Just Another (Storytelling) Day

It’s January 1st, 2021. In one sense it’s just another day, with another sunrise, and another sunset. But our embrace of the Gregorian calendar has a way of altering our perception of time, and we, therefore, perceive ourselves as having exited one year (past) while entering another (future) at the stroke of midnight. Never mind that there are 24 time zones, and so, two dozen strokes to mark the occasion. Time, like story, is never a simple contemplation.

This “out with the old, in with the new” mindset belies the fact that nothing has actually changed. The scourge of human trafficking and climate change, religious fundamentalism, radicalized racism, pandemic passivism, and sociopathic narcissism still ravage humanity and the planet. Millions strive to change this narrative, but these are very stubborn stories.

But if midnight serves as a reset button, a way to recalibrate, to turn the page and begin writing a new narrative, then it can be a redeeming process. As the year 2020 was coming to a close I spent a few days around Christmas with my family in Sweden and thought a lot about the impending stroke of midnight that would occur after my return to Portugal.

Morning View Outside Stockholm December 2020

The extended dark mornings reminded me of the dark reality humanity was dealing with. Having endured nearly four years of the worst American president in history. A man who has publicly turned his back on 7.8 billion people – yes, even his most loyal supporters – condemning the earth to decades of environmental catastrophe. Adding to the darkness, a pandemic that was long ago predicted, and yet criminally ignored, ravaged country after country. By the time midnight arrived on December 31st over 83 million would be infected, resulting in over 1.8 million coronavirus deaths.

Yet there were lights shining within the darkness, represented by stories that I had heard throughout the year. Stories from friends, family, and many strangers. Stories of loss and disappointment, of dreams that were put on hold, or cancelled altogether. Lives that had shifted from confidence to unnerving uncertainty. Yet each story contained the seed of a different future. One that appreciated the connectedness of humanity, one that cast a light on the illusion of separateness. Was darkness serving a higher purpose?

This consideration of how dark times shape us was on my mind when an email arrived from the amazing poet Silvi Alcivar, offering an insight into the nature, and the benefit, of embracing that which has always existed in our world – darkness.

“and i keep thinking about how all the darkness of these days is really showing us where there is light, who holds it, what we have to offer of our own, and how the darkness seems to have a necessary place too. the moon knows this. and the stars. and the roots wintering in earth. and the creatures no one has ever seen who live in depths of ocean humans will never touch. and the dark itself.” ~Silvi Alcivar

I studied my fellow passengers as they boarded the return flight to Lisbon. Everyone was wearing a mask, which on the one hand was reassuring, but masks hide the emotions that play a vital role in telling our in-the-moment story. I wondered why they were there, what their reason was for ignoring – as I had done – the advice of medical experts to stay home over the holidays. What did the season mean to them? How had their year been, and what stories would they create in 2021? Truth told, each of us lives within our own mystery.

And despite the safe practices required by the airline, the reality was that we were taking a risk vs staying at home. But at the same time we were choosing life. We had decided to include others as characters in our story, creating a richer narrative. That’s not a defense of the decisions we had made, just a raw explanation, and it posed a difficult question:

If we find ourselves in the midst of darkness,
how do we choose to live life?

How will you choose to live life on January 1st, after the imagined stroke of midnight sounds and we put 2020 behind us? Will you frame the new year as a new start, or a new chapter, or maybe just another day of storytelling in your exceptional, yet mysterious life?Wheat Stalk Close Up Stockholm 2020

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Interviewing From a Historical Perspective

The process of crafting an impactful story often begins with identifying events and insights from your life’s journey, but such stories become more compelling and diverse when they include the experiences of others, as additional voices will broaden and deepen the narrative landscape, allowing audience’s to better understand the point you’re proposing, or the lessons you have learned.

One way to do this is by interviewing people who can offer listeners/readers a perspective that expands beyond yours. As with the disciplines of writing and speaking, interviewing is an art form that one must study and practice. When clients ask me how to conduct interviews I steer them to the On Being podcast, hosted by Krista Tippett.

Her interviews with renowned scholars, writers, poets, scientists, and religious leaders explore the most fundamental and profound questions. What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other? If you’re looking to sharpen your storytelling skills, consider this podcast is an interviewing masterclass.

The podcast recently replayed a timely episode recorded on November 17, 2016: This History is Long; This History Is Deep – it’s an interview with Isabel Wilkerson. By reading the transcript while listening you can identify when Krista is diving deeper into a particular topic, or moving their conversation into new territory.

…our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And just when you think you’ve finished one renovation, it’s time to do something else. Something else has gone wrong. ~ Isabel Wilkerson

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95,000 Names – 95,000 Stories

Traditions are an essential element of every culture. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.” Stories, in other words. But not just spoken, as humans are prone to create celebrations based on these stories. Such is the case with Pride Month.

The Christopher Street Liberation Day March took place on Sunday, June 28, 1970, one year after the Stonewall Uprising, and provided the sparks that would ultimately ignite the LGBTQ+ movement for equality. In subsequent years gay pride marches and parades would spread to cities across the United States and throughout the globe. The number of events continued to increase rapidly, and in 1999 President Bill Clinton declared June as “Gay & Lesbian Pride Month.”

The modern version of Pride events are largely celebratory, but a remembrance of those who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic remains a solemn component. Some five decades later, the month of June 2020 has become a focal point for many others whose lives tragically ended before their time, as COVID-19 deaths approach half a million and protesters take to the streets with voices raised in support of Black Lives Matter, protesting to eliminate extreme police violence.

With Pride events cancelled this year due to the virus, it felt as though origin stories which were threads of the tradition would fail to find a public voice. But last week The Kitchen Sisters broadcast an insightful podcast episode that told one of these stories – 95,000 Names: Gert McMullin, Sewing the Frontline.

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A Decades Long Struggle for Justice as told on The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace continues to be one of my favorite storytelling podcasts with its unique way of bringing forth historical landscapes of people, places and events that traverse the arc of time, deftly infused with an insightful sense of relevance that speaks to current affairs.

With the struggle for racial equality front and center we have an opportunity to take a step back and revisit other struggles which continue to compromise millions of lives. Within the time frame of 8 ½ minutes Nate DiMeo compresses decades of oppression against the LGBTQ community, painting with both broad and fine strokes alike, calling out moments that crushed the dreams of countless lives. Yet love, relentlessly, pushed back the waves of oppression.

On the surface this story may seem dissimilar from the current storyline playing out in city streets, but that one phrase, “to be who they were”, binds these two struggles at the wrist. It’s difficult for me to fully comprehend, to grasp beyond the intellectual, to feel the emotions at a cellular level, to walk the streets and feel compelled, as a matter of survival, to be someone else in order to safely navigate society. 

Beyond the topic laid poetically bare, pay close attention to how Nate weaves the history of one physical place and the souls who passed through its front doors to the national narrative, now his pacing gives us space to assimilate each word and phrase.

A White Horse on The Memory Palace Podcast Read more

The Country Doctor on Snap Judgement

America has had problems with discrimination from day one. Look no further than the death toll of Native Americans, often deemed to be heathens, as settlers pushed onward from sea to shining sea. And with the invention of the cotton gin, wealthy landowners sanctified an increase in slavery, economically justifying the practice of kidnapping, shackling, and selling Africans to the highest bidder.

Then we have the egregious treatment of Mexican citizens. You know, the folks who owned a significant chunk of the Western U.S. until they exited south at gunpoint. And let’s not forget about the treatment of immigrants from China, South America and the Middle East. These are not simple histories. In fact, quite the opposite, as there have always been Americans who were welcoming to people of any country, ethnicity or religion. But discrimination has been, and continues to be, a shameful truth in the land of freedom and justice for all.

It was encouraging to see America make progress on this front during the late 60s into the 70s and 80s, but backsliding on the ideal of equality was evident from the 1990s onward. Slowly at first, but rapidly accelerating over the past 3+ years with public displays of hate and prejudice seen in many parts of the country. Displays without remorse of apology.

But all is not lost. Hearts can soften and open with grace whenever people resist stereotyping and instead rely on the power of human connection to speak truth to hate. Whenever we remove the wall of discrimination long enough to forge meaningful relationships, a space for the miraculous appears. A space where healing and justice coexist alongside internal struggle.

Snap Judgement recently broadcast a story that I highly recommend listening to. It was one of those rare podcast episodes that stopped me in my tracks, as I needed to hear the story of Dr. Ayaz Virji until the very end. Give it a listen.

Dr Ayaz Virji on Snap Judgement

Artwork by Teo Ducot | Snap Judgment | WNYC Studios

When Dr. Ayaz Virji first set foot in Dawson, Minnesota, he didn’t know what to expect. He was a brown Muslim man walking into a predominantly white rural town. But much to his surprise Ayaz and his family fit right in. Dawson quickly became home and his neighbors became like his extended family. Then came the presidential election of 2016.

Dr. Ayaz Virji was aware of the positive impact he could have on a small rural town serving as a clinic medical director and chief of staff. And while the community embraced his family upon their arrival, and he enjoyed working with his patients, an abrupt change in the national political climate upset his view of the world, and his place in it.

The narrative follows Dr. Virji’s journey of self-discovery and reflection, of confrontation and conversation within the town after the 2016 election. As you listen to his story, think about the decisions made along the way, by all parties, but especially by Dr. Virji. How did each decision alter the plot of the story? How would you have reacted?

With my white, middle class background, living a life free from discrimination, it’s hard for me to wear his shoes (or anyone else in similar circumstances), to understand his decisions, to feel the pain and frustration that I clearly hear in his voice. What would I have done?

I continue to struggle with recognizing and dealing with the rifts of hate and discrimination in society, but as all impactful stories do, this podcast has altered my frame of reference, and I now view my own story through a new lens. And hopefully it will also make me a better storylistener.

Nancy López on Snap Judgement

Image credit: Snap Judgment | WNYC Studios

Nancy López is a senior producer at Snap Judgment. She started in radio in 2006 when she joined Soul Rebel Radio, a collective of novice storytellers in Los Angeles. Since then, she’s worked as a producer for Radio Ambulante and Making Contact. Her stories have been featured on PRI’s The World, KALW in San Francisco, and Radio Bilingue.

The Country Doctor – Season 11 – Episode 18 – Produced by Nancy Lopez, Original score by Renzo Gorrio, Artwork by Teo Ducot – Snap Judgement founded by Glynn Washington.

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