I will a round unvarnished tale deliver

There are times when I find myself wondering about things like I did when I was a child: about whether there are any benefits of Age, for example; about why uninvited questions arise while I am gardening, or when I’m having an evening glass of wine. Nowadays, I wonder if it’s all the result of a few neurons somewhere in my head trying, but failing, to find an appropriate receptacle for their electrical signals, and whoever (or is it whichever?) ends up as the beneficiary can’t figure out why it received them.

Lately, for example, I have been wondering just what it is that creates a meaningful conversation -and, for that matter, even wondering what a conversation is. Suppose no information is traded and no knowledge is gained? Can a conversation do without those? Would a friendly ‘hello’, or a smiling nod of a head count? I mean they all constitute an interaction that presumes a Theory of Mind, don’t they? They usually suggest that the questioner is not a solipsist who is merely talking to a mirror on the wall; in their own mind, at least, the person questioned actually exists for them.

And, does meaning necessarily require information exchange? Can a conversation merely constitute a mutual acknowledgement of each other’s presence -the reassurance of two minds greeting each other from their own solitudes? There is surely meaning in that -if only in the presumption of agency in the other self…

I suppose what I am asking, then, is whether any acknowledgement is an exchange of something valuable and therefore meaningful. Does it have to include words -or could any sound or gesture accomplish something similar? Not to put too fine a point on it, even the etymology of conversation -or, converse– is from the Latin conversari: ‘keep company (with)’.

I mean, information exchange is fine and often an important reason for talking to someone, but it seems to me that an equally important, although sometimes forgotten, aspect of the interaction, is the mutual display of agency -an acknowledgement that the other is important enough to merit your attention.

As may be painfully apparent by now, despite my thrashing about for meaning in the world, despite my hope that beauty, love, and knowledge actually count for something in the long run, I find that I am still naïvely content with most interactions even if they are mindless signals that I am here; that I am a separate entity, happy to share another’s awareness of my presence. Meaning is contextual.

I saw Jasper sitting by himself on a bench in a park the other day. He was always a man of few words, so I didn’t expect more than a nod of his head in recognition of my approach, and he didn’t disappoint me. His eyes, at least, showed some semblance of awareness, even if his voice didn’t, and they blinked in slow acceptance of my presence. Still, even by Jasper standards, he seemed distant. Preoccupied.

“Hey, Jas,” I burbled cheerily, “Mind if I sit down?” It was a long bench and even with social distancing, I thought it would be acceptable.

He nodded, and withdrew his eyes. I had ceased to exist, and he was alone with his thoughts once more.

It seemed unfriendly not to attempt at least a cursory further exchange of sounds, so I smiled and small-talked a bit. “I haven’t seen you for a while… How’ve you  been…?” My words came out slowly, wary of the blank expression on his face.

He turned his head and inspected me for a moment. It was almost as if he was trying to remember who I was, or at least trying to think of something to say. Then he turned his head again to gaze at something in the field in front of us, and shrugged.

I took it as a compromise: a response without words. His eyes seemed to look inwards, and not at the field; he was talking but inside his head; it was a private conversation. Then I remembered something his friend Alex had told me a few months ago on the phone: Jasper had always been close to his mother, and she was in a long term care facility in the last stages of dementia. Maybe something had happened to her. I wasn’t even sure whether he’d been allowed to see her, given the pandemic restrictions.

It’s always hard to talk about something like that, but Jasper looked so… preoccupied, I thought I should ask about her. “How is…” I stumbled for words, but given the pandemic, I knew I  probably shouldn’t comfort him with something like a hand on his shoulder. “How’s your mother, Jas…?” I finally mumbled, uncertain if he’d even heard me.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, carefully. And then he turned his head to me again, and sent his eyes on a reconnaissance mission to my cheeks -to decide whether or not to confide in me, I suppose. “She died yesterday,” he finally whispered.

I wanted to move closer on bench to console him, but I realized I was really only an acquaintance of his -a friend of a friend, so I let my tone of voice show I understood his grief. “I’m so sorry, Jasper…”

But when he heard my words, his face brightened; it wasn’t my sympathy, but a memory of her that surfaced. “Thank you, G,” he said, his eyes on me, but looking inward at his sudden memory. “She recognized me at the end, you know…”

His eyes brightened at the thought. “For months she didn’t seem to know who I was. I could only visit her for short periods, even though she’d had all of her Covid vaccinations…”

He sighed again, but this time almost contentedly, I thought. Then, he stared at me, as if it was important that he tell me something. “You know how when you look in the eyes of… I don’t know, a fly, or something, you don’t really think there’s anything looking back?”

I nodded; he seemed earnest.

“My mother was like that, towards the end… Whenever I visited, she might as well have been looking at the wall, or something; I wasn’t really there; I didn’t have much –any– meaning for her…” A little smile forced it’s way past the sorrow wrinkles on his cheeks. “Yesterday, though, just hours before she died, I think, she saw me! Actually saw me! My mother was in there again, looking out at me…”

The smile grew, and his face relaxed. His eyes searched for mine to touch; we were both real again. Sometimes words just get in the way…

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