I grew up in a small town and no matter where I went, someone always knew who I was, even if I didn’t know them. I was always spoken to, my parents inquired about, my performance in school a topic of importance.
I went to college in a small town, where the weather of the North Country made quick friends of strangers sipping hot drinks and people did not speak unnecessarily, but were comfortable with a shared, silent acknowledgement.
I moved to a big state that still felt like a small town and therefore, never expected anything different. Montana delivered on that expectation–whether in the Ruby Valley, on my way to Glacier, somewhere near Glendive or in the Clark Fork River basin.
People in passing cars on dirt roads wave to each other–neighbors or strangers, no matter.
People on the street look you in the eye, and at least smile if not add a hearty “Good Morning,” or “Nice day!” or “I like your dog,” while the grocery line usually yields rich and often humorous conversation.
In 2012, I left Montana, after 16 years. As I drove away, I watched one dear friend from my side-view mirror, as she stood in front of our ramshackle fence with a crowd of sunflowers behind her. Their luminous, wide-open faces–hers and the flowers–told me I would always have a home to come back to. And, during the two years I spent in a far northern city, I would often return to the front stoop of that house in my mind. I would watch the sun’s progress through the glowing petals of the flowers. I would see the wind push them around so that they appeared to be jostling with each other for the best view of Mt. Jumbo.
Those flowers weren’t simply there to satisfy my love for them (although that is how it all started). In the time that I lived in that house, they came to absorb the community I loved. People LOVED those flowers. If a fellow Missoulian discovered that I lived in that house, their eyes would light up and they’d ask how I got so many to grow and bloom so early.
Some days, I’d be working in my office and I’d hear voices outside. Peeking out the window, I’d see girls posing for photos under the flowers, while their boyfriends cracked jokes and shook pollen into their hair.
Other days, flocks of small children would parade past my window and I’d hear the classic muffled Charlie Brown teacher voice with the inflection of a question, before a chorus of little voices would shout, “Sunflowers!”
But it wasn’t just the humans of my community. We were inundated with gold finches on a daily basis, and their polished vibrant bodies flitting among the flowers to harvest the seeds were far more enchanting than any holiday light display.
It brought me joy to bring others joy and sustenance with something that already brought me so much joy. That’s a lot of joy. And while I was trepidatious about leaving my Montana home, no doubt, I brought that joy with me to the northern city that shall remain nameless (because the point is not to bash that city that brought me many gifts).
The problem was, in that place, I couldn’t pay people to look me in the eye. As I walked on snowy trails with no other person around but the one I was passing, my smile and greeting would be met with silence and a gaze that fell as far away from me as possible. The yoga studio I came to love was packed with people, mats six inches apart, and trying to catch my neighbor’s eye to say “Hello” or share a smile, proved futile. The instructors actually had to encourage people to greet one another; like we were in kindergarten. I didn’t get it.
Sure, it’s more common in bigger cities for people not to make eye contact. I know that. I also know that one should not take it personally when another ignores them. I can certainly rationalize that some people are just having a bad day, or haven’t learned appropriate social skills, or are fearful (sometimes for very valid reasons) or are painfully shy. And of course, there are places in this world where looking someone in the eye is interpreted as disrespect or a challenge or an invitation to victimize. But, frankly, barring those circumstances, part of me thinks it’s absolute crap that you can be within touching distance of someone and they won’t acknowledge you.
Now that we have returned to Montana, I relish the chipper greetings from strangers. I am freshly surprised by the friendliness of most people here. But, I’ve also noticed more people avoiding the gaze of others. Sometimes they just purposely bow their head or look the other way, or act like they can’t see me through their shades. And of course, there are the phones. Talking, texting, whatever. The people are not where they are. The world is happening right in front of them and they are somewhere else.
Why is this such a big deal to me? Because when you look someone in the eye, you are telling them they matter. When someone doesn’t look you in the eye, you are not there or not worthy or not equal. Eye contact is about our commonality. Eye contact is about community. Eye contact is about support AND accountability.
As a culture, we continuously grapple with polarization. The world watches our children kill each other. We have more than enough to take care of our own, yet greed leaves a trail of destitution and suffering in its wake. Our environment and our wild neighbors fall victim to our short sightedness and more greed.
How can we ever surmount these forces if we can’t even make the effort to see each other?
For a while, in the north, I let myself be defeated and learned to avert my gaze in public places. But, all I saw was the ice and snow beneath my feet. Evidence of the world, but no interaction that brought it–and me–to life.
For a while, I thought about the sunflowers and how shoving a flower in someone’s face forces them into the present and usually, makes them smile. Yes, I contemplated taking flowers with me on my daily ambles and handing them to any passerby. I know, what a hippie.
But, instead, I’ve decided to always lift my face to the light–the flickers of it that I know live in the eyes of others, the flashes of it that come from a smile, or the color of it that is absorbed in cheeks and hair. It’s there, even if my gaze is not met. It’s there, even if others don’t see it in themselves.
I know that Montana isn’t like other places in the world, but it’s not so different, either. Sure, our little big town is growing, but its charm and community comes from that place where gaze meets gaze. I welcome strangers to my home, but I also believe that those of us who call this home need to show others how we do it here.
So, I ask my worldly neighbors: Even if you are on your phone, look up and smile. Even if your day is dark, look up and find the light. Even if you can’t seem to find beauty, remember the unapologetic vibrancy of sunflowers. In the warmth of that vibrancy, I can see you, and you can see me. In that space, we hold each other in the world; for good or bad. And maybe in this way, we are a little less lost.