Main image by Duy Pham on Unsplash
I am coming to the end of a lovely short week’s holiday in Mallorca, taking part in an open water swimming camp, geared around being able to swim 10km in “event” (if not “race”) conditions. All meant to be prep for my “big 13 km swim” across Lac Léman/Lake Geneva from Evian to Lausanne in mid-July.
ان شاء الله
Of the 13 participants, only two knew each other. The rest … total strangers. To each other and to me.
In years gone by, I would have had no qualms about integrating with a group that size – different backgrounds and ages, sure, but joined together with a common interest and aim. But since 2017, I have found such gatherings difficult. No easy way into conversations. No easy way out of potentially risky conversations. At least not without appearing to be distant, or even plain rude.
In September 2020 I had some extremely difficult moments on another swimming holiday – I wrote about it here: http://www.widowingemptynests.com/2020/10/06/i-want-mike/
I didn’t reflect, in advance, on how it might be this time around. It’s not that I thought, “Oh – the losses are longer ago now – five years for Mike, almost three for Julia – you’re used to spilling out the story by now”. I just didn’t think.
I am no longer used to spending significant downtime with people who know nothing about me, and who ask all the inevitable questions. “Where do you live? What do you do? Do you have children? What do they do? Why did you move to France?”
Each question simple on the surface, but with a very slippery slope – for both speaker and listener.
Very quickly I noticed that there were a couple of “big entertaining talkers” on the trip. People who hold court, who might be entertaining and funny if you want entertaining and funny, but who aren’t necessarily skilled at dialogue, conversation, or holding the harder stuff. A bit one-way, or one-to-many, rather than one-to-one.
I practised pulling back from the group – walking in front or behind everyone else if we walked down to the port.
I practised just asking questions and listening to people’s stories.
I practised staying on the topic of their lives.
But eventually someone asked me, “And what does your husband do?” after learning the story about us becoming French citizens.
I don’t know if I had been speaking about Mike in the present tense, or just that the stories of our life are still so vivid, but it comes as a shock to me, and certainly most people listening, when I say, “Well, erm, actually, my husband is dead”.
After this there are typically rapid-fire questions. “What?” “When?” “How?”
Rarely is there an, “Oh – I am sorry to hear that”. Which truly is the only appropriate response. Followed perhaps by a wee bit of space. Honouring space, is how I have come to view it. I might get an, “Oh I’m sorry”, but without the space.
I don’t actually mind further questions if the person/people listen to my answers without going off on tangents including all the people they know who have died of cancer. Later, yes, but not immediately.
What I do mind is if the person turns 90 degrees away from me to talk to someone else. About a totally different topic. Without any acknowledgement of what has just been said. That is just plain rude. It would be plain rude even if I’d answered a question about how I came to be called “Emma”.
But it happened. The person turned away to talk to their neighbour. I said nothing. Just watched. Then the person the turner-away-er spoke to mentioned how she too was experiencing hard times because her daughter was having gender identity questions, which was causing her (the mother) considerable pain and anxiety.
The turner away-er said words to the effect of, “Oh – it will probably pass. I hear about these situations a lot. It’s really common. Social media doesn’t help”.
More turning away… more deflecting… more minimising….more fixing.
Ugh. Gawd – at least she hadn’t said that about Mike and Julia’s deaths.
It’s not that any of what she said was “bad”. And of course I realise it wasn’t ill-intended.
It just isn’t skilled. It shuts me down. Makes me not want to play nicely in polite society. Makes me wish I’d stayed back at the hotel with a good book.
Groups are hard. Groups where people are relative strangers to one another are especially hard (at least for me).
I don’t know if I will ever find it as easy as I used to.
I could choose to not care about incompetent responses (not likely any time soon).
And I could invent a different past and present life – involving no 30-year relationship and no children. (Which is sorely tempting at times just to keep things light and breezy. Though I might get a different kind of sympathy or pity which I abhor).
So – I still can’t do groups. And that’s okay. I tried. Another experiment. Experiments don’t fail.
I have another swim holiday coming up soon. I shall continue to experiment with being in a group of strangers. I might sit at the end of the table. I might walk in front or behind as we head to the port. I might only speak when spoken to, and answer questions only when asked. I might play deaf.
Or I might simply find one person early on who can hear the essence of my story. One is enough. I did find that one person this week.
Thank you, D.