alternate reality

how to have a better life alternate reality red door in a field

I’m not quite halfway through a wonderful vacation in Florida. Last week, just after I arrived, I stopped at the nearest grocery store to stock up on all of my vacation favorites: pineapple, cherries, pudding cups and channa masala (yes, mom, I’m eating other things, as well). Check-out was uneventful and I was back loading the fridge in no time.

“Cool story, bro,” you say in a monotone with drooping eyelids.

I agree. It’s not a very interesting story.

Yet isn’t that how most of the moments of our lives go? We do our job. We talk to the same people about the same things. We go to the same market and buy refills of the same list of items we always buy. Checkout is pretty much the same each time. We go home. We flip on the TV and watch the same station, the same shows. We check our email. We go to bed. We do it all again the next day.

I want to tell you that there is an alternate reality available to anyone wondering how to have a better life.

how to have a better life: there is an alternate reality available to anyone wondering how to have a better life.

My own alternate reality was, in fact, the boring one I depicted above. My real reality at the grocery store went like this:

I’m not quite halfway through a wonderful vacation in Florida. Last week, just after I arrived, I stopped at the nearest grocery store to stock up on all of my vacation favorites: pineapple, cherries, pudding cups and channa masala. The cashier at the check-out line was an older woman, perhaps in her mid-seventies. She smiled pleasantly enough and asked the usual question: “Paper or plastic?”

I picked up on the way she said the “L” sound in “plastic” and decided to go out on a limb.

<< Вы русская?>> (“Are you Russian?”) I asked her.

She immediately stopped ringing items, reached across the conveyor and clutched my hand.

<< Да, русская, очень спасибо! >> (“Yes, I am, thank you so much!”) she beamed, smiling broadly now with tears welling.

Not much throws me, but her reaction caught even me a little off-guard.  I couldn’t help but match her smile, and I even felt the sting of tears right along with her. For some reason, this interaction was very meaningful for her. We continued in Russian, as she scanned my items.

“I’m Erik. Why so thankful?” I asked her with a quizzical raise of eyebrow.

“Hello, Erik! I’m Svetlana! I have been here a long time now,” she told me, “and it has been many years since anyone has spoken to me in my own language.” She wiped a tear away as surreptitiously as possible with one hand, while reaching for some yogurt with her other. “Is your family Russian?”

“No,” I said. “I study a bit on my own, but I don’t have many opportunities to speak.”

“You speak well!” she gushed, giving voice to her previously unspoken compliment. “Not just one word, but whole sentences and with strong voice!” She punctuated the last words with a determined face and firm shake of her fist.

“Well, thank you very much!” I laughed, truly flattered at the sincere compliment.

All of the food was through and it was time to pay. She patted my hand once more, grinning that wide grin with still-moist eyes. “Thank you! Please come back and see me.”

“My pleasure, and I will! See you soon then, Svetlana.”

“Until then, Erik.”

The whole exchange took not more than a couple of minutes, but it was remarkable. What would otherwise have been a mundane activity had been transformed into a beautiful and memorable moment of connection between two real people. She was no longer “the cashier.” I was no longer “the customer.” We were just two new friends.

The middle-aged woman bagging my items had filled the cart again and asked, “Help?” I could tell her first language was Spanish both by her accent and the name on her tag: Rosa.

“Yes, thanks, Rosa,” I said in English, still smiling. I could tell that Rosa had been intent on the exchange between Svetlana and me. Though she did not understand what we had said, she was clearly moved by it, realizing she had witnessed something deeply and personally meaningful to her co-worker. When we’d completed the short walk to my car and all the food was nearly inside, I addressed Rosa again, in Spanish this time. “¿Y dice español, Rosa, verdad?” (“And you speak Spanish, Rosa, right?”)

Rosa’s reaction was just as priceless and full of personality. She drew in a long breath with an open mouth and almost flirtatious look, as if I’d just told her she was beautiful. “¡Ay, sabe, claro!” she sang, clearly meaning (if not outright saying), “Oh, I see how you are, mister! You speak my language, too!” The change in her was immediate and drastic. She felt included. She felt valued.

I thanked her briefly in Spanish and wished her a good day, as she did in return.

Now, in all honestly, my exchanges with both women were of the most rudimentary sort. Beginner level, really. But the languages themselves are not my point here. Speaking even one word of another language is not a key factor in leaving your hum-drum rut behind and entering the alternate reality waiting all around you. Here are the ingredients for those of you wondering how to have a better life starting right now. Ready?


Notice.

Keep your eyes open. Every human being around you is a real person, just like you, with a whole life of experience to share, if even just for a moment.

Be intentional.

As you go about your day – before you even head out the door, in fact – make it your purpose to treat people as people, and to allow time to connect, to listen and to learn something new about others.

Take risks.

The *zing* that comes with going outside your comfort zone is a wonderful thing. It gets the blood pumping. It wakes you up – physically, mentally and emotionally. It makes you feel alive.


I come across as a pretty confident and outgoing guy. And in most ways, I am. But I’ll be honest. It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken either Russian or Spanish to a native speaker; and even my one-to-one encounters across a lifetime don’t really amount to all that much. It could have gone really badly! I was in a time-pressured situation with people waiting behind me at the check-out. What if she wasn’t really Russian and I’d misheard that “L” sound? What if I just wound up making a fool of myself? What if I didn’t know the words and, under the time constraint, it became awkward; or worse yet, if I wound up inadvertently saying something offensive. What if … ?

I say SO WHAT? That’s why positive social risks are called risks – because there is always a personal challenge involved and the chance that it won’t go as planned. The key is to take yourself a little less seriously in life. Motive speaks louder than actions. And if it’s an absolute fail, will it matter in a year (or even a week, or a day … or a minute later)? Don’t let fear lock you into the endless patterns of an unremarkable life.

how to have a better life: Don't let fear lock you into the endless patterns of an unremarkable life.

How many cool, memorable and energizing moments are you missing out on each day? More importantly, how many will you determine to find – to create ­­– from here on out? I encourage you to explore the alternate realities awaiting all around you, until they become your new reality.

Do you have your own “alternate reality” story to share, of how an otherwise routine moment was transformed by your choices, or the choices of someone else in your world? Why not encourage other readers by sharing it below?

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

47 responses to “alternate reality

  • Gigi Sedlmayer

    Awareness really can change the world, I am coming across that again and again and do it myself wherever I can. Well done and said Eric.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Donald Swan

    Thank you Erik for a wonderful and potentially life altering story!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Hi, Donald. Thanks for stopping by, reading and taking the time to comment. I do believe it is potentially life altering, but not because of me – because of the power of being intentional, treating people as people, and putting simple kindness to good use. This is something everyone can (and I hope will) do. I appreciate your own kind words about the post; but I also know that I have no power to alter anyone’s life. That power lies solely within the individual, to choose what kind of life they will have.

      Like

  • Kev

    Reblogged this on Kev's Great Indie Authors and commented:
    Great advice from a truly talented conversationalist… Welcome to Kev’s Rollover Sunday, Erik!

    Liked by 1 person

  • aFrankAngle

    Love your exchange with the two ladies at the grocery store. Fantastic! .. and I notice some familiar faces in the comments here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Thanks, Frank. I loved it, as well. 🙂 Plenty of lovable moments to go around; we can each take as many as we want.

      And, isn’t that funny, how our “peeps” start popping up everywhere? It’s my favorite thing about social media – the “social” part. I’ll hop over to your own blog and check it out.

      Like

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    A small pebble changes the flow of a stream.
    Our reality is constructed daily by what is chosen to see, to say, to do – and what is left to pass by.
    A little reach is as important as a longer one.
    (“Claro” – now that’s often said in Spain, and California. Not so much so with the local Spanish dialect here. How language changes is/used in different locations is intriguing.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      OK, first, I just learned something. Is your name Karen? I’ve thought it was “Phil” (and I believe have even addressed you as such elsewhere!).

      Thanks for adding your welcome voice and word pictures. Right you are – it all comes down to little choices along the way.

      And regarding language, yes, I find it fascinating, as well! Of course, Florida is a national melting pot. Rosa could have come from anywhere, Spain or Cali included!

      Like

  • Kev

    It reminds me of when I first visited Spain and the waiter was so surprised when I ordered our drinks in Spanish and we had a little exchange. He kept coming back to our table to ask if everything was all right with our food, but I knew what he really wanted was to find out more about us, while at the same time, his body language clearly showed he hoped he wasn’t imposing too much. It was really very pleasant. And we did return.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      Love your story, Kev. Any time I hear someone complain that people in other parts of the world are “rude to Americans,” I have to wonder if it’s that the American went to this country with the idea that it was some annex to the USA, like a theme park, where the people there exist for our entertainment and ease. I’ve always found, as you experienced, that the smallest attempt to speak the native language is greeted with joy, pleasantness and helpfulness.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kev

        I agree… but it’s not just Americans; a lot of Brits are the same way. 🙂 The same kind of people expect others to speak English when they visit here or America, yet make no attempt to reciprocate when visiting other countries, and expect the same there. They expect to be accommodated on all fronts… Is there any wonder that others may come across as rude? 😀 Loved you article. You have a way of showing how things can be done, rather than telling. Very good. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  • reocochran

    I am excited to know these qualities about you and hope the rest of your vacation goes well, with pleasant adventures. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Thank you for taking the time to read, encourage and share your wishes regarding my vacation. It’s the longest vacation of my life, and I’m almost starting to feel like I live here (in a good way). The key is living in moments, never looking ahead to “how much is left.” We knew how to do this as kids, and that’s why summer days lasted forever.

      Liked by 1 person

  • lbeth1950

    I love you, Erik, but when I tried to order in Spanish I asked for fire trucks. The waiter snorted snot in my drink. I tipped him double.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      “Fire trucks” and snot or not, you had an “alternate reality” to the boring one that would have happened had you not tried. And kindness works just as well in one’s native tongue (usually with less snot involved). Thanks for reading and taking the time to share a moment even now.

      Like

  • D. Wallace Peach

    Great post, Erik. I’m impressed by your language skills! What an instant way to connect. Great example and so…you 😀

    Back in my old project management days, we struggled with deadlines, problems, and profit margins. It could get pretty contentious. I realized early on that what I did wasn’t building highrises, but building relationships. It was those relationships more than anything else that made the projects successful.

    You are so right that it often takes little effort to connect and brighten the day of another. Noticing that a cashier is more than just an electric scanner is easy and not much of a risk really. We can all do it. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      Thanks for stopping by and adding your unique take, Diana. It’s interesting that you refer to “back in my old … days.” It got me thinking that much of what people consider a “social risk” today was just considered common courtesy “back in the day” (and not so long ago, at that).

      It struck me as odd and refreshing when visiting France, that people generally smile and greet one another, as well.

      But there is no use in bemoaning “the way others are” or “the way it was.” All you and I can do is choose to make our own encounters and moments “the way it is” on our own pathways.

      It’s clear from our own interactions that you’re right in the pocket on your own “alternate reality,” sharing valuable information, spreading cheer, caring for others, and noticing. Your blog is a perfect example – I’ve seen no better example of care and positive attention than with your readers.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jed Jurchenko

      It’s funny, I work a people-focused career, and also know about deadlines, paperwork, and profit margins. These can easily take the focus off of people and on to productivity. But if a person focused approach is possible in product management, I’m sure I can do it too. I think making relationship skills a priority is key, no matter what field your in 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      • Erik

        It has always struck me as odd when people lose the focus in “people fields” like education, counseling, etc. Again, we always have a choice. Our choices may not always result in changing the system; but they will absolutely result in changing our own interactions and impact.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Jed Jurchenko

          Yes. It’s disappointing when this happens. It’s also surprisingly easy to do. I was certainly surprised by how much some of these “people and helping fields,” can get bogged down by politics, meetings, and paperwork. I think this is one reason blogs and life-coaching have become so popular. On one hand, the politics, meetings, paperwork, and formal process, provide a level of professionalism. On the other hand, the real and raw personal connection is diminished. I think blogs like this one, fulfill that need for honest and real interaction.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Erik

            People before process. This doesn’t mean we sing Kumbaya or coddle every person’s whims or whines around a table. It means that we remember why the process is even in place, and we act accordingly with that guiding thought at the forefront.

            Like

  • Jed Jurchenko

    I love how you are willing to take risks to connect with others. I didn’t know that you speak Spanish and Russian too–that is impressive! I’m still working hard to figure out English, especially that spelling part 🙂

    But seriously, this is a very cool story and your post is an excellent reminder for me to slow down. I appreciate stories like these because I’ve had a number of brief connections that were incredibly meaningful. In fact, it’s a connection with our previous college dean–who spoke with me for about 15 minutes to help me transition to a new career–that caused my life to shift directions completely. The end result of this interaction was my choosing to return to college. This led to becoming a licensed therapist, two books (so far), and my blog. But none of that would have happened, if this man didn’t pause what he was doing and take the time to connect.

    Thanks for the reminder of just how important it is to slow down and focus on others. Wishing you an incredible rest of your vacation!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      You present another cool example of “alternate reality” entered in mere moments, because you are living one. Your path was unquestionably altered by the choice of one person to really see you, empathize and, as you say, “slow down” for you. Where might your “alternate reality” be right now if he had not?

      As it happens, you and I are also friends because of slowing down to connect in a moment, keeping that “social” in social media. And you were the person through whom I learned the route I chose for publishing the book, along with countless other encouragements along the way (including this very moment).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sean P Carlin

      I think Erik’s story also illustrates that the more eclectic our interests and skill sets are (I didn’t realize he spoke multiple languages, either, Jed, and I’m incredibly envious as that’s been a pending item on my own bucket list for a while now!), the more engaged we are in the world around us — and the more everyday opportunities emerge for us to engage in/with that world. In this case, familiarity with a foreign language — a skill few of us need in America (and even in an increasingly English-speaking world) — allowed for an instance of empathy (which Erik, to his credit, wisely seized) that became a moment of true human connection. We’d all do ourselves a great service, I think, by aspiring to polymathy, which, theoretically, should be easier than ever in a world in which the sum total of human knowledge and experience is now but a Google search away…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Erik

        I agree, Sean. Time seems to always be the uncontrollable factor; but we do have access to learn nearly anything we might wish, absolutely free. In fact, there are many sites where you can actually trade teaching for learning. So if you wanted to learn, say, Farsi, you would choose someone you click with and trade a half-hour English less for a half-hour Farsi lesson &ndah; all live, face to face and dynamic.

        I will say, however, that, yes, my language familiarity opening these particular alternate realities this time. But the underlying factor is that I noticed. I paid attention. I have a mindset that people matter. And that could just as easily led to a different alternate reality, had I not known Russian or Spanish (in fact, this happens quite often with cashiers and other workers who speak English just fine; what I happen to notice about them and engage with them over would just be something else).

        I just don’t want people to think I’m a special case. I’m not. I use what I have in my repertoire. And every person can make that choice, based on choosing to value people and be available with whatever is in the scope of your own current life experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  • Sue Vincent

    Awareness… it really does change the world and the way we walk through it.

    Liked by 2 people

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