I’m looking out the upstairs window. Across the street is the white-haired man who walks past my house every day, usually more than once, with his small, curly-haired grey dog. A little thing, maybe 8 pounds of dog in all. I have been trying to smile at this man for months but he won’t look at me. I can’t get him to look at me so that I can smile at him so I have assumed there’s something he’s inferred about me or my life choices from something about the exterior of my house (the toys littered across the lawn or disrepaired shutters, perhaps?) that puts me into some group of people he does not approve of. I have some vegetables (not very successfully) growing in a raised bed close to the street, so maybe he thinks I’m a dirty hippie.

This morning I see him out of my window with his little dog. At first I think about it being a good plan to get a little dog if you are getting older — we are thinking about getting a big dog and I recognize that it takes much less man (or woman) power to manage 8 pounds of dog versus 80.

Then I see my neighbor from across the street. She’s outside of her house with her dog, a yellow lab named Rosie. My neighbor is smiling, as she almost always does, and approaching the gentleman. And I see him stop, his dog approaching the lab, and the white-haired man leans towards Rosie and puts his hand on the top of her head. She’s wagging ferociously and looking up at him. He puts his hand under her chin, scratches. He’s looking straight at the dog’s face and rubbing, scratching, petting. My neighbor is smiling and I see her mouth moving and moving and he keeps petting the dog, contentedly.

He pauses and seems to listen to my neighbor. I don’t see his mouth move but he stands there. And then Rosie moves towards him again and they are back where they started, petting, wagging, scratching and my neighbor smiling and talking all the while.

And then I start to feel that I am just like this man. That I am looking at myself, as I feel underneath my skin, underneath my face and my clothes and deep inside even under my bones, most of the time.

There is a block party at the end of my street once each month, weather permitting. Neighbors come with booze and snacks and popsicles and kids ride their bikes dangerously close to 70-year-old women (my son in particular) and they always laugh it off but I am pretty sure one day I am going to turn around to see a sprawling neighbor knocked to the ground by one of the many 2-yr-olds zooming precariously on their scooters.

My kids love this party so we amble (or ride) down to the circle one Friday each month during the sociable and non-freezing months. People are standing around. Kids are shouting. People’s faces smile at each other and they are divided into little two-, three-, and foursomes laughing or deep in discussion, though for the most part we all steer well away from politics unless it is very clear on which end of the spectrum your conversation partner is encamped.

We have lived in this neighborhood for about three years. Maybe been to these parties about 12 times. Terror may be too strong a word, but each time I’m approaching the gathered throng I’m generating as many options as possible of what I can do once I get there. Head to the drink table, sort out my children in some way, put a bag somewhere — I need a plan for what to do until I find someone to talk to.

And then comes the hard part. I’m standing next to someone and they say something and I have to say things back, preferably pleasant or interesting things. And when the sound starts to die down and it looks like the line of conversation is about to finish, I panic. What next? How does this either keep going or how does it stop — I don’t know. There sometimes seems to be a very organic pattern to all of this. Other times it is like a ride at an amusement park, jolty and bumpy, sometimes sailing downhill and other times, on the way up to the next downhill, you feel a bit sick to your stomach and it’s jolting you around and you wonder if the ride is well constructed or if it is all about to tumble to the ground and you wonder what that would be like, hope you don’t find out, and then the other person starts to tell you a story about when she had surgery and couldn’t move for 6 weeks and that’s how she got a new dog, and you are safe for a while.

Usually, after an event such as this, I come home and think seriously about taking a vow of silence. I never feel good about myself or about the random conversation I was able to make, or rather the words that I heard come from my own mouth, mostly unbidden.

True story: At the end of this school year, I was responsible for organizing the teacher gift for my son’s class at school and also helped him make a card for each of his teachers. In the card, he had dictated some lovely things about his teachers and I had written them down for him so the words were his own. After the gifts and cards had been bestowed, his two teachers approached me during a farewell celebration and thanked me for the thoughtful gifts. One teacher remarked that she had particularly enjoyed my son’s remark “I hope you don’t get burned by lava” (they had been studying volcanoes, so this was relatively appropriate).

So, just for emphasis, let me restate: teachers approach me, smiling, say thank you for something nice, we liked the sweet cards. I panic. What do I say to these people? These nice ladies who have cared for my son all year?

I wanted the cards and the gifts to do the talking for me, truth be told. I put a lot of time into thinking about what would have meaning for the teachers, what would show that we appreciated and loved them. But now there are people, live people here next to me saying words through their faces and looking at me and I’m supposed to say words back.

“You should have heard the gruesome things he said that DIDN’T make the card.” Smile. (backtracking) “Not that gruesome, something about the ocean, but they, I’m so glad, you are teachers and you, my son. Thank you.” And they smile back, but what? what? How about “I’m so glad you liked them.” Something, you know, traditional like that.

I feel like a good 70% of the time when confronted by the need to make conversation with someone I just take a group of words from some panicked region of my brain and throw them all together and I’m hearing it come out of my mouth and I don’t even know what it means. I know that I can think clearly, I can write, I have vocabulary, and empathy, and I feel warmth for people. And one-on-one sitting with a friend, I’m usually pretty good with words. With hearing and responding in a caring and thoughtful way.

There was a block party last night. I went late and mostly listened. I asked some questions about gardening and the amount of water large trees need in the summer heat. It makes me feel lonely though, I wished I could feel comfortable, I wished I didn’t feel like I’m always thinking about different things from everybody else, or maybe I wished I had more people, or more time to spend with the people, in my life who wanted to talk about the things I’m thinking about.

So this morning I see the white-haired man with the little gray dog. I see his joy of connecting with Rosie – his pleasure in the wag of her tail. He doesn’t look at my neighbor’s face, though I do, twice, see his mouth move in response to something she has said, eyes still down. He says so little, but he doesn’t feel so little. He’s just not comfortable with small talk. And he doesn’t force himself to be. Maybe he’s just lived long enough to let himself be who he is.

2 thoughts on “Smalltalk

  1. Loved this post, Jen. It would be perfect if we could sense who are also painfully socializing at those events and skip to the stage when we find meaningful connections…

    1. This past week we had a 70-foot tree fall in our yard. My husband, acting as a lumberjack, with my sister and me helping — worked on clearing some of the debris. As I walked up my driveway, and noticed the absence of people in my neighborhood, I thought of days gone by when neighbors would come by to see what had happened. How lucky you are to be living in an area where your neighbors have the desire to gather. Small talk is difficult, but the goal is to develop some kind of community and to meet and support each other! How lucky we are not to be in this thing we call life—alone.

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