If I visit a restaurant alone, I always bring a book. When I’m on a plane, the first thing I do is put my earbuds in, but more often than not, nothing is running through them. Why the book? Why the silent earbuds? I use both as prophylactic to interactions with other people. And in this case, it’s definitely not you; it’s me. I find small talk difficult, almost painful. I’d rather be silent than make idle chatter. But I read something this week that sparked a memory and reminded me that I am doing it wrong, and that I need to do better.
José Vergara has an insightful interview with Svetlana Alexievich, author of Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, up at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Alexievich talks of interviewing disaster survivors, of her desire to connect deeply with the people she’s speaking with.
Sometimes I’m deeply interested in talking to an old woman in a village, who hasn’t read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but who speaks so interestingly. She sees the nature of things that are completely unclear to me. I cannot understand it, and I never thought about it. She did. I sometimes talk to children who are very unusual. They have a different outlook. That depends on something else: how well we live; how talented we are and how experienced in our way of thinking; how seriously we penetrate life; how far we leave banality behind, because most people live and eat banality, and that’s enough. But the thing is, to create your own creature out of yourself, without the perspective of everyone else’s life, to contribute things that have not been said in books, even in good books, to change your outlook, to offer a text that has not been experienced in the human archive — that is a great work, and you must work on it your whole life.
Alexievich is so right. Conversations with strangers can be deeply rewarding, if only I make myself open to them.
I traveled to New York City once. I can’t remember precisely what year it was or why I was going to New York. What I do remember? My airplane seat mate. I had my book closed on my lap, on the ready, but he was quick. He started to ask me questions. I began thinking about how to open my book at a natural pause. (I didn’t want to be rude.) He had a Long Island accent. He worked for some “byore-oh” (bureau) of the U.S. government and I discovered he took this same flight every week, returning home from a consulting job. He was genuine and friendly. Our conversation lasted from wheels up to wheels down at La Guardia. I can’t even remember what it was that we spoke about, just that to my surprise, I truly enjoyed talking with him. The two-hour flight literally flew by. We were just a couple of humans, overcoming the banality of existence to make a memorable connection with a total stranger.