I have just said hello to someone. Good morning. You look amazing, love that dress...
"Mo-um! Was that a stranger?"
"You shouldn't talk to her."
"Because you're not supposed to talk to strangers. They're dangerous."
It is time to have the talk, I think. The same talk I had with Archer when he came home from preschool with the same backwards logic lodged in his impressionable brain.
"Did that lady seem dangerous to you?"
"Strangers are just people we don't know yet," I tell her. "We're all strangers to each other."
"But you're not a stranger, Mama."
"Yes I am. So are you."
We go on to discuss the importance of trusting our instincts when it comes to people we meet, listening to our bodies, acknowledging a nervous tummy, saying NO when we feel uncomfortable, building armor out of the trust we must establish in ourselves.
I tell her that "stranger danger" sounds clever because it rhymes but it does more harm than good in the long run and "avoidance" is seldom the answer to anything in life.
I don't want her to never talk to strangers. I want her to acknowledge that there are people out there who do not have her best interests at heart. That there are people who exist in the world who for reasons we will never understand, want to hurt others. Maybe even her. But that doesn't mean we push everyone away. That doesn't mean we close shop and mute our mouths.
I understand where the "stranger danger" thing comes from, and recognize why it is taught to young children in school, that teachers mean well when they write it on their blackboards. Same way they did when they taught us about DARE: TO KEEP KIDS OFF DRUGS. Ha! More like, DARE: TO SCARE THE SHIT OUT OF FIFTH GRADERS WITH LIES.
After DARE I thought that
1. Marijuana was as bad for me as Heroin because it was a drug and all drugs were bad.
2. As soon as I entered high school I would be tied to a chair and forced drugs.
3. The only way to make it in this world was to learn to "say NO!" to everything. Especially drugs which were illegal and "here's how you snort a line and smoke a joint. Drugs make you feel good and then die. NOW GO SAY NO!"
Education is important and empowering teens to "walk away from a bad situation" is helpful, but teaching FEAR is not the way.
"If you have a bad feeling, trust it. No matter what. But please do not associate strangers with danger. Do not be afraid to connect. To compliment. To say no. To say yes. To say something."
Years ago there was an old man who used to sit on a bench at the park where Archer played. He made the moms at the park feel uncomfortable.
Because he was a man.
And he was watching their children play.
So finally I went and talked to him. He had grandchildren and great grandchildren but they all lived far away so he didn't get a chance to see them much.
So here he was.
And had he been an old lady, nobody would have batted an eyelash.
But he wasn't. So eventually he was told to leave.
"You're making me feel uncomfortable" one of the mothers told him.
Because he was a man who liked to watch children play.
Because every man is Humbert and every child is Lolita and YOU ENJOY WATCHING CHILDREN PLAY? YOU MUST BE SICK.
My dad likes to watch children play at the park.
So does my mom.
So does Hal.
So do I.
"Why did you ask him to leave? He wasn't doing anything wrong."
"He might be a sexual predator," one of the moms insisted. "You never know."
I am constantly asked how I could possibly share so much of my life in a public forum. Post photos of my children for potential crazy people to see. Subject my family to "bad guys" and "bad girls" and scrutiny or worse...
"The Internet is crawling with crazies," people say.
The world is crawling with crazies. Never talk to strangers. Never write to strangers. Never post photos for strangers to see. The world is fucked up and everyone is trying to get you. And your kids. Buy a bunch of guns just in case. Change your identity. Blur your children's faces. Blur your own.
That is not for me.
That is not what I intend to spend my life doing. I will not live in fear. I will not write in fear or share in fear or teach my children to hide from life. I can live side by side with the unsavories because I exist on this earth and that is what happens here. So I choose to live. To leave my house, to drive my car, to pass people on the streets and to share what those moments yield. Because as much as all of that is part of my experience. So is this.
I talk to strangers.
I talk to strangers.
Quite possibly the most life-changing exchange of words I ever had happened in a Taxi cab at Kennedy Airport in 2000. The driver and I spent thirty minutes in a car together and after discussing what we had done with our lives thus far. (He had left his medical practice in India where he was a surgeon because he wanted a better life for his children and driving a cab was a great way to help people.)
"I get to move people forward for a living," he told me with a smile. "Just like I used to...."
He went on to say a hundred thousand profound things about what it meant to be a human on this earth... and changed the way I sat in cabs ever after. It changed the way I lived my life, went about my days, moved myself forward, and somewhere, on an old computer lives a "book" of essays I wrote based on the various interactions I had with strangers while traveling alone those early years of adulthood. It's title was "You Start Life Now" which were not my words, but the cabbie's.
"You start life now. Keep moving..."
In Anne Patchet's "What Now" she writes:
One of the first lessons of childhood is to be wary of strangers, and while this is good counsel to guard against the world's very small nefarious element, it also teaches us to block out the large majority of those who just have something on their mind they'd like to say. We are taught to be suspicious, especially of anyone who might not look like us or share our beliefs. By the time we reach adulthood, many have perfected the art of isolation, of being careful, of not listening in the name of safety...
...Once you decide that strangers are more than just dangerous accidents waiting to happen you will find yourself able to listen. How much sadness could be averted by taking the time to notice all the people we have come to ignore? Would we in fact be safer and not more at risk if we asked someone to voice his feelings rather than wait until he looked for other means of making himself heard? The world may be telling you to go forward, to climb and to strive and to move briskly ahead, but while you're doing all that, be sure to keep your ears open. Divest yourself of prejudice whenever possible. The Hare Krishna may just be the one who sees you to your gate.
If we cannot talk to strangers, how are we to ask for directions when we're lost? How are we to build relationships with people whose stories differ from our own? Expect our children to grow into adults when we teach them to steer clear of them? That strange men are dangerous. That men who like children are dangerous. Because "liking children" has become something very loaded when said aloud. When said in quiet. When written online.
Recently, while on a walk in our neighborhood, a disheveled man approached Archer. Archer was on his scooter a block ahead of me as I pushed a stroller and held Fable's hand across the street.
Archer looked back as the man talked to him. I read his lips as he said, "No I don't. My mom's right over there."
Then he pointed.
It was one of the only times in my life I felt panicked. Everything moved in slow motion. Like in a nightmare when you can't run even though you want to and your mouth won't scream.
Until finally it does.
"ARCHER. COME BACK. EXCUSE ME, SIR."
The man turned and then ran off, through traffic, across the street as Archer scooter'd over to us to explain what had happened.
"He asked me to go for a walk with him," Archer said.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, that was scary, though."
And it was. It was really fucking scary.
But I was there. And Archer knew it. Not RIGHT there, mind you, but close enough. And maybe there's something to that. Being close enough so that if something does happen, I'm there, behind him... slightly removed... a block away. So that he can listen to his own gut before turning toward mine. So that he ALWAYS will.
Even when I'm not there.
Because someday I won't be. Soon enough he will find himself in unsavory situations with unsavory people and he will need to know how to flex his intuition, trust his gut, know that it's okay not to get into the car with the drunk driver or the "stranger" or the "friend".
He will need to know how to listen to himself.
Words are power. Giving our kids the tools to look inside themselves for the answers is power. But telling a child "not to talk to strangers" contradicts the very point it aims to support. Silence is not an empowering solution. LISTENING is. To inner voices and feelings, instincts and intuition, all of which must be valued and nurtured, honored and discussed.
"Don't talk to strangers." < "Always listen to yourself."