Seeing the Person
More than facts
“How do you tell someone a story that they already know?”
That was the question Ta-Nehisi Coates asked in response to Trevor Noah’s question on last night’s episode of The Daily Show.
As usual, I’d planned to write on something else but that phrase caught my ear this morning as I stood in the kitchen catching up on podcasts and eating a slice of the spelt carrot bread I made this weekend.
Coates had been invited by Radhika Jones to co-edit the September issue of Vanity Fair on Breonna Taylor.
The entire quote is, “How do you tell someone a story that they already know - in a different way?”
Coates says that one of his favorite parts of the story was when Taylor’s mother described how she (the mother) ended up in a motorcycle club and then taught her daughter to ride motorcycles.
For Coates, “It is important to see that there was an actual life that was taken.”
You need to see the actual person.
Kurt Vonnegut gives this same advice to writers in general.
He tells us not to describe a building or a scene without putting a person in it. We are naturally interested in other people. In individuals.
What we’ve seen with the pandemic is that when there are too many people, the individuals disappear. Instead of 170000 deaths being a hundred thousand times worse that a couple of kids killed in a car wreck, it is less real to us. In some way and we don’t feel the magnitude of the unnecessary lost.
The folk artist Steve Goodman looked at the nearly fifty-thousand deaths in the Viet Nam war and he told the story of one of them in The Ballad of Penny Evans. The story tells of her courtship with her husband as they used to play “Heart and Soul” on the piano. She’d play the left hand part and he’d play the right. They married, had a child, and then he was shipped out to war.
The song is a close up look at the life of this one woman.
And then in a single line, Goodman pans back to show the whole:
“But tonight there’s fifty thousand gone in that unhappy land
And fifty thousand ‘Heart and Soul’s’ being played with just one hand”
Seeing the person
Four years ago today Maggie and I stood in a funeral home next to Kim’s casket for hours greeting friends and family.
A week before that we’d been home eating dinner, talking about the future. Kim and I were making plans for after we took Maggie back to college.
The next day a semi driver on his phone wandered out of his lane and ran Kim over.
We sat at her bedside for days and welcomed family and friends who came to say goodbye.
Kim’s aunt Mary Kay did that thing that Goodman, Coates, and Vonnegut talk about.
She brought in an iPad and displayed a picture of Kim full of smiles next to Maggie at a baseball game a week before and set it up at the table at the foot of Kim’s bed.
She wanted the nurses to see that they weren’t just treating an anonymous brain injury in bed two but that they were providing care to this real life breathing person.
Telling the story
I didn’t recover for a long time after Kim was killed. In many ways I still haven’t.
The following January I went to a conference in Paris and brought Maggie. The people there had met Kim the previous two years and were so kind. It was a technical conference and it felt healing to be able to focus on it.
It was tough because Kim loved Paris. When I visit Paris I still stop at the museums and restaurants she loved.
A friend invited me to keynote a conference in Amsterdam. It was supposed to be inspirational.
I gave a talk about time and getting the most out of your the time we have. If Kim showed me anything, it was that.
I decided to end the talk with Kim’s death as a way of really emphasizing that you need to be doing the things that are important to you because you really never know when it will come to an end.
I used the lessons of Mary Kay, Vonnegut, Goodman, and (though I hadn’t heard it yet) Coates.
If you were to feel her loss, you had to feel her life.
You had to know what she meant to me and to others.
You had to fall in love with her and laugh with her if you were to feel anything when this character you didn’t know ceased to be.
When we talk about troops lost, we loose sight that these are people lost. The word “troop” masks the “person” in that uniform. That each one is a person lost.
The Viet Nam memorial is a moving and overwhelming wall of names. It seems to fly in the face of what I’m saying. But you are overwhelmed with the individuals represented by just their names. It’s that you can’t see each person that chokes you up.
If we listed the US COVID deaths on a wall it would already have more than three times as many names.
If I list the people in my immediate family I’ve lost there are just three.
But what could be more real to me than my dad, my wife, and my youngest daughter.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 22. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe