I started writing this on Thursday night. In a student room in a hall of residence at York University. At a medical sociology conference:
Work. My ‘career’ has been indelibly influenced and shaped by our family life. Rich, through his constant encouragement/engagement (and numerous camping trips with the kids to create space for study/work). And the kids for simply being and doing, in their different ways. These experiences are interwoven in everything I’ve done, everything I’ve researched and everything I’ve written. With LB leading the way. Love him.
I fell asleep at that point. Probably sensibly. It had been a long day. Sort of slipping back to work (but with space to withdraw). Tears on the train at Derby (unexpectedly). A presentation about diagnosis of autism in adulthood (flakey but got to the end). Catching up with lovely, lovely people. And wine in the bar in the evening. Not bad really. Relief that I could be in a work space without howling, pummelling the floor or lobbing out random swears.
I talked to a couple of people I didn’t know about what had happened. People who, in some way or another, generated a telling space. Both coincidentally
not had recently experienced intense family experiences/horrors. Both were quietly compassionate and knowing.
I also told the taxi driver on the way to the station the next morning. He chipped away cheerfully, interrogating me about my recent work/summer activity until I told him. This telling was probably related to breakfast with a delegate who chatted about her research with bereaved parents of children/adults with a degenerative condition. Her enthusiastic chat was piercingly uncomfortable. But I said nothing.
‘Eurgh’, I thought as I walked away. ‘Why didn’t I say something?’ Awkward.
Not saying in that context creates a horrible, empty space. It makes interaction fake and meaningless for the non-teller. But what a conversation stopper? How to introduce such a brutal, such a shocking, horrifying, distressing happening? Most parents’ worst fear realised, in a setting commonly held to be life sustaining. A ‘safe’ space. (Yep. We now know what ‘jaw dropping’ looks like.)
Goffman would have a field day with this. I love the Goffmeister, as hardened readers know, but his recognition that ‘disrupters’ are obliged to try to minimise disruption to interaction means phoney smiles and small talk/phatic communication. Which is crap.
So, I told the taxi driver. He listened, and told me about his friend’s son who died unexpectedly a few years ago. We talked family. At the station he warmly wished me all the best. Small talk? It doesn’t have to be. There is a middle ground. We’ve just got to learn to negotiate it.