Perfect Stranger

Sarah Abiya writes short stories; not all the time, but sometimes. She told me this when we were flying. Academic papers aren’t her cup of tea, but sometimes, she says, life plays such conspicuous games that we can’t help but smile and write them down. But I didn’t learn that her first name was Sarah until the end of the three hour flight from Minneapolis to Boston. We wandered through our brief friendship in reverse, discussing dreams and doctorates before meandering through jobs and ending with first names. There was a sense that we had something to learn from each other, that it was more than happenstance that we’d struck up a conversation.

I met her while we were waiting on the on-ramp, as I rummaged, last-minute, in my suitcase. I removed a large softcover from my suitcase, paused, switched for a medium-sized hardcover. I heard a woman’s voice behind me.

It’s a crucial decision, choosing what book to take with you.

I turn, and smile. She shines a radiant smile back.

I smile again when we are seated in the same row, and we strike up a conversation, jumping right to last names when conversation turned to travel. It is her heart’s desire to explore her roots, in Scotland. The Motherland! But wait – Abiya really doesn’t sound like a Scottish name. I start to ask, but my quizzical expression says enough. There’s clan McAllister on my mother’s side. Another thing in common with this stranger on a plane. My family has Scottish in us. Metcalfe, with an “e,” but the e only goes back as far as my great-grandfather. Apparently, he was a very demonstrative man, and he signed a birth certificate as ‘Metcalf’ with such a flourish on the end that it was recorded as an “e”.

She’s in architecture and design, but not flat and literalist, like some engineers. I could see she had a playful sense of poetics, because when I shared about the addition of the “e,” she turned toward me. How wonderful! Born with a flourish! She gushed, eyes bright.

But back to Scotland. The motherland is in her past, but hopefully also in her future. I’m jealous. I would love to go to Scotland. Yes, it’s the last stop on her pilgrimage, she tells me. Pilgrimage. An intriguing choice of words: a ring of adventure, of intentionality, of spiritual path. She explains that the first leg of the pilgrimage took place the year before; she had taken a cycling trip that traced the progression of her extended family through the mid-eastern United States after they immigrated.

She told me how she had attached a mechanical seed-spreader to her bicycle. Whenever she crossed a state line, she bought mixtures of seeds local to the state. As she cycled the route that her family took over the eastern States, her forward motion left a swathe of wildflowers in her wake, scattering the countryside with a thousand little beads of hibernating colors.


Sarah Abiya studied at Harvard Design School. She has a dream to liberate our constructed spaces from the racism and sexism that is built into them, which, she explained, is operating in our cities and buildings and architecture without our consent. Fascinating! In turn, the conversation meandered to my own academic work. I explain that I’m working on an undergraduate thesis, and my topic is ‘male initiation,’ exploring the social importance of rituals that “rein-in” the male personality. Left to their own devices, men just don’t do very well; they tend to go off the rails, at least according to my primary source, a sort-of mystic Christian scholar named Richard Rohr. I try to convey Rohr’s belief is that men easily accept their sense of “power,” but are resistant to an acceptance of their smallness, or their sense of “place,” which is their real value in the context of their community.

But why do men get so much attention? What about women? She looks at me steadily, and I sense that I chose a difficult idea to defend. I defer to my research: “Um, well, Rohr thinks that young women are more grounded, because the pain involved in menstruation and childbirth changes you. He calls them the ‘humiliations of blood.’”
Shit. This isn’t going how I had hoped.

Sarah Abiya has trouble finding words for how wrong I am. “Vehemently,” though, she does find. She vehemently disagrees. I just don’t think that’s right at all. Her hands begin to move in the air, framing her words. She says that it is far from limiting. That she feels endlessly empowered by the potential in her body. That she can’t even imagine it in a pejorative sense!

I wonder aloud whether we’re merely arguing semantics, because despite my studies, I don’t feel that Rohr devalues women by this mechanism of physiology– encountering pain and being reminded of one’s limits is not crippling, but empowering.

She refuses to accept any negative description of her womanhood. I keep arguing – I don’t think it’s a negative thing, I think it’s a good thing, and I think Rohr does too – but we have ventured too far to come to any sort of agreement. She says the momentous power and gravity that it takes to fire and craft a new star from inside her is the quicksilver of potential that inhabits her bloodstream. A cloud of light and sound and dust and will. The conversation trails off, and we are quiet for a minute, shuffling with our books, finding our page.
She flicks on the light above her, and turns to me. Would you like a light?

I pause. No.

She is delighted. This is so symbolic!

I almost sputter, caught off guard, because her implication is delivered so calmly and positively. I stare at her for a second, wide eyed. She tells me she is going to write a short story, which she has been known to do from time to time (not all the time, but sometimes) and include this moment. Please do! You really have to write this short story. I’ll do the same. She agrees, but the air is still thick. and I can’t think of anything light- hearted to say. She must felt some wrongness in my words; resented my participation, perhaps, in generations of accusation. The tension is noticeable. I resume reading my book, Hostage Nation.


Earlier that day, Sarah Abiya saw a man die. Three hours before we met, she patiently waited out her layover in Gate C7 of Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, the 41st busiest airport in the world. She had been sitting facing a glass-walled corridor, transparent enough to see into one of the one of the many hallways through which de-planing passengers would weave their way towards the baggage claims, and through to the tarmac and the bustling of cargo trucks and loading bays. An older man had suffered a heart attack in the air over Minneapolis, and the plane made an emergency landing at the gate directly adjacent to the where Sarah was waiting for her connection. The emergency response team rushed on board, carrying the man out into the wider corridor in front of the seating area, right in front of the seating for Gate C7. Amidst a flurry of voices and arms, they had his shirt open, paddles working, but it was too late. The man’s head turned towards the glass, where a few people sat in shock, and seemed to be looking through them, past them. In the west wing of a human hive, the last leg of her homeward journey, Sarah Abiya witnessed a transformation; gazing through the glass, the man departs. She felt numb. After a couple minutes, she walked to the bathroom in a daze, and cried. Hard.

That was before I met her. And when she told me about it, I had already rambled on for some time, pure speculation on initiation rituals and how we should face mortality. Waxing long-winded about agriculture and prayer beads and mystery, resurrection theology, philosophies of death and mythological phoenixes. Truly, truly, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
All of this talk is just base camp. Transformation is a convenient theory, but it unravels quickly in the whipping winds of our experiences.


I’m hunched over a dim screen in my dorm room, trying to recall superficial details. What was she wearing? Eye color? I debate writing this account from her eyes, first-person, but think it might be a little presumptuous.

Why was his encounter significant? I’ve tried to write it a dozen times, quickly becoming unsure of who I’m writing for. I ruminate on memory, on words, on strangers and conspicuous meetings. The brief moments that should be trivial, but seem to hold a gravity that pulls on one’s chest, prompting the soul to do a double take. I was happy that we parted with good energy between us, sharing a clementine as we waited in baggage claim.

Rubbing my eyes and exhaling, I pull away from the desk, stretch, clasp my hands together and rest them on my head. Our time here is short. I lean back in my chair and stare at the ceiling.

It was important for me to meet someone who was joyful, who was genuinely happy. I realized I was beginning to feel that it was an impossibility, that people didn’t exist with such vibrance.

Sometimes we stumble into metaphors and conversations where wildness eats a hole in our reality. A rare and perfect stranger, like fiction, like art, like fresh air, has a way of beckoning us out of our biases and entrenched thinking. Symbolism and sutra, liminal space, entangled. Sarah Abiya is not a figment of my imagination. At least, I don’t think so.

And the part where we talked about about childbirth. That was important too. The miracle of housing another human, of how we’re all born mysterious. We talked about how magnificent it was that the two of us were sitting side by side, neurons firing, interpreting our lives wildly. First: expose profound truth; second, introduce yourself. Oh, right! I never told you my first name: it’s Sarah. 


[Photo of artwork by Ralf Heynen,


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