I talk to myself. It’s something I’ve inherited from my mother, who got it from her mother. Not long conversations, but little exclamations of external processing that keep me sane. Sometimes swear words, sometimes prayers, and sometimes just little expressions of how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking.
I also talk to inanimate objects. Things like alarm clocks and telephones are the obvious things to anthropomorphize: “Okay, okay, I’m awake!” or “I’ll be right there!” or, more often, “You know I never answer you, so why even try?” But when I am with kids, that’s when I feel free to let it all come out, being as silly as I want to be.
I’ve been five year old Arslan’s nanny since he was an infant, but about a year and a half ago ago he began to have mixed feelings about my habit. He and his older brother were swinging at a park, and I took their soccer ball, put it in one of the baby swings, and started pushing it.
“What are you doing?” Arslan asked.
“He was sad that everyone else got to swing, so I thought I’d give him a chance,” I said. His big brother thought that was funny, but Arslan said indignantly,
“Jessica!! Soccer balls can’t talk!”
“Sure they can,” I said. “Listen to him: ‘Thank you for pushing me, Jessica!'”
“That’s not the soccer ball, that’s you!”
As the week and months went on, Arslan and I played the “things talking” game off and on. Sometimes he played along, but sometimes he insisted that “things can’t talk, only people can talk.” I thought it was interesting, his desire to play imaginatively butting up against his desire for the world to have clear rules and delineations. I never pushed it if he seemed to be actually getting upset, just as with any kind of joking or imaginative play if a child asks for a clear answer about the way the world works — “But there aren’t dragons, really, right?” — I’ll tell the truth. No, as sad as it is, there are no dragons, really, and no unicorns. (About things like Santa Claus my answer is usually, “What do you think?” or “What did your parents tell you?”)
The other day when I picked up Arslan after school, as he was getting his things he told one of his friends,
“Guess what? My babysitter thinks everything talks.”
The other boy glanced at me and I smiled at him.
“Like she thinks windows talk, and shoes, and backpacks,” Arslan explained.
They laughed, and I said,
“Listen! The window is talking, and the backpack, too.” I put my ear to Arslan’s backpack and said in a high pitched voice, “Ooh, it’s so nice and warm here on Arslan’s back!”
They laughed, and I laughed and smiled, too, and said,
“Everything talks if you listen hard enough.”
Then another boy came over with his dad, and Arslan said to them,
“My babysitter thinks that everything talks!”
The dad laughed and said, “That’s so silly!”
I smiled at him, but I didn’t make the backpack talk. Suddenly, just for a moment, I felt like they were laughing at me, not with me.
Another dad came up with his daughter, and Arslan told him the same thing.
“Of course everything can talk!” the second dad replied. “Listen!” And he bent down and put his ear to his daughter’s jacket and told us, in a high pitched voice, what the jacket was saying.
A few weeks ago a Twitter user who calls herself Common White Girl tweeted, “‘Please be as weird as me, please be as weird as me, please be as weird as me’ ~me every time I meet someone.” It was liked and shared by thousands of people.
I think most of us can relate. Most of us feel a little weird (or a lot) and try to hide our weirdness. When you have, or work with, kids it can be harder to hide. And sometimes, even without kids, it slips out. I’m sure First Dad meant well, and probably didn’t even think about it, just laughed at something the kids were laughing at then went along with his life. But, oh, how wonderful to meet Second Dad, to be braced for more laughter and to find unexpected affirmation. Someone as weird as me! What a treat! It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s so nice. I hope that Second Dad could sense the gratitude in my smile.
I think there’s something deeper going on, though, than just some of us being weird and some of us not. First of all, I think we’re probably all weird, in our own ways. Finding other weird people just means finding people who are weird in that particular way that we are. The Enneagram divides personalities into nine types, or 18 subtypes; Myers-Briggs into 16. There are so many different ways of being. And it can be so hard sometimes to understand people who aren’t like us. It can be so easy to look at the ways people are different as flaws, to view them with suspicion. It can be easy to get together with people who are similar to ourselves and to look down on others who do things differently. If other people are weird, it helps us to feel normal.
Tina Fey wrote a wonderful essay, Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat. The number one rule of improv, she says, is to always say “yes” to your partner’s idea:
The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.
As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?
Say yes! Isn’t that just what Second Dad did for me? And what a gift. What if we could take on that yes in our interactions with others. It doesn’t always happen in such an obvious way in real life. But when someone says something that to us seems dumb or weird (in a different way than we’re weird) or wacky, what if we tried assuming that there was something good in their perspective, something we could work with? In her essay Fourteen? Glennon Doyle talks about a man she met in the mental hospital who would only say numbers:
There was one man on our unit who spoke only in numbers. I ignored him at first . . . it’s hard to know what the appropriate response is to “Twenty-one ninety-six forty NINE?” But one day I decided to take a guess. “Fourteen?” I responded tentatively. I remember his face changing from empty to surprised to happy. Then back to empty, quickly. But I definitely saw happy, for a moment there. That taught me to try, at least once, to speak each person’s special language.
Maybe we’re all weird. Maybe the point of connection is not so much when we find another person who is weird like us, but when we acknowledge the validity, or even the beauty, of another person’s weirdness, even if it is different than our own.
In the intentional Christian community where I lived for seven years, there were many times when we failed to see that beauty in each other, when we made assumptions, and blamed each other, and struggled. But there were times, too, when weirdness turned into an opportunity to know each other more deeply and to love even when we did not understand. When instead of saying, “That’s silly,” or, “That doesn’t make sense,” or even, “That’s offensive,” we said, “We hear you. How can we help?” And those were the most beautiful times.