books, community, empathy, kindness, reading, strangers

Collective

It was a great week, and I will tell you why. This week, I saw not one, but two amazing speakers. I feel privileged to have seen Ta-Nahesi Coates and Michelle Obama in person, one in a more intimate theater and one a sporting arena. Very different settings, and no one screamed/gave Coates a standing ovation, but both nights were exciting!

These events were particularly significant to me because I don’t do a ton of audience type of activities. In the interest of saving money, I don’t go to a ton of movies, or concerts, or theatre. Crowds are often annoying, because people, so often my money-saving measures are doubly successful in keeping me at home or out with a small/curated group of people I like to be around.

But this week, I saw a lot of different people. At the university event, Coates was in conversation with a professor from the African-American Studies program, and it was the most intellectual conversation I have heard since college! It was great to listen to the two of them, both researchers and writers with a broad knowledge of history as well as each a specific expertise. They discussed the concept of progress, in terms of race relations and current events like police brutality and the NFL protests. Coates’ response about the NFL was perfect. Discussing how some fans dug in their heels and continued to wear Ray Rice’s jersey after the video of him beating his fiancee, he said “if people think Colin kneeling during the national anthem is grounds for removal from the league more than a man who beats his intimate partner, we have to ask whether they should be the arbiters of patriotism.” At one point they talked about their favorite books, and their nods of recognition at the other’s suggestions as well as the knowing “yes!”es and general geeking out made me so happy. I love when people talk about books, and apparently it doesn’t even matter if I am part of the conversation!

The crowd, though… It was a struggle to remain nonjudgmental. Throughout, the people behind me commented back and forth to each other disruptively. The woman two seats down filed her nails. Someone opened a package of fruit snacks with the full CRINKLE CRINKLE obnoxiousness. A young man answered his cell phone. And then, the classic people leaving before the event concluded. Finding all these actions inconsiderate to the fellow audience members and disrespectful to the presentation, I got a little distracted and irritated. However, I could tell that my reaction wasn’t nearly as bad as it may have been six months ago. I chose instead to be mindful of the privilege I had to be there and didn’t let others’ behavior ruin my night when I could pretend I was back in college. Plus, I was there with a friend, and she was the perfect seat mate. Afterward, we discussed our favorite parts, as well as the energy in the room; we noticed the crowd’s way of expressing their reactions (clapping or snapping in agreement, laughter or callbacks) and that it added to the experience. We felt like part of a collective.

Seeing Michelle Obama as part of her book tour was a drastically different experience. The crowd’s energy was crazy. The arena is enormous and equipped with arena-quality speakers, and between the happy vibes and the layout, I couldn’t have been annoyed by neighbors’ behavior if I tried. No one would hear a fruit snack package opening here. Even the fact that I was in the last row (literally. The only thing behind me was a wall, only thing above were the highest boxes) didn’t bother me–the ticket was free, and I love Michelle. LOVE. I went alone, using someone else’s ticket who last minute couldn’t go, and there was a young scholar on one side of me and another woman on the other. Instead of gluing my eyes to my phone as one does sometimes in close proximity to strangers, I chose to chat with both of them. It was really nice. The young man told me about a paper he needed to write after the event (about humanness and artificial intelligence), and we discussed Michelle’s book Becoming and I brought up another book I’m reading, called UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. (Yes, I tell strangers about books. He started it!)

And her talk was amazing. She is such a classy, brilliant, warm human. Her book is phenomenal so far. She talked about her childhood, about marriage counseling, about going to college insecure and realizing she could hack it just as well, if not better than, anyone else there. She talked about the hope she has in the next generation of leaders and citizens. Hearing her speak was a reminder that the current news-burnout of controversy and corruption is not normal and not inevitable. Some of the talking points she discussed are the same as she relayed on Colbert, but being in the room with so many people who also adore her and who she inspires was special!

So, a great week was had by me. I got out of my usual routine, talked to strangers, and felt a sense of community, commonality, and gratitude for being able to go to listen to these awesome (literally, awe-inducing) people.

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