March 3, 2010

Footprints of a Stranger

When I sit on the subway, I stare at those around me, wondering what they are thinking. It's the ultimate poker game: people's faces are blank as they look into the spaces between the faces. I always lose this game, staring at people until they awkwardly look up at me, at which point I pretend I have something in my eye and start staring at someone else.

A few months ago, while waiting for the 4,5 subway in Brooklyn, I was staring particularly unscrupulously at a tall older man with perfectly coiled dreds down to his waist. When he looked over I quickly diverted my eyes. What an intriguingly beautiful man, I thought to myself, subconsciously imprinting his picture into my memory. We both got on the subway, and a few stops later, I got off.

Three months later, in a subway stop in an entirely different part of town, I was changing from the A line to the L line. As I worked my way through the masses of people in underground tunnels, I kept my eyes focused on those walking in the opposite direction. Suddenly, I stopped. The guy from the subway, the intriguing stranger from the 4,5 Line, walked right past me. I gasped. "I KNOW YOU!" I wanted to yell after him, reminding him of our moment of diverted eye contact. He kept walking eyes straight ahead with no glimpse of recognition and then he was gone.

The recognition of a stranger's face really affected me. How often do we walk by the same people over and over again, unaware that we are sharing unrecognized familiar moments with each other? How many people do we walk past daily not knowing that we know them?

This incident reminded me of another experience I had the year before. I was at a James Finley meditation in Santa Monica and after 20 minutes of sitting, the group of around 40 or so, got up, pushed back our chairs, and prepared for walking meditation. Right before we started, I slipped off my shoes, wanting to be barefoot. As we began to walk in a circle, head down, amidst darkness, I did not know who was behind me or ahead of me. But the slow rhythm of my walk was guided by the pace of the person in front of me.

Two laps into the meditation, I suddenly realized that I could feel the the warmth left behind from the stranger's step: the physical manifestation of a life in action. And as I felt the warmth from the ground, my heart warmed. I could not help but feel connected to this stranger. I was sharing with him an intimate moment that he did not know we were sharing--but I was physically and symbolically sharing in his walk of life. In 27 years of walking behind people and in front of people, I have never considered that our footprints leave behind a momentary heat of life and, whether or not we recognize it, we daily feel the warmth of a stranger passing. We are constantly unconsciously connected to the footprints of a stranger.


  1. I really love this post, Kerry.

    I've been spending a lot of time on facebook, blogger & twitter for work and these last few days I've been meditating on a similar concept. I'm pretty sure that for every person that actually interacts with me and engages me in conversation there is at least one more person who is connecting with me by reading my tweets or looking at something I posted without letting me know, without leaving a comment or asking me a question - just like I do every now and then with you through your blog. It's happened 3 or 4 times now that I've seen your blog entry pop up on facebook, I've come here to read it, and then I've moved on without letting you know I was here.

    It's like what happened to you in the subway, you saw him, you connected, but you didnt let him know. The same thing happened to you in the walking meditation. Your soul was warmed, but what about the man leaving the footprints...what if he was aware of the connection...would his soul have been warmed as well?

    These questions, while they appear simple, are really pretty complicated. I mean, what were you supposed to do? Tap him on the shoulder, interrupt his walking meditation and talk? I don't know if that would have been the best idea. Maybe writing this blog entry was just the right thing to do...

    I think the lesson is somewhere in the middle - finding ways to connect without interfering, working collectively as a society to be more aware of each other, finding that middle road where community and individual both thrive.

    Thanks for leaving your footprints here. Thank you for inspiring me to speak up and let you know I'm reading. I hope life is treating you well, although I have no doubt that it is. :)

  2. Sara-Thanks so much for your's great to hear from you! I think you are so right that in the age of connectivity (through facebook, twitter, blogs, etc) we need to find this middle road between passive observers and interferers. Although we often appear to be connected through forms of internet communication, the true connection does not come when we read about someone's life, but when we can find a way to engage them or simply let them know we are listening. I struggle finding this middle road, but I'm so glad you walked down it and responded with your wise insights. It warmed my soul :) I'll look up next time in Buffalo...I'd love to catch up!

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