When I first saw the word froth this morning as the daily blog prompt, images of cappuccinos and beer danced in my head. On the surface that is what I think of. Strangely, froth too is on the surface. Froth is mostly empty and provides little more than a fleeting pleasure to the tongue before it fades fairly quickly on its own. While it looks pleasant and inviting, it’s also hiding what is underneath.
When my husband Daren and I first moved into together with our four children, now well over 7 years ago; there was a noticeable difference between my two biological children and my two step-children. They had a lot to say and my two children and I did not. Often times when Daren and I were alone he shared that he felt uncomfortable with the silence and commented about how different it felt from being with his ex where there was non-stop chatter.
At first I felt motivated to talk more. The dinner table was usually dominated by Daren asking everyone questions with my two children providing short answers and my step-children providing very long detailed answers that dominated the rest of the meal. I tried to jump in and ask questions, but I felt very fake in doing so. When Daren would come home and ask how my day was I would say something along the line of ‘Good and how was yours?’ He would answer in detail about how wonderful the day was. Every day. To be honest I didn’t find this intriguing; I found it quite annoying.
It’s not a pleasant feeling to be annoyed with your spouse over a silly question about how the day was. I didn’t like myself for it and sort of felt embarrassed that I didn’t really care enough to hear about the wonderful day he had. Oddly he left out things that really mattered that would bug me or I needed to know– like that he drove to another state, had a paper published that he forwarded to his parents and kids but never thought to send it to me too, or that his ex asked him several days ago to switch an evening so the kids will be here tomorrow evening… and they need rides all over the state.
I was finding a lump in my throat when asked a question by my new family or when I even tried to consider a response. I started to become speechless. I never considered myself of my former family quiet by any stretch. I couldn’t quite put my finger on this. The blended family dinners were particularly of dis-ease. Daren would start to get desperate and go around the table with particular questions like what was your most favorite part of the day? My kids would look uncomfortable as his started talking. Eventually his children sensed this and became uncomfortable too. Everyone would clear their plates as soon as possible and ask to be excused no matter how many different attempts we made at having a conversation we could all enjoy.
I’m incredibly embarrassed to say that it took far longer than it should to even determine what the proverbial ‘bee in my bonnet’ was about the whole thing. It was almost two years later while listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ that I really heard their lyrics for the first time. I became teary eyed- “People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening”. What was bothering me wasn’t the amount of the conversation, it was the content. Or should I say lack there of?
The content remained very much on the surface and was full of air – like froth. The kids would sit at our dinner table politely waiting their own turn. No one was listening to nor cared what anyone else was saying Perhaps my kids picked up on that first and kept their answers short to spare everyone else the details. His children didn’t see the signs that no one was really listening and kept going. It was froth. You got to only show what you want to. It either felt like strangers waiting online at the coffee shop trying to make small talk, or two previous competing colleagues meeting up to catch up and notate each and every accomplishment and good thing in their life since they last met.
I started to notice the same conversations all around me outside of my home too. Conversations wrought with wonderful, just wonderful days. Days filled with accomplishments and learning experiences. The ‘engaged’ listener would mechanically ask the ‘right’ inquiring questions with a curious, well planted look on their face; smiling on cue and sitting on the edge of their seat. The edge of seat sitting wasn’t due to the amazing story the engaged listener was ‘hearing’, they were at the edge of their seat putting together their own story of how wonderful everything is and their own accomplishments. It seems as if everyone was “one-upping” each other. After all is said and done, there is an invisible pat on each other’s back – both acknowledging one another’s greatness. From my own experience in these types of conversations for a moment both parties feel confident and good about themselves. But moments upon walking away they are filled with emptiness.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the complainers. The co-workers who consistently sit around with a scowl on their face having something to say about everyone’s every move. Little tiny molehills that would never even be thought about are turned into major catastrophes. Opinions and platitudes without substance are just spewed out like lava erupting from a volcano at periodic, random times.
The newfangled observation of conversations that always took place really started to trouble me. Although I participated in them myself from time-to-time, I had to really stop and think about how I must be perceived. Do I complain too much? Is anyone really interested in my stupid stories that might have gone on for too long? If I didn’t find a person interesting or I found them to be entirely too caught up in themselves, but I sat with them for a long time acting very interested – doing all the right things; looking them in the eye, asking the right questions, throwing my hair back and leaning in…. then perhaps they didn’t find me interesting either. What a concept! Me not interesting? My complaints not valid?? Then it hit me, or course not. We are all actors in a very lonely play. Doing what we are supposed to on stage, but not really connecting at any human level. If you were really paying attention to me; I was probably glancing at my watch, looking around the room to find a way out, and dropping all types of conversation enders. All until the conversation turned back to me of course. How engaging… not!
At home at least I thought I had a respite. A place to kick back, be real and stay away from the superficial banter of the real world. Prior to my new marriage; my children, ex-husband and I had plenty to say around the dinner table, but the content was different. We shared funny stories that happened that day, talked about something in the news or something that happened to someone we all knew, or chitchatted about things we all liked such as our pets. Sometimes there was a lesson or dinner manner correction, but it flowed all very naturally and with ease. In my new family I felt like I was on stage, having to watch every word. Sound happy so the kids don’t go back to their other parent with anything negative. Be cheerful and say the right things even when I was being called names and ignored. It was too much and too too too fake.
I started thinking entirely too much about conversations and communication. While I heard many details about Daren’s great days, the more he shared; the less I wanted to. I didn’t always have a great day. It was too much mental energy to keep up with him to rehash my ‘best of Esterina moments’ and amazing learning experiences. It’s not that I didn’t have any, it’s just that they didn’t fill me up or bring me pleasure to share. Yes, I want my partner to be proud of me and to be proud of my partner, but not in this way. Don’t get me wrong, we did have deep conversations too. Many evenings when both sets of kids were with their other parents, we shared some wine and sat for long hours after dinner having the most intellectually stimulating conversations. I just didn’t like what we did at dinner or after work.
The Sound of Silence resonated with me. These surface conversations that I noticed I was having or hearing all the time didn’t feel like anyone was really listening or cared. I didn’t connect with the other person through these dialogues. The topics stayed light and empty. I almost preferred the [How are you? Good and you? Good] types of exchanges because at the very least they weren’t pretending to be anything that they were not. People just hearing without listening. I was craving something more. I realized how lonely this is and desired deeply to connect with others.
I did talk with Daren about this occasionally. He didn’t understand and took it the wrong way. It was a bit of a source of contention. When I thought I discovered the meaning to The Sound of Silence, I played it in the car with Daren. When it was over I asked him what it meant to him. He honed in on the line “Silence like a cancer grows” and said he was happy that I could understand what he meant when he comments about how he felt uncomfortable with the silence. As the song states, it creates a cancer between people.
UGH…. That isn’t how I interpreted it. I became annoyed and said something to the effect of ‘that’s not what it means’. For me it meant that the emptiness of the conversation is the silence. People have so much more richer, deep, meaningful things to say than they communicate; but don’t share them (writing songs they never share). Perhaps people are to busy to connect so they talk about only the good stuff, but that feels very empty and phony to both the speaker and listener. If you always hear others talking about good stuff and posting social media images and messages about good stuff; then we never cut below the real surface of life to what we truly experience. It’s a construct, an ideal. A neon god that we are worshiping.
As a society we generally stay silent about things that matter. Simon and Garfunkel were pre-social media, but we’ve taken that to the online streets as well. Afraid that posting strong feelings about anything that could be perceived as controversial might paint ourselves in a negative light to someone else. So we hide our passions, we don’t act or behave as we really are from deep down in the heart, and we only share our surface facade. It leads to not fighting for social justice, animal rights, gay marriage – or anything that might bring us closer as a human race to acceptance and compassion.
The more we open up about what is really going on with us, share our failures in addition to our successes and stop giving ourselves and everyone else a trophy for mediocrity; perhaps the more willing we would be to put our beliefs on the line to fight for what matters to us deep down- picket, participate in a sit in, or even just write a passionate letter to a Congressman.
To revisit that day in the car, I said many of these things – only with a much hotter head and louder voice. Daren and I debated about what the lyrics meant, and didn’t even agree to disagree – we just disagreed. Not long ago we listened to the song again in the car. Daren, forgetting the entire previous conversation we had said afterwards – “Wow that is deep!”. I asked again what it meant to him. This time we had a very cerebral, respectful discussion and I felt a real connection to another human.
Presently Daren and I’s post work conversations are far more real and down to earth. Communication about important logistical matters has gotten better but there are occasional, annoying lapses. Our dinner table dynamic never did improve. It has remained an uncomfortable staple in our home for years. Every once in while we will have an enjoyable, participatory family discussion; but those are way too few and far between. At least I now know it’s the froth that bugs me. The knowing allows me to step back and not engage in what isn’t me.
It’s been years since Daren has said anything to me about silence. I don’t talk any more or less than I used to, but our norm as a couple has shifted. Although he may be annoyed with me for over sharing here in this blog, I am confident that he too now has little tolerance for empty blathering covered in froth and would actually prefer the sound of silence to it.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence