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Blooming dahlia in Christchurch Botanic Garden. Photo: Getty Images
Blooming dahlia in Christchurch Botanic Garden. Photo: Getty Images

BooksMay 30, 2021

Talking with flowers

Blooming dahlia in Christchurch Botanic Garden. Photo: Getty Images
Blooming dahlia in Christchurch Botanic Garden. Photo: Getty Images

When it comes to human beings, especially when interviewing them, the challenge is keeping the petals open, writes Michelle Langstone.

I was never sure I liked human beings. I have an optimistic but ultimately suspicious nature, forged at the hands of unkind people I encountered as a child. People I relegated to the second tier, below animals, whom I regarded as only ever acting on instinct and animal behaviour, never deliberately cruel;  just themselves, surviving. Human beings, I knew, were complex, arranged by their desires and flaws, ultimately out for themselves. People could only be trusted to behave unexpectedly, to be thoughtless, harmful, vainglorious and perhaps occasionally kind. I have kept all my closest friends close for many years, mostly unchanging, like a bookcase of favourite novels that I guard with ferocity. I love my family and set them apart from other human beings because we are all part of one forest system — our roots and leaves together below and above the ground. I understand them. They tolerate me. 

In the winter of 2020 I started talking to people. Emerging from lockdown, shrinking in the light and freedom and gazing at a world altered by a pandemic, at first it felt strange to sit down with someone for an intensive period, asking them as many questions as I could, peering at them as if they were some kind of metastasizing sample in a cytology lab. That’s when I learned that people operate just like osmosis: their energy passing from their high-bodily concentration across the membrane of unfamiliarity between us, infusing me with their considerations and specificities. I have spoken to 17 people since the middle of last year. I have written more than 50,000 words about them collectively, and held them out to the world like a little offering. Here is someone. Here is someone else. Every single person I have spoken to has surprised me. 

I was never sure I liked human beings until I began to write about them, trying to pin them down, opening up the fronts of them like a clock to glimpse the mechanisms whirring. I watched people’s hands. How they moved them gave them away. I watched for the tremors and the fidgets, I looked for the balance between palm and fingers, and if they laid their hands down, whether it was with heaviness or care. Did their digits keep time for them on the surfaces between us? Were they composing muted music on the tabletops, a whole background score beneath their words? Sometimes they just held their hands in their lap, unmoving, and I wondered what they were trying to hold in. 

At home I would write about my dad in the early mornings, putting on the jug and the heater, crowding around my computer screen and teasing parts of him from the avenues of my memory, trying to hold him to the page and anchor him to the earth while I could still remember the way his voice sounded, his jokes, and the way his hands smoothed the blanket as he died. I held him in the pages of my developing manuscript, and I was so occupied with showing him, sharing him, that I transferred that to the people I went to interview. It began to matter more than anything to catch someone, however briefly — to get them on the page so they could live where everyone could see them, before they passed on into their own lives again, and the curtain was drawn between us. So I watched them. I watched them like a bird of prey, the ones you see on wing, suspended in the air, their eyes acute, their gaze unwavering. I was probably quite intense, but I wanted to collect people and let everyone see, because then there were more people recorded, for some imaginary ledger I was keeping, conscious that everybody was a somebody, the way my dad was to me. Everyone was someone’s person. 

I would listen back on the tapes for the smiles in their voices. I listened to the way they’d clear their throat, and the image of how they’d turned their head and broken my gaze came back to me. So many broken gazes, so much shyness, and partly because of me there, vulturous, searching, waiting to swallow whole this human in front of me. I began to love the awkward silences and the mistakes I made for what they taught me about being human. Everyone wants to be spoken to kindly, to be given the benefit of the doubt. Nobody wants to hear statements made about themselves, finite opinions, brusque announcements about their achievements. I could never trap anyone; I could never find an edge, because even if I approached an interview with someone feeling sure I wouldn’t like them, they managed at the end of the time together to get in. Just from a purely human to human recognition perspective, I saw them. After that it’s hard to dislike anyone. After that, it’s hard not to love people. 

I was never sure I liked human beings until I realised that under care and consideration, people are just like flowers. They bloom when someone listens to them; they open up — sometimes barely a petal — but it’s enough. It’s enough to chance to see them or at least see how the attention I paid nudged them nearer to an adjustment, whether an intake of breath that shifted their body in space, or tears that raced to their eyes, or delight, real delight that crept to the edges of their mouths. Everyone just wants to be listened to. To be heard. Everyone, I think, hopes they will be liked, or at least respected. Sometimes people would just fall open like a flower almost done with its time in a vase, full-petaled, gasping at the air, their character a perfume dousing the room. At those times I felt how remarkable human beings are: how fallible, how vulnerable, how beautiful in their complications. 

They showed me things: a poet reminded me to look at the sky again, a director showed me how unbridled enthusiasm is the epitome of cool, something I’d always believed but had been mocked for. A chef taught me to always look behind a facade, a palliative care doctor laid out living and dying for me like it was a primer book. There have been men who cried for their dads. Men who lit up about their children. Men who showed me their fear with humour and humility, expanding the room with that courage. And women. Women with the kind of vitality people write about in books, spilling over with ideas, with rage, with wisdom. Women who called me sis, who hugged me, who lifted me up just by being near them. I’d come home and my husband would ask me how the interviews went, and every time I’d feel glazed, happy, and say, “People are so good. They’re just so good.” That was as articulate as I got. Everyone I met took the words from me, and replaced them with their own, and I loved that. 

There are 17 profiles on this website now, and a book about my dad in bookshops around the country; a small anthology of humans who have taught me things. Now I look to another person, this person that I grow, who makes my belly undulate in the evenings as if I were full of a field of wheat stirred by the wind, and not a child, my child, waiting to come through. When they arrive I will tell them how much there is to look forward to in the company of human beings, and how I never used to believe that, but now I do. When they arrive I will tell them how we are all just flowers, and I will teach them how to help the petals open.

Read Michelle Langstone’s Spinoff interviews here.

Times Like These: On grief, hope and remarkable love, by Michelle Langstone (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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