"What's so funny?"
I heard a soft voice from the back. I wasn't used to people striking conversations with me where I was. See I was standing in a charity store in Basingstoke, a town not even a city, about 50 miles (77km) southwest of London, England. A cab driver had educated me earlier that day, apparently, a place qualifies for 'cityhood' only if it contains a Cathedral. Who knew? Not me!
Let alone little old basingstoke, a small and old market town, even in big'ol London, I find myself being the starter of conversations with strangers, not the other way around. Something about the English keeping to themselves. Maybe especially from a petit brown skinned girl with a fro. Who knows? Not me.
I turned around to a vision of a tall white woman who appeared to be in her early sixties. Cracked at her a faint smile to confirm she was indeed the source of that voice asking me what I'm laughing about.
"The note" I said in almost a whisper, fighting with a part of me that was afraid the only thing she may find worth laughing at could end up being my sense of humor itself.
"It says the radio is not for sale."
More silence as she positioned herself to take a good look at the notice and locate the radio itself.
Silence as I hoped she would at least find it chuckle worthy. In an ideal world, she would see what I was seeing.
It was a store full of things, mostly donated. Cute things, old things, new things, useful things, things mostly hoarders would buy, things that look like other hoarders were forced to give away. There barely was a shelf space unused or a corner spared. And there it was, right in the corner, a working radio playing Whitney Houston, and on the shelf above it, a note that declared it unsellable.
So, did you at least chuckle? I mean, it was the ONE thing in that things-filled store clearly being put to purpose and lacking a price tag. It was also in demand often enough that a 'don't even think about this one' sign was required to shield it from lustful eyes.
"We always manage to want that which we can not have"
Lucky for me, the lady came through. Relief!
I turned around to give her a good look. Who is this woman?
"My thoughts exactly!" I responded, eyes widened as a result of a cocktail of emotions. Mainly disbelief with a dash of excitement.
"You've got beautiful hair" continued the lady, probably unaware of the fact that she had opened the conversation door as wide as I like it, so I walked right in.
I shared with her how all of my life I had lusted after sleek straight hair and had turned to chemicals, scorching hot straighteners and everything in between to achieve it. It was not the first time I had shared this with a stranger. Lately, I've appointed myself an ambassador to natural hair wherever I find myself. Even when my curls aren't submissive and defined, I have been daring myself to walk out and face the world with the crown mother nature decided to put on my head. I have gotten looks of confusion, admiration and sometimes pure disgust. All fade away in the face of the amazing conversations my fro has allowed begin, which would not have been possible otherwise.
Then she comes at me with a perspective. She remembers her 21 years old self, "Naive and silly" in her own words (but you already understand the purpose of quotations). Scrolling through a magazine, she reflected, there were hair styles so glamorous that made her say "I want my hair to do that, but it won't. It's too fine and too blonde". I didn't want to interrupt her but wished I could quickly tell her that magazines and TV were also the poison behind the insecurities women like me suffer from.
She continued to tell me how she went to a hair dresser who promised her just what she saw, and went on to put chemicals and color that left her scalp burning, already fine hair falling.
"Hair products were much harsher in my days, it took me years to then go back to my old look" she added, "I remember thinking, I have fine hair, that's that. I will have to learn how to work with that"
One hour and 20 minutes later, (accuracy credited to my habitual photo taking, mostly for Instagram story feed purposes) we stood in the same spot, occasionally swaying to let eager shoppers get by and we did not even know each others names. We shared things that the closest of friends find hard to admit. We looked through each others eyes soaking in our life experiences and stayed present with each other. Nothing else mattered but our stories and how they shaped the way we thought about life right at that moment.
Anne was a woman waiting for the approval to start grieving. Grieving for a 30 year long marriage that had ended five years ago. For the loss of her two beloved dogs her ex-husband took away from her "just because he could." One could tell the joy those dogs brought to her life because even after their passing, the mention of them lit her face up with a smile. "I raised them like the children I never had." I saw bliss in her blue eyes when she talked about them, and brokenness when she mentioned the man she had shared more than half of her life with. She referred to him as "this person."
"It messes with my head" she added, every year for Christmas until the they passed away, he sent me postcards from them, with their pictures on it. The other day, I saw a car with the same make, color and year as our old one and I froze mid-step."
I longed to know more. Why was she not moving on? Five years is a darn long time.
A regular church-goer, Anne attends a small and tightly conservative catholic church where she says is the only place she gets to be social. It is also the reason why she remains married, on paper, to the "detached-man-turned-insedious" ex- husband, who also managed to sell everything they owned in a way that she would only be left with breadcrumbs of it's worth.
She wonders about the meaning and purpose of her life, but all she tangibly felt was loneliness and pain.
To me, she was a revelation.
Evidently wrongfully, I had carried with me a deeply held assumption about people fitting her description. As if her skin color, age and where she was from also granted a solid sense of self that wouldn't remain shaken for longer than a brief period of any necessary readjustment. That somehow, contentment with undesired changes in life favored her 'type'. A mature English woman. That help for her would rain from every sky, erupt from any mountaintop. She could't possibly be a broke and broken divorcee spilling her life story to a woman half her age, as strange as they come.Or could she?
All that didn't matter, I learned. Slowly, all I could see and feel was a human in front of me who needed another one's pair of ears. Her thirst for empathy was clear and I happened to carry the thirst to be of service in quenching it. I also had some lessons that have proved themselves true for me time and time again that I held within against the itch to share them.
So I squeezed her hands and told her again and agin that she is OKAY! Pain is transformative, I assured her, quoting examples from my own life; if she made sure suffering it is not all she is doing and she also made sure she wasn't numbing it. Paying attention to why things hurt has the potential to uncover the deepest and furthest buried truths about our own selves that make suffrage a daily choice we unknowingly make. As a recovering people-pleaser myself, I encouraged her to own up to her story first and foremost. If she couldn't do that, she would risk 'chameleoning' through life for the rest of her days. Those folks who bask in and praise the eternal and unconditional love of God but insist she is one of it's exceptions, I told her I believed she will be better without.
As nerve wracking as such a scenario would've otherwise been for me, I had a smile on my face I fail to explain the warmth of. One of those smiles where you pay no regard to the squinting of your eyes and your forehead or it's potential to make you appear constipated. Our encounter had stirred up everything real and worthwhile.
We gave each other a few long hugs and our physical addresses to stay in-touch through 'snail mail'. I long to get news of a phoenix arising from the ashes of discontentment and the wreckage of shame she admitted to carrying around.
Throughout the days that followed, thoughts of her were regular. Grateful to realize that it wasn't pity I had for her, It was excitement. I know very well, the darkest of times make possible the joy in the brightest of days; when, not If, they dawn.