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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Only Connect

Every time I read this last sentence of Howards End I get a little shiver down my spine. I'm very inept socially; with most people other than my husband I make frenetic and bad small talk and smile till the muscles in my face ache in order to hide my embarrassement and confusion about the right things to say. I have no idea how you go about making friends and having a conversation that is honest and exciting for all the people involved. I tend to talk a lot about books and issues of social justice (the conversations I have veer a lot towards animal rights), and it seems to me arrogant and off-putting. I don't seem to be able to read what's going on in other people's heads, to hear what they're really saying, and to respond to that as sincerely and unaffectedly as I can.

I've been having a long-distance argument with my mother for the past few weeks about the number of times I call her and my father during the week to ask how they are; she's upset that I don't call every day, just to hear her voice, even if I have nothing of substance to say to her. "I feel like I want to call you three times a day," she tells me, "and I just don't understand why it bothers you to just call me and ask if we're okay, and hear we're okay." It kills me inside to have to talk but have nothing to say. I cannot share my inner life with my parents; they become didactic and stiff and suggest that I should make changes in my life that I don't think are the right changes for me. So we skip around on the surface of things, exchanging platitudes, and I feel like such a cheat daughter when I do that. There must be a better way to do this.

It happens sometimes when I'm with my sister; we're close and I can talk to her about the confusion and frustration in my life without fear that she'll judge me or try to fix me as if my mind were a new arrival in the ER. There are times, though, when silence falls between us and I feel compelled to break it because I assume that for most people silence is not an acceptable way to be with someone else; only words will do. Silence means you're not making an effort; it means you're not really thinking about anything, and in particular you're not thinking about the person who is with you; it means that you'd like the other person to leave now. I'm troubled by these assumptions of what silence is; I think they're inaccurate and harmful; and yet over and over when I'm with someone else I succumb to these old habits of covering up silence with anything I can, even if it's trivial, empty words.

How do you really connect with someone else? How do you meet on honest ground? How do you pull the masks down? Would this be a better world if we could manage that, or a worse? Does being honest mean we let it all hang out, beautiful and ugly emotions jumbled together? Isn't there room to be polite while you're honest, to be civilized while you're trying to really speak your mind? Does truth have to be sharp, does it always have to hurt?

Pema Chodron said a few weeks back on Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason that the only response that makes sense when people have gone through a terrible thing together -- she was speaking of 9/11 and the myriad random and not so random acts of kindness that New Yorkers found themselves performing -- is kindness. There was no mask; everyone was in pain and honest about being in pain; and it didn't make any sense to increase this pain by treating each other as miserably as we usually do. It's something to think about: that we will connect with each other in truth and kindness when we realize that the everyday reality of being human is a disaster state because there's really nothing in the world that's safe, nothing permanent to hold on to. Pema Chodron says, in her strong, clear, childlike voice, that this uncertainty is not bad news, because it also makes us free.

Well, that's nice. But when I come back down to earth and try to think about my mother and the daily phone calls that would make her happy, the problem changes. It seems to me, at least, to change. I don't know how to be kind to me mother while at the same time remain true to myself. To accomplish this seems to me a feat beyond what is human. To connect to other people while remaining yourself, not faking who you are -- how, how to do it? How to do it with your co-worker or your neighbor or your cousin or your brother-in-law?

My neighbor gave birth a month ago; I found this out from my parents who, when they came to visit us on the weekend, ran into the neighbor and her new baby. I feel compelled to ring at my neighbor's door and offer my congratulations, perhaps give her some homemade bread as a gift. But I'm afraid to do it. I'm afraid that my gesture will be misinterpreted, scoffed at. I don't want to expose myself like that. But perhaps that's the secret: not to be afraid of exposure, not to be afraid of anything except dishonesty, faking it, masks.


Anonymous Jessica said...

Hi there - I can't remember whether I've ever said hello before, but, hello.

I moved into this house six months ago and have yet to properly meet my neighbors. We wave in passing but have not gone farther than "hello." I'm shy and tell myself I've missed the new-neighbor window where it's ok and socially appropriate to go over with cookies. But that's dumb because they'd probably appreciate it and everything would probably work out ok. Right?

Tell me I'm right and I will make the cookies.

September 07, 2006  
Blogger Michelle Fry said...

Your post touched me more than I can say because this is something I struggle with in my relationship with my boyfriend. I like silence and he is uncomfortable with it, feels it means I'm not making an effort. He is brutaly honest, insensitive in some people's opinions and I simply don't speak if I feel being honest is unkind. It's so hard isn't it?

I really identified with this part:
"I'm afraid that my gesture will be misinterpreted, scoffed at. I don't want to expose myself like that. But perhaps that's the secret: not to be afraid of exposure, not to be afraid of anything except dishonesty, faking it, masks:

I think the secret is to be unmasked as much as possible and then at least you know you are being real to how you feel. What else can we do really?

September 07, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Michelle -- There is never a simple answer to problems that are worth thinking about; ditto this issue of the compatibility between honesty and politeness, silence and intimacy. But since one has to begin somewhere, being honest with oneself seems like a good place.

Jessica -- There's no way to predict how other people will react to one's actions; that's what's so nerve-racking for me. But make the cookies, and if you lose courage to go talk to your neighbor at least you'll have something nice to eat for dessert!

September 08, 2006  
Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

My parents are similar. They want me to call them every day, which I do, but the conversations are for the most part scripted -- "Hi, how are you, I'm fine, how are you, good...", etc. -- and last from 1-3 minutes. They don't necessarily want to know what's actually happening to me. Roman Jakobson called this form of communication "phatic" -- it's just signalling, "I'm here."

September 12, 2006  
Blogger Wendell77 said...


I think everyone is afraid and insecure...not of/about the same things, nor is it always obvious from the outside. It's hard to know if you're going to like someone at first, to know whether it's going to be "worth it" to start a conversation. But who knows how a small gesture could affect your neighbor's day? Isn't it better to go out on a limb and meet someone new? Perhaps your neighbors could become good friends to you and your husband.

Ahem, I'm a musician, not a writer like yourself, as you can surely tell!

September 15, 2006  

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