Waiting through one of my children's lessons this week, I had my ear talked off by a not-quite-acquaintance who was also waiting on a child. It was one of those small increments of time I had planned to spend reading, or maybe refining my to-do list, as if arranging my set of not-yet-accomplished tasks in the perfect order would somehow move them closer to done. But this woman started talking, and she asked me a question, and then I asked her a question--help, I'm politing and I can't get up--and pretty soon we were having a whole conversation and then I was getting the evil eye from an impatient pre-teen who really understands the value of time, unlike us older folks.
Driving home, my first thought was, damn, I wanted to finish reading that story. But then I started thinking about how I'd describe the conversation--the odd (to me) topics she raised, the worries I simply don't share, though maybe I should. And then, eureka! I thought, might she fit (hand in glove) in the new story (or maybe it's a novel?) that's starting to take shape? I've been kneading at the idea like dough, throwing in a new ingredient now and then, letting it rise, punching it down, putting it back in the fridge to ferment (it's a sourdough, obviously). Maybe her worries--foreign to me, a little bizarre--are just the dough conditioner I need. Or maybe more like sprinkles, to keep the baking analogy but change the hoped-for dish. A little sugar confetti of newly understood anxiety, a mace and nutmeg dusting of aspiration.
The buses are full of people with problems, worries about money, about work, about whether and when they'll be able to retire, if their kids will get jobs, if they'll get a job, will it rain before they get home, this one day when the umbrella lies abandoned at the foot of the stairs. Most of the other drivers at the traffic light are fretting about something; if they're not bopping along to whatever's pounding out of the car stereo or hollering into their phone mics, they have the look of people who might be running late, might have left the stove on, might not have heard all the directions to the interview, might have misunderstood a crucial bit of grandpa's dying wish.
But my head is full to bursting with my own worries. Just my worries, the ones ragged and familiar as old flannel--and just as muffling, when it comes to sound from the outside. So that sometimes, in the interests of empathy but also of fiction, it is a real gift to be dragged into someone else's forest. Even if the trees of my own preoccupations loom almost immediately out of the fog to remind me that the to-do list is still a jumble and the plot starter is still mostly water and yeast.