What I Realized After An Interaction With A Stranger In The Craft Store

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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After the wildest, most chaotic days in my house, once the kids are all finally asleep at night and I crack open a beer, snuggle on the couch with my husband, and flip on the Food Network, I can usually look back on the day and see one common element—my kids’ desire for my attention. Anyone’s attention, really. This natural human need for acknowledgment means they vie for who is loudest, who is best at [insert baseball, soccer, Minecraft, crafting, etc. here], or who is funniest and can tell the most obnoxious fart jokes.

Knowing that my kids just want be seen, just want to be validated, just want to know they are important, that they matter—it’s this parenting realization that also taught me something about the world outside the walls of my home.

I was in Michael’s craft store the other day, waiting in line to check out. My kids were in school, and to be honest, I am not much of a small talker when I’m alone. Maybe it’s my East Coast upbringing, or maybe it’s because after being a SAHM for 10 years, I relish the quiet of having no kids hanging off my body, but either way, when I am running errands, I usually get my shit done, shoot the cashier a thank you, and move along. I am not there to make friends.

So when someone tapped me on the shoulder while I perused the stuffed animal rack conveniently placed by the registers so as to drain the last of our pennies (and willpower), I was annoyed at first. Ugh, I thought. Whyyyyyy is someone talking to me right now?

But then, I saw a man who looked to be my age or older. He pointed to the stuffed animals I was looking at and smiled. He picked one up—a spider monkey—and handed it to me. I quickly realized he was non-verbal.

I’ll admit I have limited experience interacting with grown adults with disabilities who cannot communicate the way I’m used to. At first, I was flustered and looked around me. I saw a woman ahead of me in line, a few feet away watching him, watching us. She looked a bit concerned, but didn’t intervene.

I realized something in that moment. I realized how often this man has probably tapped someone on the shoulder, only to be met with a fake smile and a back turned. Or worse, ignored completely. I realized this because, to be honest, that’s what I almost did. I almost smiled meekly and turned away. And not for any other reason than because it was uncomfortable for me.

For me.

Me, the person with no communication struggles. With no special needs. Who doesn’t need a caretaker. Who can live independently, have a career and a family without limitations. Because I was unsure of how to respond, it would have been easier to merely turn away and ignore the human being standing next to me.

Here’s what happened though. (And I’ll say this: I don’t know if I did everything right that day, or if I did anything right at all.) Here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t turn away from this man. I didn’t ignore his existence. I smiled back (a real one), held the stuffed monkey he handed me, and told him that my daughter would love that one. Then I picked up a unicorn to show him in return. And for about five minutes, this man and I looked at stuffed animals together, and I saw him.

I saw kindness. I saw joy. I saw a man trying to show the person next to him a stuffed animal. A man who wanted and deserved to be seen.

I wonder if that’s often what plagues our society. When our government suggests rolling back the civil rights the LGBTQ community has fought so hard for, or when white Americans deny the racism that permeates the daily lives of people of color, or when women come forward with stories of abuse and are not believed. I wonder if that’s the worst part for my friends and neighbors in marginalized groups—feeling invisible.

I haven’t felt invisible very many times in my life. I was an extremely extroverted kid (annoyingly so). I was in theater and dance and had friends over nearly every day. Like my kids, I was loud. I told jokes. I performed for anyone and everyone. Always at the front of the crowd. Always heard. Always seen.

But as a mom, I’ve had days where I feel taken for granted. Like, do all the other people in this house know how the laundry gets washed, folded, and put away? Or how cooked food continues to appear on the kitchen table? Or how the pediatrician appointments are always made and the uniforms are always cleaned and the permission slips are always signed and carefully put back into their backpacks? No, they don’t. So much of what I do goes unnoticed, and I often feel like a ghost that passes from room to room in this house, unseen and ignored.

However, when I sit on the couch at night with my husband, drinking that beer and watching Chopped, I realize I am not invisible. I’m needed, valued, and they do see me, even if they forget to say “Thank you, Mom, for washing my shit-stained underpants.”

But what about people who truly pass through life, greeted by society with fake smiles, or worse, backs turned? Because it’s uncomfortable to engage with them. Because it’s awkward for some people to talk to a man holding hands with another man. Or someone who you think looks masculine but is wearing a dress. Or someone in a wheelchair. Or someone who is nonverbal and taps you on the shoulder at Michael’s craft store.

I understand, because it’s been awkward for me too. It was awkward for me last time I visited my 96-year-old grandmother in the senior center where she’ll spend the rest of her days. As I made my way down the hall to her room, I passed other residents sitting outside their rooms, in their wheelchairs, and many called out to me. Many were just saying hello, but some were confused and thought I was their granddaughter, there to visit them.

It was uncomfortable to have elderly men and women reach out and try to grab my hand, try to get me to stop and talk to them, or take them somewhere.

Again, uncomfortable for me, the person who doesn’t need assistance and who is never lonely and whose life is full of friends, and laughter, and family that are around me a little bit too much some days.

I’ll bet some of those people feel completely invisible, completely forgotten.

And I wonder if when we say to the members of the LGBTQ community that their issues don’t matter, that they don’t deserve to live their lives in whatever way they feel comfort and acceptance and love, that they feel invisible.

And I wonder if when our government says to immigrants that they aren’t welcome here, that we view them as a threat or an inconvenience, that we’ll go so far as to take their children away from them, that they too feel like no one sees them.

Or when a woman says she was sexually harassed or assaulted, degraded, made to feel like she was nothing, and then to twist the already sheering knife, no one believes her, I wonder if she feels like a ghost too.

Or when white Americans continue to deny the existence of white privilege and deny that even though a black person can be arrested for sitting peacefully in a Starbucks, or cannot enter his own apartment without fear of the cops being called, white America will still say that racism isn’t a problem in this country, I imagine they want to shout from every rooftop so that we all see and recognize the truth they have to live every day. In fact, I know they are exhausted and infuriated that they have to keep saying it, and the same people refuse to listen.

Maybe it’s actually not about me and my discomfort. Because as white, hetero, cisgender person in suburban America, I already feel seen.

I see it in my kids—they just want the world to know they exist. That they are smart. That they are funny. That they have talent. And worth. And I’ve come to realize that this is a natural human desire that never goes away, and that sadly, some people go their entire lives without having it fulfilled.

Obviously there’s no magical potion to fix America’s issues. Good Lord, I wish there were. But at least we can start turning back around and looking at each other—even if it’s uncomfortable and we’re not sure if we’re doing it right. Even if we disagree or don’t understand. And eventually, maybe we can stop turning our backs in the first place.

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