Our theme for the month of February is “color.”
Tiny droplets of water whirled across the open-air porch, spiraling with the air currents that seperated the fine mist from the heavy rain outside. Students across campus packed into the library, or claimed a wooden rocking chair under the porch canopy, all seeking to access wifi for assignments, or to video chat their significant others back home. My clothes and attitude equally dampened by the torrential weather, I slunk into the library and perused the titles. I was looking for something moving, something meaningful, to pull me out of a stagnant slump, and cure me from a growing sense of lethargy building up after the initial sheen of working as a naturalist in Costa Rica had worn off.
I started in the science section, where a bulk of the library’s contents were housed.
The Cultural History of Costa Rica.
The titles of textbooks stared back at me, with blank eyes.
Flip. Flip. Flip.
Some books were dusty, looking like they hadn’t moved since they were placed on the shelf twenty years ago. Others were well-used.
Medicinal Plants of the Tropics.
A Neotropical Companion.
Science was striking out, so I turned to the novels. They were mostly books left behind by visitors who shed them in efforts to lighten their return luggage home, leaving more room for freshly roasted coffee beans and sloth t-shirts for the kids.
The Da Vinci Code.
Flip. Courteously place in recycling bin. Flip.
Maybe there was a reason these books were left behind. I was close to giving up my search when I noticed a familiar title, but couldn’t place where I’d seen it before. I pulled it off the shelf.
Dreams from my Father.
It was Barack Obama’s first book, written in 1995, before his political career. Curious, I read the preface expecting something political at the very least and most likely dry. Instead, I was pulled in—not so much by a gripping, suspenseful plot, but by the way the author wove words into a coherent and logical tapestry. For some reason, of all the things to shoot sparks into my slump, this book struck like flint against steel.
Over the next few weeks I read the book religiously, carrying it with me everywhere, reading it while I walked. I discussed it at the dinner table with friends, often against their will. At one point, I found myself reading it in one hand while watering plants with the other. When I came across the book I was in a slump, feeling isolated and unmotivated. Reading Dreams from my Father brought me out of that slump because it reminded me that our strength in life comes from our connections with the people around us, and our story is worth sharing just as its worth listening to the stories of others.
Near the center of the book, Obama comes to this realization that though he was committed to community organizing in Chicago, he remained distant from the community because he was reluctant to share himself.
“That’s what [the community] was teaching me, day by day: … that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions, people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories. And it was this realization, I think, that finally allowed me to share more of myself with the people I was working with, to break out of the larger isolation that I had carried with me to Chicago. I was tentative at first, afraid that my prior life would be too foreign for South Side sensibilities; that I might somehow disturb people’s expectations of me. Instead, as people listened to my stories of Toot or Lolo or my mother and father, of flying kites in Djakarta or going to school dances at Punahou, they would nod their heads or shrug or laugh, wondering how someone with my background had ended up, as Mona put it, so ‘country-fied,’ or, most puzzling to them, why anyone would willingly choose to spend a winter in Chicago when he could be sunning himself on Waikiki Beach. Then they’d offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together—a lost father, an adolescent brush with crime, a wandering heart, a moment of simple grace.”
What struck me about the book was that even though I expected something political, opinionated, and agenda-driven, I instead found a story grounded in deeply human truths, elemental and honest, of a person’s humble efforts to embrace and tell his own story.
Maybe you read Josh delacy’s article earlier this month, kicking off the theme of the month with a gripping and artistic depiction of the color-coded party lines that split our nation into an oversimplified dichotomy. Rural vs urban, pro-this vs pro-that, red vs blue. This coming November, the United States will sever itself in half again, as political parties paint states with broad brush strokes of ruby and sapphire.
There is only one antidote to party segregation that I know of, only one thing powerful enough to cause us to bridge the divide, and that’s listening to each other’s stories. If we want unity, we need to notice when Kentucky is flooding and nothing is being done about it; we need to notice when 44 million US citizens lack healthcare; we need to notice when over 50,000 jobs depend on natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania when we talk about shifting to renewable energy sources. We don’t need to agree on everything and we don’t need to have perfectly aligned plans for the future, but we need to listen to the sacred stories that lie at the center of each other’s lives. We don’t need red vs. blue, republican vs. democrat; we need people willing to step down from the false certainty that comes with a dichotomy and dwell in the in-between zone. We need a purple politics—a conversation that honors the truths from each side and respects the lives and struggles of those trying to make a living.
“As time passed, I found that these stories, taken together, had helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for. Marty was right: There was always a community there if you dug deep enough. He was wrong, though, in characterizing the work. There was poetry as well—a luminous world always present beneath the surface, a world that people might offer up as a gift to me, if I only remembered to ask.”