Listening In on Grownup Conversations

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When I was a child, my bedroom was an upstairs windowless closet with a slanted roof. There was barely room for a bed to the left and a dresser to the right. A lonely light bulb hung from the ceiling. My dresses floated from a pole across the ceiling. Don’t think Dickensian: I loved my own cozy cocoon.

The room was at the top of a stairway that had two ninety-degree turns. As the youngest in a home where parents sent their littles to bed at 8:00 p.m., I often sensed that I was missing out on the important stuff of life. I’d hear the murmur of conversations that I wanted to be part of. I would tiptoe out of my bedroom and down the five steps to the landing where the stairs turned. As close as could be and still remain out of sight. Hugging my benightgowned knees, I would strain to hear the grownups talk.

Even when I didn’t understand the talk, I enjoyed the aura, the camaraderie. When laughter erupted, I sat in the darkness and smiled.

That, my friend, is how I feel reading C.S. Lewis’ academic work The Allegory of Love. I’m sitting in the dark, listening to the adults, not quite understanding all the fine points, but basking in the atmosphere. Smiling when I grasp a point, soaking up the delicious banter.

Happy to be in the company of such witty erudition.

Like that little girl long ago, I need patience. Lewis quotes Latin, Greek, French, Old French, Old English without translation. He writes about writers whose names I’ve never before heard. He uses words that have never come close to my radar.

Sometimes the words are clear. It was the misfortune of Jean de Meun to have read and remembered everything: and nothing that he remembered could be kept out of his poem.  Yeah, I think, I’ve heard sermons like that.

So I will continue sitting in the dark, craning my ear, hoping to hear something wonderful. Why? Because I’m stubborn; but mainly to be in the delightful company of CSL.

 

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Reclaiming Conversation

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Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation was one of the most important books I read in 2015. Her book distilled to three sentences:

This is our paradox.
When we are apart: hypervigilance.
When we are together: inattention.

I believe it. Sherry’d make a point and I was a one-woman gospel choir, swaying and amening. “Solitude is important,” she calls and my response is Yes, sister. “Support unitasking and deep reading.” Deeeeeep reading, I sing. “Continuous partial attention is the new normal.” Say it isn’t so, I moan. “Make sacred spaces where no devices intrude.”  Not in the kitchen, not in the bedroom, not even in the car, I harmonize.

What Ms. Turkle did not say, however, has reverberated through my brain. She never framed it this way, but I think we are simply selfish. We have zero tolerance for boredom, for discomfort, for anything unpleasant. We now have devices that we can take refuge in rather than discipline ourselves to wait through the boring bits.

Last May, my niece graduated from a large university in California. I’ve been to a handful of college graduations recently, but I’ve never seen the rudeness that I witnessed that morning. Rudeness I participated in.

A thousand names were called and a thousand graduates walked across the stage to shake the Dean’s hand. People pulled out their phones; some teachers graded papers. I, cough cough, tried to get my seating on Southwest Airlines, even while part of me looked upon myself in astonishment.  My husband assumed the tilted coffin pose and took a nap. This wouldn’t have happened ten years ago.

Conversations take work. Conversations take energy. Conversation require me to reveal myself to my friend.

Some of the wealthiest moments of my life have been three recent reunions with childhood girlfriends. We spend a weekend practically device-free. We don’t watch movies. We talk. We listen. We experience deep, focused conversation. (Once, a friend apologized for keeping her phone nearby. She hadn’t heard from her daughter who was living across the world in a country buffeted by a typhoon!) The time and attention is a treasure, all the more so because of its rarity.

Turkle has two time-honored commands to help us out of this murky mess.

Use your words. (what she told her young daughter)
Look at me when you speak to me. (what Grandma always said)