Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Community at Work 2012 Edition

I see I have written very little in here in the last 6 months or so. For that, I apologize! Have no fear, I have something new or semi new for you. Anyone who is curious more about my daily life feel free to friend me on Facebook... (email me first and tell me you are from this site at kgoldfie@gmail.com )


One year ago I wrote the following essay about the first bus ride I had attempted in years and how the power of human connection made it possible. Tonight, about one year and one week later, I wrote an update to that essay, expanding on and confirming those previous themes. Here they are together....Hope they are meaningful to you. I plan to give both to the bus driver.

Community at work

I saw him standing at the bus stop, and I was relieved. I wouldn't have to wait for the bus alone. Not only that, but I could now be pretty sure this actually *was* the bus stop.

"Is this the bus stop?" I asked when I got close enough, a pretty natural conversation opener, I figured, for a bus stop. "I think so," he said. "Any place with a yellow sign by it is a pretty good bet."

"I made good time here. 12 minutes. I figured I should walk here instead of waiting at one of the secondary stops."
"It took me 30 or 40 minutes, I came from that direction," he said, pointing to the street at the left of Town Landing, a small convenience store in front of us.
"Oh, by Wildwood?" I said, instantly recognizing the direction he was pointing in.
"Do you live there?"

"That's where I grew up! What street are you on?"
He named the street I had grown up on.

With blonde hair and an easy smile, whoever this guy was, he made a great conversationalist. Good conversationalists, I have to say, are few and far between. A person has to have a certain kind of energy, a certain kind of vibe, as well as natural enthusiasm and curiousity for all aspects of life, to make a truly good conversationalist. These are the people that you can easily fall into a conversation with about just about anything minutes after meeting them, because you both view the world in somewhat similar terms.

The desire to learn more about other people; being nonjudgemental; open-minded; and curious about the world; the desire to learn new things about the world. With these qualities, a conversation can build quite easily on just about anything. You build off of the enthusiasm and the joy of the other person, delighting in shared communication and shared connection. So few people are curious about what their neighbors' lives are like, about who makes up their community. They stay insulated in their own lives. It is the people that want to build and experience community that I am naturally drawn to.

The bus is 20 minutes late. If not for him, I would have started freaking out about missing it 15 minutes ago. Luckily, engrossed in conversation, I hardly notice.

I get on the bus, and he follows. I say hi to the bus driver, who I recognize from years ago when I used to ride the buses regularly. It is nice to see a familiar face. I sit across from the blonde haired guy, hoping to continue our conversation. We do.

"So," I say, "you said you were in construction, but it wasn't for you. What do you do now?"
"I wash dishes," he says, with only a trace of embarassment.
"Good for you!" says one of the passengers near us. "At least you have a job!"
He, the other man and the woman in between them discuss the various ins and outs of washing dishes at different restaurants for several minutes. I love it. Community in the making.

The bus arrives at Walmart, and an onslaught of people get on. The three people in the front decide they should move to the back in case anyone getting on has trouble with stairs and can't make it to the back. I don't like sitting in the back, but I follow them anyway, figuring the value of continuing this conversation will outweigh any additional discomfort from being in the back. It does.

I sit next to the guy from the bus stop. We talk about whatever comes to mind. His sister's desire to become a winemaker spurs a story from me about my uncle, who is a winemaker. My
declaration that I write freelance e-books for money elicits a truly impressed sounding "Wow!" from him. I tell him about some of my favorite places in Portland. He tells me about the place he is from.

Does this sound unremarkable to you? It very well might. For the millions of people who move around the world with ease, and rely on buses to get where they need to go; who move around easily in the social world with their friends and acquaintances, this story may sound quite unremarkable.

But for someone with chemical sensitivities and and autism, who hasn't ridden a bus more than once in several years because of problems with perfumes and fragrances on buses? For someone who the mere idea of being stuck on a bus could induce a powerful emotional and physical meltdown? Then, this story becomes remarkable.

Because, for thirty minutes, it felt like I had a piece of myself back. And, you know, I've been searching for those missing pieces for three years now, and it's not very often I find one, despite all my efforts. The bus was full. There is no doubt that I would have freaked out and fell prey to both the physical and emotional sensations of such a situation had I not had something, or someone, else so enjoyable to focus on.

But he had my full attention. He had that magnetic pull that certain people who wear their emotions and humanity on their sleeve do. A feeling of connectedness.

On a similar note, several years ago, there was an article in the New York Times about an autism therapy called "floortime" that I have never forgotten.

Basically, it discussed different methods to keep autistic kids and adults engaged with the outside world to increase their ability to function in it. This quote stuck with me.

"If we can keep Ty engaged with us, it means that he is harnessing and organizing his energies in order to interact,” Nelson told me later. “By keeping him connected, we won’t let him be kidnapped by random fragmented thoughts. If you aren’t engaged with other people, then you are completely at the mercy of your own regulatory system. Think about a
situation where you were overcome with distress and how being able to tell someone helped you avoid becoming uncontrollably distraught.” (Melissa Fay Greene, New York Times, 17 October 2008)

What is this if not a perfect illustration of that quote? Life is about connection with other people. Some people have more trouble with it than others. But I have never stopped believing that if I could find a way to make it happen, that it would help me enormously in many different parts of my life.

Sitting there in the middle of that bus ride, looking around at all the people around me, the familiar shape of the bus, people chatting animatedly on all sides of me, I got a glimpse of what my life used to be like. I was aware of some mildly unpleasant smells around me, but I could tune them out, because of my conversation. And having that ability to be on the bus without it driving me insane, like I used to be able to do - that felt good.

Community at work. A person cannot live in isolation without serious side effects. Community at work.


Update 2/14/12 - One Year of Independence

It's one year later, and I am reading this essay with a smile on my face, remembering how meaningful that day was to me. Over the past year, this theory, and especially the human connection theory, has proven true over and over again.
I never saw that young man again, but it didn't matter. He gave me the confidence and emotional support to do what I needed to once, and that allowed me to do it a second time.

And what helped me the 2nd time? The bus driver. There are two basic ways to move about this world - to go about your day trying to make a positive impact on everyone you meet, and to go through your day just trying to get through it and shut off to everyone you meet. It is rare to meet someone in the first category, but Barry certainly is. I have now spent a year watching him try to (and usually succeed) in remembering the names of every single person who comes on his bus more than once, of watching him go out of his way to inquire on people's health and welfare, of watching him engage in intruiging philosophical conversations with whoever happens to be lucky enough to be bending his ear at the moment. While occasionally startling at first, I think there are many of us who enjoy watching Barry's own special brand of humor and attempts to make people laugh.

One might think I am exaggerating or harping on inconsequential details, but after his recent month long absence for a vacation, I can certainly attest that the environment is far more pleasant with him in it.

It is important for me to be engaged with something if I am doing something difficult, so that I don't focus exclusively on the sensory issues that may be bothering me. Several times, although fortunately not too many, there have been fragrances that bothered me on the bus. My thought pattern went more like "Dang it. I guess I'll have to deal with that for another 15 minutes" or "Dang it. Don't think about it, concentrate on what you're saying/he's saying" rather than freaking out, getting off the bus and never riding it again, which has definitely happened in the past. (Certain unfortunte experiences on the Missoula, Montana bus system put a rest to my bus riding days for several years and in several different cities before I got the courage to try again.)

So - I am now able to handle the buses whether or not Barry is driving, although I certainly prefer it when he is. I've taken the bus nearly every week for a year, at first to get groceries, then to go to medical appts. My current routine is using the bus to get to a therapy appt in Falmouth, then into Portland to meet a friend and get groceries.

So, Barry, I realize I've written this in the 2nd person, but on a more personal note, I do want you to know, without me getting too mushy and over the top, that you have made a difference in someone's life. Driving a bus may not be the most glamorous of occupations, and may not be what you wish you could be doing with your life, but you got one thing right. You managed to find a way to change other people's lives. And I don't know you well enough to say for sure, but you seem like the kind of guy for whom that would be a priority. I hope you enjoy this book, "Riding the Bus With My Sister," which profiles people whom I find in large part to be very similar to you.

I wanted to give it to (now I can't remember his name, oops) who was like you in many ways and drove the #5 to the mall when I lived in Portland 5 years ago, but I never got the chance before he left. You more than fill his shoes, so I am glad for the opportunity to give it to you.

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