I hopped on the Manhattan-bound “L” train at 10 a.m., late for work. I overslept and took my sweet time getting up. That’s what summer internships are for messing up, right? The car was lightly filled. Most of the people had already made it to their resting places for the day.
The subways are a unique way to be in a forced community with one another from very different walks of life. Our lives collide in extraordinary and soulful ways as we attempt to get to work, friends and our daily chores. Sometimes that means having a woman yell at you about God or having a stranger’s armpit right in your face.
On this particular ride, I collided with Natasha. A young woman who couldn’t be much older than I, in her early 20s, just beginning her journey with life. With a bandana wrapped around her head, dark brown hair outlining her face and giant reusable bags in her hands.
My face was stuck deep within my book. I didn’t even notice her when she sat next to me.
My grandma and grandpa live in a small cul-de-sac on county road 18 in the middle of nowhere California. They’ve lived there in the same house for 50 years, blossoming into a sprawling family full of love. Every Christmas Eve-eve making tamales with my grandma’s sisters and then having another giant feast on Christmas Eve.
Christmas is always a multigenerational, multi-family extravaganza.
My dad describes how every Christmas he can be found sitting next to his “ex-step mother in law’s ex-husband’s stepson’s wife” and how she is the most wonderful woman you could ever meet on the planet. Love palpably oozes out of every crack, corner and crevice.
We’ve had just about everything happen within our family that might be considered anti-catholic by some of today’s loudest Catholic voices: divorce, suicide, gay marriage, babies out of wedlock, alcoholism, drug use, immigration from Mexico, prison sentences—you name it, it’s probably happened in our family.
Life in our family can sometimes be really messy, with that many people and big personalities there are always squabbles, somebody is mad at somebody else or someone has too much to drink.
However, given all this, I’ve never experienced more love and grace than when I’m around those five tables pushed together to make room for everyone.
Natasha looked over my shoulder and asked me what book I was reading. I was re-reading my favorite book from middle school, “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s about a young girl in the South that finds community with her former housekeeper and three black honey farmers in the middle of South Carolina. It touches on community, race, faith and loss in really beautiful ways.
This gradually led into a conversation about our own communities, what we were doing on this Manhattan-bound train and who we were. Natasha and her family moved to New York when she was about five and she’s lived there ever since.
She, like I, has experienced death and addiction in our families. Both of us lost two parents before we got to high school and both of us were raised Catholic. We found ourselves within and of each other in ways we would never have expected.
A lot of times when I go out to a party I have so much fun, but end up feeling unsatisfied. Or, when I repeat my majors introduction for the eight billionth time in a day. It’s similar to when I go to the dining hall and eat a burger or two. It provides me with filling, but not satisfaction.
Talking with Natasha provided something new: connection with other people in a really substantive way. New York is enormous and often times felt overwhelming in the number of people around with connections sometimes fleeting or nonexistent.
Social intimacy and commitment are often a lot harder to come by and less prevalent than most of us think it is in our lives. We have fewer close friends than ever before. Reported loneliness at record high levels. Deaths of despair are higher than ever in our history.
Earlier this week, I picked up Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” A book where Eddie, a grizzled war veteran who dies a terrible death, meets five people who illuminate the unseen connections of his life. Albom’s premise is his version of heaven is a wish to have “people who felt unimportant here on earth- realize, finally, how much they are loved.”
In the book, Eddie meets someone who’s life he didn’t even know he had impacted so deeply and is told, “strangers are just family you have yet to come to know.”
I’ve never felt more holy or more Catholic than being around the table with the communion of saints on earth. Filling my soul with the deeper hunger that I have, that we all have.
This table can be different for each of us, for some it might literally be saint-like figures in our lives, for some it might be playing a video game in a quad with dear friends or around a charcuterie board talking about our deepest worries.
For me, it’s when I’m around those five tables pushed together to fit everyone in. I think about Natasha joining us at that table. A task that might even require pulling up a sixth table. So that my cousin one day might say, “I was sitting next to my step mom’s, step dad’s, grandson’s friend from a subway.”
In my opinion, filling this deeper hunger requires two things, (1) being more intentional about the ways we connect with others and (2) being more open to the unknown gifts of others.
Natasha and I accomplished something on the short subway ride this summer. We filled a deeper hunger. Something that can’t always be accomplished with an all-you-can-eat buffet or a 300-person party.
Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, Peace Studies, Philosophy and Gender Studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food, and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS want to chat and can be reach at @danesherm on twitter or email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.