It seems even the basic lessons, the things we feel we know as well as our own names, have to be refreshed from time to time. I’ve been preaching the healing powers of dialogue all my adult life, so I’m a little taken aback to find myself amazed that it turns out to be true!
It all started when I posted a series of short essays on generation gaps in community arts (the first one appeared on 19 May). Some of the younger artists and organizers who found their words quoted in my writing contacted me to offer further observations.
I’d like to say I responded with industrial-strength openness and grace, but the truth is, we pushed each other’s buttons. On behalf of my age cohort, I felt mischaracterized by some of their remarks, and it was instantly clear that the they felt the same.
Rather than trading volleys, I got an itch to talk it all the way through to the end of the rhetorical line. I invited one of my correspondents, a thoughtful writer half my age, to be my partner for the full conversation. You can read Lee Ann Norman’s and my exchange on the Community Arts Network, a uniquely wonderful online resource.
Once we started really talking, it was hard to stop. I found myself checking my email frequently to see if I had a new message from Lee Ann and making time to reply whenever one came. On a day when she was busy with other things, I really missed her “voice.”
CAN’s online version of the conversation omits a couple of throat-clearing exchanges in which we tested each other, gingerly probing for the types of slights and omissions (do you understand about racial oppression? about class, gender, age?) that often lead people to break off dialogue. But because we’d agreed to see it through (and because we’re both really interested and really committed to staying in the conversation), instead of turning away, we turned toward each other. And guess what? We both felt more seen, more able to discuss the complexities and shadings of our subject, more able to hone in on the questions—and the remedy both of us recommended for the generation gap was more of the same: dialogue grounded in telling the whole story on both sides.
The British have a particularly gruesome expression for trying to teach others a subject they already know better than you do: “teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.” (I looked its derivation up and found out it appeared in Fielding’s 18th-century novel, Tom Jones, but I’ve not been able to learn if sucking out the contents of eggshells was a treat back then or a joke.) Usually it refers to young people presuming to treat their elders as in need of basic instruction. But this time both generations reciprocated, remind each other of this obvious yet easily overlooked point: practice what you preach.