February in Oregon means the legislature is in session, which means people in Salem are talking. Mainly they are talking about bills—what should and should not be legal—and also about money—where it should go and where it shouldn't. Both of these kinds of conversations are enormously important: they help determine what kinds of communities we live in and what kinds of lives we lead.
A few days ago, at Oregon Humanities' first Think & Drink of 2015, Barry Lopez spoke of “the antidote of conversation.” He was not talking about legal or economic conversation, or about any deliberative discussion, the goal of which would be to settle on a specific plan. Instead he was talking about a more primary, less seasonal kind of conversation: about people putting their concerns and hopes into words, gestures, laughter, and even silences. These conversations often begin with no goal and are instead a way of being—maybe even a way of being more—with each other.
In the few days before I heard Barry's comment about the antidote of conversation, I had participated in two exploratory discussions, one about the place of guns in our society and the other about the value of nature. In each of these Conversation Project programs—one at Mt. Hood Community College and the other at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum—I was floored by the clear desire of participants to understand where the other people in the room were coming from. They listened well, especially when people were expressing convictions and sentiments that differed from their own. There was no rush to judgment. Instead most people seemed to understand that our answers are in a certain sense provisional, that the sharing of questions we care about is where we really come to life.
All of us will be affected by the decisions, bills, and allocation of funds that emerge from conversations in Salem over the next few months. Though I am attached to certain outcomes and opposed to others, my deepest hope is that the people involved listen well and act with the patience, good will, and genuine curiosity that shows up in so many of the less goal-oriented conversations happening across the state.
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