Coffee Houses and Introverts, #WittingNotKnitting and #GleaningMeaningNotCleaning

Who’s worried? Do we look worried?

Last weekend at hockey, as our 12-year-old son’s team hit the ice, my husband leaned into me and said (hyperbolically, jokingly, obscurely), “Let slip the dogs of war.”

Julius Caesar? I thought.

“Where’s that from?” I asked, unwilling to commit myself to the guess.

“I think it’s Shakespeare … probably Julius Caesar,” he said.

Although he’s (reasonably) well-read, he’s an engineer, and is hardly a bastion of knowledge when it comes to English literature. So he did what we all now do when faced with a burning question: he pulled out his phone and googled it.

It *was* Julius Caesar.

As neither of us has *actually* read Julius Caesar, I’m not exactly sure how we managed this tidbit of conversation in the opening moments of our son’s house league hockey game. Clearly — or, well, I hope it’s clear — we’re not a couple of elitist and erudite academics —

Here, let me lead you to my shelf-of-shame to prove that point:

No Shakespeare For Dummies for us … but we WILL confess to being rather fearful of it…

— nor are we vociferous and vicious hockey parents who equate the game with war.

(We’re well-behaved whisperers, I swear it, although I have no way of proving that point.)

So where am I going with this story?

A segue, dear reader, a path to something confessional: there is something in me that loves conversations such as these.

There is something in me that craves knowledge — trivial, important, obscure, earth-shattering, useless, practical — I want to know it all.

When I graduated high school in 1985 I was excited to head off to university.

I had this notion in my head, you see, a very distinct picture of what it would be like there: groups of students and professors gathering to share Big Ideas, each person’s remarks and ruminations providing a springboard for another’s, a tangential spider-webbing-out of knowledge and analysis, complete with witty repartee.

In short, I was expecting an Enlightenment-era European coffee house.

This was not what I found.

The Faculty of Science, as it turned out, didn’t present — on a metaphorical silver-platter — a plethora of philosophizing pupils with whom I could sit and talk.

And even if it HAD — even if a group of such people had miraculously appeared in front of me and invited me to join them — I’m not sure why I imagined I could ever take part in such discussions.

I was (am) a capital I Introvert.

I have a brain that curls up, armadillo-like, at the slightest whiff of danger.

Ask me a question, in Real Life, and what will happen?

Well, that depends, really.

If you’re a university English professor you will get a deer-in-the-headlights look of panic. And dumbfounded silence. Please-dear-God-let-him-move-along….

If it’s just the two of us, if I feel comfortable, I will probably be able to answer.

But if I feel even slightly stressed or anxious, my brain will shut down. I will stumble, waffle, stutter. I may be able to salvage the situation — somewhat — because I may still be capable of asking you questions. But I will then likely go overboard; I will pepper you with questions. Because, not only am I genuinely interested (in your answers; not, as you might begin to suspect, in making you squirm under cross-examination), but that is also, you see, an introvert’s best defence: keep them talking so you don’t have to.

I have always been fascinated by people who could easily talk, by people who were witty, by people who waxed philosophical, by those who *knew* about things, who could speak with authority about politics, history, literature.

I’ve always wondered how they became that way. How did they know all this stuff? And how did they manage to coherently convey all they knew?

Were they simply extroverts, the people who could do this?

Or did they have a training ground?

I had seen it in movies: huge families gathered around a dinner table, discussion dancing while potatoes were passed and forks and knives clacked against plates.

And I had occasionally seen it in Real Life. Although my family (growing up) was small and (mostly) alone in Canada, thousands of kilometres removed from everyone else, although it was nearly always just the four of us around the table — my mother, my father, my brother, and me — I did, on rare occasions, get to join in on these bigger kinds of gatherings.

And by joining in, I mean, of course, observing.

Sitting silent, listening, answering if the need arose.

Hoping, fearfully, that the need would not arise.

I knew nothing, after all. It wasn’t as though I was a well-read child. And the things I somehow *did* know? Well, they were trapped inside.

I remember one time being in The Netherlands, visiting my favourite aunt. (The Knitter). Her (much older) children were at home, visiting from university, or from their jobs. We were gathered in the living room, my aunt and her two grown daughters knitting, needles softly clacking, the discussion going from one thing to the next as I sat silently beside the spinning wheel, the talk taking place in English (for the benefit of me and my brother, the only two present who could not speak Dutch). I can still hear the charmingly-accented English of my more-than-a-decade-older cousin, can still see his wavy dark hair falling over his forehead, as he told us the tale of a friend who went to North America. She hated it. Because, you see, she had to plug something into a socket one day, and it felt to her as though she was inserting an electrical plug into a face.

And just as that perception was sinking in, just as I thought Oh. My. Gosh.YES! North American electrical plug-ins DO look like faces and of course! one *could* get that feeling

My mother let out a loud tch!

The noise that expressed a mixture of disdain and dismissal and utter impatience.

“A plug-in is a plug-in!” she said, scornfully denying all imagination that claimed otherwise.

A beat. A taste of the atmosphere I breathed at home. Silence, weighted, the only possible follow-up to the not-silence, which was nearly always worse.

And then the talk shifted, moved to things I cannot now recall.

I remember — much, much, much later — long after having left that (mostly) silent or not-silent home, long after meeting and marrying the man who grew up reading encyclopedias, the man who researched facts on ice prior to our second date so we would have something to talk about as we laced-up skates, the man who belonged to a noisy family, his own plus extended, where I (mostly) sat silent, observing, slightly shell-shocked at the civility of their not-silence — long after all that happened, I remember sitting, crowded, around my in-laws’ dining room table, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephew, and our (then) two children squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, discussion dancing as potatoes were passed. I remember, clear as a bell, my daughter, seven, joining the conversation.

Talking. Offering. Laughing, cheeks flushed. Responding. Enjoying. Relaxed.

And I remember thinking: how?

How is she doing that?

Is that simply her?

Confusion. I had thought she was like me when outside her natural habitat: an observer.

I, the watcher, had pegged her early on, watched her watching.

A program at the library, a gathering of toddlers, all of them marching in a circle to music.

All but her.

An expression on her face.


So then how? How was she doing this talking now, seated at this crowded table?

Where did this ability, this confidence, this fearless fluidity despite being in foreign-parts, come from?

I remember — shamefully — feeling envious of her.

And then suddenly it hit me: did she have a training ground?

And if so, who had provided that?

Had we had a hand in that? My husband and I?

My husband and I, who sat at our kitchen table, our small family of (then) four, hundreds of kilometres removed from everyone else, somehow, someway — imperfectly — dispelling silence, talking about …

You’re probably still wondering where I’m going with this.

And the only answer I can come up with is, nowhere. It was swirling, the words wrapping themselves around my fingers — letters like yarn, keyboard like needles; I wrote it and I wanted to share it. #WittingNotKnitting

Here’s the thing: I want to share more stories.

Because here’s yet another thing: as much as I wanted to — as much as I still feel the need to, as much as I once believed I could (if I can *just* phrase my arguments in the right way…) — as much as this was the utterly naïve and idealistic reason I began this blog … I cannot save the world.

And if this blog cannot save the world (duh), if I am sinking under the weight of responsibility that refuses to give up that delusion, then I am only left with two options: I can stop writing here altogether, or I can use this space to find solace in something else.

I’ve confessed to what I love.

Now here’s what I want (besides world peace and a solution to climate change and the end to hunger and inequality and plastic pollution): I want words to counter-balance weight. I want a way to cope with loneliness. I want less silence in my days. I want to compare notes. I want conversation. I want to laugh about metaphors. But aloud, here; not just in my head. I want my life to stop shrinking, to conquer the fears that crowd out possibilities, the fears that I’ve allowed to reduce me to a list of merelys (merely a cookie-baker, merely a scrubber-of-toilets, merely a volunteer). I want #GleaningMeaningNotCleaning. I want to learn things. I want to know things. Important things — like literary references and the details of carbon sequestration, and what it means to be real and brave and entirely human on this spinning planet — but also unimportant and purely pedantic things, like, could Harry REALLY see Uncle Vernon’s feet as—

(Whoops. That’s a post for another day.)

And although all that seems, on the surface, to be a list of useless things-to-want in the face of everything that’s happening out there, there’s something inside me that says otherwise. Something that tells me the solace of story-telling is somehow fundamental, even when everything is going south.

So I can’t promise this place will turn into a pseudo-Enlightenment-era coffee house, nor can I promise that I will be capable of entirely letting go of the (cranky) persuasive essay, but I do hope you’ll continue to meet with me here, to pull up a virtual chair and sit and talk with me, a person who still has a lot to learn, and not just about hashtags —

(I have no clue if those are real hashtags. I don’t even understand how hashtags work. Or what they’re for. I only know that making them up (is that allowed?) gave me a small hit of joy.)


6 thoughts on “Coffee Houses and Introverts, #WittingNotKnitting and #GleaningMeaningNotCleaning

  1. I read this on my phone a few days ago but my geriatric phone has a breakdown if I try to comment so I’ve been pondering your words in the mean time. I could copy/ paste just about every word of this on to my blog and, aside from hockey and ice-skating, it would be me.
    I had a couple of lucky breaks:
    1. Because I moved schools so much I got a double dose of Shakespeare. Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet at junior cycle, Othello for the leaving cert. Then a crash course in Hamlet because my nerdy college friends were obsessed with Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I would still be terrified of approaching a new play. I’ve gone to a couple of stagings and got completely lost. My recommendation, for what it’s worth, is to watch the Taylor/ Burton film of The Taming of the Shrew. They are wonderful. Also, it’s filmed in Padua, the town I lived in for three glorious years! Follow that with Keith Ledger in Ten Things I Hate About You for comparison. Othello is probably my favourite. It’s quite dark. They don’t call it a tragedy for nothing. Tracy Chevalier did a novelised version last year called New Boy, it’s superb. You could read that first maybe?
    2. While my college science class was an equally disillusioning experience, I was fortunate enough to fall in with a very nerdy bunch of friends. One of them is now a professor of philosophy at Yale, another is a professor of sociology in North Carolina, married to an eminent philosopher, another advises the British government on what science to fund… a terrifically intimidating and impressive bunch of people who, long ago, used to spend their Saturday nights drinking Valpolicella on the nylon carpet of my bedsit. You can’t imagine, or maybe you can, how happy I was, and still am whenever they come back in the summer for a visit. Of course I hardly dared voice an opinion then and still, even after years of friendship, tread carefully. All the same, they woke me up. They gave me hard books. They made me laugh, hard. You might be interested actually in Laurie Paul’s book. It’s called The Transformative Experience, not exactly light reading but extremely well written and quite fascinating so long as you skip the academic references.
    Now, as to your writing. I’m always happy to read environmental warrior posts. You are much farther down the track than I am and I love to have someone whose trail I can follow.
    Equally, easing the loneliness is the primary purpose of my blog and it does, it really does. The act of writing is, for me, enormously therapeutic. I’ve done it all my life without ever needing a reader.
    Finding a like-minded soul, who makes you feel you’re not mad, who makes you feel like you really exist, is the icing on the cake.
    Thanks for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this absolute treasure of a comment, Lynda.
      I confess to feeling quite envious of your lucky breaks; my personal history with all this is (except for meeting encyclopedia-reading boyfriend/husband) a long series of mishaps and blunders and wrong turns. My grade 11 English teacher, who taught us how to *really* analyze literature (a total Aha! moment for me), who did The Taming of the Shrew with us (I loved it, and also loved the Elizabeth Taylor movie, which he showed us as well), nevertheless was unbelievably cruel in class one day (to me, personally), and when I (on tenterhooks) asked him to sign my yearbook, misread his sloppily written why were you so “obstreperous” (which was entirely a joke) for “obsequious”, and slammed the book shut, leaving the rest of his words unread for 20 years, thus missing the part where he said, “may it be your goal in life to be an English teacher.” (I actually cried when reading his words, 20 years too late.) Then there was my grade 12 English teacher — who did Hamlet with us, and who “dared” us to find an error in an essay she had written (and had passed to a couple of other English teachers before passing it along to us for inspection), and who agreed with me that there *was* INDEED an awkward phrasing that could have been reworked — she nevertheless told me I should go be the thing that EVERY smart girl back-in-the-day got told to be: a doctor. Not having a clue about ANYTHING, let alone who I was, and feeling the pressure to be practical, I went into science, not English. Truly, looking back at it all: A Comedy of Errors 😦 .

      I LOVED Othello! Yes, it was dark, but I do love dark-and-depressing stuff! (That’s how I shake myself out of my funks.) I’m going to look into all your recommendations. I imagine you’ve seen Much Ado About Nothing, with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson? Oh, I loved that one…

      Your nerdy bunch of friends…oh my goodness! I too, would be tongue-tied around such a group. And yes — I can SO imagine your happiness in being a part of all that.

      I’m relieved to hear you say you (at least) don’t mind the environmental warrior stuff. I don’t think I can ever entirely leave off trying 😉 .

      (And as to the hockey being the only difference between us — our older son had expressed zero interest in playing the game, which left my husband and me feeling we had dodged a bullet; we were truly aghast when our youngest set his mind on it. After four years of it, I still feel anxiety, sitting in the stands, surrounded by shouting parents…)


  2. I’m so terribly behind on my blog reading! I love this, Marian! Especially this: “I want words to counter-balance weight. I want a way to cope with loneliness. I want less silence in my days. I want to compare notes. I want conversation. I want to laugh about metaphors. But aloud, here; not just in my head. I want my life to stop shrinking, to conquer the fears that crowd out possibilities, the fears that I’ve allowed to reduce me to a list of merelys (merely a cookie-baker, merely a scrubber-of-toilets, merely a volunteer).” I am looking forward to many more posts with stories and snippets and your persuasive essays.


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