From the Director: The Great Divide

KC, who I used to work with, saw messages from her recently departed parents everywhere. She would see her father’s first name in a newspaper headline or her mother’s favorite bird barking at her on the street. Every instance, every apparent coincidence, had meaning. And KC further strengthened the communication with her parents by hiring a clairvoyant in California who would talk to them, wherever they were. KC would ask questions, and Jessica would come back with her parents’ responses.

KC and I worked in a small, shabby office in Chicago’s Loop on the 19th floor, right above the El tracks and across from a startlingly well-run Dunkin’ Donuts. We worked on public conversation: We would get all sorts of people talking about what it means to commemorate something, or about the challenges of teaching in an inequitable system, or about how you recognize injustice and try to move toward justice. Mostly we were trying, as I’m still trying through my work with Oregon Humanities, to make it more likely that people in public will listen to one another, ask questions together, and work across differences toward stronger, more connected communities.     

Late one day as we were preparing to wrap up, KC told me that she had asked Jessica to see if she could reach my mother, who had died twenty years earlier. KC hadn’t checked with me about this beforehand. She knew how much my mother had meant to me, so she asked Jessica to follow one of her conversations with KC’s parents by delving elsewhere in that other realm and trying to communicate with my mother.

According to KC, Jessica ended up reaching her. She introduced herself to my mother and explained what she was doing and how and why she had reached out. And before she even finished her question, KC said Jessica said, my mother interrupted and waved her off. No, my mother communicated, this exchange, this bridge, is not for me.

I had been privately skeptical of KC’s engagement with Jessica—these mystical connections across the great divide—and I was especially skeptical when she told me that she had asked Jessica to reach out to my mother. But this moment, this account of my mother simply shutting Jessica and the whole hoo-ha enterprise down—this sounded like my mother, even down to the speed of her renunciation. It was the only moment when I thought there might be something to it. KC’s description of how my mother reacted to Jessica sounded to me like exactly how my mother would react to Jessica. She wouldn’t buy it. This divide, it sounded like my mother said, was not to be crossed.

I got a kick out of imagining my mother waving her distinctive hand of rebuke at Jessica in the same way that she had lovingly, sternly, and regularly waved it at me. So I thanked KC for the bonus effort, and soon after that we called it a day. In other words, I dismissed the possibility of real communication across the divide between life and death.

I’ve recently been thinking about this dismissal—my dismissal—as I encounter more and more people who dismiss as lunacy any attempt to get people connecting across significant divides. I’ve started to wonder if, in Oregon Humanities’ work and what has turned out to be my life’s work, I might not be so far from Jessica. I too have been trying for decades to get people talking across divides of various kinds and sizes. I too have tried to strengthen tenuous connections and get people to hear each other. And I have regularly wandered on the edge of ridicule in devoting my life to this.

My question now, which maybe I ought, with Jessica’s help, to ask my mother, is this: which divides should we try to cross, and which should we accept? Which quixotic invitations should we welcome, and which should we dismiss? I wonder how you, reading this in some place and time other than where I am writing it, respond to this question. I wonder what, if anything, you might say back.


America, Conversation, Divides


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Also in this Issue

From the Director: The Great Divide

Editor's Note: Possession

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Lies of Discovery

Who's Being Left Out?

Can the Land Make Us One People?


Where We Store Shame

The Things We Carry


People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading