Friday, February 26, 2010

228 Miles

Tonight I drove 228 miles, from Lawrence, MA to New York City, through a monsoon for the first 194 miles, and after Greenwich, CT through a snow hurricane that still roars outside my apartment window at midnight.

It was the most treacherous driving I have done for a while; I witnessed the aftermath of at least six accidents.  On the Merritt Parkway, where on a normal night most ignore the 55-mph speed limit and cruise at 70-plus, every inch of the road surface glistened, the lane lines were invisible, and cars were sliding and hydroplaning even at 40 mph.  It was tense, let’s just say, for four and a half hours.

I was in Lawrence this morning to give the Daniel Appleton White Fund Lecture, created in 1852 by Judge White, who was a contemporary of Hawthorne and Emerson.  Judge White, whose memoir I discovered through Google Books, was the first president of the Salem Lyceum, and an advocate of democratizing knowledge through public lectures and discussions.

In the memoir, I noticed how open-minded he was, and truly, far-sighted: he believed deeply in his Protestant faith, yet castigated fellow Protestants who instead of possessing a culture of openness and inquiry were of an “opposite spirit” who “judging, censuring, avoiding, and reviling one another” undermined the right of others to be more, or even less devout, than them.  He admired the Puritan immigrants and their search for religious freedom in the new world.  Of course, in the spirit of Judge White, I talked about how Latinos can develop their voice and become full-fledged participants with cultural and political power in our American experiment.

The trip was worth every treacherous mile.  Before the lecture, I conducted a workshop with ESL students at Northern Essex Community College.  The stories the students told me about their lives as Dominicanos in Massachusetts, or immigrants from China and Bangladesh, were hilarious and poignant.  We talked about how we have often been put down for having accents, or why even family members or neighbors might make fun of our dreams to educate ourselves.

We exchanged stories about how to find the right mentors, how to focus on yourself even when the world is hostile, and how to build that sense of self-esteem that keeps you focused on your goals.  I took apart their oral stories, and showed them how naturally they were already excellent storytellers who could make an entire room break down with laughter.  I pointed out the plot climax they so easily crafted and the true-to-life dialogue they inserted into their stories about encounters with police and immigration officials.  The lecture was a great experience, but talking to these students, from twenty- to sixty-years-old, was the highlight of my trip.  They have so much to say, and they do indeed have great teachers in Lawrence helping them say it.

I like an exchange with the audience as much as I like giving a speech to focus on complex points about culture, philosophy, or how I survived throughout the years.  I learn as much from my audience as I feel they learn from me.  These trips, like the trip to Lawrence, energize you and make you believe again that storytelling can make an essential difference in creating a better self, inspiring group self-reflection, and building a community out of individuals.