Small Talk, Heavy Talk

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July 17, 2017 by Julia

I tried on Saturday to read my current novel (Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward) on the sofa at Starbucks, but quickly learned that it had been a mistake to sit so near two loud women in the adjacent comfy chairs.

I never looked directly at them, trying to maintain an illusion of privacy, which was silly, considering that one of them spoke so loudly everyone in the building could hear.

The other woman had a strong New York accent and sounded like an old Mike Myers caricature from a SNL sketch. She spoke about mundane things in the way that people do when they’re trying to wind down a conversation with a neighbor, but she did this endlessly – the conversation would seem to be on the verge of wrapping up…but then…go on.

In sneaky glances, I saw that she was older, possibly a lonely, widowed grandmother who needed to talk. I empathize with this need, but have a low tolerance for the kind of talk that just passes the time. I will admit this is a character flaw of mine – not the small-talkers. I am usually panicked about time, on my way somewhere, or trying to get home from somewhere. I would rather be shot into outer space than bear the awkwardness of that endless small talk cycling.

Which brings me to the other woman, seated next to her – the one with an amplifier in her lungs, a stage director’s dream actor, with that ability to project her voice to the back row. Out of my peripheral vision, I could tell she was much younger, maybe even in her twenties, overweight, covered in tattoos, wearing glasses, and had a punky hairdo. She was loud, but talked much less than the older woman.

I say they made small talk, but there were hints of heavy talk interspersed with the small talk. I took this as another sign of their loneliness. I’ve witnessed it, and have been there myself. The older woman said something about how she would have killed herself. My ears perked up, having missed the first part. She spoke of the insensitivity of other parents in her therapy group who go on and on about their children. One woman in her group wouldn’t shut up about how hard it was when her son moved away. These parents complain that they can’t see their kids every day.

The way she said it implied that she had lost a child.

The younger woman mentioned her own mental health, and how she was in a better place now, and had lost weight.

They didn’t know enough about each other to be related, so I couldn’t figure out their connection, or why they were chatting in Starbucks. Eventually, it seemed that the older woman was making something for the younger woman, maybe a commissioned project, something sewn. At 6:15, the older woman exclaimed, “Oh, look at the time! It’s 6:00! I’ve kept you so long!” and the younger woman replied, “Oh, you’re fine.”

There were so many pet peeves of mine happening here – the most recent of which was saying it’s 6:00 when it’s actually fifteen minutes past, as if those fifteen minutes don’t even matter! – but beyond all that, superseding my annoyance at not being able to focus on my reading, I knew that the younger woman was being kind.

She gave no hint of feeling inconvenienced by sitting with the older woman on a Saturday evening. She may have been outgoing; maybe to do so was not as hard for her as it would have been for me. It’s possible she thought nothing of it, and was glad to spend her time this way – although I sensed that she was humoring the older woman slightly, making concessions to their generational differences.  But I came to believe that she had a generosity of spirit, for the simple reason that she seemed happy to be there. Maybe it gave her comfort, given the mental illness she mentioned, to pass on comfort to those in need. This is the main benefit of mental illness, I believe – we are humbled by own imperfections, and have deeper compassion for people. Also, we must find a purpose for our suffering, something we can make or give out of the pain, or continue to suffer. Hopefully, ideally, another person benefits from this.

I may never be a natural at small talk, or feel comfortable enough with my elders to fully relax, but I must remember that generosity of spirit is important. It’s the wisest and best answer, always, no matter the question. I’m generally considered an (overly?) sweet, well-meaning person, but I fail on a regular basis; let’s be honest. I have boundary issues and an excess of empathy, and I don’t know when to reach out, or preserve myself. I hold back when I shouldn’t, or I overextend and then burnout. It’s hard to get it right. We all have our good days, and our bad days.

Still – it matters when someone is kind. Here I am, pondering the kindness I witnessed, two days after the fact. I was not even a direct recipient of it, but it must have gotten to me, because I am writing about it. You might read these words, and take the time to speak to another lonely person you know of. Our actions spread beyond what we even know. The tattooed woman’s kindness in Starbucks already has.

I noted all of this while trying to read, and finally moved to a table across the room so I could at least get through one chapter. I could still hear the louder, younger woman’s voice from the furthest away point I could find, and yes, I still shook my head in disapproval at the loudness. Ugh! But there are more important things than decorum, clearly, always.


Illustration by Merrilee Liddiard


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