As Our Nation Celebrates What Is Possible…

(In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday and the inauguration of Barack Obama, we’ll take a rest from The Pollyanna Principles for the next day or so. I’ll publish more excerpts later this week, so stay tuned.)


It is midnight.  I am jumping out of bed, suddenly compelled to email my friend Elizabeth Sadlon, to thank her for the book she gave me for Christmas, The Soloist. Elizabeth is one of the wisest strategy consultants I know, a member of our advisory team at the Community-Driven Institute. The card she wrote to me, accompanying the book, is my bookmark, and I re-read it every time I take a break to breathe between chapters.

“While I was working with Lamp Community, a mental health organization in Skid Row, Steve Lopez wrote a series of columns for the LA Times about a friendship he made with a Skid Row resident. This book shares ths story in a way that reminds me why I do this work.”

That Skid Row resident is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. Nathaniel is a supremely gifted, Julliard-trained musician living with the demons of schizophrenia. Spending his nights in the dumping ground that is Skid Row, he passes each day in the 2nd Street Tunnel, majestically playing a violin that is missing 2 strings.

I have been devouring The Soloist. Almost from the first pages, I am in awe of Steve Lopez’s storytelling artistry, his ability to share his own conflicting emotions so honestly that I have inhaled them and made them my own. My singular purpose for the past several days has been to get through the day, so I can come home and find out what happens next in both Nathaniel’s and Steve’s lives. Every concert Nathaniel attends, every bit of music he creates, every friend he makes, every piece of sheet music Steve purchases for him and everything Steve learns about his life… this story has me held captive.

Dimitri and I have been through Skid Row, touring at the invitation of Amy Sterling Casil from Beyond Shelter, an organization working to get homeless people into permanent housing. Shortly after that visit several years ago, 60 Minutes caught drivers from Kaiser Permanente Hospital on video, dumping mentally ill patients at the curb in Skid Row wearing only a hospital gown. The image stings my eyes even now as I type these words, making the images in Steve Lopez’s tale that much more poignant.

The tale is instantly recognizable to those who are familiar with mental illness. The cast of characters includes a misunderstood disease, a healthcare system that punishes those with such illness, and a legal system that often precludes family members from helping. While it is only one component of Steve Lopez’s intricately woven story, his descriptions show vividly the systemic lack of compassion of the US Healthcare system.

Reading this book, the call to problem-solve is strong. What to do? As Steve Lopez learns, the answer seems insurmountably complex when considered from the problem-solving perspective of “helping each individual.”

But my mind instinctively heads in the other direction, pushing me to consider not what is wrong, but what is possible, and not just for each individual, but for whole communities, everywhere. I smile to think that this has become reflexive, through the work Dimitri and I have been doing this past 10+ years – the work that is at the core of the Pollyanna Principles (which you all have been so kind to read this past few days) and of all the work we are doing at the Community-Driven Institute.

What would our communities look like if people were well in all ways? What would life be like for all of us if instead of solely treating illness (individual or societal), we lived lives that were healthy and vibrant in communities that were resilient, humane?  What conditions would have to be present in our communities, for that vision to become reality?  What values would have to be our expectation, to undergird such change?

The Soloist has me trying to answer these questions at midnight on a “school night.”  At this late hour, my top-of-mind response is only this: Success would be an end result steeped in compassion and wisdom.

Compassion for each individual who lives with mental illness, for each family that is living with the effects of such illness.  Compassion for each neighborhood, each school, each community affected by the interwoven issues related to “illness” and “health.”

And wisdom.  Wisdom that understands and addresses (rather than ignores or stigmatizes) the realities of mental illness and mental health. Wisdom that seeks to learn rather than seeking to avoid. Wisdom that builds upon the strength of our interconnectedness, rather than avoiding connections to those who remind us of what we fear about ourselves.

Can we create a community rooted in such compassion and wisdom – such humanity? We have created a world that is, in  many ways, so defiantly inhumane that we celebrate a story like Steve Lopez’s as an exception to the norm.  But if we created this inhumane world, we can also uncreate it. We can re-create it. We can create something entirely different, entirely new.

We can start right now.

8:00 am
Fell asleep, book in hand, 40 pages left. Finished reading this morning, and then sobbed so long and so loud, realizing I had barely taken a breath since sleepily picking up the book upon waking.

I send Elizabeth another note, telling her that her gift has moved me to motionlessness. I ask her, please, oh please – I have finished the book, and I must know: “You were working with Lamp Community when this story broke. Do you know how Nathaniel is doing now?”

Here is the note she sent me:

“When I finished the book, I broke into deep, deep sobs. Actually, it was reading the Acknowledgments that really got me.

I spoke with Casey Horan from Lamp a couple of weeks ago. She said Nathaniel is still with them, still in the apartment, and has ‘good days and bad days.’ I was so aware while she shared the update that his is just one of many hundreds of lives she touches, all with their own stories and collections of ‘good days and bad days.’

She said they’d had a party to celebrate Beethoven’s birthday, and that all his musician friends came and it was wonderful.

I had heard recently that Steve did another column on Nathaniel, so when you asked, I searched the LA Times website. There I found this beautiful video narrated by Steve, showing Nathaniel playing at Disney, answering just your question. All the previous columns are there too.”

Then my quietly wise friend Elizabeth wrote the sentence that, even now as I type this into this blog days later, sets me to tears:

Doesn’t this show just how right Margaret Mead was? Not only has this friendship changed Steve’s and Nathaniel’s lives, Steve’s columns have changed perceptions and beliefs and even public policy in LA — no small feat!

We all have that power. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” Margaret Mead famously told us. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And so, on this birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and on this eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America, I share with you this story of possibility. In my mind, that is perhaps the most important gift Dr. King gave to the spirit of our country and to the world – the sense that if we can imagine a promised land, we can create it – that it is possible, simply because it is not impossible.

I cannot urge you enough to read The Soloist. But more than that, I cannot urge you enough to dream of what is possible, and to vow to begin walking in that direction, right now.

Photo credit: Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times

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