Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Our Differences Connect Us

A Minor Bird
I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song. 
-- Robert Frost

Our Differences Connect Us

The theme for this year is “one thing that is most important.”  If someone had asked me this in my youth, I’m sure I’d have talked about music, my first great passion and my undergraduate major.   I still care a lot about music but today my answer is different.  Two things happened to me in midlife, one large and one small, which permanently changed the way I saw myself and the world around me.
The big thing that happened was my husband and my taking up residency in an exotic and alien land.  I’m not referring to the year we spent overseas when he had a Fulbright grant, although was fun too.  No, I’m referring to the rare opportunity we had to live for an extended period among people who were truly different from us:  the residents of Random Hall.  Now you might think that at least we shared a language and many customs with most Randomites, but in many cases you’d be wrong.  As undergraduates Chris was a poet and I a singer; at Random, we came to live among students whose lives were centered on math, electrical engineering, and physics.  The residents and their new housemasters didn’t always understand each other’s jokes, idioms, or cultural references.  I’ll never really understand the work our students do; but in the years among them I have learned to appreciate the beauty of mathematical concepts, laws of physics, and elegant feats of engineering, even without truly understanding any of the details.  I’ve come to understand that discovery, invention, and innovation are, in a sense, just music different from my own.

The small thing that happened took place before we moved to Random Hall.  In those days we lived in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester.  It was a long commute, especially the last four years when I shared the trip with our son who attended a daycare center in Harvard Square from the time he was about a year old.  Commuting with a toddler who was not especially easy-going was a challenge.  If I was lucky he’d nap, and he usually enjoyed a nice bottle of milk, and if all else failed I would read to him – pretty much anything to keep him from disturbing all our fellow passengers.

One night, something kept me very late at MIT and my husband must have picked Simon up from daycare.  At about 10 PM I was standing alone on the platform at Ashmont Station, waiting for the Mattapan trolley to come.  In 1992 that neighborhood was a little iffy, and I was nervous standing there that night; my heart sank when someone came over to me and said “Excuse me…”  The man who addressed me was tall and dark-skinned, and spoke with a Caribbean accent.  Most of us white middle-class women, when we’re alone late at night in a location of questionable safety, and a tall African-American man comes over and strikes up a conversation, are going to feel some alarm.  We’re also going to feel extremely ashamed of ourselves for feeling alarmed; and in a split second we’re going to be wondering where good street smarts end and plain old racism begins.

“Excuse me,” said the man.  “But aren’t you the woman who sometimes reads to a little boy on this train?”  “Why yes,” I stammered, “I am.”  “I saw the two of you on the train a few months ago, and I will never forget the look on your son’s face as you read to him.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and when I got home I told my wife, ‘I don’t care how tired I am; from now on, I am going to read to our children every single night.’  I have kept that promise, and I promised myself that if I ever saw you again I would tell you, and thank you for changing my life.”  That happened over twenty years ago, and that night at Ashmont Station that man changed my life.  He showed me that the smallest, simplest, most ordinary thing we do may be the thing that changes the world.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof,  the Jews of Eastern Europe (my ancestors) are compared to someone standing on a rooftop, trying to scratch out a simple, pleasant tune without breaking his neck, and relying upon tradition to keep his balance.  In my youth I’d have said that the tune was the thing that most mattered, and indeed it’s the work of youth to define one’s own simple, pleasant tune and to make that tune the most beautiful we can.  What I have learned is that we are all fiddlers up there on that roof together; the problem is that each of us is scratching out a different tune.   I still try to make my life’s music the best it can be, but I’ve learned to treasure the unexpected beauty that happens when my tune mixes with the music made by everyone around me.  And I’ve also learned that the traditions and values that help each of us keep our balance can, if we don’t pay attention, become prejudices that threaten to silence someone else’s song, or cause our neighbors to lose their balance.

So today, I’d say that the important thing is how our differences connect us.  That might sound contradictory but it doesn’t have to be: the unique features that define each of us can also enrich and connect all of us.  This is a connection that takes its strength not just from our big moments and our significant achievements, but also from how we live together and treat one another, every day.


Something big splashed, quietly, in the distance, and the splash echoed into the vastness.  He squinted, but could see nothing.  It was too dark.  And then, from the direction of the splashes, a ghost-light glimmered and the world took form: he was in a cavern, and in front of him, mirror-smooth, was water.

The splashing noises came closer and the light became brighter, and Shadow waited on the shore.  Soon enough a low, flat boat came into sight, a flickering white lantern burning at its raised prow, another reflected in the glassy black water several feet below it.  The boat was being poled by a tall figure, and the splashing noise Shadow had heard was the sound of the pole being lifted and moved as it pushed the craft across the waters of the underground lake. 

The boat’s pilot was tall, and very thin.  He – if it was a he – wore an unadorned white robe, and the pale head that topped it was so utterly inhuman that Shadow was certain that it had to be a mask of some sort: it was a bird’s head, small on a long neck, its beak long and high. 

The boat came close to the shore.  The pilot leaned on its pole.  Its head turned slowly, until it was facing Shadow.  “Hello,” it said, without moving its long beak.  The voice was male, and, like everything else in Shadow’s afterlife so far, familiar.  “Come on board.  You’ll get your feet wet, I’m afraid, but there’s not a thing can be done about that.  These are old boats, and if I come in closer I could rip out the bottom.”

Shadow took off his shoes and stepped out into the water.  It came halfway up his calves, and was, after the initial shock of wetness, surprisingly warm.  He reached the boat, and the pilot put down a hand and pulled him aboard.  The reed boat rocked a little, and water splashed over the low sides of it, and then it steadied.

The pilot poled off away from the shore.  Shadow stood there and watched, his pants legs dripping.

“I know you,” he said to the creature at the prow.
“You do indeed,” said the boatman.  The oil lamp that hung at the front of the boat burned more fitfully, and the smoke from the lamp made Shadow cough.  “You worked for me.”  The voice was fussy and precise.

The smoke stung Shadow’s eyes.  He wiped the tears away with his hand, and, through the smoke, he thought he saw a tall man in a suit, with gold-rimmed spectacles.  The smoke cleared and the boatman was once more a half-human creature with the head of a river bird.

“Mister Ibis?”

“Good to see you,” said the creature, with Mr. Ibis’s voice.  “Do you know what a psychocomp is?”
Shadow thought he knew the word, but it had been a long time.  He shook his head.

“It’s a fancy term for an escort,” said Mr. Ibis.  “We all have so many functions, so many ways of existing.  In my own vision of myself, I am a scholar who lives quietly, and pens his little tales, and dreams about a past that may or may not ever have existed.  And that is true, as far as it goes.  But I am also, in one of my capacities, a psychocomp.  I escort the living to the world of the dead.”

“I thought this was the world of the dead,” said Shadow.

“No. Not per se.  It’s more of a preliminary.”

The boat slipped and slid across the mirror-surface of the underground pool. 

“So I’m dead,” said Shadow.  He was getting used to the idea.  “Or I’m going to be dead.”

“We are on our way to the Hall of the Dead.  I requested that I be the one to come for you.”


“You were a hard worker.  Why not?”

“Because…” Shadow marshaled his thoughts.  “Because I never believed in you.  Because I don’t know much about Egyptian mythology.  Because I didn’t expect this.  What happened to Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates?”

The long-beaked white head shook from side to side, gravely.  “It doesn’t matter that you didn’t believe in us,” said Mr. Ibis.  “We believed in you.”

-- Neil Gaiman, American Gods

~ Nina Davis-Millis, Head, IT and Discovery Services, MIT Libraries~