Sometimes the best conversations happen when you least expect it
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Sometimes a trips story starts before you leave the station. That’s what happened as I readied myself for Europe last year. It all began, harmlessly, at my local Home Depot one day before I left for London.
For those readers outside of North America, Home Depot is a place us Canadians and Americans visit for overpriced do-it-yourself home repair items. We all know its overpriced, we all complain about the mark ups, but we still pay because oh boy is it convenient! And we love convenient, almost as much as we love shiny new things like the quiet-closing KOHLER toilet seat covers from the Santa Rosa collection! A bathroom must-have people! Wait...where did I just go? Ok I'm back again. On with the story.
Brian at Home Depot knew exactly where I could find the item I was in search of - a metallic plastic toilet roll dispenser for my parents. This part did not surprise me, Home Depot employees are pros in their respective fields, and can almost always find you your item, or offer you a home repair solution. What did catch me off guard was that Brian, possibly early 50's, kept starring down at the piece of paper my dad had given me to assist in our toilet roll holder search.
"This is really remarkable," Brian said, as he looked down, his back slightly crooked like he'd had an accident, his unshaven appearance not matching his bright and neatly pressed orange Home Depot apron.
"Is your dad a draftsman?" Brian added. "No" I replied, "But he is a jack of all trades. He's a carpenter, or was, but he could have been a draftsman, or a butcher, a car mechanic, architect, engineer or an astronaut probably."
"Wow, well this is incredible. I've never seen someone go into so much trouble drawing a toilet roll holder before." Brian said, not looking away from the drawing.
He was right. There was a lot of detail here, for just a toilet roll holder. Thats my dad for you though, a perfectionist. He was always doing this kind of stuff - detailing all things, for the lowly IQ'd around him.
Unfortunately, as much as I tried, an idea crept into my head; What if my dad drew the toilet roll holder in so much detail because he did not think I, ME, Goran, his only son, would be able to find it IF he drew anything less? The idea festered like an ugly boil that needed to burst. Life lessons present themselves in unexpected ways.
As I brushed aside my home renovation insecurities I came back into focus and noticed something was happening. Brian had not moved. He just kept starring at the draftsman masterpiece of the toilet roll holder rendering, like he had gone somewhere else, inside the photo. Back in time perhaps?
What did he see inside this sacred picture, with its perfect geometric right angles and compass laden half moon circles? The fact that this could-have-been renaissance artist felt it necessary to write the term 'Toilet Paper' AND included an arrow - haunted my small mind.
Well, it turned out Brian was looking at himself, where he was, what could have been, what had never become. I left him for a few more seconds, not rushing him, and then politely asked where I could find this hallowed toilet roll holder. He looked up, and said, "Ah yes, of course, sorry about that. Please follow me."
Then as we walked through the warehouse, past sad tiles locked in aging plastic wrap begging for a new home, around empty washing machines waiting for dirty socks and towels to give their lives purpose, and back towards washroom fixtures, Brian, someone I had just met a few minutes ago in plumbing aisle 6, began to tell me his life story.
"When I was young, around twenty, I actually dreamed of becoming a draftsman." Brian said quietly. "And the toilet roll drawing brought me back to those days. It's funny really. It's not something I've thought about for a long time."
He continued in detail about his life. As it would turn out, Brian's modest dream of becoming a draftsman unraveled painfully one night when, after a harmless night drinking with friends he tragically broke his neck diving into a shallow river.
"That river," Brian said "I must have dove into that river a dozens times before. Never had any issue. But it must have been really low that night. I knew something was wrong with my neck right away." This I would assume, should be the case when you break your neck and are still somehow alive.
As Brian left for the hospital, his friend, who he would never see again after that night, shouted something Brian would never forget: "Don't worry, its not all bad, you'll probably meet your future wife at the hospital!"
It was a strange thing to say, Brian recalled, but then an even stranger thing happened; Yes - after many months of treatment and eventual partial but not complete recovery, Brian married his nurse!
This photo is not of his actual nurse and future wife, but I like to think that she probably looked just like this.
Unfortunately for Brian, what appeared as a silver lining went south - in a bad way. His accident and eventual marriage prevented him from following his dream to become a draftsman. Time went by, a lot of time. Brian had a family, the marriage had it's issues, new commitments filled his space.
Then the marriage collapsed, they divorced, she took almost everything, and Brian didn't have much left. Which brought him here, eventually, working at Home Depot, helping inept sons with limited home renovation experience find toilet roll holders for their precious know-it-all fathers. Purgatory, if you will, probably was this. Just add an FDA approved serving of David Hasselhoff cheese burger rock ballads.
Toilet roll holder in hand, I took the time to listen, amazed by Brian's story and by how he was comfortable enough to share it with me.
When Brian finished I told him something he may have forgotten long ago - that it was never too late to go back and work towards a dream. That some people wait so long that they forget what their dream was, but Brian clearly still held on to his. I told him it probably wouldn't be easy, but school's come a long way in the past twenty years, and there were likely many more options, online tool classes and correspondence and technical colleges, to make it a reality. I encouraged him to take a look.
And then to walk the talk, I explained that after a seven year break I had rediscovered my love for drawing charcoal art. That I finally decided to show the world what I could do. I put up my website and began promoting my work, with the plan to sell digital prints and have a gallery showing someday in the future. Yes shameless plug below!
Brian thanked me for the advice, I wished him all the best, and I left the store shiny new toilet roll holder in hand, wondering why Brian felt comfortable enough to tell me his life story.
Still digesting, I continued down the road to Best Buy, where my next purchase was that of an Aura H20 e-reader for some family friends. What ever happened to just reading from a good old fashion book people? I was getting old. Or kids were getting smarter. Or both.
But to my surprise, and after a series of unfortunate events, like an grossly understaffed store (more a corporate strategy issue but who is complaining), and mislabeled pricing for the e-reader, I found myself in another long discussion, this time with James, a Best Buy employee who had a few things on his mind. For the record, James was not his real name either, but it was the most popular name given to boys in Northern Ireland for 2016, where he was from, so James it will be!
As we discussed the lack of employees in his store location (first world problems), and waited for a supervisor to adjust the e-reader price, James dug deep on his previous life in Belfast. How the rift between the Catholic and Protestants continued and was deadly serious. How its not reported in western media but should be. How if you look up a headline on any given month there was probably something shocking unfolding like police being attacked, buses being hijacked, banks and buildings being burnt down, and how a wall still separates the Catholics and Protestants to this day, in 2017. So much for 2001 Mr. Arthur C. Clarke?
How James' sister, a police officer, was shot twice in different instances and partially paralyzed after a pipe bomb exploded under her car. She luckily survived thanks to some quick response paramedics.
And that his sister wanted to leave Belfast for Canada, but had joint custody of her twelve year old daughter. James sister couldn't leave until her daughter reached fifteen when legally she could consent to leave Northern Ireland for Canada, if her daughter, by that age, agreed to.
James admitted he felt guilty for leaving the family behind, but in the end worried for his own life. And while this wasn't his dream job, it beat working at the pet salon where he was previously. So many questions on the pet store job but perhaps another time.
Hilariously, James also recalled, while bored at his job a few weeks ago - he had happily surrendered to the sweet release of death, raising his hands in the air and closing his eyes, when everyone in the store thought a Boeing 747 airplane was about to crash into the store imminently. To his disappointment, staff would soon realize a massive speaker had exploded in the home theatre section and no one could figure out how to shut it down. Back to work everyone! Sweet release maybe next time.
The stories continued. Hours later I would meet Monica (not her real name!) on my flight from Vancouver to London. This retired teacher would go on to tell me about how her grandfather was an important historical figure in Wales and that she along with a family friend was hand delivering a portrait of her grandfather to a museum.
She also cooly mention, "oh hey and by the way", that her father escaped from the Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The prison camp was made famous by a film that depicted the ingenious tunnels and tactics of the captured allied airmen who escaped in what would later be immortalized on the big screen as "The Great Escape."
Spoiler alert below - I don't think they actually used a three storey motorcycle to jump the barbwire, but I could be wrong.
Three conversations, in depth and of meaning with three complete strangers; people I had known only for a few moments, and yet they all happened, in the order above, in all that detail. Why? and How? How can we all find a way to engage the people around us, be it strangers or close friends, in more meaningful discussions? And why is it worth doing?
Inspired Tip: How to Find your Focus
It took me some time to digest the three encounters I experienced before arriving in London. On reflection - what I believe allowed those encounters to happen was a few things combined:
1. Being Mindful of the Moment creates a Curious Mind
When I walked into Home Depot looking forward to my trip, I was admittedly relaxed, in a good mood. I was present, in the moment, and awake to my surroundings. I was open to what others had to say. I was able to see with Brian that the draft toilet roll holder drawing had struck a cord, and I genuinely without hesitation wondered why.
With James at Best Buy, I was interested in how he was making the most of his new life in Canada and what regrets he had in the family and life he left behind.
And with Monica, seated next to me on my flight to London, I was curious the new journey and chapter of her life that she was just beginning to understand.
2. Have the Confidence to ask someone "Why"?
People we meet, strangers, friends, best friends, family - all give us hints into their lives. Some hints are more obvious than others. Some are more guarded. Most of the time though, the stories are there, if you're not afraid to ask "Why?"
Giving your ears and time to someone starts by having the confidence to ask a stranger whats wrong, or where they are from, or where they are going next. Finding your focus starts from within but it takes a calm, patient and confident mind to get to the heart of the matter.
Why does it matter? Simple really. The best moments in life are the ones that come from the heart. From a place that is real, that is complex, that takes time to digest and understand. And those conversations, 10 times out of 10, are always worth it.
The beauty in life is all around us, each day, every day. It's in the friends and family we keep. It's in our neighbours. It's in the strangers we walk past when we don’t have time. It's there all around us. If we just make the time to focus.
Yes, we have busy lives. Yes we have much to get done. But make the time each day to live in the moment:
a. Take 10 minutes to talk to a neighbour, ask them whats new!
b. Take 10 minutes to phone a good friend you haven't made time for in a long time,
c. or take the time to talk to a complete stranger you meet in a store or on an airplane, if the moment feels right.
Ultimately these experiences will leave you feeling hopeful about the world around you. It will calm your nerves, and most importantly, in the busy world we live, it will reconnect you to the real you!
Thats all for today! Thanks again for reading. London blog as promised is up next! Don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss the next "The Inspired" blog!
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