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What is Essential to the Good Life?

Author Colum McCann Shed Light on This Question at NCC

By Myra Saturen, photos by Randy Monceaux,


"You're in your granny's," said National Book Award-winning, Dublin-born writer Colum McCann, using an Irish expression to describe feeling at home at NorthamptonColum McCann at NCC
 Community College (NCC), where he spoke and read from his novels on April 14. As if in his grandmother's kitchen, he found natural rapport with the NCC family and members of the community.     

McCann is the author of "Let the Great World Spin," "Thirteen Ways of Looking"and "TransAtlantic."  He is also the co-founder of Narrative 4, which fosters empathy by breaking down barriers and shattering stereotypes through the exchange of stories across the world.  He teaches creative writing at Hunter College in New York City. In addition to the National Book Award, he is the recipient of numerous other honors.     

McCann's lecture was the concluding event in NCC's 2015-2016 National Endowment for the Humanities series The Good Life, which asks engaging questions about life, the world and our place in it.   

The writer was introduced by communication major Mallory Lundquist, who described McCann's "radical empathy," as exemplified by the way he enters his characters' minds, going as far as learning to fly a plane to understand aviators' experiences.  She iterated his belief in the democracy of storytelling, that every person--no matter where he or she is from--has a story worth telling and listening to.  For McCann, stories are essential to The Good Life, Lundquist said.   

Early in his talk, McCann proposed that The Good Life "embraces the lives of others, involves learning to listen, is an art, is connection to others, goes beyond cynicism, and is a good laugh."  

Through stories, told with compassion, pathos and humor, McCann illustrated facets of what he deems a good life.  As a friend of Irish memoirist Frank McCourt, he recalled visiting the author of Angela's Ashes when McCourt lay dying.  "What do you think this is, an Irish wake?" McCourt wryly asked.  "Where and when do you think you will be dancing on the next Sabbath?" McCann inquired.  "Every Sabbath, and the next one, I'll be dancing upstairs," replied McCourt.  At a gathering shortly after McCourt's death, McCourt's wife motioned to McCann to come to her side.  He expected she had a profound message from her.  "Your fly is open," she whispered.  "Frank is upstairs, and he's laughing already," thought McCann.    

McCann traced his roots as a storyteller to a bicycle trip he took at age 21, riding from Boston to the Golden Gate Bridge and staying with friendly strangers he met along the way.  His journey took him through Easton, Pennsylvania, where his impromptu hosts showed him "astonishing generosity."  All had stories to tell, and McCann eagerly listened to them.  "It was the beginning of what I hoped would be a good life," he said.  

He goes wherever human lives exist.  To delve into the untold stories of hidden people, McCann descended into the New York City tunnels, under subway stations, underneath parks, to listen to and tell the stories of homeless people who lived underground, in darkness and cold.  Among them he met a man who called himself  "The King of the Tunnels," a former CBS executive, and a woman named Doreen.  Learning that Doreen was fond of airline sachets, he made her happy by giving her the sachets from his flights.  The relationship lasted until the well-meaning author presented her with a box of baby wipes intended to last her a long time.  To his surprise, she angrily refused them.  "The wipes were an affront to her dignity," McCann said, and surmised a story behind her rejection.   

All of the tunnel dwellers, said McCann, had one thing in common:  they referred to a time "when I get out of here."

McCann meets with studentsHe understood that despite their misery, they envisioned The Good Life as somewhere down the road.  "Light comes out of the darkest corners of human experience," he said.  "And a writer's job is to look for those chinks of light."  

He talked about 911, a day that spurred his decision to write Let the Great World Spin.  A resident of Manhattan's Upper East Side at the time, he strove, in his novel, to oppose destruction with creation.  "We are capable of myth in the face of torment," he said.  

Above all, McCann believes in storytelling as an agent for peace.  Via Narrative 4, he has brought together people from all walks of life to exchange their stories and form empathetic friendships.  After the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he paired survivors with other youths who had suffered because of violence: young people from the Southside of Chicago.  "The true good life is the ability to understand the person on the other side of the street," he said.  "We must expand the lungs of the world."   

Empathy alone, he said, is not enough. People must turn empathy into action.  Unlike cynics, "optimists have the courage of their own failures," he said.  He urged his audience to "embrace difficulty.  That is The Good Life."  

Before his evening lecture, the writer spent the day talking with students about writing.  "The interaction with students was nothing less than magical," said NCC President Dr. Mark Erickson.   

McCann received a warm reception at NCC, an admiration he returned.  "I saw a light in students' eyes, and I do not see this at every college I visit," he said.  He described NCC students as unentitled in their world views, bright and brilliant.  He immediately perceived NCC's community spirit and called its environment everything a college should be.    

Northampton Community College's annual humanities series is made possible by an endowment established through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and local donors. Community partners include the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Eastern Monroe Public Library, Bethlehem Area School District, Stroudsburg Area School District, Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites, and Monroe County Historical Association.   This year's series was coordinated by Dr. Cara McClintock Walsh, professor of English.  

Visit the photo gallery to see more from McCann's visit.