In the weeks before the election, I volunteered at a phone bank for Obama. I’m from Boston and, coming from a very blue state, we had mostly hounded people in New Hampshire. But on Election Day, Virginia seemed to be in play and our assignment, at least through lunchtime, was to contact people in Richmond to make sure they were going to the polls.
I was given a list of names and it became clear very quickly that I was calling an urban, African American district. And because it was midmorning I ended up talking to a lot of older people. I’d identified myself as being from the Obama campaign and would start the conversation by apologetically saying that they must been getting a lot of calls from people like me. Yes, they’d say, but it’s no problem at all. Or, you’re the fourth call today, isn’t that something? Or, yes, thank you for your work. (Very different than New Hampshire.)
“Have you had a chance to vote today?” I’d ask. “Yes, ma’am,” they’d answer. They all had, despite the fact that polls would still be open for hours and hours. And because it felt like an important moment for them and me, I found myself prolonging the conversation-- asking them how long the lines were, telling them that I heard it was a cold, cold morning (this from a Boston girl!). “Yes ma’am, it was,” one woman said to me, “but we all stood there patiently in the rain, even the young ones, until it was our time.” I didn’t ask, but I just knew that lady got dressed up to go and vote that day.
Then there was the couple who got to the polls at 6:30 a.m. and the line was so long that they went to breakfast and walked around until the crowd died down. I said, as politely as I could, that their voter information revealed they were of retirement age, why didn’t they wait until a more reasonable hour. “We were so excited we couldn’t wait,” the woman replied. “We had been awake since five.”
That morning was a total gift. It wasn’t as if I didn’t realize that this election was triumphant and moving beyond words for those who experienced massive prejudice and a thousand cuts a day for a lifetime. I already knew that fact, I understood that fact, but that day I got a glimpse of it on a whole different level. It went from my brain to my gut. As Heinlein would say, I grokked.
When we read about people in history or different cultures or about some amazing bit of science, we all too often just read the facts. Or write them. As nonfiction authors, how do we convey something in all its dimensions—go for the grok response? Yeah, yeah, I know--show don’t tell. Or if you are gonna tell, tell stories so readers can identify. As Dorothy Patent said in her March 11 blog, choose deep, rich subjects that pull from many areas of knowledge and feeling. But is there something else we need to make a bunch of facts equal more than the sum of their parts?