For all my talk about the importance of just sitting quietly with people instead of “making conversation” or pushing toward a particular outcome, I’m not very good at it. Over coffee last week Gerald seemed restless and distracted. But instead of simply letting things unfold from how he was feeling and what he might want, I kept talking, filling more and more of the empty space between us with anxious chatter. Our usually reliable topics – political news, celebrity gossip, work stresses, health, budgets – sank in the void and silently disappeared.
Fortunately! Because if the conversation had moved right along, I wouldn’t have noticed the effort I was making to gas it up and steer it. I wouldn’t have realized that I was trying to drive my hour with Gerald the way I drive my car. And I wouldn’t have taken time to reflect again on my purpose in meeting with him, which is just to enjoy and be with him. Nothing in particular has to happen for Gerald, or between us. The space between us isn’t empty. It’s open.
When we met again this morning I said I was sorry for having so anxiously chit-chatted our time away the prior week. Gerald gave me a stern look: “Remember we agreed not to apologize for being whatever way we are? Last week you were whatever way you were.” It was a sweet gift of acceptance and understanding – of a kind I rarely receive because my own efforts to be the accepting, understanding one don’t leave many openings for such a gift to get through to me. How ironic that my giving could be so selfish!
Gerald and I floated some other guidelines for ourselves today. If either of us feels restless or distracted, we can say so without worrying that the other will take it personally. If one of us glances at the clock, we’ll assume – duh! – it’s to find out what time it is. If one of us decides to split before the hour is up, the decision doesn’t require an apology. If either of us has nothing to say, silence is golden.
It’s been a year since Gerald and I started meeting weekly at our favorite Ballard cafe. To mark this anniversary with a reminder of how much I learn from being with him, I reread “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” just now. If I’d reread it before our coffee hour last week … ? I wouldn’t have learned as much.
Please check out my Freestyle Volunteer project at How I started Freestyle Volunteering, tabbed above, where you’ll also find links to more stories about “Gerald.” (As a Freestyle Volunteer I meet with individuals sharing our public spaces who are socially isolated by mental illness or homelessness at a cafe, one hour a week, for coffee and conversation.)
“Anxious to fill the void” is also posted in Seattle Views at the Seattle P-I.