Yesterday in the bookstore, I witnessed an exchange that stuck with me. I was just about to leave the shop, having finished my hours for the day, and the next volunteer had already arrived.
Two girls walked into the shop together, full of the joys of the new summer, just excited about nothing much at all. One went over to the poetry shelves and called out ‘Oh I love poetry! I should read more of it!’ She browsed for a few moments and then came over with an old hardback volume, no dust cover, rather shabby and brown and asked the price from the other volunteer. It must have been a rare copy because it turned out to be quite expensive and her face fell.
‘Do you have any books of poetry that are cheaper than this?’ she asked. ‘Can you help me decide what to read?’
So the volunteer went back to the shelves with her and started pulling books out and offering them. I was picking up my stuff and not paying so much attention, until I began to feel a sort of cloud of creeping unease travelling over towards me. Something wasn’t going so well.
‘How about Auden?’ the volunteer was saying. ‘Do you know him? What about this by Shelley?’
‘Who’s Shelley?’ the girl asked, in a tone that suggested this sort of thing had been going on fruitlessly for some time.
‘Only one of the most important poets who ever wrote!’ the volunteer replied.
‘Well, I’d better read that one then, hadn’t I?’ the girl asked cheerily, clearly trying to retain a bit of dignity.
But by now the volunteer was leafing through the book. ‘Oh you don’t want this,’ she said. ‘It’s some sort of commentary on the poems, not the actual poems.’
The girl had had enough by now, and I didn’t blame her one bit. ‘I can’t see my friend,’ she said. ‘I think she must have left the shop. I really ought to go after her and come back when I know a bit more what I want.’
‘Yes, you do that,’ said the volunteer, completely unperturbed. I knew the friend was still in the store, only hidden out of sight around the little corner at the back. The volunteer stalked straight over to where I was standing. ‘Did you see that girl?’ she demanded. ‘I don’t know what she wanted. She said she loved poetry and wanted to buy a book but she hadn’t heard of any of the poets! Then I had to stop her from buying some book of literary analysis!’
Just to finish off the embarrassment of the encounter, the friend had realised that she had been abandoned and was heading out of the store towards our ex-customer who stood hovering on the threshold, beckoning her, and in perfect earshot of the volunteer’s unjust remarks. The two girls rushed away.
‘I think she just didn’t know very much about poetry and wanted to learn,’ I said.
‘She knew nothing about poetry!’ said the volunteer still outraged. ‘Why did she say she did?’
This exchange made me wince. It filled me with dismay, and not least because I hadn’t been able to find a way to intervene helpfully. I hadn’t realised the exchange was going so badly until too late, and to tell the volunteer now that she had been insensitive would have caused nothing but more wounded feelings. She is a much older woman than me, and someone who has worked in a lot of arts administration. I’d been warned before I met her that she could be disconcertingly brusque, although I hadn’t had any difficulty with her myself. But oh how I felt for that poor young girl, who had been made to feel so stupid. She had been a very pretty girl, elaborately made up, with her eyeliner making little hooked apostrophes around the outer corners of her eyes; she was dressed up in summer finery and in full flight of enthusiastic youth, in love with her own possibilities and all the other ones in the world that had yet to be revealed to her. If only she had been able to say, look, I’ve hardly read any poetry and I want to know where to start. But that would have been hard for her, to alter the stance she had taken and which, after all, must have felt so deliciously grown-up and serious and romantic. Who among us, at any age, could give up such a position in exchange for genuine, dull ignorance?
Over the past couple of years I’ve become very interested in dialogue, in what people can hear when they talk to one another, and the kind of miraculous exchanges that can really take people somewhere or effect meaningful change. I suppose this has grown out of my interest in teaching, and from the experience of trying to explain chronic fatigue to people who can’t or won’t understand what it is. It seems to me that the basis of any successful conversation is attunement. The ability of one or other party to get themselves in line, mentally and emotionally, with their interlocutor. When conversation breaks down in conflict or disagreement, you can really see that absence of attunement, the unwillingness to understand where the other person is coming from. The volunteer in the shop couldn’t attune to the customer; she believed that the young girl’s mind was a copy of her own, that a professed love of poetry equated to her own love of poetry. It was such a missed opportunity. But this is difficult, too, conversation happens so fast, it can be very confusing, it is inevitable that our own position dominates our focus. So often we just don’t want to get in line with someone else’s insecurities, their fears, their inchoate desires. And so most conversations snarl and snag up, or end in their participants repeating their own lines over and over, without ever feeling heard.
Well, I can’t fix conversation, but I know that for my own peace of mind, I’ve got to find a way to get in there quicker, should there be a next time. It makes me feel all funny inside to think that someone didn’t get the reading they wanted.