Can you see me? Am I coming in to focus?
How do you qualify an intimate experience between just two people? One where you learn details about each other's childhoods; you picture her green eyes as she's sitting on her "beautiful orange sofa"; and you share a laugh or two at the awkward rhythm of speaking to a stranger around automated prompts. But, in spite of all that, you never learn her name. You don't know if this person is in the same city, or even the same state, as you are. You don't necessarily know what she does for a living. You don't know where she grew up. You don't know if her eyes crinkle when she laughs. You don't know if her silver hair is cropped or if it flows down her back. You'd never be able to pick her out in a crowd -- or even a small group.
You may come away knowing, though, that one of her most cherished memories is of holding her daughter in her arms. You may know that once the two of you hang up this phone call, the person on the other end will be heading out to the garden to work in the dirt. You may come to know the warmth and pensiveness in her voice. And for some 50 or so minutes, you will share an experience outside time, outside the pressures of social etiquette, outside the isolation or fear or pain of the past year. It's just the two of you (and the voice simulation guiding the conversation) drifting between the past and the present -- both yours and hers -- together.
So how can I tell you what that's like?
Part One of "A Thousand Ways" is The Phone Call. As mentioned, the encounter takes place between just two people -- "this cannot happen without you," the preparation materials forewarn. The triptych of encounters (Part Two and Part Three will follow later this year) are a social experience and performative project devised to guide participants from isolation -- before Part One -- to congregation -- in Part Three. The project's creators, 600 HIGHWAYMEN, reframe the phone as a tool to facilitate an artistic experience. Moving beyond "Where are you from?" and "What do you do?," the guided conversation gets to the heart of "Who are you?"
I was a little nervous as I called in to the performance. What will I be asked? What will I say? What if I reveal something embarrassing? What if I don't seem clever? Is my anonymous partner nervous, too?
And, even though I had to remind myself this person is a stranger I will likely never meet, those uncertainties only lessened slightly.
I did feel a growing sense throughout the interaction, though, that my partner and I were experiencing something entirely our own. No one else is sharing in this moment, painting these pictures in their mind's eye, discussing family relationships or the reason I enjoy dancing. This an experience only she and I have had a hand in building together. And that feeling was comforting and moving and inspiring, all at once.