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Alison Kinney

How are you?

When Nicole invited me to respond, I felt baffled, because I rarely answer anything except, “Fine, and you?” That’s not a letter or an essay, is it? Even though I always say “Fine,” that doesn’t stop me from asking the question myself and listening to whatever comes my way. “How are you?” is an opening line, so it opens things. It opens a momentary formal or friendly politeness. It opens surprises. (In me, it opens evasion and falsehood, ha ha.) It opens confidences in need of a confidant. I’m no longer astonished by virtual strangers who answer my most casual “How are you?” with a twenty-minute monologue. So many people never get asked. So many people need someone to listen and care about their answers.

This collection’s subtitle is “Caring is contagious, too.” Asking “How are you?” also, perhaps, opens in us the opportunity, or the obligation, to care, not on our own terms, but on somebody else’s. I suppose that I ask because I have manners, but also to be forced, by the total unpredictability of the “How are you?” experience, to welcome answers I couldn’t have imagined. It also reminds me, because I have a stock answer, that even asking and telling carry us toward the outer limits of empathy.

This is a good thing. Nobody reveals her whole state of being in response to a “How are you?” whether she answers for three seconds or for three days. The answer is never the whole truth; we can understand and imagine only so much of other people’s lives; the limits of empathy, shifting and unknowable, require that we respect the rest, the essential private difference and unknowability of all our existences. But we can start out with the listening.

How are you?

I no longer ask that question of my neighbors, because they like to chat. (My utterly improbable nickname around here is “The Perky One.” Maybe I’m the one who likes to chat?) I try to avoid them now, for their sakes rather than for mine. The median age in my building is 70. We’re a neighborhood of retired and current healthcare workers who are put at risk by, and violently underserved by, the essential industry they’ve provided. I don’t want to take the risk of finally making anybody sick.

Today, for a rare excursion, I’m wearing my mask. I’m walking to my bank, because I’ve run out of twenties for laundry and grocery delivery tips. I’m fortunate to be able to pay for those services, so as not to crowd into the businesses my neighbors still have to patronize. Everything about how I am today, walking alone down quiet side streets to avoid the thoroughfare, is conditioned by how we are, in Weeksville/Crown Heights. It changes, not only “How are you?” but also “Who are you?” Who we are. How are you? Sometimes we can ask each other only online, because if we don’t stay there, the answers will get drastically worse. So we ask here, know we get only partial answers, and keep asking.

Erin listens to the silence. Margarita listens to her heartbeats and neighborhood sounds. Érica listens to the breathing of yeast. Michelle listens to greetings from other walking strangers. Ari listens to coughing. Paula listens to her mother’s voice on the phone. Elena’s cats listen to the vacuum. Amy listens to chat about Siddhartha. Oindrila listens to birds singing. Bridget listens to an internal roller coaster…. That’s how and who we are, listening. How are you, next contributors to this series? How are you?

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