Thoughts on Practicing the Art of Conversation

Many of you know I used to teach writing to college students. My work as a writing teacher involved many things. I would plan interesting (I hoped) questions for students to begin writing assignments. I planned readings and assignments that focused our attention on certain elements or forms of writing. I designed formal units, classroom activities, and brief lectures that would help prepare my students for the writing they would need to do for their university studies. I thought about techniques and activities to get students doing what, sadly, so many seemed to dread: to begin writing. To begin writing something.

And as I thought about, planned, and composed my writing classes for my students, I continually assessed my students‘ writing strengths and challenges. I read many pages of student writing each semester — a boggling amount, really: around 8000 pages of student writing (essays, responses, research papers, summaries, poems, short stories, journal entries) each semester. Good thing I love to read! :-) And it struck me time and time again that how ever much I could infer that my writing students were strengthening and growing their writing abilities, I was learning even more about writing and language. Yes: a little pondered fact is that teachers — well, many teachers — often learn much more than their students, even when their students are learning a tremendous amount of things. At least I believe this is true for teachers with a certain openness to possibility, a certain style of teaching. Some may call this a Socratic style of teaching, harkening back to that ancient philosopher we know so well in the west. I like to think about it as practicing an openness to possibility.

Many of you know I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and lived for a period of time in Illinois. You may not know I was born in Minneapolis on Mother’s Day in 1964, and my mom, dear dear woman that she is, always told me I was the best Mother’s Day gift she ever had (I think my newborn soul had exceptionally good fortune to land in her care). So I must thank you for listening to my reveries and praises about the great states in the Midwest — my dear Minnesota and Illinois. You have been gracious and patient to listen. I hope you were not too bored — and I hope you get a chance to visit the beautiful midwestern part of this country.

The dearest man in the world to me (we met in Illinois, by the way) once told me he never felt so much like a Pakistani until he emigrated from Pakistan to this country. He said before that, he just, well, felt like himself. It was only when starting a new life in a new place, that he felt so thoroughly like he was from some place else. Then he and I moved to Florida, and I began to experience some sense of what he had expressed. More important, I began to experience a much deeper empathy for what he had tried to express.

And I have learned that when a person moves from her home, she realizes many things about her home that she may not have thought much about before. You learn about that place you left, even as you learn about yourself in a new place. For when you leave a place, you realize how much you really are from that place; and how much of that place is within you. It’s a bittersweet knowledge, and something we have in common, to some degree. I believe this bittersweet knowledge is a vast human experience, common to the multitudes throughout history who have picked up their lives and everything they have ever known, and struck out for some place else. Many who have moved, I imagine, moved with an openness to possibility. Many others (perhaps many many more) — moved by urgencies and calamities beyond their control — had to learn that finding an openness to possibility was needed for survival of the spirit. I know many of you — probably all of you — have tasted this bittersweetness, and you know this openness to possibility, even though you may choose different words to express it.

I recently wrote a small blog post about a wonderful meal I had during a trip I took to Duluth, Minnesota. And as part of that small blog post, I wrote about the distance from Fort Lauderdale to this pleasant small city in my home state. By plane, from Fort Lauderdale to Duluth, it’s 1634 miles (3026 km). By car, it’s 1831 miles (3391 km). And by ship, it’s 4119 miles (7928 km). As I wrote about such distances, I was astonished once again at the geographical and emotional distance from here to there.

And yet, even though I live great distances from my beloved Midwestern home, I still live within my first language, my native language, my mother tongue. My first language still surrounds my life, every day, every where, here, in Plantation, Florida, whether I’m alone in some sanctuary of thought or not. I still have this boundless reservoir, this place to repose, this vast language to dwell within, this other home called my language where, since Mother’s Day 1964, I’ve dwelled enthusiastically.

Actually, each of us have such a boundless reservoir, a place to repose, a vast language to dwell within, our mother tongue. We have this in common with each other, and we share this in common with the multitudes living and gone. Of course between you and I, our first languages are not something we share. Your mother tongues are dwellings beyond English. I dare say your mother tongues are beyond anything I could possibly describe in English, because I believe it is only from within our mother languages that we can grasp and express the mysterious essence of our mother languages’ beauty.

I also know my experience living some place else, can only slightly approximate how you must understand living some place else: and this has very much to do with the language that surrounds our lives, every day, every where, here in Plantation, Florida.

There is a common expression in English for a common situation everyone encounters again and again throughout our lives. I am thinking of the expression, I’m at a loss for words. You think, you reach, you grasp, you tip your face skyward, you rap your fingertips on the table in front of you, you try to find some expression, some phrase, some precise words, to express what you want to say with clarity. . . and you find yourself completely lost. You find yourself stuck in this place where you discover the best way to say it is to say, “I’m at a loss for words.” You may say this at someone’s funeral or other sad occasion. You may say this in a moment of joy, or boredom, or intense concentration. You may say this when standing before something you find breathtaking and incredibly beautiful. You may say this when you encounter something shocking or disgusting. Or you may say this when you are trying to leap the gulf between the home of your first language and the shifting space of your second (or third, or fourth) language. I’m at a loss for words.

I think these moments when we are yet again on the verge of saying to someone or maybe even to ourselves, I’m at a loss for words, that we are, in fact, some where within a hopeful place. For we are saying to the ones listening to us that I want to speak with you, I want to tell you something, I want to bridge this gulf between you and I and share something with you. I just don’t know how to express it with clarity. So please accept my expression, I’m at a loss for words. It seems to me this is what we mean — that we are at a place where we have an openness to possibility.

When we are on this verge, this threshold, we may choose to remain silent — and this is a very important element of language, to be sure — or we may just take the leap across the gulf, in a gesture one could call a gesture toward friendship, and say, “I’m at a loss for words.”

Of course tone of voice is the final judge in most expressions we speak to another. So, yes, this humble expression, I’m at a loss for words can be used like a sledgehammer, or a knife. I’m at a loss for words can declare an end to speaking any thing more on that certain topic, at that certain moment. But, for the most part, this common expression, I’m at a loss for words, signifies an openness to another. An invitation to someone to respond — perhaps with a nod, a smile, a roll of the eyes, or some spoken expression such as, Oh really, or I know, or I see what you, or Do you mean, or Thank you, or Hmmmm, or all sorts of possible expressions too numerous to count. For a truly ironic thing, maybe, is that once we speak aloud the expression, “I’m at a loss for words,” it often means we are saying to someone else, Reach me, Come with me, Let’s speak together, and By the way it’s your turn to talk.

If we dwell a little longer on this expression, we may even infer that if there was a way to explain what brought us here together for conversation in English, week after week; we might say we had something else in common. We might say we had the thought — I’m at a loss for words — in common. It may be this expression that brought us here. Or maybe not. I am completely open to the chance — perhaps a very good one — that neither this expression, nor anything quite like it brought any of you here for conversation in English. But I do know that whatever it was, you came here with an openness to possibility.

When I was a writing teacher, at the end of each semester, my former writing students tended to always write the same three comments when they evaluated my teaching style. One familiar comment was, “She’s very laidback and easy going.” The other two were complete opposites, and oftentimes came from classmates sitting side by side: “She’s very disorganized, with things all over the place” or “She’s very organized, with things always connected together.” Likely all three were fair evaluations, depending on the vantage point of the individuals. Although the latter, the third comment, seemed more perceptive of the conceptual structures I knew were always already there.

Some of you may know my pseudo-theory about learning new languages, children, and play. I say pseudo-theory, but I should admit that it’s probably only a hunch. I have listened to many persons remark on how rapidly children learn a second (or third or fourth) language; I too have remarked on this seemingly magical ability of the young. How to explain this? Well, it seems to me that children are immersed in learning their languages even while playing — literally playing with friends, on the playground, in parks, at home, wherever it is they play. And they are likely — shhh, don’t tell them — learning very much about their new languages and practicing their new languages while not caring for one moment if they are applying correct grammar rules in their speech, if they are selecting the proper verb tense, if they are stressing the proper syllables, if they are speaking in complete sentences at all times, and so forth. They are not caring about these things for they are into some serious playing. But this playing involves learning and practicing languages through and through, for they are laughing, joking, talking, listening, and singing with friends. And their friends don’t much care whether they make language snafus or not; they are simply having fun and doing stuff that friends do. So my hunch is this: that rather than thinking children possess some magical abilities for language that adults lack, perhaps we adults should think that children acquire fluency in a second language because they are immersed in some serious devotion to playing. It’s practically their jobs as children: to play.

So I planned, or tried to plan, conversational starting places from this hunch of mine about playing and practicing the art of conversation in a second language. I set out to create a playful space, a friendly space for relaxation, enjoyment, and laughter. Through these three things, it seemed we could maybe get some things done: to begin conversing in English. To begin conversing about something in English.

I recomposed certain activities or things I had done with my writing students, changing the focus to speaking and listening. I thought about the art of conversation — what is it? How does it work? What can we do to practice that aspect of speaking, or that aspect of listening? While my plans may not have always been successful, I believe there were many moments of success. By what would we measure such moments of success? I cannot even express that we spoke for 8000 pages per semester, or per season, or any such thing that quantifies our varied times spent together, speaking, listening, conversing.

And playing of course cannot be measured, which marks playing apart from games. Games are rule-bound and often have winners and losers. One could say the point of games is to be found in the measure. In contrast, playing is boundless (well, nearly so), open for surprise, for multiple possibilities, perhaps even without purpose beyond the playing itself. Maybe playing is even like the contours of an afternoon conversation among friends.

Good endings, really satisfying ones, are as difficult in writing as they are in speaking, for they are by definition goodbyes. I could end by returning to an expression that is not an ending, but rather is a beginning. . . but somehow I think I have written I’m at a loss for words too many times for that to work well. I could end by providing a litany of advice and general rules for conversation. . . but then I remember I don’t have many universal rules for conversation, so such a list would be pretty short. In fact, I really only believe in one universal rule for writing and speaking. This is it: It’s always good to aim for clarity of thought and clarity of expression.

Spring is shy in coming to Minnesota. When she arrives, she is most vibrant and exuberant and everyone packs away the coats and boots for a few months. But right about now, mid-March, the lakes are still frozen over and snow is everywhere. During the day, the sky is a watercolor gray. But at a certain point in the late afternoon around dusk, if you look to the horizon across a frozen lake, you will see the earth and sky has crossed a threshold and has become this most gorgeous saturated blue blue. The blue is so blue it gives one shivers. It is marvelous.

I have learned two very important things about the art of conversation from you. There’s an intensity of the immediate, the intimate, in spoken word that the written word can never equal. And the art of conversation can be mastered by practicing an openness to friendship. It gives one shivers.