“I work at the newspaper,” I said. He knows it’s four blocks away.
While he did the work of attaching my gas meter outside and then lighting the pilot lights and rekindling the stove inside, we chatted. He asked what I do at the paper, what sections I edit. I asked whether this is what he does all day, and how many folks he might see in a day. We learned that we’d both grown up with gas stoves and then moved to electric, and we agreed we liked gas because you could see the fire and reduce the heat more quickly.
On the way out, he noticed the displays of flutes, whistles and panpipes and asked, grinning, “Do you play or collect?”
“Both,” I answered, grinning.
I don’t know his name. It’s likely that we’ll never meet again. But our conversation sticks with me more than most I’ve had with my new neighbors. He was making a heart-to-heart connection.
That’s one of the habits Valorie Burton advocates in her book How Did I Get So Busy? The 28-Day Plan to Free Your Time, Reclaim Your Schedule, and Reconnect with What Matters Most.
On glass-half-empty days, I can focus too much on the absence of heart-to-heart connection. How long has it been since I ate dinner with someone else? How long since anyone touched me? Why don’t people look each other in the eye any more in [pick your situation when you think we should]?
The truth is, it all depends on my definition.
Ideally, it involves embodied presence, face to face. If I lived with people, there’d be hugs daily, pressed heart to heart through our shirts and skins. I’d love to live closer to some of the people I love, especially family (or to have the jetpack that could get me there quickly).
But I work with people (some of them for fifteen years now). Daily, there are ways that people touch me and let me touch them. Updates about an ailing parent. Shared snacks. Sharing funny things from the stories we’re editing. (Note to self: Do an experiment. Tally how many times you laugh at work in a week.) Even bathroom conversations, which often begin at the sink and carry back out into the newsroom for a few minutes.
I was having one of those conversations yesterday with a coworker who has the same landlord when I realized I was looking away when she talked. So as I listened, I looked at her eyes. And it was like a blurry picture coming into focus.
It reminds me of a passage in one of my favorite books, Daybook by Anne Truitt:
Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.
Heart-to-heart connections are important as an act of self-care because they bind us to whatever communities we are part of; they help us not to feel invisible; they help me, when I’m living in my head too much, to live in my body, in place, with other people. But they might even be more important because they help us not to overdose on self-reflection; they allow us to give others the gift of seeing them.
Burton has seven suggestions for heart-to-heart connection, with others and self:
- Engage in stimulating conversations. (Faithful self-care blogging companion Megan Willome would also endorse another kind of conversation.)
- Reach out and touch. (Hug if you can; kiss if you can; but if you can’t, you can touch even with your eyes, I’d say.)
- Help someone in need. Knowing that there are people who’d trade lives with you in a heartbeat puts your life in perspective.
- Acknowledge people for who they are more than for what they do.
- Write in a journal— a five-minute heart-to-heart with yourself.
- Meditate. Quiet down; listen; concentrate; give thanks.
If I had more time, I’d look up the physiological benefits of hugging and laughing and eye contact, and offer links for anyone who wants to learn more. I’d quote someone else (and there are many folks to choose from) on the need for, and gifts of, seeing and being seen. I’d tell about the bakery guy who liked my shoes, or the gal at the same bakery who told me about her tattoos when I asked. (Note to self: start keeping a record of all those heart-to-heart moments when people so willingly, so touchingly, told you their tatt stories.)
And I’d spend some time considering heart-to-heart connections with beloveds whose hearts are many miles away: phone calls and texted photos with family, conversations on Voxer, real mail (especially postcards).
On glass-half-full days, I can see that my glass is brimming. And if your glass is running on empty, I can pour in some of my overflow. Because all of it, near or far, face to face or ear to ear—all of it comes down to this: seeing, being seen, saying (with or without words) here we are together.
And that reminds me of a prose poem by Louis Jenkins.
The Language of Crows
A crow has discovered a scrap of roadkill on the blacktop and can’t resist telling everyone in a loud voice. Immediately another crow arrives on the scene and the fight begins, cawing, flapping, and biting. Suddenly crows come flying in from every direction to enter the battle, skimming low over the treetops, all cawing loudly. Finally one crow (it’s impossible to tell which) makes off with the prize and flies a few hundred feet into the trees. But as soon as he stops the others are on him and the melee begins again. This scene is repeated time after time and each time the crows move farther away into the woods until their cawing has grown faint but remains undiminished in intensity. Crows have a limited vocabulary, like someone who swears constantly, and communication seems to be a matter of emphasis and volume.
If you lie quietly in bed in the very early morning, in the half-light before time begins, and listen carefully, the language of crows is easy to understand. “Here I am.” That’s really all there is to say and we say it again and again.
We’re writing our way through some of the chapter titles in Valorie Burton’s book. You can read it, or not; the titles are writing prompts all by themselves. You can find the list of titles and publication dates here, and a list of all the self-care posts here. Have something to say? Please join us. Simply drop a link to your blog in a comment on the corresponding post.
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