Opening a conversation takes courage

How are you? That seems like such a small question in these hard days. It should be a simple thing to turn to someone with warmth, to meet someone in the street and say something daily — It’s good to see you on this cloudy morning. There’s frost in the air. I’ve been thinking of you. 

It can be powerful, that moment when you go from two people moving through the same space to two people talking with each other. It’s a skill to open into that moment. It’s a skill to say the few words that let it happen.

Sometimes that moment just means we’re both human and alive and I’m glad you’re here. Sometimes it means I care about what’s happening to you, and I want you to know it.

And right now, this week, it feels vital.

I feel a corrosive division across my country, so deep it is hard to call it my country, and even here in my small rural hometown I feel it, when local families can be afraid with good reason to walk through downtown, when a Williams student can receive an an anonymous message of hate — and as a Williams alum, I have a deep respect for this place and I have also seen and heard this kind of story far too often in the last 20 years.

I don’t mean to erase or ignore that kind of hatred and the dammage it does. I mean to stand against it. I can hear Nikki Giovanni saying years ago in a talk at the Mount, that’s not how you talk to a neighbor. What you say to a neighbor is … hello. And she was strong and firm, and with a deep experience of pain she could speak with clear humor, with clear warmth.

I’m remembering a story I wrote some years ago when students from MCLA traveled to Haiti and a group of Haitian artists showed their work at Gallery 51. In writing it I learned about a group of artists called the Saint Soleil. To great each other, they would hold each others’ gaze a moment and say bon soleil. It means the sunshine in you.

Imagine beginning there, even in a casual meeting. I am learning to have immeasurable respect for the person saying can I talk with you, the slight movement forward, the assurance that makes the contact. And I have still greater respect for the person who keeps on when they have met silence or blank unconcern or anger. Hello can take courage.  

And then the journalist in me asks, what do you say after that? Hello is a hulloo. At it’s roots, it’s a hail across the water to an incoming ship or a horn call to the hunt. Maybe the first acknowledgement doesn’t have to be subtle. But hello is a sound to get someone’s attention. And if they give it, then it’s your turn again.

Meetings and exchanges this week are reminding me how much a gift it is to have someone’s attention. For the first time in months I sat down with someone at a coffee shop. We were sitting carefully in a corner, easing off our masks for a few minutes and warming our hands around our espresso, and I was learning freshly how rare a thing it is to sit across the table from someone new to you. 

She said conversation has a skill in it. And she’s right. In my experience, in the years I’ve been working to learn it, conversation has a field of skills. It can be as immediate and varied and deep as playing music or holding someone you love.

You’re listening and creating a space between two people where someone can relax and feel comfortable. You’re easing into talk like warm water and asking a question. You’re helping someone find words. You are hearing what they have not said and asking another question to fill in, to clarify, to make sure you and they understand. 

You are sitting with them when they talk about pain or anger or fear. You are opening to their turbulence on top of your own. You are vulnerable. You are hearing the experiences and feelings under their thoughts, and you’re feeling the connections between your conversation and the world they move in.

Not every conversation turns into a full score. Some may play light music. Both can move somewhere powerful if they begin with that moment looking someone in the eye. 

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