Guest: Meredith May
Moderator: Richard Whittaker
Host: Anne Veh
Anne Veh: Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. My name is Anne and I will be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call. Welcome, and thank you for joining us. The purpose of these calls is to share stories, and to tell stories, about how to plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner-transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life. Behind each of these calls is an entire team of Service Space volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today our special guest speaker is Meredith May, someone who really embodies today's theme of why mercy matters. I would like to invite Richard, our moderator, to share a few words on today's theme. Richard is an artist, a photographer, the founding editor of works & conversations, and the West Coast editor for Parabola magazine. We're so happy to have Richard here today in conversation.
Richard: Thanks Anne, and thank you, Meredith for being here today. It's a wonderful theme. Twenty-seven years ago I was just beginning to publish a magazine, an art magazine. I belonged, and still belong, to a group of people who gather in an effort to understand more about themselves. A woman from New York had appeared in this group and, for some reason, I had an immediate dislike of her. Sometimes we have these irrational reactions without any justification at all. But nevertheless, it happens, and this reaction persisted for several weeks.
On the weekends we'd meet at eight o'clock in the morning before starting the day. So one morning, after our initial meeting, I thought, “Since I have such a strong negative reaction to this person, I'm going to challenge myself. I'm going to go up to her and say hello in a friendly way and see what happens.”
So, I did. And utterly to my surprise, she looked at me said, "Oh, Richard Whitaker? Are you the person making that wonderful little magazine?" [laughter]. Very few people knew about that magazine. And this person happened to be a successful artist from New York. My little magazine was such a modest affair and I could not have been more shocked—not only by her friendliness, but that somehow she already knew about this little magazine.
I was taught something very powerful in that moment. And that person went on to become one of the most influential supporters of the magazine, and continues to be my friend today. Her name is Jane Rosen.
I’d have to say that I was not coming from compassion. I think compassion is a quality that arrives after a certain amount of evolution. But at least, I was able to override my negative reaction and try something more positive. So that's the story that came up for me.
Anne: Thank you. I'm excited to listen and to participate in the conversation this morning, so perhaps you can introduce Meredith, Richard.
Richard: The way I met Meredith came through an interview I did up at UC Davis with a couple of people who founded “The Art and Science Fusion Project” there. One is an entomologist, a person who studies insects. And she is—along with her students and so many people in the world—terribly concerned about the plight of pollinators in general, but especially honeybees who are suffering all kinds of catastrophes worldwide. So I was talking with Donna Billick and Diane Ullman, and in the course of our conversation one of them said, "We were visited yesterday by this reporter from The San Francisco Chronicle, Meredith May. She keeps bee-hives on the roof of the Chronicle building.”
That was all I needed to hear to know I was going to find this person. I wanted to go to the top of the Chronicle building and see those beehives. I wanted to meet this person. The idea that in the middle of an urban setting on top of a high building there would be beehives, especially if it was a newspaper building—I thought it was very poetic. So I contacted the Chronicle, and was able to get in touch with Meredith. She said, "Sure, I'd love to talk with you. Why don't you come over." And we did. And she did take me up to the roof and showed me the beehives. It was an absolute delight. We went back down into her office and had a conversation.
Now, I didn't know a lot of things about Meredith. So I think the write up that the Awakin team has done is a wonderful introduction. I hope all of you have read it. I'm not going to go through all that. I'll just say I was amazed and delighted to read that Meredith swims at the Dolphin Club at Aquatic Park, and that she’s an athlete, a rower. I know she teaches at Mills now. She's not working at The Chronicle anymore. So, I think I'm going to give myself permission this morning to stray beyond the bounds of our explicit theme.
Meredith, I think it would be great if we could start off by focusing on the book that's recently been published I, Who Did Not Die. Could you just tell us a little bit about how that whole thing came to be, and then maybe you can take us a little bit through the journey of that book. I think we can start with that and, if there's time, we can get into some other areas.
Meredith: Thank you, Richard. I'm so glad you called me and came to see my beehives. I remember that day really well. I think I had a teenager with me who is also interested in bees, and he sat through the interview.
Richard: Yes. I remember him.
Meredith: It was just so lovely. The three of us were total strangers, but we clicked. When was that interview?
Richard: It was four or five years ago, I think.
Meredith: Yeah. I still get people calling me because they read that interview. So, I'm excited to talk with you again.
Richard: I mean, this is incredible—this book, and the way it happened. Maybe you could tell us kind of—how did this happen?
Meredith: This happened in a very backward way. I was working at the San Francisco Chronicle as a feature writer. I worked there sixteen years. It was towards the end of my sixteen years, and I’d been tinkering on the side with a memoir about my childhood growing up in Big Sur in my grandfather's house. He was a big beekeeper in Big Sur. So it was kind of a beekeeping, childhood memoir, and I finally found an agent who was willing to represent me. That gave me the courage to step away from newspaper and try and get the book sold.
She sent the memoir out to about a dozen publishers and there were a few nibbles. Then one nibble was from a publisher, Regan Art, in New York. And when publishers are considering publishing you, you have to go through this “dating” period where they call you on the phone and they ask, "Oh, what are you about? What do you like? Where did you grow up?" It's kind of like match.com for writers and publishers.
So we had our dating call and everything went well. Then I didn't hear anything for six months. Then my agent called said, "They're interested in you writing something else, not your memoir."
I thought they wanted me to do a celebrity ghost writing assignment or something, and that's just not me. I don't do vanity projects. But they sent me a link to a short documentary that had been done in Canada about the two men who are the main characters in this book. The two men were soldiers on opposite sides of the Iran-Iraq war. The Iranian was a child of thirteen, when these two meet on the battlefield. The Iraqi is twenty-nine, and he's dying of injuries. The child soldier has orders to kill any enemies he finds.
Richard: Now didn’t the child soldier find the Iraqi in a cave—is that what it was?
Meredith: The child's name is Zahed. The Iranian child soldier discovered Najah, the Iraqi bleeding, dying of his injuries in an underground bunker.
Richard: Oh, yes. And his job was to shoot him then.
Meredith: Right. He was ordered to go into all the bunkers and shoot any wounded enemy soldiers who were still alive and he only found one still alive, which was Najah. And he didn't have the heart to do it. And so, he hid him.
Richard: That moment—there's this dying soldier, probably lying on the ground, and here's the child, thirteen years old, with the rifle pointed at him ready to kill him. And then, what happened right there?
Meredith: Well, they don't speak the same language—the Iraqi speaks Arabic and Zahed, the child, speaks Farsi. So the wounded Iraqi is pleading in Arabic. He was saying, "I'm a Muslim, I'm a Muslim. Please don't shoot me." But all this child could understand was the word “Muslim.”
The Iraqi reached into his pocket, for a pocket Quran, to try to show the kid, "Look, I'm just like you, I'm Islamic." And when he reached for the Quran, a Polaroid photo fell out of his fiancé and their infant son. And Zahed’s heart melted. He thought, “I can't kill this stranger because he has a beautiful wife and a baby, and he didn't do anything to me.” So that was a bit of the moment.
Richard: There was the moment, probably, when he's reaching into his pocket where—that's a little crisis, isn't it? He could have been reaching in to pull a pin on a grenade or something.
Meredith: Exactly. And that's what he thought. So the wounded Iraqi reaches into his pocket and the child soldier lunged and grabbed him thinking he was going to get a grenade or something. Often what the soldiers would do before they went into battle, on both sides, is they would sow grenades into the collars of their shirts or their the cuffs of their pants, so in case they got a situation where they knew they were going to be killed anyway, they'd at least take the enemy out with them.
Richard: Yeah. This is a desperate, live situation where every split second means something, right? It's an incredible moment.
Meredith: Yes. It really gets down to that. In a flash second, who are you? and what do you believe in? Forget family, country, religion, war, everything around you. Who are you? and What do I do?
Anyway, that was all in this fifteen-minute documentary. They recreated that scene, and they also had the men, who are now in their 40s and almost 60s, in the film.
I watched the film and started crying. It just touched me. It was so moving that I said, "Of course, I will write their story! I'm so lucky to be chosen to write this story!" So I immediately said yes. And that's the way I put down the memoir and I spent a year working on this other project.
So I proposed a book and they counter-offered with a different book—which is not how I hear one gets a book deal, but it was my first. And it’s a good one.
Richard: It's wonderful that some things don't come by the direct path—and if something is open, the indirect path may take us to some really interesting places.
Meredith: Yes. I've been thinking about that a lot, Richard. We think we know what we're doing. We think we're trying to set ourselves on a path and we make certain decisions—like this is going to get me to where I need to go. But you never realize some of the things you did, things you didn't think were important, end up being so much more significant.
I'll give an example. One of the reasons Regan Arts offered me to ghost write this story is because they looked at a story I’d written in 2005 for the Chronicle. It was about a little boy from Iraq who'd picked up an explosive during the Second Gulf War and was horribly injured. He was flown to Oakland Children's Hospital in California, and a photographer and I from the San Francisco Chronicle spent a year chronicling his recovery, and following his father and their adaptation to the Bay Area and their whole life. That ran as a series and won a lot of writing awards. It also won the Pulitzer prize for photography. So because of that they thought, “Oh, she might know a little bit about this culture. She might be able to fit in well with these gentlemen during the interview.” I had no idea it would lead to this.
Richard: That sounds like a remarkable story in itself. Could we take a moment here if you want to say anything further about it? You must have some pretty strong memories. I think it'd be fine if you want to share anything there. It sounds extraordinary.
Meredith: I would love to spend a few minutes talking about this story. It ran as a series over three days. The title of it was “Operation Lion Heart.” The reason we called it that is because the boy survived the emergency surgery in the middle of the desert. The U.S. Air Force surgeon gave the boy the nickname “Lion Heart.” The boy’s real name is Saleh Khalaf, and what happened is very dramatic. He was playing with his older brother; they were running around, and Saleh picked up a round object he thought was a ball. It exploded and he lost one hand; he lost three fingers on the other hand; he lost an eye. And the biggest problem was that he was holding it in front of a stomach, so the explosion tore his skin on his abdomen and his insides literally came out.
His mother and father got him in the back of a car and drove to the U.S. Air Force Base. The father was just screaming in Arabic at the gate. They thought he was a suicide bomber. They almost shot him, but luckily a doctor was summoned who spoke Arabic. He figured out what was going on, and he spoke to the American doctor, Jay Johannigman who took one look and thought, “That boy's not going to make it.” But he agreed to take him and give it a shot, mostly just to ease the father's mind that he had tried. So they took the boy and did surgery for twenty-four hours or something like that. And he survived. This was just an emergency clinic in the middle of desert. This wasn't a recovery center.
Richard: That’s an incredible story! It's also a story of an incredible act of mercy. My goodness…
Meredith: Yes. And it's a beautiful story. Jay Johannigman got on the phone and called everybody he knew in the medical community in the U.S., trying to get free care. And Dr. Betts at the Children's Hospital in Oakland said yes. Dr. Betts is locally famous because during the Loma Prieta earthquake, we had a double-decker freeway in Oakland that pancaked. Dr Betts climbed up on it and rescued a young boy, but he had to cut his leg off to get him out. Dr. Betts has a heart of gold. Richard: I'm just amazed at how this conversation is going. Another incredible act of mercy that Dr Betts did has just turned up. I never would have guessed that we would also be talking about that right now, but that's amazing.
Meredith: You remember that story?
Richard: Oh yes! I remember seeing the pictures of the freeway collapsing and thinking., “Oh my god! How many people are crushed under that concrete? It was horrible.
Meredith: And you know in those moments of desperation, these heroes pop out. Sometimes they're professional doctors and sometimes they're thirteen year old kids in a bunker in Khorramshahr, Iran. I'm attracted to people who are braver than me. I think I like to write about them because I like to study them and try to figure out how can I be that way.
Richard: That's a beautiful thought, and I would have to say I would identify with it too. Certainly the part about not being that brave myself (laughter). But how important it is to have exemplars of this kind of—I would say—a higher level of humanity. Maybe that would be a way of putting it.
Meredith: Yes. If you believe in reincarnation, maybe these are the people who come back lots more times than us in better versions of themselves, over and over.
Richard: Well, coming back to the story of Zahed and Najah—there’s another aspect that’s as remarkable as the encounter in the bunker, and that’s their meeting in Canada, practically on the other side of the world. Would you say something about how that played for you, discovering that part of it?
Meredith: Sure. First, on the battlefield, these two main characters were only together for three days. The wounded soldier, with Zahed's help, got to a medical tent and was given aid. Then he was taken straight to prison. He spent seventeen years in five different prisons, all various forms of Hell—and he survived.
It was a very long war, from '82 to '88. Both Iran and Iraq kept prisoners of war for up to twenty years after the end of the war. They used them as bargaining chips to try to get the other country to apologize and give reparations. When the war ended there was absolutely no change in boundary, no change in anything they were fighting over. So they agreed to a cease-fire, but they kept fighting using these poor prisoners of war.
Zahed, the child soldier, continued fighting. He would eventually be captured literally hours before the cease-fire, and he was a prisoner of war for two years.
The Iraqi, Najah, had a couple of relatives living in Canada and, with help from his family, he made his way to Canada.
Zahed was working on a merchant ship and was having a lot of difficulty adjusting back to life. He had terrible P.T.S.D. and was a very angry individual. He got into a fight with the captain on the ship, and they threatened that he would be jailed once the ship returned to Iran. It was docked in Vancouver, Canada. He could not face the idea of being imprisoned again and he literally jumped overboard. Then, within probably a few months of swimming to shore, the two men sat down next to each other in the lobby of a health center for torture survivors in Canada.
Richard: As I hear that story—and without knowing anything more than what you just said—I'd say “hats off” to Canada for accepting this desperate man who jumped off the ship and swam to shore with probably no papers or anything.
Meredith: Exactly. I mean, he was sleeping in Stanley Park for a while until he figured out how to get on his feet and find some aid services. It was an Iranian hot dog vendor who recognized his accent and gave him a free hot dog because he was hungry. The vendor said, "Hey, don't you know there’s this service and that service… There’s a very strong immigrant and refugee network here.”
Richard: That's a nice moment right there, the vendor hearing him and giving him a hot dog and pointing him in the right direction. How was his English at that time, do you have any idea?
Meredith: Oh, very minimal.
Richard: What a spot to be in.
Meredith: Yeah. There is a large Iranian community in Vancouver and in particular, in the North Vancouver neighborhood where Stanley Park is. So he was more likely to run into a Farsi speaker there. So a lot of luck played into it.
Richard: That's what I'm thinking. As the story unfolds there’s one long shot after another, and all aligning. It's remarkable.
Meredith: It is. And it's really heartwarming to know that these small instances of mercy and heroism, that people did these things without wanting recognition—which is really, really lovely.
I don't want to veer too far into politics, but I think it can get depressing hearing so much anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment around the world right now. This book came out right when Trump was trying to block people from certain Muslim countries traveling into the US. One of the highest things we as artists can do is try to personalize people and groups that are being demonized, and my book sort of became political, when that wasn’t really the intention of it. But I'm fine with that, because this book puts you in the same position these men were in and asks, “What would you do?” Richard: I can understand what you're saying. There was no thought of the book being political, but one would naturally embrace this convergence, I think. Here’s a story that goes in the opposite direction from Trump’s policy and I'm happy it's out there at this moment.
Meredith: When I first watched the documentary the hair on my arms stood up. I thought, “Oh, my gosh. This is a good story, even if these two never met again. But the fact is beyond infinitesimal that they did. It made me think, “You know what? There might be something out there that actually is looking out for us. There might be this invisible network. We don't know what it is—God, or Karma, or Allah, or the Universe, or Mother Nature, or luck—but after hearing this story I believe in whatever that is a lot more than I used to.
Richard: I do, too. It's interesting how these small acts of giving with no strings attached—like the hot dog thing—these things must have a special power. I mean, things done purely out of being moved, to help another person. This whole story seems to be full of these small, but pure, acts.
Meredith: Well, exactly, Richard. I was thinking Zahed's choice in that one moment in the bunker; it outlasted the war; it outlasted Ayatollah Khomeini; it outlasted the Saddam Hussein; it outlasted prison and torture. It's the thing that’s still surviving. Their friendship, their connection is still alive and thriving. All that other stuff is dead and gone.
I understand there's still the same religious and national hatred in the Middle East. What’s so amazing with these stories—in the beginning the child saves the adult soldier. And in the end (I didn't say this earlier) but this is what makes it a little more spiritual for me is that the reason the child soldier went to that counseling center was, just days before he had tried to hang himself.
He’d been living in an apartment for refugees with two other men from the Middle East. It was Canadian Independence Day and his roommates wanted to go down to the waterfront to watch the fireworks. He stayed back and said, “I don't want to go,” because he wanted to hang himself. He watched them leave and made sure they were gone, and then he actually did. He was hanging for a short time, but one of the roommates forgot his sunglasses and came back and saw him and cut him down.
The emergency room doctor would not release Zahed until he promised to go to this center to get help. So that's why he walked in.
Najah, the Iraqi, was in there, actually just waiting for his father. The father had just arrived and was having trouble adjusting to Canadian culture. So Najah would wait for his dad as he was getting counseling.
That’s when Najah and Zahed met again. They started to chat. Then they noticed they were sort of finishing each other's sentences. And then they started screaming and jumping for joy. Zahed, the child soldier said that in that minute all his sadness just evaporated. So in this cosmic way, the man who was saved got a chance to return the favor and save the child who had saved him.
I’ve got to believe this is bigger than war. The strength of these “small” events have outlasted whatever was going on in the '80s where they came from. And they finally get to tell the story through the book—and also through the film. The filmmaker who made the documentary has expanded it into a full-length documentary, and it’s getting a lot of play in Canada and at film festivals. So these men are being invited all over the place to speak.
Knowing what they’ve been through, and knowing how they were psychologically and physically abused and tortured, when I started writing this book, I thought, “All I really want is—I had a vision of them standing on a stage and people clapping for them.” And it’s happening. It just makes me really, really happy.
Richard: I can imagine how gratifying all this is. The hanging thing—that long shot just leaves me speechless. Honestly, I really appreciate your observations about how these small things have outlasted the war. It really shows the power of small moments in which decisions are made on the basis of some other values.
This story contains so many examples, and some I didn't know about—and the power of those things. This whole story contains the power of the small—I have to call them higher acts of humanity.
I completely understand how it can't help but move one in the direction of feeling there is something greater. You put that so well in telling this story, and you responded to it, obviously. Something in your heart, something recognized it, right?
Meredith: Well, it was a physical feeling. Yes—coming from my heart. I think I felt relief when I first heard their story. Here’s something true and good. Here is something everyone needs to know about—not just me in my little writing room, but people need to read this book or watch this film and tell other people to watch. I think this story inoculates us against ignorance and prejudice and hatred and fear, and we are getting so much of that from our world leaders, ours in particular. I will single ours out first.
It seems to me these stories have always been there. But right now there’s a coordinated effort to bury them. And this is how I feel I can push back as an artist.
Richard: Oh, yes. And Service Space is pretty much dedicated to finding and spreading these stories, as well. So we’re thrilled to have you here.
Meredith: Yay! I'm thrilled, too!
Richard: Okay. Changing pace a little, I must say that I'm fascinated with your Dolphin Club connection. I think that must mean that you’ve dived into the waters of the San Francisco Bay without a wetsuit. Or do you always wear a wetsuit?
Meredith: No wetsuit. Wetsuits are forbidden according to Dolphin culture. However, I want to be clear. I’m what they call a “mermaid.” That means I get in and I dink around for 10 minutes, maybe 20. I don't go far, and I only go when the temperature outside is above 600.
But there are hard core members that go in all the time, no matter what the weather. And I will say this—there are different ways to get in the water. Some like to acclimate inch by inch and take 30 minutes. Others like to dive in and feel the needles. I'm one of those, because I can't stand waiting for the inevitable. And it takes your breath away right when you get in. Then you just swim, swim, swim. And your mind is on fire thinking “fight” or “flight.” But after a minute, it all goes away, and you get this weird euphoria. Maybe it’s like a runner's high. And the euphoria is “I'm not dead! I'll be out in 10 minutes! And I'm here with my friends, and look how gorgeous this is! And oh, there is a sea lion over there!”
It's fun. I'm more of a rower. I stay on the top of the water more often. There are these boats at the Dolphin club that were built in the 1800s. There’s a boat-building shop in the Dolphin club. They maintain the boats and build new boats. And I row in those more often than I get in the water.
Richard: Oh, that’s great. You know, getting in the water is a little bit akin to these moments—not moments of mercy, but powerful. And I love that they’re calling people like you “mermaids.” You may not be hardcore, but you’re still a mermaid.
I'm interested in this moment when you dive into the water, and if it is cold especially. My wife used to work at the Maritime Museum and she used to go over to the Dolphin club and swim. I haven’t done that, but I’ve experienced something like that in the lakes of the High Sierras, diving into the cold water. And here’s the thing that really interests me: after you get over that first reaction, isn't that a wonderfully indescribable moment of aliveness?
Richard: Yes. How would you rank that? That’s a funny way to put it. But people often overlook things that seem small like one of those moments of aliveness with the connection with the water. Have you ever made any connections there or thought about that?
Meredith: Yes, and similar to putting beehives on a high rise building in downtown San Francisco, it makes no sense, right? That’s sort of the rebellious, juicy part of it. Just think how many people live in San Francisco who never set foot in the Bay. And you’re out there in the Bay looking back at the city. You see all these skyscrapers and can still hear the cars honking. The Dolphin Club is real close to Pier 39 and there are lots of tourists out there. You get out there and when you go underwater and it’s quiet. It shuts all that down; it slows everything down. You’re buoyant and you’re just free.
The old time San Franciscans must have lived and done this. It’s weird that I’m doing this, but I like the rebelliousness of it. It’s like having a high, making this connection with the natural environment in a metropolis. Richard: I love your description. I never would have thought of connecting the hives and being there in the water looking back at the city. I can relate to both of those things—especially being in the water there and looking back at the city, and almost instantly being transported to a real state of, a natural state of really being alive.
Meredith: And since I know where you live, I’m going to make an invitation here for you to come out swimming with me. We can have guests at the Dolphin club, you know.
Richard: [laughs] Thats nice! Thank you for the invitation. I’m sure my wife would be happy to join us. You know Anne, I think there must be people who want to get involved in this conversation.
Anne: Yes. I want you thank you both for such a beautiful conversation and the grace of how one story led into the next. I have to say, Meredith, I’m thinking that your connection with these men doesn’t seem like an accident. And in reading your earlier interview with Richard about your beautiful story about being raised by your grandfather and how you sat in the front seat with him while he would deliver honey and his relationship with everyone in Big Sur. There is so much beauty. It seems to be part of something bigger. So thank you.
Meredith: I’m so glad that you see that. I just got a second book deal to write about that memoir I had to put aside, about grandpa and the bees. I’ll be doing that next and I'm so thrilled.
Anne: And as we wait for questions to come in, I also wanted to share that I also had an experience from swimming in many glacier lakes. That feeling of, once you jump in, it’s like how do you survive it—the pain and all the needles. But there’s the adjustment and when I get out and sit on the warm rocks, there’s this profound gratefulness for being alive. Oh, my goodness! It’s a very special feeling! Meredith: Do you know what the temperature is in the glacier lake?
Anne: Oh, it’s cold! ( laughs).
Meredith: It’s got to be even colder than the Bay here.
Anne: Yes. And I couldn't stay in for more than probably ten seconds.
Richard: Ten seconds? That’s street cred for getting into some cold water, if you ask me.
Meredith: She just kind of played us, Richard!
Richard: [laughs] Yes. Now Meredith You’re teaching at Mills College and what’s that all about for you? What are the parts of that you like the most?
Meredith: I graduated from Mills College in 1991. And I teach podcasting. There are so many different forms of podcasting, but what I teach is an American lifestyle approach telling true stories about other people. My only rule is that I don't want my students to do autobiographical reflections or essays—that kind of thing. I want them to get uncomfortable and have to talk to strangers. I want them to find stories, negotiate access and learn to deal with people. I’m teaching Internet-native students and sometimes it’s a shock when I tell them “You have to use a telephone and arrange an interview, and do the interview in person.”
Richard: How do the students react to the demand that they get out of their comfort zone?
Meredith : I noticed the reticence to using the telephone started about five years ago. And with each incoming class, there are more blank stares while I explain what I expect of them, or more stalling until an assignment is due.
I’m teaching storytelling and how to use the recording gear, how to get into the computer, how to mix sound, and how to edit the content down into a two-minute story. But what I’m really teaching is self-confidence. I’m teaching young women how to be bold—and also that it’s okay to be bold. That's the best part for me. When I get a really shy student and by the end of the class she’s chasing someone down the sidewalk for an interview. I love that. [laughs]. I feel I’m really teaching them how to move in the world and how to be comfortable with claiming space in the world. I’m still surprised that in this day and age women have a hard time with that—like with demanding what they deserve, or just stating what they deserve. It’s very interesting.
In 1990 when I was a junior at Mills, the board of the college voted to admit men as a saving financial measure, and it created a huge uproar. There was a three week campus protest against it. We brought our camping gear out and put tents in front of doorways in all the administrative buildings so nobody could get to work. The school couldn’t really function. This was the pre-laptop Internet—so you actually had to be physically in your office to get stuff done.
And yes, we had this huge protest, and we were super-organized. We organized bicycle couriers to bring messages and lunch and food to everybody. We had a media team and a recycling team. We had it all pretty locked down. And the school reversed its decision.
So it was interesting. All of a sudden I had to explain why being educated in an environment was that dear to me, dear enough that I was willing to protest about it. I liked my school. It was small. Seven students per class. Lots of attention. The women were really outstanding.
I had to explain why I thought it was still necessary to educate women separately, and that was good. It forced me to get my thoughts together. We’re still making 72 cents to the male dollar. So until that’s fixed we need to give women extra support. We need extra networking and extra confidence so that women can go out into the real world. So they can spot when they’re being mistreated, immediately.
I really love going back to your question, Richard. I love teaching my students how to have a voice; how to have a radio voice, and how to recognize what a story is; how to pursue it; how to do it in person and not to hide behind a computer; how to touch technology. A lot of the stuff they’ve never touched before. It’s very technical—how to get the mics to work.
So I’m pushing them along a lot of unfamiliar roads, and they get a little afraid. I only make them do one podcast for the entire semester. It takes that long. They kind of get concerned that theirs isn't any good. Or it’s not as good as Mariah's who sits next to you. I keep telling them, I’m not grading them on how good it is. That’s like looking at a painting and saying, “That needs more orange. So I’m only going to give it a B.” I grade them on far each one moves their ball down the field. Everyone's ball starts to get into play. I really like it. I love sound. I come from a musical background. That’s a long answer!
Richard: It’s a good answer! It opens it all up. I mean, the whole movement from just being in front of the computer in my little bubble and going out into the world. That’s a huge transition. I'm sure that it’s not only women who are scared. It’s been a journey for me as well. And it’s a good journey. For anyone who can make that journey, it’s well worth it. But it requires, first of all, the willingness to not be ruled by your fear, and maybe some help—help like you’re giving to your students, which I would think would be tremendous.
Anne: I would love to just jump in with a question for Meredith. As a teacher with your openness and willingness to give your students a voice, I’m curious, what do you see are the qualities in your students today? What are the gifts that they bring?
Meredith: Well, I figured out quickly that I should not give them a topic for their podcasts. I started out trying to do that, and it was a complete disaster. Their strength is the different communities they have access to. Letting them come back to me with a story they want to do turns out to be much deeper and richer—and everyone's is completely different from the others.
I'll just give you an example from last year. One interviewed a Catholic priest who performed exorcisms. One interviewed her father who, coincidentally, met Mohammed Ali twice during his lifetime. Mohammed Ali was his big hero, so she had this amazingly touching story, and this was the year Mohammed Ali died.
One student did one on her father who is a pretty well known rapper, Tech 9. She interviewed her father about misogyny in rap lyrics. How did he think about that having a daughter at Mills college? With another student I broke the rule about autobiography and I let her and her daughter—she has a five-year-old girl—create a fairy tale together. That was a big hit and it was the only fictional one I allowed, but she was so passionate I thought it was better to let her do what she wanted to do.
One student was so shy she was trying to arrange interviews through email, and she wasn’t getting answers. She was having a hard time figuring out how to move through the world. I brought her to the Dolphin Club. On Tuesdays they have something called Boat Night where anyone can come, and the man who runs the boat repair shop will put you to work. There are always boats to work on. So you will be sanding or varnishing or nailing or shining or whatever. So she did a whole story on boat night, and how it got started. She collected all the sounds in the shop and went outside and got sounds of the waves. She did a great podcast and was really pleased with it. And the next semester, that same student started a podcast club on campus. And now there’s a little group of audiophiles on campus. So when you help a shy one, amazing things happen.
Anne: I’ve been really blessed, Meredith. My work has taken me in so many beautiful directions. I’ve been working with a photographer, Jane Baldwin. In 2005 she went to Africa and said, “I felt like I was home.” For ten years, she went back to Ethiopia and the Omo River Valley. She found herself being with the women. She would listen to them, and watch them. Over time they invited her to sit with them. They didn't share a common language but there was such warmth and the building of trust. Then she started recording their stories. First it was about their way of life and then about the many changes that were happening in the Omo where a hydroelectric dam was being constructed, one of the largest in the world.
It’s completely changed their lives. They no longer get the yearly flood and though these travels she’s been witnessing these changes. There difficulties with planting their sorghum, which is their main food crop. She noticed they used to put butter on their skin—they were just so beautiful— they’re not applying butter anymore. These women have lived a way of life where everything is the oral tradition. Generations and generations have lived so harmoniously on the Omo and now this way of life—not only is it threatened, it will soon be extinct.
It's been beautiful to see how her work has been embraced in the world. One of the woman said to her, “Jane, please tell our story. We want other women to hear our story.”
Meredith: Is she recording them or writing a book?
Anne: She has ten years of field recordings of ambient sound and ten years of recording their stories. Her archive is incredible, and I've helped curate an exhibition of her work. For two years I would go visit her studio and just listen to her because the experiences were so deep she couldn't articulate what she’d gone through. It took about two years for her to get comfortable sharing many of these stories with me.
It was so fascinating for me to allow the show to come into being in its own way. We had about twelve portraits. They’re life-sized, and when you go to the center of the gallery you’re surrounded by the women. Their presence came right through.
It was powerful. Now she's working in collaboration with Survival International in Milan. Richard: Thank you for sharing that, Anne. Anne: I hope I didn't go on too much.
Meredith: I was fascinated by it.
Anne: I will share a beautiful reflection coming from Philadelphia from Maureen. “You’ve explained to us how a deep and unexpected relationship came into being. So much of what you encountered were small acts of purity of mercy. Could you expand a bit more on why you believe that mercy matters in our world today? By the way, I’m a Sister of Mercy in the Catholic Church.
Richard: That’s beautiful
Meredith: Mercy. And that’s the deepest question I think I've ever been asked in connection with this book. I think mercy is the only thing that matters, and it also matters by example. I think other people need to see these acts of mercy to inspire us to make the right choice when we're faced with a moral dilemma. A lot of times these acts of mercy are so small and personal and quiet you don't see them. I think highlighting them encourages more people to be merciful. We just have to keep pushing on that, and pushing on that—until it becomes the norm. Then they wouldn’t want to publish books like this because it would be so ordinary to behave that way.
Richard: Well certainly service space is right with you there. And in terms of movement toward giving more respect to the wisdom of women, to their gifts, this would be related. It seems clear you're working in that direction in some way, Meredith. Maybe you could reflect on what you're seeing at Mills, or on any reflections around that.
Meredith: For one thing, when you were telling your story about Jane Baldwin, I was thinking that what's so powerful about what she's doing is it starts with her way of seeing the world. She's seen change happening in real time. As you mentioned, Anne, she noticed that the women’s skin tone had changed because of the changes that are going on with what they're able to plant and grow, and with this dam is doing to their environment. I think that’s most amazing and important thing she's doing right now is she's watching. It sounds like destructive change is happening. She’s documenting it and recording it so there might still be time to reverse some things.
Anne: One of the women she’s recorded has been elected by her tribe to be the spokesperson to speak on behalf of her people. Even though this is a very patriarchal society, they recognize this woman has the intelligence and that she should be the one to represent her people to the dam builders.
It was really beautiful for Jane to pull some of these stories out from the women who are the keepers of the tradition. She said that during one conversation one matriarch turned to her and said, “Do you know what is happening to our river? And if you do, will you tell us?”
Jane said it was the first time any woman had actually responded to her invitation: “Do you have questions for me?” Usually women say, “No, No” But this woman directly responded. That was a real moment for Jane.
Meredith: That’s fantastic. And also with her being female I think her access point may be faster. They would trust her sooner. Do you think she'll have any exhibitions in the Bay Area?
Anne: I don't know. A beautiful show is going to be happening in Korea in Seoul. I think it will organically kind of find its way in the world. So we’ll see.
And before we close our conversation we have another comment from Cynthia she writes, “I really enjoyed this conversation and I wonder if there’s a website or youtube of Meredith so we can watch it also. Has she done a TED talk?
Meredith: Wow. No. I have not done a TED talk. I will probably say yes if asked to do that. And yes, if you go on YouTube and search under “My Enemy My brother” it'll pop up. I also have a personal website there are more links there. Anne: We have one more reflection I'll just share. This is from David. He writes, “As I think more intuitively, I do become more compassionate, which is resulting in more easily connecting with others—which is satisfying, and I'm grateful. I appreciate Meredith May as a storyteller. I have found that stories are a wonderful way to learn and teach.”
Meredith: That's nice.
Anne: One final question. Meredith, how can we support your work?
Meredith: Let's see… Buy the book. And if you like the book, it would be helpful to go on Amazon and say that you like the book. I mean, that's a really literal answer to your question. The larger answer is that you've already supported me by giving me this huge platform to talk to so many people at once. It's kind of amazing that we can do this now. That's really lovely, and just being seen and recognized is a huge gift. So I think you are already supporting me.
Anne: Thank you so much. Thank you Richard and Meredith for a very rich conversation, and one that I think will live in us for a long time.
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