I try to keep my conversations shallow. Personal conversations make me kind of nervous, probably because I'm not sure where others draw the line between "getting real" and "being a total freak." In the past, the results have been mixed when I shared what was on my mind.
In college, simply looking pensive in public ran a 50/50 chance that some guy would stop and say, "Smile, beautiful! It's a gorgeous day!" I wondered why they thought I needed to be cheered up (fixed?) if I was looking thoughtful. It bugged me.
Other times I'd let loose with some crazy thought or question or wild imagining ("What if aliens are a more highly evolved version of us, and the reason they keep abducting people is because they're collecting specimens of the evolutionary chain for a huge living museum?"), and my friends would stare at me and then give an observation: "You're way weirder than you look." "Ooookaaay. TMI." Or by far the most common, "You think too much." The observation would often be followed by a prescription. "You need to get sleep/eat chocolate/pray/get laid." (Mixed bag, my friends.) So I kind of stopped having those conversations, preferring instead to stay in the shallow end of the pool, perhaps even more shallow than most people stay in. I don't know.
Now don't get me wrong. I think that trivial social exchanges have a very important survival function. When I hear people (usually college students) speak with scorn of the "How are you"/"Good how are you" call and response, I kind of roll my eyes. Those conversations are not, as is so often implied, the mindless blathering of thoughtless sheep. Rather, they are efficient reaffirmations of a casual and non-intrusive social web. We take it for granted, and sometimes it can even feel chafing, but the "How are you"/Good how are you" relationships are the ones that show up to stack sandbags when the river is flooding. Those exchanges are important. They have to be shallow and efficient in order to serve their purpose.
But sometimes I wonder what would happen if just once I were honest when someone asked me those daily, mundane questions like, "How are you doing?" I don't mean honest as in whiny, but honest as in truly introspective.
"How ya doing?"
"Great. I feel light-hearted and upbeat, and at this exact moment, I feel certain that amazing things are coming my way. It's probably because of the sunlight and the way things smell and the fact that my family was just here to visit, and I know it won't last long, but I'm trying not to think myself out of it because it feels really great."
"How are you?"
"Thoughtful. I'm wondering if Thoreau was right. Do you really think that most men will, when they come to die, discover that they have not lived? Or do most of us actually live our lives pretty well, at least as far as our natural dispositions are comfortable living them? Do you think that Thoreau himself changed how men live?"
Or even this:
"How are you?"
"Oh man, my head is in a freakin' weird space right now. I just finished reading a Peter Straub novel and we've been in the middle of the dry, dark winter for three months, and I'm pregnant so I'm nauseated and hormonal all the time. The total effect is that I feel like a strange and relentless evil is stalking the world, and right now I feel like I've never been happy and I'll never be happy again. My kids are annoyed because I keep grabbing them and giving them hugs. But, I'm old enough to know that these feelings will pass, so I'm trying not to indulge them. That's why I cleaned the house and graded my papers and am out for a walk. Just trying to jump-start the mood boost I know will come eventually. How are you?"
What would happen, I wonder? Probably somewhere out there, there's someone who would stare at me in astonishment for a moment and then say, and mean it, "Oh my gosh. I can totally relate," and then I'd have made a friend, which would be great. I have a hard time making real friends. But I think most people would just stare at me, shift uncomfortably, and then say, "Oh. Is there anything I can do to help?" because these are good people and if something is wrong, they really do want to help fix it. Then I'd say, "No. Nothing really needs to be done. That's just how I'm feeling right now," and they, feeling greatly relieved, would scurry off. And I wouldn't blame them one bit.
But later they might say jokingly to a mutual acquaintance, "Tell you what, just don't ask Heidi how she's doing. The other day she dumped on me with way to much TMI. I don't even know what she was talking about."
And then the acquaintance would say, "Really? She always acts so put-together."
And then the person I'd talked to would say, "I know, I'll tell you what, that girl thinks way too much."
I know that could happen, plus, I truly don't want to intrude on someone else's rhythm by breaking the call and response, but I'm still so curious. What would it be like?
So here's the deal: if I see you and ask you how you're doing, you have my permission, if you feel like it, to tell me what's really on your mind. I'm not talking about a gripe-fest, just a simple conversation about the things you're wondering and thinking and batting around in your head. I'd like to see what it's like, and I promise not to tell you that you think too much.