On the Precipice of Liberty

I remember the first time I listened to a radio story. I was holed-up in the basement of my college’s library during the winter of my freshman year. The building was a Brutalist brick fortress designed, it seemed, to keep the cold trapped inside as efficiently as it repelled the students hoping to study within it. Its ugly features mirrored the surrounding Minnesota landscape well: they were equally frigid, white and isolated [were I asked to likewise describe the college’s intellectual biome I’d nary alter a word, though I’d certainly be tempted to reorder them for accuracy’s sake.] On that cold day I’d camped myself in one of the private study rooms that littered the library’s basement, alone with my seven-pound IBM laptop as I attempted, and failed, to study. It’s not surprising I couldn’t. I did not know it then, but I was in the middle of drowning.

As anyone who has nearly drowned can attest [I survived my own attempt at a reckless death at a backyard BBQ when I was 8. I was dawdling with the other children at the shallow-end of the pool when I drifted into the deep-end and panicked. An anonymous man (thank you!) jumped in and pulled me out. The taste of chlorinated water still makes me queasy], when you’re engaged in the frenzied act of dying, it is nearly impossible to focus on anything other than trying to interrupt that task. Depression is like drowning in some ways, but even more insidious and drawn-out, making it more difficult to recognize and thusly, interrupt. With it, you can be treading water, relaxed, perhaps brushing the floor of the pool with your toes. Then the careless moments pass as they quickly do. Perhaps you’re busy looking at the sky, thinking of some unrelated thing - “living” is what I believe most people call it - and a panicked thought suddenly jolts your darkening face: “why can’t I see anymore, and when did the air become so wet?”

That I would be treading water for the next five years or so was unknown to me then, so for the moment let’s leave my 19-year-old self the burden of this future knowledge and return to that cold basement hole.

I did not know how to study. And how could I have? My mind was a manic sphere. A tumult of words, ideas and feelings rolling and crashing and splintering, only sometimes slowing long enough to jettison a semi-coherent thought outwards. Because of the state of my mind and the seemingly toxic nature of my distinctly un-Minnesotan personality, I was often isolated, angry, but above all, exhausted.

When I was younger and came home from high school bearing pit stains the size of dinner plates under my arms, my father, increasingly dismayed by my deteriorating academic performance, would ask me why I sat frozen in front of the television for hours, moving only to further fill my mouth with an assembly line’s worth of sugary junk. I told him it was so I could relax. “Relax?” he yelled. “You’re in high school. What is there to relax from?” Even if I had the ability to, I doubt I would have told him about the teachers and students who bullied me, about the boys who threatened me with and sometimes performed violence upon me, about the numbers and letters that seemed to gyrate off the printed page and ever-further away from my understanding, or about my growing lack of belief in God, human institutions, man’s capacity for kindness, understanding, or anything making it worthy of my faith. Instead, when he asked me why I needed rest, I’m sure I shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” I was tired. I remember always being tired. And that fatigue, like an albatross around my neck, followed me 500 miles north when I left for college years later.

An average day of my early college experience went something like this: I would wake up from a NyQuil-infused coma far earlier than I needed to, worry lethargically, eat, worry at normal speed, eat, go to class, worry about not studying, eat, worry about eating, try to study but end up worrying, give up for an hour, eat, watch TV, chug NyQuil and sleep dreamlessly (there is no doubt I was also worrying in my sleep if that is at all a thing that happens.) There was often no break from the routine, though there were rare, short-lived moments of escape.

I sometimes gained a comfortable distance from the noisy tumult when I watched television or movies (The Late Show with David Letterman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cowboy Bebop were my strongest companions). Those works were able to kindle something inside of me, a new space I could inhabit that felt hopeful and beautiful. This fertile place only presented itself in flashes though, with no glimpse of it prolonged or stable enough for meaningful exploration. Outside the shelter of this fleeting land I mostly felt like I was coated by a layer of thick grease, the kind of substance that makes every movement languid. Under it I could see the living pieces of the world shifting methodically and darkly under a layer of muck that always seemed to grow thicker with time. Perhaps it was a kind of afterbirth, a greasy punishment for living a quarter-life parading as full.

A day in college, for example, was considered successful if I completed a single task: turning in an assignment; suffering through a needless group meeting; or spending an hour alone without {too much} despair. I tried listening to public radio to help with thinning the grease in hopes that mild intellectual engagement would quell portions of the metal storm inside, but I found it hard to focus on or care about the things I heard. The issues those voices discussed seemed more like the problems "normal" people had the time and capacity to care about; little to do with the earthly things that I obsessed on: how I looked; what that girl thought of me; whether or not I was a coward; what those people were staring at; how much weight I’d gained; whether there really was a just God; and what kind of death would be most painless.

So on that cold day in the basement, while I squirmed under the greasy muck and crouched beneath the loud scraping of that frenzied sphere, I plugged a blue ethernet cord into my coal-powered Watson and began playing an episode of This American Life.

It began as they all did, with Ira Glass doing his hipster-chique Aesop thing, the live read full of pauses and playfulness, the stuttering hallmarks of his well-practiced authenticity. The story though, the way he told it, piqued me like few had. He introduced us to a woman, a Chicago Public School teacher. Someone he’d met when he was an education reporter for Chicago’s WBEZ 91.5 FM some years back. She was a well-regarded teacher, had won some awards, garnered some praise and - as Ira could attest - received some much-deserved media attention for her accolades. They played tape from a story Ira did about her years back, clips of her explaining how grateful she was to be recognized interwoven with vérité audio of her interacting with students. But now, we learned, came the twist: all these years later she was quitting the profession. The story shifted to the present. We heard tape of Ira entering her classroom. The teacher inside stood from her desk, they exchanged pleasantries and sat down. And then, before any questions, before the act of unearthing the thing started, she began to cry.

And there was silence; the sphere overhead slowed, stopped and froze. For the first time since entering the study room I heard the ugly buzz of the fluorescent lights; the light clicking of my computer’s RAM and the small hum of its cooling fan; and nothing else, save the woman. In her quiet sobs, without a word, I heard her speak: this whimper spoke of the guilt she felt for leaving her students behind; that sob about her embarrassment, at how easily her narrative could be twisted to make her look like a failure and a quitter; that quivering exhale told of her disappointment in the system that had forced her hand, that beat her down at every step until she had no choice but to stop walking.

Every honest sound she made flowed through the speakers like some newfound virgin spring and wrapped itself around me - interwoven throughout my spinal chord it seemed - until I was infused with her sadness and disappointment and anger and embarrassment. Until I understood her.

My mind traveled back. I thought of my own teachers when I was growing up in the Chicago Public School system. I thought of my mother, who still taught 3rd Grade at my former middle school on the South Side. I thought of my own modest experience as a teacher the year previous, when I helped teach English and science at an elementary school as part of a volunteer program.

As the story went on the room flooded with an ethereal substance, warm, stuff that covered and melted  my false effigy and raised me up so that I could escape. It was a needle piercing a calloused growth; it was that first deep breath when the girdle is loosened. I had finally transcended the muck.

My mind, briefly transmuted by the sounds, was momentarily, mercifully, not my own anymore. By focusing my energy on the life and words of someone else - this stranger from Chicago who was more than a stranger but still a stranger nonetheless - I found my respite. It was my first step.

Many people have asked me what Awful Grace is “about.” It’s a common sense, simple question, but I find that in creative work the simplest questions demand the most effort to answer. Regardless of how many times I’m posed this dreaded “about” query, the answer inevitably changes.

If you’re already familiar with the show [and I hesitate to use that term to describe something I try to make more than just a “show,” something unique and personal and, hopefully, outside the cycle of our continuous, mindless consumption of media] you’ll hopefully appreciate why I find my work so difficult to surmise. Awful Grace’s themes, its style and its characters can sometimes vary greatly from episode to episode. Indeed, the only true connecting thread between each of those disparate works is myself: that oftentimes invisible hand that selects, edits and produces each episode.

I think that touches on something that may be closer to the truth than my other failed attempts at explaining the “about” of it. At the center of all of these stories - these people and their loss, their suffering, their wisdom - is me. A quiet party, busy dissecting and reassembling sounds to give them cohesion and - hopefully - a greater meaning and audience than they previously enjoyed. 

There are those who are born gifted as speakers, those who are born gifted as listeners, and those born with neither propensity. I have never been good at speaking but I have been a decent listener. I don’t think it a coincidence then that I’ve been so drawn to audio storytelling, a medium that allows people to speak so loudly by listening.

“I remember the first time I listened to a radio story,” I began this essay. That choice of words is no small thing. I had heard hundreds of radio stories before that cold day in the basement. I heard them, registered their information and moved on, no different for it. But when I heard that woman, her crying, her honest despair, that was the first time I'd listened.

I work alone. The stories I produce take hours - sometimes hundreds of them - to make right. If someone asked me a year ago why I make them, I would have said, “Because I have to.” Though that was and is true, it doesn’t completely explain the whole of my motivation.

In a very real way I’m making stories that I wish 19-year-old me could hear. Stories that enliven reality. Stories that hopefully don’t shy away from the messiness of truth, of history, and of suffering. Stories that aren’t afraid to dwell on the darker bits of human life in hopes of finding something new, something valuable, or, my God, something honest. Wisdom; Beauty; Truth; all that lovely shit. Those things I need to believe in, those things I hope to unearth in the quotidian, the things that make all the tedious work worth the effort.

And if I’m lucky, you'll be there to listen.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
— Robert Kennedy, April 4, 1968. Indianapolis, IN

Awful Grace is an independently produced audio podcast featuring essay style, non-narrated stories centered around human toil and the awful wisdom that may grow in its wake.

The show is inspired by a speech Robert Kennedy gave in Indianapolis the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. During the speech -- in which Kennedy calls for compassion and a non-violent response to King's murder -- he quotes his favorite poet, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. The quote is above.

Awful Grace tells stories using both contemporary and historical settings in an attempt to unearth that wisdom and share it with our audience.

The show is grounded in a simple concept: Make gentle the life of this world.

The show is produced out of Chicago.

You can listen to Awful Grace on iTunes, Stitcher, Pocket Casts and wherever else podcasts are available.

Robert Andersson is a freelance audio producer living and working in Chicago. He has worked with WBEZ, WGBH, Snap Judgement, The Art Institute of Chicago, Ground Truth and Unfictional, among others. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He is the creator, host and executive producer of Awful Grace. You can email Robert at robert@awfulgraceradio.org and he will do his damnedest to get back to you.

Awful Grace is produced using Abelton Live, Reaper, Sony Vegas and Adobe Audition.