Editor’s Note: Author Wendy Willis will be in Alaska for a series of events co-sponsored by 49 Writers and the Alaska Humanities Forum. Events include community conversations in Wasilla and Anchorage, and reading and craft talks in Anchorage and Seward. Get details for all the events on our Facebook page or at on the forum website. Along with board member Matthew Komatsu, Wendy will be leading this year’s Danger Close Alaska workshop on Saturday, March 7, in Anchorage. Registration is open.
“Spirit is not in the I but between I and Thou.” —Martin Buber
Conversations are one of life’s great blessings. And one of its heaviest burdens. There are the rambunctious and rambly ones after the dishes have been cleared and there is still a bit of wine in the bottle. There are the ones that unspool over a multi-day road trip, prodded along by landscape and memory and the surprise of ample time. There are the clipped ones that start with “We need to talk.” And those that begin on safe ground but take a sharp turn into a snake-filled swamp for reasons that neither of you can really name. There are the ones that are preceded by a deep inhale followed by I just heard from the doctor.
These days we talk a lot about having a national conversation about you name it—guns, opioids, health care, democracy itself. But most of what we see being practiced out there in the nation bears very little resemblance to what we might consider to be a conversation. It seems more like taking turns shouting.
For an introvert, I spend an awful lot of my time thinking about conversation and what it means. What it means in my family and my workplace and my community. What it means in the country.
The more I think about it, the more ubiquitous it becomes. The more I realize that we are always in conversation. With ourselves, with loved ones who have passed on, with our pets and our plants and our favorite pair of shoes. With God. Or with the void.
As writers, we are in conversation with our characters and our future readers and with the critics whom we are sure will misunderstand us.
In some very real sense, we are swimming in a sea of conversation. Conversation is what fills the space between us. The twentieth century religious philosopher Martin Buber wrote about what he called the relationship between I and Thou, which is characterized by wonder and connection, as opposed to the relationship between I and It, which is characterized by utility and separation. Buber once wrote: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” As I’ve come to think about it, when two people relate to one other authentically and humanly, conversation is the electricity that surges between them, even if that conversation remains mostly unsaid or mostly internal.
In that sense, we are in conversation with aspens and golden retrievers and tea cozies each time we take a step to breach the distance between us and them. If the space between us lights up with connection, we are in conversation with those who are no longer with us and with those we have imagined into being in our novels and our stories and our poems.
For me, there is tremendous comfort in apprehending conversation this way. There is solace in knowing that my longing for an authentic connection with other people—and other beings, real and imagined—itself transforms the nature of what might be. The longing to genuinely behold the other, even for a moment, moves that other from “it” to “thou” and holds the spark of possibility. It holds the spark of connection. It holds the spark of conversation. It holds the spark of change.
Wendy Willis is a poet and essayist living in Portland, Oregon. Her second book of poems, A Long Late Pledge, won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and was released by Bear Star Press in September 2017. Her first book of poems, Blood Sisters of the Republic, was published by Press 53 in 2012. Wendy has also published poems and essays in a wide variety of journals, including New England Review, Oregon Humanities, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, Zócalo Public Square, and ZYZZYVA. Her most recent book, These are Strange Times, My Dear, traces her path through this perilous moment in American political and civic life and has recently been named a finalist for the Oregon Book Award.
Along with Matthew Komatsu, Along with board member Matthew Komatsu, Wendy will be leading this year’s Danger Close Alaska workshop on Saturday, March 7, in Anchorage. Registration is open.