Friday Takeaway: Small World

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home, Monday, June 5, 2017. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Not long ago, an acquaintance of mine said to me: “During a flight, I chatted with the passenger next to me. And guess what, Ilan? He knew you well, perhaps from your childhood. Small world!” 

The expression puzzled me. The implication was that the impersonal universe we inhabit is ruled by coincidence. 

To me, the expression conveys something more literal. Imagine our interpersonal relationships as three concentric circles: The first circle is populated by people with whom we have close ties. They might be family members, close friends and other loved ones. They know us best. They are our long-term companions. Without them, we wouldn’t be who we are. This tends to be a tightly-knit circle, and we guard it proudly. Any loss to it is immeasurable and painful. I experienced such a loss recently when Joanie, my wife Alison’s mother, and one of the most important women in my life, died. My small world suddenly became smaller and lonelier. 

The second circle is larger than the first. It includes people one sees on a regular basis: friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc. In my case, it also includes students, which makes it large. This circle is rather porous. People find new jobs and move away. They fall in love. Or they simply change directions. You stop seeing them. And then, new faces appear and become just as familiar. It is essential to learn how to stomach these losses and embrace the revolving door of these friendships. 

Loss and gain are intricately related. The person my acquaintance heard about during her flight — I never got enough details to identify him — belongs to an incarnation of the second circle that ceased to be current a long time ago. Our past is made of those incarnations. The most permanent characteristic of nature is change: We shed people the way we shed clothes. And our future is defined by additions we make to those circles, additions that sometimes happen without us noticing them.

The third and final circle is by far the least stable. It is made of people we don’t actually know. They are the extras in our lives, just as we are the extras in theirs. Routine allows us to spot them in the same places — waiting punctually for the school bus to arrive at 7:35 in the morning, making pizza six days a week in 12-hour shifts, cleaning houses, selling flowers, and so on. If we don’t pay attention, they are easy to miss.

I habitually entertain myself by making up the narratives of people I don’t know, the residents in this third circle. For instance, I imagine the story of the woman who every afternoon sits in the children’s section at the local library. She is there a couple of hours before working the night shift at Walmart. The room she rents is several miles away. It isn’t welcoming, but for now she has no other option. She got it through a reference from a friend of a friend. Having arrived from Haiti some years ago, she has limited English. That’s why she reads children’s books. While the ones she likes are by Dr. Seuss, she isn’t sure they are helping expand her lexicon as much as she would wish.

I see her whenever I walk by the library. She never acknowledges me. We cross paths not long before I recognize the construction worker who, as I imagine him, is at that time of day on his way to pick up his daughter from preschool. He does occasionally see me. When he does, he smiles. Once, when I accidentally dropped the plastic bag I was carrying, its contents — a bunch of letters — spilling all over the sidewalk, he quickly came to my aid. My intuition tells me he is from El Salvador. His parents and siblings are likely there. If so, he probably wires them money, which the family refers to as remesas. Although the construction worker is undocumented, he has his own house, which he bought a decade ago. It is under his name and that of the mother of his daughter. They pay real-estate and other taxes. If prompted, he will tell you he feels American, not Salvadoran.

The lazy word to describe these people is strangers. Strangers are replaceable. But if we are honest, the truth is that strangers are also those in the first and second circles. We are all strangers. 

It is unquestionable that this third circle is wider and less tangible than the others. The connections in it are tenuous. In what way is the woman reading Dr. Seuss in my world? She might as well be in someone else’s. Still, one of the qualities of our universe is its insidiousness. Things enjoy being ephemeral. And they like being unfamiliar. It is up to us to grant them a place in our lives, to give them permanence. 


Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.