Return to Asking random people for wisdom (idea)

A minute injection of surreality into usual life. It's not quite as admirable as some acts, nor all that intense, but an easy and definitely interesting way to bring variety.

The idea came to me when I was taking intercity trains twice a week, and those proved to be the perfect spot. Where I come from trains are the one place where people go nowhere, do nothing and lack true private space. On every trip thereafter I've travelled from railroad car to railroad car with a large blue notebook, asking complete strangers to write anything in it, anything at all - as long as they find it wise. Everything that's offered is accepted, but I only ask any person once. After a year and a half the covers are taped on, the back bears a very obscure theological symbol - the connection of God and man - and I'm on page 17.

This is naturally quite nuts, so I check my appearance before a round (even though that amounts to trying to get the hair down and not wearing the "Nobody knows I'm a lesbian" t-shirt) to avoid seeming like a lunatic - luckily students get a lot of leeway in this department - and stay polite and unobtrusive. A smidgen of self-defeating humor (Excuse me, can I waste a bit of your time?) usually gets past the initial wariness as people note I'm not on an ordinary Cause. first entries were gathered from friends, family and countrymen so that the rest would have something to follow.

The only normal people are the ones you don't know very well.

- In my own uneven scribbling

Protect your naivete, your cynicism will look after itself

- In my mother's round capitals

Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,
says the LORD

- In my grandmother's carefully precise cursive

The response is almost always positive once they hear what I'm up to. Perhaps 40% write, most of the rest say they can't think of anything. I've got entries in four languages, insights, platitudes, jokes, nonsense, poetry quoted and poetry improvised, observations of personal lives, a surprising number of entries that just thank me for doing this and one entry written right-to-left.

Always speak on the phone with a smile on your face.

- In flowing but uneven letters, dated 8.4.2005

Integer vitae saliresque purus, non vidut ruros, neque arcu.

- In tiny neat Latin writing, dated 29.05.2005

You become what you think.

- In faint, hard-to-read cursive, dated 27.3.2005

I've made it a principle to accept everything but it's no secret that I do some picking with my clientele. Beside obviously not bothering the busy (which rules out most of business class), I've seldom asked teenagers after a representative sample of their nonsense level. Though I rarely get them, I can't help being particularily fond of the few that come from kids.

Reading a book

- In huge clumsy letters with 'a's looking like alphas, not dated

A PERSSON POINTING A GUN AT YOU MEANS BAD

- In tilting uppercase letters precisely one row high, dated 4.12.2004

(A scribble of several dozen curved pencil-strokes covering most of a page. It's just possible to see a general direction - lower left to middle right - but several go other ways entirely and some are over the previous entry, a description of memories on a beautiful morning. The author said "rainbow" and walked quickly away.)

Now and then I wonder what I'm doing. Am I just giving others bursts of weirdness, or is there a point? Then again, why not? Does there have to be one? Asking random people for wisdom has brightened the day for a number of them and given me an experience, an introduction to a marvellously creepy poet**, a 20-minute lecture on the Finnish Civil War and a spontaneous palmistry reading (healer's hands, she said, and wouldn't I love to believe it?) - though I've also managed to disturb a lady two hours a widow. She thought little of it. I didn't.

As for the notebook, I'm creating something, but I don't know what. It's not a book of wisdom, more like a book of wisdom that comes to mind on short notice in slightly absurd circumstances. It's a fascinating read but for those looking for content the signal to noise ratio is low: few have koans on hand, though it has gathered a number of small insights. It hardly says much about its authors - or does it? Mine, my mother's and my grandmother's entries are very telling about each of us. Then there's originality: Try as I might, I haven't heard of anything like the notebook. I think it's worth existing.


*: A planet made entirely out of bread and cheese with small deposits of meat.
**: Siegfried Sassoon. http://www.bartleby.com/136/17.html

With the excuse of popular demand: I can transcribe for those who can't write themselves. If you wish to add your entry, /msg me.
Update: on April 6th, 2007, I received my 200th entry from a perplexed but interested author. Yay!
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