Listen up

Our view: Preserving the stories of ordinary Americans reveals the heart of a nation

November 28, 2008

Conversation is as central to Thanksgiving as the turkey crowning the dinner table. But how many of our treasured conversations do we truly remember - and how often have we wished we could hear again a loved one or friend recount a revealing story? Today, Americans are being invited to act on that impulse by recording just such a conversation in what is being promoted as a "National Day of Listening."

The sponsors of this event have shown compellingly in recent years how the act of listening can change opinions, improve relations and transform lives. And that's a powerful message.

The not-for-profit StoryCorps has turned David Isay's obsession with sound into a five-year oral history project that is chronicling the lives of Americans. At last count, 23,000 conversations were recorded in listening booths set up initially in New York City and then elsewhere in the country. All are archived at the Library of Congress, and they plumb aspects of our lives as varied as a high school romance, a taxi driver's shift, a dying spouse, a father's work ethic, a remembrance of war.

The organization is encouraging the rest of America to invite, even prod, a childhood friend, great-aunt Alma, brother Ray - or just someone you'd like to know better - to take part in an at-home equivalent of these Qs and As that, in their simplicity, can be quite profound. It's a chance to give and pay attention and to learn from people we care about.

When Mary Wise of Burtonsville had the chance, she encouraged her mother, Anna, to retell the story of her parents' courtship, some 80 years ago, when two childhood sweethearts danced the night away . . . We went to speakeasys; we did all the things you're not suppose to do and survived. It was Ms. Wise's way of ensuring that her mother's grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren would know more fully the vivacious woman who raised her.

Ruth Ballard, 92, of Silver Spring might recount her life in Alabama as the young wife of the physical training officer for the famed Tuskegee airmen:

We bought a piece of property and started to build our home. And the situation was such that when we built our home we had our driveway made of gravel, so we could hear any car approaching. We had lights on all four corners of our house, spotlights, which with a single switch we could light up the area, so you were always thinking and preparing. In the South, I learned how to adjust, not to expect too much, but to expect the worst at any time ....

It was in Tuskegee that I was trying to register to vote. When we tried to find out where we could go, they wouldn't tell us. We sent a guy from the (VA) hospital who could pass for white. He found out what floor and what room (in the courthouse) we could register in, and this is the way we got to the courthouse. When the word spread, folks . . . came down immediately.

Recalling that experience, Mrs. Ballard says, quite sincerely, that the election of Barack Obama gives me a lot of encouragement about our country - and it's not a platitude.

Caroline Satchell of Potomac and Janice Morris, of Arlington, Va., know intimately the benefits of listening. They're twins and big fans of public radio, where some StoryCorps interviews are aired. They participated in a listening session as a gift to their children. Says Mrs. Satchell: I'm one of these people who believes there may be 20 different stories in the world, but there are hundreds of thousands of versions ... somebody new telling the story, that's what makes it meaningful to people. It's what helps us connect to each other as human beings. It's not the story itself but how people lived them.

It's that connection, she says, that makes life worthwhile - and why Americans should be listening.

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