After a long string of HOT, it was a beautiful day for a walk. I let my arms swing, and the wind blew the hair back out of my eyes. There were lots of people out this morning: I said hello to other morning walkers and to kids and their moms and grandmas and caregivers who were waiting for school buses. I stopped to talk with a dog walker or two, and then, on the home stretch, I ran into a woman—call her Geraldine–I know because she works hard for worthy causes all over town.
We stopped to chat for a moment.
“How are you?” asked Geraldine.
I opened my mouth to reply.
“Oh, I KNOW,” she said, quickly jumping into the void. “It’s hot, isn’t it? That’s why you’re out here in the morning. Better to be in the house, in the air conditioning, in the hot afternoons.”
I realized I hadn’t told Geraldine I was teaching this semester, so I opened my mouth again. But Geraldine got there first.
“Did I tell you we spent a month in Florida this summer? My daughter had twins and we were happy to help. But HOT? Oh, my goodness. We never left the house except to get into the air-conditioned car and go to an air-conditioned restaurant or supermarket. But those babies! They are so cute. And healthy, thank God.”
Geraldine cocked her head and looked at me expectantly. I started to ask her whether the twins were boys or girls or both, when she looked down and tsk-tsk-ed.
“Wouldn’t you think,” she said, “the city could FIX these sidewalks. How many times have you almost tripped on this jagged cement? I know,” she said before I could answer what was clearly a rhetorical question. “dozens, right?”
She patted my arm. “Well,” she said. “I’d better run. Chet will be wondering where I am.” She marched off, but then she turned around and smiled back at me.
“So nice,” she called, “to talk with you.”
I smiled faintly and waved and thought, But you didn’t talk with me. You talked TO me.
I like Geraldine, I really, really do. But our exchange—or her monologue—was the last in a list of creeping incivilities that I’d been totting up all week.
I walked home wondering whether people have lost the art of listening to each other. Perhaps it’s a skill no longer taught…but that doesn’t explain Geraldine, who’s (I think evilly) a good ten years older than me, went to school when listening was a learned skill, and should know better.
Too much exposure to media that demands one-sided interaction, maybe?
I’ve been thinking of dear Kim, lost to cancer at age 62; her birthday would have been this month, and she’s been on my mind. Kim and I cooked up some schemes together that flew (we talked our church into sponsoring a fun food-sculpture activity to benefit the hungry way back in the day, for instance. I moved away shortly after that, but Kim turned the event, which she dubbed Can-Do, into a tradition.) And we dreamed some schemes that never came to pass. One of those was a newsletter we’d call Civil Discourse, a place where we’d demonstrate that we all can listen to each other, agree or disagree with each other, and do it in a respectful, intelligent, courteous, meaningful way.
We talked about that concept a lot and sent each other articles and wrote up paragraphs that might seed some ideas, and we kept the email lines buzzing with our thoughts. But we never got that cumbersome craft to lift off from the sticky grounds of our imaginations.
We agreed, though: something needs to be done. The art of civility is fast disappearing.
I miss Kim.
And I miss the chance to talk with her about the rules of discourse, and about the niceties, the things we once took for granted (oh, I’m sounding old), that become more and more rare.
At home, I pour myself a coffee, and before I can sit down, the mail slides through the door. I go to fetch that tumble of paper and I stand by the table, sorting.
There is junk mail. I stack some for the recycle bin, immediately. I snip the ones that offer one or all of us instant credit cards. Preapproved! No annual fees! (I would prefer that no one searching through the bins of paper find a credit opportunity in my name. Snip. Snip, Snip.)
There are ads with coupons. I cut away the ones we’ll use and put the remainder in the recycling pile.
Jim has two slim packages.
There are—oh, joy!—two handwritten envelopes, and the handwriting is familiar and much-loved.
And there is an oversize, glossy postcard. It has a distorted picture of a gubernatorial candidate, an ugly close-up, on the front. The text on the back tells me why I should spurn, hate, and vote against this man. It goes beyond hype; it plunges into vitriol.
I examine the card for a return address. (When similar hate mail appeared before the special election not long ago, I wrote and asked the responsible party to stop sending those missives to me. Tell me the good things about YOUR candidate, I wrote, but don’t send me poison to taint the opponent. I’m not reading mail from the haters. The postcards stopped coming to me. They still slid through the mail slot, though, addressed to my husband or my son, instead.)
There’s a vague mention of a committee. There’s no address. When I go on-line, I can’t find that special committee to contact them.
It’s a little chilling, this anonymous, hate-filled doggerel, sleek and expensive looking, floating through my doorway, tainting my day.
Remember our mothers wagging fingers and saying, “If you can’t say anything good…”?
Remember the rules of civil engagement?
Remember when the candidate whose team leveled low blows would be accused of taking cheap shots?
I believe that we need a fair press that honestly reports the good and the bad, the outstanding and the indifferent, about those who want to lead us. I’m tired of the hateful half-truths and innuendo.
I want the candidate’s team to tell me what their person’s qualifications are. I don’t want to know how well they sling their mud.
After lunch, I pulled up my college email. There are several messages from students.
Three of them have no subject line, and no message. Each sports an attachment.
I carefully compose an email to those students.
“I see you’ve sent me an email with an attachment,” I write. “Would you please re-send this? I would appreciate it very much if you’d put your class number and section as the subject. Then, please write a message telling me what you’ve attached, and what you’re hoping I will do.”
I end with thanks for their time and attention. I hope I am teaching a little email etiquette.
I have teaching friends who delete subject-less emails. I have teaching friends who will not respond to emails with attachments but no messages.
Email is a relatively new technology, yes, but it’s been around long enough that we can develop some expectations about e-courtesy.
At school the next day, I park far enough away that I can stretch my legs walking to the building, and I head across the crosswalk. There is a yellow sandwich board in the middle of this intersection; it sports a red-lettered sign that reads, “STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS.”
I step out into the road, but the gleaming black SUV barreling down at me is clearly not stopping. I leap backward, and try to make eye contact with the driver, a woman of about my age. She keeps her gaze straight ahead and does not meet my glance.
She ignores me pointing to the sign that tells her to stop.
So does the silver pickup that streaks by, blowing the hair back off my forehead, and the little white sedan. Both of those drivers, too, keep their faces rigidly focused on the road ahead, carefully not catching my eye.
In class that day, working with my college students, we share a treat of cookies and grapes—it’s Nat’s birthday, after all. Every single student stops to thank me for the goodies, and each of them wishes Nat a happy day.
My spirits lift a little.
Because I have been getting discouraged. What’s happening to us?
We often don’t listen. And maybe, after the need for water, food, and shelter, one of our most basic human needs is to be heard.
Our politics are polarized; fact and reason give way to emotion. I picture two raucous camps divided by a wall so high that we can’t see each other. It’s not so high, though, that wall, that we can’t fling our garbage gleefully to the other side.
And then, imbued with righteousness, we are deeply insulted when steaming, stinking bags of rubbish come flying back.
I want to find the dignity of debate and engage in a real search for truth and understanding.
Our daily interactions are rushed and abrupt; we are tense and intent on our own needs, and we studiously avoid considering the people we rush by.
We seem driven. We’re unhappy.
Civility, I mourn. Where have you gone?
Something, I think, needs to be done.
I am sitting at my computer desk when Jim begins telling me a long story about a show he’s been watching. I start out smiling and nodding, but my right hand soon creeps to the mouse. I click and open.
As I pretend to be listening, I am focused instead on a rousing game of Forty Thieves.
Jim winds down.
“I’ll stop bothering you,” he says, and heads downstairs.
Nice message you gave that boy, I think to myself.
I am cleaning out my email and I groan a little bit because there’s a message from an awkward acquaintance, someone who has a funny way of expressing herself, who always seems to be on the offensive. But I open it, and sure enough, she makes several suggestions I could implement to improve myself and my methods.
It’s hard, of course, to read tone into emails, but I do it, anyway, ascribing her motives.
“Beee-yatch,” I think automatically, contemptuously, and then I reign myself in, appalled.
This is a person, after all, who deserves my respect, and who, despite her clumsy communications, truly does mean well.
I close the email without an immediate response; I will wait until I can respond with kindness and with clarity.
We are at lunch and Mark is telling me about a thing that happened that morning. All the while I am making just the right sympathetic noises in the pauses that demand them, I am running through my to-do list in my head. I am envisioning shopping and errands, trying to decide when I will have time to, finally, paint the dining room.
The conversation winds down and I can’t remind one thing that we said.
I am not, always, civil, myself. And before I start complaining loudly about the state of the world, I need to consider the state of my life.
More and more I think, as I decry so many things—the state of the environment, the nastiness of politics, and the lack of general civility,—the only place that I can make a start is HERE.
So I bring my stainless steel straws to the restaurant. I pack my re-usable shopping bags when I got to the supermarket.
I write letters, honest letters, questioning letters, mournful letters, to the people who’ve been elected to represent me.
And I shut my mouth. I take my reluctant fingers off the keyboard, I place my hands in my lap, and I try, very hard, to make contact. I really, really work on my listening.
I remember to remind myself that every person has inherent dignity; I try to head off my knee-jerk derision before it occurs.
When I hear the voice of a chatty, opinionated acquaintance in the supermarket, I do not run to dive down the nearest unpopulated aisle. I shop along and when we meet, I smile and say hello and stop to talk for a minute that does, indeed, last longer than I’d like. But it’s not an interlude long enough to harm me or my comfortable life.
I resolve to be civil myself before I demand that others meet my highfaluting standards.
It is not enough. It is far from enough. Our broken, jagged-edged world needs much more healing; there are so many sharp edges that can grab at our fabric, rip our soft and unprotected skins. My efforts are not much more than fluttering, but I cannot demand great, sweeping changes when I’m unwilling to change myself.
I can’t be marching and carrying a sign that says, “Clean up our common space!!!!” when my own room is hopelessly cluttered.
There is so much more to do, but I am not sure what next steps to take, what might help and what might make a difference. So today, while I am trying to figure it out, I’ll just keep trying to pull myself back to the present, to attention, to kind and compassionate response.
Today, just to begin, I will keep my ears open. And I will try to keep a civil tongue in my head.