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Conversing With America Heart to Heart

You hear a lot of talk about American values these days. A lot of reference to the "good old days" when you could trust people, to that bygone era when you could rely on the quality of American products, look to the media for enriching entertainment, have friends over for a game of charades and lively conversation. "People just don't care anymore" is a phrase as common as apple pie. "People never think about anyone but themselves" or "people don't even go out any more - they're all home, glued to the tu be" are observations frequently heard in casual conversation. Who are these people everyone is referring to? Are we just imagining that our neighbors would rather be watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than having heart-to-heart conversations with us about the moral dilemmas we're facing in the 1990s, the concerns we have about parenting, our feelings about violence in the media? What are people thinking these days and where do they share these thoughts?

In order to get some answers, I devised a list of questions and set out on a two-month sojourn through villages, towns, and cities of the United States. I approached people in diners, campsites, beauty salons, grocery stores, churches, and street corners. Through the Bible Belt, the deep South, the sprawling deserts of the Southwest, the Pacific Coast, the Rockies, the endless plains of the Midwest, into as many people's lives as I could enter, I sought out the ordinary and mined for the extraordinary. Our conversations were punctuated with poignant memories, newfound insights, strenuous searching, and often, at the end, tears of joy for the chance at such intimacy.

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"What words of wisdom were passed on to you as you were growing up?" I asked. "Do you live by the values you learned as a child? What are they? Who inspired you and how? Are you doing what you really want to do? What are you committed to? When do you feel closest to God? What comforts you during the hard times? What would you like to experience that you haven't? How are you contributing to your loved ones, to your neighbors, to the world? To whom do you look for inspiration? What words do you have for those to come?"

People opened up, turned their lives inside out, straining for the right words to describe what was often buried deep within. "I don't know the answer to that," they'd say. "No one's ever asked me before - how would I know?" Indeed. How do any of us know who we are until we experience the unfolding? Once I'd share my response to the question, they'd get clear about their own feelings, but it often took both of us for the truth to be set free.

I encountered an 88-year-old man, Arthur, in Pineville, Ky. All his life he'd been in the logging business. Trees were his first love. When I asked what he wanted to experience that he hadn't yet, he said that his lifetime dream was to see the giant redwood trees in California. "Come on, let's go to the travel agency and get you a ticket," I said. No, he had this and that to do. "But it's your dream, Arthur." "Oh, maybe someday," he'd say. After I left Kentucky, I sent him postcards with redwood trees f rom wherever I could find them. "Dear Arthur, Get to the redwoods. Love, Jan." Two months later, there was a letter from Arthur. "Dear Jan, While you were in California, I was also there, looking at the biggest tree in the world, the General Sherman, in the Sequoia National Park. More than likely we were not far apart.... Love, Arthur."

Across the country, I spoke with people who said they'd never shared these feelings with anyone before. And me, a perfect stranger. Why were they so quick to share? Why did some sit with me for two hours after starting out saying they had only 20 minutes? And what was it that made the experience so important, so moving - the depth we went to together, that fact that I cared enough to ask about their lives, the recognition that they have all this inside and don't know where to go with it? What has become of community in our culture?

We are living in a society where people have stopped asking each other questions that matter. Where days and weeks can pass and even family members don't know what each other is thinking or feeling. Where conversations about our beliefs, our dreams, and our fears are preempted by a superficial pop culture. How do we form our conscience on social issues without mingling our thoughts with others', listening for distinctions, stretching our opinion? How do we sustain our relationships when we bring so litt le of ourselves to the table?

These people with whom I spoke fed me, they gave of themselves, enriched my life. They reminded me that despite the problems that fill our newspapers, people are trying to do the best they can wherever they are. I need this kind of sustenance from people. I need these kinds of conversations to help me remember the goodness of the human family. These portraits and statements are an attempt to share some of that richness and to show what magic can happen when even strangers sit down and tell the truth.

Pete and Dorothy Powell own the P&D Sub Shop in Lovingstown, Va.

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Dorothy: "All I wanted to do in my early years was be a mother. I dropped out of high school in my sophomore year, married Pete, and had five daughters. Then I went and got my G.E.D.

My grandma lived with me when I was growin' up and she always said, 'Always have a goal in life and you will achieve.' She worked for years cleaning the ladies' room at Asbury Park, N.J., but she was a woman full of pride, full of dignity. I think it's because she passed that on to me that I haven't experienced any barriers trying to get what I want. There's so much that depends on the attitude you bring to any situation."

Pete: "I always wanted to be a baseball player, but I got married at 19 and have been working ever since. I've always worked two or three jobs to keep things going. For 30 years I drove a taxi in New Jersey and worked for the railroad. My parents always taught me to be independent.

If you wanna know what's kept [Dorothy and me] together for 33 years, I'd say it's our differences and our love that's done it."

Sybil Childs is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother living in Zwolle, La. Her grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee from Oklahoma.

"I had six brothers and six sisters. My daddy was killed when I was 14 months old, and Mama never remarried. She used to say, 'Honey, do you know what respect is? In order to get respect, respect yourself first, then others and you should be respected.' I never saw Mama in church, but I can't count the times I saw her on her knees.... She took in so many strays - hungry, cold people - and taught me if at all possible never to use the word 'hate.'

I felt hatred for a 12 1/2-year-old boy who shot my 5-year-old daughter. I had so much hatred in my heart if I'd looked straight in the mirror, I'd a cracked it. I had to forgive me before I could forgive anyone else. My two sons watched [the murder] and the 12-year-old threatened to kill them if they told. He finally confessed. Came back 15 years later before going to Vietnam. He came to the door and said he was leaving for the war and that he knew he wouldn't come back, he had too much to pay for. My son Paul, who watched [the boy] kill his sister said, 'No, we've forgiven you, you come back,' then they shook hands.

When times get hard, I take my Bible and flip the pages, then I stop and read. That helps me relax. Then I know how rich I am without having money."

Donna Kay Rash is a full-time student at the Richland Nursing School in Richland, Va.

"My family and friends are most important to me. Education is next....

Growing up in a low-income family I knew I didn't want to raise a family like mine. I was lucky to get accepted into the nursing program. They picked 45 out of 500 applicants.

A lot of my friends got pregnant, or are into drugs and alcohol. Some are working at Burger King making $3.35 an hour and say they're happy. Most of them don't have any self-esteem and grow up thinking they're not smart enough to go to college or they can't afford it. If I can do it, anyone can do it. All you have to do is want to. I knew I could do anything I wanted, but not without love and support from my mom and my grandfather. College gives me hope. When it gets hard, I just hang on, I won't give u p now."

Eva Moore lives in Pocahontas, Va. Her husband Walter is a retired coal miner.

"I grew up in the coalfields and hardly saw my dad because he was always in the mines. Every two years my mother had a baby. She worked daylight to dark and never complained. She kept a garden, raised cows for milk, raised chickens, took in sewing. Because she couldn't see beyond that, she didn't know she could make changes....My dream was that I would grow up to be my own person, an individual - that I could speak out for myself, a woman. My dream was to tell people you can change things if you try har d enough.

[My mother] got no help from my father. Walter and me got married with a 50-50 agreement - he'd help with the kids though he sometimes worked 16-hour shifts in the mine. He never made me feel like I was alone. Walter's encouraged me to try anything I ever wanted to do."

Florence Gurley is a retired secretary from Eastwood, N.Y.

"My mother had the biggest influence in my life. She brought us up to respect people, particularly old people. 'If you go visiting,' she'd say, 'Never go empty-handed. Always take something, even if it's a small gift.' I still do to this day.

I never did anything outstanding in my life, but I believe I made a difference. People had more fun when I was around, because I was fun and witty and went out of my way to do what I could for them. I guess that's what I'd like to be remembered for - making a difference in some people's lives."

Marni Pape lives in Tustin, Calif. She sells magazine advertising, and is a wife and mother of two daughters.

"What I'm most committed to is myself, because I think there's a lot to be said for 'To thine own self be true.' I have to be happy with myself before I can make anyone else happy or anything work. Then I feel committed to my family, to an all-encompassing family - my husband, my kids, my immediate family, the peripheral family. It just goes on....

If I don't understand something and get anxious about what's going on, I turn it over to God and it gets lifted. All things in my life are comforted by Him.

My kids have taught me to be childlike and to have a good time.... Just being who they were, they totally expanded the love in my life. Now I want to do for others what they helped me do - to lighten up and find the good, find the laughter, no matter how dark it seems some days."

Tom Risenhoover is a restaurant manager in McDonald, Tenn.

"My dad is a preacher.... I go to church every time I get a chance. Three years ago I was really bad off on drugs, started a lot of fights, and got myself into a lot of trouble. Then I went back to church. It's the only way I could've got off. I feel close to God all the time. If it weren't for Him, there's no way I'd still be here. When I was 5, my grandfather used to tell me, 'It's all right to fail, as long as you keep getting up and trying again.' So now I'm trying again. I got myself a little trail er and a 1971 Ford LTD - that's everything I need for now."

Harry and Florence Stamler live in San Lorenzo, N.M.

Harry: "I quit school before getting a diploma because I was sick and tired of all the anti-Semitism I had to face there.... I ended up driving a cheesecake truck from Brooklyn to a lot of towns upstate. It was so treacherous in the winter that I knew I had to get another job, so I went to the library and looked through trade journals. That's when I decided to become a watchmaker."

Florence: "Since we both came from poor families, work was the one thing you couldn't live without. Our greatest fear was that we'd be without work."

Harry: "I often taught apprentices so women could have a better job. I only worked with minority women, though - the ones who'd never have a chance at promotion. I taught watchmaking and repair to a Filipino woman and within a few months she got to be the manager of a big store in Philadelphia."

Florence: "I taught kindergarten and experienced a great change in my attitude about child care. I thought child care was the worst thing anyone could have. I thought kids belonged at home and in their own neighborhoods with their friends. Then I worked in a migrant farm as the director of day care and saw that child care was the most important thing I could put energy into. When we moved to Pacific Grove, there was no affordable day care. A group of us organized and eventually opened up a day-care cent er for 30 black, Mexican, and white children. I miss the wide variety of people here.... What a joy to live in a community of mixed cultures."

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