My old friend shows up many places: always too rarely, but usually right around the time when twilight starts to drift away. We’ve met in kitchens, on BART trains, over dinner, sometimes by phone and once across a narrow, unsteady café table feet from where Francis Ford Coppola worked on his script for The Godfather.
Each time we meet, my shoulders drop a bit, I slowly exhale, and time narrows down to a single task or two: eating or drinking, listening to or answering my blessed friend, that blessed question, “How was your day?”
During my 1980s childhood, family dinners were as commonplace as the frozen juice cans in our freezer and nightly toothbrushing before bed. Dinners we didn’t all share were almost as rare as Leap Day.
Such meals didn’t merely provide a consistent diet of simple home cooking; they gave me my first real lessons in adult conversation and self-reflection. Particularly once I, the oldest, had started junior high, Dad led our family of six through a dinnertime ritual of sharing our “highs” and “lows” from the day. We generally got to share one high and low each, to ensure we all got time to speak before the post-dinner chores started.
No particular meal stands out in my memory, but those night-after-night, mundane conversations add up to something quite precious. That simple question about our day taught each of us kids how to listen, to patiently wait our turns because we were allotted a turn, and to understand how differently we each perceived life, even when we shared many of the same experiences. Depending on how Mom and Dad or other adults present answered, the question also gave us a window on grown-up disappointments, frustrations, and joys.
I feel a bit bereft now sometimes, eating my meals alone with a book or magazine, and a CD or the radio for company. Although I’ve lived most of my two adult decades with one or more housemates, shared dinners still prove scarce. I recently moved into a former convent I share with three cats, a young family (including a toddler and infant), and two other single adults, but we still only manage to have house dinners once or twice a month. When we do, conversation tends to focus on house business.
As in childhood, plenty of days pass unremarkably enough that my first response to “How was your day” would be, “Fine.” But reflecting on even uneventful days has its rewards. Sometimes I realize the highlight was a brief interaction with a child, or a particularly well-received quip in an office meeting.
Other times I’ve realized a particular exchange or lack of response (which I interpreted as rejection) prompted a sadness or even shame that I carried with me for hours afterward. Often, pinpointing the cause helps me work through the trigger event and recover my emotional equilibrium. I might even grow a bit.
One summer afternoon a few years ago, when I still walked across San Francisco to my BART station after work, I stopped in for a latte at the North Beach corner coffee shop that’s become a city institution. Photos from the café’s many decades in the neighborhood line the walls, and opera from the sound system often spills out into the surrounding sidewalks, mingling with blues from the century-old saloon across the street.
After I placed my drink order that day, a bearded elderly man nearby invited me to come sit with him. I’m not sure if I planned to drink my latte there, but the golden early evening light and open café doors held a sense of unhurried leisure I couldn’t resist.
Around us, poets, parents, lawyers and other denizens of the city’s storied Italian neighborhood caught up and traded stories over glasses of wine, espresso, coffee, and perhaps a whiskey or two. (One elderly Chinese artist who used to draw there would get a spirit refill in his round, white mug whenever he sold another miniature sketch.)
As I settled in across from the stranger who’d welcomed me, we started exchanging pleasantries and cursory details about our lives. I was an editor for a non-profit, he a jazz pianist whose influence I only learned of recently. And then he asked how my day was.
“Okay,” I said a bit ruefully. “I procrastinated a lot today.” In those days, this had fewer consequences than it would now, but it still prompted a sense of guilt.
I’m not sure what response I expected, but a lovely conversation ensued about why some things are hard or so unpleasant to do, and about the best approach for tackling them. If the setting evoked the romantic portrait of day-to-day life one sometimes sees in travel brochures, that exchange felt like the sort of semi-philosophical conversation I’d once imagined adults always had. I didn’t even need my own wine.
When I walked away a bit later, I carried my new friend’s business card, an informal offer of jazz improvisation lessons, and a strategy to help me the next time I wanted to delay a boring task. Whatever burden I’d carried from that day’s failures slipped off and disappeared into the bustle of people headed to their dinners.
The question works the other way, too. One recent evening, I’d barely settled my folding bike next to the seat I would take, when the man next to me started coughing. After he recovered, he pulled out a bottle of water and briefly explained that he’d just taken a nutritional supplement. He must have shaken the pill into his mouth, along with some unexpected dust from other pills, which prompting him to start coughing.
Before long, one of us had asked the other, “How was your day?” and he’d begun to explain his job to me. A former athlete, he now worked in security, partly due to the old knee injury he was taking pills for. I told him about a recently published article that I couldn’t resist checking in on, briefly showing him on my phone.
Usually I have plans for my twice-daily, half-hour BART ride: reading, checking e-mail, knitting, or napping. But when conversation upends those plans, and does so not with a question about my folding bike but a my-life-today exchange like I shared with the security guard, I always leave the train grateful.
I’m fortunate to do work I mostly enjoy with a team of colleagues I generally like very much — but even on the best days, those many hours in the office bend toward the practical. We interact mostly in order to get things done. Some days I may leave work feeling I used my gifts well, but I rarely depart affirmed in my core humanity and worth simply as a person.
“How was your day?” restores that connection. No matter who you and I are, or what our history or future is, mutual reflection on our days affirms the common bonds of joy and sadness, sleep and hunger, laughter and mortality.
Such conversations also point us back to our ultimate worth as children of a Creator who works and loves day-by-day. However you interpret the Genesis story, imagine the nightly conversations God must have had within the Trinity during that fertile week of creation.
“How was your day today?”
“Oh, so good. I made birds of every size and shape — from wee, precious sparrows and blithe, swift hummingbirds to big, fluffy ostriches I want to hug. And oh, how many their colors and songs. Why, I could take all evening just describing them.”
“How was your day today?”
“Oh, so very good. I made humans. I gave them skills to name and manage, to build on all I’ve done this week. I can’t wait to see what they do with trees, grapes, grain and cotton; wind, water and sun. And oh, when they grow and multiply! To see them sing and give and love . . . I can’t wait for that. Today was a very good day indeed.”
“How was your day today?”
“It was blessed. Today I rested and enjoyed all I’ve done.”
However this day finds you, may it end with the blessing of someone else asking you about it.
Anna Broadway is a writer and editor living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City, she has written for the Washington Post, TheAtlantic.com and Paste. She has previously written for Art House about street-found food, sleep, and Sabbath in the kitchen.