What's Going On In There?


One time I went on a date with a guy I liked a good bit. Then he said he didn't like NPR's weekend programming, and it was all downhill from there.

I'm kidding just a little bit but mostly not.

I mostly listen to NPR programs in podcast form now, in the car or while I'm doing chores or eating a meal, but there is joy in randomly turning on the radio and tuning in to whatever interview or story is playing. There were times in my life when I knew exactly what time it was based on what NPR segment was on. Which is to say, it's played a pretty big role in my life.

This last weekend's episode of This American Life came so close to perfection that I had to share it with you. No tears were shed in the listening to this podcast, but they very well could have been.

The theme of this show is this idea of what people think is going on in a situation they're looking in on versus what's actually going on, and how different those perspectives can be, but language is the common thread between these stories for me, the thing that made them so poignant. This was an episode that made me want to stop what I was doing and just listen. I rewound multiple times, when my brain lost focus for a moment, or when I was interrupted. I wanted to hear absolutely everything.

Act One is one of my favorite pieces of journalism in recent history. A teenage girl reports on what it's like to be inside an abusive relationship with an older man and she does an absolutely phenomenal job. She has a poised radio voice, and yet sounds so young, so herself. She is honest and vulnerable and real. Her goal in reporting this story, we learn, is to help herself understand why she has had such a hard time shaking this relationship, why she is putting herself through this. She is hoping that telling the story, reporting on it, seeking the perspectives of the people in her life, will help her understand it, and maybe once she understands it she'll be able to overcome it. This is what language, what story, is to me. It's a way of processing. It's a way of examining life, of finding significance and understanding there. So I connect with her there, and while my own high school experience was nothing like hers, it feels terribly familiar, and is heartbreaking, and I found myself rooting for her from the beginning.

Act Two is the story of a language boundary between father and son. So many of us feel like we can't communicate with our parents, that they don't understand us, and this is actually the case in this story. I know people who cannot speak to their grandparents because of language differences, and this disconnect between parent and child seemed frustrating and isolating and lonely. Language is connection. Language is understanding. Language is love. Language is empathy. Language is relationships. Without language, father and son were strangers in the same home, and with it, hundreds of miles away from one another, communicating over the telephone with the help of a translator, they find so much love and interest and warmth. There is always time to connect, to re-think a relationship. There is always the ability to find help in finding the words.

Sometimes I feel like my skills as a writer, that my love of language, is unimportant. Sometimes I wonder if I have wasted my time pursuing this passion. And then I listen to stories like these, and I remember. I remember that language and story are so essential to life, to the human experience. I remember that sharing our lives and our struggles with each other can help others with their own. And I remember that this life is hard and we are all entitled to those things that bring joy and fire and enthusiasm into it. That perhaps that is the most important thing of all.

Yours Truly, Jen

P.S. What's inspiring you lately?

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