My mother has always been able to carry on a brilliant conversation with anyone about anything. Her secret? A sharp mind and a sense of wonder, of curiosity. Let’s say you sat her down with a high level researcher in, hmmm, energy production from algae. To be clear, Mom knows nothing about energy production from algae. Her formal education ended with high school graduation. Her gift is that curiosity, and the brilliance.
She’ll ask questions like “how do you choose which algaes to use? Do some environments produce better candidates than others?” or “are there advantages as far as storing and transporting the energy?” The researcher, typically, has a great time discussing the intricacies of the research. And if they talk very long, my mom will ask a question that suggests a subtle shift in approach. For days after, she’ll be buzzing about all the new ideas, new implications.
This being my mom, I get to talk to her a lot. It’s a delight and a feast for my mind. Today was typical:
We talked about the pervasiveness of music across human cultures. We speculated on which came first, music or speech (we both favor music). She mentioned a stag that had come up to the window of the dining hall at her apartment building while a cellist was playing for the residents. The stag stood outside the window and listened to the music, then eventually moved on. We considered the implications of this sort of effect of music on non-human animals. Just how deep does the importance of music go? Deeper than our humanness, apparently.
She mention an interview she’d seen on the Charlie Rose show, in which Dick Martin had said that in television and also in written stories it is often important to show things through the eyes of an observer. A skit that would flop on its own would succeed if an observer were included. Why is that? From there, we discussed the effect of the simple witnessing of beauty. There is witnessing beauty and then propagating it in some way of course. Georgia O’Keefe sees a flower, and makes others see it too in all its sensuality. But even the simple witnessing of beauty is a powerful thing, bringing it more into the world. It changes the witness, and that effects the rest of us.
She mentioned that she’s notice that when she makes eye contact with someone while she’s talking it’s generally just one eye. The right one. She hasn’t yet identified whether she looks at the same eye when she’s listening, but it’s an interesting question. Is there any significance of one eye over the other?
We talked along these lines for about an hour. I grew up with conversations like this. We explored the world over cookies and milk when I got home from school. How society functions, how brains are wired, how to sew a collar that lays smoothly, why people are ever cruel — it was all part of everyday conversation.
I discovered this evening that this wonderful, bright woman had no idea how rare this is. That I do not, in fact, get to have conversations like this with most of the people I know. That she is the only person I know for whom this is the flavor of everyday conversation. “Really??” she says. “I thought all you young people would be talking like this all the time.”
How about you? What is the flavor of your conversations, when you are hanging out, maybe having a cup of coffee? Because I would really, really like to have conversations around wonder, news from the sciences, implications and possibilities.