Things that Happen Every Day

Yesterday morning while driving from Santa Fe to the airport in Albuquerque I happened to catch a local public radio program on KANW in which New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof was the guest.  He was talking about his book Half the Sky, written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn.  It is about empowering women in cultures of oppression and peril, from teenage sex slave markets in Cambodia, to poverty-stricken areas in Cameroon with no modern birthing techniques, to the Congo which Kristof said is “the world capital of rape,” to dominant paternal cultures in China and the Middle East.  Improving the lives of women, said Kristof, modernizes a culture faster in general because women are more likely to use resources to educate their children.

Somewhere in the middle of this intriguing conversation Kristof offered a line that almost made me stop the car to jot it down (in New Mexico it is illegal to use hand held instruments while driving).  He said something close to this: “Journalism covers well things that happen one day, but journalism doesn’t cover well things that happen every day.”

I’d never heard sensationalism described quite that way.  It relates to the James Baldwin quote I used in the prologue of the Jazz Loft Project book:  “History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.”

Who writes this kind of every day history?  Novelists, poets, playwrights, comedians, documentarians, Old Testament prophets, and good anthropologists.  Also, blues musicians (widely defined) and some opera and classical composers.

Rainer Maria Rilke was pondering this kind of history in 1910 when in The Notebooks of Malte Laurid’s Brigge he wrote:

I sit here in my little room. I, Brigge, who am twenty-eight years old and completely unknown. I sit here and am nothing. And yet this nothing begins to think and thinks, five flights up, on a gray Paris afternoon, these thoughts:

Is it possible, it thinks, that we have not seen, known, or said anything real and important? Is it possible that we have had thousands of years to look, meditate, and record, and that we have let these thousands of years slip away like a recess at school, when there is just enough time to eat your sandwich and an apple?

Yes, it is possible.

(Translation by Stephen Mitchell).

Underground jazz and NYC lofts and bipolar photographers and the other things I’ve been researching for thirteen years seem frivolous compared to Kristof’s work.  The world capital of rape?  Why is that not one of our top international concerns?  It made me ponder again a recent idea to start a new literary-documentary journal along the lines of Virginia Quarterly Review and A Public Space in order to encourage and support new work about every day life domestically and around the world.

Toward the end of the half hour show the host twice pressed Kristof to offer tangible advice for any listeners who might be inspired to get involved with international women’s issues.  He said you start by doing research, driven by your passions.  You begin with a single issue or a single region that means something to you.  Maybe you know someone who was raped, or someone who died during labor, or maybe your kid goes to school with someone from a Pakistani immigrant family so you focus on that country.  The spark can be anything.  Then you go extremely deep in that particular direction.  You research the people and organizations doing work in those places and on those topics.  You contact them.  You persist.  You can’t be deterred by inevitable feelings that things are hopeless.  And you can’t be deterred by possible feelings of guilt (sometimes saints help themselves as much as others).  You must also care enough to be willing to volunteer, to receive very few rewards or affirmations.  Along the way you’ll meet like-minded souls and that’s a reward in itself.

I may have put a few words in Kristof’s mouth (especially the part about saints).  That’s what my ears heard.  He was talking about international women’s issues but what he said pertains to anything, any pursuit.  It’s a simple, inspiring message that needs to be stated more often.  I felt fortunate to be hearing it on I-25 in the New Mexico desert.  Kudos to Kristof for taking the time to do a local radio show in New Mexico.

When I made it to the airport I emailed my wife to tell her about Kristof’s line about journalism.  Then I surveyed the typical hapless airport joints for something to eat, deciding on La Hacienda Express.  I stood in line next to bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarist Vernon Reid who I’d seen perform the night before in Santa Fe.  I introduced myself and said I enjoyed their show.  It stunned me how young Reid looked close up.  I’ve been listening to him for twenty five years.  He’s 52 and could pass for 35.  But that seems to be the case with many of today’s musicians, whereas yesteryear’s musicians often burned themselves out.  Brooklyn born Gibbs quizzed me on living in Chapel Hill-Durham; I asked him about his new project with Vijay Iyer and a rapper.  Reid began complaining about the smoothie he’d just purchased.  I said, “Man, you musicians are always so picky.”  He said, “Picky?  This is horrible.  You try it.”

For the next ten hours I was either on a plane or in an airport.  I wrote up this blog entry and sat on it until now.

-Sam Stephenson

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