Back Story, Choose to be Curious

Stand in the Place Where You Live

According to StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, “Listening closely is simple. When you’re curious, treat people with respect, and have just a little courage to ask the important questions, great things are going to happen.” I like to think it was a comparable curiosity that inspired this week’s show on oral history.

The Local ShopI started with ‘oral history’ as a concept, wanting to talk with someone who’d done work in this form of storytelling — and then I had the good fortune to be approached by Valeria Gelman, a graduate student in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech who, together with other students, had just completed a series of interviews with legacy businesses in Arlington.

Not only was an ideal Choose to be Curious episode born of that conversation, so too was a whole new show on WERA. The Local Shop debuts this weekend, featuring the stories collected by Valeria and her classmates. Before she hits the airwaves in her own program, I sat down with her for mine…

Listen to Choose to be Curious #43: Oral History with Valeria Gelman.

Now you can subscribe to Choose to be Curious on iTunes.

Being attentive to the stories around us is a central theme in Choose to be Curious. I like to come at it from all kinds of angles. One of my favorite was the smart, playful approach of Graham Coreil-Allen. A social practice artist and self-described “radical pedestrianist” in Baltimore, Graham leads tours that encourage us to dig into the stories of the people and structures and history around us. He was an obvious, delicious pairing with Valeria…

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. 16: Stand in the Place Where You Live.

I grew up with my father’s refrain always in my ears: “If you change your point of view, you will see something new.” And so it is with people, and their stories, and the places in which we live, and the spaces we build for ourselves. If we change our point of view, if we seek another’s perspective, if we listen to the stories that bear no resemblance to our own, if we have just a little courage, I think Dave Isay is right: great things are going to happen.

If you change your point of view you will see something new.

Special thanks to StoryCorps for permission to use a clip from this video for this week’s show.

Check out StoryCorps’ new initiative One Small Step which will invite pairs of people of all backgrounds, who hold opposing political viewpoints, to record personal interviews with the goal of empowering participants and the people who hear these conversations to cross partisan divides and better understand each other.

Back Story, Choose to be Curious, Life Lessons


201 is an HTTP status code indicating a new resource was successfully created in response to the request

201, in binary (11001001), is the title of an episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Upon upload, I received a cheerful message from WordPress that my most recent blog entry was the 200th post on Listening to the Universe. That (1) came as something of a surprise and (2) makes this #201.

Upon reflection, I thought: right!  I’ve been at this almost exactly two years, and with two posts a week, every week, mostly reliably for those two years, well, here I am: 201.

And upon further reflection, I realized it was time to listen to the universe anew. Which in my case has meant deciding to hit the pause button on Listening to the Universe.

listening earsI put my listening ears on this week, both fabricated and figurative. As a Roving Reader at a local elementary school, I donned tiger-striped ears and read the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, first American woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. to first graders; a charming confection about a child “zooming” with his mother in her wheelchair to Montessori preschoolers; and a story of Ella Fitzgerald’s youth that taught me a thing or two and kept the 4th and 5th grade band members on the stage in rapt attention despite the lunchtime din coming through the curtains behind them.  My fuzzy headband was meant to model good listening, but the kids didn’t need reminding.

I came home and put my listening ears on again, sans fur. I heard the deafening yawn of my own disinterest and knew, in my bones, it was time to acknowledge that my energy and focus are elsewhere. That this blog, in this form, was right for that time. That I’ve said what I found I needed to say, for now, here.

That it’s time to listen, deeply, to the voice that calls me in a new direction.

I invite you to join me on that journey. Much of it won’t seem very different from a lot of what you’ve seen here: in Choose to be Curious I share episodes of my radio program and plan for periodic and more in-depth writing on curiosity.  There are a few old Listening to the Universe nuggets you might recognize there already: the talk that got me started; reflections on the magical mix of curiosity and walking [this one too]; the roots of what I hope will be a robust body of work on leading with curiosity, and various interviews. It’s been fun to revisit them of late.

I began with this….

Then today, two days after my birthday, I find myself on a liquid diet, preparing for tomorrow’s colonoscopy. It’s a routine procedure and, other than a previous cancer diagnosis, I have no particular reason to be worried about it. But it is still a reminder that there are no guarantees. That life is short. So you should just do things and stop worrying about whether it’s good enough already.

Today I am reminded that my best decisions in recent months have all been about things that pushed me outside my comfort zone. That the universe offers up opportunities complete with encouraging messages more often than we realize — if we will only listen.

So here I am, taking a deep breath amid all my unvarnished work-in-progress dust, and plunging forward before I can second guess myself again. Spinning this out there among all the other stardust. Trying to listen when the universe talks. Trying to learn as I go.

The learning? I’ve certainly deepened my appreciation for the discipline of writing. I have a new reverence for the awesome accountability of wholly self-imposed deadlines and the power of operating outside my comfort zone.  I have a newfound and profound admiration for the the many, unexpected and unsettling places teachers lurk and of the innumerable lessons yet to come. It feels like two years well spent.

Please consider signing on to receive the Choose to be Curious blog posts, as you have received these. It’s been wonderful knowing you are out there, along on this journey in some form or another. Thank you for being a listening ear as I’ve tried to listen to the universe — and to myself. I am delighted to have found wisdom in both.

I hope you’ll join me next time. Until then — choose to be curious!


Back Story

Democracy, in three acts

Thirty-two years ago, when D. was graduating from law school and applying to work in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, the FBI came knocking. As a prospective federal employee, he was subject to a security review and clearance. The FBI wanted to know all sorts of things about him: workout routines, alcohol use, ways of handling stress. I thought it was pretty funny when the agent asked me if I would describe my relationship with the man I lived with as “personal or professional”.

They also wanted to know if he was “patriotic”.

I paused a moment, letting the question sink in. “I think anyone who wants to devote his time and talent to protecting the civil rights of Americans is patriotic… Don’t you?”

~ ~ ~

At some point in the war with Iraq, drivers in our area protested U.S. actions by slowing traffic, bringing the teeming roads of the entire metropolitan area to a stand-still. School children sat on buses for a long time that morning. It was a mess.

A colleague, in from out of town and supportive of the administration, was beside herself. “In a time of war, people should support the president,” she fumed. “It’s your duty as Americans!”

“Then what is it people should be fighting for, if it isn’t the right to select or maybe object to our own leadership?” I wanted to know. “Isn’t this the very stuff of democracy?”

“Maybe,” she allowed, “But I don’t like it….”

~ ~ ~

Last night I sat in a room of more than 70 people, peacefully assembled, to consider our rights and duties in the face of regime and trajectory we find deeply troubling.

I listened as people explored their hopes and fears and considered our collective options. My deepest, gut-gnawing fear is that we will discover just how fragile democracy is. That something will break that simply can’t be restored. I vacillate between visions of that awful prospect and a persistent, determined belief in the resilience of that same potentially imperiled system. dont-stop

What I heard gave me hope.What I heard was a deep respect for and faith in America’s fundamental structures and institutions. For the Constitution. For the judiciary. For citizen engagement and voter empowerment. For the future.

I thought: this is what democracy looks like.

Back Story, Life Lessons

Know Thy Roots

lucy-and-sisters-1896-croppedNo one who knows me will be the least surprised by my 23andMe profile: 99% Northwestern European, specifically 55.3% British & Irish, 16.4% French & German. With the wonder that is, I’ve traced at least one branch of the family tree back to the mid 1500s. I know my roots.

The last two months have been devoted to learning about my mother-in-law’s. She barely knew her biological father. She had an unsettling combination of vivid memories and “fake news” from a maternal uncle. She knew, at least, of his Russian background; absolutely nothing of what became of him after her parents divorced. She went on with her life, but the wound was deep and weepy. A hole. No roots.

Earlier this fall, J. did some research to see what she could find. She picked up threads: parents, a ship’s manifest, a US census report, enlistment papers, a grave marker, a mysterious new name. He was a New York Jew, how did he end up in Kentucky? Did he – is this even the right guy?

In October, we took what little we had to my mother-in-law. She was thrilled.  Beyond thrilled. In the desert, we celebrate scant drops. She remembered the uniform, uncle’s names, had a vague memory of visiting what must have been grandparents.

And that was enough. Working two different computers, D. and I were off. For three days we did virtually nothing else. We found some half-baked family trees on other genealogy sites, stalked social media, and Googled endlessly. S. sat beside us, baffled by our wizardry, breathless. By the end of Day One, she was on the phone with a long-lost cousin. By Day Three, she was talking with the widow of a new-found half-brother.

Her father went to war and came back with a different name. He remarried, had a son, was active in the local church. He and his son both smoked and died too soon. But there are pictures, and stories, and people who knew them who seem delighted to have been found. The reception has been enthusiastic. I can’t imagine what we’d have done had it not been…

S. cries easily about all of this. Painful, joyful tears well-up in her hazel eyes and rush down her face in soothing torrents. She looks deeply into the grainy photographs, hoping to see something of her father’s soul in his eyes. She aches to touch his arm. The promise of a possible extant recorded message home from the war is an exquisite agony.

Today I’m working on putting all these new-found photos into a picture book, the first family album she’s ever had. I want to include not just the pictures, but the other detritus accumulated in one file cabinet or another over the years. Thank goodness for bureaucracies and the nameless, faceless, most marvelous folk who scan all those files and take pictures of graves.

And I want to include maps. Those “Russian” roots are actually in Warsaw – national identity, morphed along geopolitical lines. The family spoke Russian, but mostly they spoke Yiddish. D.’s own 96% Ashkenazi Jewish profile tells the real story.

S. knew all that. It was the particulars that were missing.

No more.

I’m not sure we can top this for her next birthday…

Back Story, Choose to be Curious, Life Lessons

Anniversary Celebration

Today I celebrate a first anniversary and, perhaps more accurately, a birthday. October 30, 2015 was the day I gave my LEAD Talk on curiosity — and the first time I ever heard of Arlington’s community radio station.

Much of what now constitutes my typical day wasn’t even on my radar a year ago. ‘Round about this time, this day, last year, I would have finished my usual morning walk (having committed to those thousand miles, you know) and headed for the shower. Later that morning I would catch up on email, read the paper and go through a rehearsal or two to take the edge off my nerves. The day was unseasonably warm and my walk to the Central Library was sun-drenched. I arrived sweaty.

I left exhilarated. The talk was a roaring success – fun for me, well-received by the crowd, a genuinely new idea worth further consideration. My pockets bulged with business cards pressed into my hands by people eager to hear more. My calendar included a community media information meeting in the following week. I felt energized and alive in ways I couldn’t quite describe. Something was shifting…

In ULab’s live session this week we focused on crossing the “bottom of the U” and moving to prototypes. This stage of the process is all about embracing “the future that is trying to emerge.” About taking concrete steps to unfold an as-yet-unknown-but-compelling next. About trying, testing and assessing. About listening to the universe.

So, I feel pretty confident the universe has spoken.

One guest wrote to me after our interview that he though I had found my calling. A cousin described my picture in the WETA segment as radiant. Another guest, early on, said simply: “Look at you: you gotta!”

True enough: I gotta. I wake each day with conceptual threads weaving in my head. I keep long lists of conversations I still want to have. My email is a mess of leads and shows in various stages of incubation. My shelves are a tumble of related reading. My Christmas list? Probably Pro Tools apps and some decent headphones.candle

What a difference a year makes. What a difference a leap makes. What a difference.

Happy Birthday to my future me!

Back Story, Life Lessons

Pregame Show

 A Story in Several Parts, Part Isee-saw-3

Even before I hit the airwaves, which is not the same thing as hitting eardrums, I had a list. I had a list of conversations I wanted to have, whether or not there was an audience to hear them. I had a list of conversations about life experiences that I thought would benefit from curiosity, and racism was on that list.

My hypothesis was this: most of the -isms and -phobias of our lives (racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia…) are due in no small part to lack of curiosity, to a corrosive inclination to judge, to think we already know, to go first and fiercely to resistance and fear. To a cavernous, echoing absence of empathy and attention. To a profound failure to listen.

Systemic, implicit racial bias wasn’t necessarily where I wanted to start in building my radio show, but I knew I had to get there. I just wasn’t sure how — or with whom.

Part II

For more than a decade, volunteers have been hosting an extended community conversation here called “Challenging Racism.” It’s a big commitment of both time and energy, and I never quite felt my calendar and I were up to it. But my new normal neither affords the same kind of hiding places nor excuses not walking my talk, so this year I applied to participate.

Then it dawned on me: this is my conversation!  I sent what I hoped was an inviting note to an unknown entity in the dark of cyberspace, asking for the opportunity to explore this topic for a possible episode. (Candidly, I was also hoping the ask would tip the scales in my favor for selection this year. There’s a waiting list, which I find reassuring, in a good-for-the-future-of-the-species kind of way.)

It took about a nano-second for a reply to arrive: Of course! Yes, by all means! When? Where? How about two of us come?

And that’s how I came to be sitting at a wobbly high top with the self-described “way older white woman” who started the initiative and a “way younger” black woman who walked into a class one Back-to-School night two years ago and seems never to have looked back. They taught me things about white privilege and micro-aggression, I outlined my Unified Theory of Curiosity. We agreed there was much to discuss.

Parts III & IV

So here’s the plan: it won’t be just one episode, but two. One before the course even starts, by way of context; one after, for reflection.

The course begins in 10 days, so we’re hustling to record the first show while I’m still a programmatic virgin. Inevitably, I’m digging back through files to find whatever research or writing I might have on the topic. More importantly, I’m sitting with my own assumptions, surfacing the questions I need and want to ask. Today’s email brought this, reminding me that the universe puts things in our paths that we see when we’re ready.

And then we’ll reconvene in the spring, after the course is all over, and see what there is to see. I’m expecting…I don’t know what. Insights, undoubtedly. Humility, I hope.

Stay tuned.