Everyone has a job to do. Recently, Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio reported on a character named Miss Lilly, an eighty-one year old woman she encountered in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris whose specialty is to "parlez vous."
Stamberg had just gotten off the bus and was walking to a friend’s place when she spotted the aged woman, sitting in the sun, holding up a sign that said "Hello, Let’s Talk." Miss Lilly explained that her mission was getting people to talk with one another, and that in public places, there ought to be spots designed for conversations, just as there are locations designated for smokers, sort of the real world equivalent of a chat room. Miss Lilly speaks several languages, French of course (and everything sounds better in French), but also English, German, Dutch, a little Spanish, as well as her native tongue, which is Hungarian. She worked as a translator for many years, until she retired. Though she resides in Brussels, she visits Paris several times a year to sit and talk to strangers, not because she’s lonelyMiss Lilly says she has lots of friends and relatives to keep her companybut because she has a job to do. "This cannot be done by anybody," as she explained to the reporter. "I mean, a young girl could not do it. A man, young or old, could not do it. Only an elderly woman can do it." And in her navy slacks, sturdy shoes and porkpie hat, Miss Lilly is all business. The shop, as she calls it, opens each day at three and closes at seven.
Miss Lilly doesn’t talk about religion or politicsthose topics are off limits, more likely to provoke conflict than real dialogueand she also insists that she’s not there to talk to people about their problems. She’s not an amateur psychiatrist. The people she speaks with are of all nationalities and come from every continentsbut what they have in common is that they all like to talk about themselves and, if Miss Lilly, is right, they’re almost all a little lonely and eager for some human contact. The day that Stamberg interviewed her, Miss Lilly was surrounded by a small crowd: a young man from Africa who missed his home, a French student reading Jack Kerouac, trying to understand On the Road and getting a hand with the idioms from an older woman with better English. It was a circle of help and care that wouldn’t have formed except for Miss Lilly’s presence and her beguiling invitation. And the chance to talk gave the participants a little pleasure. It made the world a bit warmer and more intimate, at least for part of an afternoon.
Miss Lilly knows that her mission in life may seem eccentric to others. "People look at poor me as a little bit crazy," she told Ms. Stamberg. But the world is so mixed-up, in her opinion, that being regarded as offbeat is not necessarily a bad thing.
What if people spent more time talking? Not shouting at each other, not giving advice or blaming or editorializing, but just talking … about their lives and projects and fantasies and frustrations? I suppose there might be a little less hostility, a bit more tolerance and understanding, maybe even a little more peace among the human race. The world could do with a few more Miss Lillys. For although more and more people seem to be plugged-in these daysinstant messaging, gabbing on cell phones, and glued to email even when they’re on vacationthe quality of communication hasn’t necessarily kept pace. I spend more time than ever on the computerand while I appreciate the convenience of being able to zip memos to family and friends far away, I’m not sure that Microsoft has made me a better minister or done much to strengthen my relationships with anyone that really matters. In fact, one British study commissioned by Hewlett Packard found that workers who try to juggle electronic mail with other office tasks usually suffer mentally for it, with IQs dropping an average of ten pointsa "dumbing-down" equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep or smoking two joints of marijuana.
Technology seems to be bringing the world closer together and at the same time making us feel more and more remote. Most of us suffer from information overload, and amid the constant buzz, it becomes hard to separate the signal from the noise.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to simply pull the plug. When my children were young, more than once, I took the radical step of disconnecting the TV at our house and storing it away in the trunk of my car. It would live out there for a day or two, or occasionally for a week or two, and I seldom missed it. On the contrary, I noticed that the level of family conversation usually improved. My son and I had a memorable exchanges, on one of those occasions, when he sat down at the piano and I pulled out my guitar and we spent the better part of an hour just talking about the music that was important to us. It wasn’t a discussion that I could have engineered as a parent. But I know it would never have happened if the TV had been on. We had to create a conversational zone where human interchange could happen, by making time to talk.
Some people take the direct approach to creating those times and spaces. Miss Lilly’s story reminded me of the Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum, who decided a few years ago to spend some time hanging out in a few of the bars and espresso cafes around Seattle, holding up a sign that said, "Tell Me A Short Love Story And I Will Buy You Coffee and Make You Famous." Fulghum says that most people looked at him quizzically at first and thought he must be joking. But then they started to open up with all their wonderful stories of puppy love, and unrequited love, and stranger-than-fiction love.
One man, for example, explained that he had been married for about nine years when he started getting mash notes from another woman. The anonymous admirer said that she saw him almost every day and had fallen hopelessly in love. The letters came about once a week, not demanding anything or trying to push a relationship or make life complicated, but always full of compliments and womanly appreciation. She seemed smart and funny, too. "The mail began to affect me," he said. "I looked in the mirror and saw that I wasn’t in great shape, so I started to work out at a gym. I went and bought some new clothes, which is something I don’t often do. She noticed. She wrote me that I was looking healthy and she liked my new style. She even sent me a great tie." The bad part was that he felt guilty. He’d never strayed from his wife, although like most men he’d thought about it. And his conscience really started to nag when she began sending erotica. "Nothing dirty or pornographic," he explained, "just short stories and some photographs of people kissing." Months went by and then one day he got a book in the mail, Sensual Love for Sensual Couples that went a lot, lot farther than kissing. By this time, of course, the man was in a lather, in good shape, well-dressed, his brain giddy with romance and his body aching for sex. "One day a huge bouquet of yellow roses arrived at my office," he continued. "There was a note enclosed that said she had decided to take the chance of meeting me and asked me to meet in the lobby of a nearby hotel that very afternoon. She would be wearing a yellow rose, sitting in the main lobby." "I went out of my mind. I couldn’t go, but I wanted to go, and I had to go. But I thought I would check her out first. I went to the hotel, went in through a side door, and went up the stairs to the mezzanine where there is a balcony that overlooks the lobby. And there she was. Beautifully dressed. Wearing a yellow rose. Sitting on a couch all alone in the middle of the lobby. It was my wife. It was our tenth wedding anniversary."
The great thing about Fulghum’s book is that every story is different. The people who tell them are real individuals, almost rand
omly selected, who happened to show up a
t a coffee bar on the right day. Some are about homosexual attraction, some about Platonic love, each one is singular, but none of them seem strange or foreign to me.
Each one is an account I can relate to. Because deep down, our stories are all different but somehow all the same. Each of us has tales of loneliness, of temptation, of survival, of celebration. And the greatest gift we can give each other is to swap and trade those personal narratives, to break through the walls of superficiality that keep us separate and unknown to one another, to acknowledge each other in all our sweet, human frailty.
Indeed, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that being in rapport and conversation with one another is the closest we come to experiencing the divine in this worldthat energizing mystery at the heart of life. And it’s illuminating to consider that the word "conversation" comes from a root that means "to turn together," which implies taking turns: listening and speaking, not interrupting, learning to find balance in being together. "Turning together" implies a change in posture: not turning our backs on other people, but facing each other in all our uniqueness and similarity.
But it’s not so easy to establish an I-Thou relationship, and not easy to get beyond casual chit chat in most of our conversations, because while most of us yearn for more authentic human connections, we don’t really want to be soul mates with everyone we meet, and no one can sustain the pressure of being intimate twenty-four hours a day, at least I can’t. So we construct barriers that keep us from getting too close, because we fear that if the boundaries ever did come down, we might be overwhelmed by the neediness of others. While boundaries that are too strong keep us apart, we do need some boundaries to enable us feel safe enough to talk and be vulnerable with each other.
Miss Lilly sets her boundaries, for example. No evangelizing, no political harangues. The shop opens at three and closes at seven. And congregations also need to establish ground rules for how personal information gets shared. Milestones is probably not the time or place to talk in any detail about the childhood incest you might have suffered, for example. Turning the congregation at large into a twelve-step group is a bad idea for the same reasonbecause twelve-step groups can be found elsewhere and do fantastic work of their own. You’re not likely to have a conversation that changes your life at our coffee hour, although coffee hour serves a useful function. But there are appropriate times and places here to meet people on a more meaningful level.
A friend of mine once suggested that we ought to greet each other not with the stock phrase, "hello, how are you?" but with a more genuine query, "tell me, what are you going through?" Chalice Circles, sometimes called small group ministry, provides an opportunity to answer that question. Meeting for an hour or two every other week, small groups offer the time needed to unplug ourselves from the instant messaging and multi-tasking and engage in the slow, patient, concentrated work of paying attention and being present with one another. What are you going through? The groups are guided and structured in such a way that no one dominates or feels compelled to disclose more than they’re comfortable with. What are you going through? Whether it’s the crisis of divorce or the muddle of figuring out your religious beliefs or the challenge of adjusting to the loss of a loved one, there are people who can empathize, because they’ve been there themselves. What are you going through? Handling the hard stuff becomes somehow easier when there are others to confide in, and the satisfactions become all the richer when they’re shared.
Maybe you’re like Miss Lilly. You already have plenty of friends and acquaintances to keep you company. You don’t need to meet new people or talk to strangers to keep you occupied. But others are in need of you, and that means you have a job to do.
Because no one else can tell your story. You have a gift nobody else can share. So as they’d say in Paris, "Bonjour. Parlons nous." Hello. Let’s talk.