There are hardly any other words I have heard or read more often in the past year in conversations touching on the subject of how we can navigate everything that has been happening than be kind. Something to do yourself and something to hope from others as well. Amidst all the explosive news, instability, reactionary outbursts and critical behaviour towards what you should or shouldn’t do, real life is happening away from screens and we need to remain humans.
People are in dire need of communication and human connection. For our collective sanity. Human connection is vital. Just a simple hello said in person has come to go such a long way. If I am in line at the bookshop or at the bakery, and someone asks me something and my response is more than a telegraphic answer, they are surprised and grateful, and I can see their smiles ever with their masks on. People actually thank me for talking to them. But this doesn’t make me happy, because why has the world had to change so much in such a short time? “I was relocated for most of last year,” a kindergarten mother was telling me when the schools reopened. “I have just gotten back and I am out of touch with everything and everyone, I don’t recognise people’s behaviours. It feels good to talk to someone I don’t know face to face.” I know, I’ve been there. I am again taken aback when she thanks me for talking to her. In a time when we have learned not to take anything for granted, being kind should be a given.
Once again a piece written by Gerard Merzorati last year during lockdown for Racquet magazine comes to mind. He wrote about the “weak ties that bind”, those casual acquaintances that never bloom into a friendship but which are so important for someone’s well-being. They are a little more than strangers, like his tennis buddies, with whom conversations never go into intimacies or personal stuff, just casual talk that keeps you present, in the now, makes you realise you are part of a community and does you good. “These low-stakes relations, strangers to us except when not – bookshop owners, farmers-market-stand operators, tennis opponents – provide us a sense of belonging, bind us more strongly to place. They aren’t nearly as important as the love we share with family members or intimate partners or lifelong friends. Still, studies show, they make us happier. And research shows too that weak ties are especially important as we age. Social interactions of the kind I have with my tennis buddies—infrequent, low-intensity, limited, verbally, to the exchange of a few words before and after a match—are nevertheless preserving my cognitive function and helping to keep depression at bay.”
I also remember what Ian Buruma wrote in his book, A Tokyo Romance, about his fellow spectators in the darkness of the Tokyo theater he used to frequent, who always sat on the same seats, in the second row of the movie theater. “I don’t think they were close friends. After the screenings, each would go his way. But inside the cinema they were inseparable. Between films, they would huddle in the corridor, recalling different scenes from favourite movies.” The weak ties that bind.
A few weeks back, we were only three people on an early morning in one of my favourite local bookshops: an elderly gentleman, my husband and I. We overheard him asking a shop assistant about an album of Fleetwood Mac. We had just discussed how the band has been experiencing a revival after the band’s 1977 album Rumors broke through Billboard 100 again last year thanks to a Tik Tok of a man on a skateboard lipsyncing to Dreams and introducing a whole new generation to Fleetwood Mac’s music – Alec Baldwin interviewed Mick Fleetwood in January and it’s such a great conversation. And now we overhear this gentleman asking about placing an order because the bookshop has run out of that album. And when they answer they can’t do that because it is currently unavailable from the producer as well, we offer to help with a couple of recommendations of indie record shops in the city which might carry the album. The gentleman says he had already checked one of them – he and my husband start to talk about the shop’s owner, who they both are on first name basis with – and the other shop he has yet to check. If everything else fails, you can turn to ordering it online, we mutter, feeling almost sorry to make this kind of suggestion. “No, that doesn’t do it for me. I have hundreds of records at home. And I have to hand pick each and every one of them.” We understand each other. And now we thank each other for talking to each other. I have always appreciated these talks with strangers – which feels a little less alien in a constantly alienated world – but we have to lose that “thank you for talking to me”.
Tomorrow the clocks turn forward and, with that extra time of light and the streak of optimism, beauty and warmth back into the world, I am hoping for a shift to a gentler, informal dialogue, whether in front of a newsstand, at the coffee shop or on a hiking trail, too. Empathy and trust in people aren’t cultivated over a video call, our children don’t learn to nurture friendships on Zoom, camaraderie can’t be shared online, actual communities aren’t built on Instagram, life is lived in the whole wide world (which doesn’t mean hopping on a plane), not in the world wide web.
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In this world of fast, we go slow