Thursday, July 7, 2016

Dis/Re/Connect

A few weeks ago, I was introduced to the idea of familiar strangers.

Realistically, this was putting a name to something I'd already experienced many times over. Familiar strangers are those people you don't actually know but that you see regularly enough that you recognize them. Maybe it's the guy that visits the same coffee shop as you every morning; maybe you both get on at the same bus stop each day. They're not really part of your "circle," exactly -- you probably don't attend the same church or work in the same building -- but they're part of the periphery of your life ... and you are of theirs.

Rapid City is a town that happens to be just the right size for a person to have a lot of familiar strangers in her life. It's large enough that no, you won't know everyone (contrary to the belief of some out-of-towners) but small enough that you can easily run into the same people repeatedly. Your server at that restaurant might be in line behind you at the bank. The couple from three blocks over that walk their dog past your house probably go to the same grocery store as you. 

That guy you cut off in traffic might be headed to your dentist at the same time.

The big catch here, of course, is that it goes beyond this stage more often than people realize.

Familiar strangers, especially in a place like Rapid, are only a step below acquaintance. And at that point, you can very quickly discover that there are limited degrees of separation -- it may turn out that the one person you always see in the coffee shop is your cousin's best friend's husband. Not exactly a direct line ... until someone has a birthday party and you find yourself chatting with someone that looks familiar and you're just not entirely sure why.

Of course, the longer you live in a place, the more transitions you see from familiar stranger territory into acquaintance territory. And the more ties you develop, the faster those transitions happen. Add in a penchant for talking to strangers and the gap time regularly decreases to virtually nothing.

Just for fun, we can also throw in some technological magic and it gets totally insane. Those connections you didn't realize you had can turn up on a photo post. The world is filled with long-lost high school friends. And let's not even talk about the disconnections that come from break-ups and divorces.

The world is only getting smaller, and it's fascinating to see how that plays out in a town like Rapid City.

This odd familiarity is where I'm finding myself now. Between my job and my parents, it seems there are no real strangers in the area. (Even people from way out of town aren't more than a couple steps off. It's insane.) Which means that a basic trip to the grocery store can turn into three conversations, five forgotten ingredients, and a second trip.

It also means I stumble over relatives at crazy times, but that's another story.

It's a double-edged blade. I enjoy running into people most of the time and that feeling of connectedness is intense ... but it's hard to not miss the anonymity of a new place. A remnant of my painfully shy past is my need to sit back and observe; knowing people in every building makes that much more difficult.

I can consider myself lucky -- I traded one good thing for another. That doesn't mean I don't get the urge to turn off my phone and run off into the woods every now and then, though. All these connections can weigh on a person and sometimes a girl has to clear her head.

Once again, I find myself thinking ... 2016. It's an interesting place to live.

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