Important Strangers

Leslie Guttman - Lexington, Kentucky
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, October 9, 2012
Leslie Guttman

A chance encounter with a stranger in a bookstore helped Leslie Guttman come to believe that people are placed in our lives for a reason, and that those encounters, however small, can be transformative.

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The bookstore was warm and cozy. It was packed, maybe because people didn’t realize the rain had stopped. I was on a lunch break. I got a weird feeling. Someone was looking at me.

I looked up. A woman with long, black hair about five feet away quickly looked back down at the book she was leafing through. I looked down, too. More people came in the door. The gust of air that followed them smelled clean, as if it had been freshly laundered.

I glanced up again at the dark-haired woman in time to see her slip a book into her satchel and walk off. I hesitated and then walked after her.

“Pssst,” I said, pointing at the satchel. Up close, I saw that she was about thirty and probably homeless. Her khaki parka was filthy, her hair matted. The satchel was bursting with her belongings. She gave me a sorrowful look. Then she handed me the book and ran off.

The manager came up, having seen what had happened. The book was a journal designed for someone who was grieving. Someone like me. It was beautifully bound, the paper creamy and heavy. It had space to write the answers to statements like: “I miss the way you . . .” and “It’s hard for me to be without you when I . . .”

“She’s been wanting that book,” said the manager. “She comes in all the time and looks at it. Sometimes, she puts it on hold, but then she never gets it.”

Dammit! I thought. Why did I have to be such a Goody Twoshoes? When will I learn to mind my own business? Why didn’t I just let her steal it?

I ran out of the store. It was raining again. I caught up with her a block away. “Did you just lose someone?” I said.

“My grandmother,” she said. “I used to talk to her every day, and I miss her so much I can’t stand it.” I told her about my stepdad, who had just passed away. His kindness had helped knit our family together for eighteen years.

I told her to wait a second. I knew I was now in a Buddhist fable in which nothing is an accident. When I came back and handed her the book, we both stood on the curb and wept.

For the first time since my stepdad died, I felt understood—as only a stranger can understand you, without inadequacy or regret. Up until then, I had felt alone in my grief. I was reluctant to turn to my family because they were grieving, too. The love of friends had not been able to dilute my sorrow.

But because the grieving thief and I didn’t know each other, I had no expectations of whether I would be understood in my grief and no fear of being disappointed if I wasn’t. Since we wouldn’t see each other again, I could be emotional without being embarrassed or scared it would drive someone away.

I believe life, or God, or whatever you want to call it, puts people in our path so that they can help us, or we them—or both. This encounter made me want to stay open to the chance meeting with an important stranger, to the possibility of unplanned symmetry that is luminous and magical.

Leslie Guttman is an independent journalist who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where she grew up. She worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for over a decade, and is the author of Equine ER, which chronicles a year inside one of the country’s top hospitals for horses.

Produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.