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My wife and I were the only customers in the souvenir and gift shop, lone shoppers during an off-season in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The lady at the cash register was kind but guarded, like the person checking your ID at airport security. But something about this lady intrigued me: Was she shy or resentful? Uncaring or prudent? Calloused or bruised?
Directing me to the next aisle, she snapped, staccato style, “Sweatshirts and hoodies over there; caps, next aisle.” Her accent, which I guessed to be Eastern European, was heavy.
Rummaging through the sweatshirts, I found one I liked. “How do you think this one fits?” I asked, trying to draw her into a conversation.
“Da large, better. Medium, too small,” she glowered at me over her reading glasses.
Feeling like a grade school student who had asked a question with an obvious answer yet still unconvinced of it, I was afraid to state my disagreement with her size assessment.
“Where are you from?” I cautiously queried, realizing the question was risky: I feared she would ignore me, refusing to reveal that much about herself, ceasing any possibility for further conversation.
“Europe,” was her blunt response.
I plowed on: “Eastern Europe?”
“Oh, a beautiful country,” I said, smiling. “I visited there many years ago. I loved all the historical sites in Athens - the Acropolis, the Pantheon.”
My tourist resume drew no response. But I wasn’t ready to give up, not yet.
“I studied Classical Greek in college. In fact, I majored in it.”
Straight faced, she continued staring right through me as if I weren’t there.
Unable to break the conversation code, I finally turned and walked away.
Three steps down the aisle, I turned back around.
“Someday I would like to visit the monastery at Mt. Athos,” I blurted.
It was like I had said the magic word that opened a secret door; she now invited me in for a visit. Grinning, she looked directly at me: “Holy men of God are there.”
Encouraged, I asked, “Are you Eastern Orthodox?”
“Ahh, yes, Eastern Orthodox,” she nodded, as if I had mentioned a close personal friend.
“I often pray using the comboschini of the Orthodox faith,” I continued, pulling my prayer rope from my pocket.
Smiling like her long awaited dinner guest had finally arrived to enjoy her gyros and baklava, she showed me her prayer rope and then turning around, opened a drawer and pulled out a picture album.
“You look,” she commanded, opening the book for me: “Pictures of my home.”
She was beaming now, pointing out photograph after photograph of her church, her town, its beaches, the mountains, the grandeur of her homeland.
I could imagine her carefully lifting the photo album from the drawer when no one was in the store and gazing into the pictures, slowly inhaling the fresh air of Greece.
“You miss your home?”
The tears in her eyes were her answer.
There is a common thread among us, connecting us to places so dissimilar and so alike. Sometimes, like travelers on the same road, we meet at the intersection of different faiths, and in their diverse expressions we find a commonality reminding us of familiar beginnings, a spiritual likeness that stays with us on the road to new discoveries.
Other times, we bump into each other on the entrance ramp of a shared place, a common culture, even though on that traveled, yellow bricked road, it’s obvious we’re no longer in Kansas anymore, for had we stayed where we were, never venturing to ask - Where? Who? - we wouldn’t have noticed the other travelers. We’re too familiar with them in Kansas.
Sometimes it’s a prayer rope, or a holy book, or a religious symbol that jars our unconscious longings for traveling companions whose presence carries the scent of our spiritual origins and whose eyes squint toward our ultimate destination. And having waved bye as we travel on, we realize we have just met old friends for the first time.
But you have to look for them, or you’ll swish by them - clerks at cash registers, waiters at restaurants, seat mates on airplanes - and they’ll miss you, too, as casually as you pass strangers on opposite escalators.
And in those moments when we do pause to look, when we dare to inquire, we sometimes, even if only rarely, find ourselves sharing photographs of our mutual pilgrimage.
And along the long and winding road, those encounters can soothe the loneliness of the lonely, the bitterness of the bitter, the weariness of the weary.
Against her earlier recommendation, I bought the medium, not the large sweatshirt.
But my new friend didn’t seem to notice.
She was too busy showing me her life journey in photographs.
Editor’s note: Contact David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., at email@example.com or visit his website, www.Davidbwhitlock.com.