Monday, November 5, 2018

Writing or When Was the Last Time I Cried?

Sometimes inspiration is not enough. Motivation is not enough. Sometimes I need a cat to gently nudge me into action. Okay, wrong adverb. Wrong verb. Wrong cat. There's nothing gentle about Kočka. He bites.

In this case, the inspiration comes from Facebook. One of those questionnaires. You know --

     "It's fun to learn odd little things about my friends.
          1. What’s your middle name:
          2. Last time you cried?
          3. What's your favorite pizza?"

As a writer, these random questions can start me thinking. And, rather like an artist too poor to hire a model, I can explore my own reactions to stories. Stories that my friends tell me. Stories I find in the media.

My Michigan cousin Gary's questionnaire on Facebook reminded me of my own tearful responses to two recent stories in the media.

The first was a National Public Radio piece on Flint, Michigan.

A little background:  A series of changes to the water supply led to a federal state of emergency declaration in January 2016. Because of lead contamination, Flint residents were instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. The water is now declared to be safe, but residents are instructed to continue to use bottled or filtered water until all the lead pipes have been replaced, which is expected no sooner than 2020.

The NPR story aired on October 26. The reporter Ari Shapiro was revisiting Flint citizens to find out how their lives are now, almost three years after the emergency declaration. The last interview of the piece was a woman, who along with her husband is raising two boys. Her name is Jeneyah McDonald.

During the interview her 9-year-old son Justice speaks up, "Why does the pipes break in Flint and in the others they don't?"

The reporter explains that Ms. McDonald goes into a long, fact-based explanation about the state government's decision to change water sources in an effort to save money. Then the reporter says that later when the children are not in the room, she says that question from her son really threw her.

     "MCDONALD: It's his first time asking me that ever. And that kind of - that was a lot.

      SHAPIRO: Is it hard to know what to say?

      MCDONALD: It is. It is, and especially trying to contain my emotions 'cause I don't, you know,
      just want to break down in front of them 'cause they're not understanding, why is she so upset?

      SHAPIRO: What's the answer that you would have given to that question if it had not been asked        by one of your children?

      MCDONALD: I probably - honestly, I feel like it was done on purpose because Flint is
      predominantly black. And who cares? I feel like it's pretty much where the nation is right now.
      You see young black boys getting murdered by white police officers all across the nation. So
      what do I think as a black mother raising black boys? How do I think a government that's
      predominantly white - how do they - they showed me what they feel about me and us here in
      Flint. They showed us.

      Everyone want to say racism is not alive. It is so alive, and it's so sad. And I - you know, it's
      hard not to teach your kids about it without sounding racist. You know what I mean? I don't
      want my children to hate anyone because of the color of their skin. I just - I want to be careful
      when I'm answering things for him because I want him to be an adult that's able to change the

And what made me cry? It breaks my heart that this is happening in America today. That America must be taught by this mother, who has been on the receiving end of racism, saying "I don't want my children to hate anyone because of the color of their skin."

Not all my tears come from a broken heart. Sometimes I cry when I see something so beautiful or hear a story that opens my heart.

With all the ugly campaign advertising on commercial TV recently, I've found refuge in Public Television, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and TED Talks.

Four days ago, I listened to Andrew Solomon giving a TED talk about "How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are."

Solomon is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and a past President of PEN American Center. His book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression won the 2001 National Book Award, was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, and was included in The Times list of one hundred best books of the decade. Solomon's Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity was honored with the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

His work has been mostly about how people deal successfully with adversity. Parents with handicapped children, people living in the midst of war, people surviving their own disabilities. In this twenty minute TED talk he describes forging meaning and building identity from his own life's adversities.

Solomon tells a story about Harvey Milk. You may remember Milk was the gay activist elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977 and then assassinated a year later along with Mayer George Moscone in San Francisco's City Hall.

Solomon says when Milk was asked by a young gay man what he could do to help the gay movement, Milk said "Go out and tell someone. There's always somebody who wants to confiscate our humanity and there are always stories that restore it. If we live out loud, we can trounce the hatred and expand everyone's lives."

Solomon ends his talk exhorting us to "Forge meaning. Build identity. And then invite the world to share your joy."

My tears were from my heart opening. For the assurance that there are people like that out there.

This is what writing is for. To tell stories. To connect people to other people so they can share stories.  Just like the song says, "Put a little love in your heart. And the world will be a better place for you and me."

For the NPR story click Flint. To watch this TED talk click Solomon