"Okay, wait, say that again ... I just need to hear you say those words once more." Through the phone, my friend Danielle's amusement came through loud and clear. When I was invited to conduct a critical interview a month earlier than anticipated, she was my first call. "You're interviewing someone at the actual United Nations?"
Usually, when someone says they are living the dream, they are being facetious. As in: “I had to be up at 4:30 a.m. yesterday and people on the train were all sinus-snarfy and gum-chompy for three hours and I had to wear heels that hurt and I don’t even like the city. #livingthedream”
While the paragraph above is entirely true, that's not how I'm using the phrase. As Danielle is well-aware, I have a profound reluctance to spend any more than the minimally required time in New York City. In a previous job, I’d choose two-day, insanely timed round-trips to the West Coast above single-day, relatively easy trips into Manhattan. But she’s also aware that the topic of my book is a big one, and pursuing it requires big thinking about research, potentially big travel, and big ideas about how to tell the story. This was the first of the “big” ground-laying interviews—beyond people directly involved in the story—and I had told her about it like I was interviewing a shopkeeper down the corner.
Part of that tempered description was self-preservation. I have worked with high-powered executives and met celebrities, but I generally feel like people are just people. Everyone is unique and everyone is valuable because of that. So going to the U.N., in the context of the story I’m telling, is no more substantial than meeting with a prisoner’s family members. Being intimidated by my surroundings or by the people I’m meeting serves no purpose other than to limit the effectiveness of our interaction.
Part of the delivery was simple caution. I don’t know if this book will be picked up by a publisher. I don’t know what I will learn in some of these interviews. I don’t know whether there are things I will need to hold back to prevent harm to people still in harm’s way. That’s the fun of it, but also a reason to keep enthusiasm in check.
The interview itself proved very useful. It also reinforced my Halifax connection, since one of the people working in the office I visited is a King's journalism grad and a Haligonian, and was very excited to learn that I'm pursuing my MFA through King's and was in Halifax this summer. As I learned about people I might wish to interview, though, I was reminded of something I told a classmate recently, which is that the only way I may access all of the information is to marry a man who speaks reasonably fluent Farsi. (AKA: I need a translator.)
The after-interview was where the fun started. I was lucky enough to grab a cab whose driver is a few years older than I am and grew up in a very small town in Pakistan. We spent an enjoyable ride chatting about the ebbing away of neighborliness and the potential for digital devices and pervasive Internet access to eliminate dignity and courtesy from human interaction. He told me about an elderly woman in his apartment building who stepped into the elevator recently to find five residents of the building all hunched over their cellphones. She lit into them for neglecting to greet one another when they live just floors apart, which made them all laugh and strike up a conversation.
Then, at my standard eatery in Penn Station, I had time to have my sandwich heated and to sit at a table to eat it. As I flipped through updates on my phone, I saw that more Bahá’ís were arrested in Iran over the weekend and more shops closed across multiple cities. As expected, but it still made my eyes sting with tears. Shortly after that, in typical New York limited-table-space fashion, a woman sat down across from me. I find it odd to ignore someone who is less than two feet away (blame small-town upbringing), so I introduced myself, as did she. First names only, of course. We compared travels, her from the south, me from the north. If there were a game called “Find the Scot,” I’d win every time, so when I placed her accent, we chatted about Scotland and bagpipes. She used to work at the U.N., so when I mentioned I’d been there to interview someone, she asked what I was writing. A spirited discussion followed, about her recent trip to Paris, about my desire to tell stories that we never hear, here, and about the state of the world. A 15-minute friendship.
While I was standing in line for the train back home, a woman next to me commented on the security presence in the station, particularly the adorable and hard-working explosive-sniffing dogs. We shared a little humor, realized we live within 30 minutes of one another, and discussed what we’d been doing in the city. She carefully questioned whether it was okay to ask what I was writing about, and I assured her it was, then explained. She had a Bahá’í friend in the town where she grew up, and was curious about the story. She asked questions and I answered until we parted ways on the platform with good wishes in both directions.
Living the dream? Yes. It’s working hard on something that matters to me. It’s trying to use my capacity and capability to serve others. It’s also about having the time and freedom of mind to interact meaningfully with the people I meet on the way. I wasn’t rushing to get anywhere. I wasn’t traveling with a pack of colleagues. I wasn’t concerned about impressing anyone. I was just doing the job I picked, the way I wanted to do it.