During my most recent walk with author and illustrator Mira Jacob we talked about the importance of crucial conversations. Put another way, a “good talk,” to steal the name of Mira’s graphic memoir. During our stroll, Mira shared an incredible story about her son, his fellow classmates, and their Brooklyn public school teacher that I won’t spoil here, but it got me thinking about how one conversation can have profound effects on our own lives and the lives of those around us. Now, a good talk doesn’t necessarily have to be a serious one—sometimes they’re funny, or curious, or are grounded in love—but I want to hear from all of you. What was an important conversation—either recent or in the past—that touched your life in some way?
This is a small one, but I was talking to a friend once, trying to help with a situation they were in, and I was struggling to put a big idea into words. I apologized for the stop and start, and for going in five directions at once. It's a thing I'm pretty sensitive about, that I'm wasting time, swirling around in my head but out loud, making other people listen to my rough draft of a conversation. But my friend said, "Take your time, I like listening to you find your way to an idea." It was like someone opened a door on a new world--wait, you *want* to hear all of this? I carried that around with me for days. Or clearly months, judging by this comment.
This will sound like a bummer, but that's not exactly how I see it. My family has always teased me about being able to talk to a wall. Well, someone really close to me is in assisted living now, in the memory unit, and they are sort of in and out. (I use "they" as the pronoun to avoid identifying the person, they have not chosen nonbinary pronouns.) I visit twice a week and I talk a blue streak, I monologue, I skip around the decades we have known each other, trying to find a memory, old or recent, that will engage them, and sometimes it works. Material is hard to come by in these times, because I don't do much or go many places. I have been advised never to challenge their reality, which can be stressful and upsetting, so I go with the flow, whatever the flow is. I wear clothes that have stories or memories to share, I bring food, I tell stories in which I am the fool or the butt of the joke. These are by far the most important "conversations" in my life, lopsided as they are.
I was canvassing for Warren's primary campaign in early 2020 and had dozens of conversations with local Chicagoans that stayed with me, but there was one in particular that haunts me to this day. I connected with a man who reacted to my scripted preamble with vitriol, called me horrible names and basically tried to end the conversation at that, then added, "Like you give an actual damn..." My gut sank and my anger dissolved, and I went off script (which was discouraged, but...) and asked him about what was important to him. We talked for the better part of two hours about infrastructure, the economy, education-- I learned that he had earned a doctorate in Palestine, had been driving his cab since 9/11, grappling with rampant islamophobia and working through the disruption of rideshare popularity... I broke my own personal record for length and depth. After I gave him a non-scripted, thorough breakdown of what Warren was proposing, he agreed to vote for her and thanked me, then apologized for his initial insults. It was so moving, particularly when I was dealing with hundreds of hang-ups, doors slamming, all-caps texts with threats and deeply triggering "MAGA" propaganda... that conversation got me through the 2020 election cycle. I thought about that voter any time someone tried to scare me away.
It's easy to feel like a bot when you cover as much ground as I did, and as demoralizing as it was for me when Warren dropped out, continuing to canvass (virtually) for progressive orgs through the pandemic has been incredibly satisfying. Helping people navigate the voting process, registration, knowing their rights... it's probably the most meaningful work I've ever done.
Once when I was in early recovery-- a brittle, emaciated, wide-eyed wreck of a girl-- I was talking to a Buddhist gentleman I'd met in one of the groups I'd been attending. We were sitting outside a temple and I was chattering on anxiously about the future-- I'd felt so alone and had no idea what I was going to do next with my life, and I'm sure sounded just frantic with concern. My new friend listened with such compassion, and at the end of my monologue said only, "Siona, just remember-- right now, in this moment, you are safe." He paused. "And that will always be the case."
Those words ended up being such a gift, both then and in the future, as a palpable reminder that whenever things felt overwhelming it was always possible to take refuge in the present. I have never forgotten them.
I was severely mentally ill, 45 years ago, just recovering from a psychotic break, when my pastor visited me at home. As he compassionately paced about the living room with me, my hand in the crook of his arm, I said something funny. He said, "You're a funny lady." I said, "You mean, when I'm okay." He said, "No, right now, you're witty." That simple affirmation, treating me like a sane person when I was clearly insane, gave me hope. Hope that God might do what God has done...to give me a future...of a healthy, medication-free life, including a professional job.
When I married my husband, I was thrown into parenting his five-year-old daughter and sharing my house with two other people after having lived alone for almost ten years. It was a lot and I felt like I was failing all the time. I talked to my friend who's the biological parent of three boys and told her I didn't think I could do this. I got so mad and wanted to get in my car and drive away most days. "Oh, everyone feels like that," she told me. "That's just how it is." It was such an incredible relief to be able to say all the things about how I was struggling out loud and have someone reassure me it was normal. Forever grateful to her.
To celebrate the end of Dry January I treated myself to a night out - diner with a sake pairing and a visit to my favorite bar. One drink too many and I decide to call my friend. Fast forward to the next evening and my friend recaps my drunken conversation with her. We have not laughed like that together in so long.
Mine happened in the White Cloud Mountains in Idaho on my first back-country backpacking trip. My best friend had decided to walk across the country, and I went with for a stretch. One week before we left Seattle, my mom died from her final bout with cancer. I was pretty devastated and spent my time between Seattle and Idaho grieving and driving a support van for the trek. When we got to Hood River, my friend found out that her boyfriend had died when an ice bridge collapsed on Denali. She went home to Seattle for the funeral only to be crushed when a slew of women, all stating they had been dating him, showed up at the memorial. Our conversation in the White Clouds was an outcry of grief. My friend was so angry, she yelled into the trees, "If Scott wasn't dead I would kill him!" I can honestly say at that moment I would have offered to bury the body for her. My favorite thing about my friend was the shorthand we had based on years of trust and love. Now she has passed away, and I struggle to find that connection with other people.
During the 2012 London Olympics, I was working with a train operating company (Eurostar if you know it) based in St Pancras Station in London. One day, there was a long delay on a train headed to Brussels, and I was doing my rounds in the passenger terminal, checking in on the waiting passengers. I sat down next to an older gentleman (or maybe middle-aged; his age escapes me now) and we got talking. He was a truck driver and he was on his way to visit his son. At one point in the conversation, he said: "Life is short. Life is sweet. Life is all that matters." The phrase stuck with me and became my life motto. Those few words from that truck driver literally changed my life.
Throughout my junior and senior years of college, every now and then one of my roommates and I would stay up super late sitting on our couch talking about all different things. These talks were never planned but rather happened organically. Our sessions came to be called "Couch Talk." We live in different states now, but when we make time to call each other we often refer to our calls as Couch Talk. I'll remember those talks forever!
Separately, I moved to Denver a year ago and went on many camping trips last summer. On one of the trips, I met a girl and although we were in a group of ten or so, her and I spent hours talking by the fire as if we were the only ones there, to the point that other friends noted how much we hit it off. I now refer to her as "my first Denver friend." She's one of my closest friends and I'll always cherish the origin of our friendship.
My husband's family is very religious and all of the men are very respected within their churches and communities and treated like they could do no wrong. We've been married for 22 years and just before we got married, his grandmother pulled me aside and said, "all men are cheaters, take care of yourself." I was stunned! After a few years I told my MIL about this story and she got really quiet and then told me that there had been infidelity in the family. Again, I was stunned! These men were always talked about with such reverence. My takeaway from this conversation was to be wary of putting folks on a pedestal. It is good that we get to celebrate that folks are human and not perfect.
A few months ago, I was not in a good place. Way too many things going on personally and professionally, and I just got overwhelmed. A longtime friend talked me off the ledge, so to speak. I told him that I wasn’t feeling like anyone gave a damn about me. He said, “Do you have any idea how many people really care about you?” That took me mostly out of the funk I had been in, and I slowly started to enjoy things again.
You have a wonderful friend. You both were able to recognize each other’s needs and help each other. That’s an important conversation!
I think it was probably in my pre-teen years when I started wondering about how one makes their way through the world and starts a career. I was a middle class white girl who observed her dust-bowl-era-raised father going off to an arduous 9 to 5 desk job everyday in order to support his family.
It was around this time that I had an important conversation with my father. He very explicitly told me that he wasn’t going to drive me anywhere or buy me a car or a horse. The only thing he was going to pay for was my college education. It was clear that this was the most he could afford to do.
His words lit a fire in me. I graduated from college in three years in order to save him money. I worked while I was in school and found a job after I graduated in order to pay my rent and buy groceries. I was able to save enough money for a down payment on a house. I eventually went to school at night to earn my MBA in finance. I found a satisfying career as a systems analyst. I haven’t regretted any of my career choices.
I frequently think about how my father’s words and work ethic affected me at a formative age. I wish more young people could have a similar inspiration when they wonder how to get their lives started.
Ooh, I had a really great conversation with a good friend from my schooling days. We always have had deep, thoughtful conversations where we share our perspectives and inspire each other to be a better version of ourselves. It’s always comforting to have someone who understands your predicament, and to share their take on the situation and steps to take to eradicate or simply alleviate the problem.
My partner then my brother then my dad all died within about 18 months of each other about 25 years ago, the last being my brother in September. A couple of months later we were all at Thanksgiving and my sister-in-law, stepmom, and I all had a conversation about picking up ashes at the crematorium and first wondering how anyone would actually know it was the person and they were supposed to be retrieving and then realizing that we all seatbelted the ashes into the seat next to us for the ride home. I think everyone else was horrified but we all thought it was hilarious and it just normalized such an otherwise grief filled time.