When I was a freshman in college, I waited tables at a local restaurant and bar in Nashville. Waiting tables is hard and humbling work, which I highly recommend. Once you’ve experienced it you’ll forever be mindful of 1) how you treat wait staff, and 2) how to tip properly. When I was leaving at the end of the school year, the manager, Bill, and his sister Ruth invited me over for a drink. At the end of the night, Ruth gave me a hug and said, “Have a good life!” This was the pre-Facebook/email/Instagram days, and she meant it as a heartfelt farewell to someone she’d probably never see again. I stuck that sentiment in the back of my mind.
But to paraphrase folksinger Arlo Guthrie halfway through the 17-minute-long Alice’s Restaurant, this isn’t a post about waiting tables.
This is a blog post about the emotional and intellectual value of personal connections.
One of our staff members had her final day at the National Trust coincide with the last day of our 2018 PastForward conference in San Francisco. Alison, who was heading off for a great new opportunity, always had a smile on her face that matched her outgoing personality, she was an extremely efficient and effective worker, and she would always have something pleasant to say as we passed in the hallway. So when heading out for dinner that Friday evening with my wife and daughter Claire, I stopped to thank a group of staff members who were preparing to catch the red-eye home. In the midst of our conversation I pulled the “Have a good life!” phrase from the back of my brain in saying goodbye to Alison. Several colleagues groaned to let me know that they would be staying connected to Alison, and I realized my sentiment wasn’t taken as intended. I tried to make amends, yet Claire gave me a bit of a hard time when we left the hotel, in that exasperated “Oh, Dad. . .” kind of way. I’ve thought about the sentiment and reaction several times since.
Connections are clearly easier to keep today with our on-line options. The internet is full of articles about why high school reunions are (or quickly will be) extinct, thanks to social media. It is easy to connect with people all around the world if you are online. I have maintained contact with a former colleague who is probably the only individual to have worked in offices with both my son and me. I recently discovered that she was just named an Associate with a New York law firm. I say I have maintained contact…but in truth I just saw it on LinkedIn and hit the “Congratulations” button.
Which brings me back to Claire. Remember Claire?
My daughter has taught me several life lessons, but among the most meaningful is the importance of maintaining personal connections. Real connections, not just electronic touches. Claire certainly uses social media as much as most other millennials, but she is a master at the face-to-face, let’s have a cup of coffee, “I care about you” emotional connection. She instinctively looks for opportunities to get together and will travel some distance and carve out meaningful time to keep those connections current. Her contributions to dinner table discussions are legendary, leading family and friends into topics that are consequential and boundary expanding. She is good at telling stories and she cares about yours. She “gets” that—as the writer Rebecca Solnit has said—“To love someone is to put yourself in their place . . . which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”
In a wonderful 2017 essay entitled Preaching to the Choir, Solnit speaks to why we need to connect, find places of agreement, and then go deeper.
“I wonder if I hear the phrase ‘preaching to the choir’ often now because we have, in our everyday practices, pared our communications down to the bone and beyond. Almost no one I know calls friends merely to have the kind of long, reflective, intimate conversations that were common in earlier decades; phones are for practical exchanges—renegotiating plans, checking in on arrangements. Emails, which in the 1990s seemed to resemble letters, now resemble texting, brief bursts of words in a small space, not to be composed as art, archived, or mused over much. A lot of people are too busy to hang out without a clear purpose, or don’t know that you can, and the often combative arenas and abstracted contact of social media replace physical places (including churches) to hang out in person.”
Sometimes I will catch myself among a group of people with my head buried in my phone screen, oblivious to the life around me. Other times I pass on chances to connect through a meal or conversation for no reason other than I have my head somewhere else. I walk past people in the hall or on the street and act as if I am under Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Yet, inevitably, the times I pull myself out of my self-absorption to connect at that emotional “I care about you” level, I am the one who benefits. I have conversations and connections that let me know whether friends and family are having a good day, much less a good life.
The next time you find yourself in a similar situation and you don’t know what to do, simply walk up and say, “Tell me about yourself,” (a.k.a. the only icebreaker you’ll ever need.)
I hope you can use the upcoming holiday season to connect with real people, share stories, and have a good life.
More to come…
P.S. – As I originally wrote this piece, I pointed out all the references to the song Alice’s Restaurant (with four part harmony, naturally). But then I thought better of it. So I took them all out and only mention it here, buried in the footnotes, for those who thought “that sounds familiar” and will chuckle. If you have never heard of the song or Arlo (son of famous folksinger Woody Guthrie) and are curious, then click on the video above.
P.P.S – You’ll no doubt be hearing more from me on thoughts coming from Rebecca Solnit’s new collection of essays, Call Them by Their True Names, which is where I read Preaching to the Choir.
Image: DJB and Claire connecting over lunch near the end of our cross-country trip in 2014.