The last couple of days I was in Totnes (pronounced Taut-ness, or tot-ness), I stayed at a quaint little hotel called “The Royal Seven Stars”. Quite a royal name, fancy and all, but inside it was actually rather down-to-earth, as was almost everything about Totnes. I would recommend this hotel, as I would also recommend the most charming town of Totnes.
Wednesday morning. I set out from my hotel, feeling adrift and alone after leaving the familiarity of my friend and her home the day before. Anxiety is what I felt, though I recognized it as worry and fear. How the hell was I going to enjoy this day? I’d enjoyed the previous one, wandering up the steep street known as the High Street, and then wandering back down some lesser travelled back roads. There were a million little shops, restaurants, and bakeries. Would today be a mere repeat, nothing more?
I wanted to go to a class that Jenny invited me to attend at Schumacher College at 4 that afternoon, a class about Gaia, or Deep Ecology, taught by Dr. Stephan Harding, who is the resident Ecologist there, and a most adorable and enjoyable teacher. Because of the class, I felt I needed to stay nearby. I decided that Totnes itself had enough of interest to enjoy a second day.
To combat my anxiety, I set myself a task. I’d noticed the great number of dogs in town, the breeds that seemed different than here, and that the people in Totnes actually seemed to like dogs. It felt different than America where it seems other peoples’ dogs are tolerated at best, and there are all manner of restrictions against them.
My self-imposed task would be to photograph as many dogs as I could, and when possible to speak to their owners. Almost immediately I got waylaid. I was a scant two blocks up the narrow main street when I decided to cross to the other side.
I can’t remember whether it was a specific dog photo I was after, or just that the sidewalk was slightly wider on the other side. In any event, I crossed and almost immediately had to maneuver to avoid a collision with a rather substantial (though not obese) woman. I said excuse me and backed myself up against the building. Rather than moving on, she turned to me and started talking. Just like that. I was pleased. I told her I was taking pictures of the dogs of Totnes. She didn’t have one, but she had her life story to tell me. Not the whole one, but a good hour’s worth. At first I felt myself looking longingly at the dogs passing by that I wouldn’t get to shoot because I didn’t want to seem rude.
Then, after awhile, standing there on the side walk, I decided to settle in. I decided to stop considering an exit, and to just be there with this woman who clearly wanted to be there with me. It’s not like she did all the talking, just about 80%. I didn’t care; I loved listening. And occasionally she listened too.
She told me about moving into senior housing, small cottages, near Tavistock, an hour by train away from Totnes. She said the town wasn’t particularly nice, but she’d gotten to know some of the other residents who were mostly older than her, so this was her community. She told me how she’d sat with her mother most every day for the five years her mother was dying until she finally did die a few years ago in her early nineties.
She told me about her marriage and her husband leaving her quite a few years ago, leaving her with two sons who are now grown. Her husband re-married but she never did. She said that even after they’re no longer together he’s still unkind to her in social situations.
At some point, I started feeling a great affection. I asked her name.
Mavis, she said.
I asked her age.
I’ll be 72 on my next birthday, she said.
Ah, me too, I said. When’s yours?
October 2nd, she said.
Ah, I smiled, so I am six weeks older than you.
As she talked, fluidly, easily, good British story-telling, I heard her loneliness, that she doesn’t have someone to talk to much in her daily life. I’m familiar enough with that experience that I felt great empathy for her. Mavis was kind, intelligent, and very alone. By then, I was feeling really happy we’d met. I asked her what she thought about Brexit. She said it wasn’t a good idea, that she was very worried about Brexit. She said she normally votes conservative, but that she can’t stand Boris.
Mavis is what anyone would call “salt of the earth”. She didn’t seem to have a mean bone in her body. But she thought she was old, and she felt discarded. She got to see her sons, but not that often. She’d come into Totnes from Tavistock to “do something different”, to have a look in the thrift shops, of which there are many. I’m sorry I didn’t get her last name or address or something.
I was just re-reading one of Ross Gay’s essays the other night, the one called “The High-Five From Strangers, Etc.” The one that follows “The Negreeting” from his book of short essays, The Book of Delights. Both these essays are extraordinary. In “The High-Five…” Ross tells the story of getting high-fived by a stranger, then describes his feelings.
“…I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my largish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now….”
He goes on to describe an experience in Italy, a trash truck worker’s response to him.
“…hopping out of the truck to dump a couple cans, he flexed his muscles, pointed at me, and smacked my biceps hard. Twice! I loved him! Or when a waitress puts her hand on my shoulder. (Forget it if she calls me honey. Baby even better.) Or someone scooting by puts their hand on my back. The handshake. The hug. I love them both.”
Mavis and I didn’t touch ’til we were about to part. I’d asked if I could get a picture of us. She was hesitant but said ok. I asked a passerby to take the picture. He was hesitant. The only guy I came across in Totnes who seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. But then his wife nudged him and said they had time. And by his expression, I could tell he too realized he had time. Without planning it, Mavis and I naturally put our arms around each other. An unequivocally pleasant public physical interaction with a stranger. I can tell from the picture that I am pleased as punch to be standing there with Mavis. LOL. You can probably tell too. My mother always said I could never hide my feelings. It’s one of the reasons I gave up long ago the idea of being a spy, or lying about anything. I’m transparent. Mavis was a little more reserved about being photographed, but I could tell, right after, when we hugged good-bye that she was pleased as punch too.
I’ll just say, we humans, we need each other. Some of you have that ready-made for you in your home, living with a partner or extended family or friends. And actually Ross Gay does too. But he still loves to connect and to feel the thrill of it. I love that about him. Mavis and I spontaneously gifted each other that day. I left her to her shopping. I proceeded to take a hundred dog pics and still had time to get to the Deep Ecology class. It was a great day!