Who Goes There? Reflections on What We Don’t Know and Therefore Miss


Who goes there? I am usually too ignorant to even know someone is passing by.  And when I do pay attention, I am astonished to learn the extent of transit, variety of travelers, and breadth of cargo that moves in my neighborhood.

I live near a residential home for women in rehabilitation, and I see them walk, in cohorts, around the block. Homeless, which is too broad a category, may traipse by. College kids in flotillas, pairs, or alone. And dog-walkers, most of whom could live in the neighboring blocks. Of the closest ten houses, I may know people in only five. Of the lives in the nearby apartments, I know almost nothing, even though we all live within the throw of a football. Am I to my community as a thread is to a cloth: a strand that goes over, under, over, under so many other threads, but doesn’t meld?

Who goes there? I will start with the obvious:  what our game camera sees. The camera is on a tree a few hundred feet before the road dead-ends at our cabin–dead ends for vehicles, that is. The camera is behind a locked gate and a mile off the road. In the daylight, it detects movement, and in the dark, it detects heat and gives black and white photos. One of my favorite tasks of every visit is to see who or what registered since last I was there. This week three cougars and a possum passed by.

To me, they leave few signs–tracks occasionally, and the effects on our dog, who refuses, some days, to walk back up the road. Without the camera, I would have had no idea the frequency of passage by these beasts who move by when we’re not looking. And this cougar series last week–twenty photos over half a minute, shows that the cats are doing more than filing by: they are behaving, interacting, living. The first cougar stalks into view (see photos at bottom), then marks a territory by urinating. It crouches, crouches a little more, then holds steady as second cougar slides behind it, and then a third. When they have passed, the first cougar straightens and glides off to follow.

Three cougars? In our front yard? Rationally, it is as safe now as it was before I saw the pack of three. And rationally, game is also likely to be near where I run, walk, and ride my bike. Game was likely in the hills where I slept out as a kid. The snapshots help me detect the game. The series of photos show they aren’t just data:  they have behavior; and that like us, the road is theirs to tread across and on which to live.

The cougars walked by on Wednesday. They are still out there, with their lives continuing. A wildlife biologist speculated the first and third cougars are two-year-old brothers, and the second one is their mother. Perhaps. We don’t know, but they do. They know why one of them was walking first. They know how well they hunt together, and the taste and texture of their prey. They know what they did last night and this morning. I don’t. And until I saw the photos, I didn’t even know to think about what they are doing.

Less than a week after the cougars walked by, I attended a storytelling event sponsored by The Corvallis Advocate. Their mission is “to advocate for the highest good of the community, by transcending divisions and building bridges between different people groups near and far.” They aim “to seek out and promote those that do their best to propel the community forward on its evolutionary track through positive nourishing practices, while, at the same time, offering support to those that are marred, misrepresented, and misunderstood.”

That’s a tall order.

Their mission isn’t solely to be the road on which we travel, but to be the junction where travelers might meet, the bulletin board where travelers might learn to respect one another without direct contact; and the source of illumination of the roadside verges so travelers make richer lives and more informed decisions.

I’d never been to a live storytelling event, although I listen to the Moth Radio Hour.  Its hosts and hosts of other storytelling events are always claiming that our lives are richer for having told our piece, or for having listened to someone else’s.

Sure, I would think, I’m hearing points of view, but do they change the world? Then I find myself pondering the dilemma of that person I “knew” through her radio storytelling who told “me” about her family’s issues with female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone. I reflect on that guy told “me” about the nights he played music on his apartment balcony that brought together strangers on the street below. Telling and hearing stories is more than entertaining, more than “learning other people’s gossip,” as an acquaintance once described what he thought a person got out of reading novels.

Because Tuesday night, the Corvallis Advocate fulfilled their mission. I and fifty others sat together, laughed, clapped, and opened our mouths in agony as we waited for resolutions.

  • We worried about the friend who described her life phases leading up to, and in the four years since, her diagnosis of a brain disorder. For moments, we sat on a bluff at a beach and watched her in her convertible fifty feet from a cliff. We watched as she finally exhaled. She placed her hand on the “rescue dog” at her side, and chose him over acceleration to her certain death.
  • We laughed as the mustachioed man recalled his humiliating defeat by a water pipe under the house. After he sawed through the main line, his only route to repair it involved a torch, which would have burned down the house.
  • We suppressed our breath when the liver-transplant survivor told of the days, days, days, days, days, and more days of unrelenting hiccups while his body was attached to tubes and his consciousness was slipping away.
  • And we almost stood from our seats to call out warnings as we heard the story of the lightly-parented thirteen-year-old who stole the Prozac cache from her pediatrician and then distributed it to her friends to snort. Then we reeled with her friends as they reamed their noses with toothpicks and sticks during their painful lesson that not everything is snortable.
  • A coming of age story of a Southern Baptist at choir camp. What didn’t happen when a generous friend contracted a male stripper for a living room party. Stories of over-devotion to other people rather than to themselves, and of embracing the “hot messes” we may consider ourselves to be. The fear of getting in trouble, and the reality after being caught. Misunderstandings that appeared funny but that signaled deep problems in relationships.

Tuesday night I experienced more than gossip. If people were packages, these packages revealed glimpses of their contents. Rather than pass the contents to me, the packages gave me a view to process with my own mind. I saw, felt, and lived the struggle with particular types of hubris, disease, underconfidence, overconfidence, misreading of signals, and naiveté. I saw, felt, and lived the capacity to choose against the simplest social options and to change course after decisions that could have branded me forever. I was in the presence of living examples that saw, felt, and lived; of survivors with humor, self-understanding, and forgiveness.

Yes, it was “just stories,” but the stories invited me into a more fully experiencing my own life.  They make me think a moment longer about the others who pass by me, and who pass the same byways as I do. They make me think about the other threads with whom I’m woven, loosely or tightly, known to me or unknown, day in and day out.

And so I ask, again, who goes there?  I am usually too ignorant to even know someone is passing by.  And when I do pay attention, I am astonished to learn the extent of transit, variety of travelers, and breadth of cargo that moves in my neighborhood.

*Photos from the heat-activated game camera, 1 or 2 seconds apart.


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