much to me. Until we see each other again…
Dios los bendiga