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.
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?