hope floats

hope floats - cruise ship at sunset

For those avid readers of The Best Advice So Far: the blog, you’ll have noticed that there was no Friday post last week. This is because I was out to sea, unplugged from WiFi and Internet access, as I headed out from Miami to the Bahamas as part of my younger brother’s wedding celebration.

As a side note, I should tell you that, as much as I enjoy digital connection and writing, the break did my soul good. You should give it a whirl sometime. However, my focus in this post will not be on making room for silence in your life or how important it is not to let technology interfere with our human interactions. Those are both important topics. But today, I want to let you in on an intriguing human phenomenon I witnessed during this oceanic excursion.

We arrived in Miami on a Saturday evening. My sister-in-law-to-be picked us up at the airport, where we promptly got lost in construction and confusing signage, turning a 7-minute ride to the hotel into nearly an hour-long “adventure.”

The hotel was a tall gray building, standing out above the downtown Miami skyline. There was some kind of circus in town, as well as a concert by a major artist and a prominent bike race. It was mayhem. There was no parking at the hotel, even though it had been paid for.

Once we checked in, our small traveling group was tired and hungry (they didn’t even have little bags of pretzels or nuts on our flight). But feeling frazzled, most of them didn’t feel like hunting down a restaurant; so they just made their way down the block the multi-level grocery store and decided on grab-and-go “meals” they would eat back in their rooms.

Some of the wedding party had already arrived and were out and about. Others had to be picked up in shifts as they arrived mere hours apart back at the airport.

I myself wasn’t particularly fazed by all of this. I enjoyed the change of scenery and multicultural population of Miami. But in addition to interacting with strangers on a regular basis, I’m also an observer. And what I noticed was that people seemed very guarded. The streets were crowded with people, but even huddled at crosswalks, elbow to elbow, people went to great lengths not to look one another in the eye or greet each other – not even with a silent nod or smile.

Some of my party hid for the rest of the evening in their rooms, exclaiming that they’d been “stared down” by the “sketchy” and “scary” people on the streets. Constant stern reminders were doled out regarding keeping money and valuables in your room (hidden well, because “these people will steal it right from your room”).

The next day, Sunday, I made plans to meet up with an author-friend I’d connected with online. As I waited for him to pick me up, I was chided curbside by a relative stranger who sucked his teeth and questioned my judgment and warned me about “these people down here,” expressing in ominous tones, and with much wagging of head, that I’d likely be kidnapped or chopped into little pieces and hid in a dumpster, and just what did I think I was doing?

Later, while my author-friend and I explored the marketplaces downtown and grabbed some lunch, I got several texts from my mother, asking me if I was OK (interpret “still alive”) and assuring me that if I needed to escape, I could run away, hide somewhere and call her, and she’d come and rescue me. I assured her in return that I would certainly keep that option handy.

At the time these dire messages came through, the “murderer” and I were eating gourmet French macarons we’d just purchased from the authentic Parisian pâtisserie, Lauderée. I had to laugh at the irony. In fact, the only escaping called for was trying to extricate ourselves from the sales pitch of a seductive Israeli girl exclaiming what beautiful eyes we had as she tried to sell us some magical “diamond dust” exfoliant (valued at $239 per jar, but if you don’t tell anyone, she’ll sneak it to you for her super-secret rate of just $39.95, because you are a very rare person indeed, whom she likes much more than all the other average schmoes out there).

Well, as you can see, I was not murdered.

The next day, we all got gussied up for the wedding and headed by shuttle to the cruise ship loading area. The woman who welcomed us and instructed us to fill out the health forms before approaching the check-in desk was exuberant and had a genuine smile. We were ushered around the long queue of travelers to a place at the far end of the counter, where we were cleared for early boarding, with the onboard wedding not quite two hours away.

Now, perhaps another time I’ll talk about the wedding itself; but it does not quite fit here or help make the point, since it was held in a private function room with family only. Suffice it to say that, for the hundreds of weddings I’ve been part of (mostly as a musician), I’d never before been part of a wedding aboard a ship. Everything was very last-minute, but came off just fine. We celebrated. We ate. A lot. We were pulled aside at every turn by the cruise photographer asking us to do Darth Vader chokeholds and whatnot. And I gained a sister-in-law. (Hey, sis.)

It was after the wedding, however, when the cruise ship finally headed out to sea, that the second phase of my very interesting observation began.

See, as I looked around me, I saw people who to all appearances were very much the same as those on the streets of Miami. In fact, all of them had been people on the streets of Miami for at least some period of time before boarding the ship, just as we had. There were big black dudes (like Andre) and Cubans (like Martez); there were Latinos and Latinas (like Franco and Maria), Indians (like Sachen and Narayanan) and Islanders (like Lennox). There were people from every nationality we had seen the prior two days on the streets of Miami, and then some. There was even a group of Deaf people traveling together. Young and old. Married and single. Fat and thin. Gay and straight. Groups and loners.

But suddenly, as the ship untethered itself from the mainland, so the people aboard seemed to untether themselves. As the Miami skyline faded from view, so did fear, guardedness, judgment and prejudice.

Strangers smiled and laughed and exchanged names. Personal details were shared openly. This one was on the cruise alone. That one was finding a positive way to get through the anniversary of a divorce. We were part of a wedding party. Nobody cared why you were there; it was enough that you were. Congratulations and condolences passed back and forth with equal ease.

Cheers were loud and raucous as karaoke singers took the stage, whether they were amazing or terrible, drunk or sober. Everyone was on a first-name basis. Shouts of “You go, Nikki!” or “Yes! You got this!” rang out, as if from old friends at a house party.

If the only open space to set down your heaping plate were at a table already occupied by a couple people, you thought nothing of asking if you could join – that’s if you hadn’t already been invited to do so. And whether people spoke your language or not, smiles and gestures were exchanged and you made it work. People dug out high school Spanish or French words and phrases, and gave them a spin after decades. If all else failed, they just pointed to the sun or the food or the ocean and smiled real big.

Workers smiled continually. And you know what? It wasn’t fake. It really wasn’t. I asked everyone from William, the cruise director, to Presemann in the kitchen, to tell me the truth about whether they really liked cruise ship life and work. And they did! They liked people. They were enjoying the ability to travel and see the world. And it showed. They were willing to share their stories, their background – both the good and the bad. There were no pretenses. We were all in this together.

One of the DJs, Daniel Filipe, exclaimed how he wished “the real world could be like life on these cruises,” where everyone, no matter their story, just decided to get along, to be friendly, to reach out to one another, to talk and laugh and have fun together.

I didn’t see one person clutching their wallet or purse to their chest. Phones and sunglasses and bags were left on lounge chairs around the pool while people swam or grabbed a drink or an ice cream cone. I noticed some personal items of value that stayed unattended for as long as an hour. No one took them. No one worried that they would. You just kind of had the feeling that the people around you had your back.

But here’s the thing. Why did the skeptical, closed-minded, guarded, racist, naysayers from on land have such a drastic change of heart at sea?

Was it merely because they believed no one could murder them easily and get away with it out there? That seems unlikely. I mean, what better place to throw a body than overboard into the middle of the ocean, if that’s what you really wanted to do?

Cabins were keypass entry only. And there were nearly a thousand of them. So if I wanted to swipe someone’s stuff from poolside or off a bar top, it’d have been a cinch to both take and hide it.

I don’t think people let their guards down because of the isolation of the environment. No, the best I could conclude is that people just made the choice to maximize their time. They’d paid for it. For most, it was a rarity they may not experience again soon, if ever. And so they just collectively agreed to be in a good mood, extend some trust, let down walls, not worry about judging others and just – enjoy life for a while.

Four days seemed to last weeks. In my last post, I talked about being overdue for some real input.  Well, I got it. It did my soul a world of good to experience this microcosm of the best in humanity. (This is not to say that there wasn’t the odd person here or there who equally chose not to join the parade, but to be sour and to complain about everything and everyone, just as they had on land. But they were in the vast minority.)

Friday morning, the mood changed. The ship was docked once more in Miami, and you could feel people towing along every bit of the social and emotional baggage they’d left behind only days ago. Smiles and greetings were few. Courtesy was nearly non-existent as people jostled through long lines for one last free meal. Faces looked haggard (and, no, I don’t believe they were all just drunk from the final night of partying). As people disembarked, the customs people had no smile. They barked orders and hurried people along.

Back to shore.

Back to lines of taxis.

Back to “reality.”

But it all made me wonder: why does a mundane, skeptical, detached, fearful existence have to be our norm?

The Best Advice So Far:

I’ll admit, we were all tired. We crowded into one hotel room my brother and his new wife had rented for the night, as many as 11 of us at a time, passing the hours until it made sense to hit the airport once more to return home. I slept a bit, all folded up under a desk. When we went to grab some food quickly, the lines were long. People were rude. Impatience abounded. Outside tables were not shared.

And again, I kept coming back to that question: Why?

When the time arrived, we called Hubert, the large but quiet Haitian man who’d gotten us from the pier to the hotel a few hours earlier. Only this time, I undertook a little experiment. I asked a question about Hubert’s job as a taxi driver. He was happy to tell us. Then someone else in our little party showed interest in his homeland of Haiti. We asked how rebuilding was going after the 2010 earthquake. We asked about his family. And Hubert began to smile. Then to laugh his deep, rich laugh. It felt like the cruise ship had felt, right there in that taxi. It felt like we were all in something together, if only for a short while.

When we arrived at the airport, our party was being dropped at two gates, quite some distance apart. Hubert told us that an airport run only included one stop, but because we had been so nice, he was going to shut the meter off to deliver my niece to her gate free of charge. We shook hands and said our goodbyes.

It’s all got me thinking, when it comes to our human interactions, do we really need to be on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean for things to work between people? For us to let go of fear and walls and isolation from the others all around us?

I mean, doesn’t it all just come down to choice?

The Best Advice So Far:

All I can tell you for sure is that I’m banking on it. I’m making the choice to let more people in, rather than shutting more out. I’m choosing smiles and laughs and sharing stories over keeping my eyes on the pavement and clutching my pettiness to my chest.

Anyone else onboard?

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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

40 responses to “hope floats

  • Mira Prabhu

    Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    I enjoyed Erik’s post because apart from making an excellent point, it reminds me of a true story a guru spun for me ages ago: As a boy, he was on a flight to Washington DC when the plane began to vibrate and judder. The hostess came out, pale and trembling, and told the passengers the plane was in trouble. The frigid atmosphere instantly changed – people started talking rapidly to each other, begging total strangers to let their loved ones know that they loved them et cetera – if the stranger survived, that is, and they died. Despite the fear, the thought of death also transformed total strangers into a mass of warm and caring humanity. Then the hostess re-emerged smiling – the problem had been solved, hurray. And pretty soon, everyone returned to their old coldness….
    Now read Erik’s wonderful post…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Thank you so much for the reblog, Mira. I do believe it is my first in 4+ years. 🙂

      Thanks for passing along the plane story. My post from 9-11 this year carried a similar sentiment. If only we humans could decide that just our shared humanity were “reason enough.”

      Like

  • scottishmomus

    Very interesting observations. I always notice that a camaraderie exists in extraordinary times. Gorgeous, sunny day or, conversely, a white-out and everybody is smiling or being supportive of one another in words or actions or even just a ‘what’s this like, eh?’ sort of smile.
    It’s as if people have been freed from the mundane and, as you say, choose to enjoy the release whatever the circumstances are that cause it.
    Having read another of your posts just a short while ago it strikes that the choice you speak of – that there is always choice – equates to that sense of rising above the everyday. If we are capable of greater interaction and trust in exceptional circumstances then, yes, maybe we need a wake up call to see every day as being exceptional.
    I enjoyed your thoughts on this and in the other post and, yes, I’m definitely onboard. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Glad to have you onboard, Anne-Marie. Every day, I find myself asking, “Will I choose to make this a day I engage or a day I keep my head down and just do what I have to do?” Often, I “rise above,” as you put it. Sometimes, I decide that I’ve got to reserve my resources for self care. But it is always a choice. Given your example of the white-out, I always think of the tragedy of 9-11 here in the States and how people pulled together around that time on a massive (really, nationwide) scale.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scottishmomus

        I think there is a desire in people to be as good as they can be and it’s almost as if opportunities are waited on instead of looking for them. Not everyone, I accept, as there will be those who seize such occasions for gain but, for the most part, people want that positive connection – just not always sure how to make it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Erik

          That’s my take, as well. In fact, that belief is the whole reason I write – to help the people that want that positive connection to gain courage and ideas on how to make it happen. Thanks for the follow-up!

          Liked by 1 person

  • Sean P Carlin

    Erik,

    What you describe here has been my experience at virtually every rock concert I’ve ever attended: Outside, drivers are jockeying for position on the boulevard, fighting to maneuver through an overcrowded, overpriced lot, cursing other drivers that cut them off and plodding pedestrians that cost them a parking space.

    Once inside the venue, however, everyone is brother and sister. You’ll trade intimate stories with the stranger beside you about your first experiences hearing the headlining band — and what their music has meant to you. Some folks even share “refreshments”! And you couldn’t care less when the guy behind you accidently spills his beer down your back — you just wave it off and go back to enjoying the show. Everyone is bonded by their mutual love of the music. We choose to enjoy that which we’ve paid good money for, and we choose to trust someone with the good taste to listen to the same music as we do! For those two or three hours, we’re magically inclined to be better than our baser instincts often allow for. And then we head back to the parking lot and fight our way back to the freeway…

    It is a choice. And we should choose to make it even — especially — when our defenses aren’t down, such as on a cruise or at a concert.

    Another great essay, my man. (And your closing line’s a killer.)

    Sean

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      You know, your example of the concert adds some further context that has me wondering: is the “magic” in both cases simply that there is predetermined common ground? I mean, out on the streets where people are fearful and distrustful and guarded, maybe it’s just that they don’t know how to find the common ground. But if that common ground is given to them (“We are vacationing together on the same ship,” “We enjoy the same music,” We like the same team,” etc.), maybe that’s all it takes. Interesting …

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sean P Carlin

        I think common ground — no matter how slight — certainly makes it easier for us to see the “other” as real.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Erik

          It does seem odd to me that “being human” and all that comes with that isn’t seen as common ground enough.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Sean P Carlin

            No — I guess we’ve become too used to that particular commonality. Or it’s too all-encompassing, perhaps — not reductive enough to serve as a suitable filter to help us discern the “good” people from the “bad,” one of us from one of them. I don’t know.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Erik

            One of my favorite things is to see little kids who are strangers interact in public. Discounting for the shy, kids will interact with other kids of any color, any age, any physical appearance, any economic status, with or without disabilities. They seem to get the “we’re all human” thing.

            Liked by 2 people

  • familyrulesbyplainjane

    You are indeed a very good observer, and you told this well. Interesting!

    Liked by 2 people

  • sheepcarrot

    What an interesting study of human behavior. It’s a shame that the attitude you saw and experienced there couldn’t carry over to the mainland and erupt like an epidemic of terminal decency. Guess we’ll have to build that one smile at a time!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Anonymous

    I do that all the time. There are often people with me who ask me how I can talk to complete strangers like that. It’s really quite easy for me, and I think you would agree. Be personable.

    Liked by 2 people

  • dustinfife

    That’s how things used to be. People never locked their doors. People never hesitated to open their homes to a stranger. I don’t think the number of crimes has changed. What has changed is the amount of publicity crime has received. (Which is one of the reasons why, by the way, I started my blog–I wanted to share news about things that restore faith in humanity).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      I often feel, for this reason, that sense of having been “born in the wrong time.” But it still came down to choice for the people of decades past. They collectively chose to trust, just as those on the cruise ship seemed to have. And so trust reigned. Granted, the choice is now not the norm, so it’s a bit harder. But it’s still a choice. Glad people like you are making that choice and painting the benefits of it to others.

      BTW, as I mentioned elsewhere, I read your book and left a strong review. Fits right in with the theme here today, of taking chances – even when it’s not easy or popular.

      Liked by 2 people

  • D. Wallace Peach

    Great post, Erik. What an interesting and telling observation. I rarely pay much attention to overt negativity as it seems like such a waste of energy, but I am aware of the “two ships passing in the night” phenomena – going through the motions at the gas station or grocery store like an automaton. On those occasions when I’m “awake and aware” and make an effort to engage – even a simple smile, a little eye contact, and expression of interest – people respond immediately. As your story illustrates, it takes very little effort to move from disinterest to warmth.

    So glad to hear the wedding went off without a hitch, that you had some time to relax, and that you didn’t get murdered! 🙂 Welcome back.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Erik

      Did you do that on purpose, Diana: “the wedding went off without a hitch“? Ha ha!

      I do often wonder which is biggest culprit when it comes to social walls: apathy, self-centeredness or fear. I wonder if there have been any studies on the matter. In any case, you are right: it doesn’t mean we have to go home with them and wind up like the girlfriend in Patch Adams. A smile and eye contact and a sincere “How are you today?” in a public space goes a long way! And people do respond (maybe even get inspired).

      Liked by 2 people

  • Julie Holmes, author

    Wonderful observations, Erik. And very interesting the differences between being on land and being in the middle of the ocean on a floating “island”. Come to MN some time. We’re a friendly lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      I agree, Julie. It was interesting, indeed. I love to be surprised, and to figure stuff out (or at least try). For me, I didn’t notice too much difference between land and sea, because I’ve already chosen a lifestyle of engagement. But it was terrific to see so many other people choosing it, as well, for a while.

      I will definitely look you up next time I’m in the area. 🙂 In fact, this is what I did in meeting up with “the murderer” in Miami. I do try to make a point to meet my online friends live whenever possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Jed Jurchenko

    This is such a great story, and I’m glad you didn’t get murdered as well. I found myself missing your post last week, and would have been really bummed if it wasn’t up this week too 🙂

    What a great illustration of the power of choice. I love the line at the end, about choosing to let people in, rather than to shut them out. This is certainly a skill that I want to pass on to my kids. It’s going to be an interesting balance. On one hand, I want my girls to know the joy that comes from enjoying all of the beauty in the word, and freely connecting with others. On the other hand, the over-protective dad side of me want’s to keep them safe–It’s a side that really only comes out around my kids. It’s also a little irrational at times. Thus, I’ll need to work at keeping it in check.

    These are some great insights, and it sounds like you had an incredible trip!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Erik

      Nice to be missed, Jed. I don’t know how I’d feel if no one noticed I was gone. 🙂 Thanks for saying so!

      Yes, where kids are concerned, it is a tough balance, to teach openness with caution. I think awareness of setting is the most important factor. A hard-and-fast rule like “Don’t talk to strangers” is, in my opinion, unfair, and builds fear, not wisdom.

      Liked by 2 people

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Sounds like some people need to get out more.
    Why anyone thinks it’s “safer” on a cruise ship is amusing. Still a mass of unknown people crammed together – and isolated – and surrounded by water. Think about it people. Perfect for any horror movie plot….oh, the writer – and reality – is oozing out, sorry.
    People and their ideas are so weird – that’s what makes it all fascinating.
    Interesting post

    Liked by 1 person

  • Sue Vincent

    Always on board for that, Erik. We let ourselves become locked into our isolation in the crowded world…. and miss so much.

    Liked by 1 person

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