Our stories connect us

After taking a couple of months (the really cold, really snowy ones) off, I’m back on the road again, doing readings, discussions and signing events at Iowa libraries. Three weeks ago, Maquoketa; last week, Bettendorf, this week, Clermont and Elgin.

The more people I talk to, the more I discover how common the experiences of growing up in rural Iowa are. And the most common experiences are the ones I least expected. Chickens, for instance. The smell of wet chicken feathers. The sight of a chicken with its head cut off. The fear of being attacked by a territorial rooster. The sudden, sharp, startling peck of a setting hen defending her nest. Who would have imagined that traumatic chicken experiences would connect so many people?

Whether people are 90 or 60 or 40 or 20, someone starts to tell stories of growing up in Iowa and all of a sudden memories come flooding back. Doing laundry. Milking cows. Weeding the garden. Driving tractor. One story leads to another and all of a sudden people who didn’t know each other at all are reminiscing as though they’d grown up in the same house. Sharing stories – connecting with – people about growing up in rural Iowa is one of the great, unexpected pleasures of my life these days.

Just right

Along with many millions of other residents of Planet Earth, I was glued to my TV yesterday watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama.  As a public relations counselor for more than 30 years, I listened to his inauguration speech with one ear tuned to my own reaction and the other ear gauging how the speech would be received by the media and the public.

As President Obama spoke, I listened to the structure, the cadence, the content, the meaning, the message.  I listened for the memorable sound bite.  President Obama is certainly capable of soaring rhetoric, he could stand toe to toe with Martin Luther King, Jr., but in this speech, he did not deliver the one phrase that stands above all else nor did he whip the crowd to a frenzied peak. Was this a mistake?  I believe not.
 
Our new President spoke to the world on the topics and in a manner that were most appropriate to the occasion.
  • He spoke to who he is: “I stand here today, humbled by the task … grateful for the trust … mindful of the sacrifices” 
  • He spoke to a new outlook: “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord”
  • He spoke to our pride: “there are some who question the scale of our ambitions … but their memories are short. For they have forgotten … what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage’
  • He spoke to the world of a new America: ‘we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals’
  • He spoke to our strength: “I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. … But know this, America – they will be met.’
As I watched the faces in the crowd, I saw that people were drawing from the speech, the day, the experience, just what they needed. Each person would hear the phrase that spoke to him or her. President Obama didn’t deliver one phrase for everyone, he delivered one phrase to each listener’s heart.
 
He was presidential. He was a statesman. He was true to who he is – an intelligent, thoughtful, wise man. A leader.