Archive for September, 2020

September 1, 2020

Eulogy for the Tiny Relationship

by Cynthia
Photo by Mat Reding on

Life was full of tiny relationships before the pandemic. They were like movie shorts, little bite-sized moments of connection that buoyed us as we went about our daily tasks. They occurred between random strangers who inhabit our orbit, but don’t take up permanent residence in the landscape of our psyches. Like the teenage boy who sacks groceries at the Kroger in my town. Because he is forced to wear a name badge, I can lob out a bid for conversation by saying, “Hi, Drew, how’s your day going?”, and there isn’t much he can do to ignore me. Often the Drews of my world appreciate being seen as real people and not just flesh covered robots, so they respond and lob a question back at me. Bam. A tiny relationship has just occurred.

Other tiny relationships happen less intentionally, like my maybe not so tiny relationship with Nancy, the woman who washes my hair when I go to the salon for a highlight. Ours was one of the tiny relationships I took for granted before the pandemic. Nancy and I talked about our grandchildren and recipes for things like fried green tomatoes and what comes first, flour or cornmeal, while she performed her divine ritual of hair-washing. She is the only other person in the world who washes my hair. I miss her.

Tiny relationships sometimes sneak up on us. Sometimes we don’t really welcome them but get sort of roped in by trying to be polite. Sometimes they change our lives.

I was in Louisville on a blustery Spring morning in 2019, the before times. I was leaving the Brown Hotel walking south on Broadway. As I approached the corner, a woman with kinky grey hair and baggy blue pants stood beside a grocery cart filled with plastic bags, water bottles, and a worn woolen blanket. She was agitated and kept walking toward the crosswalk, then veering back under the awning that ran along the ground floor of the hotel. I was a student at Spalding University, and like Drew, my grocery store buddy, had on my name badge as I walked to class. The woman rushed over to me and said,

“Cynthia, I need you to help me!”

We are disarmed when someone uses our name. We should all, every day, walk around with name badges on, large ones with bold print so people can read them from far off. Especially now that we can’t touch people, now that we are supposed to stay six feet away from everyone, name badges would make us feel less afraid. “Hey Cynthia,” the person pumping gas across from me might say.

” Good morning, Joe,” I’d reply.

“Gracias, Cynthia,” the server at the Mexican restaurant where we get take-out could say, and I’d answer,

“Gracias, Alejandro! Como estas?”, and there you go, a tiny relationship is begun.

The woman in Louisville grabbed my arm as the pedestrian crossing signal turned green and displayed the twenty second countdown before the cars on 3rd would be unleashed.

“I’m afraid of the wind,” she said as she anxiously searched the sky.

How awful is it to be homeless, living each day exposed to the elements, and be afraid of the wind? Isn’t it enough to be homeless?

“What’s your name?” I asked as we started across the street.

“Elaine,” She replied, not looking at me.

“Well, Elain, you are doing great. The wind is strong today, but we are almost across.”

Elaine was not comforted. She continued to watch the sky and walk as fast as she could, her grip on my arm constant and firm.

A huge gust swept down on us, and Elaines’ eyes widened in fright, her hair blown back off her face as if an electric current had just passed through her body. She was terrified.

We reached the curb just as the crimson hand signaling STOP began flashing.

“We made it Elaime. Are you okay?”

I wanted to ditch my classes, walk to the bagel shop with Elaine and buy us breakfast. I wanted to hear Elaine’s story, discover how she navigated homelessness and again and the damn, relentless wind. This woman knew things I needed to learn.

“Thank you, Cynthia,” Elaine said as our fellow crosswalkers buzzed past us down 3rd. Then she pointed her cart going east on Broadway and took off, keeping as close to the buildings as she could. I watched her for a moment, disappointed, and inspired.

 My tiny relationship with Elaine changed my life. When something happens for which I feel unprepared and anxious, Elaine’s fear, and her brave permission to ask for help remind me that, I too, must do things every day that scare me. I too, can ask for help. There is much in the world right now that frightens me. Things that feel as violent and powerful and as out of my control as the raging wind. I need the tiny relationships with people in my world as a buffer.

One danger of the pandemic is that we begin to view the strangers we meet with suspicion. Could they be infected? Will they come too close to me? What I want to think when I meet a stranger is: What burden are they bearing? What do they love? What are they offering to me, to the world? What might we create together?

I’ll keep talking to the Drews of my world, and hope for more Elaines to appear. I’ll speak up, so our words can reach each other through the fabric that keeps us safe. I will not give up my tiny relationships and I will rejoice when, someday, we can reach out and take the arm of a stranger. The wind is strong, but we are almost across. 

Photo by Emiliano Arano on