I had a couple hours to kill in New York City a few weeks ago, which happens to be a dangerous place to have a couple hours to kill. There are two things that I love to do when I have time to kill. Restaurants and bookstores. Food for the body and food for the soul. If you find a way to combine them, let me know. I’ll be a lifelong customer.
Seeing as I’d already eaten, the bookstore won.
I hit my favorite sections; Food & Cooking, Philosophy and I ended up in the Spiritual section. That’s funny to me because I think it’s all spiritual to some extent. Yet there I was, in the “Spiritual” section picking a few things out here and there. I’d see a catchy title and read the back. I’d see an author’s name and remember a recommendation.
I got to Frederick Buechner and that’s when I heard it for the first time. Someone a few aisles away quietly saying,
With almost robotic consistency, the word sounded the same every time she said it. The spacing between the words was also uncanny. It was quiet and easy to ignore so at first I found it to be something of a curiosity.
I get down to Henri J.M. Nouwen and Thomas Merton and I can hear her again. It’s the same,
It’s been five or six minutes since I heard her last and I’ve gone through an entire aisle in that time. I’ve picked up and set down half a dozen books. I’ve heard conversations about a local tapas place that just closed, a blind date gone horribly wrong, and rave reviews about the “Divergent” book series, although they apparently “left a lot out in the movie”.
Through all of that, there’s a woman somewhere speaking into an empty telephone line.
I continue to walk. Up another aisle, around the endcap and back down. I get to the end and I turn the corner with Paul Tillich and there she is. Leaning into a lonely corner of the room speaking into her phone and trying very hard to be invisible.
That was it. There’s no “Can you hear me now?” There’s no “Are you there?”
That one word in an uncanny and unsettling rhythm.
She is looking down with the phone to her ear and she neither sees nor hears anyone. As far as I could tell, this had been going on for close to ten minutes.
I thought that there must be more to her story. There must be something else that I’ve missed. Maybe it was actually several calls that coincidentally sounded the same each time came close. Or maybe it was one of those bizarre sociological experiments like getting into an elevator and waiting for the doors to close before singing The Star Spangled Banner or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star at the top of your lungs.
Is it merely a telemarketer and a bad connection?
Is she talking to a husband that won’t, or can’t answer?
Is she trying to share good news with a distant family member? Or confirming the worst?
To call out and be unheard. To seek affirmation of the presence of another. To yearn for contact on the other end of the line. To be present yet alone.
That’s all that I heard each time I passed near her. And the thing is, it seemed familiar to me.
I’ve been there. I’ve been half an echo, a call without answer, present yet alone. I’ve longed for the presence of another. And you can’t rush it. You can’t panic. You can’t force answers that really matter, no matter how desperate you are.
But you don’t have to give in to the desperation, either. She didn’t. Her tone never altered nor did her patience waver. The next time that it’s my turn to wait, I’m going to remember this woman on the phone. Consistent, persistent, resilient.
My answer will come.