Decades ago I went to visit my childhood friend Kim in San Francisco. She was married to a very athletic man whose cycling socks she had to wash by hand. This one detail stuck so much in my mind that I wasn’t dismayed when they divorced. One Sunday afternoon I stopped by because her parents were visiting. We sat in the living room for hours until the sky grew dark and we were but shadows in the unlit room. I had known her parents since I was young and we sat on comfortable chairs and just talked. It was probably a four hour conversation in that living room near USF. Our conversation meandered over this and that and I remember thinking how much I missed talking to people with no eye on the clock, no agenda. In the 1990s we didn’t have iPhones but we were already so busy, so running around, so uncool if we didn’t have multiple social plans. That afternoon of laughing, telling stories, gently mocking each other and discussing nothing in particular has stuck in my mind for years. I missed that kind of ‘sit a spell‘ conversation that only the older people in my childhood indulged in.
I am so lucky to spend hours a week chatting here in all sorts of languages and at all sorts of levels. This morning at the market the Mexican guy who makes tortillas told me about where the best place for his family to live might be. We talked happily, I bought tortillas and I wandered on. Then I stopped and talked to the local cheese guy about why I prefer quesadillas to croque monsieurs and whether or not French people can tolerate spice. I wandered on to a cafe to do my eavesdropping writing assignment and listened to four French women hold forth on medications, inheritances, style, missing sweaters and the Scandinavian retirement system. They spoke faster than I could write and laughed and cut each other off and repeated each other’s sentences. Their conversation was about nothing at all but it was the casting of social threads that bind us together. As they left, they asked if I want their newspaper. I said no, all bad news, and she said yes the news these days is nothing but a tally of ‘chats écrasés,’ an expression I didn’t know but yes, the news is like reading a roster of run over cats, indeed.
I spend several hours a week speaking in Spanish with my new Colombian teacher. Our conversation is simple but from what I understand people who speak Spanish say much more than is necessary and repeat it often because talking is really important. She explained that it doesn’t really matter what you say but it’s a way to show warmth and friendship to just keep talking and talking and talking and talking. For her the French are taciturn and too worried about what they say. I like talking for the sake of talking. I talk to my favorite bakers about my son’s school, I talk to other yoga students about weird diets, I talk to the butcher about my child, and to my meditation friends about health care and somersaults. I love all of this talking. I am so going to miss doing it in several languages.
I have spent the last month studying trauma; Karine Bell’s weeklong amazing series, rereading Bessel van der Kolk, and diving deep into other somatic practices. It seems like talking is a good thing for us humans. There is little evidence that telling the story of the actual trauma is what we need to do, rather we just need to exhale a lot. And that can be singing, ah yes, or talking and talking. It is soothing to just yammer on about nothing in particular. I like all of my little conversations of here and there that make the glue of this life. Now when someone starts to go on and on I would like to think, they need this, this is good for them, it’s like digestion, let’s just digress and chat. It’s lovely.
And then there are the mind-blowing, long, intense and profound conversations. I remember sitting outside at 11 at night right before I got married talking and talking with good friends while the sheep grazed nearby on a hill in France. I remember staying up until 2 am with Germans in my living room in San Francisco, trying to figure out the state of the world. I am so lucky to have a friend here who will talk to me about anything and everything. I love these conversations where we go deep, where we try so hard to figure out humanity and I’ve often had them with my students.
Little conversations about nothing at all can weave connection and big conversations about everything can punctuate our mundane existence. Talking is exhaling. Sharing is connecting. Telling stories is making the world real, for ourselves and for others. I am happy that the town I call home in the US is an easy place to chat. Some people would prefer to avoid all of the socializing, but I like going to the Co-op and having six long conversations before I even get my broccoli, or going to get a quick coffee and talking to at least three people I’m very fond of at Mix or just walking down the street on the first sunny day and talking to other parents. In my neighborhood I can always run into someone and have a little friendly chat. One reason I ride my bike is so I can talk to people. Cars are the enemy of social connection and conversation. I worry that fears of contagion will make people in the US talk to each other even less than they already do.
I have spent a lot of time in my life figuring out what makes me happy. I know I love deep conversations like I get to have with my good friend here, or philosophical excavations which every now and then my students and I get to embark on, or long slow hot tub chats with old friends about electric cars and sexy stuff. However, I have found here in Toulouse that it’s also the little conversations, the small chats, the simple exchanges that keep us going, that lift us up, that provide just a few degrees more warmth and connection. My son has had much less of this here due to his age and language limitations and so I will be bringing him back to the US for high school so that he too can spend hours and hours talking about nothing at all with his good buddies.