Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Intercalary Chapters

In September 2008, as I drove the familiar interstate to school, the StoryCorps segment came on NPR. Through StoryCorps, two "regular people" record a conversation between themselves and submit it to be preserved at the Library of Congress. The conversation might be between siblings, between old friends, between spouses, or, as was the case of the conversation that aired September 11, 2008, between mother and son.

It's been over two years since I heard it, but I still remember Frankie's soft and quivering voice as he answered his mom's gentle questions about his grandfather (her father) and the special memories he had of him. His mom asked him what he recalled about September 11th - and even though he was a young boy at the time, Frankie could describe every detail from that day: learning about the Twin Towers being struck, being so worried about his grandfather who had been working there that day, and finding out that his grandfather had died along with so many others.

My own experience of hearing their story suddenly came back to me this afternoon I drove home from my grandmother's on that same, familiar interstate and listened to another NPR segment: "The Story." Journalist Dick Gordon interviews "regular people" and helps them tell their story. Today, a young woman from the Philippines described how she had come to the United States thinking that she had a $50/month job as a housekeeper. But Mimin's passport was taken by her employers; she was not paid; she was not permitted to leave the house. Because she spoke very poor English and had only an elementary-school education, she did not realize she had other rights. Her employers convinced her that if she left the house, she would be raped or worse - she didn't know any better. Mimin worked under these circumstances for seven years and finally escaped with the help of an anti-trafficking group. It's been five years since she left that situation, but she still lives in fear that her former employers will find her and take her back.

The CIA estimates that 50,000 people are brought to the United States each year and forced to work as prostitutes, domestics, or laborers. These people are invisible to us. Mimin escaped only through a chance meeting with a man who bicycled by her house each day, noticed her poor condition, and eventually slipped her a phone number. It serves as a reminder to listen extra hard for the voiceless and look even harder for the invisible.

September 2008, I arrived at class with red eyes. I described the story I had listened to on NPR, Frankie, his mom, and his grandfather -- "What's NPR?" a couple students interrupted! -- and then asked them to write their own 9/11 story: where had they been? what do they remember most? what, if anything, changed for them that day?

* * *

Sometimes that down cycle can be self-perpetuating. You feel bad, and then you feel bad about feeling bad. And then you feel guilty about that because things could always be worse. So perhaps it's best to actively avoid those natural inclinations toward inwardness. Just plow through and face outward. Involve yourself in other stories while your own narrative takes a short break. Maintain empathy and keep things in perspective.

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