Early evidence of animal-talking propensity. Photo by Katie Hutchison, 2008.
THERE IS A HORSE in my neighborhood I am trying to get to know. I talk to him. So far, unlike Mr. Ed, he has not talked back.
I talk to Farmer a lot. He rolls over and looks at me with those big brown eyes, as if to say, “Oh, mommy, stop babbling. Just rub my tummy.”
Lately I’ve been talking to the plants in the garden. They are just coming around after a long hard winter, so it is very important to give them a pep talk. I coach the tiny rhubarb leaves and the hellebore flowers every day, give the shaggy carpet of young chives a pat, and cheer on the arugula that hunkered down and shivered through the winter under two layers of row cover. I tell the tiny sedum buds how fetching they are.
I always talk to myself out loud when I am cooking dinner, even when there are others present. This is partly because I am multitasking (who isn’t when they’re cooking dinner?) and I’m afraid I’ll forget something. Make the salad dressing. Flip the sweet potatoes. Turn the flame down. Spin the lettuce. Grate the Parmigiano. Set the table. Get out the matches. Rotate the chicken. Pour the Pellegrino. Warm the plates. Wipe up those bread crumbs. Don’t forget the nuts in the oven. I smell something burning. NUTS! Refill sea salt. All out of sea salt. Open chile crisp. Stir the shallots.
At night I talk to God. This doesn’t always go so well, because I am tired and my brain is like a Slinky flopping over itself down the stairs, tumbling from one subject to the next. But I try.
I also talk to my friend Judy, who isn’t around anymore. She died four years ago. Sometimes it is hard to remember when someone died, but I know for sure it was the winter of 2017, because one of the last things my friends and I did was gather around her hospice bed (which was set up in her living room), so that she could give me my 10-year sobriety coin (my anniversary having been Christmas Day of 2016, the day I found out Judy’s cancer had spread).
Judy meant the world to me. And to my friends who were there with me that day. And many others. She was the kind of person who made everyone feel special. I could talk with her about anything when she was alive. Lately I have been reminiscing about a picnic lunch we took at Polly Hill Arboretum, about a drive we took around the Island, about sharing her favorite chocolate cake at the Black Dog. Talking all the time, about good stuff and the difficult stuff.
So I just keep right on talking to her.
For years I talked to my grandmother Honey after she died. I still do sometimes.
I don’t know if you do the same thing – talk to dead people – but it can be quite cathartic. It’s also rather interesting to think about who you choose to talk to. For me it is the people I think understood me best. And people I loved for their joie de vivre, for the way they lived their life knowing the best part was right there and then.
I have no idea whether they are listening. I am always conjuring visions of the cartoonish ghosts portrayed in George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (The novel is fiction, but the fact is that President Lincoln did visit his son Willie’s grave frequently after he died, staying well into the night, presumably talking to him at length.) In the book, the ghosts in Oak Hill cemetery are those folks who, for one reason or another, are stuck in the Bardo, the in-between place between life and death. They are a motley but caring crew, and when Willie joins them, they become concerned when Lincoln’s visits seem to be keeping Willie stuck in the Bardo, when really the young child should be moving on to a better place. And they set out to do something about it.
And I have just finished re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the ghost of a child who never moved on (from a particularly hideous in-between) manifests in the lives of her family so profoundly that she is physically present. Yikes.
I’m not sure how I got from the subject of one-way conversations (whether with an animal, a plant, a pot on the stove, or a missing person) to the subject of ghosts. It’s just that I began to wonder the other day why I do all this talking (other than my obvious verbose nature, which I am so stuck with that I’m sure I will be bringing it with me into the Bardo). Why all the talking when there’s (presumably) no one to answer?
You probably guessed already that a lot of it is a nervous habit, a way (yet another way – you can’t say I haven’t started a great list for you!) of soothing anxiety. But I think there are other reasons. There’s an urge to connect – certainly with a horse or the dog, the hope is that it isn’t really a one-way conversation but an introduction of intentions, a way to express affection. With the plants I’m growing or the dinner I’m making, again I think I want to be connected to the process in an intentional and joyful way. I want to notice what miracles are going on, what alchemy is happening, how the puzzle of getting dinner on the table can be solved in a given time frame.
With people who are no longer around, the desire for connection of course intensifies. Not only do I wish those people were still here, but I like to pretend that they actually are and that engaging with them is still possible.
Honey, Uncle Doug, and Uncle Rodney are no longer around. But Dad (in plaid) is.
But I have the great good fortune of still having someone very important to me (and very old!) alive. My father.
And the way I connect with him is by talking. On the surface of things, I talk with him because he lives hundreds of miles away, alone, and I worry he might be lonely. But I also talk with him because I enjoy talking with him. He is smart and thoughtful. I learn from him. He’s always brimming with some new bits of information — a plant he’s fallen in love with, a Julia Child recipe he’s made, a story about our family. I talk with him because I love him. And I talk with him because I can’t bear the thought of the day when the conversation will only be one way.