By Jennifer Moore-Kerr
When I first started thinking about this feature it was pre-pandemic time. I envisioned going to third places in the towns of the Voice of the River Valley readership area and randomly asking people if they would be interested in sharing their stories. I didn’t know who I would find, or what sort of reception I might receive, but I was excited to reach out to new people, people who maybe weren’t familiar with Voice, people who might not fit the demographic of many of the readers. While I was nervous to approach strangers with this somewhat odd request, I knew that people like stories, and most people like to share their stories when they feel that the listener cares.
Then the pandemic, isolation and social distancing happened. But I still believed that the idea of sharing stories was a way to build bridges in our fractured society. Thankfully, so did Sara, the editor of this fine publication. It even turns out that when the Voice was first published, founders Mary Friedel-Hunt and Bill Hunt had a similar idea and included an interview with local artists and business people in each issue so that readers could meet them and support them. In this new pandemic reality, I would have to approach finding stories differently. The fundamentals remained the same: Our stories, when shared, make us human and help us to connect with one another. All of us, no matter our political leanings, have a story. We have come from somewhere, we have a path that brought us to this place, we have joys, and we have sorrows. We have hopes and fears. And we want to be heard, respected and valued.
I knew that I didn’t want to share the stories of only well-known people in each community, which are often told anyway. Rather, I wanted everyday people to share their stories. I grew up listening to and reading Studs Terkel. He was my first exposure to the value of the stories from what he called the “non-celebrated.” As an adult I have cherished listening to Story Corps (www.storycorps.org), and now Love Wisconsin (www.lovewi.com). All of these seem to me to be efforts to build bridges by sharing our humanity. The challenge in this new reality has been to figure out how to find those people.
This month, instead of an interview in this space, I want to explore ways in which we can all reach out across the divide and find the stories in each other. I have hope that when we hear those stories we can then treat each other with more kindness and compassion. We don’t have to focus on changing anyone’s mind, or proving that our perspective is the “best.” Instead I try to hear and value others for who they are and what their experiences might teach me. I invite you to join me.
The nature of my current job as a cashier at the Spring Green General Store gives me face time with many strangers every day (although the masks and Plexiglass challenge my hearing some of the time). I don’t know them, their politics, what they are passionate about, or how they live their lives. In fact, I don’t know anything about them. And generally they wouldn’t want to share their story with me if I simply asked them for it. However, if I notice a T-shirt, or a hat, which might have a story behind it, I can ask a connecting question.
Recently a customer at the store wearing a Hawkeyes shirt elicited a question from me about the Derecho that had done such extreme damage through Iowa in early August. The ensuing story of destruction, fear and loss was heartbreaking, but it was also an opportunity for me to care about someone whom I didn’t know but who had experienced a terrible storm and its aftermath, and whose story gave me insight to their life. These kinds of interactions happen on a daily basis. And all they take is opening the door and taking the time to listen. I encourage you to look for those doors, reach out and listen. It will enrich your life, and it will be a gift to that person. And, hopefully, it can help to build bridges between people who otherwise might not see the world the same way.
A different day a man with a baseball cap that read “Reykjavik, Iceland” was checking out with his wife. After I inquired if they were from Iceland he and his wife joyfully shared the story of the college graduation trip they had given to their son when he recently graduated with a geology degree from Madison. The enthusiasm they shared about that trip could have been a tourism advertisement, but it also was a vision of the love and pride they felt for their son, as well as an example of a beautiful gift of experience shared. They spoke of the scholarships he had earned, allowing them to afford this trip. They shared the awe they felt in the distant world of Iceland where they experienced the geology that inspired their son. And their story inspired me to suggest a chosen trip to my son who will graduate from college next year. I am not sure where a math major goes to experience their major — but it will be an opportunity to take the story from these strangers and add its value to our lives.
I encourage you to seek out the stories of those around you, and let them enrich your life. Happy listening.
If you are a reader who would like to share your story, or you have a neighbor whose story you would like to hear, email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you encounter someone with a story you think might be of interest to Voice readers, please ask them if they would be interested in being interviewed for Voice and ask if I can contact them. I will be happy to interview in any safe forum: outdoors and socially distant, over the phone, by Zoom, or indoors with masks. I look forward to continuing to share the stories of the “non-celebrated” in this area.