Great Conversations

The other day I noticed I was feeling really good. What had I done?

Not that I live in perpetual darkness, but let’s just say I’m continually acculturating to joy — when she does a two-step in my heart I like to backtrack just to see what I have done to beckon her arrival.

In this case, it was a great conversation — not with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years but with someone I interact with almost every day. A spontaneous chat turned into a talk that turned into a joy-generating exchange.

What distinguished this particular conversation from the dozens of others I had had that day? I think it was that both of us ended up at a destination neither of us had planned for. Instead of trading quick, static snapshots from our minds, we broadened each other’s views. My experience rolled around with his experience and a universal lesson was born. Heads started to nod, gesticulations became more animated, phrases like “yes! yes!” and “you’re exactly right!” peppered the air. Conversations like these generate the excitement of travel, really, because both people have moved from their point of origin to a new locale where the view is stunning.

I love it when there is a constellation of good conversations. There’s nothing like a dinner party where deep talk clinks across the room. Such moments are in fact what I seek at social gatherings; when small talk reigns, it feels like a shell hardened around the nuggets I want to get to. Why am I even here? I wonder to myself as I bump my head into perfunctory pleasantries. When I have a series of real conversations, on the other hand, I am enlivened by the gathering and the feeling inside lingers long after I’ve returned home. My answer to “Did you have fun at the party?” depends entirely on the conversations I did or didn’t have.

The key ingredient seems to be vulnerability and candor. Sometimes when I’m stuck on the surface with someone, I think, C’mon. Just throw me a few scraps. Dig in and bring up a chunk of your truth. I’m not talking about gushing with all of one’s messy particulars, but good conversation inherently involves risk-taking. What’s worse than being the provocateur while your potential conspirator moves her lips without opening her heart? I feel exposed in these moments — the guy who says too much. But I push forward with the hope that my vulnerability will invite that in the other, and that we will relish the intimacy this brings.

At a party you won’t often find me at the center of the room; I’m more likely standing in some dimly lit corner, trying to engage in what the Sufis call sohbet: a mystical conversation on a mystical subject. The Nigerian writer Ben Okri once wrote that “you can travel the world and still not move an inch.” I’ll stay there all night long if the road to somewhere keeps opening up.

The Seventh Ball

I recently heard about a potter in Connecticut who was known for making beautiful bowls of a certain size and form. Demand was high, so she spent most of her day at the wheel creating what everyone expected her to make.

She had a tradition, however, with every seventh ball of clay: she’d experiment with color, size, shape, edges, depth to create something completely new. After the seventh ball, she’d return to her assembly line. Not surprisingly, some of her most amazing inventions originated with the seventh ball.

This got me thinking about how many doses of free-form experimentation I allow into my life. I thrive in structure, but are there rules-free zones within its boundaries?

It’s tough to find this balance. I’ve known people who are audacious with every ball; they are fun to be around but can also be unsettling to me — I’m not sure who they really are as they trot out a new version of themselves or embrace their latest passion. On the other hand, I can be overly rigid; I like to find what works for me and keep my dial there.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons mild-altering substances have appealed to me over the years; they offer, at least initially, a glimmering exit door from the expected. When a friend of mine in college got caught with marijuana, her Dad asked, “Tell me, why’d you do it?” She replied simply, “Because it makes me feel different.” Ah, the wish to break free from our own norms.

That said, any departure from routine can become a routine itself if employed often enough. Folks don’t call marijuana “the chronic” for nothing. I’ve known many stoners who punch the clock as dutifully as the straightest of arrows.

I’m in search of letters outside rote’s alphabet, even though I am also averse to the risk that implies. But how else can I evolve? I’ve known folks who get so set in their ways that they probably couldn’t throw a fresh bowl with the seventh ball even if it promised gold. On the other hand, there are people who remain flexible and keenly interested in what they don’t know; as Rilke put it, they “resolve to be always beginning.”

A few months back, I was visiting a friend, and she recommended that we go dancing on a Sunday morning at a nearby art center that hosted ecstatic dance sessions. The idea of dancing in front of complete strangers without the aid of dim lights and alcohol was frightening to me. I reluctantly agreed, but in the parking lot outside the center I felt panic rise in me like I hadn’t in years: I wanted to sprint to the nearest coffee shop and crawl back into safety. But instead I walked in. I found a quiet empty spot in the corner and closed my eyes. Beautiful Indian music filled the room, and I began to slowly move, to unhinge my hips, to unfurl my arms and release the fears I’d been carrying like a chronic cramp. Before long, I’d forgotten the panel of judges I’d turned my dancing neighbors into and was feeling sensual, opened up, renewed. I looked around and saw that the strangers were vulnerable and tentative too. There was an exquisite beauty to that.

Dancing in front of people is not in my traditional body of work: but there I sat at life’s pottery wheel, expanding my own notion of what was possible.

Talking to Strangers

I was struck recently when a friend’s young daughter refused to speak to a gentleman we passed on a mountain trail.  He had asked her if she was having fun, and she replied, “Do I know you?”

The man looked at me and said, “Somebody is raising that kid right.” I thought he was being sarcastic, but he went on to explain that he believed it was good for children to be suspicious. My friend’s daughter told me later that she’d been instructed “never to talk to strangers.”

It reminds me of the time I quickly but softly caressed the cheek of a baby sitting in a grocery cart while his mom scanned the shelves for soup. My girlfriend at the time admonished me —  “You can’t touch other people’s  babies!” — as if this were some obvious fact of the universe. To think I could’ve missed a chance to feel that skin.

Why are we teaching our children to avoid most of the people they encounter? Statistics overwhelmingly show that most kidnappers and predators target children they know.

When I lived in Johannesburg, I loved how African kids referred to adults they knew well as uncle or auntie. It’s not that young people talked incessantly to everyone that walked by, but there was a sense that their circle was larger than their familial unit. I once asked one of my students to translate the Zulu word “ubuntu” for me: it was a difficult task, because the concept does not have a tidy English equivalent — I’d heard it loosely described as the “belief that your humanity is wrapped up in mine.” But here’s how my student put it: “When you’re in the township and see a woman coming off the taxi with too many shopping bags, you walk up and help her, even if you don’t know her.”

Look, over there, see that American kid with his head down?

Annie and I have always actively acted against this tendency, encouraging an open dialogue between Rio and the world. We’ve talked to him seriously about not following strangers or getting into their cars, but beyond that we’ve never intimated that he should be closed to anyone. When he was a newborn, we passed him to as many people as possible, believing that exposure to different smells and smiles would expand his view of the world. It’s not that we handed him over to strangers in stores and walked away, but we were eager to share the gift of him with the world and to have the world share back.

I am not naive: I know there are unsavory people out there, but Annie and I remain committed to nurturing Rio’s natural curiosity rather than manufacturing fear. To me, strangers represent not a threat but an opportunity to step outside of one’s own orbit and have it thus expanded. Who knows what that man on the trail might have had to say to my friend’s daughter.

The Edge of the World

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Rio wears a helmet every time he rides a bike. Since all the kids these days seem to do the same, he doesn’t say a word about it.

This is a lot different from when I was growing up, when so few kids wore helmets that those who did were relegated to the teasing bin.

I’m glad Rio’s head is protected, but there’s something a little sad about it too. I think of what it feels like to ride around with your hair blowing in the wind: that locks flying, safety be damned kind of day when life seems a wide horizon to glide through.

We often eschewed safety as kids — I remember jumping off roofs, bouncing around in the back of a pick-up, even starting little fires in piles of leaves. But I also remember the dark side of these unsupervised adventures: I fell from my ten-speed bike on a busy boulevard and slammed my helmet-less head hard into the cement, probably just avoiding a concussion and being hit by a car (sorry Mom!) My friend and I once lit a small fire that became an inferno that almost devoured his entire backyard before the fire department came.

As a parent, I’m committed to Rio’s health and safety, but I also try not to become so obsessed with it that I squelch his freedom to soar. I think this is why I don’t mind Rio climbing trees: dense ones with many limbs that literally falling out of is hard to do. There are two such trees in our yard that Rio climbs regularly. I’ve always had one rule on the subject: I won’t help Rio down (unless he’s truly stuck). This means he has to grapple with his own fears and his own abilities as he makes his way up the tree, because he knows it’s hard to get back down. If he doesn’t heed the voice that says “enough,” he risks being stuck up there for a while. He has learned to, branch by branch, climb to the top of these trees. To date he hasn’t fallen and we haven’t had to save him; he’s careful, discerning, and fairly nonplussed about the whole affair. He doesn’t feel scared even though he’s aware of the real physical dangers.

As the writer Carl Honore said in an interview that Annie conducted with him last year, “The common instinct for parents is to wrap their kids in a cotton ball to make sure they never get hurt, but kids need the space to unleash their curiosity and let it roam in every direction rather than have it pulled in and directed at every turn.”

Last year, Rio and I went to the Appalachian Mountains. I wanted to take him on a hike that ended at a high spot with a beautiful view of a waterfall. Another parent I met along the way said he wouldn’t take his daughter down there with him because of the sheerness of the cliff. I respect that. I knew from experience that it was indeed a dangerous edge — if anyone fell off they would die — but I was also aware that the ground and trail near it were completely stable. I wanted Rio to see the view, but more importantly, I wished for him to understand the reality of ledges, to see danger for what it really is as opposed to never meeting it and thus having only a theoretical understanding of it: poor equipment to have on hand when he inevitably faced the real thing.

I was stern and serious at the ledge, staying many feet away and requiring Rio to hold my hand and listen to my every word. Rio followed my lead and stuck by me, huddling close as we sat on our secure rock pondering the grandness of the scene before us. The waterfall was stunning, but what I cherished most was the trust that had bloomed between us.