My advisor told me when we first met that studying literature was largely about joining into a dialogue that had been in progress long before we ever existed. Someone else “spoke” and when we immerse ourselves in a text, we have the opportunity to “respond”. I haven’t taken many literature courses so far, but I can say that when I’m in writing classes, I often dwell on the idea of dialogue. Even outside of the classroom, I’ve noticed dialogue permeating my life, particularly through relationships. It isn’t really about the words themselves, but the way we exchange them. I’m not sure I can think of anything I’m more passionate about than being able to sit across the table from someone and absorb the essence of who they are. Similarly, nothing pleases me more than being able to open my heart to another. Picture a clenched fist slowly unraveling, finger by finger, to reveal the creases and palm prints within. We are like blooming flowers, you and I, and across the table from one another, we get to witness beauty. Dialogue is the sharing of our growth and stumblings. I’ve always been a vulnerable individual, constantly cracking my chest and offering my heart out to those I trust. Oh, I know it’s dangerous and painful. Life taught me that. People taught me that. Thankfully, I’ve grown wiser about what I should expose and who can touch the deepest parts of me. But the call is always the same: be authentic. And every time I risk vulnerability, the one across the table takes steps in that direction as well. It’s about dialogue, about community, and exchanging who we are and journeying together through the life God has given us. Today, I’m dwelling on an instance of dialogue that has continued to make me smile.
Recently, I met someone in McConn for an interview in hopes that it would provide me with information for my research paper on spiritual doubt. She’s a very bright someone with a doctorate from Oxford University, a stylish red coat, a smart looking haircut, and an honest smile. I suppose I should explain that technically, our first contact had been a week and half earlier, when I (dressed in a sweater and tip-toeing along in my Airwalk sneakers—classy as ever) walked up to her to ask if she was, in fact, Dr. Toland. I remember seeing her from afar, where I was finishing a paper and drinking a cold drink on a cold night. If I had to describe how I must have appeared to anyone who may have noticed me, I would probably use the word ‘stalker’. I saw her, had my suspicions of who she was, and was determined to use her for my paper, even if that meant approaching a perfect stranger. When the time was right, I stealthily departed from my table and headed toward the little workstation she had set up, presumably for research or grading.
It was a moment of profuse sweating on my part, and I remember suppressing the deep temptation I had to gulp repeatedly in fear of the conversation I had oh-so-awkwardly thrown myself into. This was definitely one of those We talked about this, Jessica! moments in my head. After all, the only connection the two of us had was the fact that my favorite professor is one of her close friends. Aside from that, the only other thing that would even permit conversation between us was the fact that we were in the same building. Let’s face it. I am freshman who doesn’t know how to talk to people without being awkward, and she’s a professor of history in the John Wesley Honors College—where the smart people study. So, walking up to her felt something like trying to hold the two positive ends of two different magnets together. To my great relief after my shaky introduction, I learned that she was who I had suspected her of being. Even though she did not know me, nor I her, she made time for me in her schedule and we agreed to meet for an interview the following Monday. I walked away fist-pumping inwardly. This was going to be an awesome interview; I could feel it. I had no way of knowing that it wasn’t going to be “just” an interview.
When the Monday came, I found her at table near the Student Commons and greeted her with as much confidence as I could possibly muster. Unfortunately, I was rather chatty for the first 5 minutes or so. I began to blush as I spoke because I knew I was making her feel strange, and to be honest, I was even making myself feel a little strange. But I quickly noticed that I wasn’t the only one suppressing some nervousness. The word ‘interview’ nearly made her squirm—something I observed in the middle of my speedy monologue about “I can never figure this computer out!” and “Did you know that the bananas in the college store are only 50 cents!?” Heck, I might have even mentioned something about squirrels. By the time I finally shut up and pulled out the questions I had written down to ask her, it was almost humorously clear that neither of us was prepared for a traditional question-by-question interview. We were both relieved to toss out the questions and go instead with the autobiographical route. I love stories, and I’m usually pretty good about gleaning good ideas from them. And considering that she had lived the life she would be talking about, Dr. Toland seemed pretty comfortable as well. It was a win-win.
The more we talked, the more at ease both of us were. Perhaps we finally leaned back in our chairs a bit, let our shoulders melt down a little, and we even made time for laughter here and there. I must say that the hour we spent together is one of the fondest memories I have of my whole college experience thus far. I can remember how she was literally on the edge of her seat as she told me her story. She would lean in toward me when she spoke, as if telling me the most urgent of secrets. Her intellect was burning within her and almost singeing me as I listened and recorded notes on my laptop. Everything about our conversation was filled with life and truth and Christian camaraderie. Dialogue at its finest! It seemed as though I was meeting the Dr. Toland few students had ever known. She was opening her heart to me, and I wish my words could express how beautiful it was. She explained to me, “On a given day, I am probably wearing more than one mask, depending how I’m trying to present myself. But I am wearing fewer than I was when we first started our conversation.” She seemed relieved to be able make such a statement, and I smiled in agreement because I, too, had redeemed my vulnerability. I wasn’t afraid to show my real face with her. It was a refreshing moment for both of us as we reveled in the authenticity of the people we were and the ways God had shaped us. There was a sense in which her story and my story were woven together, and I suppose in many ways, due to God’s grandness, that they were. But it seemed that the triumphs of her past were my celebrations today, and that my current struggles were those that kept her up at night years ago. We were both telling the same story. Amazing!
I left that conversation feeling drastically different than I had only an hour or so earlier. Had it been possible, I would have stayed there talking with her another hour. I would have asked her all about Oxford, all about the Honors College, all about her walk with God. But, life must resume, so we both parted ways, perhaps with a mutual reluctance. A few days later, I was walking directly into the wind on my way to class and wincing from the pain. I also remember being deep in thought about something probably worthy of a blog post with a catchy title when I heard someone say, “Hey, Dugdale!” It shook me back to my reality, and I have to admit being a little confused at first. The last time anyone had called me Dugdale, I was a senior in my high school English class daydreaming about graduation and wishing my friend Hannah would stop distracting me during class discussions. (For the record, she never was very good at whispering.) But, when I looked up from the sidewalk, I saw a grinning Dr. Toland. As I nodded shyly back to her and braced myself against the wrath of that headlong wind, an overwhelming reassurance seized me, and I was certain our dialogue had not ended. What a relief that the dialogues we have with people in our lives cannot be confined to a mere table or an hour.