Here’s the second installment for Diane Millis’s series about power and significance of encounters.
“No encounter with a being or a thing in the course of our life lacks a hidden significance. The people we live with or meet with, the animals that help us with our farm work, the soil we till, the materials we shape, the tools we use, they all contain a mysterious spiritual substance which depends on us for helping it toward its pure form, its perfection. If we neglect this spiritual substance sent across our path, if we think only in terms of momentary purposes, without developing a genuine relationship to the beings and things in whose life we ought to take part, as they in ours, then we shall ourselves be debarred from true, fulfilled existence.”
—Martin Buber, The Way of Man
We hadn’t planned to be in Stroudsburg, PA, that morning. Yet our GPS indicated that the nearest Starbucks was on Main Street, and my husband and I both needed a strong cup of coffee for the long drive ahead. As Mark got out to procure our drinks, I turned to take in the surroundings. What would it be like to live in a town like this? I heard myself wondering. As I gazed down the vista of Main Street, my internal narration continued: I’m going to add this small town to my list of possible locations for the Hallmark movie. As my eyes turned to scan the storefronts, they were immediately drawn to a bookstore across the street. Wouldn’t it be grand to run a bookstore in a town like this? In the midst of my reverie, I noticed a man walking directly toward the bookstore. My eyes followed him. As he unlocked the door, another man walked up to his right. They began a conversation. My imagination then kicked into cruise control: Was this the bookstore’s owner? Was this one of his regular customers? What would it be like to start off each day in such a seemingly gracious way?
Mark opened my car door, handed me a double tall vanilla latte, and I observed, “You know, this town would make a great location for my Hallmark movie.” He smiled. He knows all about my fantasy of writing and producing a Hallmark movie, and just about every Hallmark movie features a main street in a small town.
As we headed west on I-80 en route to Minneapolis, my thoughts kept returning to the sight of those two men talking at the door of the bookstore. Something about what I had seen transpire between the two of them stuck with me. I couldn’t shake it, and I didn’t know why. Two days later, I saw a storefront FOR LEASE in my downtown Minneapolis neighborhood, right off of our historic Main Street. Now that would be an ideal location for a bookstore, I thought. The following weekend, the Sunday edition of our Minneapolis Star Tribune featured an article on independent bookstores and the remarkable work they were doing for their communities. It seemed that wherever I turned, this whole bookstore business theme kept recurring.
Somehow I knew that what I had witnessed that morning was not a call for me to become a bookstore owner, even though it may have seemed so initially given the signs…
- Woman is captivated by the sight of two men encountering one another in front of a bookstore;
- Woman sees a storefront in her neighborhood that has just become available to lease and deems it to be an ideal location for a bookstore;
- Woman reads newspaper article featuring the benefits of independent bookstores to their neighborhood communities.
The preliminary evidence seemed to suggest that this woman was being called to open a bookstore. Yet, as a spiritual director, I’ve been trained to not rush to conclusions regarding the meaning of such signs. It’s imperative that we consider how the outward signs align or misalign with our deepest desires. So, throughout the subsequent weeks, I continued to ferret out my motivations and listen for my deepest desires. And it was at that point that the plot began to thicken…
Desire One: I’m a teacher. I love learning and sharing my love of learning with others. I relish the thought of devoting my days to talking with people about books and ideas, listening to them and better understanding their interests and needs, and offering recommendations in light of these.
Desire Two: I’m also a spiritual director, and I know that discussions about books can serve as gateways into deeper conversations about purpose, meaning, and values. It seemed that a bookstore might be a perfect place to practice my ministry, albeit informally. And over the course of the past few years, I had been looking for a home base for my ministry.
Desire Three: Perhaps what I found the most appealing about the prospect of owning a bookstore is that I am an author. As such, what I’ve learned about myself is that I really enjoy writing books yet thoroughly dislike promoting them. What had been causing my heart so much anguish in the weeks leading up to seeing the two men encounter one another at the bookstore in Stroudsburg was my anxiety about promoting another book (as my second book had just been published). Since I do not follow social media, and have little to no interest in participating in them, owning a bookstore would offer me a bricks and mortar hub for the face-to-face relationship building I yearned to do through my books.
Yet there was something more, a bedrock desire even deeper than these three. The reason I teach, serve as a spiritual director, and write books is because I really love engaging in conversation with other people. I believe it’s what I was created to do. I believe it’s what we’re all created to do. We’re created to be here for one another. I believe that God needs us to celebrate and help one another reclaim the divine beauty, truth, and goodness that we all possess within us. I don’t want to spend my days tethered to a screen. I want work that enables me to devote the majority of my time to meeting, greeting, learning from, and with, other people.
I noticed that as drawn as I was to living the life that so many of my favorite Hallmark movies portray, one that would allow me to open the door for customers, welcome them in, get to know them, and assist them with book selections, the thought of supervising employees, worrying about overhead, and tending the myriad details required to run a small business left me cold and anxious. And that sense was never surpassed by any or all of my stated desires.
So, as it turns out, what I witnessed that morning transpiring between those two men was less about the bookstore and more about the encounter itself. What captivated my heart so completely was the prospect of finding a place where I could meet others in that way: face to face, one encounter at a time.
Yet, we don’t need to own bookstores or travel to charming small towns in order to find such a place. It is here where one stands, Martin Buber reminds us. Whomever we meet in the little world entrusted to us, it is here that we are being called to open the door and let God in.
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