the Harper Lee dream


Yesterday afternoon, I went to the cinema with a group of friends and watched some broadcasted TED talks. The topics ranged from eliminating poverty to understanding the impact of stress on aging of DNA to plans to build a civilization on Mars in my lifetime. I left there feeling flummoxed in all the right ways: uplifted, amazed, inspired, even a little overwhelmed but the good kind. The program closed with the wonderful Anne Lamott reading an inspirational piece about things she’d learned, and I’d felt inspired and triggered in wonderful ways.

I felt renewed, restored. I’ve been on a media purge lately, habitually checking the president’s Twitter account to see what new thing I should be outraged by next. To leave a program feeling inspired and whole again, well that was simply wonderful.

I’m finding more of these experiences lately. Last week, I went to a salon at the home of a local well known feminist where an incredible local black woman, a lawyer writer author and professor, shared data on the evidence of black women being involved in slave revolts. She shared many inspiring points, but one stuck with me more than anything, the observation that when an interracial couple has a mixed race child, that child is always considered black, thus a white woman can give birth to a white child but a black woman can never give birth to a white child.

Before I fell asleep last night, I watched Hassan Minaj deliver a biting political comedy address at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, closing with poignant observations that he, the son of Indian immigrants and a brown skinned Muslim man, has the freedom of speech to criticize and cajole the white elected leader of the country, and that is what makes the country great. It was funny, sad, critical, and inspiring.

I fell asleep reading the works of Nelson Mandela, a man thrown in jail for his political involvement in a movement that demanded equality for black and white. I’ve read how he survived in prison for nearly three decades. He sat in a cell while his wife was imprisoned and harassed, while his mother died, while his oldest son was killed, while his daughter grew to adulthood and married and had children of her own. And despite the harshness of his conditions, he writes in such a way that, again, I feel inspired and empowered. His words brim with hope and positivity and the belief in change.

This morning, as I made my coffee, I plopped a DVD in the player to listen to while I worked. I have a habit of just grabbing documentaries randomly off the library shelf, something to help me expand my learning into new areas and categories I might not have been exposed to otherwise. This particular documentary discussed how To Kill a Mockingbird was created, and how it has become a timeless and enduring classic that has spanned continents and generations.

It opened with the story of Harper Lee, a small-town author who found herself too busy to write until a few friends saved up enough money and surprised her with a gift: they gave her enough money to cover all her bills and expenses for one year with the idea that she would use that year to write a book. That book became To Kill a Mockingbird.

I can’t get this thought out of my head, these kind people taking a risk on a friend, believing in her enough to give her an incredible opportunity. My mind moves to history, to the things I surround myself with, to the causes I believe in, to the things I choose to watch and read and write about, to the conversations I pursue. I look at a world of lessons from history, of the strength of human character, of scientific breakthroughs.

And then I flip back to the news feed on my phone for just a moment. People injured on planes, people shot and killed before the killer was shot and killed, the death of a 15 year old boy in a police shooting, White House drama over health care and a potential war with North Korea, and I feel my stomach sink. This is the news that the world pays attention to, the painful and heart-breaking, the torturous and deadly, the heavy and disheartened.

Last night, for a time, I sat with my boyfriend Mike and another friend in a hot tub and we talked about the ways we want to change the world, what we want to do with our lives. Mike talked about his love of music, the friend talked of helping those in need and healing. I briefly talked of my love of doing therapy and helping people find themselves and their potentials after their difficult and painful pasts.

“But that’s not what I want to do forever,” I said. “I want to tell stories. I want to change people. I want to inspire them with words and shared experiences. I want to look into the past and present and get people talking about things that both hurt and inspire. I want to see where we have come from and where we are and where we might be going and I want to share that with others. I want to write, and I want to share my voice both in word and aloud.”

As I sit and type this, I think again of Harper Lee and the chance was taken on her. I think of the documentary I’m making, of the dozens of things I want to write about if I could just find the time, the ability, the discipline, the audience. I thought of Harper’s timeless words that change everyone who read them.

“‘Atticus, he was real nice.’

‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.'”

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