First Steps

An invitation to a neighbor’s barbecue on an early spring day in northern California might seem innocuous enough.

It would be for most, but agreeing to attend the afternoon affair set in motion a challenge for me that was the emotional equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. That’s because the barbecue for an assortment of family and friends outside the neighborhood was a sideshow to the main act: a birthday party for a one-year-old.

I had long ago sworn off social engagements where parents and their babies were the protagonists.  The very idea of being present at such an event made a root canal seem positively appealing. How to compare: imagine a secretly illiterate person trying to participate in a book club; a blind person attending a 3-D movie viewing … the metaphors are nearly endless.

Since the neighbors live right next door I’ve had a window into their world for some time. A few years younger than us, their day-to-day life fits the quintessential suburban experience. Since they also have a kindergartener, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing play dates and other kid-centric activities in their yard the past several years. A fence, garage and trees provided a safe barrier — as did the ability to be somewhere else entirely when birthday parties took place.

(By way of background, we used to see them more frequently but an awkwardness in our friendship started several years ago when I first disclosed, via email, my infertility and subsequent difficulty attending baby showers. I sent a gift separately when their firstborn arrived. The second pregnancy wasn’t entirely unexpected, but seeing her belly grow over several months was enough to remind me that I still needed to keep a comfortable distance. We’d seen their parents and friends come and go.  Busy schedules, house remodels and a lack of necessity to arrange a get together kept us living in two different worlds.  Meanwhile their firstborn took a shine to our Jeep Wrangler and would often stop by, eager to help my husband wash the toy-like car in the driveway.)

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The appointed hour arrived. The smell of pork roasting wafted into our yard. The shrieks of happy children pierced the air. Small talk drifted over the fence. It was time to make an appearance.  A gin and tonic while getting ready helped take the edge off. 

As my husband and I pushed open the small gate into the patio area we saw a dozen-plus children six years and under running to and fro, pushing each other, throwing food. The scene seemed to take on a slow motion effect. We navigated a landmine of small objects strewn around a 20-foot diameter. As if perfectly choreographed, all adult eyes turned in our direction. They stopped eating mid-bite or paused filling their plates around the picnic table. The object of their stare: latecomers, strangers arriving without children. The thought bubbles over their heads all seemed to ask with some urgency, who are these people? It was as if they were on heightened alert, ready to leap into action to protect the children around them.

Understandably, it had literally been years since we’d seen many of them except through car windows. We found our neighbors and with their cheerful greeting the rest of the adults — along with us — visibly relaxed.  Talk soon turned to the NCAA tourney, health care insurance reform, the start-up world and spring plans.  I also had my first extended look at the birthday boy covered in baby food. Our eyes met for a moment before he returned to his eating.

As much age as there is between us, I realized we share one big thing in common. We’re both learning to take first steps…

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Today my social activity moves from a group encounter to a one to one. It will involve a friend who is now the mother of three. Our conversation will move far beyond small talk as it has for more than 20 years. Our friendship, tested mightily over the years, survived in large part due to our ability to engage in deep discussions, which brings me to a New York Times Well blog. A recent post, Talk Deeply, Be Happy?, concerns an ongoing study indicating that people are much happier when they engage in deep conversations. The psychologist behind the study proposed that:

“substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.

He asks: “Can we make people happier by asking them, for the next five days, to have one extra substantive conversation every day?”

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p.s. Many thanks to all who voted for Silent Sorority. It took the #2 spot in the Spring reading vote. Will post the piece when it runs.