The best way to experience “Let’s Talk About Hard Things,” a new book by Anna Sale, is to listen to it—preferably with a copy handy, for ease of wisdom-underlining. Sale, the creator and host of the WNYC Studios podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” narrates her audiobook, and she has a warm voice and a speaking style that’s immediately appealing—kind and compassionate without a hint of public-radio schmaltz. Her book title, like her podcast title, is indicative of her work’s forthright calm. For the past seven years on “Death, Sex & Money,” Sale has talked about those vital and complex subjects with curiosity, boldness, and sensitivity, with a variety of guests; her book, a reported memoir, conveys how we might have such conversations ourselves. It’s not a how-to, but it’s instructive—and timely. As vaccinated people begin to have joyous reunions with friends and family, after a year of isolation and Zooms, many of us are realizing that we’ve forgotten how to talk about the easy things, let alone the hard ones.
So what are we talking about? And how, and why? Generally, they’re the subjects that overwhelm and confuse us—and which are central to our lives. Early in the book, Sale, a longtime reporter and radio producer, explains that she created the podcast as a result of a process she’d begun after she’d ended her first marriage. (She’s happily remarried.) Though amicable, her divorce was “devastating and confusing.” “I couldn’t explain what had happened, either to myself or anyone else,” she writes. What finally helped her was talking to people about “the choices they’d made when they’d felt lost.” Heartened by those conversations, she pitched a show to WNYC about “the things that mattered most in life but we talked about least.” It worked right away: guests leaned in; good talks were had. “It was like uncovering a buried passageway to unexpected emotional connection,” she writes.
Sale believes that “to feel someone listening to us is to feel deeply respected.” Even before the pandemic, because of seismic ongoing shifts in culture, economics, and technology, such interpersonal respect had become more essential than ever, with more pressure on it: structures that helped guide us through life have eroded or morphed, shifting responsibility and risk from institutions to individuals, and we’ve increasingly come to rely on friends and family to help us make sense of (and pay for) it all. At the same time, how most of us communicate has expanded and diversified and, in some ways, been diminished. Reading through Sale’s chapters—on death, sex, money, and also family and identity—can help reorient us, just as Sale’s post-divorce conversations reoriented her. One of the chief pleasures of the book is in hearing how it sounds when supportive couples and enlightened family members interact. We get to experience the benefits of meaningful talks without actually having to have any—yet, often enough, it makes you want to dig in and try.
As Sale presents stories about people’s conversations and connections, she observes details about our society that make us feel less alone. In the “Death” chapter, she describes a common contemporary phenomenon that, like loss itself, feels deeply confusing every time it happens. “Today, when I learn that someone I know is gone or grieving, it’s not from local obituaries or phone calls but from texts and social media,” she writes. “Instead of gathering together in a church or funeral home, I most often experience death online.” She describes the surreal experience of clicking around to discern what happened, and then “leaving a clichéd message of care—one that cautiously tries to navigate the grieving people’s religious views and my own.” Death wasn’t easier to process in decades past, but its rituals were; that familiarity provided certain comforts and removed some decision-making during an overwhelming time. Now we often feel as if we’re improvising. And the fact that we tend to be “tentative in our conversations around death,” Sale writes, means that the conversations “end just shy of real connection.” I read one line with a particular pang of recognition: “Suffice it to say, I have never delivered a casserole.”
Reading Sale’s book, I remembered a moment from my own life, a few years ago, that clearly reflected her ideas about improvising, ritual, and connection. It was a Saturday morning in May, and I was at an Airbnb in Seattle packed with relatives from all across the country. We were preparing for my cousin’s wedding, which I was secularly officiating, in a rose garden at a zoo. I briefly glanced at social media, in the unthinking way that I often do, and suddenly the happy chaos around me faded away: a dear old friend had died, of cancer. I found myself desperately clicking around, trying to understand; I felt painfully cut off from his community of loved ones and, suddenly, from my own environment. What helped, of course, was real-life connection: a cousin was empathetic, the rose-garden wedding was glorious. Later, my friend’s memorial gathering, at a pub near Boston, was beautiful, too.
In the “Death” chapter, Sale tells stories of different people’s experiences with death, including her own, and what they’ve learned about “which kinds of words helped, and which didn’t”; we’re reminded that it comes down to kindness, empathy, being present, and not giving in to the hubris of thinking that we have all the answers. Similar principles apply to the other tough subjects, whatever emotional tone they may have. As the chapters progress, we see the power of simple, clear phrases in action— “What I want has changed” or “I’m sorry I hurt you” or “I understand” or “Tell me about your family”—and the power that simply talking about things can wield in allowing us to move forward. For readers who aren’t intuitive listeners, or who need extra help in overwhelming conversations, she suggests behaviors that she uses while interviewing people and in daily life: observing body language, establishing trust, and so on. “You can set yourself up for a more productive, less volatile exchange by being clear about what you are trying to accomplish,” she writes. “This is both the most obvious advice in the world and completely impossible to consistently follow. (Including for me. Just ask my husband.)”
Sale’s aim isn’t to initiate a bunch of dreary conversations (“We have to talk”). “This book is not a manifesto for radical honesty,” she writes. “Hard conversations happen inside relationships, and relationships require their own kind of tending. I believe in kindness and striving for compassion, not spouting off regardless of the pain words can cause.” Amen to that. One idea that struck me in particular, in the “Family” chapter, was that of truly listening to our relatives: trying harder to see who they are now, and consequently who they are in general, rather than clinging to our ossified idea of them, accumulated over a lifetime. It hit me with some force—many of us can feel the sense of being trapped in an old identity within our family, not seen or heard for who we are now, even while feeling reluctant to offer the same openness to our parents or siblings. As Sale shows us how supportive listening happens, and doesn’t scold anyone for not doing it better, we deepen our trust for her as a narrator: she’s dispensing not “tough love” to the reader but empathy. By the end, we feel clearer, more known, and ready to proceed. In that way, her book is not unlike a good conversation with a friend.
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