“A familiar face came into focus amongst the crowd. There she was: a middle-aged Vietnamese woman I’ve seen only a few times in as many years. Sometimes she’d be on the route with her daughter, or we’d talk about the bakery she works at. What was her name again? I barely know this person, and yet… how is it, the way such glancing interactions can feel so special to us, moments no less formative than those we make with our oft-more considered loved ones. Two strangers who glow for each other, appreciating each other’s attitudes on life, whose places in the world are each comforted by the other’s existence.
Incredibly, she remembered my name, though I think haven’t seen her since she gave a loaf of pumpkin bread in what, 2012. We shook hands with both hands, letting the moment hold, pushing against time. The sort of connection based on only a few prior meetings, but in some mysterious fashion enough to make this, our present, significant. Travellers will know what I mean; shake hands with a stranger on the other side of the world, and seeing them now again you’re best friends. This was smaller in geography but not in feeling. Her face had been living and struggling in the same great whirlwind you have, and all the while you resided somewhere in the back recesses of her mind, unforgotten.
Her name would not return to me until after I’d gone home. Tjang. Absolutes are few in this life, but this is irrefutable: the positive impact we have will always be larger than we’re ever aware.
I bet you knew that already, but I wanted to tell you anyway.”
I wrote that not quite three years ago, and it was printed on cardstock with the image above (taken by me in Paris the day before the 2015 massacre there) and presented as a gift to each person who attended my “first and last” birthday party bash I held on my thirtieth. For me, it’s a moment that encapsulates everything. It’s why you won’t find me working behind a desk, taking administrative positions for more pay, pursuing a more lucrative career in wedding photography, moving into training or supervision anytime soon… my job allows me the delicate, ephemeral, one-of-a-kind pleasure of having interactions like the above all day.
Just over a week ago I saw her again. The time of day, place, direction– everything was different, but there she was. I stopped walking, and she did too. Our names flew off each other’s lips this time and we hugged tightly– there was a freedom to this meeting in that I wasn’t working. Someone was with her this time, her mother maybe, and we smiled our hellos, asked after each other, but more generally just glowed at each other. We radiated. The words were like baby talk, kind but limited; the hug was what really spoke volumes, that and our eyes, each registering the knowledge and sameness of what the other felt. What did mean? What can it mean?
Many things, perhaps, but at least this: there is goodness in this world, and it continues ever forward: quietly, humbly, and very brightly.
Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.