Every weekend, I'm hosting a homeculture book club. I'll write about one book from my bookshop and ask for your thoughts at the end of the piece. When you share your thoughts, you enter to win a copy of the book. The only thing missing is a table full of book club snacks. I miss the fancy cheese and crackers too. I'll see what I can do in the future.
This week, we're talking about Let's Talk About Hard Things by Anna Sale. Sale is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, Death, Sex + Money. And so it makes sense that she's written one of my favorite books of 2021. A book all about learning how to talk about hard things.
"Anna Sale wants you to have that conversation. You know the one. The one that you’ve been avoiding or putting off, maybe for years. The one that you’ve thought “they’ll never understand” or “do I really want to bring that up?” or “it’s not going to go well, so why even try?”
Home is where the hard things are. And we don’t always know how to talk about them.
Without hearing loss or significant speech delays, I learned to speak at home before I went to kindergarten. A collection of halting words and strung together sentences over until the words flowed out of me. Many of us had that experience. But we don’t always learn how to talk at home, as children or adults. Speaking is broadcasting, talking is an exchange. When a hard thing has happened, instead of talking about it with the people in our home, we often sit quietly at dinner tables or move to the far edge of a bed that suddenly seems too small. Why is speaking so easy for some of us, but talking so hard?
I suppose there are as many different answers as there are people to give them. For me? For me talking about hard things can be difficult because I am tremendously afraid of being a burden to people and I am tremendously afraid of being wholly known. I don’t suppose I need to explain the first. I am not sure I can completely explain the second except to say, well...it is not that I am so different from what most people see and hear.
Perhaps to a fault, who I am in public is the same as who I am in private. But talking about hard things is different than writing about them, or posting a story on Instagram about them. A dialogue about a hard thing requires a degree of vulnerability that I’ve often found too intimate to bear. Now that I’ve talked with you about a very hard thing, now that you know me, can you bear to see me?
What are hard things? Grief, death, mental health issues, faith, identity, fear, doubt, illness, financial issues, sex, failure, abuse, mistakes, regrets. I’ve always been able to speak about these things. It's not enough. As I’ve built a home culture with a partner for our children, I’ve also had to learn to how to talk about them. My home deserves to be a place where hard things can be said and heard. It’s been a halting process, stringing words into sentences, hoping that someday they’ll find a flow.
Let’s Talk About Hard Things, the new book by Anna Sale, is an invitation to keep trying to talk about hard things even when it’s...well...hard.
Sale is the host of Death, Sex + Money. On her podcast, she talks to people about very hard things. She is compassionate, inquisitive, generous. I always leave an episode of Death, Sex + Money feeling gently schooled in the art of connection.
One of my favorite episodes is When A Banker Was Called To The Convent. The story of a woman who was raised as a Baptist, had a successful career in banking, converted to Catholicism and then was called by God to become a nun. In another person’s hands this story about many hard things like faith transitions, capitalism, and identity might have been treated callously or incuriously. Sale instead leans into the conversation and brings the listener with her.
Let’s Talk About Hard Things invites us to lean into our own hard conversations. The book is divided into five sections of hard things, Death, Sex, Money, Family and Identity. I think we can all agree those can be five very hard things. The book helps us understand how to forge connection while talking about hard things but it’s not a self-help book. Not really. Sale isn’t promising any kind of fix,
“Hard conversations offer you solace and pull you out of isolation. . . . But they do not fix hard things. You can give up that sense of pressure, because that’s not the goal. Rather, the goal is to try.”
We must talk to know one another and to be known, and often when the conversation is about a very, very hard thing that knowningness is the only resolution we will ever get.
There’s a part in the book where Sale talks about calling her parents to tell them her first marriage was ending. It was late and her parents were in bed together. Her mom answered the phone,
“Let me get your dad on the phone too,” my mom said, and then cooed as I kept crying. “We are here, we are here.”
“We’re here. You have a good family,” my father chimed in.
I had to put this book about talking about hard things down and sit with my own hard thing before reading on. I have a good family too. And I often called my parents late at night when something was too much too bear. They’d sit in bed next to each other, taking turns with the phone. We are here, we are here.
And then, when I was 28, my dad was no longer here. Leukemia came and killed him too quickly and too slowly the way only cancer can. He is gone, he is gone. My dad left me, his daughter who still needed him. realized how fully I will leave my own children too. My children who will still need me whenever the leaving comes. Helping them talk about hard things in our home with us isn’t enough. We also need to help them know how to talk about hard things outside of our home, without us. Part of that process, for me, is being honest about the fact that I will not always be here.
The moment of my inevitable death preoccupies my middle daughter a lot. Maybe because my dad’s funeral is one of her earliest memories. Maybe some of us are just born afraid of saying goodbye. I know I was.
Sometimes after reading a book with a dead mom or watching a movie about an orphan, she’ll sit down in front of me,
“Mom, you’re going to live until you’re very old, right?”
And I want to say, Right! But my dad only lived to 53 and I know that I don’t know and maybe I won't and maybe I will. So I always say something like,
“None of us knows how long we’ll get to be here but I am so happy to be here right now.”
And she’ll nod her head, dissatisfied with my answer but glad I told the truth.
After reading Let’s Talk About Hard Things, I think I’ll change my answer to her perpetual question a bit. Sale tells the story of Shelley, a woman dying of breast cancer. As the cancer spreads and her time shortens, Shelley spends hours, days, weeks, talking with her loved ones. Incredibly open-hearted conversations with,
her brother, her husband, her parents, and her her friends in her final weeks, “Do I need to tell you anything else?" she asked, over and over. “Is there anything else you need to know?"
The generosity of that moment. The one where she knows she will not be here for the hard things or the easy things or anything at all and is there anything else you need to know before I go?
She created the space for them to support her when she needed it most - and, later, for them to support one another, when they needed it most. Death didn’t go away, but the loneliness did. That’s what becomes possible when we talk - bravely, awkwardly, openly - about dying and the holes that death leaves behind.
Talking about hard things is a way to create space and foster support. It doesn't often patch the holes left by living, but it can turn them into something that lets in light as well as darkness.
The next time my daughter asks if I will live until I am very, very old, I think I will say,
“I don’t know but while we’re here right now together, is there anything else you need to know?”
We are here, we are here.
Buy Let's Talk About Hard Things through my bookshop.
Anna's book is necessary reading for anyone who has ever struggled to talk about ... well....anything. I'd like to give it to one of you. Just finish this sentence, "I need to talk about a hard thing with _______" in this google form and I will pick one respondent to receive a free copy of the book.
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