Sunday, April 15, 2012

Silent through grief

Last night my husband and I shared a meal in a Japanese restaurant. We often take off at the end of the week for a meal prepared by someone else in a local ‘cheap and cheerful’ place and this night we both had a yen for something light and tasty.

The point in writing about this particular outing is not so much for the food or the ambience as the woman on the table behind us, whose voice was so loud she could have been sitting in the middle of our table.

Our own conversation had stalled. It was hard to engage above this woman’s voice, above her ‘conversation’. To my mind a dull conversation and even as I type the words ‘to my mind’, I’m brought back to the thought I had last night that there is one expression I tend to use within the blogosphere that I now must abandon.

This woman said it over and over and it began to grate.

‘To me…’ she said repeatedly as she prepared to launch into a discussion on the best flour to use for her cakes, the best toilet cleaner for her toilet, or the best church to visit over Easter.

She seemed to have an eclectic array of religions.

At first I thought she must have been a devout Catholic but then she talked of attending services at St Marks, the local Anglican establishment and at another time of enjoying a visit to the Presbyterian’s Uniting Church.

Good for her that she should be so expansive in her religious tastes but there was something about her taste in religions and in foods generally and in conversation that has led me to be writing about her today that irks me.

I have lost all patience with small talk. The glue that cements strangers or near strangers, the stuff we need to fill all those gaps when we do not know what else to say. I used to pride myself on my ability to make small talk but not these days.

These days I want any talk in which I engage to be meaningful, though not necessarily heavy. I want it to be meaningful to be worthwhile as if I am fearful of wasting words.

The woman of the loud voice at the table behind us sat among close friends, I imagined, and yet the whole time she indulged in what I can only describe as small talk.

It was so awful and so constant, so loud and dominant as to be fascinating.
‘Are you for real?’ I wanted to say to her.
‘Can you hear yourself? Are you listening to the words that come out of your mouth or are you on autopilot tuned to talk non stop?’

The woman who sat opposite spoke softly. Occasionally she offered an affirmation or an extension of her companion’s thoughts but no sooner were the words out than the woman of the loud voice took over again.

The two men, also seated at the table, both husband’s I presumed also spoke to one another in softer tones. But every so often the four came together in conversation and one of the men said things like ‘my wife likes to…’.

I could never quite catch the tail end of what his wife liked to do but I figured he was referring to the woman of the loud voice simply by the way her arms moved up and down when he spoke, as if she were momentarily silenced.

‘Do I speak as loudly as that?’ I asked my husband.
‘No,’ he said, ‘not so a whole restaurant could hear you.’
That’s a relief.
‘Do I dominate like that?
‘No,’ he said. ‘You usually let people have a turn.’
Again a relief.

Why then did I see this woman as being so much like me, so much like the me that I dislike, loud and overbearing.

She reminded me of one or two of my friends whose lives for various reasons have taken a turn of late. One whose family of four have all left home and she’s alone most days now until her husband arrives after work and the other who has recently retired.

Both seem to need to talk incessantly about things that may be relevant to them but have no bearing on anything we share. They seem to have lost the ability to include their listener and so their conversations become a series of soliloquies punctuated by a nod or two from the listener.

I find I do not want to see as much of them as I might once have done. I find I do not want to talk to them at all. I feel guilty for my lack of sensitivity to these two lonely friends and think of my mother who is grieving the loss of her sister who died before Easter in Holland and was buried on Good Friday.


My mother's family circa 1932. She and her younger sister are the only girls.

My mother who loves to talk has grown silent through grief. She avoids the dining room now and prefers to eat alone, not because she is unwell, she tells me, but because she cannot get her sister out of her mind.

Some of us run from our sorrows with words, others grow silent.

59 comments:

oceangirl said...

I begin to really realise that I run from my sorrows with words, at the blog.

Andrew said...

A problem with blog comments is that people will pick up an irrelevance in the post and make a comment that is quite alien to to what the post was all about. Nevertheless, ditch the verbal soliloquies types. You would be well rid of them.

Ms. Moon said...

I have no tolerance for small talk either and yet, isn't that what most of the glue of socialization is?
Which is probably why I'm a hermit now. When I'm in a situation where there is normal small talk going on, I feel like screaming.

Rob-bear said...

I've never been too good with "small talk." Which is why I avoid it as often as I can. If I'm going to have a conversation, I want it to be about something worthwhile, substantial, significant.

James Owens said...

"small talk" seems such a waste of time and energy, and i've never had any talent for it, which used to feel like a lack, but now seems more of a relief. i suppose small talk has its purpose as a kind of social lubricant, but this woman sounds like more than a simple time-waster ... she wants to dominate, to fill a space with ego, a kind of social violence. i always end up thinking that people who talk too loudly and too much are trying to make up for a deficit of self-worth ....

The Weaver of Grass said...

I think we have all come across people like your lady in the restaurant Elizabeth - sadly they seem to be usually women.

Silence through grief - the time to let our thoughts become the important part of our lives - I recognise that too.

rosaria williams said...

That last line: remarkable!

Elizabeth said...

You have a brilliant knack for turning what is mostly mundane into something profound and unsettling.

Jim Murdoch said...

Since walking has become increasingly difficult for Carrie we no longer eat out. I’ve never enjoyed it especially but she does and so I tolerated it for her. When we first got together we ate out on a regular basis; weekly was not uncommon. I do realise that for some people ‘weekly’ would be nothing but I think she was being considerate of me and didn’t push it. My father never ate out. Once in fact coming back from Edinburgh my mother was hungry and insisted we stop and eat at a cafĂ© which we did; he sat in the car and refused to join us. That was probably the first time in my life I had eaten out unless you count walking down the road with a bag of chips. I don’t recall the event. I only remember her talking about it which she did not infrequently when she was in a mood to give air to my father’s faults. To be fair to my dad he was not a mean man but he was careful with his money. He’d grown up in poverty and had sworn that his kids would never have to go through what he had, not that we got too many details. When he did buy thing he bought them to last. We had an ugly orange carpet in the hall that lasted my entire childhood and was only replaced once my dad died even though it still hadn’t worn through and probably would survive a nuclear holocaust. Eating out was a luxury and the only time I ever saw him in a restaurant was when one of us got married and since all of us got married more than once it was a few times but not a lot for seventy-whatever years.

I am happy enough eating out now I know the rules. Having had the parents I had I had, of course, no clue when it came to etiquette and relied heavily on those about me to guide me. To this day I’m still not especially comfortable in restaurants being fussed over by people. Yes, I know I’m paying for it but I don’t enjoy it and a part of me wants to go and do the dishes afterwards. Just a little part.

Small talk I believe we have talked about before. I can’t be jugged with it. I think that’s one of the things that annoys me when my daughter brings her husband with her to visit: it is a visit and I have to be the host which I find hard with her husband as we have so little in common. I do my duty—duty wins hand down with me, always—so I never disappear into my office and find something to keep me occupied but I’m much happier when it’s just the two of us. When we meet for lunch the hour just flies by. That said an hour is enough to say what we have to say. Visits never last only an hour. However Carrie is always there for visits and she saves the day; she can talk to anyone.

I think that’s what I personally enjoy so much about online exchanges: we each give the other space to gather their thoughts and say what they have to say without interruption. Granted most exchanges are very short—you say something in a blog, I comment, you respond, end of conversation—but I’m cool with that most of time.

My thoughts about the loud woman though is that she was shallow. I suspect you’d never notice the difference between her small talk and her ‘big’ talk. This, though, reminds me of a girl I knew once. She was an floater, moving from office to office, to cover people on long-term sick leave and the first day I met her, after the opening pleasantries had been got out of the road, practically the first thing she said to me was: “So what are your thoughts on indoctrination?” We never looked back. At last someone I could have real conversations with. I based the girl in my short story ‘Katherine and Juliet’ on her. She had been given up by her birth mother and had been brought up by a couple who called her ‘Julie’; as an adult she found her birth mother and they developed a relationship and one of the first things she learned that she was christened ‘Katie’ which is why Julie’s rubber had the name ‘Katie’ written on it; she was an interesting character.

Christine said...

Even more unbearable and shaming when it is one's own mother. Your comment about grief points to understanding. Perhaps it is fear, I think.

jane.healy said...

I remember being told that there are very few of us who can have real conversations - most of us just open and close our mouths to fill the silences.

I love the picture of your mothers family - but did she live near her sister or is she retreating back to her childhood?

The Elephant's Child said...

I listen to such people with a distaste and fascination. I want to stop listening, but keep going back. And I worry that I will turn into her/them, just as I worry that I will turn into my mother.
Have a good week.

Windsmoke. said...

A work mate of mine has a very loud booming voice because he was brought up in a boys home and the only way he could be heard over the other boys was to shout, being slightly deaf in one ear didn't help either :-).

Anthony Duce said...

I do like how quiet your writing tends to be, in spite of the load messages always included in your words. Some people are just lonely, and insecure.. I find their voice carry, though so little is ever said.

Elisabeth said...

Blog words are a way of running from our sorrows, Lisa, and a good way, too. Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I wasn't so much thinking of blog commenters, Andrew, though what you say here applies.

I had in mind the real live flesh and blood variety, the people you can actually hear.

Thanks, Andrew.

Elisabeth said...

My daughters accuse me of being hermit-like too, Ms Moon.

It must have to do with our - yours and mine - shared intolerance of small talk. After a while under its weight, as you say small talk becomes mad making.

Thanks, Ms Moon.

Elisabeth said...

Well Rob-bear, bears hibernate for good reasons, including by the sound of things an avoidance of the very thing many of us here complain about - too much chatter.

Thanks, Rob-bear.

Elisabeth said...

You may well be right there, James. People who talk loudly might be trying to make up for what they lack in self-esteem, but it's not just the volume that counts as far as I'm concerned. It's also the nature of the conversation. Perhaps if it's worthwhile it need not be shouted out, as if from the rooftops.

Thanks, James.

juliet said...

What a punchy post this is, especially the last sentence. You sum it up so well. Grief can cut very deep, and silence at least allows for the deep feelings that we need to let penetrate us in times of grief. The way of too many inconsequential words is a distraction, and nothing gets processed.

Elisabeth said...

It amazes me how much my mother in the past two weeks, since her sister died, has become so much more thoughtful and 'silent', Pat.

Normally she talks a lot, though she is not loud like the woman in the restaurant, just persistent.

Thanks, Pat.

Elisabeth said...

I'm guilty of sometimes running away from feelings with words - and actions - at times, Rosaria. So I say these last words here from experience.

Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I like the thought that I can convert 'small talk', the mundane, into something meaningful, Elizabeth.

Thanks for pointing it out.

Kirk said...

Well, small talk is relative. The woman may be genuinely interested in whatever she's talking about. Perhaps she should be critisized not for small talk but small thoughts. Which she's entitled to, as long as she doesn't inflict them on people who want no part of those thoughts, such as the other diners in a restaurant.

My experience is people talk too loud when they're trying to impress someone. I know I talk too loud when I'm trying to impress. The irony there, of course, is that instead of making a good impression, you end up doing just the opposite. I also talk loud when I'm self-conscious. And the subsequent strange looks I get only serve to make me that much more self-conscious, and therefore a much louder talker. Finally, I sometimes talk loud because whenever I try to talk softly, I tend to mumble. I need to talk loud so others can understand what I'm saying (though not the whole restaurant.)

Never been much good at small talk, basically because I've never been all that interested in sports, and when two American males get together, that's pretty much what constitutes small talk. If by small you mean trivial, I can talk trivial if it's something I'm truly interested in. For instance, I was a fan of the TV show LOST. Not all that important of subject matter, but I could gab about that for hours. I can't though, if the only thing the other guy wants to talk about is boring old sports...As for talking about weighty matters, I'm fine with that, as long as it doesn't turn into an argument, as it can with such serious topics as politics or religion. If have to watch every word I'm saying to prevent a blowup, I might as well just stick to the trivial stuff.

I once read this book about the Kennedy wives. It seem after the assassination, Jackie Kennedy would, at dinner parties and other get-togethers, suddenly and automatically, with no prompting from anyone, go into a graphically detailed account of what she went through on that fateful day in Dallas, even mentioning her husband's brain as it lay on the back of the Presidential limo. Ethel Kennedy called it the "story from Hell". Maybe so, but it certainly wasn't small talk!

Maggie May said...

I really love this essay.

Anonymous said...

We have 'small talk' friends and 'D&M' friends. Rather nice really because I can pick and choose according to my mood.
Sometimes the smalltalk friends drive me crazy because we never seem to finish a conversation, just jump from one thing to another. Other days the D&M friends exhaust me. Why do we need to talk about one thing in so much detail when it won't make an iota of difference to the rest of the world?
Two friends became widows this Easter and I am sure the silence around them is deafening.
This post is not a small talk topic, is it Elisabeth?
Karen C

Rachel Fenton said...

I'm useless at small talk but find I'm drawn to those with whom I can partake in comfortable silence. That said - I love the company of people who can banter and amuse. So, wit or silence.

I found it funny - not that your meal was invaded by this gabbler but that the one person of most interest to eavesdrop on was the one you couldn't hear for the yapper! It shows that you're a writer!

I remember my gran grieving for her sister - like nothing I've ever experienced or want to experience again.

Elisabeth said...

I never went out for dinner in restaurants as a child either, Jim. Not until I was in my later teens can I remember even the inside of a cafe. Now it seems more commonplace, but I prefer honest cooking, not expensive gourmet hoopla type restaurants. Besides my husband and various of my daughters are excellent cooks. We prefer to eat the grand stuff at home. The joy of going out has mostly to do with the tidy up afterwards for me. And I too quibble at the expense.

I know what you mean about conversations that flow with some people, like you with your daughter. There are folks with whom the time flies and others where every sentence feels like torture. I try to avoid the latter.

As for my loud woman, she may be much better in a one to one situation. She might have been anxious. Who knows? I only know I felt overwhelmed by her volume and the sight of her has stayed with me, along with the sound. She was not unattractive. Apologies for the double negative.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

Fear might be at the root of it, as you suggest, Christine. And worst of all when it's your own mother.

Thanks, Christine.

Elisabeth said...

My mother retreats back to her childhood and early adult hood in relation to her sister, Jane. With six years between and half a world away from one another they were not close, but she was my mother's only sister and that makes it harder to bear.

My mother says her sister's death is worse because she also died overseas. The fact of her two brothers who died within Australia was painful but at least she could get to the funeral.

I suppose pain is pain and loss is loss however far back it goes, but rituals like funerals help us to share the load.

Thanks, Jane.

Elisabeth said...

Such loud people are fascinating, Elephant's Child, rather like a TV on full bore in the back ground. Your eyes and ears turn to it however much you might want to turn away.

Thanks, Elephant's Child.

Elisabeth said...

I'm sure there are many and varied reasons as to why some people speak so loudly, Windsmoke, and you're right - a need to be heard and deafness might well be two of them.

Thanks, Windsmoke.

Elisabeth said...

One of my daughter's teachers managed to control her junior school class by speaking very softly. She said this was in order to force them to be very attentive in order that they might hear. Your comment reminds me of this, Anthony.

Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

You'd know a great deal about the value of silence, Juliet. It can come out of meditative states and give rise to them as well.

How loud voices can sound alongside such reflective peacefulness.

Thanks, Juliet.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Maggie May. I'm honoured that you label this post an essay. I wouldn't have thought it warranted such a description.

Elisabeth said...

I'm as you describe, Kirk. When I'm excited I can get noisy but not when I feel self conscious. Then I'm more likely to go silent.

I agree too, small talk is all relative. Sports talk to me is profoundly trivial but perhaps not for sports people or sports fans, whereas to me anything about writing is profound, even if it takes the form of that light weight comedy, The Book Group.

That's a pretty ghastly story about Jackie Onassis. It sounds like she may not have overcome the trauma of that dreadful day.

Thanks, Kirk.

Kath said...

I must confess that I read this and thought, sadly, that there was no way that my husband would be able to answer in the same way yours has done.

I get too excited, want to please too much, feel like spaces have to be filled and want the instant gratification of laughter and response. I loathe this about myself and often have to say, 'listen' over and over inside.

Your observation that your two friends are lonely but also need to talk incessantly without necessarily including you is also a reality that I dread for myself.

Hopefully silence isn't always earned at the cost of grief or despair...?

Robert the Skeptic said...

I recently heard on Public Radio a very brief lecture by a woman who eschews small talk and described how to cut to the chase and get to the real and revealing things about another person.

She demonstrated this just buying a ticket for a movie - in a couple of lines she found out from the guy in the ticket booth that he had a girl friend he wanted to break up with and more.

Yes, I prefer intimate conversations with friends that contain substance.

Dominic Rivron said...

Loneliness can become a vicious circle. It's a tragedy that those who need friends most are often the hardest to befriend.

You paint a very touching picture of your mother. It's a sobering thought that none of us are likely to escape grief at one time or another.

Rubye Jack said...

It's funny, I can go for days without seeing a single person and I've done that a lot over the last year. Since I've been more alone, I find myself calmer and less interested in impressing than I was when I used to be around people every day. I think for me it has much to do with an inability to handle too much energy. When I had to be around people every day, I remember being more self-conscious and at odds with myself, and yes, I would talk in a loud voice I'm afraid. Now I am much more quiet. Perhaps it has to do with finding I am alright without people and so I no longer need them so much that I try to impress.

I use "to my mind" a lot also to clarify that I understand my thoughts are just me and recognize that not everyone need think the same. Something like that anyway.
Interesting post Elizabeth.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Karen, grief is one of the hardest topics around and people avoid bereaved folk like the plague. It's sad really, when most of us know that people who have lost a loved one need almost more than anything else the chance to talk about their lost loved one with concerned others, or at least to have other compassionate people near while they grieve.

Your division between those you entertain and are entertained by for small talk as opposed to the D and M types who can either nurture you at time or else at other times exhaust you, is valid.

We can't always go in for heavy meaningful talk as if we're in therapy all the time. We need occasional moments of levity, sometimes more so than others. Without such lightness we run the risk of taking ourselves and life far too seriously.

Thanks, Karen.

Elisabeth said...

The irony of it all, Rachel, as you say, the one who pulls you in can also be the one who most appalls you.

As for the death of a sibling, for most of us I suspect we never quite get over it no matter when it happens.

Thanks, Rachel.

Elisabeth said...

You may be overly enthusiastic, Kath, but I'll bet you're no way as loud and as seemingly mindless in your enthusiasm and noise as this woman.


The way you describe yourself here you sound like an ebullient child in your curiosity and enthusiasm and i reckon we need more of that.

Thanks, Kath.

Elisabeth said...

That sounds like an amazing radio interview, Robert. I know I can sometimes cut to the chase but it can cause people embarrassment especially some of my daughters who worry that I'm too 'over the top'. All in the name of meaningfulness, I reckon.

Thanks, Robert.

Elisabeth said...

I just read an interesting piece about loneliness and Face Book, Dominic. It's long and fairly detailed but if you're interested see: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/04/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/8930/

The writer, Stephen Marche, raises important issues to do with online connectedness/disconnectedness. But he also makes the point that loneliness is not just a function of new technologies.

Thanks, Dominic.

Elisabeth said...

It's good to see you again, Rubye Jack. I think I know what you mean about a decreased need to impress people the more time you have away from them. It can lead to a state pf separateness that sounds quite helpful to me. I'm looking forward to being able to spend time alone once I hit the so-called 'empty nest' here, but I can't imagine too many days alone.

I was never one for the types of retreats we had when I was a girl where we were not allowed to speak for days.

Thanks, Rubye Jack.

Rachel Fenton said...

No need to reply, Elisabeth, but I wanted to say thank you for your [always] considered and thoughtful replies. Have a lovely day :)

Pearl said...

Love the turn of this, the way you write, although of course I do not love that your mother has grown silent. I feel for her.

I ride the bus, to and from work. I know of the incessant chatter of which you speak. There are people doing that at 6:24 a.m. No, I am not kidding. :-) I've seen people make repeated phone calls at that time of day, simply to ask the poor sucker on the other end "what are you doing?"

We've become a land of overgrown children, believing our every thought has meaning.

Pearl

who said...

Jimeny Jillikers Batman, I can't believe you could sit through that type of suffering. Especially since some languages are so full of nuance.

erin said...

i feel intensely for your mother, and how that photograph affects me. their eyes! the hair. the importance of such assembly.

i am not good at small talk. i try to avoid it. i make people uncomfortable mostly, i think, unless they are elderly. i seem to do alright with the elderly, or children, people who have had enough of (or haven't learned yet) certain bullshit barriers. in other words it seems to me that they talk about things that matter.

but people are often bound to surprise us. sometimes i even surprise me.

i wonder what that loud woman at the restaurant was hiding from herself.

xo
erin

Elisabeth said...

Those loud conversations on public transport, Pearl, the ones people conduct with a phone to the ear are an amazing thing, worse even in some ways than my woman at the restaurant.

At least in restaurants people generally talk to one another in bodily form.

There's something about a loud conversation to some unseen person at the other end of a phone in full public view that draws me in every time and every time I'm both appalled and enthralled.

Thanks, Pearl.

Elisabeth said...

It was certainly something to sit through, Who, nuance and all. Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I wondered the same thing, erin: what was that loud woman at the restaurant hiding from herself such that she needed to make such a noise about it.

As for your abhorrence of all things tainted by the title small talk I can understand why you might shun conversation with all but the elderly and the small. Such folk have less to prove. To me the worst are the well-dressed money types who speak of nothings with plums in their mouths, as if from some lofty perch to which none of the rest of us could ever aspire. Nor would we want to, but they are not to know.

Thanks, erin, especially for your compassionate understanding of my mother's plight.

Marylinn Kelly said...

We hide from many things with words, especially ourselves. My capacity for small talk snapped off like a twig years ago, after too many company dinner parties with my former husband. Nothing brings out my sense of otherness quite so powerfully. Listening is an art, an act of grace, giving ourselves and time to another, but if it is not mutual, over time it becomes impossible. The more we write, the more valuable the words become; I don't want to waste either them or time whose supply is unclear but certainly finite. xo

Elisabeth said...

Your comments are as beautifully articulated as your posts, Marylinn. Clearly you do not waste words on small talk. Your talk is always profound in the lightest sense of the word - words at play. Thanks.

India Banks said...

hello Elisabeth-I've just spent part of my conference block at school catching up with your blog. I could listen to you talk forever - really. You speak with a certain confidence and wisdom, so I always trust that you have carefully weighed every word. I particularly loved the names of the wild plants your husband found. Wild Brassica might be the title of a book of your vignettes xx India

Syd said...

I don't like small talk either and bore of it quickly. I am a people watcher though and often find myself mesmerized in restaurants when someone dominates and goes on and on loudly. It is like watching a train wreck.

Elisabeth said...

It's good to see you here, India. Thanks for these kind comments. Wild brassica is a great title for a book. I hope you're enjoying your conference.

Elisabeth said...

Watching a train wreck is a good way to put this experience, Syd and yes, I agree small talk can be such a show stopper. Why waste our breath on words that don't matter?

Thanks again, Syd.