I find myself back with family in England for a brief while, and the journey has offered opportunity to observe anew aspects of our conversational lives. A miscellany of thoughts follow:
My trip back to England took me through Chicago, where I stopped in the city for a few hours to attend an appointment. I needed a coffee and, unfamiliar with the city and straight off the Blue Line, pulled out my app ready cell phone. Before my fingers had time to swipe, a gentleman (which term I use deliberately) stopped to ask if he could help. Not only did he point out a good breakfast spot, he escorted me there, and we chatted amiably for the couple of blocks. I saw this generosity of engagement several times that day.
Alone or Lonely?
Whiling away the time before my flight to London, I sat at a sushi counter at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Several patrons sat face forward and twitched at their technology. Fortunately, I was next to Lesley and Bruce who became curious and struck up a conversation with me. It quickly transpired that despite being different nationalities, living in and traveling to different places, we shared some surprising commonalities dating back to the 1970’s, as well as discovering the unexpected. Perhaps airports need conversation lounges, where lonely travelers can find community within their journey as well as their destination; where we can engage with our present, as opposed to finding solace and connection in the virtual.
While we do and should relish our solitude on occasion, it has also been delightful to experience the connection among people living in my mother’s neighborhood. There is a deliberate, purposeful culture of conversation among those living in the area, and the bonds formed by that are tangible, be they demonstrated by the casual drop in, baking for each other, spontaneous acts of support or simple companionship.
My return to England was due to my mother being hospitalized for a serious, unforeseen condition. Her decline was sudden enough that what started as an informing telephone conversation on Tuesday about my mother’s situation became an urgent need to travel by Wednesday. The news, since then, has improved very positively. I mention this rather intimate scenario because of the kinds of emotional difficulty, fear and uncertainty that it provoked, and the conversations that resulted. Good, fulfilling conversation requires courage, and courage requires an element of emotional vulnerability. My mother’s illness, and the worries it stirred up, was just one topic of difficulty that we talked about. The courage made necessary by that opened the doors to other discussions with depth, difficulty and, ultimately, reward.
Knowledge and Revelation
At an early age, I was extremely fortunate to have the borders of my experience utterly breached by the local library and museum, the Beaney. It has recently undergone a substantial renovation, preserving features of the historic building, while adding numerous twenty-first century facilities. In touring it yesterday, and perusing the artifacts old and new, I was reminded how we are each a product of an evolving history, both personal and universal. The sixth and seventh century Anglo-Saxon items on display, found around the areas in which I was born and raised, conjured an immediacy that defied the span of time. We are constantly in conversation with our past and, in so doing, are collaborating on our future. I enjoy the past. Perhaps that would be better explained as the pleasure of allowing my imagination to run beyond the fringes of my knowledge. That is why I love the Beaney, and also why I love our English heritage. The town of Fordwich, where I spent this lunchtime, is reputedly the smallest town in Britain. Although Fordwich has never boasted more than a few hundred inhabitants, its right to style itself a town dates from 1184, when King Henry II granted it a Merchant Gild Charter, reflecting its importance as the de facto port for Canterbury. Council meetings are usually held in the historic Town Hall, built in 1544. It is easy to see how anyone’s imagination could ramble to unusual territories in such a context. It is also easy to see how new vistas of possibility and future horizons are revealed in this conversation with what has lived before, but at the edge of our experience.
Oscar Wilde, in The Canterville Ghost, said, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” While my accent may be the most obvious difference to Americans in the Midwest, it is the inherent recognition of word choice, ways of speaking and the related attitudes of mind that are missing in America. I am no student of linguistics, though find it intriguing and entertaining to be back in Britain amidst the familiar language hardwired into me through my upbringing. It affords a rapidity of understanding and even allows for productive silence as my fellow conversationalists quietly navigate along similar trains of thought.
Enjoy your conversations.