“Are you interested in answering the three questions I like asking everyone I meet?” he wants to know.

I don’t know this guy, I just met him, maybe 10 minutes ago. I’m at a hot springs resort, eating my lunch and making small talk with the couple whose table I joined.

 

“Well, I’m interested in hearing your questions and then deciding if I'm interested in answering them,” I say.

 

He laughs. “Of course,” he says. “That’s what I meant!” He picks up his glass and takes a drink of the hibiscus cooler that’s on tap for lunch. “Good response, by the way!”

 

“Thanks,” I mumble as I chew on a particularly big leaf of lettuce. The salad bar is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Everything is organic and as fresh as can be, served with delicious homemade dressings, and at every meal I inevitably overload my plate with salad.

 

“So!” He smacks his lips and puts down his glass. “Are you ready?”

 

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“Bring it on,” I say. His girlfriend leans back and I wonder if she's rolling her eyes while he’s not looking. I bet my conversation partner engages in banter with strangers everywhere he goes.

 

“Question number one!” He rubs his hands dramatically, then stabs a cucumber with his fork. “What do you think about aliens?” His eyes are fixed on mine. He raises his fork into the air, then focuses on my body language, reading my reaction, his forked cucumber forgotten midway between his plate and open mouth.

 

“What do I think about aliens?” I repeat. “Like, space aliens?”

 

“Yes. What are your thoughts on space aliens?”

 

I blink and lean back in my chair. Then I break eye contact and focus on my salad, using my fork to chase a marinated chickpea across a puddle of blueberry ginger dressing. I didn’t expect a question like that and I feel awkward under his scrutiny. I clear my throat and take a long drink, buying myself time.

 

“Well, I guess I’m pretty agnostic, really?” I finally say. I didn't mean for it to sound like a question, but it comes out that way. My conversation partner nods, as if he were expecting my answer.

 

“Aha!” he exclaims. “I knew it! It's a West Coast thing.”

 

“It is?”  

 

“Yes, yours is the most common answer here. But what exactly do you mean by agnostic?”

 

“Maybe there are space aliens out there. Or maybe not.” I shrug. “I don't know. But I also don't really care.”

 

He nods, looks away from me, notices his fork, and shoves the suddenly remembered cucumber in his mouth. Then he resumes eating his salad, as if our conversation were over. I wonder if he’s waiting for me to elaborate.

 

I take another bite of my salad and decide to humor him. “You know, what I do care about is when people use space aliens to explain away complex issues. That drives me crazy. Here you are talking about a complicated political issue or historical event when someone interjects that it's all because of the intervention of space alien. Now that really pisses me off. Way to kill a good conversation, blame it all on the aliens.”

 

He nods again but says nothing.

 

I shuffle in my chair. “So what's the second question?” I blurt out.

 

The alien question annoyed me, I was wishing for a deeper conversation topic. I'm hoping the other two will be more inspiring.

 

My conversation partner swallows, picks up a napkin to wipe his mouth, smiles, and leans forward in his chair.

 

“The second question,” he says, smacking his lips, “is this: 'What brings you the most joy?'”

 

I smile. That's a question I enjoy answering. “Do I have to choose just one?”

 

He shakes his head. “As many as you want! As long as they're all about joy.”

 

I look at my plate, a colorful arrangement of vegetables. Food brings me a lot of joy, but does it bring me the most joy? “Maybe I could paint a scene for you instead of rattling off a list of things?” I suggest.

 

His eyes are twinkling and he beams at me. “Yes, please!”

 

“Ok, so a scene that brings me the most joy… I'm sitting in a forest in a circle of friends. There's a fire in the center, and we're playing music, and telling stories, and sharing delicious food. Maybe the moon is up or the stars are out and some of us brought our fur babies...” I trail off, letting myself enjoy the image.

 

“Oh, that's good, that's so good!” he exclaims.

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG-5427.JPG“Yeah, that's the kind of thing that brings me the most joy. It has everything I love, nature, friends, community, music, story-telling, good food, cuddly animals...”

 

“Fire!” he adds.

 

"Fire?"

 

"There's also fire."

 

“Oh, right. A bonfire. That's important.”

 

“It is. Awesome, I totally love it! So, the final question: What is the most important thing you have learned.”

 

This time I don't stop to think. My mouth is moving before I know what it is I am saying: “That there is always more to learn. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more complex and nuanced everything is.”

 

- - - - - -

 

Our conversation wraps up quickly after the final question. My conversation partner leaves with his girlfriend and I sit by myself for a moment, enjoying desert and reflecting on his questions and my answers.

 

It has been a while since I've had similar conversations with strangers. They were common when I lived in Marin county, just north of San Francisco. The local demographic was made up of wealthy, young, New Age spiritual seekers. A trip to the grocery store often involved unexpected hugs, prolonged eye contact with strangers, and conversations about the meaning of life and nature of all existence.

 

I was a seeker myself and intoxicated by the ultra-spiritual culture that turned every errand into a pilgrimage. I felt like my head was in the clouds all the time, my feet no longer touching the earth. I couldn't afford to live in such a wealthy place for long, so I moved across the Bay to a neighborhood where poverty and crime were no longer abstract spiritual ailments to be transcended, but a cruel mundane reality. It didn't take long before I became firmly grounded in the daily struggle for survival.

 

I am grateful my feet are back on the ground, but I also miss the Marin way of relating. I don't mind small talk, but wish it didn’t replace deeper conversations so often. My encounter at the hot springs resort was like a breath of fresh air to me. Instead of chatting about where we were from (Portland? The Gorge? The Bay Area? Germany?), which salad dressing we liked best (definitely the Blueberry Ginger), or how we were enjoying our hot springs visit (a lot), I was given a chance to reflect on meaningful questions (and space aliens).

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG-5438.JPGI left feeling inspired. What if, instead of introducing ourselves to strangers with discussions about food and weather, we sought to learn something meaningful from everyone we met? How would our interactions change if we allowed ourselves to go deeper? What new friendships might develop? I don't care what everyone thinks about aliens, but I want to start asking strangers what brings them the most joy, what they have learned, and maybe a few other questions. In this cultural climate of disconnection, separation, suspicion, fear, and other-ing, I want to take steps to connect authentically and deeply, even to random strangers.