Posted by: MC | April 23, 2012

Gearing up for the Last Leg – 100 VOICES 2012 Road Trip

I’ve been on a rest stop 9000 miles down the road since March 3.  Whitewater, Wisconsin – a rural community between Milwaukee and Madison where the Sweet Spot Coffee Shoppe greets the morning; farms, families, schools, businesses (conventional and cyber) and a university fill the day; and the newly opened Black Sheep Restaurant brings culinary art to the evening.    In the two turns of winter to spring that I’ve spent here (last year and this), the fine people of this place have only welcomed and included me.

Yesterday, I sat in dappled sunlight on a sofa generous with pillows.  In a chair across the room was a man who has lived in this area nearly 50 years, a career athlete and former coach with the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. “I read your book,” he said.  I thanked him, said I certainly do appreciate it.  He went on, “I took it with me when I went out in the woods for a while this month. I enjoyed it.  Read it all the way through, a little bit every day.  I think the voice I liked the most was Daniela (Voice 074), the young lady in middle school on Long Island.  Her philosophy says it all for me.  Wake up in the morning and ask yourself what you can do to make the world better for someone else.  I like that.”  The man went on to speak of Daniela’s stories about the way the kids in her school separate themselves into cliques and about how difficult but important it is to dare to cross those boundaries to listen and to talk. 

I want to see change in the grouping at my school because now the minute people step outside the classroom they want nothing to do with each other.  Then they get the wrong ideas about other people.  One group will look at another group and go, “They’re freaks. They’re outsiders.  We can’t talk to them because they’re different from us.”  But once you talk to each other you realize, “These people aren’t that different from me.” 

We have people who are very sports oriented.  We have people with scholarly aspirations.  Then we have people who are very much into their art; that’s a large group in our school.  People don’t mingle with each other because they feel they have totally different likes or wants or needs.  But, they’re humans.  They need food, shelter, water, and most of them have lots of the same ideas as the person who’s sitting across the room from them.  The negative stories that come out of that splitting are hurting people. 

All you need is a catalyst.  One person can be a catalyst and change everything.  On occasion I will see someone walk over to another table, sit down and act as if there wasn’t a difference at all.  That’s what we need to work towards – to walk across the room or across the street.  You can walk across the street anywhere.  You can drive across the country like you’re doing.  You can go anywhere and find connections with people. 

That book, all those voices from all those different people,” the Wisconsin man said, “It gives me a lot of hope.  There’s plenty of good thinking out here among the American people and it seems like most people would really like it better if we were cooperating.  It’s a resource we ought to be using.”

I was touched that this man had read the book and been encouraged and energized by it.  That’s what it’s for.  That’s what Daniela and all the people who talked with me back in 2009 were supporting by offering their ideas and voices.

And that’s why I’m on the road this time around.  Even from in my rest stop I’ve had the opportunity to speak of this wisdom and possibility in coffee shops, at dining room tables, in college classrooms, in bookstores in Chicago and Milwaukee and on two widely broadcast radio programs.  Before I get on the road again, I have one more radio opportunity this Wednesday (4/25) at 9:30 (Central Time) on WFAW – Michael Clish’s Morning Magazine.  It will stream here  http://tunein.com/radio/WFAW-940-s28677/

The message of the trip including this rest stop grows clearer every day.  It’s about the everyday people of the country.  Finally that’s everyone, but for now it’s all of us who aren’t household names.  There are lots of us.  And it’s in these closer to the ground settings that I am finding people ready and even longing to hear about and connect with other people – in the way of democracy that keeps the wellbeing of our kindred and the land in the forefront.

On Friday, I’m on the road again.  First to Omaha for a visit with the Bishop family (voices 079, 080, 081).  Zachary and Hanna will have grown – from 8 and 4 to 11 and 7.  Their dad is sending photos to ease the shock.  After that I’ll have time in Colorado, Utah and Idaho before driving back into Portland.

Along the way, I’ve often found myself saying I wish every American could make this trip.  I do.

There is nothing like direct experience to make something real.  In this case the something is the good hearted intelligence of everyday people.  Of course there are exceptions.  There are people too invested in anger and fear or too seduced by greed and power.  We hear lots about them so we think they are most people, but they’re not.

There’s more good reason for cynicism, though.  Each of us knows people in our individual lives who we experience as too different from us to talk with.  Usually that assessment comes from beliefs we carry that conflict or judgment or rejection will come our way if we risk venturing into conversation with these people and staying with it.  But because I set myself up to listen no matter what, I found out that staying with it has tremendous benefits.  Not the least of which is getting a glimpse into heartfelt dreams and wisdom.  I was surprised by the interests and concerns I shared with people I thought were intractably opposite to me.  I was also surprised as the number of voices accrued, by the overlap between people of markedly differing backgrounds.

So what I’ve found out here is that people are hungry to be in those kinds of conversations – hungry to be listened to.  I’ve found that contrary to what the media and public leadership lead us to believe, there are way more people in this country who are interested in strong community, who are less impressed with difference than with the fact of our shared humanity.

And all of this is why I wish everyone could make this trip.  And since that’s not likely to happen then that’s what makes the voices in this book so important.  Reading what these 100 VOICES have to say is a way to practice listening across differences.  It’s a way to “walk over to another table, sit down and act as if there wasn’t a difference at all” as Daniela suggests.

There are differences, and until we listen they seem insurmountable.  Here in this experiment with democracy that is our country the hope that comes to a man in Wisconsin, the intention that comes to a woman in Georgia, the report that comes in from a young mother in Texas – each about listening across differences — well that makes any number of miles worth it.

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