I’m slicing ruby strawberries at the kitchen island, breathing in the intoxicating smell as I ready them for jam. The boy stands calmly beside me, his harvest and mine meeting in the steel bowl between us. The kitchen is abuzz with other pairs around us, each busy chopping, measuring, mixing, laughing and chatting. After a few moments, I ask him simply, “So how are you?” These four words open a door, which he chooses to walk through fully, offering a sad smile and proceeding to share a tender story of his first love lost. We have found that sweet spot of kinship beside each other at the island.
Chance conversations that naturally occur between pairs are the heart of our retreats. These unexpected points of connection become the highlights of our time together.These are uncomplicated encounters with few expectations—in situations ripe for interactions that feed us. You can find them while you’re doing small tasks that need some attention but that don’t consume you. You might reach out when you’re driving with someone down a quiet road, not while navigating a city. You could be cutting carrots, but probably not decorating a cake. These windows give just enough space for connection, yet the effortless activity relieves the pressure of what could feel like an intense moment.
We call it having soft eyes when we are open to opportunities for connection. Our gaze is not fixed on a particular person or kind of conversation. Instead, a softness to our view gives us a wider perspective from which to engage. If we’re open, these moments become the foundation of deeper relationships and meaningful lives.
In Our World, poet Mary Oliver describes her soul mate’s intoxicating approach to this kind of attention. Oliver writes,
”But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness—an empathy—was necessary if the attention was to matter.”
It’s not about coming up with the most clever question. Instead, it’s about paying attention to the person right beside you and asking him what you are wondering about. Your tone tells him that there is no place you would rather be.
“How are you?”
“But really, how are you?”
You keep slicing strawberries while he pauses and then starts to share.