Peripheral friends

I remember a woman I met a long time ago who went hiking with me in California. She was a native of those mountains, having climbed those heights often in childhood.

Me, a city person, unused to those heights, kept lagging behind.

Every few steps she stopped for me, turned back, sometimes climbed down. Often, she would stop by the wayside to show me a berry, telling me which ones were edible and which ones could kill. I trusted her judgement instinctively, tasting a huckleberry for the first time or smelling a sage leaf.

As is common amongst many people in that region of California, she had travelled the world, lived in many countries but had come back to live in the part of the world she called home to put her education in genetics and plant biology to good use to make her town a little more green and beautiful.

Likewise, in the mountains with me, she was surrounded by seasoned hikers like herself scaling the height to reach the top but even though the afternoon was fading to dusk, she would stop for me from time to time.

She hardly knew me when I reached the town. Yet she offered to share her internet connection without a thought because we had a common wall as neighbours. And when I was but a novice at driving, one day she took me, along with another woman who was equally an acquaintance, to the mountains to drive. Although my confidence on the mountainous winding road, especially at dusk, was less than it could have been, they sat in the car joking about their own driving in their teenage years constantly encouraging me and showing me confidence.

A confidence I have failed to see in people I’ve even known a long time. A confidence that will never let me forget her.

I remember another woman, a woman I’d known but for a day, who made me feel at home in a strange town once. She had gone out of her way to show me around, walk with me, pick me up from the airport  and most of all, listen to me without judgement when I needed sympathy. She even lifted some heavy luggage I was unable to move by myself although she was not exceptionally strong. We got into the habit of taking walks along the edenic roads of the town, picking ripe fruit that had fallen over people’s walls, simply eating them along the way carelessly without washing.

She was neither rich nor very well protected or powerful and yet I was amazed to see that she had let a homeless guy live in her garage during inclement weather who regularly used her washing machine. Once, after a rainy day, there was so much mud in his clothes that the machine jammed.

Apparently, this happened often. She took it as a matter of course and carried the wet clothes in a bucket to a neighbour’s or a laundromat.

She trusted this guy too as she trusted me simply because they spoke a common language and the man was from the same continent as her mother hailed from decades ago.

Her life was exceptionally complicated at the time and yet she had made it a little more complicated by taking the burden of my problems as her own and helping me.

Our encounter was short. Our acquaintance didn’t even mature enough for me to be able to call her a friend. I still know as much about her as I did then which is very little. When I left the town, there were other pressing matters which demanded my attention than seeing her.

But since then I have often thought of these friends who were not really friends.

The Sierra Nevada range is beautiful.
Lake Tahoe. My point-and-shoot. With friends.

Often, in our wanderings and meanderings and slow weavings and fast cascadings and sudden stops in life we come across some nearly unknown people. These people are neither meant to travel with us for any significant periods of time nor meant to be central figures to the part of the story of our life that makes any sense. We don’t stay back at a place because of them, move for them or travel to see them.

Those of us that are rational,  well-adjusted social creatures have a plan, like a map or a mould through which we understand our lives and relationships.  There are figures in those maps that are central and those that are not. There are those that fit and those that don’t.

Family members and long time friends from our social and professional circles count as people we should remember frequently, talk to or contact often. Even convention demands we formally remember them on certain days of the year such as festivals or new years or holidays or token days for mothers, fathers, sons or daughters promoted for various reasons in our culture.

Or perhaps even brief encounters that fit some large meaningful narrative of our lives can have a place in our story if they are a great force to be reckoned with that fits convention. Say, for example, a single day’s romantic encounter that made us risk everything that was sane, a spiritual teacher who made us stop and think or a doctor  who saved us. These brief encounters, because they fit a sensibly coherent account, understandably seem central when we arrange our memory into a narrative.

But what about these peripheral figures who are just incidental, chance encounters, people who could easily have been other people, who were never part of the map or plan, and yet who did so much more than many we know well were too cautious to do? After all, they had less to gain from us than those who are permanent characters in our stories.

What of them?

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53 thoughts on “Peripheral friends”

  1. I’ve written six long/short stories about life in a fictional town named River’s Edge where the motto is Kindness to Strangers Everyone who has read the stories say, “I want to live in just such a place.”
    Open your heart and smile. Let the world come in.

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  2. Dropping by because WordPress said some of the blogs I follow … follow yours. My peripheral encounter: 1986. A woman I met at an Al Anon meeting takes me out for coffee, drives me around all day — a day when I’m frightened and alone and coming to terms with parental alcoholism. Never saw her again. Secondly, is that a photograph of Desolation Wilderness? Looks like it’s taken from somewhere near Echo Lake?

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  3. Maybe strangers can see things in us that others can’t, and the randomness of the universe sends the kindess of strangers to remind us every now and then.

    I climbed a volcano with a traveller I met at the bottom. He helped me take a photo of the initials I’d drawn in a snow – my lover and me in a love heart. That night he sat with me as I wept upon reading the news that my lover had slept with my best friend back home. We shared a gentle silence. For the next four days we ‘coincidentally’ bumped into each other at youth hostels, ‘randomly’ got on the same boat and ‘just happened’ to climbed two more volcanoes together. I was stronger than I thought. He knew that.

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  4. You write so well! Loved it. Tiny encounters and thoughtful gestures by total strangers come to my mind… like a lady handing over a still valid discount coupon at the checkout counter 🙂 I liked the sudden 30% off my items!

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  5. Ahhh, my dear, these were not incidental meetings. The plan may not have been yours, but these encounters were meant to be. Look at what you gleaned from them and how they made such a lasting impression upon you that you were led to write so openly, so beautifully about them. The depth of your words will affect more people than you know. Thank you very, very much for sharing.

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  6. Ah. Great post. I was having coffee with my dad at a Wal-Mart of all places when a guy sat at a table near ours. Dad and he chatted a bit. I asked Dad who who was. Dad replied, “I don’t know his name. I just see him here sometimes.” His peripheral friend. I got to know some people while vacationing in Jamaica one spring. I never saw them again, but being with them that brief time was fun.

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  7. My uncle was a person like the ones you describe, always giving away his winter coat, or bringing home for the night a couple who’s scooter had broken down…when they thanked him he would always say, just keep the ball rolling, and keep the kindness rolling on around the world…
    Those people who crossed your path were very important, their goodness has stayed with you, and inspired you, and is now inspiring us – so maybe they were not random.. A lovely post…

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  8. Touching post.I thinks of them as our guiding souls, these are people not always in our minds..but in our moments of life doubts we think of them, how they crossed and showed us something we were either unaware or unappreciative of. I had mine a lady..and I still remember her fondly.

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  9. Random acts of kindness are just that – random…but they aren’t small. They can make a big difference in someone’s life without much burden on ourselves. I loved the stories you shared of the people who gave of themselves and expected nothing in return. These encounters may be peripheral, but I still think they have a purpose in the overall scheme of our lives.

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  10. That was a beautifully written post. I’m happy to see so much gratitude for such a short encounter … really, it’s important to find the value in such a thing. People like your acquaintance really give me faith and inspire me to do the same.

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  11. We’re all moving through this life together, whether we have met each other or not. These brief encounters are a reminder that we’re all on the same mortal journey, right here, right now.

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  12. What a lovely post! What of the peripheral people? There motives are so pure – they had nothing to gain and yet they reached out, we took and moved on. I read once about guerilla kindness – and then you pay it forward. That is all that is required – remember and go and do the same. Beautiful.

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  13. Nice post. Just my belief, but nothing occurs randomly. Every person we meet gives us exactly what we require to climb the next step. And I love hearing the blessed things people do, so small, but so powerful. Thanks for sharing!

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  14. We never really know why we meet the people we meet. But when I meet someone for a short, fleeting while who is memorable, I sometimes can see a purpose in knowing them. Maybe they tought me something, as in your case. Maybe they were kind and warmed my heart. And maybe I will one day see them again. One never knows. It is so interesting about life, how the little things are often the big things. And the brief encounters can be so meaningful. If we believe in destiny, then nothing is by chance.

    I’m sure the hiker who was so kind and helpful, remembers you as well!

    Great post!

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  15. Ah, Lake Tahoe. Practically in my backyard. I know those mountains well.

    As for our momentary, peripheral friends, I would say that aside from remembering those moments from time to time, we may run the risk of giving them too much credit by trying to honor their place in our lives. Do we recal every breath that gives us life? These people have their own lives and journeys, and do not need our continued remembrance.

    Wonderful post.

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    1. Thank you. I hope that is so –that it does not matter if we remember and this is the course of things as it should be. But they make us re-think the centres of our lives and take stock about what’s imp I think.

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  16. Thanks for this. It’s really got me thinking. Some of my most memorable moments have been chance encounters with people, fated to last only a short time, and somehow, as you describe so well here, all the more meaningful for that.

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