ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Thanksgiving this year is a challenge for all kinds of reasons. Eight months into a pandemic that has killed more than a quarter of a million people in this country with a recession and a divisive presidential election, finding things to be thankful for can be a struggle. And if all these challenges make us want to be with our loved ones more than ever, well, that might not be possible this year, either. So to talk with us about how we can come together despite these challenges, Dave Isay is here. He is a familiar voice - the creator of StoryCorps.
And it's good to have you with us to celebrate Thanksgiving.
DAVE ISAY: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So many people are not going to be able to meet face to face with their loved ones as they are accustomed to doing this time of year. What advice do you have on connecting even if we can't physically be in the same room sharing a meal?
ISAY: You know, one thing you can do that is a way to, you know, stay connected in a meaningful way but be socially distanced is record an interview. So contact a loved one. See if they're willing to do it. And ask him or her about his life, her life, and honor them in that way.
SHAPIRO: Are there a couple starter questions for people who might be less comfortable doing interviews than you or I that you think might be helpful prompts?
ISAY: Yeah. You know, as you know, the microphone gives you the license to ask questions you don't normally get to ask. So, first of all, you can - the beauty of doing an interview is that you can ask those questions you've always wanted to ask. You know, who's been kindest to you in your life? How do you want to be remembered? What was the happiest moment of your life? Those kind of questions work really, really well. So this is an example of a microphone giving you the license to have conversations you might not ordinarily have. This is a student who was assigned an interview, a StoryCorps interview, over Thanksgiving. And he interviewed his grandfather, who had recently been diagnosed with ALS.
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CADEN: You seem to maintain pretty good spirits. How do you do this?
JAMIE SHOKIER: Well, thank you. I think that my spirits are a reflection of my attitude towards life and living and dying, and that is that dying is as natural a part of life as being born and all the living we do during our lives. Yes, it's going to happen sooner than I wanted. And, yes, I wouldn't have chosen this disease if I had an option. That option was not given to me. And therefore, my life includes ALS, and my life includes dying from ALS.
ISAY: That was Jamie Shokier (ph) interviewed by his grandson Caden (ph) and, you know, is a reminder of the importance of seizing the moment. Jamie died about a month after this interview was recorded. It was his 63rd birthday.
SHAPIRO: Oh, my goodness. Thanksgiving can obviously be a time to connect with love, but Thanksgiving can also be a difficult time, especially in politically divisive moments like this one. Do you have any suggestions or advice for connecting across a divide?
ISAY: Yes. So I will say, you know, shouting spreads the virus, so steer clear of that.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's great advice.
ISAY: People can't be name-called or yelled at into changing their minds. It just hardens people's opinions and makes people double down on their beliefs. So, you know, I would suggest not to go there. At StoryCorps, we've been working on an initiative which we just finally, after years and years of testing, launched nationally called One Small Step, which is very different for StoryCorps.
StoryCorps - we've had 650,000 people who know and love each other across America, you know, come and record interviews with grandparents or whoever it is you want to honor by listening to them. And we've been experimenting with putting strangers across the political divides together not to talk about politics, just to talk about who they are as human beings, to kind of deal with the culture of contempt that has spread through the country and, you know, to try and convince the country - we hope that it's our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people with whom we disagree.
I have an early test One Small Step interview of family members talking across the divide. This is Sheridan Love (ph), who wanted to interview her father-in-law Jim White (ph), who lives in a small town in North Carolina called Thomasville. She's African American and a Democrat, and her father-in-law is white and a Republican.
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SHERIDAN LOVE: When you think about the future, what are you most scared of, and what are you most hopeful for?
JIM WHITE: I think what I'm most scared of are my grand-young'uns (ph) and what they may have to deal with in the future - nuclear war, our resources being depleted.
LOVE: What I'm most afraid of is that we'll keep getting divided. But all wrapped in that, I'm hopeful because you and I come from, you know, maybe different backgrounds and maybe different political views and maybe different religious views. But none of that has ever stopped us from being a family.
SHAPIRO: And so as we enter this period of kind of - I don't know - reflection and gratitude, is there one conversation you've heard since this pandemic started that sticks in your mind that you'd like to share with us?
ISAY: One story that sticks out for me is a guy named Ken Felts, who was interviewed over StoryCorps Connect by his daughter and, again, speaks to the urgency of telling your story at this high-stakes moment. It's a father who came out to his daughter. He is 90 years old. He had never come out to her before. So once the pandemic hit, he felt like he had to tell her. Let's listen to just a little clip of that tape.
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KEN FELTS: On March 13, we all went into quarantine and, being alone, drug up all these memories from the past.
REBECCA MAYES: One night, you told me that you were sad because you had lost the love of your life.
FELTS: And that's when I came out to you.
MAYES: What do you remember about him?
FELTS: When I met Philip (ph), to me, he was the perfect person. Of course, I guess that's what everybody thinks of their first love. We just kind of blended into each other. But one Sunday, we went to his church because he sang in the choir. I sat in the pews, and it occurred to me that I was sitting in a place that condemned our behavior. I had to make a decision, and I made the wrong decision.
MAYES: Would you entertain having a boyfriend?
FELTS: Oh, absolutely. Hopefully, they will consider my age as only a number and not a date for the undertaker.
ISAY: So that's Ken Felts and his daughter - 90-year-old Ken Felts. And, you know, one of the things we've found is that doing these remote interviews, even though you're not face to face, is really just as powerful as doing the standard face-to-face interviews, which has been a surprise but, you know, one of those kind of delightful, wonderful surprises, a little kind of glimmer of light and hope cutting through the darkness of these days we've been living through.
SHAPIRO: Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, it's great to talk to you again. Thanks for taking the time.
ISAY: Thanks, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "THE KIDS DON'T STAND A CHANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.