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We need to (small) talk

The big talk is only going to get bigger in the coming weeks. Our nervous system needs the “little” things, too, and so do we. 

She was there in the hospital waiting room talking about hot dish. She and her family would soon be taking her son, my good friend, off life support and she was recounting casserole ingredients. Young, judgmental me was appalled: How could a mother be so shallow at such a painful time?  

Nearly four years into Trump’s presidency, months under the cloud of a pandemic and since George Floyd, and weeks before a momentous election, I’ve been thinking about that hot dish and wondering whether it was rice, noodle, potato or what. All talk, all thought, these days is big, too big.

Kitty Shea
Kitty Shea
Rolling around in deep, real, meaningful conversation used to feel like a life force, one of spun thoughts and stirred feelings: the material from which we forge human connection. Introvert default? Could be. We abhor small talk and aren’t very good at it. My “make nice” résumé consists of decades of inwardly rolling my eyes as potential clients interview me, guys in bars approach me and neighbors happen by my mailbox, all of them in seeming verbal thrall with the weather, the Twins, the fall color that’s still hanging on. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I try to reciprocate but always end up wheedling such exchanges onto more ruminative terrain, which usually goes nowhere but sometimes goes somewhere. And there, minutes or matters in, is where I find my people. 

My people and I have spent four years convulsing about Trump’s latest, walking untold miles and talking all the points and even some of the counters. We scroll and we stroll, expressing outrage and bewilderment, only occasionally extracting higher meaning and hope. Conversations that at first felt like sport became group therapy became just the way it is, the way we are. When 2020 blew in with its watershed of alternative-reality realities, including Minneapolis becoming the poster city for racial injustice, our ability to process it all, let alone deeply, threw us into a changed brain state, literally. 

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Whether we’re tuned in to them or not, we all have neuroreceptors that constantly assess cues of safety and danger and communicate them to our autonomic nervous system, whose purpose is to keep us alive. This is one of the key premises of polyvagal theory, a therapy approach that’s becoming widespread and that Tove Borgendale, a Bloomington somatic bodyworker who specializes in trauma and healing, teaches to mental health professionals worldwide. According to Borgendale, when incoming signals tip from manageable to frantic to overwhelmed, our prefrontal cortex, or thinking brain, begins to shut down and we can numb out or freak out. This renders us useless in making sound decisions and taking constructive action around, oh, reclaiming our democracy and living lives less consumed by the 24-hour news cycle.  

Talking about hot dish unknowingly helped my dying friend’s mom move her nervous system to an emotionally regulated state from which she could do what she had to do: say goodbye to her boy. Through her despair, she found it within herself to reach out to those of us in the waiting room and talk about something ordinary and soothing. Both helped her stay sane. What sounded trite may well have been her bridge back to functioning. 

Leave it to cream of mushroom soup and all the memories and comfort it evokes to return us to our more grounded selves. Small talk can do the same. What is the weather if not mindfulness? What is baseball if not play? What are falling leaves — falling snow! — if not confirmation that nothing lasts forever? The big talk is only going to get bigger in the coming weeks. Our nervous system needs the “little” things, too, and so do we. 

Kitty Shea is a Twin Cities freelance writer and editor. 

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