Small Talk, Big Talk, Beautiful Questions
Go ahead, ask me anything
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In this issue:
Small talk that goes deep if we let it
The weight of joy
“Small talk is the glue that binds us all together and the armor that shields us from each other’s darkest thoughts.”- John Wilson
“What does it feel like to kiss?”
On Wednesday I was at the dentist’s office, my feet raised, head tipped back, my upper lip numbed and so heavy that when I answered the hygienist’s ‘How do you feel?’ it was like lifting a rubber tire over my incisors.
I wanted to make a little joke, smile now that I was maskless and physically sharing space with another human being other than my husband and tiny circle of already-vaccinated friends. All I could do was utter “mime” instead of “fine” while she mopped the drool from the corner of my mouth.
Talk doesn’t get much smaller than that. Dentists and those who work with them are used to holding up the heavy end of most conversations with their clients. Their patter has purpose -- without a pleasant, innocuous word or two all that would fill the space between us is the noise of a drill or my stifled whimpers. I’m grateful for their efforts. I’d love to reciprocate. I like to engage in small talk. It’s safe. It’s easy. As John Wilson put it the first episode of his really wonderful show How To With John Wilson,
“Small talk is the glue that binds us all together and the armor that shields us from each other’s darkest thoughts.”
In one sentence, he sums up the power and the limitations of what we call small talk -- the casual query about the weather, a shared laugh when a puppy does something cute, or perhaps the ritual of a simple good morning every day to the pair of women who walk together every day without fail between 7:30 and 8:30 AM. Simple words, a flash of recognition - these feel like enough to ground me in the world -- until they don’t. A steady diet of small talk with people in outside world-- although exotic enough these days after months of quarantine -- is like living on vanilla wafers when my body craves a rich complicated chocolate mousse with a surprise twist of hot pepper.
I can live for a long time on one deep conversation, the kind that leaves me chewing over an idea or reliving a moment just to recall the connection that comes with seeing, however briefly, into another’s life or letting my own shield slip away a little. I still think of “Nadia” for example, a woman I spent an hour with in Los Angeles several years ago and will never see again. She had no time for small talk. Her life was already hemmed in by a wasting muscle disease, the expectations of her family, and the assumptions of people formed when they viewed her in her wheelchair. She joined my husband and me at our table in a restaurant and observed us closely. “You have a good man,” she said, after some fairly small talk. Then she asked:
Are you in love with him?”
I didn’t have to think but I did have a mouthful of lamb sandwich. “Yes,” I told her as soon as I’d swallowed.
“What does it feel like?” she asked.
At this point, my husband disappeared from my peripheral vision. I don’t know if he left the table or simply leaned back to give her, and himself, the illusion of privacy.
“What does love feel like you mean?” I asked her.
Nadia’s fingers wiggled dismissively on the arm rests of her chair. “Not family love, not friendship. What does it feel like to kiss romantically, to want to go to bed with a man?” (You can read the whole story here: What Nadia wanted.
I tried to answer the best way I could. I know it wasn’t enough. It probably could never be enough. Her question, though, was a gift I’ve never forgotten. She got me to step outside of my comfort zone and dig deep, to look with new eyes at love -- how I experienced it, how others experienced it, and how to try to explain how an orgasm felt to a woman who had never had one.
I don’t know what magic occurs to bring about a moment like that but others have thought deeply about the conditions for “deep talk” -- for conversations that actually go somewhere and carry the possibility of actually seeing each other and listening to each other before we are through.
When columnist David Brooks writes about politics, I usually bypass his work but he seems to have been on a personal journey for the past few years and. not infrequently, he offers up what he is learning. He wrote this one, Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations, last year around Thanksgiving. I liked it. I saved it. I’ve tried a few of the things on the list. They work. My three favorites of the nine: approach with awe, let others be authors, not witnesses, and don’t fear the pause.
Two of the nine “nonobvious ways” are actually obvious when you think about them but are often the hardest to do: ask elevating questions, ask open-ended questions. Some people are shy about asking questions. Others feel put on the spot when they are asked the usual ones: what do you do, where did you go to school, where do you live? These may or may not elicit information but they don’t necessarily lead to connection or understanding. I don’t know about you but I don’t always know what I’m thinking until I get a chance to explore my thoughts out loud. When someone takes the time to ask me not what I do but what I love to do most, or the strangest jobs I’ve ever had, or what I’ve never done but always wanted to do, I am amazed at what comes out. And grateful. I try to remember it when I encounter others. Because if this year of relative isolation has taught me anything it is that life is too short to waste on small talk. Even though small talk is better than no talk at all.
Where to find some beautiful questions
If you are dying to stretch your conversational muscles, here are some fun resources to help you along.
The Book of Beautiful Questions and A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger . Berger defines himself as a “questionologist” which is basically a guy who got interested in how questions can lead to greater creativity and connection. There are all the usual tie-ins for businesses and organizations but what drew me to his site and to his books are the possibilities for sparking connection with another human being and, in doing so, becoming a bit more connected with myself. He’s generous with sharing all the resources he’s come across which can give the shyest, least curious person in the world a start.
If you haven’t tried this, do it now with someone you think you know already or someone you’d like to get to know. Maybe love isn’t the answer but something interesting will come out of it. 36 Questions to Fall in Love
A short read on talking small and big with friends and strangers: 48 Questions That’ll Make That Awkward Small Talk so Much Easier
And a Ted Talk by novelist, consultant, and author of When Strangers Meet, Kio Stark: How to Talk With Strangers:
For Christmas, my 45-year-old son gifted my mom with an invitation to tell her story using the StoryCorp app. Every week, she gets a new question to answer and he gets to learn something he didn’t know.
And now let’s talk about the weight of joy...
Not long after this piercingly beautiful, fun, painful, lovely performance begins there comes a really beautiful and provocative question:
“What if wellness is actually a bullshit industry constructed to rob us of joy? … Maybe a healthy body and a healthy mind are not prerequisites for happiness.”
I had never heard of The Bengsons until I read about their most recent work, My Joy is Heavy! in the Washington Post which said watching it would change my life. Naturally, I had to see for myself and was shocked. I don’t normally follow folk music; in fact I resist it. This, however, is story-telling of the highest order. I have watched it twice and have cried, and laughed both times. In telling the story of a personal loss, they tell the story we’ve all lived at one point or another and are living every day. They suggest that a moment’s grief does not obliterate the joy that preceded it and that it is possible to hold the whole damn mess of life in one heart, one house, one life. In fact there is no other way to truly live.
Please watch this. Give yourself time and the gift of watching and listening. It is 27 minutes long. The piece begins about 1:56 seconds into the video and a Q&A follows which is lovely but not necessary to watch. If you do watch My Joy is Heavy! please let me know how you found it. How did it make you feel? Am I the only one who found it the right thing at the right moment? The show is free and was commissioned by Arena Stage. It debuted on March 17th.
From the Spark Community
Joyce in North Carolina just finished My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante and is half way through Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz.
Cindy G. of San Diego won the drawing for Seabiscuit. Unbroken (read once and in excellent condition) remains available. Holler if you are interested!
That’s it for this week. Let me know how you are and what you are reading. I love hearing from you and I’ll add your books to our Spark Community Recommendation page on bookshop.org where every sale supports local bookstores and will help us raise money for literacy. All the books mentioned in today’s newsletter are listed there if they are available on bookshop.org.
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Now, let’s pretend we’ve gotten through all the small talk and its time to go deeper. What’s the best thing that happened to you this week? Is there something you’d like to ask me? Let’s talk.
Be well. See you next week.
P.S. And now, your moment of Zen…seeing double
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This post made me cry, and I am also now a huge fan of Louie, who made his own paper bag dress. I hope your time in New Hampshire is good, if bittersweet.
yes, both small talk and deeper conversations that cause us to really reflect, each have their own important role in our lives.