The Fine Art of Visiting

Sharing points of view politely, just like Grandma taught me. Now that we're visiting, join in the conversation!

Inner conflict and the self-employed

Might we not say to the confused voices which sometimes arise from the depths of our being, Ladies, be so kind as to speak only four at a time?

~Anne-Sophie Swetchine

The above quote, prominently displayed on the bulletin board beside my computer, suggests that I constantly suffer from the very thing I seek out in my characters: inner conflict.

I suppose it’s a right brain-left brain thing. As it so happens, both sides of my brain fight for prominence. Left-brained me—lets call her “L”— is constantly putting new programs in place to re-organize, compartmentalize, and otherwise tame my unruly life so that I can make good use of my time. L is the boss. She scribbles all over my planner. She is an unflagging optimist with a get ‘er done bent.

Card sharp

Card sharp (Photo credit: totallyfred)

Right-brained me is innately improvisational and her antics are most entertaining. When L dictates that we go to the gym every morning, alternating upper and lower body workouts with an all-aerobics day thrown in for good measure, R says, “But you can’t make me.” Some days L gets a workout just chasing R around the room. She isn’t evil—she may go along with L for a couple of days to make nice—but then she’s madly reshuffling the schedule and saying, “Pick a card, any card.”

Problem is, R is a real charmer. She’ll say something like, “I’ll just write this blog first thing while I’m fresh and work out later.” Why do we believe her? We have never yet convinced her to make good on her suggestion to go to the gym once her head is inside a project.

If you’ve thought such tugs of war between employer and employee are only staged on the corporate campus, welcome to my head.

I wish I could report that after thirty years of practice I have trumped “The Man” by creating for myself an anxiety-free work environment, but that would be a lie. L schedules meetings, R gets lost in the flow of writing and misses them. L decides I’ve consumed enough calories for the day, R celebrates another two thousand words with a beer and buttered popcorn. L says to record my life before forgetting its rich detail and R demands time away from the computer to go out and live it. L says turn around editing clients faster so you can make more money, R says she. Can’t. Rush. And performance reviews? Pfft. The IRS deals the cards on that one. Tax time is sobering for the self-employed. Yes, valid deductions are great, but it does nothing for L or R to see all their tussles add up to so little on the bottom line.

On my bulletin board, pinned beside the opening quote, is a full-page photograph from O Magazine, April 2003, titled “The Idea is Balance.” It offers a profile view of an empty wooden chair—and improbably perched upon its back is a peacock, its long feathers hanging on a heavy diagonal toward the ground. The chair may tip, the peacock may fall, but in this moment the pair is caught in a moment of calm. Finding the quiet, while knowing the stakes—that seems to be my greatest ongoing challenge.

The neat thing about this photo, though, is that both the chair and the peacock are facing the same way. I never realized that until I wrote this post. That’s the same way with L and R. They may have different strengths, and different ways of going about things, but they have no doubt that they’re playing for team Kathryn, and that they’re both desperately needed.

K: Well done, team.

R: Let’s go celebrate with an ice cream sundae!

L: But it’s only 8 a.m. and I have you scheduled for another 2,000 words…

(Okay, ’fess up—I can’t be the only one. In what ways does the struggle for balance manifest in your life?)

A fun test to see if you are more right- or left-brained. Can you see the dancer turning to her left? I can’t.

Yes to Banksy, No to Ku Klux Klan

Because I enjoy learning from others’ perspectives, I visit with all kinds of people, including complete strangers. This made me wonder: Is there anyone I wouldn’t like to visit with?

As a lifelong student of the human body, I check for all sorts of body signals to give me information on how people really feel. “You look great,” for instance, just isn’t as meaningful with an eye roll. “I have a better vision for our country” does not inspire confidence when the speaker is covered in a sheet from head to toe. So for me, the most off-putting scenario I can think of would be to try to visit with someone who is purposefully masking his identity.

That brings me to the pairing in this title. Banksy is a British street artist and activist my son introduced to me by sharing Banksy’s movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary. As you can see in the clip at the bottom of this post, Banksy scrambles his voice and hides his identity throughout the film. He had to. His work, often executed under the cover of night, walks the line between public art and vandalism. It isn’t exactly legal. But because his work is creative and masterful and thought-provoking and entertaining, I’d love to sit down and chat with him even if I was denied access to his face.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan, on the other hand, whose free expression is protected under our constitution? I have to admit, I’d have trouble with that one. Here’s what Banksy had to say about the Klan:

banksy-kkk-in-birmingham

This image, painted at an abandoned gas station in Birmingham, Alabama in 2008 then quickly defaced, is credited to Banksy.

Before moving to Bucks County, PA in 2009 I lived in Berks County, a neo-Nazi stronghold. Because I lived on a small farm we avoided most confrontation. So I remember well the first time my son and I encountered the Klan standing in the busiest intersection of Boyertown. We were leaving his Tae Kwon Do class; they were handing out literature.

“Why are they in costume, Mommy? It’s not Halloween.”

“They fear being known for their opinions,” is all I could think of to say. “In America we are free to live here no matter what we believe. Unfortunately, these people don’t think the same way.”

As a writer I suppose it’s possible that if I were ever to visit with a Klansman, I’d find the evolution of his perspective fascinating. But it threatens everything I hold dear. I don’t think I’d want to do it, and don’t think I could stomach it if he wouldn’t remove his hood.

In the arts we often hear that we should do the thing we don’t want to do because it will have power. Maybe. But my unconditional love isn’t perfect. I might need a few more decades of convincing on this one.

It occurs to me that, like Banksy, the Klan has historically crossed legal limits under the cover of darkness to express itself (although as recently as 2004, in a racially motivated Boyertown area cross-burning). Yet I’m drawn to the former, and repulsed by the latter.

Maybe the two halves of the above photo provide a clue as to why.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (entire movie).

*Does empathy always make you stronger, or does it sometimes feel too dangerous? Who is it you would never want to sit down and visit with?

Learning to Converse

When you are from a large family—I am one of five children—memories of time spent one-on-one with an adult are precious. I am especially fond of the times when my grandmother and I would go visiting. Hand-in hand, we’d leave our summer home and walk along the shoreline to other camps to see who might be available for a chat.

Certain of my family members would tell you I enjoyed this because I like to talk too much. I’d put forth a different perspective: I was learning the fine art of conversation.

This is not a milestone we typically discuss when thinking of childhood development.  First smile, first babbling, first time sticking the foot in the mouth, first words, first steps—yes. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone say “Little Johnny conversed today!” As a matter of fact, I hardly ever hear anyone using the word “converse.”

Yet I recall clearly the first time I walked in on my sons, who at the time were probably 4-1/2 and 2-1/2, doing just that. The miracle of it took me unaware, since this milestone is so often overlooked. Until then all communication came through me—but this day they were talking to one another, affirming their senses of self without need of my intervention.

That’s what happened on these visits my grandmother and I made. Each fostered a thoughtful sharing of opinions and stories in a setting far removed from the debate-fueled hubbub at our crowded camp, where I always felt a little lost. While visiting I listened to new perspectives; they asked questions. I answered; they chuckled. My comments were not adrift in a sea of other voices. I was learning who I was.

There were always tangible rewards. Mr. Bassett served marshmallows (a fisherman always in need of bait, he also fueled my comic book habit by paying a nickel a piece for frogs I caught). Mr. Brown offered peanuts, and Mrs. North would often give out a Golden Book (my favorite was Alexander Kitten, who always did his duty).

The rewards at this blog might be less tangible, but I hope it will be a gift nonetheless. In our age of information overload, I hope it’s a place where you can lay down the the burden of your long to-do list and engage for a few minutes with other people and a new idea or two. To this day I formulate my own opinions one of two ways: through conversation or writing. My goal here is to do both.

But a visit requires more than one participant. I very much would like to hear comments from you! Please consider leaving a comment and being part of the conversation so that together, through shared perspective, our understanding and wisdom will deepen.

As it turned out, learning to talk to all sorts of different people ended up being invaluable to my future career as a writer and small business owner. On those summer days of my youth I unknowingly soaked up lessons in storytelling craft, particularly voice and point of view. I honed my critical thinking. I shared my love of reading and learned rudimentary networking and interviewing techniques. I also developed an enduring love for the fine art of conversation.

pitcherflowersAfter those visits my grandmother and I would meander home along the road with sweets in our bellies, new ideas to ponder, and no pressing need to talk. And by the time we got back to our camp I had a fistful of wildflowers in my left hand, and a stronger bond with my grandmother in my right.

Do you have any special memories about going visiting, or learning the art of polite conversation? I’d love to hear about it.

For more on this topic check out The Four Secrets of Learning Masterful Conversation by Loren Ekroth, in which she says, “Conversation is like a dance, taking turns, following and leading.”