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Opinion |  How to make your little talk big

Just start by contacting people. Be the one who goes beyond gossip, to drop the breadcrumbs so that people who need to talk realize that you could be the one hearing them. Recently, while on a social distance walk with a friend, we ran into her neighbor. My friend mentioned that her aging mother, who lived across the country, was recovering from a fall. The neighbor listened, then in an instant her composure broke. She told us her father had just contracted Covid weeks ago and had passed away.

What before the pandemic would have been a pretty standard wave and hello was now an exchange none of us saw coming. We offered our condolences, she snorted, we parted ways.

We left this conversation unresolved. It seemed awkward to me, but I remembered the advice I had heard from Karena Montag, a therapist and activist from East Bay who teaches workshops on anti-racism and restorative justice. “Expect a lack of closure and accept it,” she begins her sessions. This is a useful idea, both for wading through broad conversations about social transformation, and also for more personal exchanges.

Each of us has lost something in the past year, some much more than others, and we cope and cry in different ways. We’re not going to feel better until we tackle what was broken.

One by one, in our awkward, hesitant chatter, we show each other where the cracks are. And the relationships that that chatter strengthen becomes part of the mortar of those cracks, especially when we keep doing it, over and over again.

In an interview years ago, actor Ellen Burstyn told me, “When you mother a child, a relationship is formed. You become the noun by making the verb. “The same can be said of building strong, supportive communities. You become friends by befriending each other. You strengthen neighborhoods with neighbors.

In this time of immense division and suffering in America, little talk is an instrument of change that we all have. It does not require a filibuster proof majority or collective immunity. It takes effort and humility – making the first call, recognizing the difficulty, going a little beyond the usual platitudes, and leaving things messy.

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