During the memory circle for my surprise thirtieth birthday, Hannah talked about the time we went to Bogue Chitto State Park in Louisiana. I remembered the day exactly — I’d been going through a work crisis that felt so terrible that I didn’t know how I would ever feel better. It was too hot to think, too hot to cook. The ground leading to the water was stony, with smooth rocks that pressed into your feet as you walked toward the river. The current was strong in places but mild in others; we waded in at a shallow spot that stretched a hundred yards across and was knee-deep in the middle. In the river, the white noise of water rushing over rocks drowned out the midday cicadas, and in the icy quiet you could finally hear yourself think.
After a few minutes of acclimating, we agreed to float a little ways down the river, using our forearms to keep ourselves gently tethered to the ground. We reached a place where the water was deep, but a red maple had fallen across its narrow width. We both grabbed hold of the tree so we could stay in one place, tumbling like wind socks in the current.
By the time we fixed ourselves to the tree, Hannah and I had already spent three hours talking nonstop. The conversation rolled forward unpredictably. There were no lulls or awkward pauses; the things we wanted to say turned up without announcement, and then we broke off into other topics altogether.
Women are especially good at this, psychiatrists Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver point out: they engage in “connective” conversations — conversations that are uniquely healing, and, unfortunately, critically absent in public discourse. According to Miller and Stiver, connectivity occurs when both people are equally invested and share the emotional weight of the conversation’s experience. "Connection in this sense does not depend upon whether the feelings are happy or sad or something else; it means having feelings with another person, aside from the specific nature of the feelings."
Conversation with Hannah was long and easy because we were not seeking solutions to our problems. In discussing the pleasures and pains of our daily lives, we constructed reality together. I know this is convoluted and theoretical-sounding, so here’s an example. Around the time of this trip, I was going through a particularly rough falling-out with a group of comedians I had been producing shows with. In the car on the way to the river, Hannah — well acquainted with my fragile emotions on the subject — asked how I was doing in regard to the falling-out. She connected to me by relating my feelings to her own recent interactions with some coworkers. Here, I’ve charted an example.
The focus on emotion rather than solution drives the conversation and allows things to come out that we may not have been expecting. In this example, Hannah was having some serious feelings about her relationship with coworker Rory and the ways in which Rory exploited Hannah’s friendship in order to hurt Other Rory*. That came up later, and the emotional space then shifted to fit Hannah’s pain and frustration. This kind of conversation is hard to explain in words. Miller and Stiver spend 248 pages trying to do it in their book, and even then, they’re hard-pressed to explain it to people who don’t regularly experience it (read: most heterosexual cisgender men).
Some people don’t understand why connective conversations are worth the effort if they don’t solve any problems: “Our society tends to portray and value action as the result of the forceful exertion.” I guess this had a lot to do with my childhood belief that a good girlfriend’s job is to swoop in and solve every problem.
Sometimes I don’t need a solution nearly as much as I need to be told that whatever crazy thing I’m feeling — terrified of going to sleep at night; palpably angry that my local bagel shop has run out of poppy-seed bagels; in love, unconditionally, with people who can’t love me back — is an okay thing to feel. I’m constantly amazed at the ways in which our world believes that uncomfortable feelings are abnormal and should be avoided or fixed at all costs. Hannah never tries to fix my problems; she sits with me in their shadows, engaging with the darkness.
At Bogue Chitto, the water transformed into a gigantic, obvious metaphor, and both of us could feel it. Rivers — and the bits of detritus and schools of fish and hunks of rocks they carry — are inexorable. I mean, they all really go only one way: forward. Rivers don’t make decisions, but they carve the earth like thoughtful sculptors; they allow themselves to be carried forward inside the great mystery of time and space. Life is just like that: You have to allow yourself to be carried forward by its great mysteries, because they’re going to come whether you want them to or not. All the pain and fear and love and struggle can be behind us only if we’re brave enough to go through them.
And the only thing any of us really wants is to not have to go through it alone. We want the kind of love we can come back to after the current gets out of control. We want to look over and see that people are still there, were there all along, and will be there for the foreseeable future. Do you really need this love to look the way you thought it was going to look? Does it have to be a man, two kids, and a golden retriever?
Hannah was wise in bringing up our trip to the river in the memory circle: it reflected our entire complicated relationship.
*Many names of minor characters in Many Love have been changed to “Rory” to (a) protect their privacy and (b) celebrate the author’s love of The Gilmore Girls.
Excerpted from Many Love by Sophie Lucido Johnson. Copyright © 2018 by Sophia Johnson. Excerpted with permission by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.